Gender, Sexuality and IDENTITY

Gender, Sexuality and IDENTITY

The first question we hear . . .

‘Is it a boy, or a girl?

We do this because we see males and females as having different ‘natures’

We assume boys/girls will have different identities and destinies

We assume that identity as female/male, heterosexual/homosexual or bisexual is the result of BIOLOGY


Some sociologists CHALLENGE these assumptions . . .

. . . many of the differences between men and women are not natural

. . . masculine/feminine identities may be SOCIALLY CONSTRUCTED

. . . different sexualities may be SOCIALLY CONSTRUCTED

Distinction between SEX and GENDER


  • Physical / biological differences between males and females
  • Different genes, hormones and  genitals
  • Different secondary sexual characteristics – breasts, hips, hair, menstruation etc
  • SEX – biological, and usually regarded as something that is more or less fixed


  • The cultural expectations attached to a person’s sex
  • The way a society sees masculinity and femininity
  • Many gender assumptions are exaggerated and stereotyped
  • Gender expectations are not fixed – they change in time and culture

there are other ways of looking at gender

  • Cis-gender describes people whose biological body they were born into matches their personal gender identity
  • This gender experience is distinct from being transgender, which is where one’s biological sex does not align with their gender identity
  • Intersex people are born with “ambiguous” sex, which might include their genitalia, reproductive organs and chromosomes

Sexualitynot the same as gender

Sexuality describes sexual identity, attraction, and experiences which may or may not align with sex and gender

This includes but is not limited to heterosexuality, homosexuality (gay or lesbian), bisexuality, queer and so on

Sex and gender do not always align

Just as gender is a social construction, so too is sexuality. This is another way of saying sexuality is socially determined and it varies in its expression across culture, time, and place

Gender stereotypes


  • Affectionate
  • Tender
  • Childlike
  • Soft spoken
  • Shy
  • Cooperative
  • Gentle


  • Undemonstrative
  • Aggressive
  • Ambitious
  • Assertive
  • Confident
  • Competitive
  • Dominant

Gender-Role Socialisation


Modern sociologists – broad agreement that there is no single ‘way’ of being male/female

Feminist sociologists (and others) accept the significance of PATRIARCHY as a key factor in male/female relationships

Big debate over the extent to which individuals control their GENDER identity

Some women (in some societies) find it difficult to resist dominant models of gender (models framed mostly by men) – to go against these NORMS of what is to ‘be’ a woman risks persecution / marginalisation

HOWEVER – in most modern societies, most people have the freedom  to construct their own GENDERED IDENTITY

Modern sociologists – when examining sources of male / female identities – distinguish between sex and gender

Most modern sociologists argue that masculinity and femininity are GENDERED and SOCIALLY/CULTURALLY CONSTRUCTED

Process of gender-role socialisation

Possible to observe a number of processes: socialisation, rituals and rites of passage

Possible to observe a number of means of gender socialisation – i.e. family and media

It’s still important to ask the question: ‘what role DOES biology play in the shaping of male/female roles?’

Gender in terms of POWER differences

Gender power differences can be expressed in different ways:

  • Decision-making
  • Political roles
  • Domestic roles
  • Sexual relations
  • Rituals

HOWEVER – gender is NOT a fixed marker of identity and ideas about gender are subject to change

TRADITIONAL view of gender roles/norms

Parsons argued that these biological differences meant there were ‘natural’ social roles that men and women should fulfil in society –

1.women should perform the expressive role, or caring and nurturing role should perform the instrumental role, or the ‘breadwinner’ role – going out and earning money

Such ideas formed part of the common sense’ way of viewing relations through much of the 20th century, with most people seeing maleness and masculinity and femaleness and femininity as a binary relationship – with men being seen as the opposite of women

BINARY view of gender

‘Binary’ – sees male/female as THE dominant gender patterns

Contemporary Feminism has criticized the binary opposition between male and female, arguing that every aspect of sex and gender are in fact sliding scales rather than opposites – as illustrated by the Genderbread person:

FEMINIST views of male/female gender roles

Feminists movements have spearheaded criticisms of traditional gender roles in society, arguing that stereotypical ideas about the roles men and women should occupy, and the norms they should subscribe to, have systematically disadvantaged women

One of the key Feminist ideas is that gender is socially constructed, that gender roles and norms are not determined by biology, but are shaped by society, and some of the best evidence of this fact lies in the enormous variation in gender roles between different cultures – simply put, if you can find just a handful of examples of men and women occupying different roles, having different amounts of power, and acting differently in different cultures, then this disproves the theory that there is some kind of ‘natural’ link between biological sex and gender

MASS MEDIA and gender-role socialisation

BILLINGTON – media portrayal of dominant men, subordinate women. •Male representations – professional, broad range of activities •Female – narrow range, over-focus on domestic roles, sex-objects

COUGHLAN – impact of online pornography on male/female perceptions of what it is to be male/female

TEBBEL – media over-emphasises importance of ‘appearance’ – main impact of this is on women

FAMILIES and gender-role socialisation

Oakley and the FOUR processes in primary socialisation that contribute to the construction of gender identity



3.Domestic activities

4.Verbal appellations

Butler and the importance of gender codes / scripts

1.Colour codes

2.Appearance codes

3.Toy codes

4.Play codes

5.Control codes

Statham – gender identities formed by the age of 5:  behaviour, codes, appropriateness etc

How is SEXUAL IDENTITY constructed?


individual choice, desire and participation in the sexual act

  • choices in how sexuality is expressed
  • preference of sexual partners

Most sociologists agree that society sees sexuality –

  • as socially organised & regulated
  • in terms of easy hetero/homosexual categories

Sociology and SEXUALITY: two basic views


  • Sexuality is biologically determined
  • Sexuality is fixed and beyond individual choice
  • Sexuality is an instinctive drive
  • Male sexuality – ACTIVE
  • Female sexuality – PASSIVE
  • Homosexuality – deviation from the NORM


  • Sexual identity as a social construction
  • Religions / laws / cultures – may all influence how you do it and who you can do it with
  • Weeks (1986) – so many different ways of expressing sexuality it must be a social construction
  • Sexuality, therefore – is shaped by society
  • Sexuality is a social process

How sexuality is expressed

  • Sexual expression – varies widely by culture / society / individuals
  • Most societies – heterosexuality is the NORM
  • Heterosexuality as ‘superior’ = HETERONORMATIVITY
  • Modern societies (most) – accept homosexual relationships
  • Other societies / cultures – homosexuality may be marginalised or even outlawed
  • Some societies accept sexual variants – Thailand / India

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