Sex roles refer to socially coded behaviors and practices often related to a person's reproductive capacities, such as women with the roles of motherhood and men with fatherhood. The term sex role is often used interchangeably with the term gender role; however, the modifier gender implies roles may be socially or culturally produced whereas sex implies roles may be naturally or biologically determined. Notions of sex roles tend to privilege biological factors such as internal or external sex organs, chromosomes and hormones as determining a person's social placement as either male or female, man or woman. Such determinations rely on a dualistic or binary understanding of sexual difference emphasized in most patriarchal cultures, but how the differences between the two sexes are expressed varies greatly between cultures and historical periods. Stereotypes about sexual difference—such as men are rational and strong, therefore, women are emotional and weak—often affect a person's notions of sex roles but fail to indicate any natural or essential truth about sexual differences. Some scientists and scholars argue that external and internal sex markers are overwhelmingly ambiguous, which suggests that sex is not binary but multiple and that even notions of biological sex are culturally, not naturally, produced. Among scholars of sex and gender, however, there is considerable debate about how and to what degree biological sex may be linked to social roles and gender identity.
The dichotomization of male and female roles based on sexual reproduction is common across cultures. Whereas not all women menstruate, become pregnant, or breastfeed, a female's social roles are in part informed by the possibility that she will give birth and take up the duties of childrearing. Likewise, not all males will impregnate a woman or become fathers, but their social roles may be in part understood according to their potential to do so. The earliest work in women's history examined this frequent social division according to public and private spheres, wherein men were associated with a public sphere of work and politics and women with a private sphere of household and family. More recent gender histories, however, explore the range of roles men and women have had, noting greater cross-cultural differences and the ways a neat division between public and private break down. For example, Merry Wiesner-Hanks observes that in classical India and in matrilineal Judaism, "for much of its history, the ideal for men was one of renunciation of worldly things for a life that concentrated on study and piety. In Judaism this ideal often meant that women were quite active in the 'public' realm of work and trade to support the family" (2001, p. 96). The influx of women into professional or work positions in industrialized countries during the twentieth century further suggests that whereas a capacity for sexual reproduction may influence a woman's roles in regard to family structures, a woman's genitalia or reproductive organs do not naturally predispose her to motherhood and household management. The degree to which men and women are understood in relation to sexual reproduction changes over time and is interpreted according to particular cultural and social systems.
In European and North American cultures, the fixing of social roles to anatomical sex began as part of modern (mid-eighteenth-century) scientific and sociopolitical projects. According to sociologist Gail Hawkes, prior to the eighteenth century, "there had always been character distinctions between manly and womanly behaviour, but in premodern times these were not causally linked to either direction of desire or anatomy of the body" (2004, p. 178). Premodern views of the body often described a body in flux, with alterable or changeable sexual markers. Women and men were understood to share the same physicality, the same body; only the introversion or extroversion of genitalia provisionally classified a person as male or female. Perceptions of the body in ancient Greece indicated, for example, that wombs could move around the body, women could suddenly produce penises, and penises could shrink or become inverted. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, the human body was resexed through the scientific discovery of different male and female anatomies. Notably, these scientific findings coincided with political imperatives for social stability—to stabilize the body was to renovate society. Scientific findings on sexual difference supported sociopolitical moves to restrict the discourses of revolution and democracy to nation-states. In other words just as women such as Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797) argued for greater educational and social freedoms for women based on democratic principles, modern science restricted ideas of woman to anatomy and nature. Increasingly through the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries, a woman's reproductive capacities became the first and primary marker of who she was. According to this modern biological model of human sexuality, "men were the dynamic actors in biological and social evolution, women, in both senses, the caretakers of the species" (Hawkes 2004, p. 129).
Because the external body can be ambiguous (for genitalia are not always clearly male or female), twentieth-century science turned to internal markers such as chromosomes, hormones, and genes to understand and secure biological sex differences. However, these internal markers are also highly ambiguous; for instance, a person with certain chromosomal abnormalities could be judged male even if that person had breasts and a vagina. "The intensity of the search for an infallible marker of sex difference, and the uncertainties in most 'biological' markers, have indicated to many scholars that cultural notions are certainly influencing science in this area, and that 'gender' may actually determine 'sex' rather than the other way around" (Wiesner-Hanks 2001, p. 3). The division of sex roles in a society may then be more a product of cultural mechanisms such as language, religion, and the like than a product of biological sex and natural reproductive imperatives.
In the early twentieth century social scientists such as anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901–1978) took up the study of sex roles as a complex interaction between nature and culture, yet by the 1970s many scholars shifted terminologies to speak of gender roles as key to understanding social differences and inequalities between men and women. Feminist scholars began taking up Simone de Beauvoir's assertion in The Second Sex (1949) that "one is not born, but becomes a woman" to understand how sociocultural apparatuses such as language, literature, performance, and clothing create woman. "No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society" argued Beauvoir, "it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature, intermediate between, male and eunuch, which is described as feminine" (1993, p. 281). By the late-twentieth century scholars of gender and sexuality began articulating the ways cultural beliefs and practices constructed gendered behaviors, discourses, and even the very notion of sexual difference itself. Despite the greater elasticity of the term gender roles, which allows for studying how multiple genders operate within a given society, much of the discourse used to explore gender roles and differences continues to rely on notions of sexual difference—male and female, man and woman.
see also Gender Roles: I. Overview.
Beauvoir, Simone de. 1993. The Second Sex, ed. and trans. H. M. Parshley. New York: Knopf. [Orig. pub. 1952.]
Boudreau, Frances A.; Roger S. Sennott; and Michele Wilson. 1986. Sex Roles and Social Patterns. New York: Praeger Press.
Hawkes, Gail. 2004. Sex and Pleasure in Western Culture. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Lindsey, Linda L. 1990. Gender Roles: A Sociological Perspective. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Sanday, Peggy Reeves. 1980. "Margaret Mead's View of Sex Roles in Her Own and Other Societies." American Anthropologist. 82(2): 320-348.
Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E. 2001. Gender in History. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Kristina Banister Quynn