hand, is the motivation to engage in sexual acts. It relates to what turns peo-
ple on. A person's sexuality consists of both behavior and desire.
The most significant dimension of sexuality is gender. Gender relates
both to the biological and social contexts of sexual behavior and desire. People
tend to believe they know whether someone is a man or a woman not because
we do a physical examination and determine that the person is biologically
male or biologically female. Instead, we notice whether a person is masculine
or feminine. Gender is a social characteristic of individuals in our society
that is only sometimes consistent with biological sex. Thus, animals, Like
people, tend to be identified as male and female in accordance with the
reproductive function, but only people are described by their gender, as a man
THE GENDER OF SEXUALITY
When we say something is gendered we mean that social processes have
determined what is appropriately masculine and feminine and that gender has
Pepper Schwartz and Virginia Rutter
thereby become integral to the definition of the phenomenon. For example,
marriage is a gendered institution: The definition of marriage involves a mas-
culine part (husband) and a feminine part (wife). Gendered phenomena, like
The gender of the person you desire is a serious matter seemingly fundamen-
marriage, tend to appear "naturally" so. But, as recent debates about same-sex
tal to the whole business of romance. And it isn't simply a matter of whether
marriage underscore, the role of gender in marriage is the product of social
someone is male or female; how well the person fulfills a lover's expectations
processes and beliefs about men, women, and marriage. In examining how
of masculinity or femininity is of great consequence. . . .
gender influences sexuality, moreover, you will see that gender rarely operates
... Although sex is experienced as one of the most basic and biological of
alone: Class, culture, race, and individual differences also combine to influ-
activities, in human beings it is profoundly affected by things other than the
ence sexuality. . . .
body's urges. Who we're attracted to and what we find sexually satisfying is
not just a matter of the genital equipment we're born with.. . .
On one level, sex can be regarded as having both a biological and a social
DESIRE: ATTRACTION AND AROUSAL
context. The biological (and physiological) refers to how people use their gen-
ital equipment to reproduce. In addition, as simple as it seems, bodies make
The most salient fact about sex is that nearly everybody is interested in it. Most
the experience of sexual pleasure available—whether the pleasure involves
people like to have sex, and they talk about it, hear about it, and think about it.
other bodies or just one's own body and mind. It should be obvious, however,
But some people are obsessed with sex and willing to have sex with anyone or
that people engage in sex even when they do not intend to reproduce. They
anything. Others are aroused only by particular conditions and hold exacting
have sex for fun, as a way to communicate their feelings to each other, as a way
criteria. For example, some people will have sex only if they are positive that
to satisfy their ego, and for any number of other reasons relating to the way
they are in love, that their partner loves them, and that the act is sanctified by
they see themselves and interact with others.
marriage. Others view sex as not much different from eating a sandwich. They
Another dimension of sex involves both what we do and how we think
neither love nor hate the sandwich; they are merely hungry, and they want
about it. Sexual behavior refers to the sexual acts that people engage in. These
something to satisfy that hunger. What we are talking about here are differ-
acts involve not only petting and intercourse but also seduction and courtship.
ences in desire. As you have undoubtedly noticed, people differ in what they
Sexual behavior also involves the things people do alone for pleasure and stim-
find attractive, and they are also physically aroused by different things....
ulation and the things they do with other people. Sexual desire, on the other
Many observers argue that when it comes to sex, men and women have
fundamentally different biological wiring. Others use the evidence to argue
that culture has produced marked sexual differences among men and women.
From Pepper Schwartz and Virginia Rutter, The Gender of Sexuality (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine
Forge Press, 1998). Copyright © 1998 by Pine Forge Press. Reprinted by permission of the
We believe, however, that it is hard to tease apart biological differences and
social differences. As soon as a baby enters the world, it receives messages
about gender and sexuality. In the United States, for example, disposable dia-
dollar industry has provided technology that can, in a small proportion of
pers come adorned in pink for girls and blue for boys. In case people aren't
cases, overcome this biological problem (Rutter 1996)....
sure whether to treat the baby as masculine or feminine in its first years of life,
the diaper signals them. The assumption is that girl babies really are different
The Social Origins of Desire
from boy babies and the difference ought to be displayed. This different treat-
ment continues throughout life, and therefore a sex difference at birth be-
Your own experience should indicate that biology and genetics alone do not
comes amplified into gender difference as people mature.
