Biological and Social Gender: Nature or Nurture?

by Konstantina Briola,

Over the last decades, a new interdisciplinary field has been brought in the academic community, which is called “Gender Studies”. This field focuses on the analysis of gender roles within society while, at the same time, attempts to interpret specific systems that lead to gender stereotypes. The terms “biological” and “social” gender are widely used by Social Anthropology as tools for the analysis and interpretation of social groups and the relationships that govern them. Therefore, the study of both biological and social sex is necessary, in order to have a clear picture of the position for both women and men in a broader economic, social, cultural and political context.

The distinction between biological and social sex

The distinction between biological and social sex- in the modern sense gender or sex, otherwise genre in French- is, in fact, the dimension between the body (sex) and the identity (gender).

A large number of people cannot distinguish the difference between sex (biological sex) and gender (sociocultural gender). The first term refers to the anatomical and biological differences between men and women. The differences may be due to different chromosomes (female XX, male XΥ), their reproductive organs and hormones (estrogen and testosterone). On the other hand, the second term, according to Candace West and Don H. Zimmerman (1987), is regarded as an “emerging characteristic of social situations: both as a result of various social arrangements and as a means of legitimizing one of the most fundamental parts of society”.

The case of David Reimer

One of the oldest questions in the history of psychology is that of “Nature or Nurture”. The question of whether the different behaviors of men and women are influenced by biological factors or by the influence of external factors. However, it is difficult to decide if a person’s development is entirely influenced by biological factors (such as DNA) or by the wider social environment in which he or she belongs.

The biological approach assumes that sex behaviors are entirely shaped by genetic factors. According to this approach, gender is shaped by two factors: hormones and chromosomes. This theory is confirmed by the experiment of Phoenix, Goy Gerald and Young (1959) and the unique case of David Reimer (1965). More specifically, it is well known that hormones are contained in the bodies of both sexes. However, the difference lies in their number and the impact they have on different parts of the body. Testosterone, for example, is found in greater amounts in males than females.

In the 1950s, W.C. Young and his colleagues administered testosterone to guinea pigs. Over time, females showed more male than female behaviors (increased aggression, increased sexual activity, etc.) as an effect of testosterone administration. This modification follows a change in the structure or function of the nerve correlations in this behavior.

The case of David Reimer is one of the most famous cases in the medical field, as it answers the question of “Nature or Nurture”. In 1965, Janet Reimer brought to life two boys, Bruce (later David) and Brian. In the first 6 months, due to a malfunction in their urinary tract, they were circumcised. However, the doctors using a non-conventional method during surgery led to the destruction of Bruce’s genitals. After that, the psychologist John Money, who had taken over Bruce’s psychological support, was already famous for his ideas about sex and sexuality. In support of “nurture” over “nature”, he considered that the child’s identity was determined by environmental factors, such as society itself. As a result, Bruce underwent castration, renamed Brenda Reimer and viewed by society as a girl.

However, David wasn’t able to accept his new nature. He repeatedly refused to do anything girlish, such as wearing dresses or playing with dolls. Even later in his adult life when he returned to his old self and underwent a sex change, he committed suicide.

The two examples partially justify views such as that of William Reville (2004), who stated that “there is no doubt that there is a social element to the concept of gender, but the evidence for a strong biological basis is undoubtedly …”. However, the Research Center for Gender Equality (2005) considers that “it is incorrect to interpret the differences between sexes, according to biological considerations only. There is a risk that not only may the actual dimensions and parameters of the subject in question be revealed, but also the perception of gender inequality may be perpetuated, insofar as the differences observed are ascribed to nature”.

The concept of gender, being a socio-cultural product, changes over time. This concept is, therefore, a social construction with a deep historical dimension. Historically, the Feminist movement argued that any gender discrimination in the treatment of sexes is clearly a social phenomenon that varies with economic, social and cultural conditions. This view has been supported by Sociology, Psychology and Social Anthropology. Among them, Sociology examines the social gender based on the differences between men and women within the social system.

As Jing Chong (2006) points out, once a baby is conceived and in the early stages of embryo development, a number of important aspects of his/her life are automatically predetermined. Such aspects may be related to how he or she should behave. This predetermination is influenced by gender-stereotyped perceptions that are transmitted to socialization bodies, such as the family.

Epilogue

Indeed, the microsystem, the environment in which we have direct social interactions with social factors (family, work, friends, neighborhood, etc.), promotes these gender discriminations through gender socialization. It is society itself that sets social ‘standards’, defining the actions that individuals must take.

It is a construction of roles for both men and women, giving different qualities to individuals. As a child grows up, through the process of socialization, social structures dictate how he or she will organize his/her life, dress, talk, behave and move his/her body. The various rules and social codes of society, also automatically characterize individuals (such as the perception that men are better drivers than women). Such a perception underlies the risk of discrimination between the two sexes, leading afterward to exclusion.

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