Chapter 9 Chapter Overview & Learning Objectives

Gender, Sex, and Sexuality

Chapter Overview

Gender is a highly contested area within sociology, especially regarding the degree to which gender is either the consequence of socialization or the product of innate biological predispositions. Most of the critical work on gender has been carried out by feminist scholars, particularly since the women’s rights movement of the 1960s. The terms gender and sex are not synonymous. Sex refers to the different anatomical or biological characteristics of women and men. However, some individuals are born intersex, meaning they have both male and female sex characteristics. Gender is a sociological term that refers to the roles and characteristics society assigns to women and men. A gender role is a set of expectations and attitudes concerning behaviour that relate to being male or female. Gender roles vary across cultures both in the expectations for each gender and in how strictly they are enforced. Cisgender means one strongly identifies with the gender roles associated with one’s biological sex. Transgender individuals’ identity and behaviour do not conform to the gender role associated with their biological sex. Similarly, transsexual individuals feel a persistent desire to belong to the other sex. Sexuality refers to the spectrum of feelings and expressions of sexual desire and attraction. Heterosexual individuals are usually attracted to opposite sex, while homosexual individuals are attracted to the same sex and bisexual individuals are attracted to either sex. Asexual individuals, on the other hand, feel no sexual attraction at all. LGBTQI2S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, two-spirit) is an all-encompassing umbrella term for anyone who does not identify as heterosexual and/or cisgender.

Beatrice Kachuck (2003 [1995]) distinguished four major strands of feminist theory: liberal feminism, essentialist feminism, socialist feminism, and postmodernist feminism. Liberal feminism argues that women, as a group, deserve the same rights as men in all domains of public life, such as education and work. It is concerned with pay equity, which means equal pay for comparable work. Criticisms of feminist liberalism centre around the fact that the main beneficiaries of liberal feminist gains are white, Western, middle-class, cisgender, heterosexual, educated women, hence it fails to address the concerns of marginalized women of colour.

Essentialist feminism accepts that men and women are essentially different, but it is problematic as it devalues women in a patriarchal society. Essentialist feminists argue that women’s innate characteristics (e.g., maternal thinking) should be positively valued and in some cases advocate the superiority of feminine traits. One major criticism of essentialist feminism is that it falls into the trap of generalization about all women and from a Western lens, without looking at the variations that exist among women in different cultural contexts.

Socialist feminism looks at the intersection of class and gender that causes oppression. Feminist socialists focus on the different struggles and resources available to women of different classes. The main criticism of feminist socialism is that the focus on class as the motor of inequality ignores other important factors such as sexual orientation, “race,” and ethnicity.

Postmodernist feminism takes a social constructionist position—a position almost diametrically opposed to essentialist feminism—by arguing that there is no natural basis for social identities, such as gender. Postmodernist feminists view women as subjects, rather than objects, of sociological study and allow the perspectives of the women studied to guide their research, similar to standpoint theory discussed in previous chapters. An important methodology within postmodernist feminism is queer theory. First articulated by philosopher Judith Butler, queer theory rejects the idea that gender is connected to a biological essence; it challenges the idea that male and female are natural binary opposites, instead it views gender as a continuum. The main criticism of postmodernist feminism is that it problematizes other positions on feminism but does not provide any alternative.

Some post-secondary programs and their related occupations are gendered, or heavily dominated by one sex. These occupations are defined in gendered terms. For example, descriptions of nursing generally refer to concepts like “caring” and “nurturing” which are traits typically associated with women, while descriptions of policing make use of concept of “toughness” and “fraternity,” characteristics associated with men. Therefore, there are separate spheres for men and women in post-secondary education (more men in engineering and applied sciences and more women in education and social sciences), leading to vastly different employment opportunities.

The feminization of an occupational sphere occurs when a particular job or industry comes to be predominantly associated with women, as in clerical work and nursing. Feminization is linked to lower salaries, less job protection, and fewer benefits than in male-dominated industries. Individuals working in gendered jobs as the “wrong” sex can experience profound effects on their gender identity. Paul Sargent’s (2005) study of men in the field of early childhood education explored the dilemma in the nurturing characteristics the work requires and the demands of masculine gender expression. Men working with young children who display affection are viewed with suspicion and are often forced instead into the role of disciplinarian. Sargent’s research drew on Connell’s (1995) four performances of masculinity. Hegemonic masculinity is defined as the practices that normalize and naturalize men’s dominance and women’s subordination. Subordinate masculinity refers to the practices that could threaten the legitimacy of hegemonic masculinity. Marginalized masculinity entails degradation of masculinities with regard caused by race and class. Finally, complicit masculinity entails the practices that do not embody hegemonic processes but benefit from them.

“Race” and gender can intersect to amplify oppression, as discussed in Chapter 8. Racial prejudice and discrimination can often reinforce gender bias, and vice versa. Visible minority women are often stereotyped into two extremes. East Asian women may be stereotyped either as subservient and childlike, Lotus Blossom Babies, or as harsh and devious Dragon Ladies. Black women are stereotyped either as desexed, servile “mammies” or as exotic, sexual objects. Indigenous women have also been subject to the stereotype of the Indian Princess, a beautiful, heroic aide to European men, and the stereotype of the squaw, which constructs them as savages, a stereotype that justifies colonial dominance.

Ethnicity and gender can also intersect in immigration. While, men of various ethnicities often arrived in Canada before women, this situation has been reversed in the case of Philippinas. Waves of women came to Canada from the Philippines through programs created to address childcare as more Canadian women worked outside the home. Many Filipinas had post-secondary education, but immigration policies only allowed them to enter the country as domestic workers. As minority women and temporary employees in an unregulated industry, these women were particularly vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

Learning Objectives

After reading chapter nine, you will be able to:

  • Explain the difference between sex and gender.
  • Summarize biological and sociological approaches to gender.
  • Distinguish between the Connell’s four types of masculinity using examples.
  • Describe four main strands of feminism.
  • Critically discuss the consequences of the intersection of gender with other dimensions of inequality.
  • Analyze the intersection of gender and race that evokes stereotypes of non-white women.