In this section, we examine the differences between sex and gender, along with issues like gender identity, sexual orientation, and sexuality. We address sexism and homophobia and focus on gender roles and what it means to be a female and male in our homes, schools, and communities. Here are some resources about sex, gender, sexism, feminism, gender roles, and sexual orientation:
Sex and Gender
Sex refers to physical or physiological differences between males and females, including both primary sex characteristics (the reproductive system) and secondary characteristics such as height and muscularity, (Introduction to Sociology, Openstax). Sex assignment at birth refers to the label, typically male or female, given to an infant based on medical standards for sex characteristics. These standards are based on external genital appearance. Some nations are now allowing infants to be categorized as intersex at birth (The Open Education Sociology Dictionary).
Gender refers to behaviors, personal traits, and social positions that society attributes to being female or male, (Introduction to Sociology, Openstax). Gender Roles are defined as “the expected role determined by an individual’s sex and the associated attitudes, behaviors, norms, and values”, (The Open Education Sociology Dictionary). While growing we learn how to behave in society by, observing and interacting with other members of society. Children learn certain social roles, which are associated with their biological makeup. Gender roles are the expectations of the members of society of men and women and how they ought to behave within society. The gender roles are assigned to men and women on the basis of the norms of society. In almost every society men’s roles are linked with masculinity and aggression, whereas women’s roles are associated with passivity and nurturing. Roles learning starts from childhood through socialization. Usually, male babies are dressed in blue and female babies are dressed in pink. Furthermore, the toys with which the children play are different for both sexes — parents buy toys for boys such as, guns and superhero figures, but they buy toys for girls like dolls and dress-up apparel. Toys may not seem to be having any impact on the behavior, however, it does have an impact on the behavior of children. The kinds of toys children play with promote normative behavior. The masculinity and femininity roles continue as we grow. Males usually outnumber females in certain professions such as politics, law enforcement, and the military. However, females outnumber males in nurturing professions such as social work, healthcare, and childcare. The professional career choices of males and females are not necessarily their personal preferences, but rather may be to meet the expectations of society (Gender Roles in Sociology, Sociology Learners, 2017). For more information, you are invited to read Gender Roles and Society or explore Pew Research – Perceptions on Gender Equality in The US.
The gender wage gap is a measure of pay disparity between men and women. While it can be measured in different ways, the data are clear: women are still paid much less relative to men (about 83 cents per dollar, by our measure), and progress on closing the gap has stalled (Economic Policy Institute). To learn more about the pay gender gap, you are invited to explore The State of The Gender Pay Gap – PayScale or Pew Research – Gender Pay Gap.
Many observers view a society’s treatment of women as an important indicator of its intellectual, cultural, and economic progress. Yet for much of American history, women were denied fundamental rights. Women had limited property rights until the mid-1800s, were not allowed to vote until 1920, and until recent decades were shut out from a variety of occupations. Many people believe that women still do not receive equal opportunity in the United States. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, for example, women on average make 80.7 cents for every dollar earned by men and have median annual earnings of about $9,909 less than men. Women also face a greater proportion of violence than do men. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four women in the United States has been the victim of domestic violence, and the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network reports that one of every six American women has been the victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. Nevertheless, many observers emphasize that women have made great strides in recent decades.
Gender Identity is a person’s deeply held internal perception of one’s gender. U.S. society allows for some level of flexibility when it comes to acting out gender roles. To a certain extent, men can assume some feminine roles and women can assume some masculine roles without interfering with their gender identity. Individuals who identify with a gender that is different from their biological sex are called transgender. Some transgender individuals may undertake a process to change their outward, physical, or sexual characteristics in order for their physical being to better align with their gender identity. They may also be known as male-to-female (MTF) or female-to-male (FTM). Not all transgender individuals choose to alter their bodies: many will maintain their original anatomy but may present themselves to society as another gender. This is typically done by adopting the dress, hairstyle, mannerisms, or other characteristics typically assigned to another gender. It is important to note that people who cross-dress or wear clothing that is traditionally assigned to a gender different from their biological sex, are not necessarily transgender. Cross-dressing is typically a form of self-expression, entertainment, or personal style, and it is not necessarily an expression against one’s assigned gender (American Psychological Association, 2008).