shape human sexuality. From the moment you entered the world, cues from
Gendered experiences have a great deal of influence on sexual desire. As
the environment were telling you which desires and behaviors were "normal"
a boy enters adolescence, he hears jokes about boys' uncontainable desire.
and which were not. The result is that people who grow up in different cir-
Girls are told the same thing and told that their job is to resist. These gender
cumstances tend to have different sexualities. Who has not had their sexual
messages have power not only over attitudes and behavior (such as whether a
behavior influenced by their parents' or guardians' explicit or implicit rules?
person grows up to prefer sex with a lover rather than a stranger) but also over
You may break the rules or follow them, but you can't forget them. On a so-
physical and biological experience. For example, a girl may be discouraged
cietal level, in Sweden, for example, premarital sex is accepted, and people are
from vigorous competitive activity, which will subsequently influence how she
expected to be sexually knowledgeable and experienced. Swedes are likely to
develops physically, how she feels about her body, and even how she relates to
associate sex with pleasure in this "sex positive" society. In Ireland, however,
the adrenaline rush associated with physical competition. . . .
Catholics are supposed to heed the Church's strict prohibitions against sex
outside of marriage, birth control, and the expression of lust. In Ireland the
experience of sexuality is different from the experience of sexuality in Sweden
THE BIOLOGY OF DESIRE: NATURE'S EXPLANATION
because the rules are different. Certainly, biology in Sweden is no different
from biology in Ireland, nor is the physical capacity to experience pleasure
Biology is admittedly a critical factor in sexuality. Few human beings fall in
different. But in Ireland, nonmarital sex is clandestine and shameful. Perhaps
love with fish or sexualize trees. Humans are designed to respond to other hu-
the taboo adds excitement to the experience. In Sweden, nonmarital sex is ac-
mans. And human activity is, to some extent, organized by the physical equip-
ceptable. In the absence of social constraint, it may even feel a bit mundane.
ment humans are born with. Imagine if people had fins instead of arms or laid
These culturally specific sexual rules and experiences arise from different
eggs instead of fertilizing them during intercourse. Romance would look quite
norms, the well-known, unwritten rules of society.
Another sign that social influences play a bigger role in shaping sexuality
Although biology seems to be a constant (i.e., a component of sex that is
than does biology is the changing notions historically of male and female dif-
fixed and unchanging), the social world tends to mold biology as much as bi-
ferences in desire. Throughout history, varied explanations of male and fe-
ology shapes humans' sexuality. Each society has its own rules for sex. There-
male desire have been popular. At times, woman was portrayed as the stormy
fore, how people experience their biology varies widely. In some societies,
temptress and man the reluctant participant, as in the Bible story of Adam and
women act intensely aroused and active during sex; in others, they have no
Eve. At other times, women were seen as pure in thought and deed while men
concept of orgasm. In fact, women in some settings, when told about orgasm,
were voracious sexual beasts, as the Victorians would have it.
do not even believe it exists, as anthropologists discovered in some parts of
These shifting ideas about gender are the social "clothing" for sexuality.
Nepal. Clearly, culture—not biology—is at work, because we know that or-
The concept of gender typically relies on a dichotomy of male versus female
gasm is physically possible, barring damage to or destruction of the sex or-
sexual categories, just as the tradition of women wearing dresses and men
gans. Even ejaculation is culturally dictated. In some countries, it is consid-
wearing pants has in the past made the shape of men and women appear quite
ered healthy to ejaculate early and often; in others, men are told to conserve
different. Consider high heels, an on-again-off-again Western fashion. Shoes
semen and ejaculate as rarely as possible. The biological capacity may not be
have no innate sexual function, but high heels have often been understood to
so different, but the way bodies behave during sex varies according to social
be "sexy" for women, even though (or perhaps because) they render women
less physically agile. (Of course, women cope. As Ginger Rogers, the 1940s
Sometimes the dictates of culture are so rigid and powerful that the so-
movie star and dancing partner to Fred Astaire, is said to have quipped, "I did
called laws of nature can be overridden. Infertility treatment provides an ex-
everything Fred did, only backwards and in high heels.") Social norms of fem-
ample: For couples who cannot produce children "naturally," a several billion
ininity have at times rendered high heels fashionable. So feminine are high
Pepper Schwartz and Virginia Rutter 453
heels understood to be that a man in high heels, in some sort of visual comedy
their spouse (Blumstein and Schwartz 1983). Perhaps early experience creates
gag, guarantees a laugh from the audience. Alternatively, high heels are a re-
a desire for sexual variety and makes it harder for a person to be monogamous.
quired emblem of femininity for cross-dressing men.
