Lesson 7: Sex and Sexuality
Sex and sexuality play an enormous part in how bodies are identified and the attributes given to them. In this
lecture, we need to think about how what we know about the allocation of sex and the attributes connected with
these categories. We need to separate what might be biology but what is probably socialization.
What is the first question asked of new parents? -- "Did you have a boy or girl?"At many hospitals, a little light
blue cap is placed on the head of the male newborn and, not surprising, a pink cap is placed on the female. Even
when we avoid overtly wanting to place gender specific expectations and assumptions onto children we do, or the
people around us do.
I am still amazed at toy departments in stores like Zellers. The aisles are divided along assumptions about
appropriate toys for boys and girls. Girls are directed to the pink and mauve coloured toys that include Barbies,
other dolls, and crafts. Boys are directed to the dark purple, black, green coloured toys where action figures, guns,
and balls are located. Girls' toys suggest passivity and homemaking whereas boys' toys are resplendent with
suggestions of action and sometimes even violence.
By examining our assumptions of masculinity and femininity, we begin to remove our blinders on sex, gender and
sexuality. We explore these issues as they exist partly in biology but mostly in the social construction of a society
intent on maintaining heterosexual privilege.
Male of Female - the quandary:
Consider what makes someone male or female:
• What if a baby is born with only one testicle? Is he still male?
• What if a baby is born without a uterus? Is she still female?
• What if a person with all the "correct" male genitalia feels female?
• What if a person with all the "correct" female genitalia actually has chromosomes that indicate a male
identity? Is this person male or female?
• What about the case of a baby born male but who through an error in a circumcision loses part of penis,
who is then raised as female but later in life decides to live as male?
The point is that all of the above questions have caused scientists and society consternation. It is not so clear how
to identify people as male or female.
Cases in the 17th and 18th century demonstrate to us that this quandary has been a long term dilemma.At various
times in history, little male babies with tiny penises were raised as female; or little girl babies with engorged
clitorises were raised as male. While the immediate response is to believe that sex allocation is straight forward,
in practise it has been very difficult. Being assigned a sex is only one element; it is also the expected behaviours
that come from such assignments that require analysis. But as the cases above demonstrate, even genitalia may
not indicate a clear designation of male or female.
Currently there are a growing number of individuals who identify themselves as transgendered. Some but not all
transgendered individuals contend they live in a biological body that is at odds with the gender they feel they
really are (i.e. a female looking body, but the individual identifies as male). In other cases, the transgendered
person may feel neither male nor female. Surgeries may correct discrepancies or be used to neutralize bodies that
appear too female or too male.
At the beginning of this course, we briefly mentioned the difference between sex and gender. Girls learn speech
patterns as well as hand and body movements that are specifically referenced as feminine and logically boys learn
an opposing set of behaviours to locate them well within acceptable masculine parameters.
We assume too easily that these behaviours are innate — that we are born knowing for example, as females, how
to cross our legs. Really, though gender is a life long learning process.As we age, as we move into the workplace,
as we have children etc...we are challenged to express our sex in ways that society deems as acceptable for those
times and places. Gender is about performance. But in order to do it well we must have the correct "script". Have
you ever found yourself in a group examining someone and thinking how much you would like to resemble that particular individual? This is gender learning. What you are doing is examining the body behaviour and the
language of another to see how you might incorporate similar patterns to be more like an individual you admire.
Sex is infused with ideas about power. The assertion of one sex and race being superior justifies who can hold
power over others (i.e.white men over women, and people of colour). Why do men dominate governments,
religious institutions, universities, the higher echelons in the work place, in the justice system, in sports and in the
arts? Because of definitions of sex that endow men with so called "natural" intellectual powers that privilege their
predominance in the institutions and systems they produce.
Every once and a while a brave voice emerges like that of Mary Wollstonecraft or the French thinker Francois
Poullain de la Barre, who argued as early as 1673, that women's very anatomy suggested they were equal to men.
For the most part though, there have been influential groups promoting and justifying the dominance of men. In
the 19th century social Darwinists seemed intent on reassertingAristotelian views, but with a new more
"scientific" twist. Social Darwinists argued that females were really males whose development had been arrested
at an early stage of development. Because women's evolution had become static, their physical and mental
progress ended at a primitive stage.
Women often receive the message that their biology somehow impedes their ability to think; therefore, justifying
their exclusion from places of authority or power in civil society. Women have been burdened with the accusation
that they are too "emotional" as though this discounted their thinking prowess. Women, at various moments in
history, have been barred from serving in positions of power because of how their bodies have been interpreted
(i.e. blocked from voting or serving as members of parliament because they were defined as being mothers first
Unfortunately, too many women buy into the argument of their emotional vulnerability. How many women
complain about PMS? Or what of the men who chart their partners' menstrual cycle so that they can determine her
supposed frailer or more "hysterical" phase. When women rage during this time period, their ideas their demands,
their insights are all dismissed as being the result of hormonal variances that arrest their ability to think.
