How do sociologists challenge the idea that gender and sexuality is natural?
The view that gender and sexuality is natural relies on a differentiation between the sexes. This was first theorised by functionalism and has previously been criticised by contemporary theories who perceive that gender and sexuality are socially constructed-learned rather than innate.
Primarily, the view that gender is pre-determined and natural stems from the functionalist perspective of sex roles. The argument is based on the view that gender roles are innate, rather than learned and perpetuated through social constructionism. It is crucial to recognise the influence of religion when considering the apparent naturalism of gendered roles. For example, in Colossians 3:18 it quotes “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord”. Creationism holds the root of gender differentiation therefore it must be questioned whether the belief that gender is inherent is valid in our increasingly secular society. Furthermore, whether functionalism would have perpetuated the naturalism of gender differentiation without the primary influence of religion. The functionalist view holds the belief that different sexes are biologically more equipped for different roles, viewing women and expressive whilst males are instrumental.
In reaction to the functionalist view, some theoretical perspectives hold the view that gender is socially constructed and therefore any sense of ‘natural’ is created and perpetuated. Crucially, Ann Oakley coined the cultural determination of gender roles, criticising the apparent ‘naturalism’ of these roles and instead perceive them as constructed. She diminished any link between sex and gender further insinuating its societal creation basing her study on on ethnographic evidence of learned behaviour which varies between cultures and therefore is significant in criticising the traditional view which fails to be supported by enough evidence. Despite this, Oakley’s study includes no notion of gender and power (Charles 2002) which is considered a significant reason for the different gender ideology. Due to the depth in which gender roles are ingrained in our society, for them to be socially constructed it would require institutions to perpetuate them. For example, parents are shown to give positive feedback to children when they conform to gender normative behaviour e.g praise and affection which results in children choosing gender normative toys when given a selection (Caldera, Huston, and O’Brien 1998).
Conversely, despite agreeing that gender isn’t innate Marxists view that gender is used as a tool to benefit the capitalist economy. The Marxist theory itself can be considered ‘gender-blind’ to an extent, with Karl Marx recognising the oppression of women in society and believing women’s position can be used to measure societal progress (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts). Therefore, despite it being concentrated on class inequality it can be recognised as providing a legitimate argument for the creation of gender roles in order to benefit society. Despite this, it is crucial to be aware that this was a dialectical argument that related to Marx’s overall theory rather than a single theory concentrated on gender roles. Similarly, Engels promotes a similar view about the oppression of women due to the economic system however he goes further in presenting the origin of gender differences. Convincingly, he diminishes the view that gender roles are predetermined by describing the characteristics of primitive communism whereby there was little difference between the sexes until the emergence of private property which created a need for the sexual division of labour and the mode of production(Engels, F New York:1972) . Despite the arguments which recognise the benefits of creating and perpetuating gender roles I order to benefit society, rather than them being natural Marxism holds great weakness in its economic determinism. Therefore, despite Marxism being important contribution to the feminist’s theory through its ability to question gendered norms and the institutions which perpetuate them the theories are overly focused on the economy which results in issues of gender as a social construction being a side-line to the main argument of class inequality. Despite this argument holding sufficient weight, Barrett recognised the predating of gender ideology due to gender divisions relying on ideologies-therefore not intrinsic to capitalism.
Sociologists’ challenge the view that heterosexuality is natural through recognition of societal institutions which perpetuate it as the norm, rather than it having natural characteristics. Crucially, Weeks stated that people are programmed to believe sexuality is a natural aspect of life when in reality it is just one form of social relation. Therefore, sexuality has no relation to biology and is part of social connections formed perceiving that there is a natural aspect to it. This idea is reinforced by ‘Mary McIntosh’s homosexual role’ whereby a cross-national framework identified that sexual non-conformity was a matter of created categories rather than a medical problem or deviance. Insinuating, there can be no natural and wrong when the categories are formed by society itself. This study can be extended by the Kinsey Scale, which eliminates societal categories of heterosexual and homosexual which have positive and negative connotations and instead perceive it to be a spectrum of sexuality (Kinsey et al;1998). Essentially, the criticism against the view that heterosexuality is natural is the idea that it has been socially constructed as the norm. Without heterosexuality there could be a population crisis which could give reason for why it has been perpetuated as the norm throughout history. However, in our post-modern society we must question the discourse in which sexuality is perpetuated and the evidence to support the ‘naturalism’ of a concept.
To conclude, to believe that either gender and sexuality is natural or pre-determined ignores the individual agency of humans. To decipher what is natural we must diminish societal institutions which pressurize elements of identity like gender and sexuality. To some extent, I agree with Walby that patriarchal relations create the oppressive attitudes of gender and sexuality in the contemporary Uk.