Perspective in sexuality

We're the ideal place for homework help. If you are looking for affordable, custom-written, high-quality and non-plagiarized papers, your student life just became easier with us. Click either of the buttons below to place your order.

Order a Similar Paper Order a Different Paper

 A. Largest influence on gender roles in contemporary American society? 100 words each minimum.

1. Parents? 100 words minimum 

2. Teachers?  100 words minimum  

3. Media?  100 words minimum

4. Something else like work environment or friends?  100 minimum each. 

Please use chapter 5 on the word document attached

Be sure to back up all information with reputable sources other than the word document attached, 

B.  1.Most of us think of the world as made up of men and women who are assigned gender by their anatomy. (100 word minimum) 

How does the existence of transsexuals and two-spirits suggest that this classification is inadequate for understanding human gender?  50 words minimum for adequate and 50 minimum words for inadequate? 50 words minimum.

Please use chapter 1 on the word document attached

Be sure to back up all information with reputable sources other than the word document attached, 


“The media, especially magazines and television, has had an influence on shaping my sexual identity. Ever since I was a little girl, I have watched the women on TV and hoped I would grow up to look sexy and beautiful like them. I feel that because of the constant barrage of images of beautiful women on TV and in magazines young girls like me grow up with unrealistic expectations of what beauty is and are doomed to feel they have not met this exaggerated standard.”

—21-year-old female

“The phone, television, and Internet became my best friends. I never missed an episode of any of the latest shows, and I knew all the words to every new song. And when Facebook entered my life, I finally felt connected. At school, we would talk about status updates: whom we thought was cute, relationship status, and outrageous photos. All of the things we saw were all of the things we fantasized about. These are the things we would talk about.”

—23-year-old female

“Though I firmly believe that we are our own harshest critics, I also believe that the media have a large role in influencing how we think of ourselves. I felt like ripping my hair out every time I saw a skinny model whose stomach was as hard and flat as a board, with their flawless skin and perfectly coifed hair. I cringed when I realized that my legs seemed to have an extra ‘wiggle-jiggle’ when I walked. All I could do was watch the television and feel abashed at the differences in their bodies compared to mine. When magazines and films tell me that for my age I should weigh no more than a hundred pounds, I feel like saying, ‘Well, gee, it’s no wonder I finally turned to laxatives with all these pressures to be thin surrounding me.’ I ached to be model-thin and pretty. This fixation to be as beautiful and coveted as these models so preoccupied me that I had no time to even think about anyone or anything else.”

—18-year-old female

“I am aware that I may be lacking in certain areas of my sexual self-esteem, but I am cognizant of my shortcomings and am willing to work on them. A person’s sexual self-esteem isn’t something that is detached from his or her daily life. It is intertwined in every aspect of life and how one views his or her self: emotionally, physically, and mentally. For my own sake, as well as my daughter’s, I feel it is important for me to develop and model a healthy sexual self-esteem.”

—28-year-old male

SEXUALITY WAS ONCE HIDDEN from view in our culture: Fig leaves covered the “private parts” of nudes; poultry breasts were renamed “white meat”; censors prohibited the publication of the works of D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, and Henry Miller; and homosexuality was called “the love that dares not speak its name.” But over the past few generations, sexuality has become more open. In recent years, popular culture and the media have transformed what we “know” about sexuality. Not only is sexuality not hidden from view; it often seems to surround and embed itself into all aspects of our lives.

“Nature is to be reverenced, not blushed at.”

—Tertullian (c. 155 CE–c. 220 CE)

In this chapter, we discuss why we study human sexuality and examine popular culture and the media to see how they shape our ideas about sexuality. Then we look at how sexuality has been conceptualized in different cultures and at different times in history. Finally, we examine how society defines various aspects of our sexuality as natural or normal.

•Studying Human Sexuality

The study of human sexuality differs from the studies of accounting, plant biology, and medieval history, for example, because human sexuality is surrounded by a vast array of taboos, fears, prejudices, and hypocrisy. For many, sexuality creates ambivalent feelings. It is linked not only with intimacy and pleasure but also with shame, guilt, and discomfort. As a result, you may find yourself confronted with society’s mixed feelings about sexuality as you study it. You may find, for example, that others perceive you as somehow “unique” or page 3“different” for taking this course. Some may feel threatened in a vague, undefined way. Parents, partners, or spouses (or your own children, if you are a parent) may wonder why you want to take a “sex class”; they may want to know why you don’t take something more “serious”—as if sexuality were not one of the most important issues we face as individuals and as a society. Sometimes this uneasiness manifests itself in humor, one of the ways in which we deal with ambivalent feelings: “You mean you have to take a class on sex?” “Are there labs?” “Why don’t you let me show you?”

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”

—Aristotle (384 BCE–322 BCE)

Ironically, despite societal ambivalence, you may quickly find that your human sexuality text or ebook becomes the most popular book in your dormitory or apartment. “I can never find my textbook when I need it,” one of our students complained. “My roommates are always reading it. And they’re not even taking the course!” Another student observed: “My friends used to kid me about taking the class, but now the first thing they ask when they see me is what we discussed in class.” “My friends gather around when I open up my online sexuality course, waiting for a glimpse of photos or new information.”

As you study human sexuality, you will find yourself exploring topics not ordinarily discussed in other classes. Sometimes they are rarely talked about even among friends. They may be prohibited by family, religious, or cultural teaching. For this reason, behaviors such as masturbation and sexual fantasizing are often the source of considerable guilt and shame. But in your human sexuality course, these topics will be examined objectively. You may be surprised to discover, in fact, that part of your learning involves unlearning myths, factual errors, distortions, biases, and prejudices you learned previously.

Taking a course in human sexuality is like no other college experience. It requires that students examine their sexual beliefs and behaviors in the context of a wide variety of social and cultural factors and incorporate this new perspective into their sexual lives and well-being.

Andersen Ross/Getty Images

Sexuality may be the most taboo subject you study as an undergraduate, but your comfort level in class will probably increase as you recognize that you and your fellow students have a common purpose in learning about sexuality. Your sense of ease may also increase as you and your classmates get to know one another and discuss sexuality, both inside and outside the class. You may find that, as you become accustomed to using the nuanced sexual vocabulary, you are more comfortable discussing various topics. For example, your communication with a partner may improve, which will strengthen your relationship and increase sexual satisfaction for both of you. You may never before have used the word masturbation, clitoris, or penis in a class setting or any kind of setting, for that matter. But after a while, using these and other terms may become second nature to you. You may discover that discussing sexuality academically becomes as easy as talking about computer science, astronomy, or literature. You may even find yourself, as many students do, sharing with your friends what you learned in class while on a bus or in a restaurant, as other passengers or diners gasp in surprise or lean toward you to hear better!

Studying sexuality requires respect for your fellow students. You’ll discover that the experiences and values of your classmates vary greatly. Some have little sexual experience, while others have a lot of experience; some students hold progressive sexual values, while others hold conservative ones. Some students are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, or another identity (LGBTQ+). This plus sign represents inclusiveness of all identities. Most students are young, others middle-aged, some older—each in a different stage of life and with different developmental tasks before them. Furthermore, the presence of students from any of the numerous religious and ethnic groups in the United States reminds us that there is no single behavior, attitude, value, or sexual norm that encompasses sexuality in contemporary society. Finally, as your sexuality evolves you will find that you will become more accepting of yourself as a sexual human being with your own “sexual voice.” From this, you will truly “own” your sexuality.

“Words do not have inherent meaning, they are signifiers of meaning and these meanings shift across time.”

—Morgan Lev Edward Holleb (1989–)

•Sexuality, Popular Culture, and the Media

Much of sexuality is influenced and shaped by popular culture, especially the mass media. Popular culture presents us with myriad images of what it means to be sexual. But what kinds of sexuality do the media portray for our consumption?

page 4 

Media Portrayals of Sexuality

What messages do the media send about sexuality to children, adolescents, adults, and older people? To people of varied races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations? Perhaps as important as what the media portray sexually is what is not portrayed—masturbation, condom use, and older adults’ sexuality, for example.

“One picture is worth more than a thousand words.”

—Chinese proverb

Media are among the most powerful forces in people’s lives today. Adults ages 18 and over spend more time engaging with media than in any other activity—an average of 12 hours per day, 7 days per week (see Figure 1). Watching TV, playing video games, texting, listening to music, and searching the Internet provide a constant stream of messages, images, expectations, and values about which few (if any) of us can resist. Whether and how this exposure is related to sexual outcomes is complex and debatable, depending on the population studied. However, data that are available may provide an impetus for policymakers who are forming media policies, parents who are trying to support their children’s identity and learning, and educators and advocates who are concerned about the impact of media on youth and who wish to underscore the potential impact of media in individuals’ lives. For those concerned about promoting sexual health and well-being, understanding media’s prominence and role in people’s lives is essential.


Average Time Spent Per Day With Media by Persons in the United States, Ages 18 and Over, 2019.

Source: [April 2019]

Mass-media depictions of sexuality function not only to entertain and exploit, but also in some cases to educate. As a result, the media often do not present us with “real” depictions of sexuality. Sexual activities, for example, are usually not explicitly acted out or described in mainstream media. The social and cultural taboos that are still part of mainstream U.S. culture remain embedded in the media. Thus the various media present the social context of sexuality; that is, the programs, plots, movies, stories, articles, newscasts, and vignettes tell us what behaviors are culturally most appropriate, with whom they are appropriate, and why they are appropriate.

Probably nothing has revolutionized sexuality the way that access to the Internet has. A click on a website link provides sex on demand. The Internet’s contributions to the availability and commercialization of sex include live images and chats, personalized pages and ads, and links to potential or virtual sex partners. The spread of the web has made it easy to obtain information, solidify social ties, and provide sexual gratification.

“Would you like to come back to my place and do what I’m going to tell my friends we did anyway?”


page 5 


speaking A Quick and Evolving Glossary of Sexual Identity and Sexual Orientation

Our knowledge and understanding about sexuality, gender, gender identity, and gender variations along with the nomenclature to describe each are evolving. For example, we now recognize that gender diversity extends well beyond variation in masculinity or femininity such that both government institutions and social media platforms like Facebook and Tinder have adopted over 30 different self-identifying gender terms that go well beyond the social constructs of man and woman (Whyte et al., 2018). Though subject to opinions and differences, this document represents a partial list of current terminology used for sexual and gender identities and variations and sexual orientation. The comprehensive list is, undoubtedly, much longer. To learn of the other current terms, one can seek information from professional sexuality organizations, especially those that focus on sexuality and gender-related issues. Over time, there will be additions and corrections to this evolving nomenclature.

Agender Those who do not identify with any gender.

Anatomical sex Refers to physical sex: gonads, uterus, vulva, vagina, penis, etc.

Androgyny A combination of masculine and feminine traits or nontraditional gender expression. May be referred to as genderqueer or gender fluid.

Asexuality Lack of sexual attraction.

Assigned sex An assignment that is made at birth, usually male or female, typically on the basis of external genital anatomy but sometimes on the basis of internal gonads, chromosomes, or hormone levels.

Bisexuality An emotional and sexual attraction to two or more genders or someone who is attracted to people, regardless of their gender. (See also pansexuality.)

Cisgender Someone whose gender identity aligns with the gender assigned at birth.

Disorders of sex development (DSD) Considered by some to pathologize gender variations, the diagnosis may be used to describe congenital conditions in which the external appearance of the individual does not coincide with the chromosomal constitution or the gonadal sex. The term DSD is no longer used by the World Health Organization. Also known as differences of sex development or intersex.

Gender The socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities, and attributes that a society considers appropriate for a sex.

Genderqueer A spectrum of identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine. Rather, a person identifies with neither, both, or a combination of male or female genders.

Gender binary The idea that gender is an either-or option of male or female. Many who question their gender are uncertain, unwilling to state, or feel limited by those neatly fitting categories.

Gender non-binary or genderqueer is a spectrum of gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine.

