Sexuality Gender and Power in the American Society

Sexuality, Gender and Power in the America Society

Gender inequality is an intimate inequality. Both class and race inequality are sustained with intense segregation, but gender inequality involves intense integration (for heterosexuals, at least). Gender, sexuality, and power interact.

The fact of their interconnectedness in our minds is revealed by two ideas:

First, that gender and sexual orientation are somehow related. In American society, doing gender involves doing heterosexuality. Masculinity means, in part, a sexual relationship with women. Femininity means, in part, a sexual relationship with men. In fact, gender and sexual orientation are not the same thing.

Second, that reveals the intersection of gender, sexuality, and power is the fact that we tend to think that sexual liberation for women IS women’s liberation. The relationship between sexual liberation and gender equality is our concern for today.

Our primary questions are:
How has gender inequality shaped the following?
Our very definition of sex?
How we understand our sexual bodies?
Our idea of sexual liberation?
How we think of ourselves sexually?
Our sexual interactions?

How has gender inequality shaped our definition of sex?
There is a strong tendency to assume that “real sex” equals heterosexual penile-vaginal intercourse. A focus on penile-vaginal intercourse prioritizes sexual pleasure for men. While 75 percent of heterosexual men report having orgasms from partnered sex on a regular basis, only about 29 percent of women report the same. This definition of sex deprioritizes women’s pleasure. It is simply not essential. Note that women who have sex with women report orgasms about 83% of the time. This is not a biological problem of women, this is a cultural product.

How has gender inequality shaped how we understand our sexual bodies?
Today, we have a gender theory that posits men and women as different and opposite. And our understanding of our sexual body parts is shaped by these beliefs about gender. In your readings on intersexuals, doctors say that the reason they more often make little girls than boys is because it is “easier” to make a vagina than it is a penis. You can only believe this if you believe that the vagina is the passive opposite to the active penis. The only way you can argue that it’s easier to make a vagina is if you believe it is nothing but a passive, receptacle for a penis. That would be easy to scoop out… but to try to make a functioning vagina… that is at least as hard as making a functioning penis. But, in our society, a functioning vagina isn’t as important. Or even as visible. This shapes how we think about what is possible sexually.

How has gender inequality shaped how we think of ourselves sexually?
We’ve talked about how doing masculinity and femininity involves doing heterosexuality. But doing masculinity and femininity also means doing properly gendered heterosexuality. Masculinity means, in part, the sexual pursuit of women. Femininity means, in part, sexual attractiveness to men. In sex education, boys’ sexuality is generally overtly linked with pleasureon. In sex education associates female sexuality is associated primarily with reproduction and presents females as at risk.

How do men do masculine heterosexuality?
Men talk about sex often (locker room talk). But they talk about feeling attracted and acting on attraction. And their talk centers around women as the object of their attraction. The audience for this performance of masculine heterosexuality is other men. Street harassment of women by groups of men is an interesting example. Similarly, in your readings, Schultz discusses how difficult it is for men to talk about feeling sexy themselves or to talk about sex at all without a woman to talk about.

How do women do feminine sexuality?
Women work hard on being sexy. How does a woman know she has succeeded? Male attention. Therefore the audience for her performance is men. Thus women are placed in competition for men (and we wonder why they have a reputation as “catty”)

How has gender inequality shaped our idea of sexual liberation?
Intimate relationships involve both love and sex. These ideas are gendered. There is a feminization of love and a masculinization of sex. On the one hand, the feminization of love makes some male efforts at romance invisible or unimportant. On the other hand, the masculine of sex makes feminine ways of being sexual invisible or trivial.

Remember, our society defines women’s liberation as the right to do what men do… but not the converse. Sexual liberation has followed this pattern such that women’s sexual liberation has meant a masculinization of sexual norms for women. Kimmel describes this as:
The pursuit of pleasure for its own sake.
Increased attention to orgasm
The multiplication of sexual partners.
The universal interest in sexual experimentation
The separation of sex from love (relies on gendered ideas of oppositeness).
The androcentrism means that there has been no similar revolution for men in which they are encouraged and called liberated for being able to be in touch with their emotions or prioritize love in their life.
So what does a sexually liberated woman do? She says yes.
While saying “yes” is more of an option than it used to be, saying “no” is less of an option than it used to be.

How has gender inequality shaped our interactions as sexual individuals?
A double standard still operates.
Men do masculine heterosexuality.
But, despite the push to have sex like men that came with the “sexual revolution,” her behavior is still more restricted than his because she is required to do femininity as well.
Sex (masculine) should be in the context of a love relationship (feminine).
She must do a careful balancing act by being sexy and seeking sexual approval without being labeled a slut.
This makes sex a dangerous playground for women because, for men, asserting masculinity (sex and men) is rejecting femininity (love and women).
In a context of gender inequality, doing femininity, love, means putting herself at emotional and physical risk.
Being sexually assertive (whether to pursue sex, reject sex, or insist on a condom) is incompatible with rules of femininity that call for passivity, a desire to please, and a lack of sophistication about sex.
Love is one of the most common reasons why girls don’t use condoms and abused women don’t leave their husbands.
One study found that women who had unexpected, unprotected sex were judged less harshly than women who had unexpected sex but had a condom with them.

Heterosexual women experience an expectation to be sexually liberated in the context of gender inequality. I did a study about women’s pleasure in heterosexual relationships. The correlation between knowledge and orgasm in masturbation means that a continued sexual revolution will increase women’s pleasure in sex…with themselves. But the lack of correlation between knowledge and orgasm with their partners means that gender inequality will inhibit sexual pleasure for women… with or without a sexual revolution. We call this the “incidental orgasm,” nice and pleasing, but ultimately incidental.

In conclusion

Sexual liberation is not the same thing as gender equality. Sexual liberation will not necessarily erase gender inequality. But, it makes sex another arena of life in which women have to walk a fine line of balancing masculinity and femininity. It is a very powerful control mechanism, because what ultimately rests on doing “proper” feminine and masculine heterosexuality is intimate, loving, supportive, lifelong relationships.

Room for optimism?

The rise of oral sex. If cunnilingus and fellatio are relatively balanced, as some studies suggest, then the rise in oral sex among teens potentially undermines the rule that “real sex” is what gives men orgasms. The rise in visibility of gays and lesbians challenges the definition that sex is penile-vaginal intercourse and therefore necessarily challenges both heterosexism and androcentrism. Furthermore, there is some evidence that boys are moving towards engaging in sex within relationships that involve love. So boys may be moving in the direction of “girl style” sex. This may give girls more ability to negotiate for protected sex, talk openly about consent, etc. But this will only occur insofar as gender inequality is eroded. And that is something that we can’t take for granted.