Sex-Gender-Sexuality

Using the textbook Anthropology: What Does it Mean to Be Human? we read about sex-gender-sexuality in Intro to Anthropology 2021:

  • Chapter 13, “What about sex-gender-sexuality?”
  • Alexandra Kralick, “What Our Skeletons Say About the Sex Binary.” Sapiens (2018)


These materials were for Intro to Anthropology 2021. The previous class was about Politics and the next class concerns Kinship.

The material in this class draws from one of the most shared and viewed posts on this blog, Gender is a Social Construction which attempted to spell out ideas about sex-gender-sexuality and why anthropologists have considered such ideas to be both socially constructed and part of a biocultural paradigm.

A note that for next time a potentially helpful article is Sex in Sport: Men Don’t Always Have the Advantage by Cara Ocobock in Sapiens (2021).

Sex-Gender-Sexuality Transcript

How did feminism change anthropology?

This chapter begins rather abruptly. By abruptly, I mean that it starts out with this big word called “feminism.” It just throws it right at us: feminism. All of a sudden, we’re trying to ponder the meaning of feminism. Our brains are wondering if we should trust these feminists or not. I wanted to back this up a tiny bit. If I had my choice, I would write the book so the chapter on “Kinship and marriage and family” came before this chapter on gender and sex and sexuality. I’ll tell you why. In part it’s because of how this happened in anthropology. When the early anthropologists are going out in say the 1910s and 1920s, they were very interested in how people were related to each other, how people thought about reproduction, the reproduction of society, and who they considered their kin to be. This was something that was of early interest to anthropology. For the most part, these early anthropologists assumed what we now call “heteronormativity.” That’s another big word! They assumed that the normal or natural way to do things was that there were two sexes, man and woman, and that those two sexes should be married in long-term monogamous relationships that have children in stable family households. This was the assumption they were starting with. There were some early anthropologists [thinking differently], which Lavenda and Schultz mentioned. Margaret Mead, perhaps the most famous American anthropologist ever. She wrote a book called “Coming of Age in Samoa.” As well as her teacher, Ruth Benedict. I’ve given you a quote from her about “the purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human difference.” Both of them in some ways in the 1930s already were starting to think about sex, gender, and sexuality in slightly more open ways. Partially based on the evidence of anthropology, partially because they may have themselves been in a same-sex relationship at certain points. They knew how difficult it was to navigate in the academy, in the world as it was. Although the prevailing assumption in society–and perhaps in many of the early anthropological studies–was that there was this natural or biological way to do things, and other things were suspect, there were some voices of difference already showing up from early on in the anthropological record. What they found was that people did kinship in all kinds of different ways. Things that they probably weren’t expecting. It didn’t create unstable societies to reckon kinship in different ways, and to think about your relationships in different ways than had been assumed true. Again, the finding was that: “Wow, people do this in all kinds of different ways. People don’t all do this the same way!” This is what they found from thinking about this. If we then turn to these issues that we’re going to talk about, of gender, and of sex, and of sexuality. I would say that the finding is (and this is going to sound perhaps a little weird) but I’m going to put it this way: we have this assumption: “Things are getting weird now like in the last 10 years, boy things have gotten really weird, and people are thinking about gender differently.” My statement on this is that whatever seems “strange” to us today–and this includes even operations and all kinds of body modifications that people do–there are people either in past societies or in other cross-cultural societies who have been doing stranger things than even the things that we think of as “strange.” By putting it that way I just want to assure you that if you look over the cross-cultural and historical variation in the world, we’re not even getting close in our society to anything near the practices that anthropologists have documented across different societies. What feminism did is that as a social movement, as an academic exercise, it took this earlier data that people had on kinship and gender and sex and sexuality, and said: “wait a second, we can do something with this, interesting.” It’s not just something you file away as like, “oh, they’re pretty bizarre over there in that part of the world.” It actually could say something about our own organization of ourselves, and the limits, or what they call the “plasticity” of human society, and the plasticity or the flexibility of human behavior in different places. This is a crucial contribution to taking some of this old stuff that people have been collecting, as just stuff that people do that we don’t know how to think about. Other scholars, especially influenced by feminism, were able to think about this in new and different ways, and to actually then say something about all kinds of different societies. One of my main messages is: don’t be afraid of the feminists. Don’t be afraid of feminism. It is very helpful to us here, when we think about this moment in analyzing our lives. One of the crucial contributions, one of the things that the feminists helped us perhaps the most with, is the distinction between sex and gender.