Gender confirming treatment A means for those who find it essential and medically necessary to establish congruence with their gender identity. Also referred to as gender affirming treatment or gender reassignment surgery.

Gender diverse An umbrella term used to describe an ever-evolving array of labels people may apply when their gender identity, expression, or perception does not conform to the norms and stereotypes of others. Replaces the former term gender nonconforming.

Gender dysphoria A clinical symptom and psychiatric diagnosis which has focus on the distress that stems from the incongruence between one’s expressed or experienced gender and the gender assigned at birth. Previously called gender identity disorder.

Gender fluid(ity) People whose gender expressions and/or identity is not static; that is, it is not the same all the time.

Gender identity A person’s internal sense or perception of being male, female, or blend of both, or neither.

Gender roles Attitudes, behaviors, rights, and responsibilities that particular cultural groups associate with our assumed or assigned sex.

Gender variant Anyone who deviates from the historical norms of masculinity and femininity. Also known as transgender, gender diverse, gender non-binary, or genderqueer.

Genetic sex Chromosomal and hormonal sex characteristics.

Heteroflexible Individuals who identify as heterosexual or mostly heterosexual but report moderate same-sex behavior and attraction.

Heteronormativity The belief that heterosexuality is normal, natural, and superior to all other expressions of sexuality.

Heterosexuality Emotional and sexual attraction between persons of the other sex. Also referred to as straight.

Homosexuality Emotional and sexual attraction between persons of the same sex. Also referred to as gay or queer.

Intersex A variety of conditions that may occur during fetal development and lead to atypical development of physical sex characteristics. These conditions can involve the external genitals, internal reproductive organs, sex, and sex-related hormones. May also be known as disorders of sex development (DSD).

Pansexuality Emotional and sexual attraction regardless of gender identities and expressions.

Queer Those whose identified gender or sexual identity is non-conforming, that is, not heterosexual or cisgender.

Sex Consists either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and most other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions.

Sexual and gender minority A group including, but not limited to, individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, transgender, two-spirit, queer, and/or intersex. page 6Individuals with same-sex or -gender attractions or behaviors and those with a difference in sex development are also included.

Sexual orientation A multidimensional construct composed of sexual identity, attraction, and behavior.

Transgender An umbrella term for those whose gender expression or identity is not congruent with the sex assigned at birth. This includes those who identify as genderqueer or gender fluid, gender nonconforming, intersex, and trans.

Transsexual A somewhat outdated term for someone who is not the gender they were assigned at birth. Often implied is a medical transition. Transgender is now the preferred term.

Transvestism Wearing of clothes of the other sex for any one of many reasons, including relaxation, fun, and sexual gratification. Often referred to as cross-dressing.

Images of sexuality permeate our society, sexualizing our environment. Think about the sexual images you see or hear in a 24-hour period. What messages do they communicate about sexuality?

John Violet/Alamy Stock Photo

It’s common knowledge that most of us have thoroughly integrated all forms of media into our lives. In spite of being heavy users of media, more than half of those aged 13–17 are worried that they spend too much time on their cellphones, while a similar percent have tried to limit their use of social media or video games (Pew Research Center, 2018). Though high school males spend more time on the computer than high school females, teenagers spend most of their media/communications time watching TV and videos (Rideout & Robb, 2019). For school-aged children and adolescents, the American Academy of Pediatrics [AAP] (2016) suggests that parents teach young people to balance media use with other healthy behaviors; no small endeavor considering the powerful draw and influence of the media.

The music industry is awash with sexual images and messages too. Contemporary pop music, from rock ‘n’ roll to rap, is filled with lyrics about sexuality mixed with messages about love, rejection, violence, and loneliness. Research has found that women are frequently sexualized and objectified within music videos, with sexual references including women engaging in implicit sexual behaviors, sex is seen as a priority for men, and women are defined by having a man (American Psychological Association [APA], 2018). As a result, there is increasing evidence that exposure to sexual content in music may be impacting young people’s identity and gender role development, most significantly related to stereotypical gender role attitudes, ideals, and expectations. Because of censorship issues, the most overtly sexual music is not played on the radio but is more often streamed through the Internet via YouTube, Pandora, Spotify, and other sites.

page 7 

Women’s magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Women’s Health, and Elle use sex to sell their publications. How do these magazines differ from men’s magazines such as Men’s Health, Playboy, and Maxim in their treatment of sexuality?

emka74/Alamy Stock Photo

Magazines, tabloids, and books contribute to the sexualization of our society as well. It’s important to note that sexualization is not the same as sex or sexuality; rather sexualization is a form of sexism that narrows a frame of a person’s worth and value. The sexualization of individuals sees value and worth only as sexual body parts for others’ sexual pleasure. For example, popular romance novels and self-help books disseminate ideas and values about sexuality and body image. Men’s magazines have been singled out for their sexual emphasis. Playboy, Men’s Health, and Maxim, with their Playmates of the Month, sex tips, and other advice, are among the most popular magazines in the world. Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit edition alone draws 63 million adult users in the United States (Sports Illustrated, 2020).

It would be a mistake to think that only male-oriented magazines focus on sex. Women’s magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Elle have their own sexual content. These magazines feature romantic photographs of lovers to illustrate stories with such titles as “Sizzling Sex Secrets of the World’s Sexiest Women,” “Making Love Last: If Your Partner Is a Premature Ejaculator,” and “Turn on Your Man with Your Breasts (Even If They Are Small).” Preadolescents and young teens are not exempt from sexual images and articles in magazines such as Seventeen and J-14. Given these magazines’ heavy emphasis on looks, it’s not surprising that those who read a lot of women-focused magazines are more likely to have internalized the thin ideal, have negative views of their appearance, engage in restricted eating and bulimic behaviors, and experience negative psychological health (Northrup, 2013; Swiatkowski, 2016).

In the absence of alternative resources to guide their decisions concerning sexual relationships, college students often rely on sexual scripts conveyed through mass media (Hust et al., 2014). Since the majority of men’s magazines seem to promote men as sexual aggressors, it’s easy to understand how many men internalize this message. As a result, readers of men’s magazines report lower intentions to ask their sexual partner for consent for sexual activity and are less likely to adhere to sexual consent decisions by their partner (Hust et al., 2014). A recent meta-analysis from 59 studies revealed that exposure to sexual media had a small but significant effect on sexual attitudes and behaviors, with effects being stronger for adolescents than emerging adults. Additionally, the effects were stronger for boys than girls and for white individuals compared with Black individuals (Coyne et al., 2019). Regarding page 8women’s exposure to women’s magazines, Ward (2016) found that their exposure was positively associated with their ability to refuse unwanted sexual activity.

Advertising in all media uses the sexual sell, promising sex, romance, popularity, and fulfillment if the consumer will only purchase the right soap, perfume, cigarettes, alcohol, toothpaste, jeans, or automobile. In reality, not only does one not become “sexy” or popular by consuming a certain product, but the product may actually be detrimental to one’s sexual well-being, as in the case of cigarettes or alcohol.

Throughout the world, the media have assumed an increasingly significant role in shaping perspectives toward gender and sexual roles. In a review of 135 peer-reviewed studies in the United States between 1995 and 2015, the findings found consistent evidence that both laboratory exposure and everyday exposure to mainstream media are directly associated with higher levels of body dissatisfaction, greater self-objectification, or evaluating oneself based on appearance; greater support of sexist beliefs; and greater tolerance of sexual violence toward women (Ward, 2016). In addition, experimental exposure to media has led society to have a diminished view of women’s competence, morality, and humanity. This evidence, however, varies depending on the genres of media we consume and our preexisting beliefs, identities, and experiences.

Though much research has focused on the impact of media on female development, media undoubtedly has an impact on men as well. What has been found is that men’s frequent consumption of sexually objectifying media (i.e., TV, films, and videos) was associated with greater objectification of their romantic partners, which in turn was linked to lower levels of relationship and sexual satisfaction (Zurbriggen et al., 2011).

Media images of sexuality permeate a variety of areas in people’s lives. They can produce sexual arousal and emotional reactions, provide social connection, entertain, increase sexual behaviors, and be a source of sex information. On the other hand, unmonitored Internet access among youth raises significant concerns about its risks. Since 2006, the Me Too movement (or #MeToo) in social media has helped to create more gender and racial equality and inclusion, as well as safer working environments. Though it originally addressed sexual harassment and sexual assault, its scope has expanded to an international movement for justice for people in marginalized communities. However, there is still work to be done. Though sexual harassment has decreased and the voices of women are being heard, it doesn’t mean that we can cease our awareness or actions around social justice and empowerment issues.

Given the fact that teens now spend an average of more than seven hours per day on screen media for entertainment, it’s clear that media consumption and exposure play a significant role in their lives (Rideout & Robb, 2019). Currently, the total time spent on screen media beats time spent eating and drinking, socializing, and grooming.

Of concern around adolescents’ heavy media use is their viewing of sexually explicit videos. Because of its easy access along with the potential risks associated with its use, understanding its implications is important for parents, partners, as well as the rest of us.

Reality shows, such as The Bachelorette and 90 Day Fiancé frequently highlight idealized and sexual themes. What are some of the most popular reality shows? Do they differ according to race/ethnicity?

Raymond Hall/GC Images/Getty Images

Television and Digital Media

Among all types of media, television and digital (online and mobile) have been the most prevalent, pervasive, and vexing icons, saturating every corner of public and private space, shaping consciousness, defining reality, and entertaining the masses (see Figure 2). While the frequency of online videos has been increasing, so has been the number of sexual references in programming. While narratives that provide educational information regarding the risks and consequences of sexual behavior are frequently missing from television shows, sexual violence and abuse, casual sex among adults, lack of contraception use, and failure to portray consequences of risky behaviors are common. Because reality programs (e.g., page 9Temptation Island and Are You The One?), and screen media feature “real” people (as opposed to actors), it is possible that exposure to their objectifying content can have even a more significant impact than other types of programming. Considering the variety of media genres, including music videos, advertising, video games, and magazines, it becomes apparent that sexualized images are often the dominant way that young people learn about sex.


Amount of Time of Daily Media Use, By Age, 2019.

Source: The Nielsen Company, 2019

While it is apparent that exposure to television does not affect all people in the same way, it is clear that the sexual double standard, or judging heterosexual men and women differently for the same sexual behavior, taps into our national ambivalence about sex, equality, morality, and violence. It accomplishes this in ways that are both subtle and blatant, leaving some viewers confused, others angry, and still others reinforced around their views of the other sex. Other programs seek to normalize non-heterosexual behaviors as well as gender variations (Kinsler et al., 2018). With no shortage of dramas, comedies, movies, or specials available we now see queer characters in a variety of mainstream venues including those in Schitt’s Creek, Grace and Frankie, and Everything’s Gonna Be Okay. Additionally, television is making strides to educate teens and young adults about sexuality and parenting. Programs such as Teen Mom, 13 Reasons Why, and Sex Education have consulted with professional organizations to help educate viewers. This type of alliance is good for all of us.

“The vast wasteland of TV is not interested in producing a better mousetrap but in producing a worse mouse.”

—Laurence Coughlin

Unlike the film industry, which uses a single ratings board to regulate all American releases, television has been governed by an informal consensus. In 1997, networks began to rely on watchdog standards and practices departments to rate their shows; however, these divisions have few, if any, hard-and-fast rules. While the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) does not offer clear guidelines about what is and is not permissible on the airwaves, the agency does permit looser interpretations of its decency standards for broadcasts between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Music and Game Videos MTV, MTV2, VH1, BET, and music video platforms such as Vimeo and YouTube are very popular among adolescents and young adults. Unlike audio-recorded music, music videos play to the ear and the eye. With this, artists have brought energy, sexuality, and individualism to the young music audience, while others have page 10objectified and degraded mostly women by stripping them of any sense of power and individualism and focusing strictly on their sexuality.