Are there differences between the sexes? Yes, there are, but these differences do not make women more nurturing
or less intellectual than men — rather the differences define biological distinctions and not behavioural traits.
How strange that we assume that all women are good nurturers or all men are good economic providers. When
individuals fail to meet these standards we question the "truth" of their masculinity or femininity. What we should
actually see is that so few of us can meet the standards assigned to any one gender and that the pressure to be
what culture wants us to be only hurts us as individuals but also us as a society.
• Estrogen and testosterone are found in both male and female bodies. Female bodies have less testosterone
but use it more efficiently. Estrogen is necessary for every organ in the male and female body. Men who are
deficient in estrogen are more prone to osteoporosis. Some initial research now being conducted into hormones is
suggesting that estrogen produces more aggressive behaviour and not testosterone. In fact some research suggests
that testosterone levels drop prior to aggressive behaviour.
• Women are more likely to be right handed than men and less likely to be coloured blind.
• Women's bodies tend to be smaller, with smaller brains but more densely packed with neurons.
• Men have larger bodies and tend to be stronger in the upper bodies than women. Women however are
more resistant to tiredness. Their endurance is greater than men's. Interestingly though, women are gaining on
men in terms of muscle size and strength. (See NatalieAngier, Woman: An Intimate Geography. New York:
Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999).
The above are just a few examples of emerging research. Clearly physical differences do not dictate behaviours
nor do they indicate value.As women move into the activities where men currently dominate, undoubtedly we
will find even physical differences (i.e. in musculature) becoming less of an issue.
In terms of medical science, the practise has been to use the male body as the norm for research. Now research is
finding that this practise is problematic when trying to diagnose heart failure in women or designing treatments.
The female body does respond differently and does require a different approach when undergoing treatment. As you have learned from previous lectures, beginning in the 19th century, women have had to struggle against
the "interpretations" applied to their bodies that legitimated their subordinate status. The white woman's body was
viewed as weak physically and intellectually and this was a justification for keeping girls out of higher learning
institutions. In contrast to white women,African women were treated as mere workhorses and breeders well into
the 20th century. Similar definitions get applied toAsian and Native women depending on the needs of the
society. For instance, when more people are needed to work as doctors in various communities, learning
institutions promote a diverse student body.
Sexuality or the expression of sexual desire is another of those hotly contested areas. Good women and girls are
not encouraged to express any overt sexual desires (romance however is acceptable). But as we have learned,
asexuality as a virtue is applied to white women and not generally to Black women.
Take a moment now and return to the magazine that you used for your advertising assignment. Look through the
magazine and make a list of the dominant images of women (house-wife, sex goddess, slut, child--woman, virgin.
What are the purposes of these images? How many women of colour appear in the magazine and generally with
what kind of role? In contrast, how frequently are white women represented and in what roles?
The Problem of Sexual Desire for Women:
In the justice system, we can see how women are subject to outcomes dependent on how their sexuality is
interpreted. In cases involving rape, abuse, divorce, or custody, women’s sexuality can be reworked by the police,
by lawyers to accord her a resolution predicated on her being “worthy” of justice, or “unworthy depending on
interpretations of her sexuality and race.Agood read that details the way in such judgements are made in Canada
can be found in the book The Story of Jane Doe. The writer, (Jane Doe, the pseudonym adopted to protect her
identity) describes how the police used her feminism, sex toys discovered in her bathroom after her rape and her
struggle with depression to discount her credibility in ensuing legal battles.
And while referencing identity and principally identity based on sexuality and sex, remember that in Canada, the
disappearances of dozens of women were not investigated because these women were labelled prostitutes, or drug
addicts, or were Native women living primarily on the streets in British Columbia. Here we see the triple
whammy – the intersection of sex, race and sexuality to render women unworthy of police protection or interest.
In adolescence, girls are directed away from identifying with their sexual desires and socialized to focus on
romance instead. This script is clearly heterosexist as girls are encouraged to desire stories of being rescued or
protected. The ultimate goal in this story is not one of individuation but of marriage. Girls who desire an orgasm
or to want to explore their own sexuality are marked by negative labels like “slut.”As girls grow into middle aged
women, many feel unprepared to talk about their sexual desires. Few women are willing to initiate conversations
with their partners that would address their sexual likes and dislikes.At some profound level, many women still
feel as though such conversations will devalue their roles as wives, mothers or even as good women. Girls do not
get taught how to talk about their sexuality or how to advocate sexually for themselves. The very opposite is in
fact true. Girls are taught to hate their bodies, serve their male partners sexually, or to be decorative, but certainly
they get the message not to be powerful in the sexual dimension of their lives (this would lead to men feeling as
though they have been emasculated).
