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Question 1

How does Gayle Rubin?s ?sex/gender system? help us understand the position of women in Egyptian society as described at the beginning of the chapter? According to Nawal el Saadawi, how are sexism and patriarchy present in both the Arab and Western worlds?

Question 2

Women represent a minority group in the military. Men are in the minority as nurses and paralegals. How are women and men treated differently in these positions, and what does this suggest about the way gender structures social relations?

Question 5

What is ?essentialism?? Explain how John Gray?s book Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus could be described as essentialist.

Question 6

How does Talcott Parsons describe the role of men and women in his ?sex role theory?? Explain how conflict theories can be seen as a critique of structural functionalism and describe some limitations of each approach.

Question 8

More differences seem to exist among boys and girls than between them. Nonetheless, we tend to think of them as different. What are ?deceptive distinctions? and how do they create gender differences? Use an example from Rosabeth Kanter?s work to support your answer.

8 Gender

















In social science, there is a statistical technique called ?individual fixed effects.? Basically it


boils down to comparing an outcome across time as some factor changes. So, for example, if we


want to know whether having kids makes people happier and more fulfilled, we might ask them


before they have their first child and then again afterward. Fixed effects can be used to look at


the effect of marriage and divorce on health; of education on wages; of home ownership on


savings rates; and of family income on kids? test scores. However, certain key sociological


variables resist fixed effects, simply because they don?t change over time. Think race. Think


birth cohort. Think parents? age. And, of course, think sex. Very few people get to experience life


in both locker rooms, so to speak. Sex isn?t a boundary we typically flip back and forth across.


However, it has been known to happen. Among the estimated 25,000 or so Americans who have


undergone sexual reassignment surgery, few are probably better positioned to report with a


scientific eye than Deirdre McCloskey, a Harvard-trained, world-renowned economist who used


to be named Donald.


Perhaps it was the combination of her gifts of economic science and beautiful writing style that


made McCloskey destined to be the one who would prominently (and touchingly) describe


effects of gender (and her associated border crossing) to a wide readership in her memoir,





?It?s strange to have been a man and now to be a woman,? she admits. ?But it?s no stranger


perhaps than having been a West African and now being an American, or once a priest and now a


businessman. Free people keep deciding to make strange crossings, from storekeeper to monk or


from civilian to soldier or from man to woman. Crossing boundaries is a minority interest, but


human? (McCloskey, 1999, p. xii).


page 274


Written in the third person?certainly rare if not totally unique among memoirs?in order to


reconcile the multiple selves that McCloskey experienced over the course of his/her adulthood,


Crossing details the harrowing journey across the invisible yet robust boundary of sex/gender.


This voyage was made all the more improbable by McCloskey?s advanced age (52) at the time


then-Donald initiated the biological process of the change after decades of cross-dressing,


fathering and providing for two children, and serving as a husband and professionally active


man. And it was made not only improbable but dramatic by the fact that McCloskey?s sister?a


professional psychologist?stopped his various surgeries several times by threatening to sue the


surgeons and had him committed to a mental hospital against his will. Indeed, she had worked so


hard that after his penile removal surgery, he feared waking up ?crazy.?


Ultimately, however, Deirdre triumphed: After almost $100,000 of uncovered medical expenses,


procedures that were performed across North America and even Australia (including facial bone


surgery, voice surgery, and hormone therapy, just to name a few), Deirdre emerged happy, if


weatherworn, to document the process while beginning a new life. Estranged from his ex-wife


and kids, she nonetheless was relieved (not crazy) to engage in the painful process of stretching


his neovagina?fashioned from some of his small intestine?for 30 minutes each day; to


continue the laborious (and also painful) electrolysis treatments; and to otherwise continue the


journey into womanhood?a continent she had previously visited as a cross-dressing tourist,


hoping to pass for a native in Donald?s dresses.


Along the way, McCloskey indeed chronicles a number of changes that she experienced before


and after, as man and then as woman. It?s too bad that his ex-wife couldn?t stay married to the


female McCloskey, because Deirdre speculates that she might, in fact, like this version better:


?His wife would become angry if he talked of his Chicago doubt [back when he was deciding


whether to leave his faculty position at the prestigious University of Chicago economics


department], for it was tedious after a while to listen to the whining. My ex-wife would like


Deirdre better if she knew her, she reflected. No angst? (p. 149).



