The ‘social constructionism versus essentialism’ debate cannot be avoided when we study gender and sexuality Essay

Gender and sexuality, though terms taken somewhat for granted, have caused much controversy in where they have derived from. Although some advocate the social constructionism approach, others prefer that of the essentialist: questioning whether humans are biologically programmed or social influences have formed these aspects of their personality. This has been debated through many years of history, by psychologists, sociologists and sexologists amongst others; and still no solid conclusion has been drawn.

However, in considering this argument, it is necessary to consider the definitions of these two terms, which in itself is a topic of mixed views, and related to the initial conflict. Essentialists believe that sexuality and gender are both naturally or biologically assigned to each individual. If the problem of gender is considered first, the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are of the same meaning. This is accepted widely in everyday life, as ‘children are assigned to one or the other gender on the basis… of their sex organs’ (Delamont, S. 1980. P. 4), this is the first classification any human receives; emphasising its importance in today’s society. They believe that the biological attributes one possesses are indicative of ones gender identity: whether one exhibits ‘physical and physiological ‘markers’: externally, genitalia, penis, testes, vagina, clitoris; internally, verifiable uterus, ovaries, vas deferens, prostate gland’ (Hawkes, G. 1996. p. 7).

However, it is also apparent that this physical distinction between the two ‘opposite’ sexes, although always noticed has only been categorised as such in recent times (Hawkes, G. 996. P. 7). In medieval times, there was only one ‘sex’, as they believed there were two kinds of people, but one simply held their reproductive organs externally, and one internally. This is an indication that gender, the identity associated with sex, has been socially constructed, as in historical societies, it was not present. Ann Oakley takes the social constructionist perspective and provides her idea of the meaning of ‘gender’. She claimed that, although many link the idea with that of biological sex in everyday life, in fact this is a nai??ve view.

She believed that although this biological sex played a part in defining ones gender, it was largely socially constructed; that to be of a certain gender was ‘as much a function of dress, gesture, occupation, social network and personality as it is of possessing a particular set of genitals’ (Oakley, A. 1985. p. 158). Therefore, sex was biological, whereas gender was social. Oakley used the work of others such as Stoller to support this, from studies that he conducted on intersexual people, he found that there were significant differences between them in their gender identities, although they all had similar physical disorders.

It was largely dependent on the way in which the child had been reared; whether they had been accepted as ‘male’ or ‘female’ by their families and peers, which affected their own feelings about their gender identity. Similarly, transsexuals who are physically ‘normal’, appear to have trouble with gender identity and take on that which is the opposite of that associated with their biological sex. This could be through attachment to a parent of differing biological sex, as opposed to ‘normal’ people, who bond with a parent of the same sex.

He claimed that due to this, the same terms could not be used to define the two categories of both sex and gender and named them ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ for gender in contrast to ‘male’ or ‘female’ for sex (Oakley, A. 1985. P. 195). These terms are so important as it is so important for gender identity to be defined in society. This was indicated earlier by the fact that the first form of identification one receives is their gender, the second also illustrates this, as it is the name of the child. Although there are names suitable for both genders, most are exclusive to one or the other.

In ‘Collins Gem Dictionary of First Names’, of two-thousand names, only twenty-four, or two per-cent, are deemed appropriate for both, and of these six are stated to be more common for girls. Sara Delamont identified that hospitals also keep pink and blue blankets for girl and boy children respectively, again reinforcing their gender identity label. This then continues through child hood, one only needs to browse a children’s clothing section in shops to notice that the girls’ section has pretty, brightly coloured and delicate items, whereas the boys’ is very different in colour and style.

The gender separation also extends to the toys the child is given to play with; dolls and home-making sets for girls and cars and weapons for boys. It cannot be of any wonder then that aggression is associated with masculinity and not with femininity. All these are factors in influencing others’ perception of the child before it is even aware of its own identity, and slowly influencing its own as it grows. This ‘differential treatment of the two categories’ continues throughout childhood and adolescence (Delamont, S. 1980. P. 19).

From the ways girls are held and treated more delicately while boys are not, to the games they are encouraged to play, a separation is made. While boys are told to be more adventurous and climb trees, girls are taught this is not lady-like. As they grow most accept these identities and females become feminine and submissive while men become masculine and dominant, though this is no wonder considering the vast contrast in their upbringing. At this point it is appropriate to consider sexuality, as another great difference in the way males and females are perceived is with respect to their sexual habits.

If a female is promiscuous, she is branded with derogatory terms whereas males are not. It is also suggested that heterosexuality is the norm, and that ‘non-heterosexual men and women have been traditionally viewed as problematic’ (Weeks, J. et al. 2001. P. 138). It has been argued that this is again due to biological differences, which is the essentialist view, dependant on the sex of the individual. Kraft-Ebbing was one such essentialist who thought ‘of sex as an all-powerful instinct which demands fulfillment’ (Weeks, J. 1989.

P. 24). However, even through history in Western society, the norms of sexuality have changed. From the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries women were persecuted for having sexual desires, being labelled witches, and relating it to being mentally unstable. Promiscuity was described as an illness of the womb and as such the appropriately named hysterectomy was used to abolish what was termed women’s hysteria. Even in Victorian times, women’s sexuality was oppressed; it was only after this they began to become sexually liberated.

