Unit Eight: Gender and Sexuality in Society

Members of human society have for a long time been able to recognize differences between men and women.  Biology helps explain physical differences and cultural norms and values help explain the different social roles.  This unit will explore how sexual behavior in humans has an impact on our society.

sexualitysymbolBefore it is possible to understand the different social roles of men and women, it is important to distinguish the difference between sex and gender. Sex refers to the biological characteristics that distinguish males and females.  There are primary sex characteristics, such as genitals and organs used for reproduction, and secondary sex characteristics, such as wider hips and milk-producing breasts for girls, and expanded muscle mass and deeper voices for boys.  Gender refers instead to the social or cultural characteristics deemed proper for males and females.  In other words, gender describes what is masculine and feminine within a society.  Gender opens and closes doors in society.  It also determines what roles individuals assume within a culture.  The term gender stratification is used to describe males and females unequal access to power, property, and prestige, based on sex, within a society.

Sexual Orientation

Every society creates and enforces norms regarding sexual behavior, including sexual objects and qualities of mates. Sexual orientation refers to the preference of sex partners.  It is socially significant, and to insure reproduction, society encourages heterosexuality, which is attraction to partners of the opposite sex, and sex within marriage.  Many scientists studying human sexuality, as well as gay rights advocates, use the term sexual orientation to avoid the belief that homosexuality and heterosexuality are exclusively the result of “preference” or “lifestyle” choices.


The term “sexual identity,” is distinct from the term “sexual orientation,” and refers to a person’s innate, deeply felt psychological identification as a man, woman or some other gender, which may or may not correspond to the sex assigned to them at birth (e.g., the sex listed on their birth certificate).  Homosexuality is sexual attraction to partners of the same sex, and attitudes about it range from acceptance to disgust. Bisexuality is attraction to partners of both sexes, though not necessarily at the same time. Throughout history bisexuality has been accepted in some cultures. Society has often stigmatized bisexuals as being either “confused” about their sexuality or not “gay enough”.   Transsexuals are people who feel they are one sex even though biologically they are the other. Not all people who consider themselves (or who may be considered by others as) transgender will undergo a gender transition.  Gender transitioning is the process some transgender people go through to begin living as the gender with which they identify, rather than the sex assigned to them at birth. This may or may not include hormone therapy, sex reassignment surgery and other medical procedures visible. Researchers have variously measured an individual’s sexual orientation by asking them how they identify; by ascertaining their sexual attractions; and/or by reporting their sexual behaviour. An individual may be placed in differing categories by these three measures.

A definitional problem arises with the terms “homosexual” and “heterosexual” when either the subject or object of desire is transgender or intersex. Is a transwoman who is attracted to other women a lesbian? What about her female partner? The majority of transgender people today would describe this relationship as lesbian, but scientists (especially in the past) have tended to characterise it as heterosexual, interpreting the sex of the transwoman as male, and basing the definition of sexual orientation on biological sex rather than social gender. Others would interpret the sexual orientation differently depending on whether the transwoman is “pre-operative” or “post-operative”.

Most modern scientific surveys find that the majority of people report a mostly heterosexual orientation. However, the relative percentage of the population that reports a homosexual orientation varies with differing methodologies and selection criteria. Most of these statistical findings are in the range of 3 to 9% of males, and 1 to 5% of females for the United States — this figure can be as high as 12% for some large cities and as low as 1% percent for rural areas). In gay villages such as The Castro in San Francisco, California, the concentration of self-identified homosexual people can exceed 40%.

Throughout history homosexuality has most often been discouraged and sanctioned, leading to the development of gay and lesbian communities as a way to promote solidarity and reduce discrimination.   Depending on who is conducting the study, only  a small percentage, anywhere from 1 to 10% of the population identifies itself as exclusively homosexual.  

