Sex Role and Sex Role

by John Beatty

Published in 1979 in Language, Sex and Gender: Does "La Difference" Make a Difference?" Orasanu, Judith, Mariam Slater and Leonore Loeb Adler (ed); Annals of the New York Academy of Science Vol 327

This is the original version and should be the one that is cited.

The relationship between biology and culture is a complex one that has puzzled anthropologists for years. Even as Boas and his students were trying to destroy the myths that bound race, language and culture together, forces were at work that would cause the problem to raise its head again.

As anthropology had shifted away from the universalist approach put forth by the early cultural evolutionists and moved toward a new position of cultural relativism in the past, so today once again the pendulum swings back, and once again anthropologists (among others) have begun the return to cultural, linguistic and psychological universals and proceeded to link these td biological bases. As Chomsky linked his deep structure to a genetic structure, the ethologists similarly place programs for behavior into the genes. Warfare is aggression; aggression is genetic; hence war is in our genes. As Lorenz (1063) and Ardrey (1966} gave us the biological basis of war, Fox and Tiger gave us the biological basis of political systems (1969).

Similarly, Jensen and others have returned to the biological determinism theories of psychology and re-opened the whole field of the relationship between genes, race and 1.Q., a relationship that most anthropologists thought bad been laid to test by the middle of the 1940ts.

Recently, with the development of' the women's movement, the issue of the relationship between biology and behavior has once again been reactivated as discussions range through the area of the biological foundations of sex roles. Sex roles are not unlike race in that both are involved with the linking of some behaviors to some biological characteristics. Some people tend to feel that since the category .the category is based on a biological characteristic it is somehow “more real”. Most people seem to be able to accept that cultural categories based on non-biological characteristics, such as "beliefs", are nothing more than cultural categories and are somehow arbitrary, and hence are opposed to the more "real” categories which are based on physical properties (such as biological characteristics). As a result, racial groups seem to have a more substantial reality about them than do those of "democrat" or "republican". In part1 this may be caused by the tact that one can alter one’s own "cultural category" volitionally but one needs to cause society to alter its classification system in order to change one’s position in it,

Eye color, which is clearly as biological as skin color or blood type, seems foolish to most of us as a criterion for a racial category. Brown eyed people would be members of one race, while blue eyed people would be in another. A grey-green stock could be constructed and subdivisions made. Worse still, of course, would be tile "bi-racials"; those unfortunates having one blue and one brown eye!

English speakers are very fortunate indeed~ since English distinguishes a term "blue'1 from "green" or "brown". Hence we are easily able to form our proper races. English semantics map out very neatly on the genetic structures. But the poor Navajos! They lack a blue-green linguistic distinction. As a result, they might have never realized that blue-eyed people and green-eyed people were two distinct genetic populations. (Let us hope that no language which splits "blue” into two categories is found. Such a language might prove that we have been wrong all along and that there are really two distinct genetic populations in cur "blue-eyed" race!)

This short digression is meant to make the point that cultural categories are just as cultural when they apply to biological divisions as when they apply to "belief" criteria.

This is clearly vital to the problems of sex, role and sex role. Sex is a classification based on biological criteria. A person is male if he has male sex organs. A person is female if she has female sex organs. (Hermaphrodites, of course require a special term since they possess both sex organs). Of course, it is altogether possible not to use external genitalia as a guide, but the appearance of X and Y chromosomes. That however leads to complications since there are people who have more that 2 sex chromosomes, necessitating a number of sexes.

Role on the other hand is often defined as a set of behaviors identified with a given status. But what then are sex roles? Are they behaviors identified or caused by biological sex? (I.e. because a person is male or female, he or she will exhibit specific behavior?) Or are they behaviors identified with a social status e.g. "woman" or "man"? A third possibility is that sex role refers to the behaviors that occur during the 5ex act. This latter can clearly be related to "general" sex role as being the set of behaviors expected of a man or woman when they are having sex. These behaviors are clearly culturally variable. It is the relationship between these categories that I wish to examine here.