While I have been addressing the issue of girls “passiveness” around sex, the reality is that more girls at a
younger age are engaging in sex! Because for the most part their sexual activity involves “oral sex” they fail to
see it as sex. Sadly, oral sex is for the pleasure of the boys in their midst and not for their own sexual gratification.
Maybe in the end, little in fact has changed.
Boys, by contrast, are encouraged to define themselves against girls (they must not be seen as too “girly” or
“effeminate”). The message boys receive in our culture is that they should avoid discussing their feelings, or seem
too vulnerable. Being angry and even aggressive are acceptable traits in boys but not in girls.Aboy or young man
is only viewed as a healthy male if he expresses a strong heterosexual drive. Culturally, we encourage “boys to be
boys” and by this we mean to express their sexuality even if it involves ignoring the needs of girls.
Our political and cultural practises in Ontario have disciplined women’s conception of their own sexuality. In
Ontario, after the First World War, war widows were given a small pension on which to raise their children. If these women were seen with men in their homes at night, the pension was cancelled as a commentary of women’s
worthiness (good women did not desire sex). Ontario’s RefugesAct dictated that a young woman deemed to be
functioning outside the boundaries of acceptable “ladylike” behaviour could be arrested and sent to a “home” for
unruly girls. What kind of behaviour could have her sent away? Drinking certainly, disobeying her parents, dating
a man outside her “race”, premarital sex, pregnancy outside of a marriage, etc…. Girls and boys are not born with
a certain sexual proclivity rather as a society we develop structures (laws, ideas on masculinity and femininity,
and socializing processes) that guide each into “acceptable” expressions of sexuality.
There are no acceptable spaces for the expression of sexuality outside the parameters of a heterosexist society.
And yet, we know that the defining or limiting of sexuality to strict parameters is not reflective of the true nature
of sexuality. Heterosexuality, in itself, can be many varied sexual practises but we hardly discuss this reality.
Young women and men are taught early to feel ashamed of any homosexual or homoerotic feelings, dreams or
fantasies. We have entire industries that function to buttress heterosexuality as described above (women desire
romance, men desire sex with the opposite sex). We have diamond companies like DeBeers, the wedding industry,
films, books, education, political systems, and popular culture (magazines, cosmetic and plastic surgery, and diet
industries) all promoting a narrow definition of heterosexual relationships.As some critics have said, how can we
call heterosexuality the norm when so many institutions and ideologies are needed to support it?
We live in a society marked by compulsory heterosexuality, which refers to a social construct that leads people to
believe that heterosexuality is the sole “natural” choice and that it is inevitable.
For Your Consideration:
Have you ever felt as though no one understood you? Did you ever yearn to be a member of a group but felt you
had to contort yourself in order to be like the others? While we may feel alienated from our desired group, can
you image what it might be for an individual who is oppressed because of his or her membership in a group
considered deviant? To be gay in Canada continues to be dangerous. It takes an immense amount of strength to be
different and publicly proud of that difference.
In the case of announcing one’s homosexuality or bisexuality, an individual may be shunned by family, friends,
and co-workers. One can find oneself the victim of slurs or violence. This is also true for those whose race,
ethnicity or religion marks them as different from the dominant group.
The term lesbian did not move into common parlance until the late 19th century. Before the use of lesbian and its
identification with "deviant" behaviour, we know that many young women in the 19th century had strong
emotional bonds with other young women. Such deeply expressed emotional attachments were seen as both
normal and natural. Romantic friendships, as they came to be known, were intense with young girls proclaiming
their love for one another. No thought was given to any deviant behaviour or genetic failing. If some version of
sex was involved it might have been seen as somewhat out of the ordinary but certainly not "sick." Some of these
young women would later marry men while others rejected traditional marriages and instead concentrated on their
careers allowing them to maintain their romantic friendships.
Romantic friendships made sense in a culture still very much rooted to Victorian ideals where men and women
were seldom friends and where women had more fulfilling connections with one another than with men.
Marriages were arranged and oftentimes women disliked their husbands. Having close relationships with girls or
women made perfect sense in a society where the virginity or pureness of women's sexual identity was
paramount. Romantic friendships could be very passionate. They allowed for an expression of intimacy that was
often absent from other parts of women's lives.
In the late 19th century several events collided. Principally was the growth of the women's movement that
examined women's exclusion from major social and political institutions. Women began advocating education for
girls and young women. The school system was opened up to include colleges for young women who desired an
education beyond the usual high school level, and for young women who envisioned themselves in careers.
College allowed women a choice. The