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The Sexuality/Gender Distinction
Gender and sexuality are socially constructed states that describe sexual distinctions. Gender describes a system of behaviours, roles, beliefs/values, and characteristics associated with individuals of a particular biological sex (Brickell 2003). This means that gender is a cultural construct wherein behaviours that conform to the expectations of the culture are labelled gender-normative while those that do not are considered to be gender non-conforming (Brickell 2003).
In most cultures, gendered behaviours and aesthetic features are associated with either masculine or feminine traits. Objects and activities are assigned a gender in a common usage of language, which facilitates the gender socialisation process. This implies that gender is a social construct that embodies the cultural expectations and norms practiced by a given society.
Sexuality, on the other hand, is a social representation of sexual desires, practices, and orientations. Erotic stimuli, which may be different for each person, create the desire to engage in sexual activity (McCabe, Tanner & Heiman 2010). Based on the arousal stimuli, a person can be described as being heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual. Sexual desire is the sum of a person’s erotic feelings and thoughts while sexual practice describes the behaviour that accompanies sexual activity. Sexual orientation, on the other hand, is the identity of a person based on the type of object he or she finds erotic (Stewart & McDermott 2004).
Scholars generally agree that sexuality is learnt through social interactions. In other words, people are socialised to behave in a manner that is sanctioned by their community. Strict social norms or laws sanction some forms of sexuality and abhor others. Furthermore, sexual stereotypes in most societies prevent overt expression of socially non-conforming sexual identities.
Sexuality as a Social Construct
As aforementioned, sexuality is the outward expression of one’s sexual behaviour. A ‘sexual’ individual expresses his or her sexuality and sexual identity. However, society dictates how individuals should express their sexuality. It lays out clear expectations that shape the different forms of sexual identities that develop into socialised stereotypes. Sexuality is largely viewed as an aspect of human existence that has no relationship with procreative sex (Whittier & Simon 2001).
Everyone is born with sexual capacity that is nurtured by society through social learning. At birth, a child’s sexual orientation is unknown. Nonetheless, society assigns the child gender based on his or her genitalia. As the child grows, he or she becomes socialised based on the established social roles and expectations of the assigned gender. Thus, one’s sexual expression must be compatible with socially acceptable forms of sexuality.
The notion that sexuality or sexual expression is a social construct stems from the observation that gender socialisation defines what roles one takes in the society (Diamond & Butterworth 2008). In traditional societies, roles or chores were assigned based on one’s gender. The gendered roles largely defined the sexual identity of an individual (Diamond & Butterworth 2008). Even in modern societies, if one is assigned the male gender at birth, they are expected to perform physical chores, which are associated with masculinity. On the other hand, females are expected to be more ‘nurturing’ and caring. This shows that society has a prescribed system of behaviour that its members must observe. For this reason, it can be said that society enforces gender differences that define sexual identity and expression.
The gender differences are grounded in the heteronormative view, which holds that males and females have distinct gender roles. According to this view, the man assumes an authoritative role in the family and indeed in the society while the woman plays a subordinate role. Furthermore, while men are allowed to express their sexuality freely, women are supposed to act as though they are sexually naive (Benuto & Meana 2008).
The heteronormative view considers heterosexual attraction as being natural and thus, acceptable. It reaffirms the notion that sexual identity must conform to societal expectations and norms (Vanwesenbeeck 2009). The gender roles of women as prescribed by some societies influence how women define their sexual identities. Thus, due to socialised gender expectations, women tend to avoid the overt expression of their own sexual desires or sexuality.
Some scholars observe that sexuality is the sexual potential or capacity of a person. This implies that one is born with the potential to be sensual at maturity. However, how this potential is nurtured is largely dictated by one’s social environment. According to McCabe, Tanner, and Heiman (2010), society exerts its influence on sexuality right from birth. This means that social structures and norms dictate the way people feel, think about, express, and experience sexuality. The ways of expressing sexuality vary from one society to another. In this view, sexuality or sexual identity construction depends on social factors.
Theories on Sexuality Construction
The social constructionist approaches attempt to explain how sexuality is socially constructed. Social constructionism theory is a concept based on hierarchy and power (Stokoe & Smithson 2001). It postulates that many things that people know and accept as real can be traced to social setups and structures. This view focuses on how identities are constructed through interpersonal interactions within the social environment. Social norms constitute the knowledge generated in a society and passed down through generations. In this regard, knowledge is a product of social interaction.
The external environment has a big influence on how society constructs knowledge about gender and gender roles. An individual develops a perspective on gender roles based on what others are doing and saying. Another important aspect of social constructionism theory that relates to sexuality is hierarchy and power. Hierarchy and power depend heavily on the societal structures that define gender relations. Individual differences in society are based on social status, education, entitlements, and income. Social constructionists note that language is central to knowledge transfer. It enables its users to develop vocabulary related to certain social situations. For example, through language, members learn that some words relating to sexuality cannot be spoken in public because they inappropriate.
The social constructionism theory provides the lens for investigating issues in the social world. Historicism is a social constructionist view that examines the role of traditions in shaping the social position of gender in the society. The current views about gender replaced a ‘one-sex’ model of the 18th century that considered the female to be “an inside-out variation” of the male (Delfabbro et al. 2013, p. 69). It gave rise to meanings that came to be associated with male and female bodies. Interest in gender roles also influenced the historical construction of sexuality with men and women being considered to occupy distinct social positions.
According to Brickell (2005), contemporary classifications of sexuality, i.e., heterosexuality, bisexuality, and homosexuality, evolved from past sexual identities. Early sociologists identified unique sexual categories, such as zoophilia and homosexuality, in some cultures. Thus, they played a role in constructing modern sexual identities. This shows that social traditions have played a role in shaping modern configurations of sexuality and sexual orientations.
