Influence of culture on gender identities and sexual practices

According to Campo-Arias (2010), gender identity is “the degree of acceptance or discomfort which an adult manifests in terms of behavioral and emotional characteristics expected for a person, according to biological sex, to show within the interaction with other people”. Such definitions, among many, aim to encompass the spectrum of characteristics linked to gender identity and its cultural context. This is because gender identity has mostly been defined by the society to the extent of identifying oneself as masculine or feminine. Children were programmed to adhere to either one of them due to the cultural standards pertaining to these two specific identities. This has been, in psychological literature, attributed to sex typing.

Cultures across the world established standards for individuals to match their sex role prescriptions and feel psychologically well adjusted. Thus, cross-sex typing, i.e., biologically being identified with one gender but characteristically behaving indicative of the other started being viewed as deviant and harmful. This led to explanation of structures called gender schemas that grew out of societies which considered sex typing to be an optimal as well as a necessary practice.

Gender schemas are associative mental networks that link certain behaviors to either gender. The contents were adequately theorized to frame standards for people to evaluate themselves as to whether they were adequate representations of their gender. Thus, various studies have stressed on the “maladaptive” nature of sex typing and how it helped in restricting people’s behaviors. Children from different ethnic, socioeconomic groups end up possessing different ideas about the essential meaning of being a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’ and therefore the extent to which they identify with either of them varies according to the adaptive or maladaptive aspect of masculinity or femininity. Thus, it is likely that the extent of adherence to gender norms differs with respect to the ethnic, socioeconomic groups the child is a member of, implying the strong dependence of gender identity on culture. Though the relationship between gender identity, sex typing and adjustment appear straightforward, it really is not so as we would see in some examples below.

Apart from shaping behaviors “acceptable” for men and women, behaviors between men and women also suffer cultural implications. The effects span across home and family to workplaces and communities. The labor division in various cultures led to attribution of specific tasks as the “appropriate” ones for a man/woman. Though there exist differences, but major consistencies like lesser degree of autonomy, limited decision-making powers are abundant across cultures around the world.

An interesting example of assessing a distinct culture and associated gender identities could be that of the Maori culture of New Zealand. Like any culture, they acknowledge the role of gender in the society but the variants of socially acceptable behavior are broadly different compared to that of western societies. Some practices like: Allowing only women to open calls for a meeting, being in-charge of activities like welcoming guests, dances and storytelling and both men and women equally responsible for cooking; still exist. Thus, in this case, the labor division in the culture is not primarily negatively skewed towards women and women have more rights than the other tribes. Also, the culture is pretty liberal about sexual identities too. Takatāpui is the Maori word that means: a devoted partner of the same sex. It encompasses aspects of sexuality, gender and cultural identity. The identities thus transform into a very fluid, collective and personal nature and incorporate both indigenous identities, sexual orientation.

Where generally, it is a taboo for people to behave in a way that differs characteristically from their gender, there are pockets of culture like ‘Fa’afafine’ of the Samoan diaspora where it is not only practiced but, sometimes, encouraged. There is hardly any ridicule and displeasure towards a biologically male child who associates himself to a more feminine gender spectrum. Thus, the fa’afafines, who are male at birth, gradually embody both masculine and feminine traits voluntarily and live in their culture without inhibition that is undreamed of in various so-called “liberal” parts of the world.

Such cross gendering leads to a study of gender identity disorder and relation with transsexualism. A study that did a cross-cultural comparison between Sweden and Australia highlights differences in frequency and sex ratio of transsexualism and stresses on the societal influences that led to differences in the number of transsexuals presenting as patients. Factors like sex-role differentiation and anti-homosexual attitudes majorly drove the differences that are directly a result of cultural beliefs and practices. Also, in Vietnam, cross-dressing is a common cultural practice and children start dressing according to their biological gender without difficulty after a certain age.

There are also correlations between gender identities and immigrant identities and how these identities become a vehicle for the racialized immigrants to impose their cultural superiority over dominant groups. Example could be that of the Filipinos. Chastity of women is held at high regard and this elevation of Filipina chastity reinforces patriarchal power. Thus women are subdued by this moral superiority and hence they face numerous restrictions on their autonomy, decision making etc. In most immigrant cultures, the women’s moral and sexual loyalties woven with their gender identities and sexual practices are kept as the focal point for the maintenance of group status and any change in the female behavior is interpreted as a sign of moral decay and “ethnic suicide”.

Sexual practices across cultures have significantly evolved over time. For example, the ancient Egypt was a very sexualized culture devoid of social stigmas. The belief that Nile was created by their God’s ejaculation led the pharaohs to ritually masturbate into it for ensuring water for crops. In Ancient Greece, a highly sexually prolific and liberal society in history, homosexuality was embraced. But the distinction between individuals’ sexual desires was not on the basis of gender but the active/passive role played by the participant: active — the penetrator (high status, adulthood, masculinity) and the passive — the penetrated (lower standing, youthful, feminine). Even in conservative cultures like that of India, there are certain pockets like in the state of Chhattisgarh where people hold liberal views when it comes to sexual practices. The Deer Horn Muria is a tribe that practices ‘Ghotul’, wherein teenage men and women mingle festively through songs, lore, tribal dance and sexual activities. The adults encourage ceremonial orgies and girls are fed with a herbal contraceptive to avoid pregnancy. In case, it is not avoided, the entire village adopts the baby due to uncertainty pertaining to who the father is. There are certainly more examples across world cultures.

Thus, culture and its influence on gender identities and sexual practices is an interesting domain for further cultural studies and in the present scenario, wherein the world is facing concepts like gender-blurring, acceptance of homosexuality; the topic needs further exploration and insightful evaluation.