On the other hand, higher levels of sexual desire may generate both the
Such distinctions are an important tool of society; they provide guidance
premarital and extramarital propensities. Or perhaps nonmonogamous, sexu-
to human beings about how to be a "culturally correct" male or female. The-
ally active individuals are "rule breakers" in other areas also, and resist not
oretically, society could "clothe" its members with explicit norms of sexuality
only the traditional rules of sex but also other social norms they encounter.
that de-emphasize difference and emphasize similarity or even multiplicity.
Sexual history is useful for predicting sexual future, but it does not provide a
Picture unisex hairstyles and men and women both free to wear skirts or
complete explanation. ...
pants, norms that prevail from time to time in some subcultures. What is re-
markable about dichotomies is that even when distinctions, like male and fe-
Social Control of Sexuality
male norms of fashion, are reduced, new ways to assert an ostensibly essential
difference between men and women arise. Societies' rules, like clothes, are
So powerful are norms as they are transmitted through both social structures
changeable. But societies' entrenched taste for constructing differences be-
and everyday life that it is impossible to imagine the absence of norms that
tween men and women persists.
control sexuality. In fact, most images of "liberated" sexuality involve break-
ing a social norm—say, having sex in public rather than in private. The social
norm is always the reference point. Because people are influenced from birth
The Social Construction of Sexuality
by the social and physical contexts of sexuality, their desires are shaped by
. . . In a heterogeneous and individualistic culture like North America, sexual
those norms. There is no such thing as a truly free sexuality. For the past two
socialization is complex. A society creates an "ideal" sexuality, but different
centuries in North America, people have sought "true love" through personal
families and subcultures have their own values. For example, even though
choice in dating and mating (Freedman and D'Emilio 1988). Although this
contemporary society at large may now accept premarital sexuality, a given
form of sexual liberation has generated a small increase in the number of
family may lay down the law: Sex before marriage is against the family's reli-
mixed pairs—interracial, interethnic, interfaith pairs—the rule of homog-
gion and an offense against God's teaching. A teenager who grows up in such
amy, or marrying within one's class, religion, and ethnicity, still constitutes
a household may suppress feelings of sexual arousal or channel them into out-
one of the robust social facts of romantic life. Freedom to choose the person
lets that are more acceptable to the family. Or the teenager may react against
one loves turns out not to be as free as one might suppose.
her or his background, reject parental and community opinion, and search for
Despite the norm of true love currently accepted in our culture, personal
what she or he perceives to be a more "authentic" self. Variables like birth or-
choice and indiscriminate sexuality have often been construed across cultures
der or observations of a sibling's social and sexual expression can also influ-
and across history as socially disruptive. Disruptions to the social order in-
ence a person's development.
clude liaisons between poor and rich; between people of different races, eth-
As important as family and social background are, so are individual dif-
nicities, or faiths; and between members of the same sex. Traditional norms
ferences in response to that background. In the abstract, people raised to cel-
of marriage and sexuality have maintained social order by keeping people in
ebrate their sexuality must surely have a different approach to enjoying their
familiar and "appropriate" categories. Offenders have been punished by os-
bodies than those who are taught that their bodies will betray them and are a
tracism, curtailed civil rights, or in some societies, death. Conformists are re-
venal part of human nature. Yet whether or not a person is raised to be at ease
warded with social approval and material advantages. Although it hardly
with physicality does not always help predict adult sexual behavior. Sexual
seems possible today, mixed-race marriage was against the law in the United
sybarites and libertines may have grown up in sexually repressive environ-
States until 1967. Committed same-sex couples continue to be denied legal
ments, as did pop culture icon and Catholic-raised Madonna. Sometimes in-
marriages,... income tax breaks, and health insurance benefits; heterosexual
dividuals whose families promoted sex education and free personal expression
couples take these social benefits for granted.
are content with minimal sexual expression.
