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Answer the following question in APA style… using the sources provided only and in 550 words:

Let’s see how gender plays out in the consumer world and how gender is socially constructed, using cultural goods as a lens. First, let’s collect data to do this. Find two to three products online that are ‘for men’ and ‘for women’ to examine the differences between similar products sold for women and men. Provide links or screenshots for the produces. Second, address the following questions in your post: Are there differences in packaging? Pricing? What do these products tell us about gender norms in the male-female binary, that is, the binaristic (opposing) expectations for each gender?   
Have you found that the ways in which you personally ‘do gender’ sometimes challenge this binary and its norms?

Race and


Rashawn Ray, University of Maryland

Patrick Sharkey, Princeton University

Matthew Clair, Stanford University

Race and Ethnicity (Fall 2021)

Page 2

Race and Ethnicity
R A S H A W N R A Y , U N I V E R S I T Y O F M A R Y L A N D

P A T R I C K S H A R K E Y , P R I N C E T O N U N I V E R S I T Y

M A T T H E W C L A I R , S T A N F O R D U N I V E R S I T Y


Race and ethnicity

Are race and ethnicity “real”?

The “science” of race


Implicit bias

Stereotypes and prejudice

A sociological approach toward stereotypes


Racism in individuals and institutions

Affirmative action and reparations


Trends in racial inequality

Understanding the persistence of racial inequality

A moment of change?

Race and Ethnicity (Fall 2021)

Page 3

President Barack Obama. (Source)


 Is race still important in the U.S.?

 What do we mean by race and ethnicity?

 What is the racial and ethnic composition of the United States?

 Is race a biological feature of humans?

 When did the idea of race first emerge?

In 1903, the sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois famously wrote, “The problem of the twentieth

century is the problem of the color-line—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men

in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.”1 Du Bois was writing just a few

decades after the end of slavery, at a time when lynching of Black people was a common

Race and Ethnicity (Fall 2021)

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occurrence, public facilities were segregated by race, and immigrants from China were

excluded from entering the United States. Much has changed over the past century, but race

and racism remain central problems in American society.

The election of Barack Obama as the first Black President of the United States is a case

in point. President Obama’s election was a momentous event in American history, and many

political pundits and journalists at the time considered his election to be a harbinger of the

end of racism as we know it. Some commentators suggested that America had entered a

“post-racial” moment. So why are we still talking about race and ethnicity today?

In the eight years that President Obama was in office, he faced continuous questions

about whether he was born in the United States and whether he was lying about his religious

faith (given his name and ancestry). He was criticized by conservatives for bringing too much

attention to race, and criticized by liberals for failing to do enough to help Black Americans. At

the start of his presidency, the Tea Party emerged as a major conservative social movement,

and toward the end of his presidency, the Black Lives Matter movement developed in

response to police killings of Blacks and Latinos.

Eight years after Barack Obama was elected, Donald Trump—the man who had led

the call for proof that President Obama was born in the U.S.—became the 45th President of

the United States. Following President Trump’s election, hate crimes against racial and religious

minorities increased throughout the country, and white supremacist groups that used to be on

the fringes of society grew bolder and garnered more and more attention.

And then, in May of 2020, a video from Minneapolis showed Derek Chauvin, a White

police officer, kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man, until he lost consciousness

and died. The video, which emerged in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, led to a

massive mobilization against police violence and other forms of racial injustice and economic

oppression. Demonstrations were held in cities and towns across the country, as millions of

Americans expressed their support for a national reckoning on race. On April 20, 2021,

Chauvin was convicted of murder, but about 1,000 people—disproportionately Black, Latino,

and Native American—continue to be killed by the police every year and most police officers

are not held accountable.

A lot has happened since November 2, 2008, and there is no simple way to interpret

everything that’s changed since the day American voters elected the first Black president. But

two things are clear: the United States did not turn into a colorblind nation, and we are not

living in a post-racial era. Race and ethnicity remain crucial to every aspect of life in the

United States. This chapter explores why.

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Race and ethnicity

Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution requires an “enumeration” of the population,

otherwise known as a census, every ten years. The first Census occurred in 1790, and every ten

years since, the federal government has undertaken a massive project to find out how many

people live in the United States. Race, and related conceptions of who counts as a citizen,

have always been a central part of the effort. For example, Native Americans were rarely

included in the Census before 1900, and although enslaved Black people were counted, they

were considered to be only three-fifths of a person for the purposes of the political

representation of White citizens in slaveholding states.

Race is a system that humans created to classify and stratify groups of people based

mostly on skin tone and other phenotypic characteristics, such as eye shape and hair texture.2

Race has been used to create, maintain, and enhance group distinctions and disparities.3 The

first Census included only three racial categories: people were classified as either “free white

males or free white females,” “all other free persons,” or “slaves.” As the nation has become

more diverse and the category of citizenship has expanded, these categories have changed

again and again. Before 1950, Census-takers visited people in their homes and typically

assigned everyone there to a race, usually just by looking at them; since then, Census

procedures have changed and Americans are able to choose our race for ourselves. The

terms used for African Americans have included “colored,” “Negro,” and “Black.” Starting in

2000, respondents could choose multiple racial categories instead of being forced to choose

just one. And along the way, a new question was added to the Census: in addition to

identifying our race, Americans are now asked to identify another characteristic—our


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During the Middle Passage transport from Africa to the Americas, Blacks were held in shackles and

chains inside ships. (Source)

Ethnicity refers to common culture, religion, history, or ancestry shared by a group of

people. Ethnicity, unlike race, is not always tied to shared physical characteristics. Ethnic

groups in the United States include different groups of Hispanic Americans (such as Mexican

Americans, Cuban Americans, and Puerto Ricans), Irish Americans, Vietnamese Americans,

and Jewish Americans. People considered members of different racial groups can belong the

same ethnic group (such as Black Mexicans and White Mexicans), and people of the same

race can be of different ethnicities (for example, Korean people and Filipino people). Ethnicity

is an aspect of identity that can be central to your life or one that only matters in certain

situations, like religious services or family parties. It can fade away over time, as people

assimilate into the wider culture. It can be the basis for stigma and discrimination, like race, but

it usually doesn’t imply a clear hierarchy the way racial categories do.

Now that we have a working definition of race and ethnicity, we can better understand

what the American population looks like. The latest information is available from the American

Community Survey, which runs every year in between the ten-year Census. Table 1 shows the

breakdown of the U.S. population in 2019.

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Table 1: Race and Ethnicity in the United States as of 2019

Racial/Ethnic Group Number % of Total Population

Total U.S. Population 324,697,795 100%

Not Hispanic or Latino (total) 266,218,425 82%

White alone 197,100,373 61%

Black or African American alone 39,977,554 12%

American Indian and Alaska Native alone 2,160,378 1%

Asian alone 17,708,954 6%

Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander alone 540,511 Less than 1%

Some other race alone 789,047 Less than 1%

Two or more races 7,941,608 3%

Hispanic or Latino (total) 58,479,370 18%

White alone 38,277,289 12%

Black or African American alone 1,257,088 Less than 1%

American Indian and Alaska Native alone 589,765 Less than 1%

Asian alone 215,255 Less than 1%

Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander alone 59,357 Less than 1%

Some other race alone 15,258,322 5%

Two or more races 2,822,294 1%

Source: American Community Survey 2019 (5-year estimates)

The most common way to classify race and ethnicity is to first ask people whether they

are Hispanic or Latino. Hispanic is classified on the Census as an ethnicity rather than a race,

even though many Latinos are increasingly classified as a racial group by everyday people

and other institutions.4 Roughly 18% of the U.S. population is Hispanic or Latino, and most

Hispanics are of Mexican descent. The remainder of the population, about 82%, is not Hispanic

or Latino. Just over 61% of the population identifies as non-Hispanic White, 12% identifies as

non-Hispanic Black or African American, 6% identifies as Asian, and less than 1% identifies as

either American Indian/Alaskan Native or Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander. A tiny

percentage are members of some other racial group, and another 3% identify as members of

at least two racial groups.

But even this detailed breakdown of the population doesn’t tell the whole story.

Because respondents answer questions about both race and Hispanic ethnicity, it’s possible

for people who identify as Hispanic to also select a racial group. If we consider both race and

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ethnicity, we find that about 12% of the population (and the vast majority of all Hispanics)

identifies as Hispanic (their ethnicity) and White (their race); 5% of Americans consider

themselves Hispanic and “some other race.”

Two lessons are clear from this exercise in classifying the U.S. population. First, Americans

are extremely diverse, and a sizable share are not content with classifying themselves in a

single racial or ethnic category. Second, we don’t really know the “true” racial and ethnic

makeup of the country. Our understanding of race and ethnicity is affected by the categories

we’ve selected to officially measure race and ethnicity, and by individuals’ own ideas about

their identity and ancestry. As an example, many state laws used to declare that any person

with any African ancestry at all was Black, a custom known as the one-drop rule. Although this

is no longer written in law, the custom hasn’t gone away. Many well-known public figures, like

Halle Berry and Vice President Kamala Harris, have parents with diverse racial and ethnic

ancestries, but they identify—and are described by others—as Black.

Similarly, the groups of people who count as White have changed over time.5 In the

1800s, Greeks, Irish, Italians, Poles, and Jews from different countries were all seen as members

of different races, inferior to Americans of English descent. Slowly, individuals from these groups

began to assimilate into the culture of the United States, and their close connection to their

homelands weakened over generations. As they began to speak English and moved out of

the highly-segregated neighborhoods where they lived when they first arrived in the U.S., the

boundaries between different European ethnic groups became less sharp. Today, people with

ancestry from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are categorized as White on the

Census. Despite this Census classification, many people with MENA ancestry in the United

States are racialized as non-White and experience ethno-racial and religious stigma and

discrimination, especially after the September 11th terrorist attacks.6

Estimates indicate that Whites may no longer make up a majority of the U.S. population

at some point in the next few decades. While it’s undeniable that the country is becoming

more ethnically diverse, it’s also true that various groups of Americans may see themselves

differently over time. Just as ethnic groups like the Irish, Italians, and Jews came to be seen as

White over time, it’s possible that other groups, like some Hispanics or Asians, may begin to

identify as White. The categories that we use to classify the population may also change. As

an example, there were extensive conversations about whether a new MENA category would

be added to the 2020 Census, given the discrimination they face. Ultimately, MENA was not

added as a racial category, and the millions of people in this category continue to be

classified as White but can indicate their specific ethnicity as, for example, Lebanese or

Egyptian under the White racial category.

The categories we create to classify race are sometimes quite persistent, but they can

be interpreted in many different ways and—as the Census example shows—the categories

can change. These changes show that race and ethnicity are not fixed, biological attributes.

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They are ideas that are created and revised by humans as a means to classify ourselves. But

as we’ll see in the remainder of the chapter, these concepts have very real consequences.

Are race and ethnicity “real”?

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is a well-known and highly-respected professor of African

American Studies at Harvard University. He has written dozens of books and made fifteen

documentary films, one of which won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Historical Program. In

2006, Gates produced and hosted African American Lives, a groundbreaking show on PBS

that traced the family background of some of the most notable African Americans through

historical research and DNA testing.

While doing research for the show, Gates made a startling discovery. He knew that not

all of his ancestors were from Africa, but when he investigated his history in more depth, he

learned that his ancestry was about half African and half European. One of the most

prominent scholars of the African American experience had a much more complex family

history than he realized.

A few years later, his story got even more complicated. On July 16, 2009, Gates was

returning home to Cambridge, Massachusetts, from a trip overseas and was unable to open

the door to his house. A neighbor in the mostly-White neighborhood noticed Gates and his

driver attempting to force the door open and called the police. The officer who responded

ordered Gates to come out of the house and asked him to prove that he was a professor at

Harvard and owned the house. Gates eventually complied, but repeatedly asked the officer

for his badge number and name. The officer warned Gates that he was acting in a disorderly

manner and ultimately handcuffed and arrested him. While charges against Gates were

dropped, the mugshot of the world-renowned professor revealed something very deep and

disturbing about race in the United States.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., may have an equal number of ancestors from Europe and from

Africa, but his African descent seemed to matter most that day in Cambridge. Although it’s

impossible to know for certain, Gates was convinced that neighbors would not have called

the police, and officers would not have been so aggressive, if his skin were white.

The consequences of race in daily life are very real, but the science and genetics of

race are messy.7 Despite the search by many life scientists—such as geneticists—over several

centuries, there has been no discovery of a gene for race—that is, there is no gene biologists

can find that determines which racial category someone falls into or that clearly separates

members of one race from members of another.8 In fact, a White person and a Black person

can be genetically more similar to each other than two White people or two Black people.

If race doesn’t have genetic coherence, then how do we understand its importance?

Sociologists typically think of race as a social construct, a concept that humans invented and

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gave meaning to in order to understand or justify some dimension of the social world.

Differences in skin tone or other physical markers have been used for centuries to explain

differences or inequalities between groups and to justify treating groups of people differently.9

And the idea of race has been justified, for centuries, on the basis of natural science.

Despite research showing no genetic differences by race, DNA is often used to justify

racial differences. (Source)

The “science” of race

Although the most credible research reveals no biological or genetic differences exist

that cause meaningful psychological, mental, or physical distinctions among races, many

people believe there are innate differences in the capabilities of racial groups.10 Dominant

stereotypes in the U.S. lead people to think of Asians as short and intelligent, Blacks as

physically superior but intellectually inferior, and Whites as the standard and epitome of the

human ideal.

These types of beliefs are present even among the best-educated professionals. One

study compared attitudes about race and genetics among first-year medical students to

attitudes among those who had completed medical school and were doing their medical

residency.11 Nearly 30% of first-year medical students, compared to only 4% of medical

residents, believed that the blood of Blacks clots faster than the blood of Whites. Over 20% of

first-year medical students (but only 4% of medical residents) believed that Blacks have

stronger immune systems than Whites. Some racial stereotypes persisted even after medical

residents underwent training on race and health; 40% of medical students and one-quarter of

medical residents believed that Blacks have thicker skin than Whites.

As some of these medical students failed to realize, humans are one species regardless

of skin color, language, eye shape, or hair texture. While there are average differences

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between racial and ethnic groups in health, educational attainment and test scores, and

athletic achievements, these differences are driven by socialization, environmental factors,

culture, and opportunities.12 Scientists across many disciplines reject the idea that race is

rooted in biology.

