Chapter 12. Gender, Sex, and Sexuality

12.3 Sex and Sexuality

Figure 12.22 The social forms of eroticism and sexuality can differ greatly among groups and subcultures. (Photo courtesy of Max Guitare/Flickr.) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Sexuality is defined as a person’s capacity for erotic feelings and the sexual orientation of those feelings. It refers to the predominant patterns of sexual and romantic fantasies, desires, and behaviours of a person at a particular period of their lives (Devor, 2020). Studying sexual orientations and practices is a particularly interesting field of sociology because sexual behaviour is a cultural universal. Throughout time and place, the vast majority of human beings have participated in sexual relationships (Broude, 2003). Each society and each historical period, however, interprets, regulates and practices sexuality and sexual activity in different ways.

Mary McIntosh’s “The Homosexual Role” (1968) was a path breaking study of sexuality in the field of sociology. She distinguished between the social roles and actual behaviours of sexualities. She used a historical and cross-cultural comparative framework to show that the role of sexual nonconformity was a product of socially constructed categories rather than a medical or psychological condition. As she put it,

The current conceptualization of homosexuality as a [medical or psychological] condition is a false one, resulting from ethnocentric bias. Homosexuality should be seen rather as a social role. Anthropological evidence shows that the role does not exist in all societies, and where it does it is not always the same as in modern western societies. Historical evidence shows that the role did not emerge in England until towards the end of the seventeenth century. Evidence from the “Kinsey Reports” shows that, in spite of the existence of the role in our society, much homosexual behavior occurs outside the recognized role and the polarization between the heterosexual man and the homosexual man is far from complete (1968).

In her analysis, McIntosh made important distinctions between the social role of the sexual noncomformist in society and the actual sexual behaviour pattern of people, as empirical evidence from the Kinsey reports showed that these do not neatly match up.  The social role of the homosexual in the 1960s came with expectations of exclusive or predominant homoerotic feelings and behaviours, as well as stereotyped notions of an effeminate manner and preferred sexual activity. The role did not necessarily match the actual sexual behaviour of individuals however and excluded “heterosexual” people who may occasionally engage in or fantasize about homoerotic liasons.

In North American society of the 1960s, social role of the homosexual was used as an element in the social control of sexuality to mark a threshold between permitted and non-permitted activities. Many other cultures recognize and approve a distinct, institutionalized homosexual role, like the alyhā and hwamē in the Mohave nation, or a period of homosexual relationships between otherwise heterosexual boys and men, as among the Aranda of central Austrialia or in ancient Greece. As a medical or psychological label, “homosexuality” confused  a social designation with a medical or psychological condition. McIntosh concluded that doctors and psychologists were little more than “diagnostic agents in the process of social labeling” (McIntosh, 1968).

Her observations extend beyond the role of the homosexual and can be applied to other forms of sexuality and sexual practice. What is considered “normal” in terms of sexual behaviour is based on the mores and values of the society. Many societies around the world have different attitudes concerning premarital sex, the age of sexual consent, homosexuality, masturbation, and other sexual behaviours, which are not consistent with the moral, psychological and medicalized discourses of North America (Widmer, Treas, and Newcomb, 1998).

What appears to be consistent cross-culturally is the existence of some form of social recognition, normative structure or institutionalization to regulate desire. Sigmund Freud argued that the repression or channeling of sexual desire was a condition of all civilization. “Civilization is built up on a renunciation of instinct” (Freud, 1961 (1930)).  What he regarded as primary, instinctual urges for sexual gratification and pleasure are incompatible with social order unless they can be repressed, deferred, redirected or sublimated. Individuals must therefore manage the tension between their instinctual drives for immediate gratification (the pleasure principle) and the reality of the restrictions, rules and moral codes of the social order in which transgressions are punished (the reality principle). In order to work for eight hours in a day, for example, the individual needs to delay gratification of sexual and other desires until a more appropriate moment and situation when these are socially permitted.

The study of sexuality in sociology has expanded enormously in the last 30 years. Three themes sociologists have focused on are the control of women’s sexuality, the diversity of sexualities, and the social or biopolitical regulation of sexuality.

