When I begin to reflect on my thoughts and feelings regarding my own sexual identity, I face a dilemma I imagine is common for many; namely, that how I perceive my own sexual being is so inextricably connected with my sense of myself, it is difficult to isolate it as a distinct facet of who I am. In plain terms, gender and sexuality are so infused within individual being, there can be no truly valid separation of them from the self. Some of this, I believe, is certainly an effect of cultural influences, which are amplified as being maintained historically. Added to this is the inescapable fact that individuals shape the culture just as they are influenced by it. Then, further complicating the arena is the reality that personal sexual perceptions vary as men and women mature, and their needs and circumstances change. The entire subject is essentially vastly complex and, as I mentioned, I think this is true for most of us.
The complexity notwithstanding, I make the effort to consider my own gender and sexual identity, and I trace a path that more clearly reveals actual influences and effects. A married mother of three, and 30 years old, I feel I am poised particularly to have seen – and lived – the cultural shifts in gender roles. In a sense, and from what I have read and heard, the “sexual revolution” occurred before I was born, and feminism had gone a long way in changing both gender identities and ideas regarding sexuality. I grew up in this new world, yet also noted how persistent traditional values may be. Even as an adolescent, I was aware that there were strong elements of conflict within the relationships all around me, and by no means only those of other teens. We were in an environment wherein historical perspectives and attitudes had been challenged. Girls I knew were as sexually aggressive as the boys, and this was the norm. At the same time, I had a sense that the “revolution” I had read about could not be over. As I look back, it seems that the larger society promoted, or tried to promote, an arena of gender and sexual equality which the smaller arenas of life did not necessarily accept. It is strange but, even as I had no actual experience of traditional sexual roles, I felt as though I were witnessing almost tribal relations between the boys and girls I knew. Modern thinking aside, the boys were generally dominant. The girls, even when they were aggressive, were aggressive in ways were passive; desired boys were targeted but the efforts were more about revealing receptivity than in overtly declaring interest.
This generated in me a kind of uncertainty, and one that remains today. As a teen I wanted to be sexually bold, but my instincts were to not express this, and I believe that was due to my sense that such behavior is inherently masculine, no matter what the culture asserts. As a mother and adult woman, I am still conflicted in regard to these differences in behavior. On a basic level, I value the advances women have made in the workplace, and as a social and political force. I enjoy the opportunity to assert myself as a person, rather than as a “woman.” This thinking, however, leads me to question why I would make that distinction at all. The answer is, I think, that I adhere to my own brand of Functionalism. Functionalist theories on gender stratification, as I interpret them, largely go to supporting the traditional gender roles I witnessed growing up, and which are still very much in place today. In Functionalism, the roles are divided on the basis of biological capability; men perform the instrumental tasks of protection and provision, and women are assigned the expressive ones of caring and nurturing (Kendall, 2007, p. 371). I must confess that I hold to these roles on a basic level because they seem to me valid in biological terms. Value systems arising from gender identity cannot be created out of “removed” thinking and feeling. Biology must dictate, even as just what composes gender itself remains subject to debate. Then, biology is not restricted to physical functioning because it generates the emotional and mental processes in accord with it. Consequently, and societal equality aside, I find that traditional gender roles, if not perfect, nonetheless reflect certain gender realities.
This thinking, in fact, grows stronger as I age, and with my experience as a wife and mother. When I was younger, I was more inclined to question existing value systems, even as what I witnessed largely reflected the traditional. With the responsibilities I now hold as a woman, I find I more support the gender structures long in place, and largely because motherhood has reinforced deep feelings within me regarding what I would call my core sexuality. Being a mother has profoundly given me a sense of what being a woman means, as well as what power women possess in the role. This is not to denigrate those women who do not have children; rather, it is the path that revealed the essence of the female gender to me, and in a way potently expressing the intimacy that women attach to sex and gender. I would say, in fact, that intimacy is the key for me, if there must be a distinction between the basics of gender.
This influences my thoughts on identity development. The contrasts to Freudian thinking regarding how gender identity is developed are reasonable to me, if only in that they distance themselves from the radical extremes of Freud. While I feel Freud accomplished a great deal and paved the way for later insights, there is an inherent aggression within his perceptions of how boys and girls come by their sexual identities. I think, for example, that an element of combativeness is natural between fathers and sons, but I do not believe this must be based on a castration fear as existing in the sons. On a more personal level, and based upon my own life and reflections, I am inclined to think that a girl will essentially form her feelings about being a woman through knowing her mother’s experience as such. Chodorow refuted Freud by asserting that intimacy, and not an adversarial aspect, marks the gender development of girls, and that they gain their ideas of what intimacy means through their closeness with their mothers (Eysenck, 2004, p. 556). As I may affirm, that closeness may not be overt. The mother/daughter relationship may be strained or lacking intimacy. What overshadows this, however, is that bond of womanhood, as the girl who becomes the wife and mother may then share in the experiences of her own mother, and see through the eyes of a woman. It may be thought that there is a sexism in my thinking, or an old-fashioned viewpoint. To that I would respond by saying that there is, again, a power in such womanhood that traditionalists understood, that feminists dismissed, and that postfeminists accept.
I tend to think that men and women, in their relentless pursuit to “isolate” gender, ignore the force and complexity of it. As I indicated, this is very much who we are as people, if only because our sexual attractions reveal far more than mere physical longing. They reflect the deepest emotional needs we have, and I think this is as true for men as it is for women; the difference lies only in the lessened need for intimacy in most men, which is a need in itself. Women, I feel, are actually more free than men in the realm of sexuality because we tend to give more to the experience, and thus expand the experience. It is a cultural truism that women must experience love to enjoy sex, but I think this is valid to an extent. It is certainly true for me, in that an absence of love translates to an absence of desire. What I find remarkable is how the culture, at least today, seems to view this as a limitation of female sexuality. It may be a patriarchal response to protect ideas of masculine gender, but it is nonsensical to me. Emotional attachment elevates sex beyond physical activity, and whatever elevates must be the more valuable. Similarly, male sexuality cannot be diminished, even at its least intimate, because it is a natural expression of the gender. I can only truly speak as a woman, however, and then can only reiterate my conviction that, for me, my gender and sexual identity is completely linked to the degrees of feeling I attach to my husband and my children. This establishes the gender identity as my ultimate identity because it reflects my deepest concerns.
Lastly, in regard to topics I would like to explore further, there is the residual impact of feminism and the emergence of postfeminism as related to gender identity. As I have indicated, postfeminism translates to me as a more expansive approach to gender, which subject requires the broadest possible view. I am increasingly impatient with any feminism that promotes uniformity between, because I feel that such feminism is as incorrect as “hyper-masculinity”; no ideology can work if it ignores the many facets of each gender, or seeks to define them in terms of greater and lesser value. This is where postfeminism leads, I believe, and I feel it is applicable to my life because there is the potential here for cultural understanding to be more in accord with my own views.
Eysenck, M. W. (2004). Psychology: An International Perspective. New York: Taylor&Francis.
Kendall, D. (2007). Sociology in Our Times. Belmont: Cengage Learning.