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Gender & Sexual Orientation

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GENDER AND SEXUAL ORIENTATION

sexual dysfunctions - information, advice and treatmentGender and sexual orientation are two subjects that are very closely linked.

There are a number of sexual terms that we use loosely, particularly those about what we are (male or female) and how we behave.

Sex or Gender is determined even before birth: you are female or male.

The definition is biological. Gender Role is the set of rules laid down by society to tell us how to behave according to our sex or gender.

Men are supposed to behave in one way, women in another. The rules are made by cultures, not biology, and usually apply from the moment of birth.

Gender Identity is the personal and private conviction each of us has about our femininity or masculinity.

It is at the core of how we feel about who we are deep down, and is probably fixed around two years of age when language is being learned. It is also called sexual identity.

Orientation means whether we share our sexual expression with members of the other sex, with members of our own, or with both.

This may be a matter of social rather than biological determination or it may be a combination of the two - we cannot be sure.

Sexism means confusing biology with culture and believing that one sex is superior to the other in particular areas.

An example of how all these definitions hang together: a child is born a girl, let us say. Because she is of the female sex or gender, she will be taught the female gender role.

 If she accepts her sex or gender and her role, her gender identity will be clearly feminine - she will accept her culture's rules about how to behave as a woman.

It is likely she will have a heterosexual orientation, that is she will seek sexual expression with men.

She will also risk accepting sexism - the idea that women are inferior in some areas and superior in others.

Individual and social tensions arise when people differ from this classic pattern, when they do not accept a necessary link between their sex and the rules laid down for that sex.

Because of the immense variety of human behaviors, it is possible to find individuals who contain within themselves every possible mix, even going so far as to have all the outward signs of their biological sex changed surgically to conform with their outwardly feminine behavior, as though these patterns of behavior are biologically determined along with the child's sex.

The idea, simply expressed, is that the genes and hormones that will cause a girl, for example, to have a vulva and to develop breasts will also cause her to be more sensitive and more affectionate than a boy, to be more likely to cry and to be more caring about children.

We can be sure that this is well short of the whole truth, since we now know that social learning is crucial in forming a person's sense of how they should behave - that is to say, in forming their gender identity.

So which is more important in determining a person's behavior: their biological make up, or social forces? Are people shaped more by an irresistible genetic program built into them in the womb, or by irresistible social forces that tell them how to behave according to the sex they were born?

The best way we have found to date to resolve this controversy is to recognize that the two forces, biological and social, interact.

Doctors have shown that the genetic makeup of each individual is expressed within a social climate and that the climate influences the way that an individual's biological potentials emerge.

The two cannot sensibly be separated. The biological imprint is enduring and so is the cultural; each expresses itself via the other.

The announcement: "It's a girl," or "It's a boy," starts the gender coding that will continue throughout the child's development. The child is already a she or a he, and will soon be given a typically feminine or typically masculine name.

There is evidence to suggest that boys and girls are held differently and spoken to differently from their first moments in the hospital nursery.

Nurses tend to hold baby girls closely, speak softly and coo at them. These same workers hold boys a bit farther away, coo less and address them in a more "manly" way.

This is quickly followed by the use of the culturally accepted colors of pink for girls and blue for boys.

Soon, the child's clothes, furniture, hairstyle and early playthings will be selected to continue in a very obvious fashion the particular culture's pattern of gender codes.

Some of this is changing and western cultures are providing more options for boys and girls, but on balance traditional, fixed roles are perpetuated by most societies.

Boys are still given certain playthings that are supposedly more masculine (trucks, guns, cars, airplanes, sports equipment) and girls are provided with traditionally feminine items (dolls, furniture, cooking sets, jump ropes, nurses' uniforms, stuffed animals).

The combination of all these messages, subtle as well as overt, about appropriate gender expression results in imprinting at a very early age with the distinctions between males and females, with what they can do, feel and aspire to as young people, and what life will be like when they become older.

So by age two - or three at the latest - a young person's gender identity is probably fixed.

Aiding the effects of these gender distinctions is the way parents behave at home as they go about their daily routines.

Generally, parents changes occurring, as some parents try to create a climate at home where their children will see various options to avoid their feeling necessarily locked into culturally assigned roles.

These changes initiated by parents are needed and must continue, but they stand a chance of long-term success only if the culture as a whole adopts alternative views of what gender roles can be, and that means in schools, at work and in the media as well as in ordinary social life.

Schools, where young people usually spend more time than they do in direct contact with either parent, continue traditional gender stereotypes and the double standard of attitudes and behavior.

For example, in the United States well over 90 percent of early childhood and primary school teachers are female, while well over 90 percent of the principals and administrators are male.

To the young person, this is a subtle but clear statement about who has authority, intelligence and prestige in adult life.

It is usually not recognized in precisely those terms, of course, but the repeated image of this through an entire school career is a message about who is capable and expected to do what, not only in school but in life as well.

Although change is slowly occurring, the primary messages of the sexuality aspects of the curriculum are either overtly or subtly sexist and sex roles are stereotyped.

Sexism is the conscious or unconscious assumption that there is an inherent superiority of one sex over the other.

 It shows itself in practice as one sex dominating the other, and having superior access to the development of interests, potentials and skills.

Sexism is justified in our minds by our acceptance of stereotypical gender roles. In our elementary schools, young people all too quickly learn who is smart in what subjects, who is strong, who is passive, who is assertive, who can be independent, who takes care of the house, who is successful, and who should show feelings.

Sex stereotypes pervade all materials used in elementary school curricula. For example, my own informal analysis of mathematics books in school libraries reveals that even math problems are presented in social contexts that reinforce gender role stereotypes.