Some social theorists observe that societies control sexuality through
Even with the nearly infinite variety of sexuality that individual experi-
construction of a dichotomized or gendered (male-female) sexuality (Foucault
ence produces, social circumstances shape sexual patterns. For example, re-
1978). Society's rules about pleasure seeking and procreating are enforced
search shows that people who have had more premarital sexual intercourse are
by norms about appropriate male and female behavior. For example, saying
likely to have more extramarital intercourse, or sex with someone other than
that masculinity is enhanced by sexual experimentation while femininity is
demeaned by it gives men sexual privilege (and pleasure) and denies it to
Fred Whitman (1983) has looked at homosexuality across cultures and de-
women. Furthermore, according to Foucault, sexual desire is fueled by the ex-
clared that the evidence of a social type, including men who use certain
perience of privilege and taboo regarding sexual pleasure. That is, the very
effeminate gestures and have diverse sexual tastes, goes far beyond any one
rules that control sexual desire shape it and even enhance it. The social world
culture. Geneticist Dean Hamer provides evidence that sexual attraction may
could just as plausibly concentrate on how much alike are the ways that men
be genetically programmed, suggesting that it has persisted over time and
and women experience sex and emphasize how broadly dispersed sexual con-
been passed down through generations.
duct is across genders. However, social control turns pleasure into a scarce re-
On the other side of the debate is the idea that sexuality has always been
source and endows leaders who regulate the pleasure of others with power
invented and that sexual orientations are socially created. A gay man's or les-
bian's sexual orientation has been created by a social context. Although this
creation takes place in a society that prefers dichotomous, polarized cate-
Sexual Identity and Orientation
gories, the social constructionist vision of sexuality at least poses the possibil-
. . . Sexual identity and sexual orientation . . . are used to mean a variety of
ity that sexuality could involve a continuum of behavior that is matched by a
things. We use these terms to refer to how people tend to classify themselves
continuum of fantasy, ability to love, and sense of self....
sexually—either as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or straight. Sexual behavior and sex-
ual desire may or may not be consistent with sexual identity. That is, people
may identify themselves as heterosexual, but desire people of the same sex—
or vice versa.
Blumstein, P. and P. Schwartz. 1983. American Couples: Money, Work, and Sex.
It is hard to argue with the observation that human desire is, after all, or-
New York: William Morrow.
ganized. Humans do not generally desire cows or horses (with, perhaps, the
Boswell, J. 1994. Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe. New York: Villard.
exception of Catherine the Great, the Russian czarina who purportedly came
Freedman, E. and J. D. D'Emilio. 1988. Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in
to her demise while copulating with a stallion). More to the point, humans are
America. New York: Harper & Row.
usually quite specific about which sex is desirable to them and even whether
Foucault, M. 1978. A History of Sexuality: Vol. 1. An Introduction. New York: Pantheon.
the object of their desire is short or tall, dark or light, hairy or sleek.
Rutter, V. 1996. "Who Stole Fertility?" Psychology Today, March/April, pp. 44-70.
In the United States, people tend to be identified as either homosexual
Whitman, F. 1983. "Culturally Invariable Properties of Male Homosexualities: Ten-
or heterosexual. Other cultures (and prior eras in the United States) have not
tative Conclusions from Cross-Cultural Research." Archives of Sexual Behavior 12:
distinguished between these two sexual orientations. However, our culture
embraces the perspective that, whether gay or straight, one has an essential,
inborn desire, and it cannot change. Many people seem convinced that homo-
sexuality is an essence rather than a sexual act.... People tend to assume that
the object of desire is a matter of the gender of the object. That is, they think
even homosexual men desire someone who is feminine and that homosex-
ual women desire someone who is masculine. In other words, even among
gay men and lesbians, it is assumed that they will desire opposite-gendered
people, even if they are of the same sex.
Historians have chronicled in Western culture the evolution of homosex-
uality from a behavior into an identity (e.g., Freedman and D'Emilio 1988).
In the past, people might engage in same-gender sexuality, but only in the
twentieth century has it become a well-defined (and diverse) lifestyle and self-
definition. Nevertheless, other evidence shows that homosexual identity has
existed for a long time. The distinguished historian John Boswell (1994) be-
lieves that homosexuals as a group and homosexuality as an identity have
existed from the very earliest of recorded history. He used evidence of
early Christian same-sex "marriage" to support his thesis. Social scientist