So if race is indeed a social construct, an idea made up by humans, then who invented

it? In the mid-1700s, Carolus (Carl) Linnaeus, a Swedish taxonomist, started with the simple

observation that people looked very different from each other.13 Linnaeus argued that there

had to be psychological traits associated with these physical differences in skin color. He split

humans into four subspecies, each associated with a major continent.

The classification of humans into racial groups had just begun and was reinforced by

European conquest of the Americas, genocide of Indigenous populations, enslavement of

Africans, and the global spread of capitalism. In the early 1800s, the German naturalist Johann

Blumenback introduced five racial categories—American, Caucasoid, Malay, Mongoloid, and

Ethiopian—with each race associated with a color (white, yellow, red, brown, and black).

Later, the term Negroid, which means black, replaced the term Ethiopian. These classifications

of racial groups were arbitrary, and were made by White Europeans and Americans. This

explains why Whites were placed on top of the racial hierarchy and why Whiteness was used

as the marker of perfection.14 Other groups were placed into a hierarchy below Whites, often

ordered by skin color from lightest (at the top) to darkest (at the bottom).

As the science of evolution progressed,

theories of race and biology were reinforced.

In The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin

showed how the survival of the fittest leads to

a superior species that evolves and adapts to

its environment. Sir Francis Galton, Darwin’s

cousin, argued that selective breeding of the

fittest people, genetic engineering, in vitro

fertilization, and forced sterilization of those he

viewed as unfit would allow humans to

develop enhanced intelligence while saving

society’s resources and reducing human

suffering.15 Eugenics, the idea that we can

actively improve the genetic profile of humans, led to forced sterilizations of groups of people

labeled as unfit to reproduce.

As a result of these theories from the 1700s and 1800s, external physical characteristics

(such as skin color, hair color and texture, and eye shape) and ethnic distinctions were

believed to reflect psychological and mental abilities that made some racial or ethnic groups

superior to others.16 Pseudo-scientists (people without proper training or credentials) used

A statue of Charles Darwin. (Source)

Race and Ethnicity (Fall 2021)

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data, often fabricated, on anatomical features like skull weight and facial angles to shape

public opinion and government policies about race and inequality. By the turn of the

twentieth century, eugenics was popular in the United States and Europe. The idea

contributed to the Holocaust, where Nazi Germany systematically murdered six million Jews

between 1941 and 1945.

Through the development of theories and concepts that described and categorized

humans, race became a social reality—an idea that, because people believed in it, had real

and immensely harmful consequences. It became a means to separate, exploit, and even

murder groups. Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection became the scientific

justification for the idea that differences naturally exist among racial groups. Galton’s eugenics

theory provided the scientific basis to justify the attempt to preserve the “purity” of the superior

White race. Racial prejudices became linked with biological theories of human inequality,

ensuring that race would continue to be a crucial part of social life in the centuries to come.







7: Race and Ethnicity

7: Race and Ethnicity

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 Why are most of us biased in our judgments about different groups of people?

 Where do stereotypes come from and why do they persist?

 Sociologically, how should we think about differences between racial and ethnic groups?

Has your hair color changed since you were born? What about your eye color? Does

your skin or hair color change from season to season with exposure to the sun?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you’re not alone. In a quick survey of a

class of 120 students, nearly 100% said their skin tone changes with exposure to the sun.

Roughly 15% said their hair color has changed since they were born, and a similar percentage

said their eye color has changed since birth. About 20% of students said their hair or eye color

changes with the seasons.

The human phenotype is the set of our visible features or characteristics, like the color of

our skin, hair, and eyes. The phenotype is affected by both genetics and our environment, and

most individuals’ phenotypic features change over their lives. And yet, many of the same

features that change within each of us have been used as justifications for racial classification

and exploitation.

The connection between phenotype and the value, quality, or goodness of human

beings is ingrained in society. Think about words that pop into your head when you hear the

colors yellow, red, black, and white. In another in-class survey of students, some words

commonly associated with the color yellow included docile, cowardly, cautious, and sunny.

Red triggered words such as fire, stop, blood, and aggressive. The color white brought to mind

words such as purity, cleanliness, and innocence. In contrast, black triggered words like evil,

bad, and satanic. Black is the color people wear at funerals and symbolizes death, whereas

white is the color worn by brides, doctors, and nurses. White is the absence of color and

represents being good, positive, and pure.

These associations may seem meaningless, but there is evidence that they can affect

the way we see other people. In famous experiments carried out in the early 1940s, Drs.

Kenneth and Mamie Clark presented children with identical dolls, one with white skin and

yellow hair and the other with brown skin and black hair. They asked the children which doll

was nice, which one was bad, which they preferred to play with, and other questions. Both

White and Black children favored the “White” doll. They preferred to play with the White doll

and thought it was nicer, and were more likely to say that the Black doll was “bad.” The

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preference for the White doll was particularly strong among Black children who attended

highly-segregated schools in Washington, D.C.

The Clarks concluded that racial identity and self-awareness develop as early as age

three, and that segregation damaged Black children’s self-esteem and self-concept. Their

research was later cited in the U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, in which

the Court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional because they were inherently


Sadly, these impacts on Black children’s sense of self aren’t a thing of the past. In the

2005 documentary A Girl Like Me, Kiri Davis replicated the doll study, with similar results. As we

will see, our internalized ideas about race affect the ways we think about different groups of

people and ourselves, and none of us are immune.

Implicit bias

A bias is a tendency to view things in a particular way, regardless of the details of the

specific situation. Implicit bias is the association our minds make between seemingly unrelated

things; it is subconscious, and we may be entirely unaware of our implicit biases. Implicit bias is

ingrained in all of us, regardless of our race or ethnicity, through socialization in family and

neighborhood settings and media exposure. In our daily lives, we are continuously exposed to

oversimplified beliefs about different groups, which lead us to form mental associations

between these groups and positive or negative evaluations.

In studies, both White and Black children prefer to play with White dolls. In 2005, Kiri Davis

replicated the study, with similar results. (Source)

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Until recently, research on racism focused primarily on explicit bias: bias that we are

openly and consciously aware of. Explicit racial bias—that is, openly viewing racial groups in

particular ways—has declined over time, as it has generally become less acceptable to hold

overtly negative views of certain races (though such attitudes certainly still exist).17 However,

implicit bias exists whether people hold explicit racial attitudes or not.

Implicit bias gained national prominence with video and audio showing how

unconscious biases can affect the way individuals from different racial groups interact with

one another. One of the saddest, and most controversial, examples is the case of 17-year-old

Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman.18 Martin, a Black boy, was returning to his father’s

home from a nearby convenience store when Zimmerman, a White and Hispanic man, began

to follow him. Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watchperson, called 911 to report

a suspicious person walking around the neighborhood. An altercation ensued between the

two; it left Zimmerman bruised and bloodied and Martin

dead from a gunshot wound. Zimmerman was charged

with second-degree murder but a jury found him not

guilty of Martin’s murder.

We will likely never know exactly why Zimmerman

thought that this young man was a criminal, why he

followed him, confronted him, and killed him. It may have

been the hoodie Martin was wearing, although it was

raining when the incident happened, so wearing a

hoodie with the hood up would not be unreasonable or

even unusual. Perhaps Zimmerman would have stopped

any young person walking through the neighborhood, no

matter their clothing or skin color. It may have been

explicit bias and prejudice, or it may have been an

unconscious feeling that made Zimmerman think this

African American young man had to be a criminal.

Although implicit bias has become associated with

high-profile incidents like Trayvon Martin’s killing, it is much broader than that.19 Everyone has

implicit biases about almost everything, from which store has the best fruit to assumptions that

taller people are better basketball players. Implicit bias is the human mind’s way of quickly

making sense of our social interactions. Even academics are not immune to implicit bias.

Corinne Moss-Racusin and her colleagues gave science professors resumes to evaluate; the

resumes were all the same except that half of the professors received ones with a woman’s

name and half received one with a man’s name. Faculty members were more likely to say

they would hire the resumes with male-sounding names, compared to female-sounding

names, and to recommend a higher starting salary for them.20 Other studies show that

The hoodie has become synonymous

with the killing of Trayvon Martin, and

for some, criminality. (Source)

Race and Ethnicity (Fall 2021)

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professors are less likely to respond to an email sent from a person with an Asian-sounding

name. Researchers have also found that people can have implicit biases against their own

group. Internalized bias occurs when a person belonging to a marginalized racial group

associates their own group with negative evaluations. For example, a study from the Pew

Research Center found that 29% of Black people in their sample had a subconscious

preference for White people over Black people and 38% of Asian people had a subconscious

preference for White people over Asian people.21 Although our biases may at times simply be

preferences and may not directly impact our behavior, at other times they have grave

consequences for how we treat others.22

Stereotypes and prejudice

Stereotypes are widely-shared perceptions about the personal characteristics,

tendencies, or abilities of members of a particular group, like intelligence, personality, physical

features, preferences, aggressiveness, or criminality. Some are positive, and others are

negative. The Irish are rowdy drunks. Jews are good with money but cheap. Asians are

studious and good at math. African Americans are athletic and aggressive. All of these are

stereotypes about groups of people. Stereotypes can arise for a number of reasons: They can

be myths made up about a group, historical relics from the past, or superficial associations that

are reinforced by the media or politicians.

They can also change over time. Consider the idea that African Americans are

naturally good at basketball. In the first half of the 1900s, the same stereotype was applied to

a different group: Jewish Americans. Basketball has always been a city game, played on

concrete courts by kids who needed a ball, a hoop, and nothing else. At that time, American

Jews were concentrated in urban neighborhoods. According to a well-known sportswriter in

the 1930s, Jews excelled at basketball because it required “an alert, scheming mind, flashy

trickiness, artful dodging and general smart aleckness.”23 This kind of stereotypical language

seems absurd now. But at the time, many readers likely agreed with the sportswriter, since he

played on stereotypes of Jewish Americans as intelligent but sneaky and untrustworthy.

Media representations of stereotypes are less explicit these days, but they haven’t

disappeared. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, one of the deadliest hurricanes in U.S.

history, tens of thousands of people in New Orleans were stranded for days, without basic

supplies or assistance. Two photographs captured the desperate attempts of residents to find

water and food in the days after the storm, when much of the city was underwater. However,

the media framed the residents completely differently by race. A Black boy (who was

described as a “man” in the caption) is said to be “looting a grocery store.” The caption of the

other photo described two White residents “finding bread and soda from a local grocery


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Stereotypes are not only perpetuated by the media. During the 1976 presidential

campaign, candidate Ronald Reagan coined the term “welfare queen” to refer to Black

women he said were conning the government by living luxuriously on generous welfare

checks. Reagan exploited well-known stereotypes to appeal to White voters, ignoring the fact

that most welfare recipients were White and that there was no evidence of this type of fraud.

Sociologists Kathryn Edin and Laura Lein conducted interviews with nearly 400 single mothers in

several cities, most of whom received welfare, and found that they were remarkably careful

with money and had to find creative ways to make enough just to survive from month to

month.24 More recently, during the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump described many

Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists. Sociologists and criminologists, however,

consistently find that immigrants engage in less criminal behavior than native-born peers.25

These examples reveal how stereotypes are used to appeal to our prejudices, or

preconceived beliefs, attitudes, and opinions about members of a group. Those beliefs,

attitudes, and opinions are usually not based on personal experience or evidence, and they

are usually negative. Scholars have shown that individual prejudices are often driven by our

views about different social groups and where those groups rank, relative to our own, in the

social and economic hierarchy.26 Prejudices can grow stronger if we begin to think of another

group as an economic, political, or cultural threat—for instance, if the size of a racial or ethnic

minority group begins to grow in a neighborhood or a city. This is the idea behind the group

threat theory of prejudice.

Once established, prejudices toward other groups of people are difficult to break, even

if we see examples of individuals who don’t match our stereotypes. This is partly due to a

psychological concept called ultimate attribution error, or a tendency to perceive undesirable

characteristics or behaviors exhibited by members of another group as an innate or inherent

part of their personality or essence—that is, any negative behavior is seen as just who they

are.27 On the other hand, positive characteristics exhibited by members of other groups are

more likely to be attributed to external factors like going to a good school, receiving

opportunities, or just plain luck. Seeing positive behaviors from people we think of negatively

can produce cognitive dissonance, a psychological state in which our preexisting ideas do

not match what we see with our own eyes.28 When we experience cognitive dissonance, our

natural tendency is to avoid the mental conflict and find a way to explain the anomaly. Thus,

if someone from a group we view negatively does something we view as positive, we interpret

them as exceptions; their existence doesn’t undermine our prejudiced beliefs about their


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Black and Latino neighborhoods are more likely to be in floodplains that are exposed to

natural disasters. (Source)

But if we simply spend more time around individuals from other backgrounds, races,

and ethnicities, our stereotypical beliefs will fade away, right? Psychologist Gordon Allport’s

contact theory helps explain how interaction with members of other groups affects prejudices.

Allport argues that interaction and exposure can be beneficial, but only under specific

conditions: the interaction has to occur in a collaborative, voluntary, and non-competitive

space; we must interact multiple times, not just once; our interaction must be personal,

informal, and one-on-one; the interaction should be legal; and the setting must allow

participants to interact as equals.

The problem is that most interracial contact does not take place under these

conditions. Interactions with people from other races often takes place in situations that are

not equal (such as when a member of one race performs low-wage work for a person of

another race) or where at least one side does not welcome the interaction (for instance, if

residents of a neighborhood are unhappy about people from another race moving onto their

street). Robert Putnam analyzed data from across the U.S. to examine the relationship

between racial and ethnic diversity and social trust and found that people in more diverse

communities tend to “withdraw from collective life, to distrust their neighbors, regardless of the

Race and Ethnicity (Fall 2021)

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color of their skin.”29 This problem is common in diverse communities: people face challenges

in developing a united community, they may not appreciate cultural or political changes that

arise when a new group enters their neighborhood, and they may resent the changes taking

place around them. Given this, it’s not shocking that more diverse places are not always

friendlier or more welcoming. But Putnam also points to examples showing that diversity can

work over the long-run. During World War II, White soldiers in the U.S. military were asked what

they thought about having Black and White soldiers in the same company. A majority were

opposed. But among soldiers who were already serving in an integrated unit that included

Black and White soldiers, less than a quarter were opposed to the idea. Stereotypes and

prejudices can, in fact, break down—but integration sometimes comes with conflict and

mistrust, and it often takes great effort and time to work.

