Social Science

Gender and Age10CHAPTER

In Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, on Africa’s north- ern coast, I met some U.S. college students and spent a couple of days with them. They wanted to see the city’s red light district, but I wondered whether it would be worth the trip. I already had seen other red light districts, including the unusual one in Amsterdam where a bronze statue of a female prostitute lets you know you’ve entered the area; the state licenses the women and men, requiring that they have medical checkups (certificates must be posted); and the prostitutes add sales tax to the receipts they give customers. The prostitutes sit behind lighted picture windows while customers stroll along the nar- row canal side streets and do “window shopping” from the out- side. Tucked among the brothels are day care centers, bakeries, and clothing stores. Amsterdam itself is an unusual place—in cafes, you can smoke marijuana but not tobacco.

I decided to go with them. We ended up on a wharf that extended into the Mediterranean. Each side was lined with a row of one-room wooden shacks, crowded one against the next. In front of each open door stood a young woman. Peering from outside into the dark inte- riors, I could see that each door led to a tiny room with an old, well-worn bed.

The wharf was crowded with men who were eyeing the women. Many of the men wore sailor uniforms from countries that I couldn’t identify.

As I looked more closely, I could see that some of the women had runny sores on their legs. Incredibly, with such vis- ible evidence of their disease, customers still sought them out.

With a sick feeling in my stomach and the desire to vomit, I kept a good distance between the beckoning women and myself. One tour of the two-block area was more than sufficient.

Somewhere nearby, out of sight, I knew that there were men whose wealth derived from exploiting these women who were condemned to live short lives punctuated by fear and misery.

The prostitutes sit behind lighted picture windows while cus- tomers stroll along the narrow canal side streets and do “win- dow shopping” from the outside.


276 CHAPTER 10 Gender and Age

Differences in how we display gender often lie below our awareness. How males and females use social space is an example. In this unposed photo from Grand Central Station in New York City, you can see how males tend to sprawl out, females to enclose themselves. Why do you think this difference exists? Biology? Socialization? Both?

In the previous chapter, we considered how race–ethnicity affects people’s well-being and their position in society. In this chapter, we examine gender stratification—males’ and females’ unequal access to property, power, and prestige.

We also explore the prejudice and discrimination directed to people because of their age. Gender and age are especially significant because, like race–ethnicity, they are master statuses; that is, they cut across all aspects of social life. We all are labeled male or female and are assigned an age category. These labels are powerful, because they convey images and expectations about how we should act and serve as a basis of power and privilege.

Inequalities of Gender Let’s begin by considering the distinctions between sex and gender.

Issues of Sex and Gender When we consider how females and males differ, the first thing that usually comes to mind is sex, the biological characteristics that distinguish males and females. Primary sex characteristics consist of a vagina or a penis and other organs related to reproduction. Secondary sex characteristics are the physical distinctions between males and females that are not directly connected with reproduction. These characteristics become clearly evident at puberty when males develop larger muscles, lower voices, more body hair, and greater height, while females develop breasts and form more fatty tissue and broader hips.

Gender, in contrast, is a social, not a biological, characteristic. Gender consists of whatever behaviors and attitudes a group considers proper for its males and females. Sex refers to male or female, and gender refers to masculinity or femininity. In short, you inherit your sex, but you learn your gender as you learn the behaviors and attitudes your culture asserts are appropriate for your sex.

As the photo montage on the next page illustrates, the expectations associated with gender differ around the world. They vary so greatly that some sociologists suggest that we replace the terms masculinity and femininity with masculinities and femininities.

The Sociological Significance of Gender. The sociological significance of gender is that it is a device by which society controls its members. Gender sorts us, on the basis of sex, into different life experiences. It opens and closes doors to property, power, and prestige. Like social class, gender is a structural feature of society.

Before examining inequalities of gender, let’s consider why the behaviors of men and women differ.

Gender Differences in Behavior: Biology or Culture? Why are most males more aggressive than most females? Why do women enter “nurturing” occupations, such as teach- ing young children and nursing, in far greater numbers than men? To answer such questions, many people respond with some variation of “They’re just born that way.”

Is this the correct answer? Certainly biology plays a signifi- cant role in our lives. Each of us begins as a fertilized egg. The egg, or ovum, is contributed by our mother, the sperm that fertilizes the egg by our father. At the very instant the egg is fer- tilized, our sex is determined. Each of us receives twenty-three chromosomes from the ovum and twenty-three from the sperm. The egg has an X chromosome. If the sperm that fertilizes the egg also has an X chromosome, the result is a girl (XX). If the sperm has a Y chromosome, the result is a boy (XY).

How do sex and gender differ?


Night to His Day: The Social

Construction of Gender by

Judith Lorber on

Issues of Sex and Gender 277

Standards of Gender

Each human group determines its ideas of “maleness” and “femaleness.” As you can see from these photos of four women and four men, standards of gender are arbitrary and vary from one culture to another. Yet, in its ethno centrism, each group thinks that its preferences refl ect what gender “really” is. As indicated here, around the world men and women try to make them selves appealing by aspiring to their group’s standards of gender. Jordan






New Guinea


How does gender depend on culture?