The Control of Women’s Sexuality

An Afghan girl attends a female engagement team meeting in Balish Kalay Village, Urgun District, Afghanistan, March 27.
Figure 12.23 Afghan girl attends a meeting in Balish Kalay Village, Urgun District, Afghanistan. The global Women Peace and Security Index ranks Afghanistan as the worst place in the world to be a woman (GIWPS, 2022). An estimated two-thirds of Afghan girls do not attend school. Eighty-seven per cent of Afghan women are illiterate, while 70-80 per cent face forced marriage, many before the age of 16 (Amnesty International, 2011). (Image courtesy of DVIDSHUB/Flickr.) CC BY 2.0

Patriarchal societies are particularly restrictive in their attitudes about sex when it comes to women and sexuality. In traditional patriarchal societies, private property is inherited through the male lineage father to son, so it is not just a matter of pride, but of power, wealth and status to establish biological paternity. As biological paternity is difficult to determine with certainty without modern genetic testing, control of women’s sexuality is central to this system. Moreover, because women marry into the husband’s family, women themselves become property and items of exchange. This leads to the establishment of patriarchal norms, customs and practices based on the control of women’s sexuality, often legitimated and grounded in religious belief. As Christ (2016) summarizes:

The customs that surround patriarchal marriage have the intention of making certain that a man’s children are his biologically. These customs include: the requirement that brides be untouched sexually or ‘virgin’; the ‘protection’ of a girl’s virginity by her father and brothers; the seclusion of girls and women in the home; the veiling or covering of women’s hair or bodies; the requirement that wives must be sexually faithful to their husbands; and the enforcement of these customs through shaming, violence, and the threat of violence (Christ, 2016).

Women’s free expression and disposition of their sexuality threatens the patriarchal structure and ideology, which explains to some degree the intensity of contemporary debates about women’s right to control their own bodies and access to birth control and abortion in the US. Similarly, opposition to LGTBQ2+ rights and gay marriage has its roots in the fundamental importance of  the heterosexual marriage as a means of controlling women and ensuring that inheritance passes to a man’s legitimate heirs.

Despite changing norms, and the extension of rights to women and LGTBQ2+ individuals, in many respects North American culture remains restrictive when it comes to women and sexuality. This is manifest in the double standards that apply to the sexuality of men and women. It is widely believed that men are more sexual than women. In fact, there is a popular notion that men think about sex every seven seconds. Research, however, suggests that men think about sex an average of 19 times per day, compared to 10 times per day for women (Fisher, Moore, and Pittenger, 2011). The belief that men have — or have the right to — more sexual urges than women creates a double standard. Ira Reiss, a pioneer researcher in the field of sexual studies, defined the double standard as prohibiting premarital sexual intercourse for women but allowing it for men (Reiss, 1960).

This standard has evolved into allowing women to engage in premarital sex only within committed love relationships, but allowing men to engage in sexual relationships with as many partners as they wish without condition (Milhausen and Herold, 1999). Due to this double standard, a woman is likely to have fewer sexual partners in her lifetime than a man. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 2011 survey, the average 35-year-old woman has had three opposite-sex sexual partners while the average 35-year-old man has had twice as many (Centers for Disease Control, 2011). In a study of 1,479 Canadians over the age of 18, men had had an average of 11.25 sexual partners over their lifetime whereas women had an average of 4 (Fischtein, Herold, and Desmarais, 2007).

Another mechanism used to control women’s sexuality is gender-based violence. Gender-based violence refers to harmful acts directed at an individual based on their gender (UNHCR, 2022). They can include a wide variety of behaviours, from violent sexual assault to unwelcome comments, actions or advances, but have the effect of causing victims to feel unsafe, uncomfortable or threatened.  The term gender-based violence highlights not only the manner in which transgender people, gay men, and women often experience violence, but also how violence takes place more broadly within the context of a society that is characterized by a sex/gender/sexuality system that disparages femininity, sexual minorities, and gender minorities. In public places and on-line, one in three (32%) women and one in eight (13%) men experienced unwanted sexual behaviour in 2018 according to the Statistics Canada Survey of Safety in Public and Private Spaces (Cotter and Savage, 2019).  For both men and women, younger age and sexual orientation (other than heterosexual) increased the odds of experiencing this behaviour more than any other factor. Approximately 4.7 million women in Canada—or 30% of all women 15 years of age and older—reported that they had been a victim of sexual assault at least once since the age of 15 (compared to 1.2 million or 8% of men).