Interacting or living with a more diverse group of people can break down

stereotypes, but only under certain conditions. (Source)

A sociological approach toward stereotypes

All of this information about stereotypes may explain where they come from and why

they persist, but we don’t want to give the impression that there are no average differences

between racial and ethnic groups in behavior or tastes. One look at a typical NBA roster tells

us very clearly that African Americans are disproportionately represented at the highest level

of basketball, for instance. So what explains average differences between racial and ethnic


Our suggestion is to take a sociological perspective. Look for data on behaviors or

social characteristics of different groups; don’t simply accept what you might hear about

them. Be suspicious of the idea that stereotypical behaviors or characteristics are “natural” or

inherent to specific groups of people, and think about potential social explanations for

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common behaviors or characteristics. Think of people as individuals, instead of projecting

stereotypes onto them. Average differences between racial groups rarely help us predict how

any individual will behave. Recognize that most of us, from every race and ethnicity, have

unconscious biases that affect how we perceive others. And finally, be aware of the

damaging consequences of biases and stereotypes, a topic we’ll turn to next.








 What is discrimination?

 What is individual and institutional racism?

 Where did affirmative action come from and what does it do?

In 2002, almost 400 pairs of people were sent out across eight cities in Minnesota,

Montana, and New Mexico to ask about renting an apartment.30 The two members of each

pair had almost identical backgrounds—they were the same gender and roughly the same

age, had the same number of children, and had similar incomes and jobs. But they looked

different: one member of each pair was White, the other was Native American. In these three

states, where many Native Americans live, that difference had a substantial impact on how

they were treated as they searched for a place to live.

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In one case, a 43-year-old White woman asked about a two-bedroom apartment in

Billings, Montana. She was told that the unit was open and available, was given a form to

complete and a business card, and was shown two other units that looked similar to the one

that was advertised. A day later, her Native American teammate, a woman with the same

characteristics, asked about the same unit. She was given the same form and a business card,

but was told that the agent was too busy to talk. She was not shown any apartments, and was

asked to come back a few days later.

This case was not an exception. The White applicant was favored in at least a quarter

of cases in each city. The careful design of the research project—an example of an audit

study—meant that the applicants were perfectly matched according to all characteristics

that would make them more or less attractive renters; the only thing that differed was their

race. In other words, something about the real estate agents, the firms for which they worked,

or perhaps the real estate industry as a whole led to the different treatment of Whites and

Native Americans.

With this example, we move into an investigation of racial discrimination, the differential

treatment of people based on their presumed racial group membership. While biases,

stereotypes, and prejudices are about our thoughts and feelings, discrimination is an action.

This section discusses several types of negative racial discrimination, or unfavorable and unjust

treatment of a person based on their racial group membership. This section also discusses

some efforts used to rectify historical and contemporary forms of negative discrimination.

Before 1964, in many states Blacks could not drink from the same water fountains or

attend the same public places as Whites; many also could not vote. (Source)

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Racism in individuals and institutions

Sociologists define racism as a set of beliefs, ideologies, or institutional practices that

are based on the idea that one racial group is biologically or culturally inferior to another

group and that reproduces racial domination and exploitation.31 Since racism generally

involves beliefs and actions, it typically combines prejudice with discrimination and power.

While some of us are able to ignore racism, others are forced to deal with it on a daily basis,

given unequal power dynamics between racial groups. White supremacy—a set of beliefs,

ideologies, and institutional practices that position White people as superior to other racial

groups—is the dominant form of racism in the U.S. Racism doesn’t just exist in individuals; it lives

in organizations and institutions like schools, workplaces, our housing market, our laws, and our

politics. For racial minority groups, it can lead to worse outcomes in school, lower-status jobs,

unequal treatment by police officers and doctors,32 and worse mental and physical health.33

Decades ago, real estate agents developed a money-making scheme based on racial

fears. They would go to White homeowners and warn them that Black families were about to

move into their neighborhood (whether or not this was true). Whites, panicked at the thought

of integrated neighborhoods or falling home prices, often wanted to sell quickly and move.

The real estate agents would buy houses cheaply from the White families they had frightened

into a quick sale and then sell them at well above market value to Black families eager for a

share of the American Dream. More recently, in 2012, Wells Fargo Bank settled a lawsuit with

the U.S. Department of Justice alleging that the bank targeted Blacks and Latinos with the

subprime loans that led to the collapse of the housing market in 2008, even when those clients

qualified for lower-risk, lower-cost loans. As this example shows, discrimination hasn’t gone

away. Even if explicitly racist beliefs and attitudes have become much less common, racism

persists in many institutions. Institutional racism refers to the ways that core institutions, like the

law, education, and labor market, are embedded with racial biases and practices that

reproduce racial inequality.

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Due to redlining and restrictive covenants, Blacks were often forced to live in crowded

urban project housing. (Source)

Institutional racism has existed since the formation of the United States and its founding

documents. The inspiring words of the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to

be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” were written by Thomas Jefferson, a

slaveowner. Enslaved people were counted as only three-fifths of a person in the Constitution.

And although the Bill of Rights protected the rights and liberties of minority groups in the United

States, African Americans and Native Americans were not considered to be full citizens in the

great national experiment described in our founding documents.

We don’t have to go back to the country’s origins to see how race is embedded within

our institutions and laws. Historian Ira Katznelson has documented how the most important

social programs implemented in the 1900s were designed specifically to provide assistance to

White Americans and to exclude, as much as possible, Black Americans. Social Security is

arguably the most influential and long-lasting social program in U.S. history; it created

retirement benefits for the elderly, unemployment benefits, and programs to assist low-income

women and children. But the 1935 legislation that created it covered only certain jobs, mainly

in industry and commerce; it specifically excluded many jobs held by the Black population at

the time, such as farm and domestic work. As a result, in the 1930s over 60% of all Black

workers, and nearly 75% of Black workers in the South, didn’t qualify for Social Security benefits.

Additionally, federal funds that supported the poor and veterans were controlled by local

Race and Ethnicity (Fall 2021)

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officials, who frequently discriminated against Blacks. Funds intended to help people train for

stable jobs, ensure financial stability in retirement, and build wealth were often only available

to Whites. Katznelson says this created a form of “policy apartheid” that mainly benefited

Whites.34 (Apartheid is the formal policy or practice of political, legal, economic, and/or social

discrimination against a particular group.)

The Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) program, generally referred to as “welfare,” was

established in 1935 for families that generally had only one parent or caretaker; yet funds were

withheld from Black families who qualified.35 In fact, about one-third of Black children who

qualified for ADC did not receive assistance. In the 1940s, Texas, Kentucky, and Mississippi

didn’t participate in the program at all, so children in these states didn’t receive any


The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the GI Bill, aimed to

reintegrate veterans returning from World War II. Massive numbers of young people were

deployed during the War, and the GI Bill applied to roughly 80% of men who were in their 30s

and had families. Because of the bill, millions of families were able to purchase homes, start

businesses, and send themselves and their children to college. But Black veterans struggled to

access the benefits they were owed. The GI Bill was distributed federally but controlled locally,

and Black veterans, particularly in the South, were often denied GI Bill funds that were

available to White veterans.

Soldiers board a military plane. (Source)

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Affirmative action and reparations

In the 1960s, the longstanding pattern of social policies explicitly favoring Whites began

to change. The Civil Rights Movement—a large-scale, Black-led social movement centered

around protest, civil disobedience, and legal battles—laid the groundwork for major advances

in voting and civil rights. The legal basis for segregated neighborhoods and schools finally

began to break down with the passage of legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which

banned discrimination based on characteristics including race and sex) and, later, the Fair

Housing Act of 1968 (which banned discrimination in the housing market). But earlier in the

decade, President John F. Kennedy, facing pressure from movement leaders, started a

program that used a different mechanism to address injustices in the labor market, housing

market, and in social policy: he instructed federal contractors to take “affirmative action to

ensure that applicants are treated equally without regard to race, color, religion, sex, or

national origin.”

In its initial formulation, affirmative action referred to policies or programs that sought to

redress past discrimination through active measures to ensure equal opportunity now. It openly

acknowledged that unjust policies and decisions historically limited the opportunities of

disadvantaged groups and benefitted advantaged groups, and tried to make up for such

injustices. Affirmative action has been used to encourage or require organizations, universities,

and public agencies to consider factors like race and gender in decisions about which

contractors to use, which job applicants to hire, or which students to admit. It has been most

widely used in university admissions and government hiring, and has provided non-White

groups and women with equal access to positions they were previously excluded from. Today,

following Supreme Court cases that have narrowed its scope, affirmative action is largely

considered to be a set of policies or programs seeking to increase racial and other forms of

diversity rather than to redress past discrimination or harm.

At the end of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, affirmative action has

generated substantial controversy. Critics argue that it attempts to remedy discrimination in

the past through “reverse discrimination.” Others say that affirmative action doesn’t

necessarily benefit the people who are truly the victims of discrimination, and suggest that it

should be based on poverty rather than race or gender. And others believe that all social

policy or admissions decisions should be “color blind,” with no advantages or considerations

for any group based on race, ethnicity, or any other criteria other than perceived

achievement. These arguments overlook the many subtle ways individuals from advantaged

backgrounds receive a boost on their way to elite schools or sought-after jobs by drawing on

networks of friends or family for referrals, internships, letters of recommendation, and access to

resource-rich high schools. These arguments ignore the way “achievement” can be based on

institutionally racist or sexist factors. They also ignore the not-so-subtle ways that factors other

Race and Ethnicity (Fall 2021)

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than achievement enter into admissions decisions—for example, elite universities commonly

set aside a substantial portion of their admissions slots for “legacies,” applicants whose parents

attended the institution.36 Every few years the Supreme Court hears another case about the

use of race in university admissions, but rarely do we hear objections about the tremendous

advantage that students automatically have if they’re applying to an elite school that their

parents were fortunate enough to previously attend.

Today, a growing number of scholars and people involved in new movements for racial

justice—from the Black Lives Matter movement to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous

Women and Girls movement—have advocated for reparations. Reparations are recognition

of and compensation (typically financial) for past harm against specific people or groups of

people. Reparations are not a new idea. Throughout American history, individuals,

organizations, and the government have considered—or even provided—reparations for past

racial discrimination and exploitation. For example, during World War II, the United States

interned people of Japanese descent living in the U.S. in camps. In the 1970s, the Japanese

American Citizens’ League and other organizations pushed for compensation to those who

were incarcerated. In the 1980s, Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act, which formally

apologized for Japanese internment and paid $20,000 to survivors. Unlike affirmative action,

reparations are a way to formally recognize a past harm and provide direct financial

compensation to all members of the harmed group. In 1989, Congressman John Conyers, Jr.,

first introduced legislation that would acknowledge the injustice of slavery and recommend

appropriate remedies for African Americans. However, Black people have yet to receive

reparations for slavery.







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 How much racial inequality is there in the U.S.?

 What does a sociological perspective on racial inequality look like?

Trends in racial inequality

During the 1960s, African Americans began to move into professional occupations and

into the middle class on a large scale, schools started to integrate, and there was great hope

that racial inequality would fade away. What has happened since then?

The answer depends on the dimension of inequality we consider. Perhaps the most

basic measures of inequality focus on family income and wealth. As shown in Figure 1, the gap

in household incomes between Blacks and Whites remained virtually the same between 1967

and 2016. As of 2014, about 25% of Black and Latino families lived in poverty, compared to

10% of Whites. Racial gaps in wealth are even more severe than gaps in income. White

people as a group had thirteen times as much wealth as Black Americans in the years after

the Great Recession, the largest gap since the late 1980s. Yet, Whites are not at the top of the

economic hierarchy in the United States; certain groups of Asian Americans have higher

incomes than any other racial or ethnic group, largely due to higher levels of education and

where they live (high-cost states such as California, New York, and Hawaii). Their success can

also be attributed to immigrant selectivity, or the process whereby people who immigrate to

the U.S. from certain countries have a unique demographic profile compared to the people

who stay behind in their home countries. In the case of some Asian groups, they are more

likely to immigrate with higher educational attainment and other characteristics valued in

American society.

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Figure 1: Median Household Income of Black and White Households, 1967-2016

Source: United States Census Bureau, Historical Income Tables: Households

Other dimensions of inequality have improved considerably over time, the most notable

example being educational attainment. In 1996, the high school dropout rate among Latinos

was 34%, more than four times as high as for Whites. The rate for African Americans was 16%,

twice as high as Whites (8%). In the next ten years, the dropout rate for Latinos fell to 10%, and

the rate for African Americans fell to 7%, only slightly higher than the rate for Whites (5%).37

Among Black people, there is growing heterogeneity, given increased immigration from Africa

and the Caribbean. Nigerian Americans, for example, have higher levels of education than

most other racial or ethnic groups, including Whites and Asians.

There are other signs of modest progress. Residential segregation of Black Americans

from White Americans peaked in 1980 but has fallen steadily since then. And there has been

substantial improvement on one of the most basic measures of health: life expectancy, a

statistical measure of how long people can expect to live, on average. The gap in life

expectancy between Whites and Blacks has been gradually shrinking over time, though there

are still enormous differences. In 2015, White women could expect to live more than two years

longer than Black women, on average, and White men could expect to live more than four

years longer than Black men. Even on the dimensions of racial inequality that have improved,

in other words, there are still severe discrepancies.

This pattern reflects the complex nature of racial inequality in the United States. On

some measures of economic status, there has been no progress toward racial equality since









































































White Black

Race and Ethnicity (Fall 2021)

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the 1970s. On other measures, there has been substantial progress. But on virtually every

measure available, even those that have improved over time, we can still observe a disturbing

degree of inequality between Black and White Americans. Why?

Understanding the persistence of racial inequality

Throughout American history, race has been used to justify a hierarchy based on skin

color and ancestry. It has fooled people into thinking that success and failure are driven by

psychological, genetic, intellectual, biological, and cultural differences between racial or

ethnic groups.38 These beliefs persist today. Surveys of Whites in the U.S. show that they are

more likely to attribute racial gaps in education and labor market success to differences in

motivation, cultural inferiority, or genetics. Blacks and Latinos, on the other hand, are more

likely to attribute racial differences in achievement and economic success to discrimination.

