The Social Roles of Men and Women


In all societies the obvious biological difference between men and women is used as a justification for forcing them into different social roles which limit and shape their attitudes and behavior. That is to say, no society is content with the natural difference of sex, but each insists on adding to it a cultural difference of gender. The simple physical facts therefore always become associated with complex psychological qualities. It is not enough for a man to be male; he also has to appear masculine. A woman, in addition to being female, must also be feminine.

However, once the contrast between men and women has been increased and accentuated in this fashion, it is usually taken as a further manifestation of biological differences which confirm the need for different social roles. Or, to put it another way, sex differences are used to create gender differences which are then explained as sex differences which, in turn, require gender differences, and so on. This may be no more than circular reasoning, but it is socially very effective. For example, in our own patriarchal society males enjoy a socially dominant position. Thus, from an early age, boys are helped to acquire a masculinity that allows them to assume and maintain that position. By the same token, girls are taught to cultivate a submissive femininity. The resulting difference in the male and female character is then described as inborn and used to defend the existing power arrangement. Only those who accept it are normal, and only they can expect to succeed. The male social role is designed to reward masculine men, while the female social role offers its relative advantages only to feminine women. (The aggressive man will run the bigger business; the pretty, agreeable woman will find the richer husband.) In other words, masculinity and femininity are gender qualities which are developed in response to social discrimination. However, once they have been developed, they justify and cement it. The masculine and feminine gender roles mutually reinforce each other and thereby perpetuate the inequality on which they are based.
Obviously, this psychological mechanism can operate only as long as the behavior of men and women does not transgress the generally accepted limits. Every society tries therefore to prevent such transgressions by calling the socially defined gender roles "natural", eternal, and unchangeable. Any person who refuses to accept them is persecuted as a deviant and punished as an offender not only against society, but against "nature" itself. An historical example of such deviance is the case of Joan of Arc who, as a young girl, not only led the French army to victory over the English, but also wore male clothing. In her later trial she was promptly accused of having thus violated the laws of nature.

Over the centuries, many people have, of course, wondered why allegedly "natural" roles should need such rigorous social enforcement. After all, if they were truly natural, they would "come naturally" to both men and women. However, it is noteworthy that the advocates of the so-called natural inequality of the sexes resent nothing more than letting "nature" take its course. Yet, if their arguments were true, there would be no need to deny women equal opportunities, since they would be unable to compete with men. If women were "naturally" inferior, men would have nothing to fear. Therefore, the fact that many men do fear such competition raises sufficient doubt as to the validity of their claim.

The truth is that human desires and capacities have a tendency to go beyond the narrow limits of our traditional gender roles. Indeed, it takes a constant combined effort by all social authorities to keep this tendency under control. Such social control appears not only externally, in the form of parental guidance, peer-group pressure, and law enforcement, but also internally in the form of concepts and values which determine the self-image of every individual, and it is in the individual mind where the confusion of sex and gender can create the most serious problems.

For instance, men and women who feel that they do not fit the masculine and feminine stereotypes, or who resent them as too restrictive, may also develop ambiguous feelings about their biological sex. They may begin to wish for different bodies which would allow them to play a role more to their liking. Or, to take another example, since men have been told that women are socially and sexually passive, they are usually gravely disturbed by encountering a woman who is socially aggressive and who takes the initiative in sexual intercourse. Confronted with this "lack of femininity" in a woman, a man may feel tempted to dispute her womanhood. If this contention does not hold up in face of the evidence, he may instead begin to doubt his own masculinity and become sexually dysfunctional. Conversely, a handsome, gentle, and passive male may invite ridicule and may be denounced as a "pervert" or "queer". "Real women" may regard him as less than a "real man" and therefore reject him as a sexual partner.

However, the confusion goes still further. The notion that in every sexual encounter there has to be one active (masculine) and one passive (feminine) partner is so persistent that it not only ruins many heterosexual relationships, but also influences the behavior of certain homosexuals who feel compelled to model themselves after these stereotypes. By doing so, they give support to the curious belief that even in sexual relationships between members of the same sex, there always has to be one to play the "man", while the other must assume the role of the "woman". There is, in fact a general impression that every homosexual couple (whether male or female) consists of one active, masculine and one passive, feminine partner. People who hold this belief are, of course, at a total loss to explain phenomena like the famous homosexual elite troops of ancient Greece, which consisted entirely of male lovers.

All of these views are based on a wrong conclusion drawn from a false assumption. The false assumption states that women are naturally passive, while men are naturally active. The wrong conclusion asserts that every passive person is playing a feminine role and that every active person is playing a masculine role. However, in actual fact neither sex nor gender need be characterized in this fashion. After all, in some human societies the role assignment for men and women is the reverse of our own. In short, there is nothing "natural" or definite about our sexual stereotypes. By the same token, full human equality will not be achieved until it becomes conceivable to both sexes that active and passive attitudes can be appropriate for either of them, and that even two "active" or two "passive" partners can have a rewarding relationship.

This does not mean that, in an ideal future, all human differences will disappear. Indeed, once the old stereotypes have been discarded, the differences between individuals within each sex are likely to increase. Furthermore, under conditions of social equality, these individuals may also happily continue to play different gender roles. There should be no need to point out that there is nothing wrong with gender differences as such. They can greatly enrich our lives, as long as we understand that, in human beings, "different" does not have to mean superior or inferior. In other words, those who demand equal rights for men and women are not asking for drab uniformity, but for a social climate in which variety can flourish without being exploited.

The following pages first elaborate further on the basic concepts of sex and gender and then offer a brief discussion of the different moral standards for men and women. A final section deals with the women's movement and its struggle for sexual equality.


[Title Page] [Contents] [Preface] [Introduction] [The Human Body] [Sexual Behavior] [Sex and Society] [The Social Roles] [Conformity & Deviance] [Marriage and Family] [The Oppressed] ["Sexual Revolution"] [Epilogue] [Sexual Slang Glossary] [Sex Education Test] [Picture Credits]