Sex & Sexuality: Crash Course Sociology #31


Let’s talk about sex. It’s totally OK if that makes you wanna
cringe. After all, most people will tell you that
sex is private, not something that people
generally talk about at least, not in class. Besides, sex is usually thought of as a deep,
primeval part of ourselves. It’s a matter of drives and instincts, of
biology and psychology. And if sex and sexuality are both primeval and private,
can a social science tell us anything about them? Of course it can. Because no matter how natural and private
you think they are, sex and sexuality are still
a part of every society. And like I’ve seen saying since this course
started: society gets in everywhere. [Theme Music] In order to talk about sex, we need to get
a handle on some terms, starting with sex. Not sex the act, but sex the category. Sex is a biological category, and it distinguishes
between females and males. And biologically speaking, the root
cause of sex is a pair of chromosomes:
XX for females and XY for males. These chromosomes result in two kinds of
visible differences: There are primary sex characteristics, which show
up as the sex organs involved with the reproductive
processes and which develop in utero. And then there are secondary sex characteristics,
which develop at puberty and are not directly involved
in reproduction, things like pubic hair, enlarged
breasts or facial hair. Now, we tend to think of sex as a simple fixed
binary: You’re either male or female. But that’s not the case. A significant portion of the population is
intersex, that is “people [who] are born with sex characteristics that do
not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies.” This can mean a lot of different things. Like, it can mean having different combinations
of sex chromosomes – as in Klinefelter Syndrome,
which creates chromosomes XX and Y, or in
Triple-X Syndrome, which results in XXX. An intersex condition can also mean that the
body responds differently to hormones, or that
the genitals aren’t fully developed. This wide variety of intersex conditions makes
population figures hard to pin down. If intersex is defined strictly in terms of having
atypical genitalia at birth, then 1 in every 1500-2000
births fits that description. If defined more broadly, however – to include all of
the conditions I just mentioned – intersex conditions
appear in as much as 2% of the population. And of course, different societies respond
to intersex people differently. In some societies, they’re accepted as just
a natural variation. But Western society and medicine have long
understood sex as an immutable binary, so intersex people were not seen as an acceptable
variation, but rather as a deviation in need of correction. Some intersex conditions do require
medical intervention for the sake of the
patient’s health, but many don’t. And for years doctors performed unnecessary
operations on intersex children, in order to make them
acceptable according to cultural ideas about sex. So, society plays a role in the biological
category of sex. But when it comes to gender, those distinctions
are all about society. Gender is the set of social and psychological
characteristics that a society considers proper
for its males and females. The sets of characteristics assigned to men
are masculinities, and those assigned to women
are femininities. A lot of people have a hard time
understanding the difference between sex and gender,
but hopefully this definition makes it clear. Gender is its own thing, separate from sex. Some people don’t even want to accept that
gender is anything but biological, but sociology
is here to tell you that it really isn’t. Instead, it’s a matter of social construction. To explore this idea some more, let’s go to
the Thought Bubble: Let’s start with how we dress. A business suit is considered masculine.
A skirt is feminine. And it should be obvious and uncontroversial
that this is a purely social convention: Because, for example, you’d be pretty hard pressed
to explain the objective difference between
a skirt and a kilt, except to say that wearing one is feminine,
and wearing the other is masculine. And this is also true of things that might
seem to be more biologically determined. For example, physical labor like construction
has typically been understood as masculine. And there might seem to be an underlying
biological explanation for that, because on average men do tend to be bigger
and have more muscle mass than women. But even with an average difference between
the sexes, there’s a great deal of overlap too. Plenty of women are bigger and stronger than
plenty of men. And minor differences in average size and
strength can’t explain why some occupations
have been stratified by gender. The reality is that minor, average, biological
differences are used as the justification
for widespread gender stratification, funnelling males and females into different
jobs, hobbies, and identity constructions. And society then points to this resulting stratification as
“proof” of an underlying difference in biological reality,
even though that reality doesn’t actually exist. Thanks Thought Bubble. So, one way of thinking about gender is that
it’s a matter of a self-presentation, a performance
that must be worked at constantly. What we wear, how we walk and talk, even our
personal characteristics – like aggression or empathy –
are all ways of “doing” gender. They’re ways of making claims to masculinity or
femininity that people will see and, hopefully, respect. And we can be sanctioned if we don’t do gender
right, or well enough. This is precisely what’s happening when a
man is called a “sissy” or a woman is told
she “really ought to smile more.” This idea of gender as a performance is known
as gender expression. But gender is more than that; it’s also a
matter of identity. Gender identity refers to a person’s internal,
deeply held sense of their gender. Nobody really, perfectly fits the cultural
ideal of masculinity or femininity. And lots of people construct their gender
differently from these conventional ideas. In particular, transgender people are those
whose gender identity doesn’t match the
biological sex they were assigned at birth. By contrast, cisgender people’s gender identity
matches their biological sex. Still, both trans and cis people can express
their identity in a variety of ways, conventional
or otherwise. And this should make it clear that gender,
like sex, is not binary. There are many ways of doing femininities and
many ways in which a person can be masculine. Now that we’ve got a basic understanding of
sex and gender, we can finally get to sexuality. Sexuality is basically a shorthand for everything
related to sexual behavior: sexual acts, desire, arousal
– the entire experience that is deemed sexual. One part of sexuality is sexual orientation,
or who you’re sexually attracted to, or not. Most people identify as heterosexual, meaning
they’re attracted to people of the other gender. While this is the most common orientation,
significant numbers of people are homosexual
– attracted to people of their own sex or gender. But these are really only poles on a continuum,
with plenty of people being attracted to both their own
and other genders, as in bisexual or pansexual. And some people are asexual, and don’t experience
sexual attraction at all. Now, these definitions can vary from person to
person, just as they vary from society to society. This, and the fact that social norms may make
people wish to keep their orientation private, makes estimates of the number of homosexual
and bisexual people necessarily imprecise. That said, based on the surveys we do have,
around 4% of the American population identifies
as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. However, this increases to around 10% if we ask instead
whether a person has ever experienced same-sex
attraction or engaged in homosexual activity. So, what can each of the three sociological
paradigms tell us about sexuality? We’ll start with symbolic-interactionism,
because its insight is the most fundamental: And that is that sexuality, this intensely
private and supposedly primeval thing, is
socially constructed. You might think that this is a claim too far,
because sexuality is a matter of inbuilt urges. Some things just are sexual. But if we actually start asking “what is sexual?”