One study examined responses to a national survey asking why “Blacks (are) in their current

state?” Only 31% of Whites responded that discrimination was a central reason for continuing

racial disparities, compared to 61% of Blacks.39

And yet we know, with certainty, that racism directly affects the way people are

treated in many different settings, and these differences are often most pronounced when

comparing Whites and Blacks. We described an audit study focusing on the treatment of

Native Americans; similar studies have shown stark differences in the treatment of White and

Black individuals who have inquired about apartments, home loans, or jobs. One study

advertised iPhones on a common online marketplace and showed pictures of either a Black

or a White hand holding the phone. The ads with White hands were much more likely to

receive a response. Another study sent resumes to employers with distinctively “Black” names

like Lakisha or Jamal or White-sounding names like Emily or Greg. Applicants named Emily and

Greg were much more likely to be contacted.40

The persistence of discrimination is undoubtedly one reason racial inequality has not

gone away. But we hope that this chapter leads you to think even more broadly about factors

that have contributed to racial inequality not only in the present, but over long periods of our

history. As we’ve shown, the most important government programs of the past century, like

Social Security and the GI Bill, were designed to largely exclude Black Americans. When a

whole generation of returning veterans were given subsidies to get college degrees and

establish a foothold in the labor market, Black American veterans were not given the same

chance to use these benefits. When the federal government first began to subsidize home

mortgages, providing a government-supported “push” that led to the massive growth of

suburbs, non-White Americans were almost completely left out of the program. In the decades

since, homeownership has been the most reliable way for Americans to accumulate assets

(since for most people, their home is the single most valuable item they own), but African

Race and Ethnicity (Fall 2021)

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Americans have often been systematically excluded from buying real estate or taking out low-

interest loans that allow families to build up wealth in the form of homes.41

Black people and Native Americans have faced uniquely harsh forms of racial

discrimination and exploitation throughout the course of U.S. history, and it’s impossible to

understand racial inequality today without considering the histories of settler colonialism,

slavery, and Jim Crow. Many Americans point to differences between Black Americans, in

particular, and other racial groups on characteristics like academic achievement and family

structure to argue that there is something about the culture of the Black population that

impairs their outcomes in life or their ability to get ahead.

Sociologists have

taken this argument seriously.

They have found that some

dimensions of culture and

behavior do help to explain

the reproduction of unequal

outcomes between groups.

For example, Black

Americans have higher rates

of single parenthood than

other racial and ethnic

groups, and children raised

by single parents are much

more likely to grow up in


While racial groups

may exhibit cultural

differences, it’s a mistake to

assume these differences are

sufficient explanations of inequality, and it’s a mistake to think of culture as a natural,

unchanging feature of a racial or ethnic group. A sociological perspective takes group

differences in culture seriously, but attempts to understand whether these differences offer

independent explanations. For example, even though Black men have higher rates of single

parenthood, research has found that Black single fathers are more involved in their children’s

lives than White single fathers. Moreover, some scholars argue that it is not cultural differences

that cause unequal outcomes, but rather it is the unfair responses of empowered

professionals—such as lawyers in the criminal legal system or teachers in schools—to cultural

differences between groups.42

People visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. King is the

first African American, and the fourth non-U.S. President, to have a monument

on the National Mall. (Source)

Race and Ethnicity (Fall 2021)

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In addition, a sociological perspective reveals how cultural differences are connected

to a larger set of historical forces, often rooted in racism. Nowhere is this approach clearer

than in the work of sociologist William Julius Wilson, who analyzed historical data on urban

labor markets to show how shifts in the jobs available to African American men from the 1950s

to the 1980s created widespread economic dislocation, leading to fewer “marriageable” men

who could support their families with steady employment. As jobs disappeared from central

city neighborhoods, much of the African American population remained stuck in

neighborhoods that offered few economic opportunities. Over time, rates of joblessness rose

and the rate of single-parent families skyrocketed, along with use of welfare benefits. This

happened to all racial and ethnic groups, but it was particularly severe for African Americans

because they had fewer alternative job options when manufacturing jobs disappeared.

We can learn lessons from Wilson’s classic analysis of the link between changes in urban

labor markets and cultural adaptations among African Americans. The first lesson is that group

differences in culture do not arise out of nowhere; they are often linked to broader economic

or political forces. When we study cultural or behavioral differences between groups, we must

focus on how culture emerges, and how larger forces help explain behaviors that may seem

counterproductive, or even destructive, from the outside. The second lesson is that a

sociological perspective on inequality should not be driven by politics or ideology, and

sociologists should not ignore or downplay behaviors that might contribute to group

differences. Instead, our goal is to explain such differences, and to do so by linking them with

larger social forces—in other words, we should wade into even the most controversial issues,

and we should do so armed with a robust sociological imagination.

A moment of change?

Many of the themes in this chapter became visible, once again, in the spring and

summer of 2020. In March 2020, COVID-19 began to spread across the United States, and

communities of color were hit hardest. After adjusting for age, early estimates of death rates

for Latinos were two and a half times higher than for Whites, and death rates for Black

Americans were three and a half times higher than for Whites.43 Throughout 2020 and into

2021, a series of horrific murders of Black and Latino people—Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor,

George Floyd, and Adam Toledo—all at the hands of current or former police officers,

provided a brutal reminder of what institutional racism looks like.

As they have many times before, Americans took to the streets to protest police

violence and racial injustice. But in 2020, the demonstrations had more energy, and more

people, than ever before. They occurred in hundreds of towns and cities, despite police

crackdowns that have, in some cities, been ugly and violent. The demonstrations have

persisted into this year even as the news cycle has moved on.

Race and Ethnicity (Fall 2021)

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As the demonstrations have continued, the basic message of the Black Lives Matter

movement has filtered through the country and around the world. In 2020, companies that

had usually been silent on race openly voiced their support, and organizations like the

National Football League changed their positions in response. And everyday Americans

seemed to be changing their views. In the summer of 2020, Black Lives Matter was more

popular than it had ever been among all Americans.44

But progress is not linear, and change can be fleeting. Just a year later, White people

today are less supportive of Black Lives Matter than they were before the protests in the spring

and summer of 2020.45 Other racial groups’ support has also declined, but not as starkly.

Moreover, whether public support for a movement is necessary to implement tangible policies

or programs designed to confront the nation’s history of racism and the continuing pattern of

racial injustice is still to be seen. While race and racism remain durable realities of American

life, this moment nonetheless opens up new possibilities for change.







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1997. Racial Attitudes in America: Trends and Interpretations. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

18 Ray, Rashawn. 2015. “If Only He Didn’t Wear the Hoodie…” Selective Perception and Stereotype Maintenance.”

Pp. 81-93 in Stephanie McClure and Cherise Harris (Eds), Getting Real about Race: Hoodies, Mascots, Model

Minorities, and Other Conversations. Los Angeles: Sage.

19 Allport, Gordon W. 1954. The Nature of Prejudice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

20 Moss-Racusin, Corinne A., John F. Dovidio, Victoria L. Brescoll, Mark J. Graham, and Jo Handelsman. 2012.

“Science Faculty’s Subtle Gender Biases Favor Male Students.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

of the United States of America 109(41): 16474–79.

21 Morin, Rich. 2015. “Exploring Racial Bias Among Biracial and Single-Race Adults: The IAT.” Pew Research Center,

August 19. Retrieved at:


22 Ray, 2015.

23 Entine, Jon. 2011. “The ‘Scheming, Flashy Trickiness’ of Basketball’s Media Darlings, the Philadelphia ‘Hebrews’ –

err…Sixers.” The Jewish Magazine. Retrieved at:

24 Edin, Kathryn and Laura Lein. 1997. Making Ends Meet: How Single Mothers Survive Welfare and Low-Wage Work.

New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

25 Reid, Lesley Williams, Harald E. Weiss, Robert M. Adelman, and Charles Jaret. 2005. “The immigration–crime

relationship: Evidence across US metropolitan areas.” Social science research 34, no. 4: 757-780.

26 Blumer, Herbert. 1958. “Race Prejudice as a Sense of Group Position.” The Pacific Sociological Review, 1(1): 3-7.

27 Pettigrew, Thomas F. 1979. “The Ultimate Attribution Error: Extending Allport’s Cognitive Analysis of Prejudice.”

Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 5: 461-476.

28 Festinger, Leon. 1957. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

29 Putnam RD. 2007). E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-First Century: The 2006 Johan Skytte

Prize Lecture. Scandinavian Political Studies 30: 137–174.

30Turner, Margery Austin, Stephen L. Ross, and United States. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Office of Policy Development and Research. 2003. Discrimination in Metropolitan Housing Markets. Washington, DC:

U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Policy Development and Research. Retrieved from


31 Clair and Denis, 2015.

32 Sewell, Abigail A. 2003. “A Different Menu: Racial Residential Segregation and the Persistence of Racial

Inequality.” Pp. 287-296 in Rashawn Ray (ed). Race and Ethnic Relations in the 21st Century: History, Theory,

Institutions, and Policy. San Diego, CA: University Readers.

33 Asad, Asad L. and Matthew Clair. 2018. “Racialized Legal Status as a Social Determinant of Health.” Social

Science and Medicine. 199:19-28; Lewis-McCoy and R. L. Heureux. 2014. Inequality in the Promised Land: Race,

Resources, and Suburban Schooling. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. Gilbert, Keon, Rashawn Ray,

Arjumand Siddiqi, Derek Griffith, Elizabeth Baker, Shivan Shetty, and Keith Elder. 2016. “Visible and Invisible Trends in

African American Men’s Health: Pitfalls and Promises.” Annual Review of Public Health 37: 295-311.

34 Katznelson, Ira. 2005. When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-

Century America. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton.

35 Edin, Kathryn and Laura Lein. 1997. Making Ends Meet: How Single Mothers Survive Welfare and Low-Wage Work.

New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Exploring Racial Bias Among Biracial and Single-Race Adults: The IAT

Exploring Racial Bias Among Biracial and Single-Race Adults: The IAT

Race and Ethnicity (Fall 2021)

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36 Jack, Anthony Abraham. 2019. The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students.

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

37Gramlich, John. 2017. “Hispanic Dropout Rate Hits New Low, College Enrollment at New High.” Pew Research

Center. Retrieved from


38 Drake, St. Clair. 1987. Black Folk Here and There: An Essay in History and Anthropology. Los Angeles: Center for

Afro-American Studies, University of California. Zuberi, Tukufu. 2001. Thicker Than Blood: How Racial Statistics Lie.

Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

39 Matthew O. Hunt. 2007. “African-American, Hispanic, and White Beliefs about Black/White Inequality, 1977-

2004.” American Sociological Review, 72: 390-415.

40 Bertrand, Marianne and Sendhil Mullainathan. 2004. “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and

Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination.” The American Economic Review 94(4): 991–1013;

Pager, Devah, Bart Bonikowski, and Bruce Western. 2009. “Discrimination in a low-wage labor market: A field

experiment.” American Sociological Review 74: 777-799.

41 Oliver, Melvin L. and Thomas M. Shapiro. 2006. Black wealth, white wealth: A new perspective on racial inequality.

Routledge, second edition.

42 Carter, Prudence L. 2003. “‘Black’ cultural capital, status positioning, and schooling conflicts for low-income

African American youth.” Social Problems 50, no. 1: 136-155; Clair, Matthew. 2020. Privilege and Punishment: How

Race and Class Matter in Criminal Court. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

43 Ford, Tiffany, Sarah Reber, and Richard V. Reeves. 2020. “Race Gaps in COVID-19 Deaths Are Even Bigger than

They Appear.” Brookings Institution, June 16. Retrieved at:


44 Cohn, Nate and Kevin Quealy. 2020. “How Public Opinion Has Moved on Black Lives Matter.” New York Times,

June 10. Retrieved at

45 Chudy, Jennifer and Hakeem Jefferson. 2021. “Support for Black Lives Matter Surged Last

Year. Did It Last?” New York Times, May 22. Retrieved at:


Cover Photo Source

Hispanic dropout rate hits new low, college enrollment at new high

Hispanic dropout rate hits new low, college enrollment at new high

Race gaps in COVID-19 deaths are even bigger than they appear

Race gaps in COVID-19 deaths are even bigger than they appear


Gender and Sexuality (Fall 2021)

Gender and


Angela Barian

Todd Schoepflin, Niagara University

Jessica Brown, Houston Community


Gender and Sexuality (Fall 2021)

Page 2

Gender and Sexuality


T O D D S C H O E P F L I N , N I A G A R A U N I V E R S I T Y

J E S S I C A B R O W N , H O U S T O N C O M M U N I T Y C O L L E G E


Nature, nurture, neither?

Social construction of gender

Intersectional perspectives of gender



Institutional inequality

Gender and violence


The creation of sexuality

Intersectional sexualities

The social control of sexuality

Gender and Sexuality (Fall 2021)

Page 3


In 2013, retired Army veteran Jamie Shupe changed their legal identity from male to

female (Shupe’s preferred pronouns are their and they). Assigned male at birth, Shupe

remembers their mother slapping them as a child for being “a sissy.”1 Shupe was a married

father when they decided they’d had enough: “I was in a deep, dark depression because I

had boxed myself into this male identity that I couldn’t stand anymore.”2 Shupe started taking

hormones and for a while lived as a transgender woman. Transgender refers to people whose

gender identity and expression are different from what they were assigned at birth.3 But they

didn’t feel “fully female” either.4 So in 2016, Jamie Shupe petitioned to be the first person in the

history of the United States to be legally recognized as non-binary (that is, not exclusively

masculine or feminine). They won. Following that decision, Shupe’s home state of Oregon

became the first state to officially offer gender-neutral driver’s licenses. As of July 2017,

residents can have an “X” in the gender box on their state-issued ID.5 In court, Shupe said, “I

can’t divorce my male side with my female side. And you’re just going to have to

acknowledge that sex and gender is a spectrum, not two poles.”6

While societies have always seen gender expressions that move beyond the male-

female binary, a recent Time article notes that this gender flexibility has moved from being

marginalized to being more widely accepted.7 A survey from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance

Against Defamation (GLAAD) reports that “20% of millennials identify as something other than

strictly straight and cisgender (someone whose gender matches the sex they were assigned at

birth).”8 This is compared to just 7% of Baby Boomers, the generation born between 1946 and

1964. Social understandings of gender and sexuality continue to evolve in ways that have

profound effects on our daily lives.

You could make a case that gender is the primary way people organize the social

world. Before birth, parents prepare nurseries in pink or blue and use social media for

elaborate reveals of whether the baby will be a boy or a girl. Elementary school teachers use

gender to line students up and pit them against each other in competitions. Kids are teased

by each other and even adults with a song that contains a gender-based script about

marriage, family, and sexual orientation: “Rob and Mary sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. First

comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in a baby carriage.” Fast-forward to high

school, where prom kings and queens are crowned; then to a baby shower, a space usually

reserved for women, although occasionally a couple allows men and women to attend in a

“Jack and Jill” format. Gender matters before the cradle and all the way to the grave.

