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Gender: Overview

Gender: Overview

Gender is an old term in linguistic discourse used to designate whether nouns are masculine, feminine, or neuter. It was not normally used in the language of social or natural sciences or in sexology until 1955, when John Money adopted the term to serve as an umbrella concept to distinguish femininity, or womanliness, and masculinity, or manliness, from biological sex (male or female). Though the term was quickly adopted in studies of transvestism and transsexualism, it did not receive widespread circulation until 1972 in a book coauthored by Money and Anke Ehrhardt. Its popularity became firmly established in the 1980s as the feminist movement increasingly adopted the term gender studies as a replacement for women's studies. In a sense by using a new term to describe a variety of phenomena, Money opened up a whole new field of research since it implied that genitalia were not the only factor involved in being a man or a woman.

Money himself went on to develop a number of terms such as gender identity and gender role to categorize different aspects of one's identity. He also argued that the term sex should be used with a qualifier as in genetic sex, hormonal sex, or external genitalia sex. Gender was more inclusive since it entailed somatic and behavioral criteria on how one conducts oneself personally and socially, and how one is regarded legally. Sex belonged more to reproductive biology than to social sciences, romance, or nurture, whereas gender covered them all. The term was seized upon by an increasingly powerful feminist movement that was concerned with overcoming the biology-is-destiny argument that had been so long used to keep women in a subordinate status.

Gays and lesbians also found the term helpful in challenging traditional ideas. Since both the feminist and the gay and lesbian movements had well-organized constituencies, the research into gender had increasing political implications.

Popular adoption of the term, for example, was a major factor in the undermining of traditional Western ideas about dimorphic essentialism, that is, males and females are different and should display erotic sex and gender characteristics congruent with their sex because of their biological makeup or, in religious terms, their God-given nature had made it so. In simplistic terms, the first stage of a growing controversy was over whether nature or nurture was more important in forming individual development. Some of the early feminists argued that women's subordination to men had resulted from the dominance of the male, and if girls and boys were simply raised differently they would react differently. Boys, they argued, should be given dolls and girls trucks; girls should be encouraged to be more aggressive; and the role of males and females in society would change. There is undoubtedly an element of truth in such a belief, but it is much too simplistic. Still many of the differences were social and cultural, as demonstrated by the fact that once barriers were removed through equal opportunity legislation, women rapidly moved into fields formerly dominated by men and began to approach financial parity in salary and perquisites. Women athletes have also become increasingly important. As research progressed, important gender differences between the sexes were noted, but at the same time the issue also became much more complicated.

Some Research on Gender Differences

Ann Constantinople, for example, questioned the assumption that masculinity was the opposite of femininity and suggested that the identification of masculine traits might be independent from rather than opposite to the identification of feminine traits. As new scales for masculinity and femininity were developed by researchers, they found wide variation in gender traits among individuals of the same biological sex, but interestingly they also found an almost compulsive pressure to conform put on those who varied too far from the norm. This was particularly noted to be the case in feminine boys. The wide spectrum of behaviors led to a greater emphasis on biological answers.

One theory developed by Bonnie Bullough (in a work coauthored with Vern Bullough) for the formation of gender identities and sexual preference held that there were at least three steps:

  1. A genetic predisposition for a gender or cross-gender or cross-sexual identity, including high or low levels of activity and aggression.
  2. Prenatal hormonal stimulation supported or countered the genetic predisposition, perhaps indelibly marking the neural pathways so the pattern that produced variant gender behavior continued after birth.
  3. The socialization pattern shaped the specific manifestation of the predisposition.

It was not only social and natural scientists who entered the debate about the differences in gender behavior but scholars from the humanities and arts as well. One of the best known was Marjorie Garber, who attempted to escape the bipolar notions of male and female by advocating a third category, a way of describing alternative possibilities. Bipolar approaches, she held, create a "category crisis," a failure of definitional distinction, resulting in a border that becomes permeable and permits border crossing.

