Home » Gender Bender January » Challenging Cultural Assumptions About Sex and Gender – Part 1

Challenging Cultural Assumptions About Sex and Gender – Part 1

For easier reference, I’m re-posting the previous post‘s list of assumptions that are generally taken for granted in American (and other) culture(s):

  • There are two biological sexes, male (penis) and female (vagina). All humans fit into one of these two categories.
  • Social roles and behaviors, attributes and capabilities, interests, etc. are determined or at least heavily influenced by biological sex. In other words, males naturally adhere to a set of norms considered “masculine” and females to a set of norms considered “feminine.”
  • Masculinity is inherently better than femininity. It is acceptable and even necessary for a woman or girl to exhibit some masculinity, as long as she ultimately remains “in her place” as a proper female (sex object and caregiver). Men and boys are severely limited in the amount of femininity they may exhibit; an effeminate male is the greatest offense against mankind.
  • Males must be sexually attracted to females and vice-verse. It is very important for a man to be successful sexually (as well as in other areas) and for a woman to be in a long-term monogamous relationship with a man. Pursuit of these goals is a key factor in social interactions, especially between the sexes.

But in reality …

Biological Sex

Biologists have found that sex cannot be accurately understood exclusively in terms of someone being “male” or “female.” Sex is fluid and can even change over time based on an individual’s experiences.

There are a variety of factors that influence a person’s biological sex, including chromosomes (genetics, X & Y), hormones (testosterone vs estrogen), prenatal influences, and changes in one’s anatomy. The sex chromosomes can take on more than two possible configurations. Relative hormone levels vary among individuals. Sometimes a baby is born with genitals that cannot easily be labeled as “male” (penis & scrotum) or “female” (labia, clitoris, vagina). Combinations of these factors may influence an individual to identify as “intersex.” I have even watched a film in which an individual shared the experience of being neuter (no genitals).

Therefore, an accurate understanding of biological sex needs to go beyond putting people into one of two mutually-exclusive categories.

Gender Identity and Expression

People vary greatly in their gender identity and expression – the gender they perceive themselves to be and how they dress, act, etc. to communicate that to others. All people act in ways that can be labeled “masculine” or “feminine” to varying degrees; no one is exclusively masculine or feminine. Our systems based on assumptions about sex and gender limit the ability of gender-nonconforming and non-heterosexual people to participate fully and feel respected as equals in society.

Even people who “play by the rules” – that is, according to the assumptions listed at the beginning of this post – are limited by gender norms in their ability to: express themselves fully; develop their full range of abilities; effectively address intra- and interpersonal problems; avoid being perpetrators and/or victims of violence; have genuine relationships with other people; and contribute to positive political, legal, economic, and social change.

Therefore, I believe everyone can benefit from an expanded understanding of gender that takes into consideration and normalizes the experiences of people with diverse sexes, gender identities, and sexual orientations. (Please note that gender and sexual orientation are two different things; a person with any gender identity may be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, etc.)

Some variations are listed below:

Cisgender individuals identify as the biological sex and gender they were assigned at birth.

Transgender individuals challenge cultural assumptions about gender in a variety of ways:

  • Transsexual individuals identify as men and women, but their gender identity is the opposite of the sex and gender assigned to them at birth. They often use hormone therapy and may undergo surgery to make their physical bodies (biological sex) conform to their gender identity.
    • A trans man was born with a vagina and raised female, but identifies as male.
    • trans woman was born with a penis and raised male, but identifies as female.
  • Gender queer individuals are diverse and may or may not identify as men or women. Some prefer to be identified as a third gender, while others would rather avoid labels entirely. Some gender queer individuals prefer to be referred to using the gender-neutral pronouns ze, zir, and hir.
    • An androgynous person consistently exhibits both masculine and feminine characteristics in approximately equal proportions.
    • A gender fluid person experiences change in hir gender identity and expression, depending on the situation ze is currently in.
    • Similarly, a bi gender person alternates between a masculine gender identity and a separate, feminine one. It is also possible to be trigender or pangender.
    • Gender queer individuals who identify as men or women do not conform completely to the expectations for their gender. They may be flexible in their gender roles and expression.

Transvestites identify with the gender they were assigned at birth and that matches their biological sex, but sometimes dress in clothes associated with the opposite gender.

Gender and Sexual Orientation

Some lesbian women exhibit more masculine traits than are generally expected of women. This does not mean that all lesbian women are masculine, nor that all masculine women are lesbians.

Similarly, some gay men exhibit more feminine traits than are typically expected of men. This does not mean that all gay men are feminine, nor that all feminine men are gay.

Masculinity vs Femininity & Sexuality will be addressed in Part 2.


Kelly, S., Parameswaran, G., & Schniedewind, N. (2012). Women: Images and Realities: A Multicultural Anthology (5th ed.). New Yoark: McGraw Hill.

Sedgwick, E.K. (1991). How to bring your kids up gay: The war on effeminate boys. Social Text, 29, 18-27. [PDF]

Teich, N.M. (2012 April 18). Transgender 101: 15 things to know. The Huffington Post.



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