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Chapter 10: Sex, Gender and Sexual Orientation

10.1 Sex, Sexual Orientation and Gender

In 2017, Aaron Lowenburg reflected on his experiences teaching 3-4-year-olds. From the surprised, “wow, you’re a man,” he heard on his first day of teaching, to being the only male teacher at the school for several years, to the implied criticism of the woman who asked, “why would a man want to teach young kids,” he regularly felt sanctioned for his choice of occupation. This, despite the need for positive male role models in his students’ lives, many of whom had none. In addition to the regular burdens of teaching (low pay, high workload), male teachers face constant scrutiny as the smallest gesture can be misconstrued as being inappropriate, even though there are no clear guidelines defining what is not allowed. At a time when fathers are applauded for taking an active part in their young children’s lives, it frustrates him that the same honor is not extended to male teachers (Lowenburg, 2017).

Meanwhile, Preethi Kasireddy wrote in a blog about her stepfather’s negative reaction to her decision to become a software engineer, telling her, “engineering is very difficult for women,” an odd comment, given his own wife (and Preethi’s mother) is a tech consultant. She found the work gratifying, but the assumptions of others meant she had to prove herself in ways her male colleagues did not. Other female technical workers say they are mistaken for the secretary instead of the engineer, are paid differently, or feel so scrutinized that they doubt their own competence (and do not pursue positions they deserve). Though it did not happen to her, some women in tech fields find discrimination and sexism block their careers, while others must contend with sexual harassment. One of the unexpected consequences of working in her field was loneliness, and the constant reminder that, as the only female in the room, she was an outsider (Kasireddy, n.d.).

Even though much has changed for men and women in recent years, some expectations remain the same and have important consequences for women, men and society as a whole. To begin our discussion of gender and gender inequality, this chapter begins with a critical look at the concepts of sex, sexual orientation and gender.

Graphic of "genderbread person" showing gender identity relates to thought, gender expression relates to physical presentation, biological sex relates to reproduction organs and chromosomes, and sexual orientation related to attraction.

Concepts related to sex, gender and sexual orientation are both diverse and complex. Francesco Spagnolo – The Genderbread Person – Flickr

Biological Sex

Although the terms sex and gender are sometimes used interchangeably and do in fact complement each other, they nonetheless refer to different aspects of what it means to be a woman or man in any society.

refers to the anatomical and other biological differences between the people we call females and males that are determined at the moment of conception and develop in the womb and throughout childhood and adolescence. Females have two X chromosomes, while males have one X chromosome and one Y chromosome. Other outcomes are possible. In rare cases, some babies are born with bodies that do not readily fit into a male/female binary. Termed , some people are born with an extra chromosome, such as XXY, XXX and XYY, which can lead to different physical, developmental and psychological issues (Mayo Foundation, 2019; NHS, 2019). Some babies have genitals or internal organs that are not clearly male or female, or have both male and female organs (Planned Parenthood, n.d.) Sometimes the condition is apparent from birth, while other times it does not become recognized until puberty.

An historical American understanding of male/female as binary categories meant infants born intersex with ambiguous genitalia were assigned either male or female by their doctor and family and raised based upon the sex assigned to them. Surgery was usually done on infants and hormones given later to ensure the child fit into the expected male or female category at puberty (Planned Parenthood, n.d.). However, a growing rejection of unnecessary surgery and medical intervention in recent years has resulted in allowing intersex people to decide for themselves what sex they are.

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Chapter Throwback

In 1965, a medical accident during a routine circumcision caused an infant boy to lose his penis. Pioneering researcher John Money, a doctor from Johns Hopkins studying intersex people, offered a solution to the child’s devastated parents: raise young Brian as a girl. Renamed Brenda, the child was dressed in girl’s clothing, told he was a girl, and encouraged to behave like a girl. Near puberty, Brenda was given hormones. However, Brenda resisted this socialization and was deeply unhappy. At age 14, Brenda’s father told his child the story of the botched circumcision, after which Brenda renamed himself David, identified as a male, and eventually married and became a stepfather. Sadly, the trauma of his childhood led to a rift with his parents. Matters reached a head when, unemployed and reeling from the overdose death of his twin brother, David and his wife separated. David Reimer committed suicide at the age of 38. While David wasn’t intersex, his experience was similar to many people who are intersex, whose parents and doctors, through surgeries, medications and socialization, determine for them the normative sex they will be.

Chapter 1 explained that agency is the capacity to act independently and make our own choices. How does the practice of re-assigning intersex people into normative categories of male or female relate back to our understanding of agency?

To learn more about intersex advocacy, check out this website:

InterAct, Advocates for Intersex Youth

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Sexual Orientation

A person’s is his or her physical, emotional, and sexual attraction to a particular sex (Conerly, et. al., 2021). Sexual orientation is typically divided into five categories, outlined below.

  •  is attraction to individuals of the opposite sex;
  • is attraction to members of the same sex;
  • is attraction to others regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity;
  • is attraction to members of both the same and opposite sex; and
  • means the individual is not sexually attracted to others (Conerly, et. al., 2021).

