Archive for the ‘Sex and Gender’ Category


Nature versus Nurture

April 27, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford

A few weeks ago my family and I took a weekend trip to Boston.  On the way home, we were assigned seats that had the three of us sitting separately.  My five-year-old daughter had been assigned an exit row seat and the two adults had been seated together at the front of the plane.  Not a problem, we thought – I would just take the exit row seat and The Kid would sit up front with her dad.  When our boarding group was called, we went to get on the plane.  The gate agent (a middle-aged woman) asked “Who is The Kid?”  I indicated that it was, in fact, The Kid but added “But I’m going to take her seat.”

Home Again“Oh,” the gate agent says.  “I’m going to change your seat.”
“Why?” I ask.
“You’re a mother.  If there’s an emergency, your first instinct is going to be to go to your child.”  And she printed up a new boarding pass, still in The Kid’s name, that put me even further away from where The Kid and her dad were sitting.  As she handed it to me she said, “There.  Now you can sit with your baby.”  (I assume that she meant for The Husband to take the distant seat.)  And she tousled The Kid’s hair as we walked by.

When we treat gender and socialization in Introductory Sociology courses, the question of the nature versus nurture debate always comes up.  Which has a stronger influence on our behavior – biology or socialization? Clearly the gate agent and I were coming at this “problem” (which really wasn’t a problem at all) from very different perspectives; she thought that, as a mother, I would be incapable of dealing with the responsibilities of sitting in the exit row when seated apart from my child.  That the “mothering instinct” would win out in an emergency situation.  She was favoring nature over nurture.  I, on the other hand, was simply looking forward to a little extra leg room and and hour and a half of peace and quiet.

When it comes to gender, and in particular to parenting, which do you think is more influential: nature or nurture?


Homosexuality: more than just preference

February 26, 2010

Posted by: Chad M. Gesser

Twitter: @profgesser


The issues that gays face go well beyond social acceptance of their sexual preference.  Heterosexuals certainly do not recognize the advantages that they reap in a culture that is deeply rooted in heterosexuality.

The Heterosexuality Questionnaire was developed by Martin Rochlin, Ph.D., in 1977.  While it certainly appears humorous to the average heterosexual reader, a closer examination can help one examine the social implications of a heterosexual society, particularly if you’re homosexual.

1.               What do you think caused your heterosexuality?

2.               When and how did you decide that you were a heterosexual?

3.               Is it possible that your heterosexuality is just a phase that you may grow out of?

4.               Is it possible your heterosexuality stems from a neurotic fear of others of the same sex?

5.               If you’ve never slept with a person of the same sex, is it possible that all you need is a good gay or lesbian lover?

6.               To whom have you disclosed your heterosexual tendencies? How did he or she react?

7.               Why do you heterosexuals feel compelled to seduce others into your life-style?

8.               Why do you insist on flaunting your heterosexuality? Why can’t you just be what you are and keep quiet about it?

9.               Would you want your children to be heterosexual knowing the problems that they’d face?

10.             A disproportionate majority of child molesters are heterosexual. Do you consider it safe to expose your children to heterosexual teachers?

11.             With all the societal support marriage receives, the divorce rate is spiraling. Why are there so few stable relationships among heterosexuals?

12.             Why do heterosexuals place so much emphasis on sex?

13.             Considering the menace of overpopulation, how could the human race survive if everyone were heterosexual like you?

14.             Could you trust a heterosexual therapist to be objective? Don’t you fear (s)he might be inclined to influence you in the direction of her/his own leanings?

15.             How can you become a whole person if you limit yourself to compulsive, exclusive heterosexuality, and fail to develop you natural, healthy homosexual potential?

16.             There seem to be very few happy heterosexuals. Techniques have been developed that might enable you to change if you really want to. Have you considered trying aversion therapy?

For most heterosexuals, perhaps some of the above questions can seem a bit humorous, or even ridiculous.

Consider the plight of the homosexual couple below, and the children.