Intimate partner violence refers to emotional, sexual and physical violence by one partner against another and includes “current and former spouses, girlfriends, and boyfriends” (Kirk and Okazawa-Rey 2004).   Intimate partner violence occurs in queer as well as heterosexual relationships, but this violence is quite clearly gendered in heterosexual relationships. Almost half  (44%) of all women 15 years of age and older who had ever been in an intimate partner relationship reported experiencing some kind of psychological, physical, or sexual violence in the context of an intimate relationship (Cotter, 2021). The most common abusive behaviours were emotional or psychological abuse: being put down or called names (31%), being prevented from talking to others by their partner (29%), being told they were crazy, stupid, or not good enough (27%), having their partner demand to know where they were and who they were with at all times (19%), or being shaken, grabbed, pushed, or thrown (17%). However 23% of women also reported being physically assaulted and 12% being sexually assaulted in the context of intimate relationships. Four in ten (37%) women who were victims of intimate partner violence said that they had lived in fear of a partner.

The intersectional effects of race, sexual orientation, disability and age also increase the likelihood of women experiencing intimate partner violence and gender-based violence. The prevalence of these types of violence is significantly higher among Indigenous women, LGBTQ2+ women, women with disabilities, and young women (Cotter, 2021; Cotter and Savage, 2019).

The Diversity of Sexualities

Adrienne Rich (1980) called heterosexuality “compulsory,” meaning firstly that all people are assumed to be heterosexual and secondly that society is full of formal and informal enforcements that encourage heterosexuality and penalize sexual variation. Compulsory heterosexuality plays an important role in reproducing inequality in the lives of sexual minorities. Around the world at least 68 countries have national laws that criminalize same-sex relations between men, 38 countries criminalize same-sex relations between women, and 9 countries criminalize forms of gender expression that target transgender and gender nonconforming people. Many of the laws of former British colonies criminalize same-sex acts in explicitly normative terms as  “carnal knowledge against the order of nature,” “debauchery,” “pederasty,” “unnatural and indecent acts,” or “gross indecency” (Human Rights Watch, 2022).

There are indications of global changes in attitude however. Since 2000, when the Netherlands became the first country to legalize same sex marriage, 30 countries and territories have enacted national laws allowing gays and lesbians to marry, including Canada in 2005 (Pew Research Center, 2019). Gender expression and identity have been protected in the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code since 2017 (Statistics Canada, 2021). Attitudes towards societal acceptance of homosexuality have also become more positive around the world between 2002 and 2020, including in the United States, where 72% say it should be accepted, compared with just 49% as recently as 2007 Pew Research Center, 2020). In Canada 85% said homosexuality should be socially accepted in 2020 compared to 69% in 2002. The world remains divided on the question, with those in Western Europe and the Americas being more accepting of homosexuality than those in Eastern Europe, Russia, Ukraine, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. The issue is also divisive along religious and political lines.

In Canada, there are approximately one million LGBTQ2+ people, representing 4% of the total population aged 15 and older in 2018 (Statistics Canada, 2021). Of these, 75,000  self-identified as trans or non-binary, accounting for 0.24% of the Canadian population. There were also 72,880 same-sex couples in Canada reported in the 2016 census, representing 0.9% of all couples. One third of all same-sex couples in Canada in 2016 were married, whereas two-thirds were living common-law.

An accurate picture of sexual diversity needs to take into account the complex relationships between sex, gender and sexuality.  Not all transgender people are sexually queer for example. A trans man who previously identified as a lesbian may still be attracted to women and may identify as straight, or may identify as queer. Another trans man may be attracted to other men and identify as gay or queer. This multiplicity suggests that the culturally dominant binary model fails to accurately encapsulate the wide variety of sexual and gender lived experiences.

Devor (2020) develops the concept of gendered sexuality to describe sexual orientations which take into account both sexes and genders of people. This recognizes that individuals vary in the relationship of their biological sex and social gender, and that while sexual orientation tends to be an attraction to a particular style of gender presentation, it also involves the physiological element of biological sex.  He describes three examples of gendered sexualities to provide a provisional schema to map the complexity of sexual diversity:

Table 12.2. Three examples of gendered sexuality in couples (Devor, 2020) [Skip Table]
# Persons in Relationship Sex Sex by Sex Gender Gender by Gender Gendered Sexuality
1 Male Crossdresser

 

Female Woman

Male

 

Female

Male Heterosexual

 

Female Heterosexual

Woman

 

Woman

Lesbian Woman

 

Lesbian Woman

Male Heterosexual Crossdresser

Lesbian Woman

Female Heterosexual

Lesbian Woman

2 Male Crossdresser

 