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Sexual scripting theory is another approach advanced to explain how sexuality is socially constructed. It holds that sexuality is an “aspect of social life” that has cultural meaning (Petersen & Hyde 2010, p. 475). This implies that sexuality is not inherent in humans, but a construct that is specific to a culture, place, or period. Scripts involve three elements, namely, “cultural scenarios, the interpersonal, and the intra-psychic” (Petersen & Hyde 2010, p. 477). Cultural scripts prescribe sexual conduct and behaviour while interpersonal elements are the relationships that influence sexual interactions in the society. The intra-psychic scripts emerge when one internalises sexual meanings generated in his or her culture. Thus, the scripting theory essentially explains how the interaction between social meanings and individual experiences influences sexuality.
The objectification theory is an approach that explains how society treats the human body (Hill & Fisher 2008). This theory, though largely silent regarding the male body, is quite elaborate about the sexual objectification of the female body by the media. It postulates that the female body is often presented as a sexual object whose purpose is to satisfy men’s desires. This view of the female body is largely perpetuated by the media (Brown 2002). It has been argued that objectification of the female body has greatly influenced how women view themselves. The objectification of the female body in the media influences young women to consider themselves as sexual objects due to internalised cultural views about one’s gender.
Objectification does not encourage a woman to exploit the capability of her body (Hill & Fisher 2008). According to this view, society only focuses on the pleasures the female body can provide, ignoring the fact that the female body is a fully functioning entity. This view of the human body is largely sanctioned by the social systems. This theory borrows from the traditional view of the human body, which holds that the man is superior to the woman. Therefore, the role of the woman is to satisfy the man’s sexual needs.
Another theory explaining the social construction of sexuality is the heteronormative view, which holds that only heterosexuality is normal and acceptable. The heteronormative assumption is that only “opposite sex attraction is normal or natural”, which implies that there can only be two genders, namely, male and female (Schilt & Westbrook 2009, p. 443). Other gender orientations, such as transsexual, which have been defined in by scholars, are considered abnormal under this theory.
In contrast, the materialist feminism theory draws on economic aspects to explain the social construction of sexuality. The first one is the value placed on social structures and organisations while the second is the view that sexuality is a product of social inequality. The materialist feminism theory states that male and female interact in a “class-like way that allows men to appropriate female labour” (Brown 2003, p. 367). According to this view, the home is a place where men benefit from the free labour of women. This appropriation leads to the domination of one gender over the other, producing distinct social classes. Thus, the materialist feminist theory explains how social processes and power structures influence the social construction of gender in the society.
The social processes define sexuality and give rise to classifications such as homosexuality and heterosexuality. In other words, the gendered roles and power structures influence sexual expression. According to the materialist feminism view, heterosexuality is a type of gendered social inequality modelled around sexual dominion. It facilitates the sexual labour of women under the pretext of marriage and established notions of romance. Thus, heterosexuality, as a social construct, augurs well with the social structures of appropriation. On the other hand, homosexuality does not conform to these structures and therefore, it is considered a threat to gender relations.
Limitations and Criticisms of the Theories
The social constructionist view faces four major criticisms. The first one concerns its emphasis on the “naming of persons, categories, and social forms” (Rahman & Witz 2003, p. 251). Critics argue that it fails to consider actual factors that underlie sexuality by ignoring the ‘real’ individual experiences. The second criticism holds that the theory does not factor in social inequality or hierarchy as the basis for gender analysis (Rahman & Witz 2003). Social inequality determines gender relations and power structures that influence sexuality. Thus, the theory downplays the influence of social relations on sexuality.
The theory is also criticised for not considering the impact of historical constructions of gender and sexuality on the development of current forms of sexuality. This argument holds that the theory ignores the role of social change in the evolution of sexual identities. Fourthly, the theory does not explain the intra-psychic structures that underlie the current forms of sexuality that people identify with (Rahman & Witz 2003). It does not give the historical account of the factors that shaped the current sexual identities. Sexuality is constructed through social interactions, which allow people to learn, understand, and discover meanings as conveyed through symbols, words, and gendered roles.
On the other hand, critics argue that the sexual scripting theory is narrow in its analysis of social structures surrounding sexual interactions. Social inequality and organisation, which are not examined by sexual scripts, influence sexual interactions. Critics also point out that the objectification theory confuses beauty with the media representations of the female body as a sexual object (Brown 2002). The other limitation of the theory is that it focuses only on the objectification of the female body. However, even females objectify the male body, which means that the problem affects both genders.
The heteronormative view also has some limitations. It is argued that the theory perpetuates gender bias (Stewart & McDermott 2004). It disadvantages women, as it considers changes to established gender roles to be a threat to heterosexuality. The women are expected to suppress their views and desires. It also fails to recognise other emergent genders like transgender and bisexual. The presence of these genders in society has led to the view that sexuality is a social construct. However, critics argue that the theory creates a false believe that those who do not fall into the two widely accepted genders are perverts (Garlick 2003). As such, it stifles the overt expression of same-sex identities, such as homosexuality, which, according to this view, are undesirable.
One limitation of the materialist feminist view is that it cannot explain power relations in same-sex forms of sexuality (Hird 2003). Homosexuality lacks the hierarchical social structures present in heterosexuality. The theory has also been criticised for its great emphasis on labour as a determinant of social power relations (Hird 2003).
Sexuality and gender are products of social structures. The sociological theories analysed in this paper show that sexuality is constructed through social meanings, structures, and interactions. This indicates that the configurations of sexuality, including heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality are shaped by the society. Thus, sexuality, to a big extent, is socially constructed.
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