Besides sexual preference, what other areas of stereotyping, prejudice, and/or discrimination might gays encounter?  Should a gay couple be allowed to legally adopt a child?  She gays be allowed to marry under the rule of law in the United States?  Do gays confer the same legal rights as someone who is heterosexual?  Why are they separate?  Should they be equal?  Why or why not?


Learning Gender

February 16, 2010

By Sarah Michele Ford

Interacting with young children can be a great window into the ways in which we are socialized into all sorts of things, but most especially gender. This weekend my husband came downstairs wearing a hoop earring instead of his usual stud. As soon as our five-year-old daughter noticed this, she protested.

Kid: DADDY! You can’t wear that earring!
Husband: Why can’t I wear it?
Me: What makes it a girl earring?
Kid: It just IS! Daddy, go change it!

We probed further to try to get her to explain why dangly earrings are for girls and stud earrings are for boys and the best we could get out of her was that girls wear big earrings and boys wear small earrings. Despite us providing her with lots of counter-examples, she stood firm in her belief that certain types of jewelry are gender-marked.

How did she come to make a connection between hoop earrings and gender? What subtle forces are at work here?

(Image credit: Native American Art – Ear Rings; Originally uploaded by Tobyotter)


Honor Killings

January 26, 2010

by Sarah Michele Ford
e-mail: ford-at-soc-dot-umass-dot-edu

On January 17th, a 21-year old Indian woman was murdered; the alleged killer was her father.

What would drive a father to kill his daughter? In this case, the motivation appears to have been that the daughter had married a man of whom her father did not approve. To those of us who have been raised in Western cultures, this “honor killing” – the murder of a woman by a family member because she has violated social or sexual norms – seems crazy. This practice, however, has a long history in a number of cultures, primarily in the Middle East.

In order to even begin to understand the phenomenon of honor killings, we have to keep a number of things in mind. First and foremost is the concept of “honor”. The honor at stake in these cases is not the woman’s – it is that of her father and other male relatives. In the Turkish context, for example, “A man’s “honour” consists of two main components: His reputation is determined by his own actions in the community (“seref’) and the chastity or virtue of the female members of his family (“names”)” (“They Killed her for Going Out With Boys…”, 35 Hofstra L. Rev. 815 2006-2007). Why, you might ask, is a man’s honor dependent upon the actions of his female family members? This brings to the fore another vast cultural difference between these cultures and the West. In our social context, the individual is the most important social unit. In this particular Middle Eastern context, however, the family is the most important social unit. It is the family’s honor that the young woman in the Indian example has brought into question. And, in that context, it has historically been considered acceptable to restore the family’s honor by eliminating the person who brought it into question.

This social phenomenon raises so many questions for us as sociologists. Is it appropriate for us to take a relativist view and say that these acts are understandable within their cultural context? (Human rights groups condemn the practice – see Stop Honour Killings and reports from Human Rights Watch on Afghanistan and Turkey.) If we conclude that we need to speak out against this practice, what is the best way for us to do so?

Most of all, though, this phenomenon illustrates the ways that all of the questions we ask as sociologists are intertwined. This one topic forces us to think about culture and cultural relativism, gender inequality and family structures, power, human rights, and numerous other issues as well. When we study sociology, we can’t ever boil a question down to one issue, or even to one “type” of sociology. People are so complex, society is so complex, that everything is interrelated.


Forcing Women’s Roles to Evolve?

August 2, 2009

familyWhen I was growing up, it was common for most families to be nuclear in structure (dad, mom, and two or so kids) with the father being the “bread winner” and leader (patriarchal organization). Forty some years later, things have changed a bit. Modern American family structure accommodates same-sex families, single parent families, sandwich families, and families where parents are replaced by grandparents (I haven’t heard a catchy phrase for this structure yet).

The income sources of families have changed, too. Now it is common for the mother (if one is present) to work and have a broader role in family leadership, what sociologists call a equalitarian setup. But, after talking to many of my students and even a few professors—I wonder if this last change was chosen by many women (achieved status) or simply one that women are now inheriting (ascribed status).

