How Cultural Context Affects Perceptions of Gender and Sexuality
Basically, a run down of things I learned in my college anthropology class.
Humans birthed culture, and culture influences how we see and move through the world. It provides a map for different aspects of life, such as, gender and sexuality. How we are expected to define these two aspects are culturally taught to us. The very fact that culture came from humans, results in the idea that it is inherently imperfect like humans. The implications of this is extremely relevant in today’s society. What happens when a society follows and accepts what its culture has taught them without inquiry?
Our evolving understanding about gender challenges the intensely debated question of whether boys and girls are determined through nature or culture. At birth, we all have a biological sex, and the culture we are born into teaches us how to behave accordingly based on that biological sex and recognize certain behaviors as masculine and feminine. This is the cultural construction of gender. Culture reflects the unique ways a specific group of people have interpreted and organized reality. It reflects how people make sense of their lives and the environment around them. For example, in the case of gender, when faced with a biological boy who naturally leans toward feminine behaviors associated with girls, how do people react? Typically, their reaction is often informed by the culture they grew up in and what they were taught as right or wrong, natural or unnatural. Typically, in our North American society, people are clearly put off by nonconforming gender behaviors and people, such as transgender people and those who take part in drag culture to name a few. Many who are heavily indoctrinated into the dichotomy of heteronormativity and never question it are often confused and frustrated at what they perceive as an unnatural deviation from what they consider to be right. And so, such ‘deviant’ people and behaviors are relegated to be problems within society that need to be ‘fixed’ or cut out.
We are taught, through our culture, that there’s only two very clear categories that people are born into, male and female. When you are born a male, you behave like a man, when you are born a female, you behave like a woman. This dualistic way of thinking cleanly satisfies the human need to label and categorize characteristics of life in a neat and predictable way. In general, humans tend to feel more comfortable knowing something, because they feel a sense of security and stability. It takes away the element of surprise and introduces constancy when you give specific rules to aspects of life such as gender or sexuality. A sense of knowing what’s going to happening is comforting, and so, people can develop little tolerance for the disruption to the consistency that cultural rules give. If a person grew up in a culture that believed masculinity and femininity are two distinct opposites where only one can exist in a person, then when presented with the understanding that a human isn’t one or the other, but an amalgam of both that is expressed differently in every individual, this person may express frustration at this notion brought about by being confronted with ideologies that upend their own and therefore threaten their sense of stability concerning this particular area of life.
Nature breeds variation and a lack of understanding of this can breed some harsh consequences. Science created a map for determining the biological sex of a person. “(1) genitalia, (2) gonads (testes and ovaries, which produce different hormones), and (3) chromosome patterns (women have two X chromosomes; men have one X and one Y)”. This framework yields sexual dimorphism, which is defined as the phenotypic differences between males and females of the same species. It’s very apparent to those in the scientific field that sexual dimorphism is not the end all be all of biological sex expression. There are people born as variations to this framework every day. For some of them, upon their birth it is quickly noticed that their genitalia is ambiguous. Typically, both the parents of the infant and the doctor are alarmed by this. This alarm is informed by their cultural understanding of what to expect gentalia to look like upon birth. Their culture does not adequately address variations from the model of sexual dimorphism and promotes the view that a variation is a deviation or a kind of deficiency that should be corrected. And with this context the parents and doctor’s first instinct is to alter the genitalia of the infant and assign it a gender. By changing the infant to fit into what they feel is the correct model of biological sex characteristics, the doctors typically feel justified and some don’t fully realize the magnitude of their actions and the error they’ve made.
In an article, The Five Sexes, Revisited, the author, Anne Fausto-Sterling, writes about psychologist John Money, who provided principles for managing cases of intersex babies in the 1950s. Money believed that gender identity was malleable after the first eighteen months after birth. And so, he advised that it is best to reassign the gender of an intersex baby based on what is surgically convenient. Parents were usually encouraged to raise the baby as its new assigned gender. This ties into the idea of biopower. Termed by social scientist Michel Foucault, biopower is defined as “the disciplining of the body through control of biological sex characteristics to meet a cultural need for clear distinctions between the sexes”. It never occurred to them that intersex infants were not abnormal and did not need correcting, or that the decision to have surgery on their genitalia should be left up to them at a later time when they’ve come of age.
Gender and sexuality are often talked about in the same breath due to the false assumption that one determines the other when in fact, the two are independent aspects of a person that interact, but aren’t causal. Sexuality often holds a lot of weight and controversy depending on the cultural context, therefore, although everyone is aware of it, no one speaks of it. Rather than speak, assumptions tend to be made based on observations of the person. Whether a person is a male or female, how they express their gender or whether they fulfill gender expectations are all weighed in a person’s mind when deciding or guessing someone’s sexuality. Like gender, sexuality is categorized and defined without consideration for how it naturally occurs in humans, but rather to sooth the human need for clear, distinct and predictable categories. Culture effects how a person directs their desires and apply them to a predetermined and limited number of expressions deemed acceptable by one’s society. Because of the perceived links between gender identity, gender expression and sexuality, people often think in fixed concepts. If you are a male, then you are a man and you are masculine and attracted only to women. And conversely, if you are a female, you are a woman and you are feminine and attracted only to men. These concepts are so strong within a society, that as one change occurs within it, we apply it to other aspects as well. If a man admits that he is attracted to men, people sometimes take it as if he is rejecting or minimizing his own masculinity, when that probably isn’t the case. However, this is culturally determined.
In the United States, men are expected to be tough, aggressive, heterosexual and to not have sexual relations with a man. To have sexual relations with a man would be perceived as damning to a man’s masculinity. However, if we were to switch cultural contexts to Nicaragua, we see something a bit different. The men are still expected to have that tough, aggressive masculine persona but are not considered homosexual for having sex with a man as long as they are the penetrators. Being the receiver is considered a passive role and therefore doesn’t fit with the machismo aggression that men are expected to have. However, being in what is seen as the dominant role fits with the machismo persona. There is an intersection of sexuality and power within Nicaraguan machismo culture where male bodies are given an elevated position when performing the role of the aggressive penetrator over the passive, receptive role of the penetrated.
In the 2005 documentary, Middle Sexes: Redefining He and She, they discuss the cultural expectations surrounding men’s sexuality in India. Within this cultural context it is more common for Indian men to have had their first sexual experience with a person of the same sex, however, they are expected to marry a woman. A simple shift in cultural context can easily change perceptions of masculinity and sexuality.
Culture has shaped how humans interpret reality and live our lives. And although culture is a beautifully unique expression of human diversity, it can also be a difficult hurdle to jump when trying to move forward and progress. It is important to appraise our own culture critically and reassess our societies beliefs and ask ourselves why we believe the things we do and what are these beliefs making us do to ourselves and each other.