Sexuality And Gender Research Paper

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The meaning of the terms sexuality and gender, and the ways that writers have theorized the relationship between the two, have changed considerably over the last 40 years. The term sexuality has various connotations. It can refer to forms of behavior, it may include ideas about pleasure and desire, and it is also a term that is used to refer to a person’s sense of sexual being, a central aspect of one’s identity, as well as certain kinds of relationships. The concept of gender has also been understood in relation to varying criterion. Prior to the 1960s, it was a term that referred primarily to what is coded in language as masculine or feminine. The meaning of the term gender has subsequently been extended to refer to personality traits and behaviors that are specifically associated either with women or men; to any social construction having to do with the male female distinction, including those which demarcate female bodies from male bodies; to gender being thought of as the existence of materially existing social groups ‘men’ and ‘women’ that are the product of unequal relationships. In this latter sense, gender as a socially meaningful category is dependant on a hierarchy already existing in any given society, where one class of people (men) have systematic and institutionalized power and privilege over another class of people (women) (Delphy 1993). The term patriarchy or, more recently, the phrase ‘patriarchal gender regimes,’ is used as a way of conceptualizing the oppression of women which results.

More recently, the notion of gender as social practice has emerged and is associated with the work of Judith Butler (1990), who argues that gender is performatively enacted through a continual citation and reiteration of social norms. Butler offers a similar analysis of sexuality, claiming that far from being fixed and naturally occurring, (hetero) sexuality is ‘unstable,’ dependant on ongoing, continuous, and repeated performances by individuals ‘doing heterosexuality,’ which produce the illusion of stability. There is no ‘real’ or ‘natural’ sexuality to be copied or imitated: heterosexuality is itself continually in the process of being reproduced.

Such ideas are part of the establishment of a new canon of work on sexuality and gender that has emerged since the 1960s. This newer approach differs radically from the older tradition put forward by biologists, medical researchers, and sexologists, which developed through the late nineteenth century and was profoundly influential during the first half of the twentieth century. The traditional approach to understanding sexuality and gender has been primarily concerned with establishing ‘natural’ or ‘biological’ explanations for human behavior. Such analyses are generally referred to as essentialist. More recent approaches, although not necessarily denying the role of biological factors, have emphasized the importance of social and cultural factors; what is now commonly known as the social constructionist approach.

The sociological study of sexuality emerged in the 1960s and 1970s and was informed by a number of theoretical approaches that were significant at the time; notably symbolic interactionism, labeling theory and deviancy theory, and feminism. The work of writers such as John Gagnon and William Simon (1967, 1973) in the US, and Mary McIntosh (1968) and Kenneth Plummer (1975) in the UK, was particularly important in establishing a different focus for thinking about sexuality. A primary concern of such works was to highlight how sexuality is social rather than natural behavior and, as a consequence, a legitimate subject for sociological enquiry.

Gagnon and Simon developed the notion of sexual scripts which, they argued, we make use of to help define who, what, where, when, how, and—most anti- essentialist of all—why we have sex. A script refers to a set of symbolic constructs which invest actors and actions, contexts and situations, with ‘sexual’ meaning—or not as the case may be. People behave in certain ways according to the meanings that are imputed to things; meanings which are specific to particular historical and cultural contexts; meanings that are derived from scripts learnt through socialization and which are modified through ongoing social interactions with others. Most radical of all, Gagnon and Simon claimed that not only is sexual conduct socially learnt behavior, but the reason for wanting to engage in sexual activity, what in esssentialist terms is referred to as sexual ‘drive’ or ‘instinct,’ is in fact a socially learnt goal. Unlike Freud, who claimed the opposite to be true, Gagnon and Simon suggested that social motives underlie sexual actions. They saw gender as central to this and detailed how in con- temporary Western societies sexual scripts are different for girls and boys, women and men. Here gender is seen as a central organizing principle in the interactional process of constructing sexual scripts. In this sense gender can be seen as constitutive of sexuality, at the same time as sexuality can be seen as expressive of gender. Thus, for example, Gagnon and Simon argue that men frequently express and gratify their desire to appear ‘masculine’ through specific forms of sexual conduct. For example, for young men in most Western cultures first sexual intercourse is a key moment in becoming a ‘real man,’ whereas this is not the same for young women. It is first menstruation rather than first heterosex that marks being constituted as ‘women.’