Video games that often promote sexist and violent attitudes fill the aisles of stores across the country and generate over $43 million per year in the United States (Bowles & Keller, 2019). Pushing the line between obscenity and amusement, games often provide images of unrealistically shaped and submissive women mouthing sexy dialogues in degrading scenes. Men, in contrast, are often revealed as unrealistic, violent figures whose primary purpose is to destroy and conquer. Though many of these video games are rated “M” (mature) by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, they are both popular with and accessible to young people.

Recently, however, the gaming industry has been challenged by an outcry against sexism in both video games and in the workplace that produces them. The nature of female representations in games, most significantly the sexualization and stereotyping of female characters, has decreased. The decline has been attributed to an increasing universal interest in gaming coupled with the heightened criticism directed at the gaming industry. This is not to say that the sexualization that does exist is nonproblematic, but rather the trend toward portraying all genders as competent, strong, and attractive without overt sexualization may eventually help to achieve gender parity, at least in the game culture.

An additional concern in the online gaming and chat worlds, including the chat features on consoles like Xbox and services like Steam, are the spaces that allow children and adults to interact. Sexual predators can meet young people online through multiplayer video games and chat apps and, over time, make virtual connections that build trust. Their goal, whether it’s through video games or other means of social media, is to trick children into sharing sexually explicit photos and videos of themselves, which they use as blackmail for more imagery or to humiliate or exact revenge; a practice known as sextortion (Bowles & Keller, 2019; De Santisteban & Gamez-Guadix, 2018). Though there are tools to detect abuse content, scanning for new images is difficult. Parents need to know what their children are playing and what tools are available to help protect them. Parents who suspect a problem should react carefully when their children report encounters as punishing children by prohibiting video games or social media could backfire and drive children to even more secrecy.

Watching female icons such as Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion dance in a provocative manner has become mainstream in most music videos.

(a) Scott Legato/Getty Images; (b) Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images

Feature-Length Films

From their very inception, motion pictures have dealt with sexuality. In 1896, a film titled The Kiss outraged moral guardians when it showed a couple stealing a quick kiss. “Absolutely disgusting,” complained one critic. “The performance comes near being indecent in its emphasized indecency. Such things call for police action” (quoted in Webb, 1983). Today, in contrast, film critics use “explicit,” a word independent of artistic value, to praise a film. “Explicit” films are movies in which the requisite “sex scenes” are sufficiently titillating to overcome their lack of aesthetic merit. What is clear is that movies are similar to television in their portrayal of the consequences of unprotected sex, such as unplanned pregnancies or sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV/AIDS.

The notion of “true love” in dramas and romantic comedies has come to represent the idealized belief of some that love conquers all. Stories about love, including those in books, magazines, music, television, and the Internet, are often so stereotypical and idealized that it is difficult for people to separate these unrealistic representations from what is healthy and reasonable in their romantic relationships. (For more information about styles of love, see Chapter 8.) To help balance these notions, it is important to have authentic personal experiences, mentors in one’s life, honesty with oneself, and peers who will reveal that sex is often imperfect and that disagreements and communication difficulties are typical.

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer People in Film and Television

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) individuals are slowly being integrated into mainstream films and television. However, when queer people do appear, they page 11are frequently defined in terms of their sexual orientation or gender identity, as if there were nothing more to their lives. Though the situation is changing, gay men are generally stereotyped as effeminate or flighty or they may be closeted. Lesbian women are often stereotyped as either super-feminine or super-masculine. And queer individuals often appear as odd.

“Coming out” stories are now the standard for television programs that deal with gay characters. However, what has recently changed is that the age of these characters has become younger. Teen coming-out stories seem relevant in that they reflect the identity issues of being gay, transgender, queer, questioning, or unsure about their sexual identity and expose the vulnerability most young people in junior high and high school feel about being bullied. Different from stories in which queer people are marginalized and stereotyped, the messages in many of the shows for younger audiences are quite consistent: that you will be accepted for who you are. Still, media have a long way to go in terms of normalizing any type of healthy sexual relationships. The biggest hurdle remains in showing adults, particularly two males, kissing on screen as their heterosexual counterparts would. While teen shows may have somewhat overcome this barrier, most “adult” programs have not.

More frequent in movies is what has been referred to as queerbating, a marketing technique used to describe media where the creators integrate homoeroticism between two characters to lure in same sex and liberal audiences, yet never fully include actual representation for fear of alienating a wider audience. For example, in Disney’s remake of Beauty and the Beast in 2017, there’s a momentary shot that shows Le Fou dancing with another man, along with coded words about his feelings for Gaston. This bait-and-switch technique leaves many LGBTQ+ fans disappointed not to see themselves represented in meaningful ways that shed light on their lives and relationships.

In the film, Bombshell, a group of women take on Fox News head Roger Ailes for the toxic environment he presided over.

Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Online Social Networks

Using the Internet is a major recreational activity that has altered the ways in which individuals communicate and carry on interpersonal relationships. Though social theorists have long been concerned with the alienating effects of technology, the Internet appears quite page 12different from other communication technologies. Its efficacy, power, and influence, along with the anonymity and depersonalization that accompany its use, have made it possible for users to more easily obtain and distribute sexual materials, images, and information, as well as to interact sexually in different ways.

Writers in television and film are finally giving gay characters prominence beyond their sexuality. These programs include The L Word, Generation Q, Pose, Betty, & Dear White People.

TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy Stock Photo

Social networking sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are well integrated into the daily lives of most people around the world. Their popularity cannot be underestimated: Facebook alone reports to have nearly 2.5 billion global users (Statista, 2019.1a). Add this to the 500 million Americans who are daily active users on Instagram and the one billion monthly active users worldwide (Statista, 2019.1b), and it’s obvious that the digital landscape has taken over the globe.

For anyone with a computer, social networks provide readily accessible friends and potential partners, help maintain friendships, and shape sexual culture.

Dean Mitchell/Getty Images

Social networking sites provide an opportunity for many to display their identities: religious, political, ideological, work-related, sexual orientation, and gender identity, to name a few. While doing so, individuals can also gain feedback from peers and strengthen their bonds of friendship. At the same time, social networking can be a place of “relationship drama.” By posting details or pictures from a date on a social networking site such as Instagram or Snapchat, individuals share every gory detail of their relationship with anyone willing to take the time to view or read about it. While many who use the Internet to flirt with others have largely positive opinions and experiences, significant numbers of other users have negative ones. Many social networking users report having unfriended or blocked someone who was flirting in a way that made them feel uncomfortable, while others have unfriended someone they are no longer dating. Some have also used these sites to check up on someone they previously dated or to research potential romantic partners. Ghosting, or withdrawing from a person’s life without notice and by ignoring their communications following a date or relationship, is another problem that may be more common among online dating. Not surprising, many realize that these sites can serve as an unwanted reminder that relationships have ended and, maybe worse, that their previous beloved one is now dating someone else. There is also increasing concern about the potential link between social media use and mental health and well-being in young people. A British study involving more than 10,000 youth, ages 13 to 16, found a clear connection between increased social media use and symptoms of psychological distress in girls. The link was not clear among boys (Viner et al., 2019). Though sites such as Instagram and Facebook did not directly cause mental health issues, nearly 60% of the impact on psychological distress in girls was attributed to social media disrupting their sleep and exposing them to cyberbullying, the use of electronic communication to bully, intimidate, or threaten a person.

With thousands of sexual health sites maintained online, new forms of media are also powerful tools for learning. When credible sources are located, these media have become convenient avenues by which people can get important sexual health information. There are, however, two significant concerns associated with using media to learn about sexuality and sexual health: the possibility that the information is inaccurate or misleading and the possibility that those who turn to the media may turn away from real people in their lives.

For many users, the Internet provides a fascinating venue for experiencing sex. For some users, however, porn consumption gets them in trouble: maxed-out credit cards, neglected responsibility, and overlooked loved ones. There are both online and community resources for those who desire counseling. While searching for such sources, however, consumers and professionals must be aware of the differences between therapy, consultation, and entertainment. Additionally, because entrepreneurs can make more money from hype and misinformation than from high-quality therapy and education, consumers must remain vigilant in assessing the background of the therapist and the source of the information.

One occurrence associated with the drastically changing culture of interpersonal communication is what is called sexting —the sending or receiving suggestive or explicit texts, photos, or video messages via computers or mobile devices. The wide array of accessible media provides the opportunity for choosing different purposes for sending and receiving sexts, including sexual self-expression, experimentation, self-definition, and education. At the same time, it has become clear that expectations of privacy in the digital world are being challenged related to ownership of sexual messages and images, sharing and trafficking of sexual material without consent, and potential social and psychological health consequences of shared texts (Garcia et al., 2016).

page 13 


about it Online Dating: No Longer A Last Attempt

The popularity and accessibility of digital media and technology have allowed individuals to present themselves publicly in ways that were previously never possible. No longer is online dating seen as a last attempt for the lonely and desperate, nor is it stigmatized by the general public. After all, almost half of U.S. online users have met or known someone who has met a romantic partner on a dating website or app (Statista, 2019.1c). Dating sites such as, Tinder, Plenty of Fish, and Grindr, along with platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat enable individuals to find potential partners in just minutes with the simple swipe of an app or a click on a website. Social media facilitate communication and support, play a prominent role in navigating and documenting romantic relationships, provide an outlet for sexual exploration and expression and, for a small minority, are a means to exploit another. Using technology, individuals negotiate over when, with whom, and how to meet and interact.

Over time, traditional sites and avenues for meeting singles, including universities, clubs, gyms, and workplaces, have been partially replaced by the Internet, thereby allowing people to meet and form relationships with others with whom they have no knowledge or social connections. But just how successful or risky are these sites and apps? Once the work of creating a profile is complete, can getting a date really be that difficult? To some degree, that depends on what it is that people want–to hook up or have casual sex, to date casually, or to date as a way of actively pursuing a relationship. In early 2019, 49% of dating app users stated that they were using online dating services to look for an exclusive romantic partner. An additional 20% used online dating for non-exclusive romantic partners and 33% stated that they used online dating apps and services specifically for sexual encounters (Statista, 2019.1c). The same survey found that dating platform or app users were predominately male and younger in age (see Figure 3). Combined, the online dating audience size is approximately 34 million, amounting to approximately $555 million in revenue in 2018 (Statista, 2019.1c).


Percentage of Internet Users in the United States Who Have Used Online Dating Sites or Apps as of 2017, by Age Group.

Source: Statista, 2020

No doubt, the Internet, including dating sites, is a means of communication which not only brings new contexts for socialization and interaction, but provides a means of expressing identity and sexuality that might otherwise feel more threatening than a face-to-face contact. It’s common knowledge that technology can enhance one’s ability to find a date, and in doing so, fulfill their desire to flirt, date, and in some cases, find a suitable partner. For the isolated, marginalized, underrepresented, and disenfranchised individuals, many of whom hide their gender or sexual identities from others, Internet dating sites may play an even more prominent and useful role in navigating romantic relationships because it allows them to be honest about who they are. When the experiences with online dating are examined, almost half of users reported having had a very or somewhat positive experience with it. Men report having a better time with dating apps than women, with only 10% of male users reporting somewhat or very negative experiences, whereas 29% of women reported negative experiences (Statista, 2019.1c).

Dating apps are not without their detractors and caveats. One pitfall of online dating is the view that in the endless array of online partners, one can be less satisfied with their choice. This could be page 14compared to going to a frozen yogurt shop, seeing the 15 delicious options, choosing 1 or 2, and feeling less satisfied because of all the flavors they could have had instead. Outcomes related to this level of frustration include the belief that technology has made finding a mate more difficult, and in doing so may delay or even suppress the desire to establish a deeper relationship. As a result, both the selection process and the process of self-presentation have, in some people’s experience, brought about a kind dating-app fatigue or weariness. What might underscore this fatigue is that of the 1.6 billion swipes a day on Tinder, there are just 26 million matches (Julian, 2018). It appears that the overwhelming majority of matches don’t lead to either a two-way text exchange, much less a date, or sex for that matter. Additional concerns associated with online dating are that some users feel uncomfortable meeting someone who might pose a danger, having to block or report someone for personal or legal reasons, or having requests for or being sent unsolicited photos. The phenomenon of ghosting appears to occur among one-fourth of dating respondents (Henderson, 2018). In the past when partners met through peer groups, for example, ghosting was perhaps not as prevalent because of the social stigma associated with it. Today, because of the anonymity the Internet provides and possible isolation of its users, individuals don’t have to incur such costs.