First, let us establish sonic basic terms to deal with the problem. On the whole, people may be biologically classified into two groups: males and females. Further, there are two statuses associated with these biological divisions: men and women. I will refer to the male image or role as "masculinity" arid the female image or role as 'femininity" while keeping in mind that each culture will have a different interpretation of these roles, value them differently and so on. Lastly, I will need two terms to refer to the sexuality of each. Male sexuality is “virility” but English does not have a term for the sexuality of women.

Status Biology Role Sexualoty
man male masculinity virility
woman female femininity ?

Western society in general has tended to confuse the last two categories. Virility (i.e. a man's ability to perform sexually with a female) is for much of the west a large part of a man’s masculinity. Perhaps .because women are not supposed to be involved with sexuality in western morality, the missing term is not so surprising. It is in fact, almost an obligatory gap. The very concept which it would identify would be exactly that which would inhibit women from being feminine. Male sexuality (virility) is generally considered an important component of American masculinity. Female sexuality is not general1y regarded as a component of femininity. In English, in fact, one of the differences between "lady” and "woman" ~nay the sexuality linked with the term “woman". It is possible to construct sentences in English that make just such a distinction between the two terms. Speakers tend to reject "She's a masculine lady", but not “She’s a masculine woman". When queried about one of the "Sex Goddesses", some native English speaking males indicated the sexual quality in "She's some woman'? When I persisted and said X (the sex goddess) is a lady", I was corrected with a variant of the old joke: "She's no lady. She’s a woman!” There is some ambivalence at this point among some since it would appear that “woman” can sometimes appear in such a way as to indicate that "lady" is a subdivision of "woman" while at other times "lady" is directly opposed to "woman". A similar situation occurs with “man”.


                                     man                                                       woman

                                                                                  woman                   lady

Mohawk, an Iroquoian language spoken in the NE United States and SE Canada makes a four way distinction in sexuality while maintaining a two way distinction in general.

The word /õnkwe/ meaning person, can have an /r/ prefixed to it generating a word meaning “man” – /rõnkwe/. Similarly, a /y/ meaning “female” can be prefixed, /yõnkwe/ meaning “woman”.

These are not the only two words that might be translated as man or woman however. In addition the word /roskarakete/ means “man” and “tsakotõwise/ means “woman”. However, changing the prefixes on these has rather dramatic results. /yoskarakete/ become “lesbian” while /totõnwise/ is male homosexual.

The stem –skarakete- may mean something like “carry on back” while –otõwise- means to make heat by friction.

Clearly, the sex role is being kept distinct from the gender role.

The confusion in the United States between the categories which have herein been labeled as "sexuality" and "role" is not found universally. It would appear from some work with Hong Kong Chinese and with Japanese that the two aspects, "sexuality” and "role" are kept quite separate and have little if anything to do with each other. In American culture, it is difficult to imagine a recently married man sending his wife home to her mother so an unmarried male friend could stay at his apartment with bin and not have to go to a hotel. But this can and does happen in Hong Kong with no implications of sex.

It would appear that both the Japanese and the Chinese (among others) define masculinity by the strength of the bonding between males (i.e. a man's masculinity is d4fined by how well he can maintain social relationships with other men, while virility is measured by how well he manages his sex behavior with women). Hence it is possible for a man's virility to be questionable, but his masculinity may be quite secure (or vice versa). This separation of sex and role has important ramifications in dealing cross culturally and when dealing with behavior that is not strictly heterosexual.

A Japanese male homosexual may be considered masculine if he maintains a good and appropriate life style, that is to say, he maintains the proper social relationships with men publicly. If two Japanese married couples visit, it is not surprising for the men to sleep together in one room, while their wives share a different room. Nor wou1d Japanese find it odd that a married man would choose to sleep in the same room with a visiting male friend while his wife slept alone in another room. Most Americans find this hard to conceive of and suggest that they would be suspicious of the two men involved, and what their sexual relation was to one another.