In this chapter, we have two goals. First, we provide you with a sociological lens on

gender and sexuality. We consider how, despite being firmly rooted in minds and bodies,

gender and sexuality are also profoundly social. Second, we explore how gender and

Gender and Sexuality (Fall 2021)

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sexuality intersect with other social relations to create a multitude of experiences and unequal

interactions and institutions.


 What is sex? What is gender?

 What does it mean for gender to be a social construction?

 How do diverse bodies, identities, and expressions complicate social constructions of both

gender and sex?

Nature, nurture, neither?

In 2009, runner Caster Semenya won a gold

medal in the women’s 800-meter race at the

World Championships. Semenya smashed the

previous African record and improved her own

personal best by eight seconds in eight months, an

almost unheard-of feat.9 But there were whispers:

Semenya’s time was too fast. And just look at her,

one of the other athletes said. The track & field

governing body expressed suspicion about

whether she qualified to run with women. Later

that year, Caster Semenya went through “gender

verification testing.”10 The purpose of the testing,

said officials, was to determine if Semenya is

“really” a woman. For almost a year, she was

unable to compete while tests were administered

and analyzed. While the results of the so-called

gender test were never revealed, Semenya was

cleared to compete with other women. She later won a silver medal at the 2012 Olympics. But

why was her case so difficult? Why did it take so long for the committee to affirm that, as she

and her father maintained all along, she’s a woman? Let’s consider some sociological

concepts of gender before returning to Caster Semenya.

We can start with a comment made by a student in one of our classes: “You are what

your birth certificate says you are.” In the student’s eyes, you’re either male or female, just as a

birth certificate indicates. End of story. But it’s not so simple. The certificate tells us a biological

fact. It tells us nothing about society. Sex refers to the different biological and physiological

Caster Semenya. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Gender and Sexuality (Fall 2021)

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characteristics of males and females, such as reproductive organs, chromosomes, and

hormones. Gender refers to the socially-constructed characteristics of women and men – such

as norms, roles, and relationships among and between groups of women and men.11

You may be familiar with the terms nature and nurture, with nature referring to

biological influences and nurture referring to social ones. Both are crucial to understanding sex

and gender, but the sociological perspective focuses on how the social world impacts our

gender development. In Biology 101, you may spend a lot of time talking about the role that

genes play in influencing our appearance or our behavior. But in sociology, we devote much

of our attention to how the social environment shapes every aspect of us – including its impact

on our genes and how they function.

Think of the phrase “boys will be boys.” The expression suggests that certain behaviors

are inevitable for boys. But it doesn’t account for how the traits we attribute to boys are

learned. Through socialization, we learn about gender from family, peers, teachers, coaches,

and other influential people in our lives. We also learn gender messages from media;

commercials, TV shows, movies, songs, video games, internet memes, and magazines all have

something to say about gender. Perhaps you saw the Gillette commercial calling for a positive

change in masculinity. Entitled “The Best Men Can Be,” it reminds us that ideas about gender

are always under examination and are subject to change.12

Consider the link between girls and the

color pink. We aren’t born with color

preferences, we learn them. Believe it or not, in

the early 1900s, pink was considered a boy’s

color and blue a girl’s color. It wasn’t until the

1940s that the colors became gender-coded

in the way we know them today.13 We now

take the color scheme for granted because it’s

in the fabric of society. Browse the toy aisles at

Target and Wal-Mart and you’ll see pink

products marketed toward girls. Pink is a

primary Victoria’s Secret color. You can buy a

pink air rifle at Cabela’s. Meanwhile, clothes, bikes, and toys for boys are awash in blue and

gray. People have choices in what they buy, of course, and many of us stray from the color

norms, but the notion of “boy colors” and “girl colors” remains entrenched in American


Let’s think about the Caster Semenya case again. Her situation reveals a lot about

social expectations regarding “what it means” to be a man or a woman: what you’re

supposed to look like, how you’re supposed to sound, how strong you are, how emotional you

are, what your interests are. These are gender norms, or social definitions of behavior assigned

“Gender reveal” cake. (Source)

Gender Revealing Party

Gender and Sexuality (Fall 2021)

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to particular sex categories. While gender norms can and do change through time, place,

and context, the thing they have in common is that they are socially-determined and socially-

enforced. Most of us are treated according to how we’re perceived. And these gender

perceptions are generally assumed to match our biological sex.

Table 1: Frequencies of Sex Variations, by Number of Births14


Not XX and not XY One in 1,666 births

Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome One in 13,000 births

Gonadal dysgenesis (abnormal growth or development) One in 150,000 births

Vaginal agenesis (lack of development) One in 6,000 births

Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia One in 13,000 births

Klinefelter Syndrome One in 1,000 births

Ovotestes One in 83,000 births

Idiopathic (no discernable medical cause) One in 110,000 births

But perceptions can be deceiving. The Intersex Society of North America notes, “If you

ask experts at medical centers how often a child is born so noticeably atypical in terms of

genitalia that a specialist in sex differentiation is called in, the number comes out to about 1 in

1500 to 1 in 2000 births.”15 And genitals are only one of many ways that we determine sex

differences. In Semenya’s case, though her test results weren’t revealed, there is speculation

that she had higher levels of testosterone, a hormone associated with muscular size and

strength, aggression, and other traits, than most women. She remains under scrutiny, and is

impacted by a 2019 ruling requiring female track athletes with naturally elevated levels of

testosterone to take hormone suppressants to compete in certain women’s races.16 Do you

know your testosterone level? Most people don’t, and so wouldn’t know if they have unusually

high or low levels. Below is a table of the frequency of variations in sexual development. To put

the stats in perspective, consider that Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is estimated to occur in 0.2 to

1.5 infants for every 1,000 live births in certain areas of the United States;17 about one in 3,500

babies is born with cystic fibrosis;18about one in 1,574 babies is born with a cleft palate without

a cleft lip;19 and Down Syndrome is estimated to occur in about one in every 700 births. The

point? Intersex conditions are relatively rare – but not as rare as we think they are.

For Caster Semenya, social assumptions had severe consequences – she was unable to

participate in her sport for nearly a year, and, due to the recent rule change, was banned

from defending her 800-meter title at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics unless she took testosterone-

Gender and Sexuality (Fall 2021)

Page 7

reducing drugs. Refusing to take such drugs, Semenya plans to focus on long-distance events

for the remainder of her career.20 But there are everyday expectations for all of us, even if our

identity matches what society assumes about us.

The social construction of gender

As Semenya’s example illustrates, what is considered gender-appropriate is determined

collectively. In the language of sociology, we say that these notions are socially constructed.

The social construction of gender refers to how meanings of gender are created through

social interaction and social norms. Teaching, learning, performing, and policing gender

behavior in light of expectations of appropriate conduct are also part of the ongoing process

of social construction. Giving a name to a baby is one way a sex category becomes a gender

status, and babies and children are then treated according to that gender status. When

children learn to talk, they refer to themselves by their gender. This is all part of the social

construction of gender.21

Here’s another example: have you ever heard someone speak and noticed that the

person raises his or her voice at the end of each sentence, making everything sound as if it

were a question? Linguists call this high-rising terminal; you may know it as “uptalk” or

“upspeak.” What about ending sentences with words spoken in a low, almost croaky tone?

That’s referred to as vocal fry. And if modern linguistic research is any indication, you probably

associate both vocal fry and uptalking with women, particularly young women.

These speech patterns have social consequences. People who use vocal fry are seen

as less trustworthy, less competent, and less educated than those who don’t, and their

prospects for landing a job can be affected by the way they talk.22 People who use both

vocal fry and uptalking are even more disadvantaged due to stereotypes about the kind of

people who use them.

This is an example of the social construction of gender, or the ways in which we create

gendered meaning through (in this case, literal) communication. Research shows that both

men and women use uptalk often, and there’s no evidence that women use vocal fry any

more than men do. 23 But these ways of speaking are associated with women. The social

construction of gender implies that these vocal techniques have gendered meaning

attached to them. Men talk like this; women talk like that. Whether this and that are actually

different in the overall population isn’t what matters; the important thing is that vocal fry and

uptalking are associated with women, affecting the way women and men who use these

techniques are perceived.

The example of speech patterns suggests that we shouldn’t think of gender as

something that we are (male or female). Instead, think of gender as something that we do,

every single day. We do gender in the way we talk, gesture, dress, and sit. Look at Instagram

and see if you observe men and women posing in different ways. Remember when the

Gender and Sexuality (Fall 2021)

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duckface selfie was popular? Girls and women used it more often. And maybe you notice

that a common pose for men in pictures is to cross their arms. As you go about your day, look

at how men and women take up space. You might see men with their legs extended from a

couch or chair, while women may sit in ways that make their bodies take up less space.24

Candace West and Don Zimmerman developed the idea that we do gender. They

suggested that we perform actions that produce gender; we do gender in interactions with

others, and we take into consideration what is believed to be appropriate for our gender.25

West and Zimmerman understood that we do gender knowing that we will be judged

by others; we are held accountable for our gender performances. A girl might be

reprimanded for not crossing her legs when wearing a dress. “That’s not ladylike,” a parent

might say. Men are encouraged by their peers to “man up” if they haven’t followed norms of

masculinity. A boy who shows interest in a Barbie might be told “Boys don’t play with dolls!”

We’re evaluated for our gender behavior. In her research at a high school, C.J. Pascoe found

that boys frequently called each other “faggot” as a way of policing each other’s

masculinity.26 If boys engaged in behavior that wasn’t regarded as masculine at this high

school – dancing, caring about clothing, being emotional – the insult was used against them.

Sociologists, then, don’t view gender as an innate, biologically-determined

characteristic. We focus on gender as socially and culturally influenced and subject to

change. Gender isn’t a fact, says Judith Butler, author of Gender Trouble. Gender is produced.

Think of it as an unspoken agreement to perform gender in socially acceptable ways, and our

performances are so believable that gender behavior appears to be natural. The way we act

sustains and reinforces the ideas we have created about gender.27 Stray too far outside the

lines and you risk being ostracized or ridiculed. We have words for those who perform gender

out of line with our expectations. Think of the dweeb, the wimp, the dork. Perhaps you picture

a skinny, awkward guy who isn’t cool, who dresses and walks in ways that make him stand out

and invite ridicule. We have more words for people who are thought to be doing masculinity

wrong: douchebag, dick, prick, pussy, asshole. These may be used as general insults, but often

they’re applied specifically to men as gender insults.

Gender and Sexuality (Fall 2021)

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A Google Image search for “masculine man.”

In contrast, a muscular, self-assured man may find himself being praised by others. But is

this always the case? Does a man have to look and act like Channing Tatum or Taye Diggs to

be considered masculine? Not always. A guy may find other types of masculinity that work for

him, such as the class clown who gets by on his comedic skills. Nerds aren’t normally

celebrated as models of masculinity, but it helps to invent something and become a

billionaire, like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Celebrities are more likely to stretch the

boundaries of gender, perhaps because they feel more freedom to express gender with less

fear of backlash. For example, the musician Young Thug wore a long ruffled dress for the cover

art of his album No, My Name Is Jeffery. He also modeled women’s clothing for a Calvin Klein

campaign, saying: “In my world, of course, it don’t matter, you know, you could be a gangster

with a dress or you could be a gangster with baggy pants. I feel like there’s no such thing as

gender.”28 While we disagree with his assertion there’s no such thing as gender, he certainly

resists gendered clothing norms. Another example is Jaden Smith, who frequently dresses in

ways that don’t conform with gender norms. Talking about his fashion choices, Smith said: “So,

you know, in five years when a kid goes to school wearing a skirt, he won’t get beat up and

kids won’t get mad at him.”29 These are examples of widening the ideas of what Black

masculinity is, says writer Mikelle Street.30

Widening the boundaries of gender is one way of challenging the gender binary, the

classification system that allows for only two separate gender categories. The gender binary is

just one of many gender systems, and there’s ample evidence that even within this strict

binary system, there has always been some room for change, growth, and flexibility. Gender

terms change over time to represent different ways of doing gender: girly-girl, tomboy, emo,

Gender and Sexuality (Fall 2021)

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metrosexual. Within show business, we have particularly seen and welcomed non-conforming

expressions of gender and sexuality. Artists like David Bowie wore makeup and dresses and

adopted an androgynous style, incorporating both feminine and masculine characteristics. In

1984, Prince’s song “I Would Die 4 U” proclaimed, “I’m not a woman; I’m not a man. I am

something that you’ll never understand.” In 1981, his “Controversy” lyrics asked, “Am I Black or

White? Am I straight or gay?” In a video released in 2021, Demi Lovato announced “Over the

past year and a half, I’ve been doing some healing and self-reflective work, and through this

work I’ve had the revelation that I identify as non-binary…I’ll officially be changing my

pronouns to they/them. I feel that this best represents the fluidity I feel in my gender expression

and allows me to feel most authentic and true to the person I both know I am and still am

discovering.”31 This reminds us of sociologist Cary Gabriel Costello’s observation that the extra

time and space to self-reflect during the COVID-19 pandemic may have accelerated

people’s timeline for coming out as transgender or non-binary.32 Can you think of other

examples of non-binary gender expression?