Based on these and other factors, many online dating users have taken measures before personally meeting someone to first search their name on social media profiles as well as search their phone number online. Additionally, it’s always wise to meet someone for the first time in a public place and let a friend or colleague know in advance about your plans. Despite the risks associated with dating apps and sites, most customers view them as welcome agents in their search for companionship, love, sex, and intimacy (Hobbs et al., 2016). For those who are still waiting for that perfect date, if what you’re doing doesn’t work, then change your strategy.

Think Critically

Would you consider participating in or have you posted or created a dating site? If so, how did you describe yourself? Were you completely honest? If you would not consider using a dating site, what prevents you from doing so?

Do you believe that Internet sites should be censored? Why or why not?

What are some actions you might take to protect yourself from being uncomfortable and remaining safe when using a dating site?

When looking at the relationship status of those who send and receive sexts, the landscape is quite varied. Three common scenarios for sexting are: (1) the exchange of images solely between two romantic partners, (2) exchanges between a partner and someone outside the relationship, and (3) exchanges between people who are not yet in a relationship but at least one person hopes to be. When surveyed about their reasons for sending sexts, most stated that they wanted to give their partner a sexy present, use it to enhance their relationship, or respond to a sext that was given to them (Champion & Pedersen, 2015).

The most damaging aspect of the sharing of sexts occurs when they go beyond the intended recipient and are trafficked to others for whom they were not intended. Sexting can hurt one’s reputation, career, self-esteem, and current relationships and friendships. It can also cause shame and guilt to the victim of such a transgression. And the potential of sextortion, or coaxing victims into taking explicit photos and videos and then threatening to distribute them to others if they don’t pay them, is becoming increasingly common among scammers. Complicating this problem is the offenders’ utilization of privacy protection networks to obscure their identities. These sites enable offenders to route all of their incoming and outgoing Internet traffic through a number of different locations anywhere in the world, so that law enforcement cannot use traditional means to locate them (Pittaro, 2019). Additionally, the utilization of encryption can protect offenders’ identities as well as the exploitation materials they create, share, and collect from observation by law enforcement. It probably comes as no surprise that some individuals, particularly women and very young persons, are more susceptible to being victimized because they are perceived to be more vulnerable to calculating offenders.

In response to teen sexting, some states have brought felony charges under child exploitation laws, while in other places prosecutors can require young people to take courses on the dangers of social media instead of charging them with a crime. The struggle to reconcile digital eroticism with real-world consequences is inherent when using technology to facilitate human interactions. Instead of looking at sexting as objectifying and inherently dangerous, another perspective is that sexting can be sexually liberating. That is, the self-portrayal of the body that occurs in sexting can facilitate individuals’ exploration of their bodies and help them reclaim and liberate themselves from society’s view of the ideal. An indicator of this sexual liberation is acceptance with nudity. Two researchers recently assessed the contrasting page 15views of sexting, that being objectifying versus liberating, and found that sexting is both of these (Liong & Cheng, 2019). That is, while sexting involves showing one’s bare body or body parts to another person can encourage objectification, sexting for all genders can be a form of liberation from the everyday restrictions placed upon the body. The authors concluded with the need for sex(t) education that could help youth develop awareness to explore their unique bodies, accept that no one must be subjected to the desires of others, and if they choose to sext, do so responsibly and consensually.

Because of the high volume of sexual discussions and material available on the Internet, there is an increasing demand for government regulation. In 1996, Congress passed the Communications Decency Act, which made it illegal to use computer networks to transmit “obscene” materials or place “indecent” words or images where children might read or see them. However, courts have declared this legislation a violation of freedom of speech.

While one might argue that it is unwise to confuse entertainment with education, media use is not without its negative consequences on health. Studies find that high levels of media use among young people is associated with academic problems, sleep deprivation, obesity, risky behaviors, and more (American Academy of Pediatricians [AAP], 2016). Recognizing the ubiquitous role of media in children’s lives, AAP has released policy recommendations to help families maintain healthy media usage, which includes the following:

Avoid use of screen media except video chatting among children younger than 18 months

Locate high-quality programming beginning at around 18–24 months of age and watch it with their children

Allow one hour of high-quality programming per day for children aged 2–5 years

Limit time and type of media for children 6 and older, along with media-free times together and ongoing communication about online citizenship and safety.

Congressman Anthony Weiner resigned from the House of Representatives in 2011 after sending to multiple women sexually suggestive pictures of himself.

Archive PL/Alamy Stock Photo

•Sexuality Across Cultures and Times

What we see as “natural” in our culture may be viewed as unnatural in other cultures. Few Americans would disagree about the erotic potential of kissing. But other cultures perceive kissing as merely the exchange of saliva. To the Mehinaku of the Amazon rain forest, for example, kissing is a disgusting sexual abnormality; no Mehinaku engages in it (Gregor, 1985). The fact that others press their lips against each other, salivate, and become sexually excited merely confirms their “strangeness” to the Mehinaku.

Culture takes our sexual interests—our incitements or inclinations to act sexually—and molds and shapes them, sometimes celebrating sexuality and other times condemning it. A brief exploration of sexual themes across cultures and times will give you a sense of the diverse shapes and meanings humans have given to sexuality.

Sexual Interests

All cultures assume that adults have the potential for becoming sexually aroused and for engaging in sexual intercourse for the purpose of reproduction. But cultures differ considerably in terms of how strong they believe sexual interests are. These beliefs, in turn, affect the level of desire expressed in each culture.

The Mangaia Beginning at a young age, the Mangaia of Polynesia emphasize both the pleasurable and procreative aspects of sex (Marshall, 1971). At about age 7, a Mangaian boy first learns about masturbation and at about age 8 or 9, he may begin to masturbate. Around age 13 or 14, following a circumcision ritual, boys are given instruction in the ways of pleasing a girl: erotic kissing, cunnilingus, breast fondling and sucking, and techniques for bringing her to repeated orgasms. After 2 weeks, an older, sexually experienced woman has sexual page 16intercourse with the boy to instruct him further on how to sexually satisfy a woman. Girls the same age are instructed by older women on how to be orgasmic: how to thrust their hips and rhythmically tighten their vagina in order to experience repeated orgasms. A girl finally learns to be orgasmic through the efforts of a “good man.” If the woman’s partner fails to satisfy her, she is likely to leave him; she may also ruin his reputation with other women by denouncing his lack of skill. Young men and women are expected to have many sexual experiences prior to marriage.

“Sex is hardly ever just about sex.”

—Shirley MacLaine (1934–)

This adolescent paradise, however, does not last forever. The Mangaia believe that sexuality is strongest during adolescence. As a result, when the Mangaia leave young adulthood, they experience a rapid decline in sexual desire and activity, and they cease to be aroused as passionately as they once were. They attribute this swift decline to the workings of nature and settle into a sexually contented adulthood.

The Dani In contrast to the Mangaia, the New Guinean Dani show little interest in sexuality (Schwimmer, 1997). To them, sex is a relatively unimportant aspect of life. The Dani express no concern about improving sexual techniques or enhancing erotic pleasure. Extrarelational sex and jealousy are rare. As their only sexual concern is reproduction, sexual intercourse is performed quickly, ending with male ejaculation. Female orgasm appears to be unknown to them. Following childbirth, both mothers and fathers go through 5 years of sexual abstinence. The Dani are an extreme example of a case in which culture, rather than biology, shapes sexual attractions.

Victorian Americans In the nineteenth century, white middle-class Americans believed that women had little sexual desire. If they experienced desire at all, it was “reproductive desire,” the wish to have children. Reproduction entailed the unfortunate “necessity” of engaging in sexual intercourse. A leading reformer wrote that in her “natural state” a woman never makes advances based on sexual desires, for the “very plain reason that she does not feel them” (Alcott, 1868). Those women who did feel desire were “a few exceptions amounting in all probability to diseased cases.” Such women were classified by a prominent physician as suffering from “Nymphomania, or Furor Uterinus” (Bostwick, 1860).

Whereas women were viewed as asexual, men were believed to have raging sexual appetites. Men, driven by lust, sought to satisfy their desires by ravaging innocent women. Both men and women believed that male sexuality was dangerous, uncontrolled, and animal-like. It was part of a woman’s duty to tame unruly male sexual impulses.

The polarized beliefs about the nature of male and female sexuality created destructive antagonisms between “angelic” women and “demonic” men. These beliefs provided the rationale for a “war between the sexes.” They also led to the separation of sex from love. Intimacy and love had nothing to do with male sexuality. In fact, male lust always lingered in the background of married life, threatening to destroy love by its overbearing demands.

The Sexual Revolution Between the 1960s and the mid-1970s, significant challenges to the ways that society viewed traditional codes of behavior took place in the United States. Dubbed the “sexual revolution,” or “sexual liberation,” this period of rapid and complex changes invited individuals and society to confront the sexually repressive Victorian era and begin to recognize a separation and autonomy in what was thought to be unexamined decisions and regulations. This counterculture movement questioned previously established rules, regulations, and decisions in these areas:

Individual self-expression and autonomy. Previously structured around the collective good of the family and community, the counterculture found meaning and purpose in supporting the individual rights of men and women, including the right to sexual expression and pleasure.

Women’s rights. The traditional, stereotypical role of the man being breadwinner and of the woman being the homemaker were challenged by roles whereby individuals could choose according to their needs. It became acceptable for women to express their inherent sexuality and for men to be their emotional and authentic selves. It was during this period that abortion became legal, and widespread accessibility and dissemination of birth control became available.

page 17 

Relationship status. No longer was marriage the only context within which couples could express their sexuality, love, and commitment for one another. A new philosophy of sex, referred to as “free love,” allowed individuals to broaden and act on their sexual desires without marriage, judgment, or contempt.

Sexual orientation. Overriding previous dogma from church and state, there has been a broader acceptance of homosexuality. This was reinforced in 1973 when the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of diagnosable mental disorders. More recently in 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage legal in all states.

Sexuality education. Though a handful of sexuality education programs had been introduced prior to the 1960s, few were uniformly embraced or included in school curriculums until SIECUS: Sex Ed for Social Change became a vocal force in education and policy.

Similar to beliefs about sexuality, ideals about body image, sexual expression, and what women do to achieve both change over time.

(a) History Archives/Alamy; (b) ABC/Shutterstock

Although a significant amount of time has passed since the end of the Victorian era and the counterculture’s attempt to shift values and attitudes about sexuality, many traditional sexual beliefs and attitudes continue to influence us. These include the belief that men are “naturally” sexually aggressive and women sexually passive, the sexual double standard, and the value placed on women being sexually inexperienced. While the media continue to push boundaries about what is acceptable and desirable in sexual expression, so do most Americans continue to adapt their thinking about what is acceptable, desirable, “normal,” and tolerable.

Sexual Orientation

Homosexuality, more commonly referred to as gay, is an emotional and sexual attraction to individuals of the same sex or gender. Some people who have same-sex attractions or relationships may identify as queer, or for a range of reasons may choose not to identify with those or any labels. Bisexuality is an emotional and sexual attraction to two or more genders or someone who is attracted to people regardless of their gender. Individuals who identify as heterosexual or mostly heterosexual, but report some same-sex behavior and attraction are referred to as heteroflexible. There is significant debate about whether asexuality, a state of having no sexual attraction to anyone or low or absent interest in sexual activity, is a sexual orientation. There is a lack of consistent methods for defining and assessing sexual orientation, making it difficult to assess the populations who experience sexual orientation-related disparities. Nevertheless, now that same-sex marriage has been legalized in the United States, full social legitimacy and dignity have been granted to persons who marry a person of the same sex. This view of marriage is currently shared by 29 other countries.