What is the difference between sex & gender?

Sex refers to any physical or biological difference. It can refer to physical characteristics: hormones, genetics, anything that’s “out there.” Any biological stuff, we’re going to call that sex. Then if we think about what we expect of people who we believe are of a certain sex, or what roles we expect them to play, or what kinds of identities we think are appropriate for people given this biological difference: that’s when we’re talking about the cultural stuff of *gender*. Now this was a great innovation. But the problem is in our society, people decided that it would be much more–how to say?–“sex” just seems like an impolite thing to say. Because maybe it makes us think of that other thing. People like to talk about gender. It just becomes a euphemism for sex. My best example of this right now is: Gender Reveal Parties. I don’t want you to ever do these, because people are shooting things out of cannons and burning down forests, and it’s just bad. What the whole point of the Gender Reveal Party is, they’ve gone to an ultrasound and they’re going to reveal what they say is the gender of the baby. These should really be called “Sex Reveal Parties.” What they’re revealing is whatever result they have on an ultrasound. They probably wouldn’t, it just sounds sounds yuck if you’re saying it’s going to be a “Sex Reveal Party.” Much more polite to say a Gender Reveal Party. We’re going to try and keep this distinction, though, that is hopefully helpful, between gender–the cultural expectations–and the biological differences.

Is Female to Male the Same as Nature to Culture?

One of the first feminist anthropologists wrote a really interesting article in the 1970s, and the article was titled “Is Female to Male the Same as Nature to Culture?” I’ve written it here as a logical expression. What she was asking, and this was based on the ethnographic evidence from around the world: is there in all societies a gender binary between men and women, and is that gender binary expressed as the women are on the side of the natural, so conceived as being homemakers, and care of children, and linked to these natural functions. The men are seen as linked to the cultural, the public, the political. Is there a universal gender binary? Does that mean that because we do not see examples of what we might call matriarchal societies (we see plenty of examples of patriarchal societies), does that mean that male domination is also in some ways a universal? For Sherry Ortner, Lavenda and Schultz say she comes to a fairly “pessimistic conclusion.” It was a really productive and interesting idea, and I think it’s worth just ruminating on. There are a lot of societies, I think our own is an example, in which people tend to associate women with homes and nature and natural stuff, and men with the public and the cultural stuff. [However] later work would look at different places in the world and say “wait a second, this idea of the public divided from the private, that is the premise of this, or that culture is divided from nature is actually an artifact of our own society.” It is not something that other societies necessarily have. Even in many societies that are not necessarily of the non-Western variety, you’ll see for example women doing a lot of the economics and the marketing part of things. This is not something that is true cross-culturally. Also, people began to question the idea that in all societies people break gender along a binary. There’s a very complex section of Lavenda and Schultz where they talk about the work of Marilyn Strathern in Papua New Guinea. She’s talking about these different conceptions of individuals as “dividuals” and it gets really complicated. What she’s trying to say is, in some ways it doesn’t automatically break people, in our Western sense, into male and female.

What is Intersectionality?