Research on homosexual men, for example, has found that a significant number were identified as feminine boys during their youth. Richard Green's longitudinal study of extremely effeminate boys, most of whom wished they had been born girls, found that 75 percent of his sample identified themselves as homosexual as adults although almost all of them had become less feminine in their behavior during their teens. The fact that not all of them came to identify as homosexual as adults emphasized the complexity of development although it was possible that some of them might at a later stage still identify as homosexual. Masculine-identified girls, or tomboys, have a lower proportion identifying as lesbians as adults perhaps because the pressure on them to conform was also less. Unfortunately, much less research has been done on tomboys than on feminine boys.

Challenge to Bipolar Assumptions

Several strains of research seemed to be important in challenging traditional bipolar assumptions: genetic or biological research, the study of hermaphrodites, investigation of transsexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality. The major subjects of Money's early studies were hermaphrodites. He was surprised to find that many who later were identified by chromosome analysis to have been raised in the wrong sex, preferred to remain in the sex in which they had been raised. This led him to posit that there was a critical stage in development where one's personal gender identity was set. While he was originally ambiguous on when this might happen, he eventually held that the age of two was critical. But such an assumption was difficult to prove.

Money felt he had found an ideal case in identical twin brothers, one of whom, while being circumcised at age seven months by an electric cautery gun, had his penis burned off. The parents, after considerable anguish, had the child's testicles removed and with Money as consultant and adviser, began raising the child as a girl at about twenty months. Initial follow-up articles pointed to a successful transition, and the case was widely used to emphasize the importance of social conditioning on sex identity. After the case disappeared from the literature, it turned out the "girl" had rebelled at her change in her teens, and after being finally told her story decided to become a boy. Such a change had been predicted by a critic of Money, Milton Diamond, and it was only through his long efforts to find the boy, who was then an adult male, that the full story came out, much to the discredit of Money's theory. But the issue even here is complicated by the fact that another boy who also had a similar background, continued as an adult to live as a woman, although as a somewhat masculine-looking and -acting one. The two cases together emphasize that there might be strong biological factors involved.

Some adults very much want to belong to the opposite sex than that associated with their genitalia. This issue came to national attention through the Christine Jorgensen case in the 1950s. Jorgensen achieved worldwide notoriety by having her penis and testicles amputated, and through the administration of hormones successfully made a transition into a woman. What gender confusion could make a man want to be a woman? Whatever it was, surgery and hormones could make it possible, and Jorgensen's path to the opposite sex has since been taken by tens of thousands of others, although there are somewhat fewer females who have undergone surgery to become males than of males to become females. There are also large numbers of transvestites who cross-dress and identity as women either for short periods or longer periods without benefit of sex-change surgery. Millions of people in the United States today identify as trans-gender, transsexual, homosexual, lesbian, or bisexual, and others like them exist all over the world and probably always have throughout human history. They represent one end of the continuum on gender development while the majority of the world lies elsewhere with many individual variations.

Gender Studies

The term gender, proposed by John Money in the 1950s, was immediately seized upon by scholars in a variety of disciplines, perhaps because it avoided the use of the term sex, a term many thought not suitable for public discourse, but the finite definition that Money and other scholars early used was quickly abandoned. Questions seeking to determine an individual's sex, even on government forms, no long asked for sex but for gender. Feminists particularly favored the use of the term and many programs that had started out as women's studies were renamed gender studies. By 2004, almost every American university had a program on gender studies and so did many high schools. Gay and lesbian studies became gay, lesbian and gender studies, or more often just gender studies. Gender studies are ubiquitous and not confined to the social and behavioral sciences, but appear in courses in literature and the humanities, and even in biology.

Gender studies deal with transvestism, transsexualism, bisexuality, as well as intersex, the original source of Money's classification. Vern Bullough, in his study of the history of sex research, predicted that gender would be the dominant theme of research upon sexuality in the first part of the twenty-first century and it certainly seems to be the case.

The advantage of using the term gender studies instead of sexuality studies is that gender in itself implies for a more variable interpretation of what being a woman or a man involves. Whether a person is an XX or an XY, there is much more to being a man or woman than chromosomes. Though males impregnate and females become impregnated, there is much more to gender than that. Some women are more masculine than a significant minority of men and some men are much more feminine than many women. Gender study data showing and explaining these differences and similarities have been growing as more and more disciplines enter the field. One of the interesting sequella of this is the increasing number of individuals who are calling themselves transgendered. Gender studies, in effect, have resulted in basic challenges on what a man or woman should be or could be.

