Have you ever thought about gender? For example, how does your gender define the role you play in your family, how you dress or how you act? What permissions do you have as a male or female? What do you stop yourself from doing just because you are a man or a woman? What do you consider masculine or feminine? Why?
When I attended undergraduate school in the early 1990’s, I took a Women’s Studies course. I hated it. I remembered thinking, “this is a male bashing course”. In hindsight, I realized that I internalized my father’s rants about women like Erma Bombeck and Gloria Steinam who were pioneers in the feminist movements. As a result of this internalization, I rebelled against the class and missed an opportunity to question and explore the subject of gender.
Fast-forward 15 years, I had enrolled in a 3 year post-graduate certification program where the topic of gender and sexual orientation permeated conversations and raised many conflicts in class. Some of my classmates challenged the curriculum as “heteronormative”, the very language we used in class as “exclusive” and the “power” dynamics that emerged between male professors and female students as positions of “privilege”. My passionate peers would not settle until they felt seen, heard, understood and met. I admired their tenacity and felt grateful to be a part of the dialogue.
During that time, I also felt mentally jostled. Heteronormative? Exclusive? Privilege? What did these words mean? How did they apply to me? You may be wondering…what does this have to do with gender and sex?
Clinical social worker, therapist, author and activist, Arlene Istar Lev, created a Model of Sexual Identity in 2004 that comprises four main components. These components represent a spectrum that supports the fluidity of our sexuality:
Sex: (male – female), your biological sex,the physical parts you were born with
Gender: (man – woman), how you define yourself, whether you feel like a man, a woman or both
Sex Role: (masculine – feminine), the role society expects you to play
Sexual Orientation: (heterosexual – homosexual), who you feel attracted to
How we present ourselves to the world, the permissions we give ourselves for how to live, the relationships we develop, the families we create, the work we engage in daily, the religion we subscribe to (or have abandoned) all tie into our biological sex, our self-identified gender, the sex role we assume and who we choose to love.
This model highlights the complexity of what comprises sexual identity. Our sexual identification does not just exist “in the bedroom” or when we are having sex. Our sexual identity is a powerful driving force for how we live our whole lives. This identity creates the potential for experiencing bias, privilege, expectations, oppressions, acceptance and rejection.
I continuously examine my own thoughts and feelings on sex and gender. Frankly, the subject fascinates me. If you’ve never examined these concepts, I invite you to become curious. Use the model above to examine how your sexual identity has shaped your life – go back to the questions at the beginning of this article. Like my classmates from my post-grad program, Get curious. Question. Challenge others. Reflect on yourself.
In the words of Gloria Steinem:
“The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn, but to unlearn”.