The other thing is that people began to think about what we call “intersectionality.” I think it can be summed up as: whenever you think about gender and the relationships of men and women, you also have to think about social class. The difference between being a middle-class or an upper-class woman and being in the working class can be huge, and perhaps even seen as more enormous than the difference between male and female. This is something that as a social movement, some of what were called the “second wave feminists,” had to grapple with. A lot of the second wave feminists were in a White middle-class movement who wanted access to jobs and employment, whereas a lot of other women in the working classes felt they were being forced to work in dead end jobs. They had very different issues when it came to trying to create solidarity across or within the category of gender. Same thing with race. The difference between being a Black working-class woman and a White middle-class woman might be so enormous that it’s hard to draw a parallel along the lines of gender. This is not to say that these categories will always determine or or override each other. It’s just to say that whenever we look at something like gender, we always have to think about the other issues, or other social divisions that might be involved when we’re expressing it. So basically Ortner’s formulation, this idea that male dominance was universal and that it broke down along a universal gender binary, was proved to be helpful but in the end not explanatory of how things worked in the world.

Are there more than two genders?

The other thing I want to bring up, which appears in a small part of Lavenda and Schultz, (and I wish they’d paid a little bit more attention to it), is the idea of Two Spirit People. This expression comes to us from societies that are indigenous to the Americas. There’s some debate about the terminology because there are differences, in the different Native American groups they have different words or different expressions. A number of them have adopted the idea of Two Spirit People. They are people who might be biologically male but take on the gender roles of a female person. In these societies, they would be assigned to a third gender or considered to be blessed with Two Spirits. In some of these societies, they had a role that was special or was different from either men or women, and it could be the other way too. People talk about third or fourth genders. This was actually an aspect of many societies that were indigenous to the Americans. What was perhaps fascinating, is that there were often what we might consider homosexual acts between a Two-Spirit Person and someone who would be biologically the same sex, but they would not see themselves as having a homosexual identity. In part because if your gender identity is of a “third gender” or a Two-Spirit Person, [you are] not even in that binary that we have been describing. Now, in the anthropological literature it’s sometimes difficult. Again, I say this because–remember a lot of this has to do with recapturing accounts that were made maybe a hundred years ago–they used a term called “berdache,” which is actually a derogatory term. It’s something that the French introduced when they were exploring in the Americas. It was the derogatory term for a male French prostitute. This was also something that the Spanish and other colonial authorities really wanted to stamp out and eliminate. There was a lot of discrimination against people, and it’s only in recent years that Indigenous societies in the Americas have tried to recapture some of the positive aspects of these identities. They really were under colonialism, and under colonial rule they tried to stamp out these practices. I would like Lavenda and Schultz to give a little more attention to this. There’s an NPR special called “Two Spirits” where they look at different societies that have some role for a third or a fourth gender. In their view, they are on every continent and are actually in hundreds of societies. Lots of them are in the Americas, but in other places as well. We see different kinds of gender ideas that are outside of the typical binary. When it comes to gender, we can be confident that even in the places that are binary, even in those places that only consider people to come in two varieties, male and female, that there’s a big difference in the social roles and expectations in different societies. In some societies, weaving is a task that only men do. In other societies, weaving is a task that only women do. There’s some association with maybe different kinds of clothing, or different kinds of dress. Even in our own society, we now tend to have blue for boys and pink for girls. A hundred years ago pink was the color for boys because red was seen as a masculine color, a fiery color. Blue was the color for girls because that was seen as more of a subdued color. Over time, these associations and these expectations can vary quite a bit, even if there’s an expectation that people come as a binary. We can also see that cross-culturally there are a lot of different places where they have ideas of third or fourth genders, or they would consider gender to be something that is played out along a spectrum. Or in the work of Marilyn Strathern as having these dividuated or “dividual” parts. There might be even strange ideas about gender itself. The other thing is that we have learned that gender is not something that people automatically take on and just enact without any issues. A lot of people have turned to the idea that gender is something that we perform, or that we make a performance of.

What about performativity?

