The debate over the construction of gender, sex, and sexual orientation is high on the agenda among the public as no consensus has been reached yet. Notably, the contrasting arguments in the debate over the construction of the mentioned concepts have been attributed to different social and political ideologies, which is why the argument has not been resolved. While some argue that sex, gender, and sexual orientation are rooted in the DNA of an individual and therefore stem from biological origins, others argue the opposite. In their view, society constructs gender, sex, and sexual orientation through the categorization and delineation of males, females, and others as a social decision. Thus, the question remains: are sex, gender, and social orientation real (biologically determined) or socially constructed ideas?
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To further the discussion on the social construction of gender, sex, and sexual orientation, it is important to provide definitions and differentiate between them. Sex refers to either of the two categories, male or female, in which the majority of animals, including humans, are divided based on their reproductive functions. Gender identifies the state of being either male or female in regards to both cultural and social roles that are seen as expected and appropriate for men and women. Sexual orientation refers to the type of attraction individuals have and therefore pursues in their relationships. Most common orientations include straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and asexual. Thus, sexual orientation is different from gender because the latter identifies something and someone with whom an individual identifies. This means that being transgender is different from being bisexual: while a person feels that their assigned sex is different from the gender with which they identify, their sexual preference has no impact on that feeling.
One Side of the Argument
Since the overwhelming majority of humans are born either with an XY or XX chromosomal constitutions, most researchers in the field have held a view that sex cannot be socially constructed. The bimodal distribution of chromosomes is binary, except for intersex births, which means that an individual is born either male or female. The reproductive organs present in either of the sexes play distinct roles in the differentiation between genders, with the social roles being seen as secondary. In addition, sexual reproduction involves only two individuals: a male and a female, which also supports the idea that there are two sexes (Colegrave, 2012). However, the opponents of the view that there are more than two sexes suggest that sex is socially constructed and that physicians at birth should not assign sex to infants. Nevertheless, the biological underpinnings of sex cannot be doubted, which is why the debate regarding this issue has been ongoing.
The publishing of Gender by Ivan Illich in 1982 marked the emergence of the perspective that gender has been severely politicized to mean the arbitrary and socially developed nature of sexes. It is important to understand that Illich meant that deeper gender roles were essential to the art of living, and their loss in social discourse would be ineffective. Unfortunately, this perspective made Illich an ‘enemy’ of the feminist establishment that saw his book as an attack on the integrity of the movement that worked toward the equalization of sexes.
In the current social discourse, such activists as Jordan Petersons are supporting Illich’s view to suggest that differences between sexes and genders matter and that they are far more complex than others may perceive. For some, the message of “no matter how much we are trying to flatten the differences between sexes, they stubbornly endure” seems depressing (Sweeny, 2018, para. 6). However, it is important to understand that within this perspective, gender was not socially invented to ensure that men can oppress women. Rather, eliminating gender categories in society can have unintended effects, such as what occurred in Sweden. The establishment of institutional equality in gender roles among men and women led to the biological imperative to come through. For instance, there are as many women-physicians and men-engineers in the country as there have never been before (“Women and men in Sweden,” 2018). Therefore, the assignment of gender roles to men and women are seen as imperatives among the opponents of the social construction of gender.
The Other Side of the Argument
The social construction of gender is an aspect of the feminist and sociologic theory that explores the operations of gender roles and differences in societies. According to Lindsey’s (2015) The Sociology of Gender: Theoretical Perspectives and Feminist Frameworks, society and culture play defining roles in developing and prescribing appropriate behaviors of individuals of a specific sex. The theory leads to the idea that behavioral differences in males and females are completely social conventions as opposed to Illich’s view that there are biological factors that shape the behaviors of individuals of opposing sex.
Gender roles have been loosely divided into personality traits, domestic behaviors, occupations, and physical appearance. The general gender stereotype of women refers to the expectation of them be emotional and accommodating. Men are seen as aggressive and self-confident in regards to their personality traits. In terms of domestic behaviors, some societies expect women to take care of their households, raise children, prepare food, and clean (“What are gender roles and stereotypes?,” 2019). Men, on the opposite end of the spectrum, should be in charge of finances, work on their cars, and do home improvement projects. In occupations, societies usually assume that teaching and nursing are more acceptable for women than men while the latter should be engineers, lawyers, pilots, or politicians. Physical appearance is also a component of socially constructed and expected norms: while women are expected to be graceful and thin, men should be tall and muscular.