Would you like to voice an opinion about this? If so, please respond to one of the questions below:

1. Do you think that when women entered the work force in large numbers, this resulted in a decrease in men’s salaries compared to past cohorts? If so, what effect would this have on newly formed families? Do you think this might have increased the pressure on women to enter the workforce?

2. Many studies have shown that women, whether career-oriented or working in less-skilled jobs, are paid a percentage of what equally educated and experienced men are paid. Why do you think that is? What effect does this have on the quality of life for single parent families headed by a female?

3. Some people complain that while women have taken on more responsibility, men’s roles have stayed the same or even shrunk. What do you think?

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Teaching Gender Through Vampire Movies

July 14, 2009

There was a movie released at the beginning of 2009 called “Twilight.” The film was based on a series of books that centered around the challenges faced by a 17-year-old girl and boy trying to maintain a developing romance. They struggled with common problems associated with young love—managing their strong attraction for each other, continuing their own processes of self discovery, coming to terms with differences between them, and managing challenges to their relationships from external forces. Oh, did I mention that the teenage boy was also a vampire? Or should I say “is”—there are sequels planned….

Similar to other such films, the boy’s vampiric nature might be viewed as a social metaphor symbolizing the dominant and aggressive aspects of western gender expectations for males—being “macho”. The film might also explore females’ social function of containing and directing male aggression into constructive pursuits—building bridges, protecting society from invaders, washing the driveway, etc…. Or would it be over intellectualizing to read so much into this story?

What do you think? If you would like to respond to this question or one of the discussion topics below, please view the trailer for the film below and then post a comment.

1. Who is being depicted in the film’s trailer as needing physical protection? Who helps that person? What might this tell you about the depiction of gender roles in the trailer?

2. Do you think the film’s trailer reinforces traditional male and female roles in society? Why or why not?

3. What is the boy’s reaction to the girl’s comment that she isn’t afraid of him? How can this be generalized to define how teenage girls should respond to teenage boys? Do you think such a generalization is appropriate?

4. Which is greater—the number of people who see the trailer for the film or the number of people who see the actual film? Why might this be important to the sociological study of film?

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Teenage Girl Gangs

June 24, 2009

The role of girls in gangs is changing...

The role of girls in gangs is changing...

Traditionally in the United States, when people thought of street gangs—it was a gang of boys. Girls associated with street gangs were either the members’ girlfriends or sex objects for the gang. But that’s not the case anymore. A recent study conducted by Christian E. Molidor of the University of Texas suggests that not only are girls becoming more active as full members in street gangs, but they are becoming more violent as well.

What hasn’t changed is the traditional social characteristics of girls who associate with gangs. They are usually victims of sexual abuse, poverty, poor schools, and/or members of dysfunctional families. What has changed is the function of the gang for these girls—not only is gang membership a source of protection, it is also a means of empowerment. They sell and transport drugs, rob businesses, mug people, and fight with other gangs to defend their “turf” or area of operation.

Would you like to respond to this posting? If so select a topic below:

1. Why do you think girls are becoming more active members of gangs? Do you think this is linked with changing gender expectations in their generation?

2. What does this tell us about how violence and status are related in some parts of our society? How would you address this problem as a sociologist?

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The Changing American Family?

June 18, 2009

What does a family look like today?

What does a family look like today?

As society has changed, so has the structure or organization of the family. In sociology, a family can be defined as a social group who provide basic functions such as socialization, economic support, emotional support, and sexual regulation. Traditionally in America, the family consisted of a small group of people living in one dwelling and related by either marriage or common ancestry. Today there are many different personal relationships that some sociologists identify as constituting families—the label “family” is based upon the findings that members of these groups not only think of themselves as families but perform the basic functions of more traditionally structured families. However, some of these new family structures are controversial.

