An amended version of this article was originally published in the first edition of Exposition Magazine.


As with sex, similar challenges to the heterosexist model can be posed when considering gender. Traditionally, feminine and masculine genders were presumed to be the bio-psychological correlates of femaleness and maleness. Indeed, most ideas about gender are founded on the social meanings ascribed to biologically sexed bodies. For example: the uterus, vagina and breasts are defined as the central aspects of being female, and from this the claim, the idea emerges that women are “made” primarily for bearing children. Based on this conception of female sex, norms are then established about women’s gender: since women are “made” to reproduce, they should “naturally” perform the vast majority of childcare and household activities. Society presumes to know exactly what nature intended for our sexed bodies and uses that as foundational information for the creation of a gender system – feminine roles follow naturally from femaleness and masculine roles are the biological consequence of maleness.

However, the vast transformations in gender norms across the centuries have led sociologists Don Zimmerman and Candace West to challenge the view that gender emerges unproblematically from sex. Rather, this pair has somewhat awkwardly dubbed gender as the product of “social doings of some sort.” If gender characteristics emerged naturally from biological sex, then we would expect to see little change in conceptions of gender across time and place, and rebellions against gender norms would be few and far between. But the historical record demonstrates otherwise.

There are obvious examples here: a hundred years ago it was considered unwomanly to partake in sports or to vote. Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic games, claimed that, “women’s sports are all against the law of nature.” Similarly, the only places that permitted women to vote before the 20th Century were the Pitcairn Islands (1838), New Zealand (1893), the Cook Islands (1893) and the Isle of Man (1881). Who would have foreseen that, by 2009, the world would have seen all but one country (Saudi Arabia) adopt women’s suffrage? And who would have predicted that, since 1950, there would be over 40 women heads of state in countries as diverse as Pakistan, Rwanda, Britain, Germany, and Argentina?

Women’s education in the West was also severely restricted until the 20th Century and largely limited to learning about traditional domestic skills, such as sewing, cooking and child rearing. And although women had been allowed to attend lectures and sit some examinations at the University of Oxford since the 1880s, they were only admitted as full members of university in 1920. By the beginning of the 21st Century, this situation has completely changed. While it used to be considered unwomanly for females to develop their intellects, studies by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) have shown that, since the 1990s, women have enrolled in British universities at higher rates than men.

Such changes in gender norms provide easy empirical examples for arguments in favor of social constructionism. But gender as a social construction has also been conceived of in a deeper, more personal sense. Philosopher Judith Butler has pointed out how, in Western culture, it is common to assume that all individuals’ gender “doings” (mannerisms, clothes, social roles) are reflective of some inner, bio-psychological male or female essence. But what if this assumption of an essential self, driving behavior, was flawed? What if gender primarily consisted of acts, which are not necessarily tied to any inner essence, acts that are performed under the pressure of social regulation? In her work, Butler questions the very basic assumption that an essential self necessarily lurks underneath our skins, controlling and dictating our gendered behavior.

Empirical investigations of this thought-experiment have found that gender often does function as a “social achievement,” rather than as the expression of an internal essence. While gendered behaviors may become so routinized and fixed that they might appear to reflect such an essence, they have a significant “learned” dimension and are frequently subject to social approval or disapproval. This dynamic is usually most evident when someone fails to “do” their gender appropriately, when they do not take the kinds of actions that are considered appropriate to their gender in a particular society. Examples abound: women who do not shave their legs or armpits, men who color-code their notes or speak in a high-pitched tone, women who are loud and outspoken, men who choose to wear makeup and so on. Even though we might not be aware of it, our genders are always open to evaluation and if we fail to “do” them properly, to follow the proper social scripts, it is likely that we will be noticed. The range of possible reactions to such “gender failures” can stretch from approval (in some feminist and queer circles), to mild amusement and mocking, to outright disapproval and violent enforcement of gender norms.

Feminine men and trans women are the most frequent sufferers of this last tendency. In her book, Whipping Girl, Julia Serano argues that the high levels of violence meted out to men who express femininity and men who want to become women is the result of “traditional sexism,” or Western society’s devaluation of everything that is female or feminine. The fact that people who have been assigned masculine genders by society, choose to be “womanly” challenges the still-persistent idea that femaleness and femininity is inherently inferior to masculinity. If being female or feminine really were demeaning, then why would anyone want to choose them?

But whatever the causes of violence against trans people, there is no disputing its prevalence. According to a project commissioned by the NGO, Transgender Europe, the killing of a trans person is reported somewhere in the world once every three days. A particularly tragic example of this all too common form of violence is the 2008 murder of Larry King, a thirteen year-old American schoolboy. He was notorious in school for his feminine choice of dress, his flirtation with other boys, and his desire to be called Leticia. After Larry spread a rumor about another boy in his class being his ex-boyfriend, the boy came to school the next day with a gun and shot him.


