Gender and Sexuality Through History

At the beginning of his work titled “History of Sexuality” (1978), Foucault mentions that in the times when societies followed the Victorian mentality, people’s restrained, mute, and hypocritical sexuality was emblazoned. Despite starting with an emphasis on social, Foucault mainly emphasizes that the perception of gender is shaped through learned truths and that sexuality is actually problematized through discourse rather than being produced and suppressed historically, socially, and culturally. In other words, there are several phenomena in the process of individuals' lives that are effective in shaping their identities, their daily life behaviours, their self-perceptions, and their attitudes toward others.

The most obvious of these phenomena is the social structure in which a person grows up (Donovan, 2000). This sociability surrounds the people and allows them to form identities integrating with social norms. Those identities are essentially social, not individual. The reason is that the source is not an individual: there is a learnedness and acceptance of identities. Thus, sex belongs to the individual, but gender belongs to the community. As Amartya Sen (2009) discussed in the article "The Fog of Identity" on the separation of personal and social identities, the convergence of gender role and identity, intended as the social identity that a person acquires, with one's personal identity is also the reason for reproduction.

As the concept of sex was found to be insufficient because it only emphasized the biological, and the concept of gender began to be used, the discussions on the subject were carried to further dimensions. According to Connell (1987), gender theories focus on one-to-one relationships between people or between the individual and the society as a whole, since gender is something learned and acquired after birth. In this context, sexual policy practices are largely dependent on existing institutions, which thus play a major role in the formation of gender understanding and roles. In fact, the concept of “gender” was used for the first time in Ann Oakley’s work “Sex, Gender and Society”(1985): the term is there defined as different from sex, meaning that the emotions and behaviours of men and women are open to social transformation. When blending Connell’s approach with this understanding, one could claim that sex is endowed by nature, that is, biological, while gender is formed by the political practices of social institutions. For example, Connell (1987) writes that much of the current gender research focuses on institutions such as workplaces, markets, and the media.

Figure 1: Menjoulet, J. (2017). French demonstration in Paris - Women's rights. Flickr.

Hence, the concept of gender refers to the socially and culturally constructed roles of women and men in society (Dietrich & Clodagh, 2014). Gender socialization, the establishment and the acquisition of gender roles begin from the moment individuals are born in a specific societal environment: in most societies, for instance, gender socialization presupposes the ability to care for a new baby and to give it a gender role and identity (Ryle, 2012). The environment in which the individual grew up is effective in informing these roles. In this dynamic, in the context of learned roles and identities, the choice of blue and pink items that change according to the gender of a newborn baby, as well as toys such as cars, guns, and dolls, play important reinforcing roles (Ibid.). However, such roles and understandings differ according to certain historical processes, societies, and places, and the same dynamics are not in question (Donovan, 2000). Therefore, gender may not have the same structure and value in every society.

As a form of society-driven perception of masculinity, the aggression directed at the less powerful is often experienced as sexual pleasure, and masculine authority is seen as a power-giving quality. For instance, since ancient times, war has been seen as a male practice, one of those obvious gender dichotomies that turns out to be not so binary (Ferguson, 2020). As Ferguson puts it (2020:121), dominant forms of masculinity that are drilled into war and military recruits include an emphasis on status and achievement, toughness and aggression, restricted emotionality, self-reliance, and dominance/power/control. Such qualities cause it to be constructed as an identity in which masculinity is glorified through sexuality and control is centralized. For women, who are considered to be the relatively weaker side of sexuality, subordination, oppression, and suppression take on the guise of sexuality under the name of sexual pleasure (MacKinnon, 1991). Women are marked with the tasks of pregnancy and nurturance, which, in contrast with male tasks, relegates them to a subordinate position (Ferguson, 2020). This, in turn, feeds the superstructural of masculinity by distinguishing between men's relations with the public and women's relations based on the private sphere (Ibid.).

Figure 2: Kairos, Latin Stock. (2018). Artist's Impression Of Sexual Identity Crisis. Science Photo Library

Sex is considered the basis of the segregation of genders (Charles & Bradley, 2009). Sexuality, on the other hand, is seen as the factor creating a power field directed at building the superior, in which this distinction of sexes is practised and experienced through superiority and power. Such an area is not only a power struggle for different genders but also expresses the power struggles within the genders themselves: the fact that social bonds are established through sexuality implies that power dynamics also take place between men (Connell, 1987). In this area of power struggle, in fact, sexuality can often play a more prominent role than sex. For example, the practice of circumcision in Jewish societies, beyond religious beliefs and scientific explanations, has a social meaning as it becomes the first condition for being considered a man (Kimmel, 2001).

Socially, attributions to men have reached such dimensions that now all activities, symbols of value, usefulness, and even the system of existence and non-existence have become linked with sexuality. As Josephine Donovan (2000) states, in order to establish male identity based on masculine power over the sense of superiority, it was necessary to seize production, reproduction, and the power that these will bring. MacKinnon further argues that “sexuality is the linchpin of gender inequality” (1982: 533). Although it is out of the focus of this article, it should be noted that this argument emphasizes not only gender inequality based on the dual understanding of genders, but also the critique of institutionalized heterosexuality that supports and increases gender inequality developed by queer theory.