What does economist Deirdre McCloskey?s experiences on both sides of the sex/gender divide


tell us about the differences between sex, gender, and sexuality?


page 275


McCloskey also wrote down 41 differences between Donald and Deirdre, some of which fall into


the realm of well-worn gender stereotypes. (McCloskey is the first to note that however rigid and


defended the boundary of sex is, the experience of gender operates along a continuum and


consists of a culturally instantiated grab bag of characteristics that are found among individuals


of both sexes in varying degrees.) Below are twenty of those differences:







She cries.








She sweats less.








She loses weight less easily.








Her color memory and color vocabulary are a little better.








She works at remembering what people wear.








She likes cooking.








She listens intently to stories people tell of their lives, and craves detail.







She is more alert to relational details in stories (?Ah, I see, she?s his cousin by


marriage?). She finds herself remembering the family trees, the ex-boyfriends, the big










She is less impatient.








She drives more slowly and less aggressively.








She can?t remain angry for long.








She feels duty bound to wash the dishes.







She loves, just loves, the little favors of womankind?getting a card for someone,


making meatloaf for Charles up the street, helping someone through a day of his life.







She assumes a less confident mask for dealings with salespeople and auto










She is uninterested in sports and finds the sports pages pointless.








She no longer thinks of social life as strict exchange.








She dotes on every child she meets.








She has more friends.








She thinks less about sex.








She gets as much pleasure from loving as from being loved.



All we need now is a whole group of social scientists to go through this form of participant


observation so that we can obtain a statistical distribution of effects! Or maybe not. Actually,


sometimes what is gained in narrative is lost in numbers.



Mars and Venus


If you think Deirdre McCloskey?s list of differences between herself and her male predecessor is


long, that?s just a drop in the bucket when it comes to the divergence of men and women, or so


says pop psychologist John Gray. Gray argues that men and women differ so fundamentally in


their values, attitudes, thought processes, preferences, and behavior patterns that they might as


well be from different planets altogether. (Interplanetary travel might explain the exhaustion


McCloskey felt after his journey into a she.) Gray writes that men and women don?t even speak


the same language, but have distinct biologically and psychically driven styles of


communication, feeling, and action.



Gray?s relationship guidebook Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (1992) was a best


seller for a decade. It sold more than 14 million copies and inspired nearly a dozen spin-offs,


from Mars and Venus on a Date to a diet and health book with such recipes as the Mars?Venus


supershake. So widely recognized is the book?s title that now, when the tricky issue of gender


relations rises to the fore, as it so often does in America, we often discuss the matter in terms of


the innate differences between Martians and Venusians.


When you deal with the stress of dating and breakups, you might be tempted to use the Mars?


Venus framework. It offers the appeal of easy-to-grasp, commonsense generalizations. Men and


women are different biological organisms, according to Gray, and their biological differences


manifest themselves in the ways men and women behave. By nature, allegedly, men don?t like to


express their feelings but instead retreat to their ?caves? after a hard day at the office. Women are


just more expressive and relational, always communicating about their feelings. These things are


just biological givens, so individuals must take personal action to navigate what nature?s given


us, or so the self-help books would have us believe.


If you?re a sociologist, this kind of thinking won?t get you too far in explaining concepts such as


sex, sexuality, gender, and the many messy complications, exceptions, and social patterns that


beg for explanations beyond the individual, psychical, or biological levels. In the marketplace of


ideas, sociological explanations are always at a disadvantage compared with pop psychological


explanations of complex social phenomena. People prefer quick, easy answers to the long and


often arduous sociological route. After all, they make more intuitive sense at first blush, they?re


easier to grasp, and we?re accustomed to them. Unfortunately, they are often wrong. On the


sociologist?s path, you?ll have to leave behind your Mars?Venus guidebooks (including the


shortened, illustrated version) and instead take up the sociological imagination. Sex and gender


may, in fact, be the most difficult areas to remember that what seems natural is often anything


but. The seemingly rigid and innate differences between the ?opposite sexes? can turn out to be





Why would a sociologist disagree with the arguments about gender that John Gray poses in Men


Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus?


page 277


In applying our sociological imaginations to sex and gender, we will come across many feminist


strands of thought. Feminism was at first embraced as a consciousness-raising movement to get


people to understand that gender is an organizing principle of life; gender matters because it


structures relations between people. Further, as gender structures social relations, it does this on


unequal ground, so there are real powers and privileges at stake in gender ideology.


Neoconservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh would have you believe that feminism ?was


established to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream? (Media Matters for


America, 2005). In fact, the basic idea behind feminism is that women and men should be


accorded equal opportunities and respect?a position that almost anyone in the contemporary


United States would be hard pressed to criticize. Feminists tend to be less interested in erasing


the differences between men and women than in uncovering the power stakes behind the socially


constructed differences between the genders.



The sociologist?s first task is to disentangle the terms sex, sexuality, and gender. Sex is typically


used to describe the biological differences that distinguish males from females. Sexuality refers


to desire, sexual preference, and sexual identity and behavior. Far from being strictly natural,


how we have sex and with whom vary by time and place. Gender denotes a social position, the


set of social arrangements that are built around normative sex categories. It is, you could say,


what people do with the physical materials of sex.


No one disputes that biological differences exist between men and women. However, what we


make of those differences does not inevitably arise out of the biological. Gender is one set of


stories we tell each other and believe in to get by in the world. It?s a collectively defined


guidebook that humans use to make distinctions among themselves, to separate one being from


another, and to comprehend an otherwise fuzzy mass of individuals. But the gender story can


change, and we?ll see how it has done so throughout history and across cultures. To grasp this


insight takes sociological imagination, and it brings us closer to understanding the power of


ideas. We consistently behave as though women act a certain way that is distinct from the


behavior of men, until those behaviors and attitudes become so ingrained they seem inevitable.


Herein lies the paradox: Gender is a social construction, but it is so deeply rooted and seemingly


natural that it is a major structure organizing our everyday lives?our goals, our desires, even our


bodies. And if gender is a human invention, we have to take it as seriously as we would any other


institution, as Judith Lorber argues. In Paradoxes of Gender (1994), Lorber claims that gender is


a social institution that ?establishes patterns of expectations for individuals, orders the social


processes of everyday life, is built into the major social organizations of society, such as the


economy, ideology, the family, and politics, and is also an entity in and of itself.? Although


gender is a social construction, it matters in the real world, organizing our day-to-day


experiences and having profound consequences for the life chances of men and women. Gender


is ultimately about power struggles and how they organize daily life, from household economies


and wage labor to birth control and babies? names.



Sex: A Process in the Making


We make sense of much variation between men and women by referring to their biological


differences. This can range from the behavioral consequences of hormones (such as premenstrual


syndrome), relative physical strength of bodies (?regular? versus ?girl? push-ups), brain


architecture (subsequent rational or irrational action), and chromosomes (XX or XY). But in so


doing, we tend to miss a crucial link between nature and nurture. The study of gender boils down


to seeing how the two spheres, nature and nurture, overlap, penetrate, and shape each other. The


biological world of sex and bodies does not exist outside of a social world, and the social world


of human beings is always made up of human bodies. Studying the links between the two allows


us to see the social construction of both gender and sex.


Gayle Rubin, in her influential essay ?The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ?Political Economy?


of Sex? (1975), called the social construction of gender categories based on natural sex


differences the ?sex/gender system.? Rubin claimed that in every society, a division of labor by


gender occurred, one in which men universally performed the kinds of tasks accorded higher


value than those done by women. Men did the hunting and the fighting; they ran corporations



and governments. But a decade later, scholars paused to consider that perhaps Rubin got it


wrong. What?s so natural about a sexed body in the first place?


This might strike you as a strange question. Bodies are, so we think, natural, God-given, sacred,


hardwired. Human babies come equipped with a set of male or female organs, hormones, and


chromosomes?what we might call ?the plumbing? that you?re equipped with at birth. We think


of sex as an either/or binary. You?re either male or female. But in fact, there are some peculiar


exceptions and blurred lines that have led sociologists to view this model of natural sex as more


of an ideal than an absolute.