“As early as preschool I learned the difference between boy and girl toys, games, and colors. The boys played with trucks while the girls played with dolls. If a boy were to play with a doll, he would be laughed at and even teased. In the make-believe area, once again, you have limitations of your dreams. Girls could not be police, truck drivers, firefighters, or construction workers. We had to be people that were cute, such as models, housewives, dancers, or nurses. We would sometimes model ourselves after our parents or family members.”

—23-year-old female

“I grew up with the question of ‘why?’ dangling from the tip of my tongue. Why am I supposed to marry a certain person? Why do I have to learn how to cook meat for my husband when I am a vegetarian? Why can’t I go out on dates or to school formals? The answer was the same every time: ‘Because you’re a girl.’ Being that she is such a strong woman, I know it tore a bit of my grandmother’s heart every time she had to say it.”

—19-year-old female

“My stepfather and I did not get along. I viewed him as an outsider, and I did not want a replacement father. Looking back, I feel like I overcompensated for the lack of a male figure in my life. I enlisted in the Navy at 18, have a huge firearm collection, and play ice hockey on the weekends. All of these activities seem to be macho, even to me. I guess it’s to prove that even though a woman raised me, I’m still a man’s man.”

—27-year-old male

“I was in fifth grade, and my parents put me on restriction. My mom inquired where I got the [Playboy] magazine. I told her we found it on the way home from school. She wanted to know where. I lied and said it was just sitting in somebody’s trashcan and I happened to see it. She wanted to know where. I said I forgot. My sexual identity was being founded on concealment, repression, and lies. Within my family, my sexual identity was repressed.”

—27-year-old male

HOW CAN WE TELL the difference between a man and a woman? While most distinguish their sex by the appearance of their genitals, others rely on their gender identity. As accurate as this answer may be academically, it is not particularly useful in social situations. In most social situations—except in nudist colonies or while sunbathing au naturel—our genitals are not visible to the casual observer. We do not expose or may not disclose our identity or ask another person to do so for gender verification. We are more likely to rely on secondary sex characteristics, such as breasts and body hair, or on bone structure, musculature, and height. But even these characteristics are not always reliable, given the great variety of shapes and sizes we come in as human beings. And from farther away than a few yards, we cannot always distinguish these characteristics. Instead of relying entirely on physical characteristics to identify an individual’s gender, we often look for other clues.

“There is no essential sexuality. Maleness and femaleness are something we are dressed in.”

—Naomi Wallace (1960–)

Culture provides us with an important clue for recognizing a person’s gender: dress. In almost all cultures, female and male clothing differs to varying degrees so that we can usually identify a person’s gender. Some cultures, such as our own, may accentuate secondary sex characteristics, especially for females. Traditional feminine clothing, for example, emphasizes a woman’s gender: dress or skirt, a form-fitting or low-cut top, high heels, and so on. Most clothing, in fact, that emphasizes or exaggerates secondary sex characteristics is female. Makeup—lipstick, mascara, eyeliner—and hairstyles also mark or exaggerate the differences between males and females. Even smells—perfume for women, cologne for men—and colors—blue for boys, pink for girls—help distinguish females and males.

Clothing and other aspects of appearance further exaggerate physical differences. And culture encourages us to accentuate or invent psychological, emotional, mental, and behavioral differences. Should the United States follow Germany to allow “undetermined” as a gender type for newborn babies? Legislation enacted in 2013 in Germany specifies that babies born without gender-defining physical characteristics can be registered as having an “undetermined” gender on their birth certificate. Multiple countries have followed by legally recognizing non-binary or third gender classifications. While a biological understanding of page 106gender identity remains somewhat of a mystery, medical, ethical, and parental recommendations are being created to respond to the growing number of individuals who see gender variance as an alternative to psychiatric diagnoses and a normal part on the wide continuum of gender expression.

In this chapter, we look at the connection between our genitals; our identity as female, male, transgender, or none of these; and our feelings of being feminine, masculine, or a mixture or absence of these identities. We also examine the relationship between femininity, masculinity, and sexual orientation. Then we discuss how feminine and masculine traits result from both biological and social influences. Next, we focus on theories of socialization and how we learn to behave in our culture. Then we look at traditional, contemporary, and androgynous gender roles. We examine gender variation—including gender dysphoria—along with disorders of sex development. Finally, we address coming to terms with gender variations.

•Studying Gender, Gender Roles, and Sexuality

Let’s start by redefining some key terms, to establish a common terminology. (Note that some of these terms were listed in the Practically Speaking glossary in Chapter 1.) Keeping these definitions in mind will make the discussion clearer.

Sex, Gender, and Gender Roles: What’s the Difference?

Assigned sex is a determination of sex that is made at birth, usually male or female, typically on the basis of external anatomy but sometimes on the basis of internal gonads, chromosomes, or hormone levels. Genetic sex refers to one’s chromosomal and hormonal sex characteristics, such as whether one’s chromosomes are XY or XX and whether estrogen or testosterone dominates the hormonal system. Anatomical sex refers to physical sex: gonads, uterus, vulva, vagina, penis, and so on.

Although “sex” and “gender” are often used interchangeably, gender is not the same as biological sex. Gender relates to femininity or masculinity, the social and cultural characteristics associated with biological sex. Whereas sex is rooted in biology, gender is rooted in culture. When a baby is born, someone looks at the genitals and exclaims, “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” With that single utterance, the baby is transformed from an “it” into a “male” or a “female.”

Gender roles are the attitudes, behaviors, rights, and responsibilities that particular cultural groups associate with our assumed or assigned sex. Age, race, and a variety of other factors further define and influence these. A gender-role stereotype is a rigidly held, oversimplified, and overgeneralized belief about how each gender should behave. Stereotypes tend to be false or misleading, not only for the group as a whole (e.g., women are more interested in relationships than sex) but also for any individual in the group (e.g., Eric may be more page 107interested than Carla in sex than relationships). Even if a generalization is statistically valid in describing a group average (e.g., males are generally taller than females), such generalizations do not necessarily reflect specific traits of individuals (e.g., whether Roberto will be taller than Andrea).

“Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.”

—Charlotte Whitton (1896–1975)

The interaction of biological, cultural, and psychosocial factors contributes to the development of gender.

Katrina Wittkamp/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Sex and Gender Identity

Gender identity is a person’s internal sense of being male, female, a blend of both, or neither. We develop our gender through the interaction of its biological, cultural, and psychosocial components. When addressing the biological component, the term cisgender is used to describe a person whose gender identity aligns with the biological sex they were assigned at birth. The cultural component creates gender distinctions, while the psychosocial component includes assigned gender and gender identity. Because these dimensions are learned together, they may seem to be natural. For example, if a person looks like a girl (biological), believes she should be feminine (cultural), feels as if she is a girl (psychological), and acts like a girl (social), then her gender identity and role are congruent with her anatomical sex.

Our culture emphasizes that there are only two genders, otherwise referred to as the gender binary, whereby gender is an either-or option of female or male. Many who question their gender, are uncertain, are unwilling to state, or feel limited by these categories are said to be gender variant. On the other hand, a spectrum of gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine are referred to as gender variant, gender non-binary, or genderqueer. Diagnostic terms that are used for gender non-binary or genderqueer include gender-atypical behavior or gender dysphoria. Gender variations, still often stigmatized, are now being reexamined, evaluated, and viewed as natural and “normal” on the spectrum of gender expression. As a result, an increasing number of parents and professionals are finding that molding children’s gender identity is not as important as allowing them to be who they are, regardless of what their genitals may tell them.

The nuances and controversies inherent in gender studies force many of us to think about our assumptions and biases about those whom we regard as different or variant. When trying page 108to make sense of gender, Jack Drescher (2014), psychiatrist and expert in the field of gender variations, cuts across lives and cultures when he reflects:

The closest I have come to an overview of the subject is the image of six blindfold scientists in white coats trying to describe an elephant. Each of them, touching only one of six parts (trunk, horn, tail, ear, leg, flank), understandably mistakes the part for the whole. I have come to appreciate that any understanding of this subject requires a capacity to hold complexity and tolerate the anxiety of uncertainty.

Although strangers can’t always readily tell the sex of a baby, once they learn the sex, they often respond with gender stereotypes and expectations.

Jamie Grill/JGI/Getty Images


about it Why Gender-Neutral Pronouns Matter

What pronouns do you use to identify yourself: he, she, they, ze/zir? Something other? While language has been expanding to become more inclusive, keeping up with these changes has not been as simple. Words are powerful and our cultural priorities are reflected in the language that we use (Holleb, 2019). Unlike Chinese or Persian, which doesn’t assign nouns a gender or already has gender-neutral form, languages such as English and French are based exclusively on binary or male or female options. To some degree this changed in 2019, when the Merriam-Webster Dictionary added “they” as the pronoun to use for a “single person whose gender identity is non-binary” and named it Word of the Year in 2019. But language is evolving, and for people of Latin American descent, the word Latinx (pronounced la-TEEN-ex) is meant to be a broad, inclusive term that considers transgender and non-binary people, instead of the binary of Latino (male) and Latina (female). As social factors change, the language has also changed for some companies and institutions that have both led and followed the still-expanding language. This includes, for example, American Airlines, which in 2019 provided non-binary gender options, including “U” or “X” for customers during the booking process. By early 2021, 19 states plus the District of Columbia also now grant the right to label oneself non-binary on their driver’s license. Using gender-neutral language can be validating for those who do not subscribe to the two gender categories. The authors of this text acknowledge that there are various terms used for gender-neutral language, including gender inclusive, gender sensitive, non-binary, and gender variant. Though these terms can often be used interchangeably, we shall use the term gender-neutral here and in most other parts of the book.

Over time, gender-related terms are expanding the ways in which we regard gender. The process of educating all of us has occurred as LGBTQ+ activists and linguists have championed more inclusive language, both by creating new terms and by revising existing words. Pronouns are a political part of speech. When, for example, we use the feminine, “she/her” when referring to a person of unspecified gender, we may consciously be refuting patriarchy. As with everything political, the use of gender-neutral pronouns has been subject to controversy. Some argue that to respect a person’s choice of pronoun underscores their basic rights; the other perspective may disagree with what they perceive as an excess of sensitivity or political correctness. According to Teresa Bejan (2019), professor of political theory at the University of Oxford, “The logic with pronouns is that if individuals—not grammarians or society at large—have the right to determine their own gender, shouldn’t they get to choose their own pronouns, too?”

Among the institutions that are helping us re-think language, university writing centers across the United States are teaching students, for example, that gendered nouns are easy to spot and replace with more neutral language, even in the context where readers expect a gendered noun. For example, instead of saying “man,” an alternative such as person or individual can be used; a policeman can be referred to as a police officer, etc. When you are not sure of someone’s gender, or wish to use gender-neutral language, it might be helpful to imagine a diverse group of people reading your research paper with gendered pronouns and ask yourself: Would each reader feel respected? By envisioning your audience and focusing on gendered language, the use of gender-neutral terms can help you make a stronger, more effective paper or presentation that will be both inclusive and persuasive to a variety of readers. (See Table 1 for some examples of gender-neutral language that can be integrated into writing and conversation.)

TABLE 1 •  Examples of Gender-Neutral Pronouns

page 109 

Despite our best efforts to become more sensitive, comprehensive, and respectful, the language we use and the meanings they imply are still evolving. Thus, using gender-neutral terms may take some time as the rules of grammar and gender-neutral language continue to develop. To use newer terms, one needs to have some knowledge of the identities to which they correspond. Gender-neutral pronouns aren’t just a preference to some who have experienced the stigma associated with some pronouns, but a reminder that gender-friendly language emphasizes inclusiveness and respect for each person.

Think Critically

How important is it that people and cultures begin to shift the language to be more inclusive?

What are your thoughts about university centers and businesses educating their students or employees about gender-neutral terms? How comfortable are you using gender-neutral language?