1.  Number of same sex households in the United States

2.  Kinsey Institute for Sexuality

3.  Recent Decisions Affecting the Transgender and Intersexual Communities    Link 1    Link 2

4.  New Policy For Transgender Students in Wisconsin Schools

5.  States Pass “Bathroom” Bills

6.  The Daily Show: Southern States Pass Bills Restricting Bathroom Use for Transgender Community

7. Wisconsin ‘s Department of Justice Asks Insurance Board Not to Cover Sex Reassignment Surgery 


The Case for Biological Influences on Sexual Orientation

intersexualIn a previous unit we looked at the role of genetics and sex.  Recent research seems to be leaning to a possible biological connection to sexual orientation.  There have been a number of cases where biology’s influence is undeniable.  For example, in 1963 identical twins were taken for routine circumcisions.  One surgery was botched when the penis was accidentally burned off.  A sex change operation soon followed.  The parents tried to raise their son as a “girl” by having her play with dolls and dress feminine.  Their best efforts didn’t work.  After a suicide attempt at the age of 14, the truth came out.  There ensued a surgery to reconstruct the penis, and the new “boy” later went on to marry.  There are a number of biological factors that may play a role in sexual orientation. They are outlined below.

Identical Twin Studies

Research on homosexual twins in comparison to genetically unrelated siblings (siblings by adoption), and found that if one identical twin is homosexual, the probability that the other is also homosexual is almost five times higher than if the pair were adopted.  Three recent twin studies have demonstrated clear genetic influences on sexual orientation and argue strongly that homosexuality in males and females is due to distinct mechanisms.  These studies all used large, population-based samples – that is, the subjects were not recruited to the study based on sexual orientation – in Sweden, Finland and Australia.  In each study, rates of homosexuality were compared between pairs of monozygotic or dizygotic (same-sex or opposite-sex) twins.  Each study had several thousand participants and several hundred twin pairs, making them well-powered statistically to detect genetic or environmental effects on sexual orientation. Estimates of genetic influences were high across all three studies.  The Australian study found heritability of 48% for sexual orientation across males and females together.  The Finnish study estimated genetic influences on sexual orientation of 45% and 50% for men and women, respectively.  Importantly, both the Australian and the Finnish studies found zero correlation of homosexuality across opposite-sex dizygotic twin pairs, while same-sex dizygotic twin pairs showed substantial correlations.  So, if a male has a fraternal twin brother who is homosexual, there is a significantly increased likelihood that he will also be. The major conclusion from these studies corroborates previous findings: sexual orientation is strongly influenced by genetics.1


There have also been recent studies on the influence of hormones.  Recent studies on the condition known as adrenogenital syndrome (AGS) have shown the influence of hormones during the development of the fetus.  This condition occurs when the fetus is washed with too much of a male hormone during development.  The female will have internal female reproductive organs, but the genitals will appear male.  Research indicates that such females have male behaviors.  A second condition is called pseudohermaphrodistism.  These people are sometimes known as “hermaphrodites” or the clinical term, “intersexual”. This is a condition where a person is born with one ovary and one testicle.

1.  Gender Differences (Information on AGS)

2.  Intersex Society of North America

3.  Sexual Orientation as a Complex Trait

4.  Can Animals be Gay?

5.  The Biology of Sexual Orientation

6.  Biological Differences Between Gay Men and Lesbians (scroll to bottom of page)

7.  Photos of AGS

8.  First Intersex Birth Certificate Issued

There is disagreement amongst sociologists about how sexual orientation develops.  Research with homosexuals seems to indicate that most homosexuals were aware of their sexual orientation before adolescence. In addition, most reported that any heterosexual experiences were unsatisfying, and that their parents played little or no role in their sexual orientation.  In surveys where people are asked who and what they find sexually attractive, researchers found that more people express sexual attraction to members of their same sex or both sexes than actually act on that attraction.  Research also indicates that people may change their sexual behavior throughout their lives. This makes it difficult to pinpoint an individual’s sexual orientation.

inuteroSome sociologists look to hormonal and genetic studies to explain sexual orientation.  There are two points at which hormones can affect sexual orientation: in utero and at adolescence.    During adolescence, the body produces a variety of hormones associated with sexual behavior.  This has led sociologists to hypothesize that sexual orientation may be related to hormonal production.   Research on homosexual twins in comparison to genetically unrelated siblings (siblings by adoption), and found that if one identical twin is homosexual, the probability that the other is also homosexual is almost five times higher than if the pair were adopted.