Sexism can be defined as discrimination based on sex or gender. Sexism includes attitudes or ideology, including beliefs, theories, and ideas that hold one group (usually male) as deservedly superior to the other (usually female), and that justify oppressing members of the other group on the basis of their sex or gender. Sexism involves practices and institutions and the ways in which oppression is carried out. These need not be done with a conscious sexist attitude but may be unconscious cooperation in a system that has been in place already in which one sex (usually female) has less power and fewer goods in the society.
- You can find a discussion about sexism, heterosexism, and trans oppression, in part 2 of Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice (2016):
- Chapter 6 (pages 183-212) offers a discussion on sexism, heterosexism, and trans oppression.
- The following is a link to a TedTalk video of the filmmaker and researcher, Jean Kilbourne, who made the documentary “Killing us Softly” talking about advertising and women. This video also demonstrates how far we think we have come but also how far we still need to go. But I also think it reminds us of the hidden messages and power of media that we take for granted or don’t really question when it comes to women: TedTalk: The dangerous Ways ads see women
- Another TED Talk examines feminism: TedTalk Video: We Should all Be Feminists
Special focus on sexism in the gaming industry: This link takes you to a website that examines the relationship between women and gaming and really brings home how quickly young boys can be socialized with images of women.
Sexual Orientation and Homophobia
A person’s sexual orientation is their physical, mental, emotional, and sexual attraction to a particular sex (male and/or female). Sexual orientation is typically divided into several categories: heterosexuality, the attraction to individuals of the other sex; homosexuality, the attraction to individuals of the same sex; bisexuality, the attraction to individuals of either sex; asexuality, a lack of sexual attraction or desire for sexual contact; pansexuality, an attraction to people regardless of sex, gender, gender identity, or gender expression; and queer, an umbrella term used to describe sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. Heterosexuals and homosexuals are referred to as “straight” and “gay,” respectively but more inclusive terminology is needed. Proper terminology includes the acronyms LGBT and LGBTQ, which stands for “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender” (and “Queer” or “Questioning” when the Q is added). The United States is a heteronormative society, meaning many people assume heterosexual orientation is biologically determined and unambiguous (Introduction to Sociology, Openstax).
Homophobia is defined as an irrational fear of, hatred of, aversion to, or discrimination against LGBTQ+ people or perceived “homosexual” behavior. It may be experienced by heterosexual as well as LGBTQ+ people.
“Homophobia: The fear of feelings of love for members of one’s own sex and therefore the hatred of those feelings in others… the belief in the inherent superiority of one pattern of loving and thereby its right to dominance.”
– Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider. Freedom, California: The Crossing Press, 1984.
Homophobia can manifest in various ways:
- PERSONAL OR INTERNALIZED HOMOPHOBIA – Self-hatred by a LGBTQ+ person about their own sexuality. The person believes that feelings of attraction to the same sex are bad, sinful, immoral, or repugnant. For the heterosexual person, this may manifest as the fear of being perceived by others as “gay” and results in trying to ‘prove’ their heterosexuality.
- INTERPERSONAL HOMOPHOBIA – Usually results in the expression of hatred or dislike of others who are thought to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. This may be expressed explicitly through behavior ranging from name-calling to homicide, or implicitly, for example through jokes that put down people. Given the social dominance of heterosexuality, some level of internal conflict will occur before an individual moves towards acceptance.
- INSTITUTIONAL HOMOPHOBIA – Fear of “homosexuality” in our society is evident as discrimination. Governments, corporate structures, churches and other institutions and organizations discriminate against LGBTQ+ people in a variety of ways. Explicit examples of this are policies and legislation that prevent LGBTQ+ people from marrying or not being regarded as the next of kin for a dying partner, or a pension not going to the surviving same-sex partner. Official data collection that ignores sexual orientation as a category is a more subtle form of institutional homophobia.
- CULTURAL HOMOPHOBIA – Societal norms that imply that heterosexuality is ‘better’ and that everyone is or should be heterosexual. The media perpetuates heterosexuality as the norm by not presorting or representing the LGBTQ+ view, for example through television, where most characters are assumed to be heterosexual.
* Source: Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Safe Zone Training Manual, January 2012