There’s this idea, I think, that a lot of people don’t feel like there’s anything to it, they just go right along. But many of you know we get rewarded for good gender performances, and we get penalized for bad gender performances. There are a lot of different examples of people who–they may not feel completely [comfortable]; it’s not that these things come [naturally]. They start to feel natural as performances. But the idea is that when we *do* gender in the way that society is expecting us to, we get rewarded. There’s a great example of this, I used to assign an article about the difference that would happen with male surgeons in the medical profession and female surgeons. What they were saying is that with male surgeons they would–it’s like the show ER–they would have what is called a “doctor fit.” There’d be in an emergency, and they’d be like “Give me a scalpel! Give me this!” If they did that, it was seen as like “oh, good doctor.” People would rush over and help this person. If it was a female surgeon who said exactly the same thing and did the same “doctor fit,” people would slow things down. Be like “Ugh, what is she doing? Who does she think she is?” The same performance can be rewarded in some contexts and not rewarded, or penalized in others. People learn how to do things that will make them valuable in today’s world. Again, in the case of gender and social roles we can see a whole variety of things that happen both over time and across different societies.

Is sexuality a fixed identity?

We’ll turn here to the idea of sexuality. I want to start with an observation from Lavenda and Schultz. I think a lot of us, growing up in today’s world, we think that the idea of either being heterosexual or homosexual is like an identity that has always existed in human history. As Lavenda and Schultz point out, the idea that people took this on as an identity–“I am heterosexual,” or “I am homosexual”–is actually a relatively recent idea. It’s something that seems to have emerged in the United States after World War II. Pretty recent. What we mean by that is that all over the place, in every society we’re going to see people who do different things. We would classify their actions as heterosexual or homosexual. We could use the idea of biological sex to say, “Well, that’s homosexuality.” But that doesn’t mean that people will identify as [homosexual]. That identity may not exist in different societies or in another society. As several of you noted, when you looked at the material from Nicaragua, the idea of who will identify as homosexual and who will identify as heterosexual is still something that varies in today’s world. Even in contemporary societies in the Americas. In this work in Nicaragua, there are men who may have sex with other men but consider themselves to be completely heterosexual. As long as they’re being what they would consider to be the active (it’s probably too late in the day for this) or the penetrating partner. Then that would be, “oh, I’m completely heterosexual.” Even though in our world we would classify that as a homosexual act, in terms of their identity they would not see that as heterosexual. They would only see homosexual identity as being the passive partner, or the recipient, and that would be equated to homosexual. One of you asked if this true in other places. This is something that shows up in a number of different societies, especially in places like Brazil and in parts of Latin America where there is this idea–I don’t want to say that this is a better idea or a less misogynistic idea. It can still come with a heavy dose of homophobia. It is simply to say that there are different ideas out there. What we consider to be an identity may in other places be quite differently conceived.

Are same-sex marriages recent?

The other thing that is interesting, especially because a lot of people think that it is only in today’s world, that we’ve seen in the West or in the United States, that we see same-sex marriages or same-sex unions. Over time this has actually been something that we see in many different societies.

[Student]: “They were allowed to have partners as long as they were married partners, and a lot of women would choose other women to have partners outside of their marriage. Not even just because they were women, it’s just because they felt that women provided more for other women.”

Different! Not what we would expect!

It’s interesting because I’m thinking back to my example of the anthropologist Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. Margaret Mead was married at least two times, in heterosexual marriages, and yet. I think there was in some ways, there was also in our own society something of at [different] points in time a tolerance for that. I would just say that this has been a feature of other societies. They have not broken down. It has not been the end of civilization to have these things happen. We see these ethnographically. Sometimes you have to look carefully because people aren’t going to necessarily volunteer information. There still might be (like I said) a good dose of homophobia or a good dose of misogyny. But this can happen and there are standards for these kinds of relationships in other societies. So up to here, we’re probably all good with the idea that things–we might not want to approve of everything–but we can at least recognize that there are different ideas cross-culturally and historically for how people do and should conduct themselves with regard to gender and identity.

What about the sex binary?