In June 2008, the Disney theme park and Sea World in Orlando, Florida had a Gay Family Weekend. The itinerary for this event included character breakfasts and a “dream come true” parade. This annual holiday started, in part, to allow gay people to celebrate with their families along with similarly structured families in an environment of social support and understanding. Gay families have traditionally worn red t-shirts to identify each other and have set meeting points at the parks.

What do you think about non-traditional families? Would you like to express your scholarly insights as a sociologist would? If so, one of the topics below:

1. What structure do you think signifies a family in America today? Do you think family structure should stay static in society? Why or why not?

2. What would be some advantages to accepting gay family structure as “main stream” in society? What would be some disadvantages to society? Look at your responses to this question. How many problems that you have identified could be applied to heterosexual families as well? What insights does this give you about objections to gay families?

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Race, Gender, and the Supreme Court?

June 10, 2009

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Has Judge Sonia Maria Sotomayor offered sociologists a window into how social variables shape people's understanding of each other and society?

I was talking to one of my classes today and the topic of Judge Sonia Maria Sotomayor came up among the students. There seems to be some controversy about what she reportedly said in a speech roughly seven years ago. reported that on October 26, 2001, Judge Sotomayor stated: “I would hope that a wise Latina woman, with the richness of her experiences, would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” You can read the article at

I was interested in the social categories the Judge reportedly referred to. Do you think the categories (“Latina woman” and “white male”) are social or biological in nature? And do you think that the question of whether they refer to biological or social variables should affect the current controversy? Remember now, I’m not asking for your personal opinion, but rather your sociological interpretations. If you would like to offer that, please respond to one of the discussion points below:

1. Is being referred to as “white” in America a reference to race? Think about this—do the Irish, Welsh, Scottish, French, Germans, Swedish, Norwegians, Poles, Australians, Icelanders, and Canadians view themselves as being the same “race” of people? Does the term “Latina” mean that Cubans, Spaniards, Peruvians, Brazilians, Mexicans, Colombians, Argentinians, Venezuelans, and Panamanians view themselves as one race? If not, what do “Latina” and “white” refer to? What insight does this give you into the issue of race in America?

2. Do you know the difference between gender and sex? Gender refers to concepts of masculinity and femininity in a culture. Things can be masculine in a specific culture such as professions, clothes, cars, speech, and even behavior. The same can be said for feminine. The key idea is gender is a social product created through norms and values. Sex is a biological state—it is physical. How can the behavioral expectations of a society based upon gender effect people’s perspective of society and each other?

3. Based on the issues covered in the topics above (thinking like a social scientist!), what would be the disadvantages and advantages of taking into account someone’s ethnicity, sex, race, and age when selecting people for the Supreme Court?

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Challanging Gender Expectations

April 30, 2009

12-year-old baseball pitcher Brandon Pilovsky has perfect game 1 (picture taken from:

12-year-old baseball pitcher Brandon Pilovsky has perfect game 1 (picture taken from:

Sociologists make a distinction between sex and gender. Sex is a biological characteristic—it is physical, not social. Gender is a social variable distinguishing between what is masculine and feminine based upon a society’s norms and values. So because society creates it, it is changeable! Gender sets up role expectations for people to follow—it tells us what society expects of men or women in certain social circumstances. But how do social expectations based upon gender (what society expects of women or men) evolve? Some researchers hold they evolve just like any other value or norm: they become outdated based upon the current knowledge and needs of society.

Would you like to voice your sociological imagination on this subject? If so, respond to one the topics below:

1. Recently, a 12-year-old girl threw a perfect game in little league baseball. This means that she struck out everyone—the opposing team didn’t get a single hit! Do you think this might contribute to changes in gender expectations for our society? If so, why? How broad of an effect do you think this might have in the long run? Do you think this might contribute toward allowing mixed sex sport teams? Might it add to arguments for equality in the work place?

2. Do you think treating men and women equally in society is a good or bad thing? If you choose to respond to this question, can you list two progressive things about social equality and two potentially socially disruptive things?

3. How can you use this example of the 12-year-old girl to illustrate how other norms in society change or evolve?

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