This is not to say that Japanese give full approval to homosexuality. Quite the contrary. Japanese are upset about exclusive homosexuals, but it appears the tension is caused by the feeling that homosexuals may be lonely in their later lives and won't have children to look after them. Beyond that no one seems terribly concerned. Japanese seem likewise to regard homosexuality as an irrelevant part of social relationships and Japanese seem puzzled as to why anyone would stop being friends with someone because th4y had learned of a friend's homosexuality. American homosexuals have indicated some surprise that some of their heterosexual friends were willing to remain friends with them after their homosexuality became known.

Although it wou1d be interesting to see if Japanese homosexuals "come out of the closet", most Japanese interviewed indicated some difficulty in understanding the question. It was not clear why anyone would want to make an announcement of one's sexuality, since sexuality (homo or hetero) is private and hence irrelevant to anyone else except in the context of the sex act.

The fact that Americans tend to terminate friendships with, and otherwise discriminate against homosexuals indicates the confusion on the part of many to sex--role categories.

Let us now return to the categories set up earlier: sex and role. Sex can be seen as the status into which a person is born and is dependent on the set of reproductive organs which are present (either from birth or which are later surgically produced). Sex role, refers to the pattern of behavior expected by a society from people born into either of the sex statuses, A subdivision of the sex-role is the behavior expected by the society of how a person would behave during the sex act. Sexuality has been used here to refer to how a person performs sexually with members of the opposite sex. It has been indicated that sexuality is a component of role for males in American society, but not in other societies. What has not yet been discussed is the subdivision of role: how a person behaves during the sex act.

In American culture, behavior during the sex act is an aspect of role. In general, one may say that men are supposed to be the aggressors, while women are supposed to be passive. Mel Jacobs reported that among the Clackamas Chinook, men must always be above their partners during the sex act.

In certain aspects of sexuality there are clear cut differences between the role itself and the aspect of role. Consider the cases of homosexuality in prisons. It appears that in the world outside of prison, where heterosexual contacts are possible, virility plays a large part in developing and defining a man’s masculinity. Iii prisons, however, heterosexual contacts are non-existent. It is at this point that the two aspects of role tend to become crucial. Men in prison tend not to be regarded as homosexuals if they have sex relations w5th other males; they are regarded as homosexual only if they play a passive role. (It is interesting to note that one of the Chinese terms for homosexuals "Si fut gwai” literally "feces hole pervert”) can be used to refer to men who are merely passive in social situation arid are not necessarily homosexual).

Outside of prisons, the distinction between the two divisions of role is often lost and irrelevant. The outside world defines the man’s masculinity by his virility. In prison, his wil1ingness to play a 'female" role, or even his unwillingness to fight to keep from being forced to play a female role, blocks him from being regarded as male. Prison slang indicates a number of words which are used to distinguish the active versus the passive members of a sex act that occurs between two members of the same sex. This implies that the definition of a homosexual may be even more complex than “a person who actually takes part in a sex act between members of the same sex” or “a person who fantasies having sex with members of the same sex". Under certain circumstances a homosexual may be defined by the pattern of behavior exhibited during the sex act.

Some members of a semi-professional baseball team claimed that a male “team follower” had offered to take on the whole team sexually. Some of the members took him up on the offer. One of those had mentioned at one point that a person was “homosexual” if he had had even one homosexual experience. When he was asked if that one homosexual experience classified him as “a homosexual”, he was surprised and responded “Of course not. He was blowing me”. So once again in a basically all male environment the role taken in sexual activity defines the person.

It becomes clear that a number of aspects of sex and role must be distinguished and seen as they integrate with one another before any really comprehensive statement can be made about the variety of roles and statuses that are based on some aspect of sex. In the same way that kinship analysis is needed to identify the components of the various kinship types are conceived and operate, it is necessary to do the same for systems of terms regarding “sex roles". Cross cultural analysis is likely to prove extremely valuable and productive in discovering what underlying concepts serve as components in constricting roles.