Sexuality may appear to pose the most obvious challenge to the heterosexist model. People have at least a passing familiarity with the idea that sexuality can be fluid and changeable, as shown by frequent pop culture references to the Kinsey Scale (which ranks people on a scale from 0 to 6 based on their propensity for homosexual or heterosexual sex) and Freudian notions about the essentially bisexual nature of humans. A more flexible approach to sexuality is arguably more familiar and popularized than theories of “gender doings” and “third sexes.”

Nonetheless, studies purporting to have discovered the biological pre-ordination and essentially fixed nature of sexuality still abound. Researchers led by Charles Roselli of Oregon Health & Science University have alleged that “gay rams” have different brain structures than “heterosexual sheep,” and further research on sexuality in other animals has predictably led to examinations of human brains. Scientists at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden have recently argued that gay men’s brains resemble those of straight women. The two halves of heterosexual women’s and homosexual men’s brains are fairly equal in size, while for heterosexual men the right hemisphere is slightly larger. Based on this influential biological framework, sexual orientation would be determined while a child is still in the womb.

But failure to account for diversity once again poses a challenge to this view. Lacking, for instance, is an explanation of the prevalence of “situational” homosexuality in single-sex settings such as prisons, pirate ships, British boarding schools, and armies. In those cases, sexuality appears to be strongly influenced by the institutional setting, not any biological pre-determination.

Philosopher Michel Foucault has also pointed out that “homosexual” and “heterosexual” identities are inventions of 19th Century bio-medical discourse. Previously, sexuality was not viewed as a state of being (as something one is) but simply as something that one does. If a man was a “sodomite,” that simply meant that he committed sex acts that were considered “immoral,” not that one was incorrigibly a sexual “deviant” by constitution and essential identity. Thus, the concept of “sexual orientation” (as homosexual, heterosexual or bisexual) has a fairly short history.

And while people have certainly existed who had an exclusive or predominant attraction to one or both genders, the notion that sexualities must necessarily be classified on that basis has not always been dominant. In certain segments of Ancient Greek society, sexuality was defined more by social class status than gender. For upper caste Athenian men, in particular, the gender of their partners did not matter so much. Rather, it was important that the “active” partner (the one who penetrated) was in a higher social position than the “passive” partner. So, older men could penetrate younger males, women, and slaves, but they could not have sex with each other. In that sense, sexuality was a way of maintaining the hierarchical social order and gender was not considered to be an overly significant factor in determining eligible sexual partners – at least not as significant as it is today.

Historicization, thus, leads us to the conclusion that alternative conceptualizations of sexuality must be at least theoretically possible. There is already a proliferation of diverse sexual communities on the internet and in some metropolitan areas (S & M-ers, foot and armpit fetishists, etc), which suggests that it might be possible to have socially recognized classifications of sexuality, which are not based on gender. But right now, we are limited, at least on the level of social recognition, to sexualities defined on that basis. For better or worse, we are only socially intelligible if we define ourselves as heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual.

As Society Made Us?

Overall, social constructionist theories have significantly altered our understanding of sex, gender, and sexuality. It is no longer possible to argue unproblematically that there can only be two sexes, that masculine and feminine genders are the natural outgrowths maleness and femaleness, and that sexuality is fixed at birth and solely determined by innate biological drives towards one or both genders. The key advantage of the social constructionist paradigm is that it can point our attention to how phenomena that are considered natural or biologically given may actually be the historical products of collective human agency or, to reiterate West & Zimmerman, the result of “social doings of some sort.”

In ideological terms, this way of looking at the world can be highly useful. Feminists, queer activists and intersexuals have defined the 20th Century gender and sexual order as fundamentally unjust, and social constructionist theory clearly suggests that this order can be changed: since humans created it, they can also undo it. Constructionism shows that a world in which intersexual infants are not operated on at birth, where trans people are valued and respected, and in which a plurality of different sexualities co-exist peacefully, is possible. This is the progressive potential that burns at the core of social constructionist theory, and which has drawn so many people on the Left wing of the political spectrum to it.

***For more information***

There are many books and articles to choose from on the social construction of gender. For a sociological perspective, see West and Zimmerman’s classic article, “Doing Gender,” which was published in the June 1987 edition of Gender and Society. Judith Lorber’s Paradoxes of Gender approaches the topic in a similar way. If you are looking for a more critical and philosophical perspective, see Gender Trouble, Bodies that Matter, and Undoing Gender – all by Judith Butler. The three volumes of Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality are probably the best introduction to the social construction of sexuality out there. You might also want to have a look at Carol Queen’s Pomosexuals and David Halperin’s How to do the History of Homosexuality.

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