Consider the story of David Reimer, otherwise known as ?John/Joan.? In 1976, Reimer was an


average baby boy who, at eight months of age, suffered a botched circumcision that left him with


virtually no penis. Under the guidance of Dr. John Money at Johns Hopkins University, Reimer?s


parents agreed to have their son undergo sex reassignment surgery. David was surgically made


into a girl, Brenda, who would go on to endure one heck of a tough childhood.


page 279


John Money claimed for years that Brenda was a success story of his approach to dealing with intersex


children, those who are born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn?t seem to fit the typical


definitions of female or male. Here was proof that nurture trumped nature in sexual identity; you could


raise a genetic male as a girl and she?d turn out just fine. Sex reassignment surgery was the best solution


to cases like David Reimer?s, Money argued. As it turns out, Money was wrong. Despite the hormone


treatments and her frilly dresses and curly hair, Brenda never did feel comfortable as a girl. When Reimer


learned the truth in his adolescence, he made several suicide attempts before eventually changing his


sex identity back to that of a male. Later, he underwent reconstructive surgery that enabled him to have


a normal sex life (Colapinto, 2000).



John/Joan?s story has had little effect on the way physicians treat intersex children. Most notable


has been the founding of the Intersex Society of North America (ISNA) in 1993, which


advocates reform in the medical practice of sex reassignment (ISNA, 2006). Surgeons today still


recommend secretive surgery during infancy to make intersex children conform to an ideal of


normal genitalia. About 90 percent of these surgeries reassign an ambiguous male anatomy into a


female one because, in the disquieting phrase of the surgical world, ?It?s easier to make a hole


than build a pole.? A 2000 American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement on intersex surgery


states that ?the birth of a child with ambiguous genitalia constitutes a social emergency.? To


quickly resolve the ?emergency,? doctors are advised to examine external genitalia ?to determine


the degree of masculinization.? Furthermore, the statement continues, ?The size of the phallus


and its potential to develop at puberty into a sexually functional penis are of paramount


importance.? So size does matter, it seems, at least to doctors.


A general rule among doctors is that a phallus less than 2 centimeters in length constitutes a


?micropenis? (although that standard changes from time to time), and a male infant would be


better off raised as a female rather than suffer the shame of a small penis. While physicians claim


to have the interests of the child and the parents at heart, what else is at stake in intersex births?


The social notion of a binary sex is also being protected. A binary sex system imposes order in



the world and helps us makes sense of an otherwise complicated mass of populations. Yet it also


limits our ability to accept difference. It is the goal of ISNA to reduce embarrassment and


secrecy over intersex conditions.



David Reimer was subjected to gender reassignment surgery at 18 months old. What does his


story tell us about the relationship between biological sex and gender identity?


page 280


Most people think?if they think about it at all?that the medical construction of sex applies only to a


handful of individuals. Based on a review of medical literature from 1955 to 1998, Brown University


biology researcher Anne Fausto-Sterling estimates that the number of deviations from the binary of male


or female bodies may be as high as 2 percent of live births, and the number of people receiving


?corrective? genital surgery runs between 1 and 2 in every 1,000 births (Fausto-Sterling 2000). Just to


give you an idea of what 2 in 1,000 looks like, there are now about 2 in 1,000 children born with Trisomy


21 (also known as Down?s syndrome), a biological condition that is more visible than intersex. Human


variation within and across the two sexes is surprisingly high, and intersex activists point to the fact that


social discomfort and fear of difference, rather than medical necessity, may be what pushes parents and


surgeons to the operating table.



Surgeons medically construct their version of ?proper? or ?normal? sex, in conjunction with one


on which most of us also agree. What makes a male a male and not a female? To answer this,


many people would unhesitatingly mention the presence of testosterone and a penis. But consider


for a moment that women also have some testosterone?the chemical boundaries are not as rigid


as our socially constructed categories. If you?re having trouble with the modern medical



definition of sex categories, then perhaps the ancient Greeks can persuade you to consider the


sociohistorical production of sex. Our present-day understanding of sex, in fact, goes way back.