Have you ever felt hurt or insulted when another person incorrectly stated your gender? How did you respond?

What, if anything, are you doing to learn and practice more gender-neutral language?

It will become clear in the following pages that though little is known about the causes of gender, gender identity, and gender variations, many of us will often fall back on our opinions and biases about this subject. Instead, the goal of this discussion is to help raise awareness about those who are gender variant.

Assigned Gender When we are born, we are assigned a gender based on anatomical appearance. Assigned gender is significant because it tells others how to respond to us. As youngsters, we have no sense of ourselves as female or male. We learn that we are a girl or a boy from the verbal responses of others. “What a pretty girl,” or “What a good boy,” our parents and others say. We are constantly given signals about our gender. Our birth certificate states our sex; while our name, such as Jarrod or Felicia, is often gender-coded. Our clothes, even in infancy, may also reveal our assigned gender.

By the time we are 2 years old, we are probably able to identify ourselves as a girl or a boy based on what we have internalized from what others have told us coupled with factors not yet understood. We might also be able to identify strangers as “mommies” or “daddies.” But we don’t really know why we are a girl or a boy. We don’t associate our gender with our genitals. In fact, until the age of 3 or so, most children identify girls or boys by hairstyles, clothing, or other nonanatomical signs. At around age 3, we begin to learn that the genitals are what make a person male or female.

“Roles come with costumes and speeches and stage directions. In a role, we don’t have to think.”

—Ellen Goodman (1941–)

By age 4 or 5, children have learned a wide array of social stereotypes about how boys and girls should behave. Consequently, they tend to react approvingly or disapprovingly toward each other according to their choice of sex-appropriate play patterns and toys. Fixed ideas about adult roles and careers are also established by this time.

Gender Identity By about age 2, we internalize and identify with our gender. We think we are a girl or a boy. This perception of our femaleness, maleness, a blend of both or neither is our gender identity. For most people, gender identity is permanent and is congruent with their sexual anatomy and assigned gender. Sometimes, however, a person rejects the female-male option of gender identity and expression and embraces a non-binary option. Other terms for this include agender, bigender, genderqueer, gender fluid, or pangender. Once again, this may be suggestive of greater acknowledgment of gender fluidity.

page 110 

As non-binary identity has been slowly seeping into societal conscious, it’s still impossible to identify how many non-binary people there are in the United States (Bergner, 2019). The problems in relying on numbers related to gender are both reliability and terminology. An abundance of labels, including transgender, an umbrella term for those whose gender expression or identity is not congruent with the sex assigned at birth, may introduce complexity in categorizing people and producing demographics. While data are scarce, an analysis of two federal public-health surveys conducted by phone in 2014–2015 suggests that the number of transgender-identified adults age 18 and over is approximately 1.4 million, or approximately 0.6% of adults (Flores et al., 2016). Differences exist by age, with younger adults more likely to identify as transgender than older adults. These estimates have doubled from a decade ago; a figure that may be attributed to greater visibility, social acceptance, reporting, and education.

Some cultures recognize that sex and gender are not always divided along binary lines, such as male and female or homosexual and heterosexual (World Health Organization [WHO], 2015). In some East African societies, for example, a male child is referred to as a “woman-child”; there are few social differences between young boys and girls. Around age 7, the boy undergoes male initiation rites, such as circumcision, whose avowed purpose is to “make” him into a man. Such ceremonies may serve as a kind of “brainwashing,” helping the young male make the transition to a new gender identity with new role expectations. Other cultures allow older males to act out a latent female identity with such practices as the couvade, in which husbands mimic their wives giving birth. And in our own society, into the early twentieth century, boys were dressed in gowns and wore their hair in long curls until age 2. At age 2 or 3, their dresses were replaced by pants, their hair was cut, and they were socialized to conform to their anatomical sex. Children who deviated from this expected conformity were referred to as sissies (boys) or tomboys (girls) and ridiculed to conform to gender stereotypes. More recently, there is both debate and discussion among professionals concerning how to best counsel families whose child does not conform to gender norms in either clothing or behavior and has identified intensely with the other sex.

Masculinity and Femininity: Opposites, Similar, or Blended?

Each culture determines the content of gender roles in its own way; however, cultural norms fluctuate and change with time and across cultures. Among the Arapesh of New Guinea, for example, members of both sexes possess what we consider feminine traits. Both men page 111and women tend to be passive, cooperative, peaceful, and nurturing. The father as well as the mother is said to “bear a child”; only the father’s continual care can make the child grow healthily, both in the womb and in childhood. Eighty miles away, the Mundugumor live in remarkable contrast to the peaceful Arapesh. “Both men and women,” Margaret Mead (1975) observed, “are expected to be violent, competitive, aggressively sexed, jealous, and ready to see and avenge insult, delighting in display, in action, in fighting.” Biology creates males and females, but it is culture that creates our concepts of masculinity and femininity and its inherent fluidity and complexity.

“Men are taught to apologize for their weaknesses, women for their strength.”

—Lois Wyse (1926–2007)

Cultural norms vary over time, resulting in changes in gender stereotypes and expectations.

kali9/E+/Getty Images

In the traditional Western view of masculinity and femininity, men and women have been seen as polar opposites. Our terminology, in fact, reflects this view. Women and men refer to each other as the “opposite sex.” But this implies that women and men are indeed opposites, that they have little in common. We use “other sex” in this book. Our gender stereotypes have fit this pattern of polar differences: men are aggressive, whereas women are passive; men embody instrumentality and are task-oriented, whereas women embody expressiveness and are emotion-oriented; men are rational, whereas women are irrational; men want sex, whereas women want love; and so on.

Changes in gender stereotypes and related expectations have been occurring over the past decades such that as women have moved into the workforce and taken on occupations previously ascribed to men; their self-views and perceptions have also evolved and expanded. While the male stereotype in recent decades has not significantly changed, one might argue that the female stereotype has become more fluid. These changes in gender stereotypes are most likely linked to global shifts in culture, politics, and economics (Lips, 2014).

Media is increasingly reporting celebrities who have left their heterosexual partners for same-sex ones.

Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Gender-role stereotypes, despite their depiction of men and women as opposites, are usually not all-or-nothing notions. Most of us do not think that only men are assertive or only women are nurturing. Stereotypes merely reflect probabilities that a person will have a certain characteristic based on their gender. When we say that men are more independent than women, we simply mean that there is a greater probability that a man will be more independent than a woman.

“The main difference between men and women is that men are lunatics and women are idiots.”

—Rebecca West (1892–1983)

Though the majority of men still seem governed by traditional standards of male behavior, a survey of 1,000 women and men conducted by the editors of Gentlemen’s Quarterly (GQ) (2019) found that 97% said that their expectations for male behavior have changed in the last decade. While 48% of men described themselves as comfortable with these changes in the past decade, 27% of them were uncomfortable. The authors concluded: “… we’d have a lot to feel hopeful about if more men could extend their most closely held values outward, projecting compassion and respect for others in the public sphere as well as the private one.”

Sexism, discrimination against people based on their sex rather than their individual merits, is often associated with gender stereotypes and may prevent individuals from expressing their full range of emotions or seeking certain vocations. A different and more hostile form of prejudice is misogyny, or the hatred of or disdain for women. Sexism may, for example, discourage a woman from pursuing a career in math or inhibit a man from choosing nursing as a profession. Children may develop stereotypes about differences between men and women and carry these into their adult lives.

We now recognize that our sexual and gender identities are a combination of nature and nurture. It is through new technology that researchers can observe brains in the act of cogitating, feeling, or remembering. In fact, many differences and similarities that were once attributed to learning or culture have been found to be biologically based. Add to this our individual choices, sense of identities, environmental factors, and life experiences, and we begin to get a picture of what contributes to making each person unique. (To learn more about sexual fluidity, see Think About It, “Sexual Fluidity: Women’s and Men’s Variable Sexual Attractions.”)

page 112 


about it Sexual Fluidity: Women’s and Men’s Variable Sexual Attractions

People can change. We’ve seen this, for example, among celebrities who have left their other-sex partner and become involved with a same-sex one (or vice versa), while others claim to be “straight” yet have lovers who are of the same sex. Actresses Ann Heche left Ellen DeGeneres for a man, Lauren Morelli, writer of Orange is the New Black, left her husband and married actress Samira Wiley, and Miley Cyrus identifies as pansexual and states that she is “open to every single thing that is consenting and doesn’t involve an animal and everyone is of age.” So, what’s the story? Are these incidents simply flukes? Are individuals confused? Bisexual? On the “down low”?

Though each person has the right to identify and label their own sexual desires and behaviors, for some, using the term “sexual fluidity” may describe their sexual desires and attractions as situation-dependent in sexual responsiveness (Diamond, 2008). Based on her research and analysis of animal mating and women’s sexuality coupled with reviews of other studies, Lisa Diamond, professor of psychology and gender studies at the University of Utah, suggests that female desire may be dictated by both intimacy and emotional connection. She further states that for women, sexual desire is malleable, embedded in the nature of female desire, and cannot be captured by asking women to categorize their attractions.

Some researchers have suggested that the key difference between sexual fluidity and bisexuality is the type of changes in the attraction: Bisexuality is a consistent pattern of sexual responsiveness to more than one gender, whereas situational fluidity is a capacity for variation in responsiveness across different contexts (Diamond et al., 2017). However, other researchers have suggested that sexual fluidity is simply an extension of bisexuality, noting that bisexual orientations are more “open” and flexible than exclusive or other-sex orientations. Yet, do the different experiences of sexual attraction and behavior over time represent the same thing? To help us understand this, Lisa Diamond and colleagues sought to explore the forms of sexual variability and how they might relate to one another. The researchers sampled 76 women of diverse sexual orientations to explore the nature of sexual fluidity, revealing four major forms (Diamond et al., 2019):

An overall responsiveness to a less-preferred gender. This most strongly resembles the construct of bisexuality.

A variability in erotic responsiveness across different situations. In this form of fluidity, a woman would respond erotically to her “less-preferred” gender in the laboratory, but not in everyday life.

A discrepancy between the gender patterning of sexual attractions and that of sexual partnering. For example, in a specific situation, a self-identified lesbian woman might pursue sex with men or self-identified heterosexual woman might pursue sex with women.

Instability over time in day-to-day attractions. This form highlights the variability of all individuals over time but takes a different form for “highly fluid” individuals who are less likely to revert to their original pattern of attraction. What remains a contentious question is whether a sexual orientation adequately describes the experiences and interpretations that are distinct from a category (e.g., heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual).

With the exception of the 1st and 4th form, the authors concluded that the four types of fluidity did not correlate with one another as each showed a different pattern of sexual expression. It is apparent that the link between sex drive and different forms of fluidity need further clarification (Diamond et al., 2019).

Though less is known about male sexual fluidity, we now realize that sexual identity and attraction undergo changes throughout a person’s life. We also recognize that men are often stigmatized while women are fetishized for their thoughts or actions outside of traditional sexual boxes. In viewing sexual orientation on a spectrum, from “straight” to “same-sex preference,” males, in general, tend to fall onto one or the other side of the spectrum: either “straight” or gay (Kaestle, 2019). A study of nearly 7,000 individuals ranging in age from mid-teens to late 20s found substantial changes in self-reported sexual orientation throughout adulthood. Many men who said they were heterosexual and had sex with other men did not identify as gay or bisexual. The study concluded that men, it seems, can “compartmentalize an aspect of their sex lives in a way that prevents it into blurring into or complicating their more public identities” (Singal, 2016). This study expands our knowledge about how humans interpret complex questions of sexual orientation, identity, and desire, and reconcile them with cultural expectations. We’re learning that men’s sexuality isn’t necessarily as rigid as we may think, nor does one’s stated sexual orientation determine who one is attracted to (Schrieber, 2018).

Whether sexual fluidity is a generic term that can be used by anyone or takes on nuanced meanings depending on the sex is revealed in the work of Diamond and her colleagues who suggest that indeed male’s and female’s sexual orientations differ in several important ways (Bailey et al., 2016):

Women are more likely than men to report a bisexual orientation. That is, they are more open than men to the possibility of same- and other-sex attractions.