Male Man

Male

 

Male

Male Homosexual

 

Male Homosexual

Woman

 

Man

Straight Woman

 

Straight Man

Male Homosexual Crossdresser

Straight Woman

 

Male Homosexual

Straight Man

3 Male Crossdresser

 

Female Crossdresser

Male

 

Female

Male Heterosexual

 

Female Heterosexual

Woman

 

Man

Straight Woman

 

Straight Man

Male Heterosexual Crossdresser Straight Woman

Female Heterosexual Crossdresser Straight Man

In Table 12.2, “Sex by sex” refers to sexual orientations on the basis of the sexes of people (described as heterosexual / homosexual / bisexual), whereas “gender by gender” refers to sexual orientations on the basis of gender presentations of people (described as gay / lesbian / straight / bi). Gendered sexuality therefore describes the sexual orientation of each person in the relationship based on their own sex and gender, the sex and gender of their partners, and the direction of their sexual attraction to sex and gender. This becomes even more complex when one recognizes that the options listed under sex and gender (male/female, man/woman) are more fluid in practice.

The Social and Biopolitical Regulation of Sexuality

Making Connections: Big Picture

The History of Homosexuality: Social Constructionism and Making Up People

Figure 12.24 Two men in Florence kissing. Bartolomeo Cesi, 1600. (Image courtesy of Bartolomeo Cesi (1556–1629) at the Uffizi Gallery/Wikimedia Commons) Public Domain

 

One of the principal insights of contemporary sociology is that a focus on the social construction of different social experiences and problems leads to alternative ways of understanding them and responding to them. The sociologist often confronts a legacy of entrenched beliefs concerning innate biological disposition, or the individual psychopathology of persons who are considered abnormal. The sexual or gender “deviant” is a primary example. However, as Ian Hacking (2006) observes, even when these beliefs about kinds of persons are products of objective scientific classification, the institutional context of science and expert knowledge is not independent of societal norms, beliefs, and practices. The process of classifying kinds of people is a social process that Hacking calls “making up people” and Howard Becker (1963) calls “labeling.”

A homosexual was first defined as a kind of person in the 19th century: the sexual “invert.” This definition was “scientific,” but in no way independent of the cultural norms and prejudices of the times. The idea that homosexuals were characterized by an internal, deviant “inversion” of sexual instincts depended on the new scientific disciplines of biology and psychiatry (Foucault, 1980). The homosexual’s deviance was defined first by the idea that heterosexuality was biologically natural (and therefore “normal”) and second by the idea that, psychologically, sexual preference defined every aspect of the personality. Within the emerging field of psychiatry, it was possible to speak of an inverted personality because a lesbian woman who did not play the “proper” passive sexual role of her gender was masculine. A gay man who did not play his “proper” active sexual role was effeminate. After centuries during which an individual’s sexual preference was largely a matter of public indifference, in the 19th century, the problem of sexuality suddenly emerged as a biological, social, psychological, and moral concern.

The new definitions of homosexuality and sexual inversion led to a series of social anxieties that ranged from a threat to the propagation of the human species, to the perceived need to “correct” sexual deviation through psychiatric and medical treatments. The powerful normative constraints that emerged based largely on the 19th century scientific distinction between natural and unnatural forms of sexuality lead to the legacy of closeted sexuality and homophobic violence that remains to this day. Ironically, conservative Evangelical Christian movements also base their theological arguments about the sinfulness of homosexuality on this 19th century science. Their heavily contested application of scripture to homosexuality depends on the concept of the homosexual as a specific kind of person.

As Hacking (2006) points out, the category of classification, or the label that defines different kinds of people, actually influences their behaviour and self-understanding. It is a “self-fulfilling prophecy” (see Chapter 6. Social Interaction). They begin to experience the world and live in society in a different manner than they did previously. Interestingly, the gay rights movement has built on the same biological and psychiatric definitions of the homosexual as a kind of person, but reinterpreted them positively to reverse the negative consequences of homophobic culture. Redefining the meaning of being a homosexual type of person advances the social acceptance of gays and lesbians. To some degree the gay rights movement has accepted the idea of the homosexual as a kind of person, and they have self-identified as such, but the outcome of this relabeling has not yet completely reversed the negative connotations of being gay.

Sociological Perspectives on Sexuality

Sociologists representing all three major theoretical perspectives study the role that sexuality plays in social life today. Scholars recognize that sexuality continues to be an important factor in social hierarchies and relations of power and that the manner in which sexuality is defined and problematized has a significant effect on perceptions, interactions, health, and outcomes.

