Gay & Lesbian Services of Western New York

Sex Role Stereotyping, Part I

A fifteen year old who identifies as male asks, “Why is it that straight people always think that there is a butch and a fem in homosexual relationships?”

The tendency to dichotomize relationships into masculine and feminine aspects, whether about gender, roles and role function, behaviors, attitudes, mannerisms (the list goes on) has occurred throughout recorded history. The effort to understand or explain what is masculine or what is feminine has gone on among thinkers cross-culturally for at least as long. Therefore, this question is about a complex and many leveled issue and is not answered simply. Furthermore, assessing individuals and relationships on some sort of male/female continuum is not solely a heterosexual activity. In fact, this behavior is rampant in the GLBT communities and is hurtful when used as a mechanism of inclusion/exclusion. Just think about the terms we use to describe people based on appearance or mannerisms: “masculine (or straight) acting”, “lipstick lesbian”, “diesel dyke”, to name a few.

In this edition, I will try to answer your question about sex role stereotyping as it occurs as an almost automatic behavior in society. In the next edition, I will focus more on this phenomenon in our own communities and how it may hurt us. Please keep in mind that concepts and language have cultural relativity. Some cultures do not as clearly ascribe behaviors to one gender or the other as Western cultures do nor do some cultures attach as much negative value to a “feminine” man or a “masculine” woman.

In the battle of “nature vs nurture” on the issue of masculine/feminine most seem to agree that a combination of nature and nurture is at work but that to a much larger degree socialization accounts for the differences in behavioral traits and attitudes between boys and girls. This process starts as soon as the outward physical sex of the baby is known. Human beings tend to seek knowledge and understanding through comparison to a real or perceived opposite so there is a natural tendency to dichotomize. We know dark by contrast to light, sweet by contrast to sour, masculine by contrast to feminine ( even though both may contain many of the same elements).

Since we are born of a bio father and mother and usually raised in this dyad in some form it becomes “natural” to view relationships as two sets of role behaviors, one male and one female. Coming from this perspective it is then common to characterize a relationship along masculine/feminine lines even when the couple is made up of two same-sex individuals. Behavioral traits, subtle or not, as well as role behaviors that are typically assigned to one gender or the other are therefore used to understand or define the individuals that make up GLBT unions. In this culture men are expected to earn more money, take out the garbage, become useless on Sundays in the Fall watching football, etc. and so society masculinizes the actor of these behaviors even if the actor is a she.

Some noted psychological theorists have suggested that persons actually possess both masculine and feminine characteristics but are socialized to express what the culture expects/demands; “boys will be boys”. So men detach from their feminine side and either seek it out or attempt to destroy it in others. (The destroy it side being one causal theory of gay bashing.) I came across the following piece years ago with which I will close this edition. Please email your questions or comments regarding this topic so I can include them in the February page on sex role stereotyping in our own communities.

He is playing masculine. She is playing feminine. He is playing masculine because she is playing feminine. She is playing feminine because he is playing masculine. He is playing the kind of man that she thinks the kind of women she is playing ought to admire. She is playing the kind of women he thinks the kind of man he is playing ought to desire. If he were not playing masculine, he might be more feminine than she is – except when she is playing very feminine. If she were not playing feminine, she might well be more masculine than he is – except when he is playing very masculine. So he plays harder. And she plays…softer. He wants to make sure that she could never be more masculine than he. She wants to make sure that he could never be more feminine than she. He therefore seeks to destroy the femininity in himself. She therefore seeks to destroy the masculinity in herself…He desires her for her femininity which is his femininity, but which he can never lay claim to. She admires him for his masculinity which is her masculinity but which she can never lay claim to. Since he may only love his own femininity in her, he envies her for her femininity. Since she may only love her own masculinity in him, she envies him his masculinity…He is becoming less and less what he wants to be. She is becoming less and less what she wants to be. But now he is more manly than ever, and she is more womanly than ever…

B. Rosak and T. Rosak Masculine/Feminine

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