I then gave you an article which I really like, but it is a little bit on the edge of things. Some people are at this point and some people are not. I’m not trying to say that you have to be at this point. It’s trying to take the idea of the gender binary and some of the things that people have done to question the gender binary. Then take it into the world of biology and especially archaeology and the bones. “What our skeletons say about the sex binary.” Here we have a picture of an athlete. What did you get out of this article?

Run with that a little bit. [Student]: “So it was like they came up with this thing called ‘indeterminate sex’ which is like the skeletal remains that they weren’t sure were female or a male. They could go either way because some were being incorrectly identified as male just because …” There was somebody who took the forensics class and in the comments said that it was [easy to] misidentify pelvises. The thing about male and female pelvises as skeletal remains, there’s not anything completely clear-cut about identifying them. You have to practice and you have a range of averages. That’s the way we do these bone things, you have a range of averages and it is true there’s wider regions and narrower regions. What they found is that some of them are not as clear-cut as you might think. They introduced this category of “indeterminate” because they were classifying a bunch of pelvises and skeletons as male just as a default category. The techniques have gotten better but it’s also the fact that we’ve realized that there are some that aren’t as obvious as we once assumed they were, in terms of identifying remains. This has led some people to wonder if it’s our insistence on a gender binary, our insistence that there are two separate genders, which makes us then see a sex binary. What did you learn about intersex?

What about intersex?

Things are complicated! If I’m not mistaken it’s something like, maybe if we count on the high end, 1.7 percent. I would say that the idea that people are just–that when that “gender reveal cannon” goes off that’s what you’re gonna get–is in some way shaped by our very notion of how people are supposed to be. In the old days if someone came out, if there was a certain amount of ambiguity, the doctors would make a call. There are various “inters” of an intersex condition. It’s not all the same thing. There’s different characteristics, and the doctors were probably trying to make a good call, but they basically surgically “fix them.” There’s been in recent years an intersex movement that says: “Hey, let’s not just fix people surgically from the get-go. Let’s let people live their lives a little bit and figure this thing out.” For the most part there is a decent amount of biological binary-ness. But things are not quite as clear-cut as we would assume. I looked up in the World Health Organization, their page on gender and genetics. We often assume that, “oh well, maybe that’s a hormonal imbalance. If we just get to the genetics then that’ll tell us everything that we need to know.” What they were saying is that there are people who are born with different types of chromosomal arrangement so the XXY variety about .2%; the XYY variety about .1%; of the XXX .1%; X0 is an interesting, very little known. Then they talk about males who are born 46XX due to the translocation of a tiny section. What I’m trying to say is if you add these things up, then you add up different hormonal things, there’s a lot of interesting stuff that goes on biologically. I’m not trying to say that we’re going to automatically assume that–as some people have talked about–we should classify people biologically into five different sexes. Should we consider biological sex to be a spectrum? It’s interesting to think about. These raise complicated issues which are not going to be resolved, but there are things that people are starting to think about.

We’ll be OK

What we can most take away is that across different societies people have done all kinds of different things with gender and sexuality: And They’ve Been OK. Some of the things that we’re starting to think about in terms of how people want to identify and express themselves–maybe be differently gendered, or transgendered, or non-binary gendered. We’re going to be all right. It’s not the downfall of civilization. People have done these things over time. If we look across different societies, across history, there’s good anthropological support, good evidence that we can still run a society and we may actually do OK. If we let people be a little bit, and be tolerant. The biology is not quite as clear-cut as people wanted it to be. Sometimes *some people* wanted it to be. That’s OK too. Nature, biology, all that stuff, is messy. As we saw in terms of race and different physical variation, people are all different. We’ll be OK.


Living Anthropologically means documenting history, interconnection, and power during a time of global transformation. We need to care for others as we attempt to build a world together. This blog is a personal project of Jason Antrosio, author of Fast, Easy, and In Cash: Artisan Hardship and Hope in the Global Economy. For updates, follow on Twitter, watch on YouTube, or subscribe to e-mail list.

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