David Bowie. (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Let’s return to the student who asserted that gender is what your birth certificate says

you are. For this student, gender is fixed, and gender is binary; you are either a man or a

woman. The reality is that people experience gender in complex, nuanced ways. For

example, Mack Beggs is a transgender wrestler who won the Texas state high school girls’

wrestling championship in 2017 and 2018. Although he identifies as male and wanted to

wrestle boys, he competed against girls during his high school career because Texas law

requires students to wrestle based on the gender listed on birth certificates. He has endured

slurs and insults, including being called “fag” and “it.” When he was younger, Mack struggled

Gender and Sexuality (Fall 2021)

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with suicidal thoughts and engaged in self-harm. Reflecting back to when he was younger,

Mack says: “I was angry as in why I got made like this. Why do I have to feel this way? I

couldn’t figure out my identity.” His mother has been supportive: “I knew that something was

different when he was five he had asked why God gave him girl parts instead of boy parts,”

she explained in an interview.33 That Mack was legally required to wrestle opponents based on

his birth gender illustrates the power of the gender binary system. However, his desire to wrestle

opponents based on his identity (and his family’s acceptance of him) represents a shift away

from the gender binary. Mack went on to make the men’s wrestling team at Life University.34

Institutions and organizations are also acknowledging that not everyone fits into a strict

gender binary. Originally, Facebook had only two options for gender: male or female. In 2014,

it expanded the gender options to 58 different labels,35 including transgender and cisgender,

the broad classifiers “neither,” “other,” and “non-binary,” and many more specific ones (for

definitions of each, look at this explainer from The Daily Beast). By 2015, Facebook opened up

the list even more. The company’s diversity page states, “Now, if you do not identify with the

pre-populated list of gender identities, you are able to add your own. As before, you can add

up to ten gender terms and also have the ability to control the audience with whom you

would like to share your custom gender. We recognize that some people face challenges

sharing their true gender identity with others, and this setting gives people the ability to express

themselves in an authentic way.”36

Public opinion data provides a glimpse into beliefs about gender identity: 55% of

Americans believe there are only two genders, with men more likely than women to express a

belief that only two genders exist. Comfort level with transgender people is mixed; while a

majority of Americans say they’d be comfortable learning a close friend is transgender, slightly

less than half would be comfortable if their child revealed they were transgender. When asked

about their views of transgender rights, Americans report that their support has increased in

recent years. A majority of Americans say they favor allowing transgender people to be in the

U.S. military.37

With regard to gender, we are living in a time of change. But many of our elected

officials have made it clear they do not embrace this change. Florida governor Ron DeSantis

signed into law a ban on transgender athletes participating in women’s sports at high school

and college levels. “In Florida, girls are going to play girls sports and boys are going to play

boys sports,” DeSantis said. The law is similar to ones in Idaho, Arkansas, Mississippi and

Tennessee that restrict transgender girls and women from playing on teams that match their

gender identity.38 Such legislation reinforces the myth that trans people don’t know what’s

best for themselves and portrays them as a danger to others.39

Gender and Sexuality (Fall 2021)

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Intersectional perspectives on gender

When actress Patricia Arquette won the Best Actress Oscar in 2015, she used her time

on the podium and backstage to highlight the wage gap between men and women, even in

Hollywood. Arquette’s statements became controversial, however, because of the way she

talked about various marginalized groups in America. She said:

It’s time for women. Equal means equal. The truth is the older women get, the less

money they make. The highest percentage of children living in poverty are in female-headed

households. It’s inexcusable that we go around the world and we talk about equal rights for

women in other countries and we don’t…. It’s time for all the women in America, and all the

men that love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve all

fought for to fight for us now.40

Her comments seem like the type of earnest expression that would garner praise from

the audience, so why were they controversial? As feminist author Amanda Marcotte noted,

“gay people and all the people of color” are categories that also include women.

Arquette’s words suggested that all

women find themselves in the same

position. A different perspective, called

intersectionality, refers to the ways in which

different types of social relations are linked

together in complex ways, creating very

different experiences for different groups of

people. Developed by legal scholar

Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality argues

that gender, race, class, (dis)ability,

sexuality, geography, and other

characteristics intersect and interact to

shape individual experience.41 This means

gender can never be examined or

understood in a vacuum. We always have

other identities, interactions, and relations that affect who we are and how we experience the


When it comes to the intersection of race and masculinity, for example, certain ideas

and images are so common we don’t think twice about them. As Mark Anthony Neal says,

“The example I always use is if we see a Black man with a basketball, we don’t even have to

process that. We’ve seen it so many times in our lives, we know exactly what that means.” In

contrast, the sight of a Black man with a violin would give us pause and lead to questions:

How did he get the violin? Does he know how to play it? His point is that some images and

definitions of Black masculinity are easily defined, while others are not immediately grasped.42

Kimberlè Crenshaw developed the idea of intersectionality.

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Gender and Sexuality (Fall 2021)

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Consider Barack Obama’s relatively quick rise to become America’s first Black

president. To do so, he had to make America comfortable with the idea of a Black man being

president. Part of what made that possible, Neal argues, is that Obama represented an

exceptional Black man who stood in contrast to longstanding stereotypes of African-American

men as lazy and irresponsible. He describes Obama’s performance of masculinity as nearly

flawless. The only stronger performance of a Black man as commander-in-chief we might

imagine is Will Smith portraying an American president in a blockbuster movie.43

With an intersectional lens, we must consider the mistreatment and dangers that Black

men face in public space. In New York City’s Central Park, a White woman recently called the

police on Christian Cooper after saying to him “I’m going to tell them there’s an African

American man threatening my life” – which video footage clearly shows was not true. George

Floyd died after a White police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes. Ahmaud

Arbery was shot to death after being pursued by two White men while he was jogging.44

Sociologist Rashawn Ray offered this analysis in an interview about Arbery: “Blackness

becomes weaponized; a Black man doesn’t necessarily have to have a weapon on him, but

instead his physical body becomes perceived as a weapon that could do bodily harm onto

others. This is primarily linked to stereotypes that people have about Black men as being more

aggressive, having a higher propensity to commit crimes, or being emotionally unstable. You

put these together and it leads to Black men being threatened by others. And it leads to

others, like in the case of Ahmaud, enacting physical violence onto Black men when they’re

simply doing something like going for a jog.”45

President Obama with a staff member’s daughter in the White House. (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Gender and Sexuality (Fall 2021)

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Sociological research also shows how femininity intersects with ethnicity, religion, and

nationality. In “We Don’t Sleep Around Like White Girls Do,” sociologist Yen Le Espiritu examines

how immigrant families from the Philippines “claim through gender the power denied them by

racism.”46 Espiritu’s Filipino subjects rarely identified themselves as Americans because they

equated American-ness with Whiteness. Feeling marginalized and not fully American, they

noted differences in gender norms between cultures. They argued that Americans – especially

American women – lack sexual morality: “In America… sex is nothing.”47 The “ideal Filipina”

was constructed to be “everything American women were not: she is sexually modest and

dedicated to her family; they are sexually promiscuous and uncaring.”48 This created a lot of

restrictions on and expectations about young Filipina-American women, who struggled

between their parents’ ways and American ways. (Of course, restrictions on and expectations

for young women’s sexuality is not unique to Filipino families; research on the topic spans the

globe, through many generations.) These families held up these gender norms as a means to

regain the power they’d been denied because of their race. The young women were

expected to uphold the image of a “good Filipino girl.” In doing this, the young women

weren’t only keepers of the home; they were protectors of cultural authenticity. They were

expected to maintain gendered norms and ethnocultural ones (cultural influences of the

ethnic groups to which we belong).

Espiritu’s work is a great example of an intersectional lens on gender. To understand

people’s experiences, we can’t separate out gender relations and remove race or ethnicity

from the equation. We can’t eliminate the generational divide between immigrant parents

and their American-born children, or forget to account for geography, language, or time

period. All of these factors together intersect to create our everyday gendered reality. The

same is true for you, whatever your story.







6: Gender and Sexuality

6: Gender and Sexuality

Gender and Sexuality (Fall 2021)

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 What are examples of feminist principles? What is intersectional feminism?

 How is inequality entrenched in social institutions like the workplace?

 What progress has been made toward gender equality? What else can we do?


We’ve discussed how gender is a social construction that may change over time or

context. Because gender divides people into categories, people who fall into those

categories can experience the world differently, with tangible consequences for their lives

and life chances.

The most notable consequence is persistent gender inequality, where individuals or

groups are treated and perceived differently based upon their gender. Because of persistent

inequality in social, political, economic, and interpersonal status, feminism has a long history.

Feminism is usually used in the singular form, but it refers to a collection of movements that

advocate for equality for all sexes and genders. In the U.S., these movements stem from a

broad coalition of women who fought for the right to vote, receive an education, have

custody of their children, own property, get married and divorced when they wished, and

have the same career choices as men. Today there are multiple feminisms, and people of all

genders call themselves feminist.

The term also often comes with negative associations. In Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay

recalls an argument with a man she was dating in which he said to her, “Don’t raise your voice

to me,” before continuing by giving his opinion about how women should talk to men. This

confused Gay because she hadn’t raised her voice, nor had anyone said something like that

to her before. The man concluded by asking, “You’re some kind of feminist, aren’t you?”

Gender and Sexuality (Fall 2021)

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His “accusation” reflects the stereotypical idea that

feminists are simply angry women, rather than passionate

individuals or activists who are concerned with achieving

equality between all genders. Some fundamental feminist

principles are equal pay for equal work, reproductive

freedom, reducing all forms of harassment and violence

against women, and improving the treatment and status of

women throughout the world.

But these principles don’t encompass all of feminism.

Intersectional feminists like bell hooks remind us that we

can’t divorce gender from other social relations. In her

book Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, hooks is

critical of feminist ideas that became popular in the 1960s,

such as the work of Betty Friedan.49 Friedan spoke of “the

problem that has no name” in her 1963 book The Feminine

Mystique.50 The problem was being dissatisfied with the life of a stay-at-home wife. There was a

yearning for something more, a longing to have a career. But this feminism focused on White

women of the middle and upper classes. As hooks pointed out, it ignored poor White women

and women who weren’t White; these women often had to work to help support the family,

even if they would have loved the opportunity to stay home with their children. Middle-class

and upper-class women have more choices, advantages, and opportunities than do poor

White women and women of color. And the choices and opportunities for women of color are

constrained not only by sexism but also racism.

Feminists of color note that reproductive rights in the U.S. are usually discussed in terms

of being able to prevent pregnancy. However, the U.S. also has a long history of coerced and

forcing sterilization and contraception on Native American and African American women.51

Some women were sterilized without their knowledge

or consent while having other surgical procedures.

These forced sterilizations during other procedures or

for unnecessary reasons were so common that civil

rights legend Fannie Lou Hamer dubbed them

“Mississippi Appendectomies.”52

Another example of intersectional feminism is

LGBTQ feminists noting that the discourse on coming

out typically encourages people to openly

acknowledge their sexuality to spread awareness

and “refuse to hide.” But for some people, coming

out is not only difficult, but dangerous. Alan Pelaez

Intersectionality means that we should

understand people as more than one

thing-even conflicting things-at the

same time. (Source)

(Source: Wikimedia Commons),_California_LCCN2013633913.tif#/media/File:Rosie_the_Riveter_mural_on_an_abandoned_building_in_Sacramento,_California_LCCN2013633913.tif,_California_LCCN2013633913.tif#/media/File:Rosie_the_Riveter_mural_on_an_abandoned_building_in_Sacramento,_California_LCCN2013633913.tif

Gender and Sexuality (Fall 2021)

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Lopez explains that some undocumented LGBTQ people feel they can’t come out – being

undocumented is stressful enough on its own. Some LGBTQ folks live in areas where they don’t

have a community they can turn to when they feel alone. Others have families with religious or

cultural traditions that mean choosing between coming out and having a place to live and

food to eat.53 Intersectional feminism stresses the importance of taking all social relations into

consideration, so we don’t erase the full set of people’s experiences. An inclusive feminism

takes into account the needs of all women and their differences along lines of race,

nationality, social class, religion, gender expression, body type, and (dis)ability.54

Institutional inequality

Imagine you’re in a meeting at work. You make a suggestion, but no one really

responds. A few minutes later, Sam from accounting makes the same suggestion and your

boss says, “That’s a great idea. Good work, Sam.” You begin to wonder: Did the boss like

Sam’s suggestion because he phrased it better? Or because Sam is a man and you’re a

woman? Later in the meeting, someone notices the coffee pot is empty and asks you to refill

it. You wonder: Is your coworker asking you because you’re sitting close to the coffee? Or

does the person think it’s your job? At the end of the meeting, as you get up to leave, the boss

tells you that you’re doing a good job and rests his hand on your lower back as he tells the

room that he’s proud of you. Again, you wonder: Is he just being friendly? Would he make the

same kind of physical contact with Sam from accounting?

This description of a work meeting might sound far-fetched, but sociologists have

documented extensive work-based gender inequality. For women in corporate environments,

it’s not uncommon to have their authority questioned, be interrupted in meetings, face

expectations that they be nice and never complain, and experience unwanted sexual


An article on gender in the technology industry, “Why Is Silicon Valley So Awful to

Women?”, described women who had dealt with all of these issues.55 Regarding the

expectation to be nice and not complain, software engineer Tracy Chou’s experience was

that men who worked as engineers were not held to the same standard; excuses were made

for male engineers who were difficult co-workers. The tech industry is male-dominated, and

gender norms have been slow to change. “I am angry that things are no better for a 22-year-

old at the beginning of her career than they were for me 25 years ago when I was just starting

out,” says Bethanye Blount, one of the women mentioned in the article.

Results from a survey of 210 women in the technology industry (specifically Silicon

Valley) indicate that the experiences of the women in the article aren’t uncommon:56

 47% reported being asked to do lower-level tasks that male colleagues were not asked

to do, such as taking notes and ordering food;

 87% experienced demeaning comments from male colleagues;

Gender and Sexuality (Fall 2021)

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 66% felt excluded from networking opportunities because of their gender;

 60% reported unwanted sexual advances (many coming from a superior).

With experiences like this, it’s not surprising that women leave the tech industry at more

than twice the rate men do. Women hold approximately 25% of computing and

mathematical jobs in the U.S., and the percentage of computer and information science

majors who are women is lower now (18%) than at its peak in 1984 (37%).57

Another workplace environment where women encounter inequality is the restaurant

industry. Sexual harassment from owners, coworkers, and customers is a common experience

for women workers, including sexualized jokes, unwanted touching, and comments on their

appearance. In their research, Deborah Harris and Patti Giuffre found that a culture of

harassment is a barrier to women’s success in the culinary industry. They point out that there

isn’t always a process in place for restaurant workers to report harassment; some restaurants

don’t even have a Human Resources department. Moreover, women are often pressured to

not report harassment. As Harris and Giuffre point out: “Such conditions make it difficult to

prove when someone has a history of harassment and misbehavior. Women then have to rely

on informal networks to learn if a workplace is safe. This can be especially difficult for less

advantaged women, such as interns new to the industry or undocumented workers who make

up a large portion of the lower ranks of the restaurant industry. These women may feel they

have little recourse from harassment.”58

Women are not only treated differently than men, they’re also paid less. For full-time

and part-time workers in the U.S., women earned 84% as much as men in 2020.59 This disparity

in pay is amplified when we consider race and ethnicity as well. White men have higher hourly

wages than women of all races, but the highest earners of all groups are Asian-American men.