It is difficult to know precisely how many people fall into each of these categories. One problem is conceptual. For example, what does it mean to be homosexual? Does one need to actually have sexual relations with a same-sex partner to be homosexual? What if someone is attracted to same-sex partners but does not actually engage in sex with such persons? What if someone identifies as heterosexual but engages in homosexual sex for money (as in certain forms of prostitution) or for power and influence? These conceptual problems make it difficult to determine the extent of homosexuality.

A second problem is empirical. Even if we can settle on definitions of homosexuality, bisexuality, pansexuality, etc., how do we then determine how many people fit these definitions? For better or worse, our best evidence of the number who fall into each of these categories in the United States comes from surveys of national samples of Americans in which they are asked various questions about their sexuality. Although these are anonymous surveys, obviously at least some individuals may be reluctant to disclose their sexual activity and thoughts to an interviewer. Still, scholars think the estimates from these surveys are fairly accurate but that they probably underestimate by at least a small amount the number of people.

Figure 10.1 Percentage of Americans, 18 or Older, Who Self-Identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender

Bar chart showing Percentage of Americans, 18 or Older, Who Self-Identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender, with the percentage increasing from 3.7% in 2014 to 5.6% in 2020.

Jones, Jeffrey M. (2021, February 24). LGBT Identification Rises to 5.6% in Latest U.S. Estimate. Gallup Organization. Retrieved from https://news.gallup.com/poll/329708/lgbt-identification-rises-latest-estimate.aspx

As shown above in Figure 10.1 “Percentage of Americans, 18 or Older, Who Self-Identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender,” respondents to a Gallup poll showed that in 2020, 5.6% of Americans self-identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender; of adults aged 18-23, 1 in 6, or roughly 17%, self-identified in this way (Jones, 2021). A widely cited survey carried out by researchers at the University of Chicago found that 2.8% of men and 1.4% of women identified themselves as gay/lesbian or bisexual, with greater percentages reporting having had sexual relations with same-sex partners or being attracted to same-sex persons. In the 2018 General Social Survey, 6% of respondents stated they were gay, lesbian or bisexual. Of these respondents, 7.1% of women identified as lesbian or bisexual, and 2.1% of men identified as gay or bisexual. In 2012, among individuals having had any sexual partners since turning 18, 5.4% of men reported having had at least some male partners, while 6.9% of women reported having had at least some female partners. Although precise numbers must remain unknown, it seems fair to say that between about 2% and 17% of Americans are LGBTQ+.

If it is difficult to determine the number of people who are LGBTQ+, it is even more difficult to determine why people have the sexual orientations they do. Scholars disagree on the causes of sexual orientation (Engle, McFalls, Gallagher, & Curtis, 2006; Sheldon, Pfeffer, Jayaratne, Feldbaum, & Petty, 2007). Some scholars attribute it to unknown biological factor(s) over which individuals have no control, just as individuals do not decide whether they are left-handed or right-handed. Supporting this view, many LGBTQ+ people say they realized their identity during adolescence, just as heterosexuals would say they realized they were heterosexual during their own adolescence. Other scholars say that sexual orientation is at least partly influenced by cultural norms, so that individuals are more likely to identify as LGBTQ+ depending on the cultural views of sexual orientation into which they are socialized as they grow up. At best, perhaps all we can say is that sexual orientation stems from a complex mix of biological and cultural factors that remain to be determined.

Gender

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Think Like a Sociologist

Series of four photos, showing woman in dress, muscular man, muscular woman and man in skirt.

Sea turtle – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 – Flickr; Lorri37 on Flickr – CC BY 2.0 – Wikimedia Commons; Gamer1606~commonswiki – Public Domain – Wikimedia Commons

Consider the two photos on the left. What do they demonstrate about expectations for women and men in our culture?

Consider the two photos on the right. What reaction do people get when they deviate from gender expectations?

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Sex is a biological concept and is a social concept. Gender refers to the social and cultural differences a society assigns to feminine and masculine characteristics based on biological sex. A related concept, , refers to a society’s expectations of people’s behavior and attitudes based on whether they identify as female or male. Understood in this way, gender (like race, as discussed in Chapter 9) is a social construct. How we think and behave as females and males is not etched in stone by our biology but rather is a result of how society expects us to think and behave based on what sex we are. As we grow up, we learn these expectations as we develop our , or our beliefs about ourselves as being females or males, both female and male, or neither female nor male.

describes expectations about traits we associate with females and males. traits are the cultural expectations we have of girls and women, while traits are the expectations we have of boys and men. gender expression is a combination of both masculine and feminine traits.

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Think Like a Sociologist

List five traits considered masculine, and five traits considered feminine.

How do we learn these traits?

How are these traits enforced? What kinds of sanctions are given to people who do not comply with these gender expectations?

How does this illustrate the view that gender is a social construct?