The Case for Cultural Influences on Sexual Orientation

culturesexOther sociologists believe that sexual orientation is determined more by cultural and environmental factors.  Social factors, such as changing gender roles, are also thought to contribute to sexual orientation.  In societies around the world, sexual orientation may be determined by factors such as age, social class, or prestige.  For example, in some Melanesia societies in the South Pacific, young boys are encouraged and expected to have sex with older men because it is believed that the received semen makes the boys stronger and more virile.  Culture’s imprint can be seen in the sexual variety of our species.  In 1948 the Kinsey study found that the majority of Americans reported having sexual intercourse in one position, with the women on the bottom and the man on top, facing each other.  In island societies in the South Seas,  most couples never have sex in this way.  They poke fun at the “missionary” position taught to them by Western missionaries.  In Ancient Greek society, the majority of men were most likely bisexual.  Adult Greek males often mentored young teenage males.  Included in this mentoring was sex.  This activity was considered normal.  Any adult male caught engaging in sex with teenage males today would find themselves in jail.

To sum up, the social and genetic research available on sexual orientation seems to indicate that the influences of nature and culture are interrelated.  It also indicates that more research needs to be done.

1.   Famous Homosexuals in History       Link 1    Link 2 

Inequalities Due to Sexual Orientation

homophobiaAlthough the level of discrimination against homosexuals has decreased over the past two decades, a considerable amount of discrimination against homosexuals still exists in our society.  Homophobia is hatred and discrimination directed against homosexuals based on exaggerated fears of homosexuality, and it has created social penalties for homosexuals and bisexuals. This includes gay bashing as well as religious and ideological attacks, leading to more hidden homosexuality. Many in the  gay and lesbian community now carry out a strategy called “outing,” which is the publicly revealing of someone’s covert homosexuality.  Outing is normally done by those in the homosexual community who are trying to improve the image of homosexuality to heterosexuals. Outing is controversial within the gay and lesbian community. One side believes it is beneficial to expose someone’s sexual preferences, especially those who are support anti-LBGT issues.   Others push for more homosexual solidarity and research on important gay and lesbian issues and advocate for personal privacy.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)  in August of 2016 released a  study which found that LGBTQ youths face significantly higher levels of violence than their heterosexual peers. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning teenagers are far more likely to experience violence and bullying, as well as depression and suicide, the CDC found in the first national study to address the health risks of sexual-minority youths. Roughly 30 percent had been raped, and about 41 percent had been physically abused by a partner. At least a third said they had been bullied on school grounds, and respondents were twice as likely to have been threatened or injured with a weapon on school property—which in turn increased the number of times they skipped class because of safety concerns.  More than 40 percent said they had seriously considered suicide, and 29 percent said they had tried.

1.  Statistics on Homophobia

2.  Homophobia:  One Word, Many Meanings

3.  Stephen Colbert on Not Discussing Homosexuality in Public Schools

The Gay Rights Movement

stonewallriotBeginning in the 1960’s, gays in America began challenging stereotypes and demanding rights. The Stonewall Riot during the summer of 1969 is an important date for the gay community. It marked the beginning of their struggle for equality in American society. From the 1970’s to the present day, the gay community has held demonstrations and parades to voice their concerns. The movement, now three decades old, has had some success. Many states now allow gay couples to adopt, and in the year 2000, Vermont became the first state to allow same sex unions. By October 2014, thirty-two states and the District of Columbia had legalized same sex marriage. In June of 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that same sex couples have a constitutional right to marry, a decision that ends the ability of an individual state to prevent same sex unions. As of the summer of 2015, 22 countries around the world have legalized same-sex marriage. However, there are still important issues facing the gay community. AIDS has taken a heavy toll on the gay community, and gays and lesbians in America still face threats of violence and discrimination.

1.   More Americans Say They Know Someone Who is Gay Or Lesbian

2.  Interactive Map of States With Gay  Marriage

3.  Uniquely Nasty:  the US Government’s War on Gays


A Timeline of Recent Events That Have Impacted the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community

The American Psychological Association’s Board of Trustees in 1973 voted to remove homosexuality from its diagnostic manual of mental disorders.   Harvey Milk became the first openly gay man elected to office in a major U.S. city when he won a seat on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors in early 1978.

