Sex, Gender and Culture

Gender, sex, and sexuality are social categories that exercise pervasive influence and expectation upon our lives. Although the appropriate definitions of “gender, sex, and sexuality” are commonly misused within the same manner, it is important to differentiate between the forms of social order. In “The Social Construction of Gender,” Judith Lorber chronicles the paradox of human nature associated with gender, sex, and sexuality that is merely, “a manifestation of cultural meanings, social relationships, and power politics” (Lorber). Simply put, “sex” is the biological assignment at the moment of birth, whereas “gender” is the assignment of rights, responsibilities, and expectations that ultimately shape our lives (Lorber).

Gender is defined as an internal identity that is shaped through a series of norms and expectations. From the moment of birth, the process of gendering begins—assigning traits of femininity or masculinity, “through naming, dress, and other use of other gender markers” (Lorber). Lorber explains why gendering is collectively and constantly practiced by calling it a “social construction”—functioning as “one of the major ways that human beings organize their lives” (Lorber). Subconsciously, everyone “does gender” by abiding the normal expectations assigned with each gender and upholding the social division. However, the process of gendering creates the social differences that define “woman” and “man” as, “individuals learn what is expected, act and react in expected ways, and thus simultaneously construct and maintain the gender order” (Lorber). Within the constraints of only two binaries, gendering becomes a pervasive force upon society—demanding certain patterns of behavior, expression, and identity (Lorber).

Sex is defined as the biological assignment to a certain gender binary based upon the reproductive organs at birth between “female” and “male.” Although gender and sexuality are based upon internal feelings, sex is based upon external anatomy. Lorber differentiates between the social orders by explaining the influence of sex being culturally gendered by stating, “A sex category becomes a gender status…Once a child’s gender is evident, others treat those in one gender differently from those in the other” (Lorber). Within the moments that puberty begins, sexual feelings, desires, attractions have all been molded by the social construction of gendering (Lorber). Within Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions, Susan Shaw and Janet Lee question whether biology can exist within society by implying, “Sex, in terms of raw male or female, is already gendered by culture” (Shaw, Lee). The distinction between sex and gender departs—giving the body meaning by preexisting beliefs to produce a gendered product (Shaw, Lee). However, those who identify as transsexual defy the parameters of gendering—illustrating the way a person may not align with their assigned gender based upon physical characteristics (Shaw, Lee).

Sexuality is the feeling of attraction toward others, regardless of gender identity. The topic can induce happiness and frustration as, “An aspect of our lives that is highly regulated as communities shape control sexual desires and behaviors” (Shaw, Lee). Orientations include heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, and asexuality. However, sexual scripts are enforced within society—dictating how we feel, act, and behave as sexual beings (Shaw, Lee) Although there are many stigmas associated with sexualities that defy the fixed notions of “woman” and “man,” orientations are still enjoyed and experienced (Shaw, Lee).

The process of gendering offers the constraints of two binaries—manifesting into a social order that assigns contrasting expectations, values, and behaviors. The gender binary is practiced as a norm among society to ensure two different identities: man and woman. In her article, “The Social Construct of Gender,” Judith Lorber examines gender ranking by asserting, “Gender is a major component of inequality…Devalued genders have less power, prestige, and economic rewards than the valued gender” (Lorber). She highlights the notion of the stratification system—ranking genders by privileging men superior and limiting women inferior. The social institution of gender ranking enforces the patriarchy ideology that is practiced within society as Shaw and Lee state, “To be masculine is to have privileges; to be feminine means to identify with member of the target group” (Shaw, Lee).

The inequity is extenuated by the traditional notions that are upheld through femininity and masculinity. In “Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions,” Shaw and Lee examine the female position of subordination that encourages women to do, “the domestic an emotional work of society” (Shaw, Lee). Women are expected to assume the domestic responsibilities of womanhood and to abide by the feminine social script. She further explains the traits of women by explaining, “Femininity involves speaking, walking, looking, and acting in certain ways: in feminine ways” (Shaw, Lee). Through their assigned traits, women are locked within a weak, domestic sphere that circulates around sexism and inferiority. An example of a prominent sexual script that enforces male power is “The Cult of Virginity” that Jessica Valenti exposes in the Purity Myth as, “The contemporary focus on virginity as an indicator of female moral worth” (Shaw, Lee). The purity myth is significant obstacle within society–consistently sexualizing women as property, as a possession from a young age. Likewise, men are constructed through the masculine traits of intelligence, potent sexuality, and an affinity for violence (Shaw, Lee 125). Unlike women, men are socially conditioned by shaming all forms of weakness, softness, and vulnerability (Shaw, Lee 125). Toxic masculinity manifests from a push to suppress and deny raw emotion—leaving men with the inability to cope with feelings (Holloway).

Inequities of power based on gender bleed into the topic of gender violence. The issue assumes form through sexual assault, rape, and abuse–reflecting the male dominance against women. Women are often victims of sexual assault that is defined as, “Any sexual contact without consent that involves the use of force” (Shaw, Lee 550). They myths regarding sexual assault uphold men’s position of power–suggesting rape happens less frequently, that women are partially responsible for victimization in terms of appearance or behavior, that men are not totally reasonable for their action (Shaw, Lee). Shaw and Lee assert the inequity in society by explaining, “Political institutions in the United States have historically supported men’s access to women as sexual property” (Shaw, Lee). The violence and injustice continue to belittle a woman’s role in society—deteriorating the sense of confidence and purpose.

Another example of inequity regarding gender power struggle is the beauty myth that women are socially bound to. Within The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf exposes restrictive expectations that make women feel “worthless” to counteract they ways feminism began to restores self-worth (Wolf). The practice aids in favoring the patriarchal ideology as, “Women must want to embody it and men must want to possess women who embody it. This embodiment is imperative for women and not for men” (Wolf). Wolf characterizes the myth as a system of currency by which a woman’s quest to attain beauty is based upon sexual selection and the allusion of desirability. Despite the array of personal, reproductive, and suffrage rights accumulated, the ideology of beauty exists as one of the last remaining old feminine ideologies—keeping women within a state of slavery based on appearance. In midst of the hallucination, the power of male gender is extenuated as, “Women must unnaturally compete for resources that men have appropriated for themselves” (Wolf). Ultimately, the inequities regarding gender uphold a system of power that places men superior by systematically placing women inferior.

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