The wage gap has narrowed significantly in recent decades, but some groups of women

The tech industry is male-dominated, which can present challenges

for women. (Source)

wocintech (microsoft) - 229

Gender and Sexuality (Fall 2021)

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have made much more progress than others. For example, White women earned 60 cents for

every dollar earned by White men in 1980; it’s now 82 cents. In comparison, Black women

earned 56 cents for every dollar earned by White men in 1980; this has only increased to 65


Figure 1: Ratio of Women’s to Men’s Earnings, 1980-2009

(Source: Wikipedia Commons)

One reason for this wage gap is that many jobs in the U.S. economy are low-paying

and more likely to be held by women. The low-wage jobs that women mostly do – food

preparation, restaurant servers, cosmetology, cleaning, housekeeping, teaching assistants,

child care, elderly care, home care aides, office work, cashiers – are projected to increase.

Women of color are heavily represented in these low-wage jobs.

There are fewer low-wage jobs “for men,” and they pay more. Examples include carpet

installers, construction laborers, drywall installers, janitors, painters, roofers, stock clerks, taxi

drivers, butchers, head cooks, equipment cleaners, maintenance workers, and security


As Jessica Schieder and Elise Gould point out, the sorting of men and women into

different occupations is partly shaped by discrimination and social norms. Ideas and

expectations about what constitutes “men’s work” and “women’s work” impact our choices to

pursue particular careers. Family members, peers, and mentors encourage or discourage our

job interests. And when women enter a profession in greater numbers, the pay in that field

tends to decline; when greater numbers of men enter a profession, wages go up. For,_1980-2009.001.png#/media/File:US_Gender_pay_gap,_1980-2009.001.png

Gender and Sexuality (Fall 2021)

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example, computer programming, a set of jobs initially held primarily by women, became

more lucrative as it became more male-dominated.62

During the COVID-19 pandemic, women have been more likely than men to leave the

labor force. A key reason is that women took on additional childcare responsibilities due to

schools and daycare facilities closing or moving to remote instruction. Another important

factor is that women are more likely to have the types of jobs affected by closures caused by

COVID-19 health measures (personal care services and food preparation, for example, which

generally could not be performed remotely), making women more likely to experience

unemployment. Occupations that have been less impacted by layoffs during the pandemic

are more likely to be held by men (engineering and management, for example).63

Sociologists’ work shows us that inequalities are more complicated than we often

assume. Take the motherhood penalty, the systematic disadvantages in wages, benefits, and

other career factors that are associated with motherhood. Studies of mothers who work show

that the costs of raising a child are disproportionately felt by women.64 Michelle Budig and

Paula England showed that the wage penalty increases with the number of children, with a

7% wage penalty per child.65 Further, Shelley J. Correll, Stephen Benard, and In Paik’s work

shows that not only were mothers perceived as less competent at their jobs, but fathers were

sometimes seen as more competent. Fathers’ paychecks sometimes even increased from

being a parent. This benefit in wages and perceived competence is called the fatherhood

bonus. Look back at Figure 2: there isn’t a single state where mothers, on average, make as

much as fathers.66

Class interacts with the motherhood penalty and fatherhood bonus. The bias is

strongest at the extremes. High-income men enjoy the biggest wage bump, while poor

women suffer the biggest penalty. In other words, as Michelle Budig puts it, “[f]amilies with

lower resources are bearing more of the economic costs of raising kids.”67

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Figure 2: Mothers’ Earnings Compared to Fathers’ Earnings, by State

Race matters, too. Rebecca Glauber’s research suggests that for married White and

Latino men, having a child is associated with increased wages. But married Black men get a

smaller fatherhood bonus, on average, than White and Latino men do.68 Glauber also found

no motherhood wage penalty for Hispanic women, and a wage penalty for Black women

only after they have at least two children. However, all White mothers experienced a wage

penalty. One reason for these racial differences might be that motherhood and work haven’t

historically been separate in Black and Hispanic families, which might increase overall

motivation to work. Glauber also suggests that there might be a “floor” to the motherhood

Gender and Sexuality (Fall 2021)

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wage penalty. That is, African-American and Hispanic/Latino women already earn less than

White women; there may not be much room for their wages to fall even more.69 Overall,

Glauber’s work indicates that race and gender intersect with workplace experiences to

create and support gendered inequalities.

There are indicators of American women’s progress. For instance, women are more

likely to enroll in college than men are.70 Women now graduate from college at higher rates

than men and are more likely to attend graduate school.71 But despite this progress, gender

inequality persists in our institutions, and perhaps nowhere is this clearer than in politics.

On June 7, 2008, Hillary Rodham Clinton gave a speech after ending her campaign for

the Democratic presidential nomination. She endorsed her competitor, then-Senator Barack

Obama. The theme of equality was a key component of her speech. The most memorable

part involved her vision of the future:

As we gather here today in this historic, magnificent building, the 50th woman to leave

this Earth is orbiting overhead. If we can blast 50 women into space, we will someday launch a

woman into the White House. Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass

ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it…and the light is shining

through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will

be a little easier next time.72

The glass ceiling is a metaphor to describe barriers that women face in the workplace

that prevent them from reaching higher positions. The phrase reportedly originated in 1979

from a conversation between two women who worked for Hewlett-Packard. One of those

women, Katherine Lawrence, recalled a presentation she gave that year about corporate

culture: “I presented the concept of how in corporate America, the official policy is one way—

the sky’s the limit—but in actuality, the sky had a glass ceiling for women.”73

The term became popular after it was used in a 1986 special report in the Wall Street

Journal that focused on obstacles women encountered in corporate America.74 The report

mentioned several problems: being excluded from an important meeting or informal

networking session that takes place between men on a golf course, not being offered an

executive position even after a series of promotions, blatant stereotypes about women being

unfit for management, and assumptions that women would prioritize family over career.

Clinton came close again to breaking through the glass ceiling when most polls

indicated she was going to beat Donald Trump in the 2016 election to become the first female

president of the United States. Love him or hate him, consider this: Trump won the presidency

despite it coming to light that he said that fame enabled him to treat women any way he

wanted. In 2005, when he was nearly 60 years old, he was recorded saying: “You know I’m

automatically attracted to beautiful…I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. I just kiss. I don’t

even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything… Grab them by

Gender and Sexuality (Fall 2021)

Page 23

the pussy. You can do anything.” Trump released a statement describing his words as locker-

room banter, saying “I apologize if anyone was offended.”75

Put all of your powers of imagination to use for a moment to consider how the

American public would have reacted had Hillary Clinton been recording saying “You know

I’m automatically attracted to handsome…I just

start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. I just kiss. I

don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let

you do it. You can do anything… Grab them by

the dick. You can do anything.” We write this not

for shock value, but rather to seriously

contemplate how voters would react to a

woman saying this. This thought exercise reveals

just how salient gender relations are in our

political system.

Raw statistics reinforce the point. At the

state level, just 44 women have served as

governors in the United States. In 2011, Nikki

Haley and Susana Martinez became the first women of color to serve as governors, in South

Carolina and New Mexico, respectively.76 There hasn’t yet been an African American woman


A strong presence on the Supreme Court is an indicator of impressive progress for

women in America. Three of the 9 current Supreme Court justices are women: Sonia

Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Amy Coney Barrett. Sotomayor is the first Latina to serve on the

Supreme Court. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the first Jewish woman – and only the second

woman ever – to be appointed to the Supreme Court, in 1993. She served as a justice until her

death in 2020. Yet even on the most prestigious court in the nation, women are treated

differently. A recent examination of transcripts of oral arguments before the Court showed

that male justices interrupt the female justices nearly three times as often as they interrupt

other male judges.77 During the process of being confirmed for a seat on the Supreme Court in

2020, Barrett was asked by Senator John Cornyn “How do you and your husband manage two

full-time professional careers and, at the same time, take care of your large family?” Senator

Dianne Feinstein asked Barrett if she had a “magic formula” for handling her parenting and

career. Such questions highlighted her family life and offered praise for balancing family and

career, even though these are not direct qualifications for the job of being a Supreme Court

justice. Moreover, these are not the kinds of questions typically asked of men.78

Kamala Harris made history in the 2020 election by becoming the first woman Vice

President of the United States. As Rebecca Traister observes, Harris is a historical anomaly,

given that she is a Black woman, of Indian descent, and in 2017 was only the second Black

Former South Carolina governor and UN

Ambassador Nikki Haley. (Source: Wikipedia


Gender and Sexuality (Fall 2021)

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woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate (the first being Carol Moseley Braun in 1993). As Traister

notes, voters passed over the six women who ran for president–Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten

Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, Tulsi Gabbard, and Marianne Williamson. Harris then was presented

to voters as Joe Biden’s right-hand woman.79

Social inequalities also affect our bodies. Take the example of life expectancy: there

are well-documented differences by gender and race. First, women overall live longer than

men. And second, Whites live longer than Blacks or Latinos.80

Think about Figure 3. On many measures, women in the U.S. and elsewhere experience

social inequalities. Women have higher rates of chronic disease, as well as higher rates of

depression and anxiety.81 And they’re more likely to be victims of violence.82 Women also

generally earn less than men. So if women are systematically socially disadvantaged in

multiple ways, why do they live longer than men? This is simplifying things a bit; if you look at

the graph, you can see that Hispanic men have a longer life expectancy than Black women.

But in general, women live longer than men. Why?

Figure 3: Life Expectancy at Birth, by Hispanic Origin, Race, and Sex, 2006–201283

(Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Vital Statistics Reports)

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), there may be multiple reasons. First,

there could be sex-based biological reasons. For example, women’s higher levels of estrogen

may protect them against high cholesterol; men’s higher rates of testosterone may leave

Gender and Sexuality (Fall 2021)

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them vulnerable to cholesterol-related disease.84 But WEF also notes that women tend to be

more “health-aware”; that is, women are, on average, more in tune with physical and mental

symptoms and may be more able to communicate their issues with healthcare providers.

Women are also more likely to go to the doctor when something is wrong.85 Men may feel

pressure to act in “masculine” ways, which might mean holding in problems and not reaching

out for help, trying to “tough it out.” It’s perhaps partly due to these reasons that men are also

more likely to die by suicide.86 As with all things human, gender inequality is complex and


Gender inequality, though, isn’t the result of physiology, anatomy, or hormones. It is

produced, maintained, and embedded in our institutions.87 If nature caused gender

inequality, then that inequality would be the same at all times and in all places. But it isn’t. We

don’t all experience gender the same way. This is cause for hope. If we build inequality, we

can dismantle it, too.

Gender and violence

In July 2017, author and

transgender rights activist Janet

Mock appeared on The Breakfast

Club, a syndicated radio show that

calls itself “the world’s most

dangerous morning show.”88 Mock,

a transgender woman, went on the

show to talk about her new book.

The conversation on the show,

which also featured comedian Lil

Duval and radio personality

Charlamagne Tha God, reveals something troubling about gender and violence:

[host] DJ Envy poses a hypothetical question to his guest about dating and sleeping

with a woman who discloses that she’s trans after four months of courtship.

“This might sound messed up and I don’t care,” Duval says. “She dying. I can’t deal

with that.”

“That’s a hate crime,” Charlamagne says. “You can’t do that.”

“You manipulated me to believe in this thing,” Duval says, before continuing, “If one

did that to me, and they didn’t tell me, I’mma be so mad I’m probably going to want

to kill them.”89

This conversation exists within a context in which violence and assault are

disproportionately experienced by transgender people. In a national study of 1,876 students in

grades K-12 who identify as transgender or gender non-conforming, respondents reported

Janet Mock. (Source)

Janet Mock Book Reading Washington DC 37910

Gender and Sexuality (Fall 2021)

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high rates of harassment (78%), physical assault (35%), and sexual assault (12%). The

harassment and violence experienced by these K-12 students comes not only from other

students but also teachers and staff.90 In fact, the Bureau of Justice Statistics Office for Victims

of Crime reports that one-half to two-thirds of trans people are sexually abused or assaulted at

some point in their lives.91 According to the Human Rights Campaign, “…it is clear that fatal

violence disproportionately affects transgender women of color, and that the intersections of

racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia conspire to deprive them of employment,

housing, healthcare, and other necessities, barriers that make them vulnerable.”92 Sadly, the

HRC reports that “advocates tracked at least 27 deaths of transgender or gender non-

conforming people in the U.S. due to fatal violence, the majority of whom were Black

transgender women.” 93 HRC notes that this high rate of violence reflects anti-transgender bias

as well as the social circumstances faced by a higher number of transgender people than the

general population, including poverty, homelessness, and being forced into sex work.

The statistics on gender and violence are eye-opening and disturbing. As reported by

the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 1 in 5 women in the

United States experiences rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. Among women who report

experiencing a rape, 40% were first victimized before age 18, with more than 28% indicating

they were first raped between the ages of 11 and 17. Other forms of sexual violence also

occur at high rates; 12.5% of women have experienced sexual coercion (verbal, non-physical

pressure that results in unwanted penetration), 27.3% have experienced unwanted sexual

contact (such as fondling), and 32.1% have experienced unwanted sexual experiences that

didn’t involve physical contact (for example, verbal harassment). 94

(Source: CDC data)

Young women grow up hearing advice about staying safe from sexual violence. We

are told to carry pepper spray in our purses, not to walk alone at night, and to carefully watch

Gender and Sexuality (Fall 2021)

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our drinks at parties to make sure they aren’t tampered with. Advice like this assumes that

people are at highest risk of being victimized by a stranger, but in fact it is estimated that 80%

of such crimes fall under the category of acquaintance rape, a rape or sexual assault that

occurs between people who already know each other.95 Survivors of sexual violence,

especially those who know their assailants, are often hesitant to speak out about their

experience; only about 34% of all rapes or sexual assaults are ever reported to the police.96

Some survivors don’t speak out because they worry about retaliation; others struggle

with feelings of guilt, shame, or the fear that they will not be believed. Unfortunately, those

who do disclose may become targets of victim-blaming, when survivors are viewed as

responsible for their own assaults. The tendency to blame survivors is one example of what

sociologists refer to as a rape myth. Rape myths are stereotyped or false beliefs about sexual

violence that may excuse or naturalize the perpetrator’s behavior (for example, arguing that

a man who is sexually aroused might “not be able to control himself”) while shifting

responsibility to the victim (“what did she think would happen if she dressed like that?” or “they

shouldn’t have drunk so much”).