In 1993 President Bill Clinton enacts “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a policy preventing gays from openly serving in the military. Under it, an estimated 13,000 people were expelled from the U.S. Armed Forces. the Act was repealed by President Obama in 2011.  In 1996 Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act. Section 3 of the statute bars recognition of same-sex marriage, affecting more than 1,100 provisions of federal laws. It denies gay couples the right to file joint taxes and the protections of the Family Medical and Leave Act, and it blocks surviving spouses from accessing veterans’ benefits, among other things. The Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional on June 26, 2013. In 1998 Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old college student, was beaten and tied  to a split-rail fence outside of Laramie, Wyo. He dies on Oct. 12, less than a week after the attack. The murder spurs federal hate crimes legislation approved in 2009 that bears Shepard’s name. The Hate Crimes Prevention law requires the FBI to track hate crimes based on gender and gender identity, and gives the Department of Justice the power to prosecute crimes that were motivated by the victim’s race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. In 2000, the Supreme Court rules that the Boy Scouts of America can bar gay Scouts and leaders from membership, saying that as a private youth organization it has the right to do so. Under increasing pressure in recent years to change the policy, the BSA held a vote on the controversial membership guidelines in May 2013 and lifted its ban on gay scouts. In 2003, the Supreme Court strikes down a Texas anti-sodomy law.  Gays are ”entitled to respect for their private lives,” Justice Kennedy said for the court, ‘The state cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime.”

Sexual Issues and Controversies in the United States

sexualrevolution1.  The Sexual Revolution.  The sexual revolution in the United States was a gradual process.  It first sprung life in the 1920’s,  slowed in the 1930’s and 1940’s, grew again in the 1950’s with the publication of Alfred Kinsey’s books on sex, and reached its peak during the 1960’s and 1970’s.  Much of the sexual revolution from the 1960’s was spurred on by a large youth culture that had come of age.  Added to this the emergence of rock and roll music and drugs, and the phrase, “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” became a mantra for young people.  Technology also played a role in the sexual revolution with the introduction of “the pill” in 1960.  The sexual revolution challenged sexual norms for both men and women, but this period of time had special meaning to women.  Women began to have greater sexual freedom, which called into question the old “double standard” where men were encouraged to have sex before marriage and women expected to be virgins.

1.  2010 American Sex Survey

2. Increase in Sexting Among American Teenagers

sexualcounterrevolution2.  The Sexual Counterrevolution.  The sexual counterrevolution began around 1980 as political conservatives called for a return to “family values”.  This call to limit sexual freedom was influenced by the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, particularly AIDS,  cohabitation, and the increase in unwanted pregnancies. Advocates of the sexual counterrevolution have worked to make minors get parental permission for abortions, remove condoms from schools, watering down or removing sex education programs from schools,  and have teenagers take “abstinence only” pledges.

3.  Premarital Sex. Caught between the sexual revolution and counterrevolution is the issue of premarital sex.  Compared with earlier generations,  more teenagers are having sex.  Although public attitudes remain divided, young people have largely accepted premarital sex.

Graphs and Statistics on Premarital Sex 

4.  Sex Between Adults.  For most societies this is when sex is sanctioned, especially through marriage.  In industrial and post-industrial societies, adults have increased the amount of sex prior to marriage.  Despite popular shows such as Sex in the City, research indicates that married people report the highest level of satisfaction with their partners.  And although the vast majority of U.S. adults consider extramarital sex to be wrong, a study from 2016 found that 22 percent of married men and 14 percent of married women have had at least one extramarital sexual experience.

5.  Sexually Transmitted Diseases.  With the beginnings of the sexual revolution, and the increased number of sexual partners, rates for sexually transmitted diseases have increased. Some sexually diseases, such as syphilis, have reached epidemic proportions.

1.  Trends in Sexually Transmitted Diseases in the United States

2.  CDC Says Number of New Cases of STD’s in the United States at Record Levels

pornography6.  Pornography.  Although definitions vary across time and place, pornography is generally defined as sexually explicit material designed to cause sexual arousal.  In the United States, Supreme Court rulings have used phrases such as, “redeeming social value” and “community standards” to define pornography.  The pornography industry in the United States alone takes in more than $10 billion each year.  Pornography has become a political issue, where many on the right see it as a “decline in morals”, and where those on the left seeing it contribute to violence and rape against women.