Men’s sexual orientation is linked to their sexual arousal of female or male erotic stimuli. In other words, men tend to be more comfortable identifying as either homosexual or heterosexual, as opposed to bisexual or sexually fluid.

page 113Women appear to experience same-sex attraction in close affectionate relationships. For men, sexual attraction can be congruent with or follow a close psychological connection.

Women’s patterns of sexual attraction appear more likely to change over time. That is, women can embrace various forms of sexual expression over time and in context to their relationships.

What remains a contentious question is whether a sexual orientation adequately describes the experiences and interpretations that are distinct from a category (e.g., heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual). Though tremendous strides have been made to foster greater acceptance of a diversity of sexual expression, sexual minorities remain isolated and unsupported. Textbooks, media, and culture continue to assume that there is a fixed model of same-sex sexuality though many individuals know differently. Although the notion of sexual fluidity may be confusing, frightening, or threatening to some, it does offer one or more variables to the broad spectrum of sexual expression of which humans are capable and can celebrate. Still, the question of whether sexual expression is a biological or cultural phenomenon remains a mystery. According to Charles Blow (2015), a New York Times Op-Ed columnist, “Attraction is attraction, and it doesn’t always wear a label.”

Think Critically

Is sexual orientation innate and/or fixed? How has your understanding of sexual orientation changed over time? Or has it?

Have you experienced sexual fluidity? If so, what were your feelings and reactions?

What would you do if your same-sex or other-sex best friend told you that he or she was romantically interested in you?

Gender and Sexual Orientation

Gender, gender identity, and gender roles are conceptually independent of sexual orientation. But in many people’s minds, these concepts are closely related to sexual orientation. Our traditional notion of gender roles assumes that heterosexuality is a critical component of femininity and masculinity. That is, a “masculine” man is attracted to women and a “feminine” woman is attracted to men. From this assumption follow two beliefs about same-sex behavior: (1) if a man is gay, he cannot be masculine, and if a woman is lesbian, she cannot be feminine; and (2) if a man is gay, he must have some feminine characteristics, and if a woman is lesbian, she must have some masculine characteristics. What these beliefs imply is that same-sex behavior is somehow associated with a failure to fill traditional gender roles. A “real” man is not gay; therefore, gay men are not “real” men. Similarly, a “real” woman is not a lesbian; therefore, lesbian women are not “real” women. These negative stereotypes, which hold that people fall into distinct genders, with natural roles, and are presumed to be heterosexual, are referred to as heteronormativity or heterocenterism.

“Stereotypes fall in the face of humanity … this is how the world will change for gay men and lesbians.”

—Anna Quindlen (1953–)

•Gender-Role Learning

As we have seen, gender roles are socially constructed and rooted in culture. So how do individuals learn what their society expects of them as males or females?

Theories of Socialization

Definitions and concepts of how gender emerges come from a wide variety of theoretical perspectives. Theories influence how we approach sexuality research, practice, education, and policy. Two of the most prominent theories are cognitive social learning theory and cognitive development theory. In the study of sexuality, a growing body of literature uses a social constructionist theory on gender, including queer theory.

Cognitive social learning theory is derived from behavioral psychology. In explaining our actions, behaviorists emphasize observable events and their consequences, rather than internal feelings and drives. According to behaviorists, we learn attitudes and behaviors as a result of social interactions with others—hence the term social learning (Bandura, 1977).

The cornerstone of cognitive social learning theory is the belief that consequences control behavior. Behaviors that are regularly followed by a reward are likely to occur again; behaviors that are regularly followed by a punishment are less likely to recur. Thus girls are rewarded for playing with dolls (“What a nice mommy!”), but boys are not (“What a sissy!”).

“The war between the sexes is the only one in which both sides regularly sleep with the enemy.”

—Quentin Crisp (1908–1999)

page 114 

This behaviorist approach has been modified to include cognition—mental processes that intervene between stimulus and response, such as evaluation and reflection. The cognitive processes involved in social learning include our ability to: (1) use language, (2) anticipate consequences, and (3) make observations. By using language, we can tell our child that we like it when they do well in school and that we don’t like it when they hit someone. A person’s ability to anticipate consequences affects behavior. A boy doesn’t need to wear lace stockings in public to know that such dressing will lead to negative consequences. Finally, children observe what others do. A girl may learn that she “shouldn’t” play video games by seeing that the players in video arcades are mostly boys.

We also learn gender roles by imitation, through a process called modeling. Most of us are not even aware of the many subtle behaviors that make up gender roles—the ways in which individuals use different mannerisms and gestures, speak differently, use different body language, and so on. Initially, the most powerful models that children have are their parents. As children grow older and their social world expands, so does the number of people who may act as their role models, including siblings, friends, teachers, athletes, and media figures. Children sift through the various demands and expectations associated with the different models to create their own unique selves.

“If men knew all that women think, they’d be twenty times more audacious.”

—Alphonse Kerr (1808–1890)

In contrast to cognitive social learning theory, cognitive development theory (Kohlberg, 1966) focuses on children’s active interpretation of the messages they receive from the environment. Whereas cognitive social learning theory assumes that children and adults learn in fundamentally the same way, cognitive development theory stresses that we learn differently depending on our age. At age 2, children can correctly identify themselves and others as boys or girls, but they tend to base this identification on superficial features such as hair and clothing: Girls have long hair and wear dresses; boys have short hair and wear pants. Some children even believe they can change their gender by changing their clothes or hair length. As they age, children develop the stereotypic conceptions of gender they see around them.

Social construction theory examines the development of jointly-constructed understandings of society that help form our shared assumptions about reality. We can use it, for example, to view gender as a set of practices and performances that occur through language and a political system (Bartky, 1990; Butler, 1993; Connell, 1995; Gergen, 1985). Social constructionists suggest that gendered meanings are only one vehicle through which sexuality is constituted.

Another way of viewing gender is through the lens of queer theory, which identifies gender and sexuality as systems that are not gender neutral and cannot be understood by the actions of heterosexual males and females (Parker & Gagnon, 1995). Queer theory views the meaning and realities associated with sexuality as socially constructed to serve political systems. They furthermore underscore the role of institutional power in shaping the ideas of what is normal, deviant, natural, or essential. Thus, a social constructionist approach to gender would inquire about ways in which males and females make meaning out of their experiences with their bodies, their relationships, and their sexual choices, while queer theorists would challenge the notion of gender as fixed and seek to reframe it as being socially constructed and hence varying with context.

Parents’ influence on children is fundamental to their healthy development.

Image Source

Gender-Role Learning in Childhood and Adolescence

It is difficult to analyze the relationship between biology and personality because learning begins at birth. In our culture, infant girls are usually held more gently and treated more tenderly than boys, who are ordinarily subjected to rougher forms of play. The first day after birth, parents may characterize their daughters as soft, fine-featured, and small and their sons as strong, large-featured, big, and bold. When children feel they may not measure up to these expectations, they may stop trying to express their authentic feelings and emotions.

Parents as Socializing Agents During infancy and early childhood, children’s most important source of learning is the primary caregiver, whether the mother, page 115father, grandmother, or someone else. Many parents are not aware that their words and actions contribute to their children’s gender-role socialization. Nor are they aware that they treat their daughters and sons differently because of their gender. Although parents may recognize that they respond differently to sons than to daughters, they usually have a ready explanation: the “natural” differences in the temperament and behavior of girls and boys.

“Behavior is the mirror image in which everyone shows their image.”

—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832)

Increasingly, parents are blurring gender lines when naming their newborns. Non-binary names such as Sam, Alex, Emery, Cori, and Ari are predicted to be among the most popular gender-neutral baby names in 2020 (Parade, 2020). In a time when most merchandisers of children’s toys and wear have done away with pink and blue aisles, some toy manufacturers are expanding their collection of dolls to be more reflective of the diversity that exists among all of us.

“What are little girls made of? Sugar and spice and everything nice. That’s what little girls are made of. What are little boys made of? Snips and snails and puppy dogs’ tails. That’s what little boys are made of.”

—Nursery rhyme

Children are socialized in gender roles through several very subtle processes (Oakley, 1985):

Manipulation. Parents manipulate their children from infancy onward. They treat a daughter gently, tell her she is pretty, and advise her that nice girls do not fight. They treat a son roughly, tell him he is strong, and advise him that big boys do not cry. Eventually, most children incorporate their parents’ views in such matters as integral parts of their personalities.

Channeling. Children are channeled by directing their attention to specific objects. Toys, for example, are differentiated by sex. Dolls are considered appropriate for girls, and cars for boys.

Verbal appellation. Parents use different words with boys and girls to describe the same behavior. A boy who pushes others may be described as “active,” whereas a girl who does the same is usually called “aggressive.”

Activity exposure. The activity exposure of girls and boys differs markedly. Although both are usually exposed to a variety of activities early in life, boys are discouraged from imitating their mothers, whereas girls are encouraged to be “mother’s little helper.”

Raising children, of course, requires talking with them. One of the easiest ways to start is to ask children questions about their experiences, about the pressures they may feel, as well as about their favorite activity or book. Over time, they learn that parents can be trusted to both listen and help them manage life.

As children grow older, their social world expands, and so do their sources of learning. Throughout this time and despite any embarrassment parents might have, they may wish to increase the frequency of conversations with their children about sexuality as well as consider the content of these discussions. Around the time children enter day care or kindergarten, teachers, and peers become important influences.

“The beautiful bird gets caged.”

—Chinese proverb

Teachers as Socializing Agents Day-care centers, nursery schools, and kindergartens are often children’s first experience in the world outside the family. Teachers become important role models for their students. Because most day-care workers and kindergarten and elementary school teachers are women, children tend to think of child-adult interactions as primarily the province of women. In this sense, schools reinforce the idea that women are concerned with children and men are not. In fact, the teaching profession has slowly become even more female over the past several decades, with women consisting of approximately 76% of the workforce (National Center for Education Statistics, 2016). What is also concerning is the lack of racial diversity in the teacher workforce. Beyond this concern are the educational outcomes of children and how they compare by sex. According to the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) (2017), a congressionally mandated assessment project representative of fourth- and eighth-grade students in the nation, the average math scores in 2017 were slightly higher for boys in both fourth and eighth grades; however boys continue to lag in reading. In school districts that are mostly rich, white, and suburban, boys are more likely to outperform girls in math. Based on 260 million standardized test scores, local norms appear to influence how children from an early age perform in school, and it appears that boys are more influenced by these norms than are girls (Reardon et al., 2018). page 116It has also been observed that teachers and parents may shame males into conforming to the traditional image of masculinity. For example, males are taught to hide their emotions, act brave, and demonstrate independence. Even though males may get good grades and be considered normal, healthy, and well-adjusted by peers, parents, and teachers, they may also report feeling deeply troubled about the roles and goals of their gender.

Among Black and Asian Americans, the female gender role includes strength and independence.

UPI/Alamy Stock Photo

Gender bias often follows students into the college arena and can be witnessed both in and outside the classroom. This environment coupled with high rates of sexual violence has resulted in impediments to academic success, lower graduation rates, health problems, and mental health issues (Office on Women’s Health, 2018). In recognition of this campus and public health concern, there is a nationwide movement to develop and enforce policy and programming that reflect intolerance for sexual bias and violence across its continuum—from sexist statements to sexual harassment to sexual assault.

Peers as Socializing Agents Children’s age-mates, or peers, become especially important when they enter school. By granting or withholding approval, friends and playmates influence what games children play, what they wear, what music they listen to, what TV programs they watch, and even what cereal they eat. Peers provide standards for gender-role behavior in several ways:

Peers provide information about gender-role norms through play activities and toys. Though this is slowly changing, girls often play with dolls that cry and wet themselves or with glamorous dolls with well-developed figures and expensive tastes. Boys often play with video games in which they kill and maim in order to dominate and win.