Positivism and Structural Functionalism

Positivist approaches to sexuality have historically been central to defining the social role of sexual nonconformists in modern society. Scientific approaches to sexuality are accredited with the “discovery” of sexualities thought to define different kinds of person. In the 19th century a vast variety of sexualities and sexual behaviours were described and given clinical names: homosexuality, transvestism, fetishism, exhibitionism, voyeurism, sadomasochism, coprophilia, undinism, frottage, chronic satyriasis and nymphomania, zoophilia, necrophilia, pederasty (Weeks, 2010). It is interesting in this respect that although heterosexuality has been regarded as the sexual norm in Western society, it was not clinically “discovered” or described until after homosexuality. It had not yet occurred to people that they might be “differentiated from one another by the kinds of love or sexual desire they experienced” (Straight, 2012).

However, positivist science was not independent of prevailing moral attitudes and prejudices. The scientific classification of sexualities emerged at a time when “sexual anomalies were universally regarded as sins or crimes, at the least as vices” (Ellis, 1946). In the 19th and 20th century discourses of evolutionary biology, medicine and psychiatry, heterosexuality was defined as biologically natural because it was procreative. Nonprocreative sexualities that diverged from biology’s natural course were regarded and clinically treated as perversions or pathologies. They were caused by pathological biological or psychiatric conditions. While the stigma of sexual pathology has largely been removed from the understanding of sexual diversity today, (with the likely exception of pedophilia), up until the present a clinical diagnosis of gender dysphoria — “a psychiatric classification describing persons experiencing a strong and persistent incongruity between their anatomy (their sex) and the gender with which they identify” — is required for transgender individuals to undergo hormone replacement therapy and sex reassignment surgery (Mathiesen, 2019).

Quantitative sociology has also had to grapple with sexual diversity and fluidity in the formulation of empirically grounded measurements and understandings of sexualities (Sumerau et al., 2017). Traditional  binary measures used to code survey responses (male/female, heterosexual/homosexual, etc.) fail to capture important nuances, variations, and complexities of transgender, bisexual, genderqueer, pansexual, intersex, and other non-binary sexual and gender communities. This has made it difficult for quantitative sociology to understand sexualities and explain the ways they influence other social phenomena or to contribute relevant data to public policy issues and debates. Sumerau et al. (2017) propose some options to expand both the gender response options (beyond male/female) and sexual identification methods (beyond gay/bi/straight) on survey instruments to better capture the empirical complexity of gender and sexuality. For example, they suggest shifting from self-identification measures to self-descriptive measures — such as reporting on physical and intimate desire, race, gender, body types, and attraction — in order to capture important aspects of sexual behaviour and experience that might not be captured by self-reported sexual identity questions.

When it comes to sexuality, structural functionalists stress the function of regulating sexual behaviour to ensure social order. Talcott Parsons (1955) argued that the regulation of sexual activity is an important function of the traditional, monogamous, heterosexual nuclear family. Social norms surrounding family life have, traditionally, encouraged sexual activity within the family unit (marriage) and have discouraged activity outside of it (premarital and extramarital sex). From a functionalist point of view, the purpose of encouraging sexual activity in the confines of marriage is to intensify the bond between spouses and to ensure that procreation occurs within a stable, legally recognized relationship. This structure gives offspring the best possible chance for effective socialization, stable upbringing and the provision of basic resources.

From a functionalist standpoint it would be easy to argue that sexual nonconformity and non-heterosexual sexualities present a source of dysfunction in terms of both the procreative role of the family and the unifying myths that the traditional family provides. However new forms of sexual relationship, intimacy, procreation and child-rearing do find new modes of equilibrium and institutionalization, ones which are potentially even more functional than the traditional nuclear family under conditions of fluid modernity.  For sexual nonconformists, the functions of the traditional family structure need to be served or satisfied by different family structures for a working social equilibrium to be established. This analysis suggests that sociologists need to examine new structural forms that provide the functional equivalents of traditional marriage structures: the increasing legal acceptance of same-sex marriage, the emergence of new narratives about what makes a marriage legitimate (e.g., the  universality of the “love bond” rather than the rites of tradition), and the rise in procreative options for gay, lesbian and other couples who choose to bear and raise children such as adoption, surrogacy, and bio-medical technologies.