278 CHAPTER 10 Gender and Age

The Dominant Position in Sociology. That’s the biology. Now, the sociological question is, Does this biological difference control our behavior? Does it, for example, make females more nurturing and submissive and males more aggressive and domineer- ing? Here is the quick sociological answer: The dominant sociological position is that social factors, not biology, are the reasons people do what they do.

Let’s apply this position to gender. If biology were the principal factor in human behavior, all around the world we would find women behaving in one way and men in another. Men and women would be just like male spiders and female spiders, whose genes tell them what to do. In fact, however, ideas of gender vary greatly from one cul- ture to another—and, as a result, so do male–female behaviors.

Despite this, to see why the door to biology is opening just slightly in sociology, let’s consider a medical accident and a study of Vietnam veterans.

Opening the Door to Biology A Medical Accident.

In 1963, 7-month-old identical twin boys were taken to a doctor for a routine circumci- sion. The physician, not the most capable person in the world, was using a heated needle. He turned the electric current too high and accidentally burned off the penis of one of the boys.

You can imagine the parents’ disbelief—and then their horror—as the truth sank in. What could they do? After months of soul-searching and tearful consultations with experts, the parents decided that their son should have a sex-change operation (Money and Ehrhardt 1972). When he was 22 months old, surgeons castrated the boy, using the skin to construct a vagina. The parents then gave the child a new name, Brenda, dressed him in frilly clothing, let his hair grow long, and began to treat him as a girl. Later, physicians gave Brenda female steroids to promote female puberty (Colapinto 2001).

At first, the results were promising. When the twins were 4 years old, the mother said (remember that the children are biologically identical):

One thing that really amazes me is that she is so feminine. I’ve never seen a little girl so neat and tidy. . . . She likes for me to wipe her face. She doesn’t like to be dirty, and yet my son is quite different. I can’t wash his face for anything. . . . She is very proud of herself, when she puts on a new dress, or I set her hair. . . . She seems to be daintier. (Money and Ehrhardt 1972)

If the matter were this clear-cut, we could use this case to conclude that gender is determined entirely by nurture. Seldom are things in life so simple, however, and a twist occurs in this story.

Despite this promising start and her parents’ coaching, Brenda did not adapt well to femininity. She preferred to mimic her father shaving, rather than her mother putting on makeup. She rejected dolls, favoring guns and her brother’s toys. She liked rough- and-tumble games and insisted on urinating standing up. Classmates teased her and

called her a “cavewoman” because she walked like a boy. At age 14, she was expelled from school for beating up a girl who teased her. Despite estrogen treatment, she was not attracted to boys. At age 14, when despair over her inner turmoil brought her to the brink of suicide, her father, in tears, told Brenda about the accident and

her sex change. “All of a sudden everything clicked. For the first time, things made sense, and I understood who and what I was,” the twin said of this revelation. David (his new

name) was given testosterone shots and, later, had surgery to partially recon- struct a penis. At age 25, David married a woman and adopted her children (Diamond and Sigmundson 1997; Colapinto 2001). There is an unfortunate end to this story, however. In 2004, David committed suicide.

David Reimer, whose story is recounted here.

Why is the door to biology slowly opening in sociology?

Gender Inequality in Global Perspective 279

Sociologists study the social factors that underlie human behavior, the experiences that mold us, funneling us into different directions in life. The research on Vietnam veterans discussed in the text indicates how the sociological door is opening slowly to also consider biological factors in human behavior. This March 31, 1967, photo shows soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Division carrying a buddy who had just been shot.

From research on Vietnam veterans: How do social factors of human behavior override biological ones?

The Vietnam Veterans Study. Time after time, researchers have found that boys and men who have higher levels of testosterone tend to be more aggressive. In one study, researchers compared the testosterone levels of college men in a “rowdy” fraternity with those of men in a fraternity that had a reputation for academic achievement. Men in the “rowdy” fraternity had higher levels of testosterone (Dabbs et al. 1996). In another study, researchers found that prisoners who had committed sex crimes and other crimes of violence had higher levels of testosterone than those who had com- mitted property crimes (Dabbs et al. 1995). The samples were small, however, leaving the nagging uncertainty that these findings might be due to chance.

Then in 1985, the U.S. government began a health study of Vietnam veterans. To be certain that the study was representative, the researchers chose a random sample of 4,462 men. Among the data they collected was a measurement of testosterone. This sample supported the earlier studies. When the veterans with higher testosterone levels were boys, they were more likely to get in trouble with parents and teachers and to become delinquents. As adults, they were more likely to use hard drugs, to get into fights, to end up in lower-status jobs, and to have more sexual partners. Those who married were more likely to have affairs, to hit their wives, and, it follows, to get divorced (Dabbs and Morris 1990; Booth and Dabbs 1993).