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According to the study by Diamond and Butterworth (2008), similarly to gender roles, gender identity is not stable or fixed but rather is influenced by society and can vary in one individual over time. This means that the researchers argue against the assignment of sex at birth and support allowing individuals to decide for themselves the sex with which they want to identify. Sun and Yu (2016) suggested that children wanted to align with the accepted constructs attributed to their sex. As mentioned in their research findings, 6-year-old children tend to conform to choices and behaviors that their peers exhibit regularly. This means that socially expected behaviors are learned from a young age, especially given the finding of Sun and Yu (2016) that children tend to sustain conformity with accepted peer behaviors and can change their private opinions due to the social impact of their peers.
To further focus on gender identity, it is notable to mention that Diamond and Butterworth (2008) suggested that both sexual and gender identity are fluid and cannot always be categorized into desired concepts and characteristics. They concluded interviewing sexual minority women over ten years. The interviews provided some insights into women’s lives and pointed to the range of unique experiences and perspectives. For instance, one of the interviewees indicated that her early childhood was predominantly regular and only in her adolescence she started posing questions about her sexuality, although not making any changes. Only when she grew up and started working along with men she developed a masculine perspective on the world and questioned her identity again. This led to her identifying as ‘he’ while remaining attracted to men, which meant that the woman in the past would become a homosexual man. The example illustrates the fact that sex, gender roles, identities, and orientations are not fixed for some people and that they can shift through the lifetime.
One of the main misconceptions associated with the social construction of gender is that the idea overlooks any biological underpinnings of genders. However, the core message of the theory of social construction is that society has a direct effect on how gender roles and other related concepts are shaped and how people choose to navigate them. In instances when individuals choose to identify with a different gender or are attracted to people not in a “socially acceptable way,” there will always be instances of oppression, public misunderstanding, and conflicts. Also, social status, culture, and education can influence the shaping of gender roles and identities (Chalabaev, Sarrazin, Fontayne, Boiché, & Clément-Guillotin, 2013). In addition, in countries with strict social policies that are supported by religious doctrines, reaching equality in the sense of choosing one’s identity or roles can be extremely limiting for citizens. Overall, there is an undoubted influence of social norms on how individuals conduct themselves in gender roles and identities; however, it is important to consider the opposite perspective on the topic.
Giving a concrete answer to the question of whether gender, sex, and sexual orientation are constructed by society is hard given the exploration of opposing opinions. The findings of researchers who studied the impact of society on gender roles, gender identity, and sexual orientations differ depending on the nature of their exploration. For example, the study into Sweden’s institutional elimination of gender roles in society showed that equality plays no role in responsibilities or occupations that either men or women choose to pursue. The fact that the numbers of women-nurses and men-engineers increased suggested that society did not push them to choose the professions; rather, it was their choices and aspirations that drove their choices. On the other end of the spectrum, scholars found that gender roles and gender identities are rooted in social norms, as the study with six-year-olds showed.
Thus, even if sexual orientation, gender roles, and sex are all socially constructed, it does not mean that they are not real. In many instances, an individual’s shaping of gender identity is a combination of both biological and social factors, and putting one perspective against the other is ineffective to the current discussion. It is important to acknowledge both sides of the argument and find matching points and shape the discussion based on them rather than the differences.
Chalabaev, A., Sarrazin, R., Fontayne, P., Boiché, J., & Clément-Guillotin, C. (2013). The influence of sex stereotypes and gender roles on participation and performance in sport and exercise: Review and future directions. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 14(2), 136-144.
Colegrave, N. (2012). The evolutionary success of sex. Science & Society Series on Sex and Science. EMBO reports, 13(9), 774-778.
Diamond, L., & Butterworth, M. (2008). Questioning gender and sexual identity: Dynamic links over time. Sex Roles, 59(5-6), 365-376.
Lindsey, L. (2015). Gender roles: A sociological perspective. New York, NY: Routledge.
Sun, S., & Yu, R. (2016). Social conformity persists at least one day in 6-year-old children. Scientific reports, 6, 39588.
Sweeny, A. (2018). Jordan Peterson and gender and the disappearance of Ivan Illich. Medium. Web.
What are gender roles and stereotypes? (2019). Web.
Women and men in Sweden. (2018). Web.