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Our traditional notions of femininity and masculinity indicate that we think females and males are fundamentally different from each other. In effect, we think of them as two sides of the same coin of being human. What we traditionally mean by femininity is captured in the adjectives, both positive and negative, we traditionally ascribed to women: gentle, sensitive, nurturing, delicate, graceful, cooperative, decorative, dependent, emotional, passive, and weak. What we traditionally mean by masculinity is captured in the adjectives, again both positive and negative, our society traditionally ascribes to men: strong, assertive, brave, active, independent, intelligent, competitive, insensitive, unemotional, and aggressive. (Were any of these adjectives on the list you made a moment ago?)

image of two small children sitting near corn field

Girls traditionally wear dresses and the color pink, while boys wear blue (and never wear dresses). These differences reflect the different cultural expectations we have for children based on their (biological) sex. Public Domain – Piqsels

These traits might sound like stereotypes of females and males in today’s society, and to some extent they are, but differences between men and women in attitudes and behavior do in fact exist (Aulette, Wittner, & Blakeley, 2009). For example, women cry more often than men do. Men are more physically violent than women. Women take care of children more than men do. Women smile more often than men. Men curse more often than women. When women talk with each other, they are more likely to talk about their personal lives than men are when they talk with each other (Tannen, 2001). Men and women even sit differently, with men typically sitting with legs spread and arms wide while women sit with their legs together and overall take up less space (Morin, 2010).

image of people on a subway with two women flanking male who is sitting in an open position

Studies of how men and women sit found that men tend to sit in an ‘open’ position while women tend to sit in a ‘closed’ position. Richard Yeh / WNYC – (CC BY-NC 3.0 US) – Fickr

During the course of one’s lifetime it is possible to identify with more than one gender. Thus far in the chapter, we have discussed primarily two genders. is the term used when a society only recognizes two genders, a practice followed by most Western societies until recent decades. While most of us identify as ; that is, our gender as man or woman and our birth sex agrees, it is possible for someone not to identify strictly in this way. People may identify as both genders (known as or ), or as , which is someone who does not have or identify with a gender. In addition, someone may be . Transgender people have a gender identity and/or gender expression that is different from what is expected based upon the sex with which they were born. Someone who is transgender feels as though they are in the ‘wrong’ body, and report feeling this way from a very early age. According to a 2016 Williams Institute poll, 0.6% of the U.S. population, or 1.4 million people, identify as transgender (Flores, et. al.). All of these possibilities are considered as having a (also called ). Not being limited to two gender possibilities is known as the .

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Using Your Sociological Imagination

In her song, If I Were a Boy, Beyonce sang,

If I were a boy, even just for a day

I’d roll outta bed in the mornin’

And throw on what I wanted, then go

Drink beer with the guys

And chase after girls

I’d kick it with who I wanted

And I’d never get confronted for it

‘Cause they’d stick up for me.

How would your life be different if you were in a different place on the gender spectrum?

For more information on gender identity and being transgender, check out this video:

Trans 101 — The Basics

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Test Yourself

 



Section 10.1 References

Aulette, J. R., J. Wittner, J. and K. Blakeley. (2009). Gendered Worlds. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 

Engle, M. J., J. A. McFalls, Jr., B. J. Gallagher, III and K. Curtis. (2006). The attitudes of American sociologists toward causal theories of male homosexuality. The American Sociologist, 37(1), 68–67. 

Flores, A. R., L. Langton, I. H. Meyer and A. P. Romero. (2020). Victimization rates and traits of sexual and gender minorities in the United States: Results from the National Crime Victimization Survey, 2017. Science Advances, 6(40). Retrieved from  https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.aba6910.

Interact advocates for intersex youth. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://interactadvocates.org/.

Jones, J. M. (2021, August 13). LGBT identification rises to 5.6% in Latest U.S. Estimate. Gallup.com. Retrieved September 10, 2021, from https://news.gallup.com/poll/329708/lgbt-identification-rises-latest-estimate.aspx.

Kasireddy, Preethi.  (n.d.). Don’t become a programmer like me. Retrieved from  https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/dont-become-programmer-like-me-preethi-kasireddy/

Loewenberg, A. (2017, October 18). There’s a Stigma Around Men Teaching Young Kids. Here’s How We Change It. Slate Magazine. Retrieved from https://slate.com/human-interest/2017/10/a-male-preschool-teacher-reflects-on-the-stigma-keeping-men-out-of-pre-k-classrooms.html

Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2019, January 18). Triple X syndrome. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from  https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/triple-x-syndrome/symptoms-causes/syc-20350977

Minus 18.  (2017, March 30). Trans 101 – the basics. YouTube. Retrieved January 22, 2022, from https://youtu.be/-3ZzpTxjgRw

Morin, C. and J. Maxfield. (2010) “Gender Differences in Sitting Positions of College Students and an Explanation of These Differences,” Perspectives: Vol. 2 , Article 16. Available at: https://scholars.unh.edu/perspectives/vol2/iss1/16.

NHS. (2019, May 20). Kleinfelter Syndrome. NHS choices. Retrieved from https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/klinefelters-syndrome/

Planned Parenthood.  (n.d.). What is intersex?  Definition of intersexual. Planned Parenthood. Retrieved from  https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/gender-identity/sex-gender-identity/whats-intersex

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