As men are thought to be more aggressive generally, this extends to the bedroom, where men are expected to initiate sexual behaviour, although both parties are required to partake in the act of heterosexual copulation. Women are believed to have an ‘inferior sex drive’, although there are studies to suggest that male and female biological responses to sexual stimuli do not differ greatly. One such study was that of Kinsey who found that ‘anatomical differences between the sexes were not of much relevance here, since the clitoris is equipped with a system of sensory nerves as numerous and as extensive as those of the penis’ (Oakley, A. 985. P. 102). It is also apparent that women may not have the same opportunities as men to explore their sexuality.

As Michael Schofield found in his study on the sexual habits of young people, girls have greater control over them by the family, whereas boys have more freedom; ‘parents’ expectations of appropriate behaviour in the adolescent girl exclude overt sexuality, whereas for the boy they permit it’ (Oakley, A. 1985. P. 106). If girls’ break away from this they are seen as delinquents. Also relevant for social constructionists is to study male and female sexual behaviour in other societies.

The Arapesh, studied by Margaret Mead, exhibit quite different behaviour, where men are warned even more than women to be wary of getting into situations where someone is able to have sex with them. Amongst the Trobriand Islanders, women are also seen as the sexual predators, so it does not appear that men are biologically more sexually aggressive or receptive. These Islanders also begin sexual activity early and ‘small children plat sexual games together; genital manipulation and oral genital stimulation are frequent’ (Oakley, A. 985. P. 111).

Although this seems almost perverse when relating it to Western society, in this social context it is not at all. Freud’s work on infantile sexuality is also criticised in this way, but taking this into account is perhaps not so far-fetched. Freud has one of the most well-known arguments for social constructionism, claiming that, as humans are born prematurely, compared to most other animals, heterosexuality is not programmed into them and this is largely a role of the society they live in.

He also asserts that sexuality does not, as most believe, begin at puberty, but in fact soon after birth, followed by an incestuous desire for the mother, which boys soon replace with a female partner. Girls, on the other hand, soon realise desire for a female and proceed to acquire a penis, firstly from their father and then, accepting this is wrong, from a male sexual partner. This is what was described as ‘normal’ development and any diversion resulted in things such as homosexuality, but neither were innate (Weeks, J. 1985. P. 138).

Foucault was another key thinker but rejected Freud’s psychoanalyst approach and claimed sexuality was not repressed, but people such as Freud had created these norms and placed them on society, regulating sexual identity. He described history as a series of discourses, which dictated sexually acceptable behaviour to society; for example paedophiles have probably always existed but only recently been labelled and recognised as sexually deviant. The claim was that sex experts created sexual categories as a way of controlling society, such as the aversion therapy used on homosexuals during the 1950s as they were thought to be abnormal.

Though this is slowly changing, but there is still a certain amount of stigma attached to homosexuals. Society remains set in certain norms, and anything outside of this is deemed deviant, such as certain individuals who take homosexuality further by having operations to change their physical attributes to make them appear of the ‘opposite’ sex. As people are changing their physical attributes it appears that ‘gender is socially constructed and biology is ‘plastic’, it can be adapted to what the person feels is their gender identity’ (Oakley, A. 1985. p. 165).

If gender is biologically given, then why is it necessary to manipulate the body, particularly of intersexuals, to conform to ‘normal’ bodies of either sex? In reality, the only answer is ‘to maintain gender divisions, we must control those bodies that are so unruly as to blur the borders. Since intersexuals quite literally embody both sexes, they weaken claims about sexual difference’ (Fausto-Sterling, A. 2000. P. 8). However, it cannot either be said that biological sex has no affect on gender, it must be accepted that the differing physical and sexual attributes possessed by males and females do have an effect on the gender role they have.

For proof of this one simply has to consider that ‘most of the time a person’s sex and his or her gender are ‘the same’, and for practical everyday purposes the distinction is irrelevant’ (Delamont, S. 1980. P. 15). The relationship between sex and gender extends to sexuality immediately with the ambiguity of the word ‘sex’, which can connote the act of copulation or ones physiological attributes with relation to gender. This implies a direct relationship immediately, but how far can it be assumed that sexuality is dependent on gender?

To this question there are two aspects, firstly the difference between men and women in the way they are perceived with relation to their sexual habits, and secondly with respect to sexual orientation. On both these parts, the large part of the evidence discussed suggests the social constructionist argument is stronger, however again important biological factors cannot be ignored, such as the necessity of reproduction which can only take place with heterosexuality present. It is for these reasons that the debate of essentialism versus social constructionism is relevant with respect to both gender and sexuality.

As long as society accepts that sex is implies ones gender and sex hormones dictate ones sexuality and new evidence is produced to support the argument that society defines them, this will continue. Although based on the evidence discussed it seems that both are largely socially constructed, to take them as ‘a purely social construct with no physiological basis is scientifically dangerous’ (Treadwell, P. 1987. P. 259). However, it seems to be the case that the ‘normal’ will ‘take precedence over the natural’ (Fausto-Sterling, A. 2000. P. 8).

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