Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, Spring 2012
7.1 Gender and Sexuality
Sex / Gender
• Sex: biological differences that are more or less unalterable (e.g., Y chromosome in males, different genitalia).
• Gender: the traits that a culture assigns to and inculcates in males and females (social and cultural construction of
male and female characteristics).
Margaret Mead (1901 – 1978)
• Student of Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict.
– Culture and Personality: How does culture determine personality of the individual?
• Popular writer; public face of anthropology (1930s-70s).
• Cultures can only be understood with reference to their particular historical developments (Boas’ Historical
• Each culture shapes personality of individual (Benedict’s Culture and Personality).
• “Having originally taken its values from the values dear to some human temperaments and alien to others, a culture
embodies these values more and more firmly in its structure, in its political and religious systems, in its art and
literature; and each new generation is shaped, firmly and definitely, to the dominant trends.” (Margarent Mead)
One of Mead’s Contributions
• Gender roles, stereotypes, and stratification are socially and culturally constructed (emphasis of Mead’s research).
The Social Construction of Gender (Lorber)
• Something we take for granted in everyday social practices and interactions.
• We “do gender” without thinking. We notice it most when encountering “disruptions”.
• Starts at birth (dressing, naming): sex category becomes gender status.
• Once gender is evident, people treat that individual accordingly.
• Gender behaviors and roles change (constantly created and recreated through social interactions).
• If they were natural (biologically determined), then they would be immutable. But . . .
– They vary cross-culturally. They vary across time within a culture.
Gender Roles: The tasks and activities a culture assigns to the sexes.
Gender Stereotypes: Strongly held ideas about the characteristics of males and females.
Gender Stratification: Rights and responsibilities allocated according to gender (ordering of society).
• What men do is often valued more highly (education; economic activities; politics; etc.).
• Gender ideology legitimates stratification.
Domestic-Public Dichotomy (differentiation between home and outside world).
– Strong differentiation correlates with more gender stratification (higher status for men).
Beyond Male and Female
Transgender includes: Intersex individuals who have both male and female biological traits. Individuals whose gender
identity is different than biological sex and gender identity assigned in infancy. “Biology isn’t destiny; people construct
their identities in society.”
• Member of the “third” gender in India (seen as neither male nor female).
• Often are intersex (genitalia is neither exclusively male or female).
• Low status, marginal members of society.
• Make living by performing at weddings and birth ceremonies (association with fertility) .
Sex & Social Control: Formal Means
– Jim Crow Prohibitions; Statutory Rape; Bestiality Laws; Sodomy Laws
Sex & Social Control: Informal Means
How do informal means of social control influence sexual behaviors?
Sex and Culture
Culture and Nature: cultural traditions convert natural acts into cultural customs.
• Sex is a natural act (procreation) surrounded by a variety of cultural customs.