Sexed Bodies in the Premodern World


Whereas Dr. John Money operated on a mutually exclusive two-sex model of human body types,


a lesser known but equally plausible ?one-sex? model dominated Western biological thought


from the ancient Greeks until the mid-eighteenth century (Laqueur, 1990). In the old one-sex


way of thinking, there was only one body (a male body) and the female body was regarded as its


inversion?that is, as a male body whose parts were flipped inside rather than hanging on the


outside. People believed that women were a lesser but not so radically different version of men.


Not until the two-sex model of human bodies gained ground did women and men become such


radically different creatures in the popular conception. Incidentally, historian Thomas Laqueur


shows us that this differentiation of bodies prompted changes in ideas about the female orgasm.


In the one-sex model, it was believed that both a man?s orgasm and a woman?s were


requirements for conception. (There is new medical evidence that dual orgasms do increase the


chance of conception.) In the mid-1800s, female orgasm was considered unnecessary. Whereas


seventeenth-century (female) midwives advised would-be mothers that the trick to conceiving


lay in an orgasm, nineteenth-century (male) doctors debated whether it was even possible for


women to experience orgasm.



page 281


Contemporary Concepts of Sex and the Paradoxes of Gender


The point of all this sex talk is to challenge our tendency to think of bodies as wholly


deterministic. This is not to say that biology isn?t a driving force, but merely to acknowledge that


our understandings of, categorizations of, and behavior toward bodies are not set in stone. By


contrast, essentialist arguments, also called essentialism, explain social phenomena in terms of


natural ones. The hallmarks of essentialism are fixity, lack of history, absolutism, and biological


determinism?meaning that what you do in the social world should be a direct result of who you


are in the natural world. If you are born with male parts, essentialists believe, you are essentially


and absolutely a man, and you will be sexually attracted to women only, as preordained by


nature. Medical experts today maintain the ideal of a dimorphic or binary (either male or female)


model of sex by tweaking babies who blur the boundaries. The trick is to recognize that the very


boundaries separating male and female bodies are themselves somewhat contested.


This is not to say that there is no biological reality or that everything is a social construction.


However, a common assumption we make is that biology comes before or dictates behavior, but


sociologists now think of the nature?behavior relationship as a two-way street. Confused yet?


Feminist philosopher Elizabeth Grosz (1994) proposes that we view the relationship between the


natural and the social (in this case, sex and gender) as existing on a M?bius strip. The M?bius


strip is an old math puzzle that looks like a twisted ribbon loop, yet it has just one side and one


edge. Biological sex, the plumbing, makes up the inside of the strip, whereas the social world?


culture, experience, and gender?make up the outside. But as happens in the contours of gender,



the inside and outside surfaces are inseparable. In thinking or talking about sex and gender, we


often switch from one to the other without even noticing that we?ve changed our focus (FaustoSterling, 2000). Some societies in various historical periods have made sense of the plumbing in


different ways, and these explanations become the social construction of gender.



Elizabeth Grosz uses a M?bius strip, such as this one drawn by M. C. Escher, as a model for sex


and gender. Even though the ants appear to be above or below each other, they are really on the


same side of the strip.



Gender: What Does It Take to Be a Woman (or a Man)?


You have now learned about a case in which sex was conferred rather than innate. Medically and


historically, biological sex does not exist in the world in some fixed, natural state. Our next step


is to trace the different social senses that humans have taken from sex. There are many historical


and cross-cultural meanings, roles, and scripts for behavior that we like to think correspond to


more or less fixed biological categories. This complete set of scripts is what sociologists refer to


as gender, or the division of people, behaviors, and institutions into two categories: male and




Much like sex difference, people tend to think that gender difference is a natural cleavage


between two static groups?you?re either a man or a woman. Why do men tend to fight one


another, dominate the hard sciences, and outnumber women in the top political offices? Why do


women tend to mother, stay more connected with their families, and outnumber men in


occupations that involve caring for others? The short (essentialist) answer is that men and


women are naturally (that is, biologically) different, so they behave differently.



The longer, sociological...


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