Critical Sociology

From a critical perspective, sexuality is another area in which power differentials are present and where dominant groups actively work to promote their worldview as well as their economic interests. Homosexuality was criminalized in Canada in 1841. At the time of Confederation in 1867, sodomy was prohibited, and in 1890 the Canadian Criminal Code made “acts of gross indecency” between men illegal. “Acts of gross indecency” between women were not prohibited until 1953. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, homosexuals were even treated as national security risks; hundreds of gays and lesbians lost their civil service jobs or were purged from the military, and thousands were kept under surveillance (Kinsman, 2000).

It was not until 1969 that the Criminal Code was amended to relax the laws against homosexuality. As then Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau said in 1967 when the amendments were introduced, “Take this thing on homosexuality. I think the view we take here is that there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation. I think that what’s done in private between adults doesn’t concern the Criminal Code. When it becomes public this is a different matter, or when it relates to minors this is a different matter” (CBC, 2012). It was not until 2005 that same-sex couples were given the right to marry. Critical sociology asks why homosexuality, and other types of sexuality, have been the subject of persecution by the dominant heterosexual majority.

From a critical sociology point of view, a key dimension of social inequality based on sexuality has to do with the concept of “sexuality” itself. People’s sexual practices and inclinations caught up in the relationship between scientific knowledge and power. As noted above, the homosexual was first defined as a “kind of person”  in the 19th century: the sexual “invert.” This definition was “scientific,” (at least in terms of the science of the time), but it was in no way independent of the cultural norms and prejudices of 19th century society. It was also not independent of the modern expansion of institutional powers over an increasing range of facets of the life of individuals. The early biologists, medical scientists, and psychologists viewed “sexuality” as a hidden, instinctual agency that defined the viability of an individual’s personality, and posed a threat at various levels to the survival and health of the population. Abnormal sexuality was associated with mental disease, threats to institutional stability, and biological pathologies within the reproduction of the species. The idea that there was a division between healthy normal sexualities and dangerous deviant sexualities — a division that required the expertise of the medical and psychological establishment to diagnose and determine — became a kind of “Trojan horse” in which the problem of sexuality entered into people’s lives. As a public concern, sexuality became a danger to be controlled, surveilled, corrected, and in the worst cases, institutionalized. As Foucault (1980) describes, the sexual lives of children, “perverts,” married couples and the population as a whole became increasingly subject to interventions by doctors, psychiatrists, police, government administrators, moral crusaders, and families.

Part of the power issue involved in having a sexuality or a gender therefore has to do with the normality of one’s sexual identity and who determines what is normal or not. The norms defined by social custom, moral tradition, and scientific knowledge determine the degree of ease in which people can live within their own bodies and assume gender and sexual identities. As noted above, having a gender or sexual identity is only experienced as normal or natural to the degree that one fits within the dominant gender schema — the ideological framework that states that there are only two possible sexes, male and female, and two possible genders, masculine and feminine. Sexuality is a component of the dominant gender schema in as far as — in heteronormative society — to be male is to be attracted to females and to be female is to be attracted to males. The dominant gender schema therefore provides the basis for the ways inequalities in power and status are distributed according to the degree that individuals conform to its narrow categories.

In contrast, Devor (2000) argues:

we live in a world which is far more diverse than any number of simplistic dichotomies can describe. I have become convinced that not only can men and women live in bodies of any sex, but that we, as a society, go against reality when we insist that there are only two genders, only two sexes, and only slight variations on two basic sexualities. I have learned from speaking with transgender and transsex people that we diminish ourselves as a society by failing to avail ourselves of the special gifts and lessons we can receive from the transgender, transsex and intermediately sexed people among us.

Queer Theory

Queer theory is a critical sociological perspective that problematizes the manner in which people have been taught to think about sexual orientation. By calling their discipline “queer,” these scholars are rejecting the effects of labeling; instead, they embrace the word “queer” to describe a perspective that comes from outside the dominant heteronormative discourses. Queer theorists reject the dominant gender schema and the dichotomization of sexual orientations into two mutually exclusive outcomes, homosexual or heterosexual. Rather, the perspective highlights the need for a more flexible and fluid conceptualization of sexuality — one that allows for change, negotiation, and freedom. The current schema used to classify individuals as either “heterosexual” or “homosexual” pits one orientation against the other. This mirrors other oppressive schemas in our culture, especially those surrounding gender and race (Black versus White, male versus female).

Queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick argued against North American society’s monolithic definition of sexuality — against its reduction to a single factor: the sex of one’s desired partner. Sedgwick identified dozens of other ways in which people’s sexualities were different, such as:

  • Even identical genital acts mean very different things to different people.
  • Sexuality makes up a large share of the self-perceived identity of some people, a small share of others.
  • Some people spend a lot of time thinking about sex, others little.
  • Some people like to have a lot of sex, others little or none.
  • Many people have their richest mental/emotional involvement with sexual acts that they do not do, or do not even want to do
  • Some people like spontaneous sexual scenes, others like highly scripted ones, others like spontaneous-sounding ones that are nonetheless totally predictable.
  • Some people, whether homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual, experience their sexuality as deeply embedded in a matrix of gender meanings and gender differentials. Others of each sexuality do not. (Sedgwick, 1990)

In the end, queer theory strives to question the ways society perceives and experiences sex, gender, and sexuality, opening the door to new scholarly understanding.

Symbolic Interactionism

Interactionists focus on the meanings associated with sexuality and with sexual orientation. Since femininity is devalued in North American society, those who adopt such traits are treated as subordinate; this is especially true for boys or men. Just as masculinity is the symbolic norm, so too has heterosexuality come to signify normalcy.

The experiences of gender and sexual outsiders — homosexuals, bisexuals, transsexuals, women who do not look or act “feminine,” men who do not look or act “masculine,” etc. — reveal the subtle dramaturgical order of social processes and negotiations through which all gender identity is sustained and recognized by others. From a symbolic interactionist perspective, “passing” as a “normal” heterosexual depends on one’s sexual cues and props being received and interpreted by others as passable.

The coming out process of homosexuals is described by Vivienne Cass as a series of social stages that the individual is obliged to negotiate with others (Devor, 1997): first, a period of identity confusion in which the person attempts to deny or resist the growing suspicion that they are homosexual; second, a period of identity comparison in which the person examines the series of available identity options to see which one explains their sense of self best; third, a period of identity tolerance in which the person recognizes “I probably am gay” and seeks out more information and contacts; fourth, a period of identity acceptance in which the person carefully manages sexual information or claims public acknowledgment of their sexual identity; fifth, a period of identity pride in which the person identifies strongly with their reference group and minimizes the value of others; and sixth, a period of identity synthesis in which the person’s sexuality is naturalized, becoming “no big deal.” Of course the transition between these stages is not predetermined, and it is possible to remain stuck in one stage or even to go backwards. For the homosexual in a homophobic culture, these transitions are fraught with difficulty.

To what degree does the same process apply to heterosexuals? Although the idea of coming out as a heterosexual, or as a masculine man or a feminine woman, might seem absurd, this absurdity is grounded in the norms of heteronormative society that are so deeply entrenched as to make them appear natural. The social processes of acquiring a gender and sexual identity, or of “having” a gender or a sexuality, are essentially the same; yet, the degree to which society accepts the resulting identities differs.

Interactionists are also interested in how discussions of homosexuals often focus almost exclusively on the sex lives of gays and lesbians; homosexuals, especially men, may be assumed to be hypersexual and, in some cases, deviant. Interactionism might also focus on the slurs used to describe homosexuals. Labels such as “queen” and “fag” are often used to demean homosexual men by feminizing them. This subsequently affects how homosexuals perceive themselves. Recall Cooley’s “looking-glass self,” which suggests that self develops as a result of one’s interpretation and evaluation of the responses of others (Cooley, 1902). Constant exposure to derogatory labels, jokes, and pervasive homophobia would lead to a negative self-image, or worse, self-hate. The CDC reports that homosexual youths who experience high levels of social rejection are six times more likely to have high levels of depression and eight times more likely to have attempted suicide (CDC, 2011).

Conclusion

Throughout this chapter, sociologists have examined the complexities of gender, sex, and sexuality. Differentiating between the concepts of sex, gender, and sexual orientation is an important first step to a deeper understanding and critical analysis of these issues. The cultural, historical and individual variability of gender and sexuality is relatively independent of the biological etiology of sex, which is shared as the genetic heritage of homo sapiens as a species. In particular, understanding the sociology of sex, gender, and sexuality will help to build awareness of the inequalities experienced by subordinate groups such as women, homosexuals, and transgender individuals.

Media Attributions

License

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Introduction to Sociology – 3rd Canadian Edition by William Little is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book