Figure 3: RFERL. (2017). The Rocky Road To Gender Equality. RFERL

The fact that sexuality surpasses sex is the basis of hierarchal inequality and the search for power, and the patriarchal mentality tries to suppress difference by excluding women and putting them in a state of othering. Accordingly, for example, the value attributed to virginity is one of the most important concepts that nourishes and reproduces masculinity (Berger & Wenger, 1973). This situation is also associated with the idea of transcendence, which is a progression beyond the individual, in the understanding of existentialism by thinkers such as Simone de Beauvoir. In her book “The Second Sex” (1956), she evaluates the formation of femininity-masculinity through the subject-other by considering the historical development of transcendence and oppression specific to women, with a Hegelian and structuralist dialectic. She attributed importance to individual existence, emphasizing the subjectivity and freedom of human beings, and drew attention to the fact that people create themselves through their free choices: this is in fact the foundation of transcendence.

According to Simone de Beauvoir (Ibid.), the drama of being a woman begins at this point, and she states that throughout history women have not been given the right to freely realize themselves - in short, to be human. Women's transcendence and their ability to conceive possibilities have always been surpassed by another essential consciousness, namely man's consciousness. Women have thus overlooked their own defeat in the inter-conscious struggle, and by not realizing their productivity and existence, they became immanent (Ibid.). As examples of women’s immanence, one could name their lack of self-consciousness, their late participation in the public realm, or their responsibility for housework.

Figure 4: Nachez, E.G. (n.d.). Aggressive Men: Fighting in the Street - 19th century. Adobe Stock.

Since people cannot deny or ignore their own bodies, the freedom of individuals to realize their existence cannot be determined by the body (Ibid.). Thus, women have almost tended to experience immanence themselves by accepting the dominance of men and ignoring their humanity by embracing their femininity. Hence, according to de Beauvoir, the critical value for a woman is not to affirm herself as a gendered person, but to be accepted, as a full through realizing transcendence. However, despite de Beauvoir's contribution to the feminist literature referring to the process of men becoming the subject, and their will in becoming the subject, it can be noticed that the biggest deficiency in the dialectic of immanence and transcendence is the comparison of practices and thoughts in terms of man-style/man’s being a subject and glorifying transcendence. In other words, while this approach accurately offers a critique of immanence, it can still be argued that immanence does not establish hegemony and oppression: rather, then, a critique of transcendence within the framework of othering could better balance power relations.

Figure 5: Zheng, R. (2019). Ran Zheng for NPR. NPR.

There are also approaches that look at the above discussion from different dimensions. Feminist theorist Judith Butler (2006), who opposes the claim that biological and social aspects are effective in gender determinations and fully ascribes sexual attributes to society, emphasizes that even looking at sex as a natural category is actually nothing more than an indicator of artificiality. According to Butler, in an environment where gender is regulated by effects such as social relations and socialization, it is very difficult for biology not to get its share. That is, as much as gender, biological sex is culturally constructed. In order to expand such an idea, in “Sex Redefined” (2015) Claire Ainsworth emphasizes that it would be more accurate to define sex as a spectrum (diversity) other than just a duality, and offers several examples in favour of this thesis. One instance is when surgeons discovered that a 70-year-old man had a womb on the occasion of hernia surgery: the subject stated that while his passions were naturally expected to be in the feminine direction, he never felt feminine due to social and cultural reasons (Ibid.). Therefore, the effect of social norms on forgetting and suppressing the biological is emphasized. Such impact is so strong that people may not even be aware of the existence of their real identity because of the prevailing learned truths, or even cannot experience their free and unique self exercising their own free will and thought.

Gender stereotypes shaped by the influence of the cultural context are not unchanging categories (Butler, 2006). Just as women are marginalized by masculine power and not in the position of the subject, not all men have masculine power and are subjected to social transformation. According to Butler’s approach, the problem is actually the understanding of an idealized order, which is naturalized in the context of bodies with repetition and ritual through performativity. Such understanding tries to tame the roles of men and women for the sake of benefit. Therefore, the change in order will cause the perception of gender to change in line with the identified needs.

Bibliographical References

Ainsworth, Claire. (2015). Sex Redefined. Nature. 518. 288-291. Beauvoir. S. (1956). The Second Sex. New York: Vintage Books. Berger, D. G., & Wenger, M. G. (1973). The Ideology of Virginity. Journal of Marriage and Family, 35(4), 666–676. Butler, J. (2006). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge Classics. Connell, R.W. (1987). Gender and Power: Society, the Person, and Sexual Politics. Cambridge: Polity Press. Dietrich, C., & Quain, C. (2014). Gender in Conflict. European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS). Donovan, J. (2000). Feminist Theory: The Intellectual Traditions. Bloomsbury Academic. Ferguson, R.. (2020). Masculinity and War. Current Anthropology. 62(S23). 112-114 Foucault, M. (1978). The History of Sexuality: Volume 1, An Introduction. New York: Pantheon Books. Kimmel, M.S. (2001). The Kindest Un-Cut: Feminism, Judaism, and My Son's Foreskin. Tikkun. 16(3).circ MacKinnon, C.A. (1991). Toward a Feminist Theory of the State. Harvard University Press. Oakley, A. (1985). Sex, Gender and Society. London: Maurice Temple Smith Ltd. Ryle, R. (2012). Questioning Gender: A Sociological Exploration. SAGE Publications. Sen, A. (2009). The Fog of Identity. Politics, Philosophy & Economics.

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