Boys learn to count and add by driving cars, flying planes and other such characteristically male activities. Girls learn to add and count by jumping rope, measuring cloth and weighing and measuring recipe ingredients.

Boys' faces commonly portray confidence and mastery while girls' faces reflect bewilderment (until they've been helped by the boys). Sex-typing in social studies and health education books also indicates what is expected in our society.

The stereotyped portrayal of scientists, doctors, nurses, explorers, receptionists, assistants and many others continues to imprint young people with clear preconceptions of what is and what is not expected.

This kind of bias, built into the information children are given at all early stage by parents and teachers, is enormously influential. It is constantly reinforced, however, by peer groups - other children of a similar age.

The peer group is, especially for the young, a critical source of identity and strength, and constitutes in itself a culture with its own language, philosophy and accepted ways of behavior.

In general, the roles learned also act as powerful influences in shaping the expectations, behaviors and values of people of all ages. They have been - and to a large extent still are - reinforcers of the familiar gender role stereotypes.

A very serious and compelling result of all this programming coming from family, school, peer groups and the media is the psychological separation of men and women. This results from the idea that what one sex does or feels, the other does not, an attitude which certainly can lead to difficulties in working and living together.

It is clear that during the earliest years of a person's life the culture does little to nurture that person's uniqueness. Rather, people are treated as members of a group with some previously assumed average characteristic. Individuality and self-fulfillment get subordinated to the official culture's line.

But it is not important that there be equal numbers of women and men in each role; what is important is that individual differences should be allowed to develop fully, regardless of sex.

The result of all this is that the obvious biological differences between females and males have led cultures throughout the world to assign different tasks, expectations, proper feelings and roles solely on the basis of biological sex; cultures then arbitrarily label those qualities normal and usual.

 The necessity of conforming to this culturally prepared life map may create confusion, conflict and anger for some people because their identity and self-image is not in keeping with the way society has outlined their prospects.

For most, the cultural pressure of what is appropriate forces conformity despite their inner turmoil, but others resist being pushed into a societal mold and express themselves in a way that is in keeping with their core identity. One manifestation of this resistance to cultural pressures is the current interest in androgyny.

The word comes from combining the Greek andros, which means "man," with gynaekos, which means "woman."

The idea contained in the word is that people can integrate in one personality characteristics traditionally assigned to the other sex as well as to their own. Some people now believe that androgyny is the ideal social and psychological state, for it requires that women and men go beyond cultural stereotypes and reduce the gap between the sexes.

In its simplest yet most profound form, androgyny challenges the basis of traditional sex role expression in which it is a person's sex that decides who cooks, cleans, cares for children, shops, works, fixes things, Plays sports, shows emotion, is tender, dependent or independent.

By having the freedom to express their ambitions, their needs, their talents and their desires free of artificial limitations, androgynous people are in a much better position to realize their full potentials than people who abide by traditional sex roles.

The following common ideas about gender are false:

  • girls who enjoy football and rugby have a tendency toward lesbianism

  • boys who enjoy ballet have a tendency to be gay

  • dominant, aggressive women are sexually assertive

  • women express tenderness better because of their biological makeup

  • men are better suited than women to handle financial matters

  • boys will be boys and girls will be girls

  • young girls who play with trucks and trains will have a tendency to be masculine.

Why do we have such definite, deep-seated prejudices about what is "properly" masculine and feminine? The answer is that we have inherited them from every culture that has influenced our own, and along the way we have reinforced them.

One of the earliest cultures to have a great influence on the way we see things now was the Greek, and we can immediately see the origins of many of our attitudes about the sexes in the views that the Greeks established. In ancient Greece, women were thought to be essentially mindless, with limited abilities.

Their purposes were to bear children, manage households and provide erotic pleasure for men. If girls received an education it was from their mothers - only boys went to school.

Of course, this was not an unbreakable rule and we know there were exceptions; it does not mean either that women were effectively servants - far from it, in some cases. What it does mean, though, is that women then as ever since were thought to be unequal and simply not up to certain tasks.

The Greek attitude was carried loyally on through western civilization, much aided by the Church with its emphasis on a male god with a son, all of whose active supporters were men.

If not properly subservient to their menfolk, women were liable to be regarded as agents of the devil. In the eighteenth century Rousseau, the French philosopher who proclaimed so many liberties, described women as having no proper knowledge, no love of art and no genius.

(Rousseau, incidentally, like several of the other great talents of his age, was happy to accept the patronage and advice of Mme de Standahl, a woman of quite formidable intellect and wealth.)

Schopenhauer, the German philosopher, in the next century, described women as an undersized, short-legged race with little intellectual capacity, and his words fell on receptive ears.

How could so many intelligent men be so wrong? The short answer is that they were mistaking actuality for potential. Because most women were not nearly as well educated as the men with whom they mixed, their intellectual achievements were likely to be fewer and smaller.

That doesn't mean for a moment that their potential was in any way inferior. If we exclude women from government, for example, the reality will be that all politicians are male. The potential, however, is still the same - government could just as well be a entirely female.

Gradually, as we know, women have come to evade some of the obstacles placed in their paths.

Some people who condemn the negative effects of past and present inequalities of opportunity between men and women nonetheless maintain that the old differences were not entirely without justification.

They will tell you that it is a very good thing if a woman can be a physician - as long as she has her children and runs her home well.

They will tell you it is a good thing that a man should be a nurse - as long as he will join the army and fight in a time of national crisis.

In other words, they are asserting that though there can be a large area of overlap, there are areas of human experience that are instinctively male and others that are instinctively female.