1.  The Mainstreaming of Pornography

2.  Pornography Statistics

3.  Falling in Love With a Sex Robot

prostitute7.  Prostitution.  Prostitution is the exchange of sexual services for money. In the United States, prostitution is illegal except in parts of Nevada.  Across the globe, prostitution rates are highest in countries that are poor and have strong patriarchal traditions. As well as being described as the world’s “oldest profession”, prostitution is also viewed by many as a “victimless crime”.  This perception helps explain why many law enforcement officials around the world do not aggressively enforce anti-prostitution laws.  Social class also plays a role in prostitution, where you have “call girls” at the top who are their own boss and arrange their own dates, to “streetwalkers” at the bottom who work for a pimp that keeps most of their earnings.

Theoretical Analysis of Sexuality

1.  Symbolic Interactionism.   This theory once again looks at the micro level and how people interact with one another.  This theory is focused on how sexuality is viewed in different cultures and across time.  Symbolic interactionists are going to look at the cultural factors that influence each societies idea of sexuality.  Why is it that in Western societies even a century or two ago, virginity was highly prized, especially for women, but that today in Western societies there is more acceptance to sex before marriage?   Why is female circumcision common in parts of Africa and the Middle East, but rare and illegal in the United States?

2.  Structural – Functionalism.  Because structural-functionalists see society as interrelated, human sexuality will be viewed as an important element of human society.  From a strictly biological viewpoint, sex is functional in that it allows the species to continue.  Yet, left unchecked, sex could also be destructive to a society.  Structural-functionalists would therefore, most likely be opposed to social trends that would threaten the stability of family life.  For society to function properly, sexuality would need to be controlled through methods such as the incest taboo, support of “legitimate” reproduction, and prohibitions against premarital and extramarital sex.

3.  Conflict Theory.  For conflict theorists, the issue is always one of inequality.  With regards to human sexuality, patterns of human society suggest that males derive far more benefits from sex than do females.  Pornography and prostitution exist primarily for the benefit of men.  This creates power issues, where men start to view women as sex objects instead of full human beings.  Most pornography typically shows women attempting to pleasure men.  Most of the world’s prostitutes come from the lower classes. Conflict theorists see prostitution as exploitation of women and children.  Research indicates that police are more likely to arrest female prostitutes than male clients.  Men in all human societies hold political and religious power, and therefore are able to pass laws that favor male sexual interests. An example of this is the current abortion debate in the United States.

1.  A Radical Feminist’s View of Men and Sex

2.  The SCUM Manifesto


  action Sociology in Film

Below are a list of movies that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.

1.  In & Out.  A Midwestern teacher questions his sexuality after a former student makes a comment about him at the Academy Awards.

2.  Kinsey.   A look into the life and work of America’s most famous researcher on human sexuality.

3.  Transamerica.  A pre-operative male-to-female transsexual takes an unexpected journey when she learns that she fathered a son, now a teenage runaway hustling on the streets of New York.

books03 Sociology in Books

Below are a list of books that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.

1.  Sexual Behavior in the Human Male  by Alfred Kinsey

2.  Sexual Behavior in the Human Female  by Alfred Kinsey

3.  Pornified:  How Pornography is Transforming Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families  by Pamela Paul

4.  Lust in Translation: The Rules of Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee by Pamela Druckerman


Brym, Robert J.
2003  Sociology: Your Compass For A New World  Canada:   Wadsworth Thomson Learning

Ferrante, Joan

2000  Sociology:  The United States in a Global Community  United States:  Wadsworth Thomson Learning

Henslin, James M.
2000   Essentials of Sociology: A Down-to-Earth Approach  (3rd Edition)   Boston:   Allyn and Bacon

Macionis, John J.

1999 Sociology.  Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall

1  Wiring the Brain: Sexual Orientation in the Genes?

Copyright ©2005, 2014 Glenn Hoffarth All Rights Reserved


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