An introduction to the social construction of sex, gender and sexuality

The featured image shows (clockwise from top left) Violet Chachki, non-binary drag queen known for competing on the Ru Paul's Drag Race Season 7, Ericka Hart, sex educator, model and activist who identifies as non-binary, Chellaman, a trans man, actor and activist, Munroe Bergdorf, model, speaker, activist, and trans woman,  and Alok V Menon, poet, activist, artist, and prominent speaker on trans and non-binary issues.

The following post is derived from classes that I developed to introduce feminist social constructionism to students with no background in Feminist, Gender, Sexuality or Queer Studies. It is necessarily short and simplified for a general audience.

I figure this resource could be helpful to others who want a starting point for understanding how sex, gender, and sexuality are socially constructed. However, it does not represent a definitive guide to feminist social constructionism, gender, sex, or sexuality and should not be treated as such. Feel free to use (and cite) this resource in your own classes and other work.

Citation: Marks, S. (2019) An introduction to the social construction of sex, gender and sexuality, Friendly Neighbourhood Feminist: https://friendlyneighbourhoodfeminist.wordpress.com/2019/12/05/an-introduction-to-the-social-construction-of-sex-gender-and-sexuality/

What does “socially constructed” mean?

For something to be socially constructed it is first and foremost not ‘natural’. It can be anything that gains significance through repetition of social norms and ideals to the point where it becomes commonly associated in context, whether or not it is based in fact. Often these social norms are taken-for-granted and considered natural or normal, despite not necessarily being factual. Social constructions are historically and culturally specific and subject to change. An example related to gender could refer the binary construction of gender (masculine and feminine in opposition to each other) and assumptions that women who are less feminine are gay (or vice versa for men).

Sex = Biological characteristics that define a person as male, female or intersex

Sex, gender and sexuality are so inextricably linked that they can be difficult to unweave from each other. However, major differences include that sex is the most linked to natural ideas because it refers to perceived biological and physical differences between men and women, like hormones.

However, sex is socially constructed in how we understand and communicate about it. Sex is also not a clear cut ‘natural’ phenomenon because of the existence of intersex people (people with genitals or other markers that are either both male and female or neither) and some examples around sex testing and hormones in sport (like Hannah Mouncey or Caster Semenya).

The Caster Semenya case is particularly illuminating because Semenya was assigned female at birth and identifies as a woman but has been subjected to “gender verification”procedures and ‘sex testing’ because she ‘appears’ androgynous, has ‘unusually’ high testerone levels, and is an exceptionally high-performing athlete.

Sex segregation in sports exists to allow women opportunities to succeed since male elite athletes regularly outperform female elite athletes. However, this forces regulatory bodies to define what ‘femaleness’, often using crude measures that are built on assumptions and are discriminatory, especially towards women of colour. Defining femaleness has been considered crucial in sex segregated sports to maintain fairness to women competitors but similar standards are not commonly imposed in men’s sports (Schultz 2019).

Caster Semenya’s case highlights several assumptions about women athletes and women’s sports including:

The social construction of biological sex, including an overreliance on testosterone, despite testerone not being a proven predictor of athletic performance or sex (Longman 2016)

The idea that women who appear androgynous are ‘not really women’, related to the social construction of femininity, which is gendered, racialised and sexualised.

High performing women athletes are ‘unnatural’ and there must be some other explanation, i.e. that they are ‘really’ men or are otherwise cheating.

Women athletes are vulnerable and must be protected. This assumption is made visible by the insistence on a level playing field for only women’s sports and further assumptions that women’s sports are at risk of being infiltrated by ‘men pretending to be women’. This assumption relies on the ideas that 1) trans women are not real women, 2) trans women have a physical advantage over women assigned female at birth, despite such claims being discriminatory and unscientific.

Gender = identity and expression

  • Can be masculine or feminine presenting and non-binary
  • Often thought of as existing on a spectrum
  • Culturally specific, some cultures recognise multiple genders

Gender refers to expression and identity and is entirely socially constructed. We can see that because of how difficult it is to identify definitively what is masculine or feminine and how often this changes across time or contexts (including culture). Many cultures have recognised the existence of more than two genders, this is not a new idea.

A binary system also excludes non binary people and assumes a uniformity amongst masculine and feminine identifying people. I identify as a woman and with ‘femininity’ but I definitely don’t look like a 1950s housewife everyday. My expression of femininity changes day-to-day. The variety in my, and others who identify as women, expression of femininity highlights that the way we conceptualise femininity is not natural and is loaded with assumptions. We can link many harmful assumptions based on gender to the conceptualisation of gender as a rigid binary.

Sexuality = sexual attraction which can be physical, emotional or a combination

  • Monosexual = attracted to one gender, same (homo) or different (hetero)
  • Bisexual = attracted to one or more genders (also pansexual or queer)
  • Demisexual = attraction based on emotional connection
  • Asexual = does not experience sexual attraction (contentious definition)

Sexuality is about physical and emotional attraction, although some would include spiritual attraction in their definition. There are two main categorisations of sexuality, specifically monosexual and bisexual. Monosexual means attracted to one gender, hetero (different) or homo (same). Bisexual means attracted to two or more genders and includes terms like pansexual and queer. The reason for differentiation in the terminology is because of individual preference and political context. When “bi” is taken to mean two”, the term bisexual can be seen as excluding trans and non-binary people (See Eisner for more). The historical exclusion of trans and non-binary people means that it is important to distinguish between monosexual and bisexual.

Sexuality is influenced by biology, but sexual preferences are socially constructed in many ways. The example we used in class is the commonality of “no fats, femmes or Asians in the bios of Grindr (a dating app for gay men) users. Where (and how) do so many men learn that they aren’t attracted to all feminine, fat or Asian people? And what do each of those terms actually mean? What are the associations with each of those terms?

Exercise: Sex, gender, and sexuality in the AFL

Towards the end of the topic, students were asked to reengage with the introduction to feminist social constructionism and apply the theory to examples within sport, specifically elite Australian football (AFL). Students were asked to pick a case to discuss in groups and consider  the assumptions about sex, gender and sexuality present in the examples in the below images.

This exercise is provided for use in a classroom to help students engage with and apply feminist social constructionism.

Citation: Marks, S. (2019) Exercise: Sex, gender, and sexuality in the AFL. Developed for HLPE2541. Available online: https://friendlyneighbourhoodfeminist.wordpress.com/2019/12/05/an-introduction-to-the-social-construction-of-sex-gender-and-sexuality/

 

sex gender and sexuality in the afl.png

Clockwise from top left:

‘WAGs’ at the Brownlow

Sam Newman dressing/undressing and groping a mannequin with Caroline Wilson’s face on it during the Footy Show

Headline about Eddie McGuire “joking” about drowning Caroline Wilson on radio

Comments made by Chris Judd about the AFL’s decision not to let Hannah Mouncey play in The AFLW

Response to Tayla Harris’ iconic kick

Erin Phillips kissing wife Tracey and comments made by Herald Sun senior sports journalist

Headline after Stephen Milne charged with rape

Detective on Milne case comments to another officer debating the validity of the case

Social media post of Dustin Martin and several objectifying social media comments

Spida Everitt’s comments about rape allegations involving footballers

Jason Akermanis’op ed advising gay AFL players to stay closeted

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