In spite of the vast increase of publications on gender, there is still much that is not known. For example, the experiences of "Bruce" as told in John Colapinto's book As Nature Made Him and other similar stories have brought greater attention to biological components of variation as opposed to simply focusing on the effects of social settings or nurturing experiences on gender. The more we learn the more complicated the whole question of gender becomes. This seems to imply that gender studies will continue to increase since it offers such a rich field for research and perhaps even more radical changes in public behavior.

Some researchers like Diamond have argued that, in addition to chromosomes, prenatal hormones exert influence on neural pathways and the neural endocrine axis (the link between the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and other endocrine glands). These neural pathways control future hormonal production and consequently influence sexual behavior and gender identification. He holds that there are separate neural pathways for sexual identity as a male or female, for sexual object choice, for sexual patterns of maleness or femaleness, and for the sexual response patterns.

Variations in Gender Behavior between and among the Sexes

Researchers (and perhaps common sense) have shown that the behavior pattern most associated with males is that of aggressiveness, and this has undoubtedly influenced gender characteristics in women, including the relative servitude that has marked their history as the subordinated sex. Aggressiveness, however, has varied levels in males, with some being much more aggressive than others. The same differential exists in females but at a lower scale. If this has any meaning politically, then the way to lessen its impact is by equal opportunity laws and regulations, a path that feminists and others have adopted in the United States and elsewhere.

When all the findings about gender are summarized, it seems that there is a wide variation in gender behavior between and among the sexes. Those societies that in the past had adopted strict dimorphic gender patterns will have more difficulty in changing to sexual equality than those that allow somewhat more ambiguity. In the United States and in much of the world, cross-gender behavior in the past was stigmatized and punished. Since the nineteenth century, when the medical model came into prominence as a means of diagnosing nonconforming sex and gender behavior, significant departures from a dimorphic model of masculinity and femininity were labeled as an illness. Similarly, sexual orientations other than exclusive heterosexuality were considered an illness until the American Psychiatric Association voted in 1973 to drop ordinary homosexuality from the upcoming edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

New Directions

In terms of research into sex and gender, the 1990s saw a shift in emphasis from societal factors, cultural molding, and nurture to physiological factors. Much of this research concentrated on the brain and on intrauterine developments. Boy babies as a group, for example, are more likely to spend more time looking at mechanical objects than do baby girls, who look longer at a human face. But there is also a tremendous amount of overlap and wide variation among individuals, and how society deals with this overlap is more a political and economic question than one science or social science can determine.

See also Feminism: Overview ; Sexuality: Overview .


American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 3rd ed. Washington, D.C.: America Psychiatric Association, 1980.

Baron-Cohen, Simon. The Essential Difference: The Truth about the Male and Female Brain. New York: Perseus, 2003.

Bullough, Vern L. Science in the Bedroom: A History of Sex Research. New York: Basic Books, 1994.

Bullough, Vern L., and Bonnie Bullough. Cross Dressing, Sex, and Gender. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.

Colapinto, John. As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.

Constantinople, Ann. "Masculinity-Femininity: An Exception to a Famous Dictum." Psychological Bulletin 80 (1973): 389407.

Diamond, Milton. "A Critical Evaluation of the Ontogeny of Human Sexual Behavior." Quarterly Review of Biology 40 (1965): 147175.

. "Human Sexual Development: Biological Foundations for Social Development." Human Sexuality in Four Perspectives, edited by Frank A. Beach. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.

Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Green, Richard. The "Sissy Boy Syndrome" and the Development of Homosexuality. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.

Jones, Steven. Y: The Descent of Men. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

Money, John. "Hermaphroditism, Gender, and Precocity in Hyper-Andrenocorticism: Psychologic Findings." Bulletin of Johns Hopkins Hospital 96 (1955): 253254.

Money, John, and Anke A. Ehrhardt. Man & Woman, Boy & Girl. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972.

Thorne, Barrie. Girls and Boys in School: Together or Separate. Reprint, New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1993.

Vern L. Bullough

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