then the constructed nature of sexuality gets
pretty obvious pretty fast. We might think, for instance, that oral sex
is just sexual. But that’s not necessarily true in all societies. For example, among the Sambia of the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, young boys perform oral sex on, and ingest the semen of, older men, as part of a rite of passage to adulthood. Oral sex is definitely happening, but it’s
not clear that this should be thought of as
sexual in the way we understand it. And we might also be inclined to label this ritual as
“homosexual behavior”, but it’s still not quite the same
thing as homosexuality as we understand it in the US. So physically identical acts can have radically
different social and subjective meanings. We can explain this, in part, with the concept
of sexual scripts. These are cultural prescriptions that dictate
the when, where, how, and with-whom of sex,
and what that sex means when it happens. The idea that sex happens at home between
two willing partners, for example, is part of a
generic sexual script in our society. Likewise, sex that happens between two people
who met at a bar might come with a different script – and therefore different shared expectations –
than sex between two people who’ve known each
other for a long time. This brings us to the structural functionalist
perspective. Since sexual reproduction is necessary for the
reproduction of society, this view says that sex has to be
organized in some way, in order for society to function. And society organizes sexuality by using sexual
scripts. Before contraception was widespread, it was these
norms that controlled how many people were born,
by determining when and how often people had sex. And by controlling who had sex with whom, they
also, generally, made sure that those kids were born
into families that could support them. This is one function of the universal incest taboo,
the prohibition of sex between close relatives. Reproduction between family members would
ultimately break down kinship relations. It would be impossible to maintain a clear
set of familial obligations if, for instance,
your brother could also be your father. But, as seen from the perspective of social
conflict theory, regulating sexuality is also a matter
of creating, and reinforcing, inequalities. In particular, our society is traditionally
built around heteronormativity. This is the idea that there are only two genders,
that gender corresponds to biological sex, and that the only natural and acceptable sexual
attraction is between these two genders. Heteronormativity makes heterosexuality
seem like it’s directly linked to biological sex, but heterosexuality is just as much a
social construction as any other sexuality. It’s defined by dominant sexual scripts,
privileged by law, and normalized by social
practices, like religious teachings, so it comes to be understood as natural in
a way that other sexualities are not. Queer theory challenges this naturalness and
especially shows how gender and heterosexuality
are tied together. Heteronormativity is based on the idea of
two opposite sexes that naturally fit together,
like poles of a magnet: So by this logic, men pursue, women are pursued,
men are dominant, women are submissive. But all this is socially constructed; the sexes aren’t opposites, there are just two of them
at both ends of a spectrum, along with the whole
array of variations between them. But the idea of opposite sexes helps make
heterosexuality seem natural to us. And so you can see how sex, gender, and sexuality
are all linked, and all socially constructed. And you can see how society gets in
everywhere, even among these apparently
private and primeval things. And in turn, these things help structure society,
creating and sustaining inequalities and giving
them the veneer of the natural. But sociology can help us pick them apart. Today we learned about what sociology can
tell us about sex and sexuality. We talked about the biological classification
of sex, and how it’s more complicated than
we tend to think. And we discussed the social construct of gender
and a little bit about how it works. Finally, we talked about sexuality and sexual
orientations, and what the three paradigms
of sociology can tell us about them. Crash Course Sociology is filmed in the Dr.
Cheryl C. Kinney Studio in Missoula, MT, and
it’s made with the help of all of these
nice people. Our animation team is Thought Cafe and Crash
Course is made with Adobe Creative Cloud. If you’d like to keep Crash Course free for
everyone, forever, you can support the series
at Patreon, a crowdfunding platform that allows
you to support the content you love. Thank you to all of our patrons for making
Crash Course possible with their continued support.

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