Another important contribution to the contemporary study of sexuality, which has posed similar challenges to essentialist theories, is the discourse analysis approach. One example is the work of Michel Foucault (1979) and his followers, who claim that sexuality is a modern ‘invention’ and that by taking ‘sexuality’ as their object of study, various discourses, in particular medicine and psychiatry, have produced an artificial unity of the body and its pleasures: a compilation of bodily sensations, pleasures, feelings, experiences, and actions which we call ‘the sexual.’ Foucault understands sex not as some essential aspect of personality governed by natural laws that scientists may discover, but as an idea specific to certain cultures and historical periods. Foucault draws attention to the fact that the history of sexuality is a history of changing forms of regulation and control over sexuality. What ‘sexuality’ is defined as, its importance for society, and to us as individuals may vary from one historical period to the next. Furthermore, Foucault argues, as do interactionists, that sexuality is regulated not only through prohibition, but is produced through definition and categorization, in particular through the creation of sexual categories such as, for example, ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual.’ Foucault argues that, while both heterosexual and homosexual behavior has existed in all societies, there was no concept of a person whose sexual identity is ‘homosexual’ until relatively recently. Although there is some disagreement among writers as to precisely when the idea of the homosexual person emerged, it has its origins in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, with the category lesbian emerging somewhat later than that of male homosexuality. Such analyses have also highlighted how medical and psychiatric knowledge during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was a key factor in the use of the term ‘homosexual’ to designate a certain type of person rather than a form of sexual conduct.

A major criticism of Foucault’s work is that insufficient attention is given to examining the relationship between sexuality and gender. Feminist writers in particular have pointed out how in Foucault’s account of sexuality there is little analysis of how women and men often have different discourses of sexuality. Sexuality is employed as a unitary concept and, such critic’s claim, that sexuality is male. Despite such criticisms, many feminists have utilized Foucauldian perspectives.

A further challenge to essentialist ideas about sexuality and gender is associated with psychoanalysis, in particular the reinterpretation of Freud by Jacques Lacan. For Lacan and his followers sexuality is not a natural energy that is repressed; it is language rather than biology that is central to the construction of ‘desire.’ Lacanian psychoanalysis has had a significant influence on the development of feminist theories of sexuality and gender, although some writers have been critical of Lacan’s work (Butler 1990).

At the same time as social scientists and historians were beginning to challenge the assumption that sexual desires and practices were rooted in ‘nature,’ more and more people were beginning to question dominant ideas about gender roles and sexuality. The late 1960s/early 1970s saw the emergence of both women’s and gay and lesbian liberation movements in the US and Europe. An important contribution to analyses of sexuality and gender at that time was the distinction feminists, along with some sociologists and psychologists, sought to make between the terms sex and gender. Sex referred to the biological distinction between females and males, whereas gender was developed and used as a contrasting term to sex. Gender refers to the social meanings and value attached to being female or male in any given society, expressed in terms of the concepts femininity and masculinity, as distinct from that which is thought to be biologically given (sex). Feminists have used the sex/gender distinction to argue that although there may exist certain biological differences between females and males, societies superimpose different norms of personality and behavior that produce ‘women’ and ‘men’ as social categories. It is this reasoning that led Simone de Beauvoir (1964) to famously remark ‘One is not Born a Woman.’

More recently, a new understanding of gender has emerged. Rather than viewing sex and gender as distinct entities, sex being the foundation upon which gender is superimposed, gender has increasingly been used to refer to any social construction to do with the female/male binary, including male and female bodies. The body, it is argued, is not free from social interpretation, but is itself a socially constructed phenomenon. It is through understandings of gender that we interpret and establish meanings for bodily differences that are termed sexual difference (Nicholson 1994). Sex, in this model, is subsumed under gender. Without gender we could not read bodies as differently sexed; gender provides the categories of meaning for us to interpret how the body appears to us as ‘sexed.’

Feminists have critiqued essentialist understandings of both sexuality and gender and have played an important role in establishing a body of research and theory that supports the social constructionist view. However, feminist theories of sexuality are not only concerned with detailing the ways in which our sexual desires and practices are socially shaped; they are also concerned to ask how sexuality relates to gender and, more specifically, what the relationship is between sexuality and gender inequality? It is this question which perhaps more than any other provoked discussion and controversy between feminists during the 1970s and 1980s.

Most feminists would agree that historically women have had less control in sexual encounters than their male partners and are still subjected to a double standard of sexual conduct that favors men. It is, for example, seen as ‘natural’ for boys to want to have sex and with different partners, whereas exactly the same behavior that would be seen as understandable and extolled in a boy is censured in a girl. Sexually active women are subject to criticism and are in danger of being regarded as a ‘slut’ or a ‘slag.’ Where feminists tend to differ is over the importance of sexuality in understanding gendered power differences. For many radical feminists sexuality is understood to be one of the key mechanisms through which men have regulated women’s lives. Sexuality, as it is currently constructed, is not merely a reflection of the power that men have over women in other spheres, but is also productive of those unequal power relationships. Sexuality both reflects and serves to maintain gender divisions. From this perspective the concern is not so much how sexual desires and practices are affected by gender inequalities, but, more generally, how constructions of sexuality constrain women in many aspects of their daily lives from restricting their access to public space to shaping health, education, work, and leisure opportunities (Richardson 1997). Fears of sexual violence, for instance, may result in many women being afraid to go out in public on their own, especially at night. It is also becoming clearer how sexuality affects women’s position in the labor market in numerous ways; from being judged by their looks as right or wrong for the job, to sexual harassment in the workplace as a common reason given by women for leaving paid employment.