This makes it sound like biology is the basis for behavior. Fortunately for us soci- ologists, there is another side to this research, and here is where social class, the topic of Chapter 8, comes into play. The researchers compared high-testosterone men from higher and lower social classes. The men from lower social classes were more likely to get in trouble with the law, do poorly in school, and mistreat their wives (Dabbs and Morris 1990). You can see, then, that social factors such as socialization, subcultures, life goals, and self-definitions were significant in these men’s behavior. In Sum: Sociologists acknowledge that biological factors are involved in some human behavior other than reproduction and childbearing (Udry 2000). Alice Rossi, a feminist soci- ologist and former president of the American Sociological Association, suggested that women are better prepared biologically for “mothering” than are men. Rossi (1977, 1984) said that women are more sensitive to the infant’s soft skin and to their nonverbal communications.

Perhaps Rossi expressed it best when she said that the issue is not either biology or society. Instead, whatever biological predispositions nature provides are overlaid with culture. A task of sociologists is to discover how social factors modify biology, especially as sociologist Janet Chafetz (1990:30) said, to determine how “different” becomes translated into “unequal.”

Gender Inequality in Global Perspective

Around the world, gender is the primary division between people. To catch a glimpse of how remarkably gender expectations differ with culture, look at the photo essay on the next two pages. Every society sorts men and women into separate groups and gives them different access to property, power, and prestige. These divisions always favor men-as-a-group. After reviewing the historical record, historian and feminist Gerda Lerner (1986) concluded that “there is not a single society known where women-as-a-group have decision-making power over men (as a group).” Consequently, sociologists classify females as a minority group. Because females outnumber males, you may find this strange. The term minority group applies, however, because it refers to people who are discriminated against on the basis

traditional Western

expectations, and some

diverge sharply from our gender

stereotypes. Although w omen in India

remain subservient to m en —with the

women’s movement hard ly able to break

the cultural surface —wo men’s occupations

are hardly limited to the home. I was

surprised at some of the hard, heavy labor

that Indian women do.

Indian women are highly visible in public places. A storekeeper is as likely to be a woman as a man. This woman is selling glasses of water at a beach on the Bay of Bengal. The structure on which her glasses rest is built of sand.

I visited quarries in different parts of India, where I found men, women, and children hard at work in the tropical sun. This woman works 8½ hours a day, six days a week. She earns 40 rupees a day (about 90 cents). Men make 60 rupees a day (about $1.35). Like many quarry workers, this woman is a bonded laborer. She must give half of her wages to her master.

Women also take care of livestock. It looks as though this woman dressed up and

posed for her photo, but this is what she was wearing

and doing when I saw her in the fi eld and stopped to talk to her. While the

sheep are feeding, her job is primarily to “be” there, to make certain the sheep

don’t wander off or that no one steals them.

The villages o f India have no


plumbing. Ins tead, each vill

age has

a well with a h and pump, an

d it is

the women’s j ob to fetch the


This is backbre aking work, fo

r, after

pumping the w ater, the wom


wrestle the he avy buckets o

nto their

heads and car ry them home

. This

was one of the few occupatio

ns I

saw that was l imited to wom


Work and Gender: Wo men at Work in India

Traveling through India was both a

pleasant and an eye-open ing experience.

The country is incredibly diverse, the

people friendly, and the l and culturally

rich. For this photo essay , wherever I

went —whether city, villag e, or country-

side —I took photos of w omen at work.

From these photos, you can see that

Indian women work in a wide variety of

occupations. Some of t heir jobs match

© Jim Henslin, all photos

Sweeping the house is traditi onal work for Western wome

n. So it is in India, but

the sweeping has been exten ded to areas outside the hom

e. These women

are sweeping a major interse ction in Chennai. When the t

raffi c light changes

here, the women will continu e sweeping, with the drivers

swerving around

them. This was one of the few occupations that seems to b

e limited to women.

When I saw this unusual sight, I had to stop and talk to the workers. From historical pictures, I knew that belt-driven machines were common on U.S. farms 100 years ago. This one in Tamil Nadu processes sugar cane. The woman feeds sugar cane into the machine, which disgorges the stalks on one side and sugar cane juice on the other.

A common sight in India is women working on construction crews. As they work on buildings and on highways, they mix cement, unload trucks, carry rubble, and, following Indian culture, carry loads of bricks atop their heads. This photo was taken in Raipur, Chhattisgarh.

As in the West, food preparation in India is traditional women’s work. Here, however, food preparation takes an unexpected twist. Having poured rice from the 60-pound sack onto the fl oor, these women in Chittoor search for pebbles or other foreign objects that might be in the rice.

This woman belongs to the Dhobi subcaste, whose occupation is washing clothes. She stands waist deep at this same spot doing the same thing day after day. The banks of this canal in Hyderabad are lined with men and women of her caste, who are washing linens for hotels and clothing for more well-to-do families.

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