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Essentialist vs. Constructionist Views of Gender and Sexuality
During a period in history when gender lines and blurring and conceptualizations of sexuality are changing, identifying how these trends affect modern society has assumed new importance and relevance, especially given the legal implications of these trends for Americans today. It is also important to note, though, that these same trends occurred in many ways in some parts of the ancient world where pansexuality was the norm rather than the exception. The purpose of this paper is to provide a review of the relevant literature to describe the issue of essentialist versus constructionist views of gender and sexuality and to determine the extent to which these views and modern terminology and perspectives may be useful in evaluating sexuality and gender in the ancient world. Drawing on specific examples and case studies, the paper makes an evidence-based argument that essentialist views of gender and sexuality are inappropriate regardless of the period of history, and constructionist views provide a more accurate picture. Finally, a summary of the research and important findings concerning essentialist versus constructionist views of gender and sexuality are presented in the paper’s conclusion.
Essentialist views of gender and sexuality
Some authorities argue that the essential view provides some valuable insights concerning the manner in which people develop individualized conceptualizations of their own lives and other people in their immediate social sphere as well as people who belong to other social groups (Pereira and Estramiana 809). On its face, these views seem fairly intuitive since most people tend to identify with people who look, act and sound like themselves, but essentialist views go much farther in their categorizations. For instance, Pereira and Estramiana point out that, “One of the central ideas of essentialism is that social categorization depends as much on similarity (clearly seen in appearances) as it does on belief (expressed by whoever is making the categorization). [From this perspective], members of the same group share a deep structure and, in the process, distinguish themselves from members of other social groups” (810). In other words, essentialist views are imposed on others by outsiders rather than being a worldview that is accepted and shared by members of a given group of people. This point is also made by Pereira and Estramiana who advise that even when applied in an effort to be entirely objective, the essentialist view is fundamentally impositional in nature and scope and is therefore highly subjective and subject to the individual whims and beliefs of the outsiders. For instance, according to Pereira and Estramians, “Those characteristics which are assumed as shared by the group impose a series of predicates upon whatever it is that constitutes the 'essence' of the group” (811).
While it is not possible to identify any specific “essences” of a given group, this is not important for the formulation of essentialist views because outsiders to the group believe in their existence, and this is the “essential” issue involved (Pereira and Estramians 811). Some indication of the powerfully persuasive beliefs that essentialist views convey include worn-out axioms such as “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” “bad things happen in threes” and “spare the rod and spoil the child.” Likewise, these so-called essences also have some serious implications when it comes to long-standing social beliefs and stereotypes concerning marginalized groups due to the accentuation effect (Pereira and Estramians 811). For example, Pereira and Estramians advise that, “Essentialism may be understood as a subtle form of the accentuation effect. This effect provides the necessary basis for increasing the perception of similarity among members of the same group, as well as accentuating differences with members of other groups.”
In sum, then, the essentialist view not only categorizes other people into various pigeonholes, the process tends to exaggerate any perceived differences that may have contributed to this categorization in the first place and diminishing any perceived differences that do not support the categorization, making it a fait accompli with respect to the source of their behaviors. In this regard, Pereira and Estramiana conclude that, “For essentialists, interpersonal similarities contribute to the process of social categorization; people are not only included in a social category as a result of their likeness or similarity to others who belong to this category but also as a result of speculation made regarding these people's 'deeper' qualities and on the causes of their behavior” (809).
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Clearly, the imposition of categories and speculations concerning any “deeper” causes to the behavior of others based on casual observations and prevailing stereotypes are spurious at best, and some authorities argue that the essentialist view is inappropriate and even harmful when applied to issues such as gender and sexuality. For example, Boskey maintains that, “Gender essentialism is the widely discredited and outdated idea that men and women act differently and have different options in life because of intrinsic or essential differences between the sexes” (2). Certainly, the biological differences between men and women mean that women continue to bear the burden of childbirth but this does not necessarily mean they act differently as a result.
Notwithstanding the gains achieved by women in overcoming longstanding social and professional barriers, it is reasonable to suggest that modern patriarchal society continue to impose a number of limitations on women that are more ready and legitimate explanations for any such differences in life choices and behavior. This assertion is supported by Boskey’s observation that gender essentialism “is the idea that men and women are fundamentally different for reasons that are unchangeable [and] is often used to excuse gender-based biases in society” (3). Although clearly not immutable, such gender-based biases are highly intractable to meaningful change. This assertion is likewise supported by the fact that many male-dominated professions, especially in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) occupations. While there have been other social forces responsible for the current status of women in modern society, gender essentialism is at the heart of the problem. As Boskey concludes, gender essentialism “can be used to justify the idea that jobs traditionally held by women are often accorded less respect and lower pay. Gender essentialism is both informed by gender stereotypes and reinforces them. It can have numerous effects on society” (5).
Some of the numerous effects that gender essentialism can have on modern society include the tendency for males and females to conform to these socially imposed roles and behaviors; in other words, “behaving and earning a living like a man or woman should.” For instance, Witt notes that gender essentialism “can also have a significant influence on our self-conceptions or practical identities are formed in relation to the social positions that we occupy” (23). In addition, gender essentialism can have an even more insidious if less discernable effect on how men and women view themselves and each other.
Despite the fact that more and more people are shaking off the bounds of obsolete views about gender and sexuality, gender essentialism remains firmly in place. In this regard, Boskey emphasizes that “this outdated concept can promote assumptions about how relationships ‘should’ work that are rooted in essentialist notions of gendered behavior” (6). As a salient example, Boskey cites the tendency for otherwise-well informed people – even close friends – to impose social concepts of gendered behavior on others, including those who have obviously elected to purse an alternative lifestyle. According to Boskey, “For example, asking a married lesbian couple, ‘Which one of you is the husband?’ assumes that the traditional male role is necessary for a successful marriage. That further implies that one of them must be performing the male role, whatever that means” (7). Indeed, the “whatever that means” remains at the core of the problem since what it means to be a man or a woman, or a boy or girl, is fluid and is defined by time and place.
Throughout history, some people have rejected such socially imposed categorizations of their gender identities and sexuality but they have done so largely at….....
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