Peers influence the adoption of gender-role norms through verbal approval or disapproval. “That’s for boys!” or “Only girls do that!” is a strong negative message to the boy playing with dolls or the girl playing with a football.

Children’s perceptions of their friends’ gender-role attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs encourage them to adopt similar ones to be accepted. If a girl’s same-sex friends play soccer, she is more likely to play soccer. If a boy’s same-sex friends display feelings, he is more likely to display feelings.

Even though parents tend to fear the worst in general from peers, they can provide important positive influences. It is within their peer groups, for example, that adolescents learn to page 117develop intimate relationships. Because of these peer-driven influences, sexual communication, including the use of peer educators to transmit accurate sexual health information to adolescents, can also support positive sexual decision making, particularly among non-sexually-active adolescents (Ragsdale et al., 2014).

When children participate in sports together, they develop comparable athletic skills. Segregation of boys and girls encourages the development of differences that otherwise might not occur.

Fuse/Getty Images

Media Influences Media and the public benefit when a broad range of voices are included; however, much of television and video programming promotes or condones negative stereotypes about gender, ethnicity, age, ability, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Female characters on television typically are under age 30, well-groomed, thin, and attractive. In contrast, male characters are often aggressive and constructive; they solve problems and rescue others from danger. Indeed, all forms of media glorify stereotypical gender norms. With 24/7 access to media, beginning as early as 3 years of age or younger, the influence of media cannot be understated or ignored.

“That’s not me you’re in love with. That’s my image. You don’t even know me.”

—Kelly McGillis (1957–)

Gender categorizing in children’s toys, clothes, costumes, and other merchandise has been used by the media to target children and their parents. Princess dresses and kitchen items for girls, and action figures and video games for boys have helped fuel the $27 billion toy industry, which historically has relied on these gender-based stereotypes (Toy Association, 2020). Radical shifts, however, have taken place among manufacturers and retailers, including Target, Amazon, and Mattel, who have responded to parents’ pushback by no longer segregating toys along gender lines. Though there may still be some differences in what toys girls and boys prefer, the gender lines that previously existed have begun to blur.

Gender Schemas: Exaggerating Differences

Actual differences between females and males are minimal, except in anatomy, levels of aggressiveness, and visual/spatial skills, yet culture exaggerates these differences or creates differences where few otherwise exist. One way that culture does this is by creating a schema: a set of interrelated ideas that helps us process information by categorizing it in a variety of ways. We often categorize people by age, ethnicity, nationality, physical characteristics, and so on. Gender is one such way of categorizing.

Psychologist Sandra Bem (1983) observed that although gender is not inherent in inanimate objects or in behaviors, we treat many objects and behaviors as if they were masculine or feminine. These gender divisions form a complex structure of associations that affects our perceptions of reality. Bem referred to this cognitive organization of the world according to page 118gender as a gender schema. We use gender schemas in many dimensions of life, including activities (nurturing, fighting), emotions (compassion, anger), behavior (playing with dolls or action figures), clothing (dresses or pants), and even colors (pink or blue), considering some appropriate for one gender and some appropriate for the other. Fortunately, these lines are blurring as rigid gender roles are diminishing.

“Women need a reason to have sex. Men just need a place.”

—Billy Crystal (1948–)

Over time, Barbie dolls have become more diverse and representative of the larger population.

Sipa USA/Alamy Stock Photo

Processing information by gender is important in cultures such as ours, for several reasons. First, gender-schema cultures make multiple associations between gender and other non-sex-linked qualities such as affection and strength. Our culture regards affection as a feminine trait and strength as a masculine one. Second, such cultures make gender distinctions important, using them as a basis for norms, status, taboos, and privileges. These associations, however, often undermine and undervalue the uniqueness of individuals.

•Contemporary Gender Roles and Scripts

In the past several decades, there has been a significant shift toward more egalitarian gender roles. Although women’s roles have changed more than men’s, men’s are also changing, and these changes seem to affect all socioeconomic classes. Members of conservative religious groups still tend to adhere most strongly to traditional gender roles. Despite the ongoing disagreement, it is likely that the egalitarian trend will continue.

Traditional Gender Roles and Scripts

As has been previously discussed, much of what we believe about men and women come from stereotypes and the popular media. Cartoons that depict the male brain as filled with nothing other than fantasies of sex and that depict women as obsessing and conniving to obtain love are so prevalent that they are barely entertaining. Since we now know that endorsement and enactment of gendered sexual roles and scripts (boys are filled with sexual prowess whereas girls are expected to have sexual modesty) are negatively related to sexual and mental health, what purpose, if any, do these roles serve (Emmerink et al., 2016)?

The Traditional Male Gender Role What does it take to be a man? What is a real man? Everybody has beliefs about how men should behave. One can simply go online to find stereotypical jokes, images, and lyrics to demonstrate what this looks like. The real page 119answer to this question, however, is complex, multifaceted, dynamic, and dependent on a variety of factors.

Central personality traits associated with the traditional male role—no matter the race or ethnicity—may include aggressiveness, emotional toughness, independence, feelings of superiority, and decisiveness. Males are generally regarded as being more power-oriented than females, and they exhibit higher levels of aggression, especially violent aggression, dominance, and competitiveness. Although these tough, aggressive traits may be useful in the corporate world, politics, and the military (or in hunting saber-toothed tigers), they are rarely helpful to a man in his intimate relationships, which require understanding, cooperation, communication, and nurturing.

“A man is by nature a sexual animal. I’ve always had my share of pets.”

—Mae West (1893–1980)

What perpetuates the image of the dominance of men, and what role does it serve in a society that no longer needs or respects such an image? It may be that a human’s task is not to define gender roles but rather to redefine what it means to be human. Despite the fact that boys and men are overrepresented in a variety of psychological and social problems (e.g., bullying, school suspensions, and aggression), many boys and men do not receive the support they need. Socialization practices that teach boys to be self-reliant, strong, and to manage their problems on their own often result in adult men who are less willing to seek mental health treatment; that is a sense that if things aren’t okay, they are not shared with others (APA, 2018). These internal secrets and conflicts can have tragic outcomes: For example, men are 3.5 times more likely to die by suicide than women, have more academic challenges, receive harsher punishments in school settings, and are the victims of 77% of homicides (and commit 90% of them). Understanding how boys and men experience masculinity and teaching them how to navigate their feelings has important implications for all of us.

Male Sexual Scripts Different from a role, which is a more generalized behavior, a script consists of the specific behaviors, rules, and expectations associated with a particular role. It is like the script handed out to an actor. Unlike most dramatic scripts, however, social scripts allow for considerable improvisation within their general boundaries. We are given many scripts in life according to the various roles we play. Among them are sexual scripts that outline how we are to behave sexually when acting out our gender roles. Sexual scripts and gender roles for heterosexuals may be different from those for sexual minorities. Perceptions and patterns in sexual behavior are shaped by sexual scripts, especially among adolescents. Research is still needed to identify the dominant sexual scripts for varied sexual attractions among both men and women.

Psychologist Bernie Zilbergeld (1992) suggested that the mostly heterosexual male sexual script includes the following elements:

Men should not have (or at least should not express) certain feelings. Men should not express doubts; they should be assertive, confident, and aggressive. Tenderness and compassion are not masculine emotions.

Performance is the thing that counts. Sex is something to be achieved, to win at. Feelings only get in the way of the job to be done. Sex is not for intimacy but for orgasm.

The man is in charge. As in other realms, the man is the leader, the person who knows what is best. The man initiates sex and gives the woman her orgasm. A real man doesn’t need a woman to tell him what women like; he already knows.

A man always wants sex and is ready for it. No matter what else is going on, a man wants sex; he is always able to become erect. He is a machine and no “real man” would ever turn down sex.

All physical contact leads to sex. Because men are basically sexual machines, any physical contact is a sign for sex. Touching is seen as the first step toward sexual intercourse, not an end in itself. There is no physical pleasure other than sexual pleasure.

Sex equals intercourse. All erotic contact leads to sexual intercourse. Foreplay is just that: warming up, getting one’s partner ready for penetration. Kissing, hugging, erotic touching, and oral sex are only preliminaries to intercourse.

page 120 

Sexual intercourse leads to orgasm. The orgasm is the “proof in the pudding.” The more orgasms, the better the sex. If a woman does not have an orgasm, she is not sexual. The male feels that he is a failure because he was not good enough to give her an orgasm. If she requires clitoral stimulation to have an orgasm, she has a problem.

“Men ought to be more conscious of their bodies as an object of delight.”

—Germaine Greer (1939–)

Common to all these myths is a separation of sex from love and attachment. Sex is seen as performance. One cause for these views, the APA guidelines suggest, is “traditional masculinity” itself—the Western concept of manliness that relies on dominance, aggression, stereotypes, and competitiveness (APA, 2018). Yet, recent research shows that men’s sexual desire is more relationship focused than previously thought, that many men desire to be “an object of desire,” and that they consistently report their primary motivation to having sex is to pleasure their female partner (Murray, 2019; Murray et al., 2016). (To learn more about these studies see Think About It, “Factors that Prompt and Inhibit Men’s Sex Desire” in Chapter 9).

The Traditional Female Gender Role Though there are striking ethnic and individual differences, traditional female roles are expressive, or assume emotional or supportive characteristics. They emphasize passivity, compliance, physical attractiveness, and being a partner or wife and mother.

“A man can sleep around, no questions asked, but if a woman makes nineteen or twenty mistakes, she’s a tramp.”

—Joan Rivers (1933–2014)

Though gender differences in patterns of sexual behavior have been decreasing, the sexual double standard, which implies that female and male sexual behavior should be judged by different standards, still exists. One can see this in discussions about casual sex, which many believe as acceptable for men but not for women. A survey of nearly 700 self-identified heterosexual men, mean age 37, found that overall, men expressed disapproval of sexually assertive women, perceiving them as non-conformist and judging them less positively than women who expressed sexual timidity (Klein et al., 2019). The authors found that gender-role conformity was held for women, but not for men, and there was an overall conservative attitude toward sexually assertive behavior of women.

In recent years, the traditional role has been modified to include work and marriage. Work roles, however, are still clearly subordinated to marital and family roles. Upon the birth of the first child, the woman may be expected to both work and parent or, if economically feasible, to become a full-time mother.

Female Sexual Scripts Whereas the traditional male sexual script focuses on sex over feelings, the traditional female sexual script focuses on feelings over sex, on love over passion. The traditional mostly heterosexual female sexual script cited by psychologist and sex therapist Lonnie Barbach (2001) includes the following elements:

Sex is good and bad. Women are taught that sex is both good and bad. What makes sex good? Sex in marriage or a committed relationship. What makes sex bad? Sex in a casual or uncommitted relationship. Sex is “so good” that a woman needs to save it for her husband or for someone with whom she is deeply in love. Sex is bad—if it is not sanctioned by commitment, love or marriage, a woman will get a bad reputation.

It’s not OK to touch themselves “down there.” Girls are taught not to look at their genitals, not to touch them, and especially not to explore them. As a result, some women know very little about their genitals. They are often concerned about vaginal odors and labia size, making them uncomfortable about oral sex.

Sex is for men. Men want sex; women want love. Women are sexually passive, waiting to be aroused. Sex is not a pleasurable activity as an end in itself; it is something performed by women for men.

Men should know what women want. This script tells women that men know what they want even if women don’t tell them. The woman is supposed to remain pure and sexually innocent. It is up to the man to arouse the woman even if he doesn’t know what she finds arousing. To keep her image of sexual innocence, she does not tell him what she wants.

Women shouldn’t talk about sex. Many women are uncomfortable talking about sex because they are expected not to have strong sexual feelings. Some women (and men)

Do you need academic writing help? Our quality writers are here 24/7, every day of the year, ready to support you! Instantly chat with a customer support representative in the chat on the bottom right corner, send us a WhatsApp message or click either of the buttons below to submit your paper instructions to the writing team.

Order a Similar Paper Order a Different Paper