Other feminists have been reluctant to attribute this significance to sexuality in determining gender relations. They prefer to regard the social control of women through sexuality as the outcome of gendered power inequalities, rather than its purpose. There is then a fundamental theoretical disagreement within feminist theories of sexuality, over the extent to which sexuality can be seen as a site of male power and privilege, as distinct from something that gendered power inequalities act upon and influence.

In the 1990s a new perspective on sexuality and sexual politics emerged fueled by the impact of HIV and AIDS on gay communities and the anti-homo- sexual feelings and responses that HIV/AIDS revitalized, especially among the ‘moral right.’ One response by scholars was queer theory; a diverse body of work that aims to question the assumption in past theory and research that heterosexuality is ‘natural’ and normal. Queer theory is often identified, especially in its early stages of development, with writers associated with literary criticism and cultural studies, and generally denotes a postmodernist approach to understanding categories of gender and sexuality. The work of Eve Sedgwick (1990), Judith Butler (1990), and Teresa de Lauretis (1991), for instance, might be taken as key to the development of queer theory.

A principal characteristic of queer theory is that it problematizes sexual and gender categories in seeking the deconstruction of binary divides underpinning and reinforcing them such as, for instance, woman/man; feminine/masculine; heterosexual/homosexual; essentialist/constructionist. While queer theory aims to develop existing notions of gender and sexuality, there are broader implications of such interventions. As Sedgwick (1990) and others have argued, the main point is the critique of existing theory for its heterosexist bias rather than simply the production of theory about those whose sexualities are marginalized such as, for example, lesbians and gay men.

Sexuality is the primary focus for analysis within queer theory and, while acknowledging the importance of gender, the suggestion is that sexuality and gender can be separated analytically. In particular, queer theorists are centrally concerned with the homo/heterosexual binary and the ways in which this operates as a fundamental organizing principle in modern societies. The emphasis is on the centrality of homosexuality to heterosexual culture and the ways in which the hetero/homo binary serves to define heterosexuality at the center, with homosexuality positioned as the marginalized ‘other.’ Feminist perspectives, on the other hand, have tended to privilege gender in their analyses—the woman/man binary— and, as I have already outlined above, are principally concerned with sexuality insofar as it is seen as constitutive, as well as determined by, gendered power relations.

Of particular significance for the development of our understanding of the relationship between queer and feminism is a rethinking of the distinction between sexuality and gender.

The relationship between sexuality and gender has, then, been theorized in different ways by different writers. These can be grouped into five broad categories. First, some theories place greater emphasis on gender insofar as concepts of sexuality are understood to be largely founded upon notions of gender (Gagnon and Simon 1973, Jackson 1996). For example, it is impossible to talk meaningfully about heterosexuality or homosexuality without first having a notion of one’s sexual desires and relationships as being directed to a particular category of gendered persons. Others propose a different relationship, where sexuality is understood to be constitutive of gender. The radical feminist Catherine MacKinnon (1982), for example, suggests that it is through the experience of ‘sexuality,’ as it is currently constructed, that women learn about gender, learn what ‘being a woman’ means. ‘Specifically, ‘‘woman’’ is defined by what male desire requires for arousal and satisfaction and is socially tautologous with ‘‘female sexuality’’ and the ‘‘female sex’’’ (MacKinnon 1982). A third way of understanding the relationship between sexuality and gender, which moves away from causal relationships where one is seen as more or less determining of the other, is one which allows for the possibility that the two categories can be considered as analytically separate, if related, domains. Gayle Rubin (1984) in her account of what she terms a ‘sex/gender system,’ and others who have been influenced by her work, such as Eve Sedgwick (1990), make this distinction between sexuality and gender, which means that it is possible for sexuality to be theorized apart from the framework of gender difference. This is a model favored by many queer theorists. Alternatively, we may reject all of these approaches in favor of developing a fourth model which relies on the notion that sexuality and gender are inherently co-dependent and may not usefully be distinguished one from the other (Wilton 1996).

The stage in our contemporary understandings of sexuality and gender are such that there can be no simple, causal model that will suffice to explain the interconnections between them. However, rather than wanting to privilege one over the other, or seeking to analytically distinguish sexuality and gender or, alternatively, to collapse the two, we might propose a fifth approach which investigates ‘their complex interimplication’ (Butler 1997). It is this articulation of new ways of thinking about sexuality and gender in a dynamic, historically, and socially specific relationship that is one of the main tasks facing both feminist and queer theory (Richardson 2000).


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