Although rape and sexual assault are often framed as “women’s issues,” both

cisgender and transgender men also experience sexual violence. About 2.6% of men report

experiencing rape or attempted rape in their lifetimes, and 17.9% report experiencing some

kind of unwanted sexual contact.97 Because one common rape myth assumes that men

“must” always want sex or sexual attention, male survivors of sexual assault may worry that

they won’t be believed if they disclose their experience. “Becoming a victim” is also

incompatible with the gendered expectations our society places on boys and men, who are

often taught that being masculine means being strong, dominant, and in control.

Our homes, families, and intimate relationships should be a place of safety and support

for us, but unfortunately this is not always the case. Intimate partner violence (IPV) (also

sometimes referred to as domestic violence) is usually defined as abuse occurring between

current or former spouses, someone they are dating, or romantic partners. According to the

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 36% of American women reported

experiencing “sexual violence (such as rape, attempted rape or sexual coercion), physical

violence, or stalking” at the hands of an intimate partner at least once in their lives. Men

reported only a slightly lower rate of such victimization (33.6%), though the experience of

“severe physical violence” (such as being punched, choked or attacked with a weapon) still

seems to be more common for women (21.4%) than men (14.9%).98

One common question that students often have about IPV and family violence is “why

doesn’t the victim just leave?” The reasons are varied, but one factor is that such relationships

often involve elements of power and coercion that go beyond the types of violence already

addressed. For example, some abusers will use proxy violence, harming or threatening to

harm someone else, like a child, other loved one, or even a pet, if the victim tries to leave. In

Gender and Sexuality (Fall 2021)

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fact, threats to harm household pets are so common, some domestic violence shelters now

allow victims to bring them along. Reproductive coercion involves forcing parenthood on an

unwilling partner through means ranging from violence to contraceptive sabotage (for

example, by tampering with birth control to make it less effective); the resulting parenthood

can increase the victim’s dependence on the abuser. Finally, abusers may consolidate power

through tactics like financial abuse—preventing the victim

from working or restricting their access to money they’ve

earned. Such tactics can be found in other kinds of coercive,

controlling relationships as well. In 2021, global media reported

on allegations made by pop star Britney Spears that her father

had abused his position as her legal conservator. A

conservatorship may be granted by a court when an

individual is deemed unable to make their own decisions due

to an issue like mental illness or dementia (in Spears’s case, her

father’s conservatorship dates from two temporary psychiatric

hospitalizations in 2008). Spears, now 38, has petitioned the

court to remove her father from this position, testifying that he

has used it to gain control of her finances, coerce her to

perform, restrict who she dated, and even to force her to stay

on contraceptives against her will.

Gender is also a key factor in school shootings. When you hear the phrase “school

shooting,” what comes to mind? Maybe you think of December 14, 2012, the day 20-year-old

Adam Lanza shot and killed twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School

before shooting himself. Or maybe you’re reminded of April 16, 2007, the date of one of the

deadliest mass shootings in modern U.S. history;99 23-year old Seung-Hui Cho walked onto the

Virginia Tech campus and opened fire, killing 32 people and injuring 17 before killing himself.

You might even think back to April 20, 1999, when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold stormed into

Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, killing twelve students and a teacher. Then they,

too, killed themselves.

Sociologist Katherine Newman argues that gender plays a significant role in these

shootings. Her data show that a complex mix of social factors, such as rigid social

enforcement of masculine stereotypes and being rejected and ridiculed by peers and desired

romantic partners, contribute to boys’ feelings of emasculation. These shooters lash out in

anger and humiliation through violence, which they use to reframe themselves as powerful

and masculine.100 School shootings are overwhelmingly a male phenomenon. In fact, there

are so few cases of female mass shooters that they haven’t even been studied.101 But what

does that mean for our understandings of why violence occurs?

Britney Spears (Source)

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Feminist sociology of deviance is a diverse area, but scholars share the perspective that

traditional understandings of crime and violence are androcentric—they focus mainly on the

experiences of men. As sociologist Sally Simpson explains, the field “…is shaped by male

experiences and understandings of the social world. Such studied realities form the core of

‘general’ theories of crime/deviance without taking female experience, as crime participant

or victim, into account.”102 So feminist work on crime and violence attempts to include


For example, Meda Chesney-Lind’s work focuses on the experiences of young women.

She argues that juvenile justice systems can criminalize the survival behaviors of young

women.103 Girls are more likely than boys to suffer child sexual abuse. Chesney-Lind shows that

some of the delinquent behavior common to young girls is survival behavior associated with

sexual abuse trauma, like “running away from home, difficulties in school, truancy… early

marriage,” and promiscuity.104 Ultimately, Chesney-Lind argues that a feminist perspective on

deviance provides a fuller explanation of the causes and context of delinquency.105

Did you know that one of the first modern-day school shooters was a teenage girl? On

January 29, 1979, 16-year old Brenda Spencer went to Grover Cleveland Elementary School

near her San Diego home armed with a .22 rifle and shot across the street, killing the principal

and the custodian. Spencer also wounded eight children and a police officer. When the

police asked Spencer why she did it, she replied, “I don’t like Mondays.”106 In 2014, school

administrators at Radnor High School in Wayne, Pennsylvania, found a notebook from a 17-

year-old girl. She wrote that she wanted to be the first female “mass” shooter. From her

notebook: “But imagine the power…The bullets leaving the gun with a loud bang, piercing

kids around me, the way they collapse, their blood splattering the floor…the screams.”107 And

in March 2017, 18-year-old Nicole Cevario was pulled out of her high school class by her

father. He was worried about her strange behavior and read her diary. In it, she revealed plans

to bomb her school and shoot teachers and students. Cevario wrote about her admiration for

the Columbine and Sandy Hook shootings.108 When the police investigated, they found that

Cevario had a stockpile of bomb-making materials and a gun.109 Her father called the school

in the nick of time; she was pulled out of class on March 23rd, and had planned the attack for

April 5th.

The prevailing stereotype is that school shooters are men – especially White men. But

young women are also capable of planning and carrying out violence. Yet when female

shooters commit violence, often these women and girls aren’t recognized as school

shooters.110 Since our collective ideas about school shooters overlook those who aren’t White

males, our models of prevention and detection might not be as good as they could be; we risk

missing important red flags for women-led mass violence.111 And that has the potential to be


Gender and Sexuality (Fall 2021)

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We also see gender differences in how we understand violence perpetrated on

women. Often, these differences are intersectional as well. Take the example of Breonna

Taylor, who was killed in her home by police officers after they burst into her apartment as she

slept in the spring of 2020. Andrea Ritchie, a police misconduct attorney, was shocked that

Taylor’s name wasn’t voiced along with George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, and

others at the protests demanding justice for Black people killed by police that began in early

summer. In her work, Ritchie argues that a lot of our understanding and discourse of the victims

of police brutality center around Black (mostly cisgender and heterosexual) men. Ritchie

argues that Black women and LGBTQ people have often faced multiple forms of

discrimination with less representation in the national conversation. Ritchie’s work

contextualizes cases of women who have suffered police violence and mass incarceration,

such as Taylor, Sandra Bland, Rekia Boyd, Dajerria Becton, Monica Jones, Mya Hall, Eleanor

Bumpurs, and Kayla Moore.112 She tells the New York Times, “We’re not trying to compete with

Floyd’s story, we’re trying to complete the story.”113

Black women have also been at the forefront of violence prevention: the Black Lives

Matter movement was begun by three Black women, Opal Tometi, Patrisse Cullors, and Alicia

Garza. Since its creation in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, the

campaign has grown into a national entity, with chapters across the United States;

additionally, the phrase and hashtag #BlackLivesMatter has become the rallying cry of racial

justice used by people across races and backgrounds. It remains important to consider and

reconsider the ways in which gender intersects with race, class, sexuality, dis/ability,

geography, and more, to affect people’s experiences as victims, witnesses, and agents of








6: Gender and Sexuality

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 How is sexuality a social construction?

 Do our experiences of race, gender, and other social relations affect how we experience

and understand sexuality?

 How do we socially regulate sexual expression?

The creation of sexuality

“I was born this way.” This is the refrain of Lady Gaga’s hugely popular 2011 hit, which

asserted that the performer’s sexuality was with her from birth. Americans sang along, but did

we agree with her?

For the past 40 years, the Gallup polling organization has asked Americans whether gay

and lesbian people are “born that way” or whether their sexual preferences are due to factors

such as their upbringing and environment. When Gallup first collected data on this question in

1977, 13% of Americans selected “born with it” and 56% selected “upbringing/environment”

(the rest answered “both,” “neither,” or “no opinion”). In 2018, 50% of Americans thought gay

and lesbians were born that way, while 30% selected “upbringing/environment.” Only 10%

answered “both.”114

The data are clear—more and more Americans agree

with Lady Gaga. But are they right? Increasingly, scholars

have noted issues with the “nature over nurture” idea of

sexual orientation. For example, the problem with the “born

this way” idea, according to sociologist Shamus Khan, is that it

overstates the significance of biology.115 Khan doesn’t claim

that biology has no influence on sexual behavior, but argues

that it’s impossible to understand our sexuality without paying

more attention to our culture. The 10% of Americans who

answered “both” to the Gallup poll probably got it right:

sexuality is influenced by both biology and environment.

Let’s redirect our focus to ponder other questions

about sexuality: What kinds of sexual behaviors are

appropriate? Who is an acceptable sexual partner, and at

what age? Is there a “right” age to have sex for the first time?

The answers to these kinds of questions are shaped by society.

“Appropriate” sexual behavior varies historically and culturally. Khan gives the example

of pederasty, in which adult men form sexual relationships with boys; it was practiced in

Lady Gaga. (Source: Wikimedia


Gender and Sexuality (Fall 2021)

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ancient Greece. This seems shocking in our society today, but sexual behaviors and

expressions, like gender, change over time and are not the same across cultures. Our

understanding of sex, sexuality, and gender has always been in a state of evolution, and will

continue to change.

Like gender, sociologists think of sexuality as a social construction. Rather than seeing

sexuality as “natural,” Ruth Hubbard encourages us to understand it as something we’re

taught to express in socially acceptable ways.116 Parents may teach their children that sex is

about becoming mothers and fathers, or they might teach their kids about “responsible”

sexual conduct. But what does being sexually responsible actually mean? We may learn that

we should avoid sexually transmitted infections, or shouldn’t get pregnant “too young.” But

who – or what – determines “too young?” These ideas can be driven by religion, tradition,

scientific and technological advancements, local culture, or practical health concerns.

Consider the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has affected sexual behavior. During a

pandemic with stay-at-home orders and mandated social distancing, some activities may be

deemed too risky for strangers and acquaintances to engage in together. On the other hand,

for people already living together, sexual activity may (or may not) be increasing. Data are still

being collected, but one thing is for sure: our society guides (and often limits) our ideas about

sexual behavior.

During adolescence, we’re introduced to different ideas about sex from our peers.

Popular culture soaks us with images about sex and reinforces notions of what being sexy

supposedly means. People who consume pornography are presented with a set of ideas

about what sexual activity looks like. All of this information constructs our beliefs about what it

means to be a sexual person in our society.

Together we construct the meaning of labels such as “gay,” “lesbian,” “homosexual,”

“heterosexual,” “bisexual,” and “pansexual,” and create distinctions between sexually

acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. Heterosexuality itself was invented, as there was a

time that men and women weren’t thought to be sexual beings, or heterosexuals. In the first

half of the 1800s, sexual activity between men and women was supposed to serve the

purpose of creating children; sex was for reproduction, not pleasure. This period was

characterized by a production economy, focused on manufacturing and otherwise

producing items to sell. In this economy, the body was viewed as an instrument of work, and

sex was a means for reproduction. Erotic desire and a “healthy” interest in sex didn’t exist as

we know them today. As Jonathan Ned Katz explains, ideas of men and women as erotic

beings emerged in the second half of the 1800s, as the economy shifted to one based on

consumption of goods and services.117 The body began to be seen differently. By the late 19th

century, medical professionals believed men and women naturally had a healthy libido

(sexual desire) and sexual pleasure was considered normal, even necessary. A shift away from

believing sex was primarily for reproduction and toward viewing sex as pleasurable mirrored

Gender and Sexuality (Fall 2021)

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the economic shift from a production-based economy to a consumer-based economy. In a

consumer society, pleasure is valued. We seek pleasure from what we buy. This value extends

to our bodies; we see our bodies as avenues to experience pleasure.

As Hanne Blank explains, there’s “a

difference between simply being and being

known.” In other words, acknowledgement

and written documentation from authority

figures changes something from simply existing

into something that is socially understood to be

“a real thing.”118 The word “heterosexual” first

appeared in the United States in an 1892

medical article by Dr. James G. Kiernan. But his

conception of “heterosexual” was different

from how we think of it today. Kiernan, who still

viewed procreation as the proper purpose of

sex, regarded heterosexuals as perverted

because they weren’t exclusively having sex in

order to get pregnant. He deemed their sexual desires to be abnormal because of their

interest in sexual pleasure.119 Kiernan’s article was also one of the earliest to use the word

“homosexual,” a group he also believed were deviant. Whereas heterosexuals were deviant

because they didn’t always have sex for the purpose of reproduction, Kiernan considered

homosexuals deviant because their sexual desire diverged from gender norms.

In the first section of the chapter, we explained how individuals “do gender” in

everyday life. Just as gender can be seen as a routine, daily set of activities, so can our sexual

identity. For instance, we may act in ways to deliberately project our sexual identity and let

others know we are heterosexual or homosexual. Think back to the example of Donald Trump

boasting about doing whatever he wants to women. It’s impossible to know why a prominent

individual would make that statement, but one interpretation is that bragging to another man

about his behavior with women reinforced his identity as a heterosexual man.

In some cases, people deliberately distance themselves from homosexuality to cement

their heterosexual status.120 Perhaps you’ve used the phrase “no homo” or heard someone

else say it. One use of this expression is as a follow-up to a compliment that one man gives to

another. After saying something nice about what a friend is wearing, a man might

immediately say “no homo” to make it clear that he has no homosexual feelings. The phrase

serves the dual purpose of projecting heterosexuality while designating homosexuality as a

second-class status. It’s an everyday example of doing sexuality.

Olivia Chow, a former Toronto mayoral candidate, at a

Pride Parade. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Gender and Sexuality (Fall 2021)

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Intersectional sexualities

Sara “Saartjie” Baartman was one of the most famous women of the 1800s. A member

of the Khoikhoi (an indigenous group from southwestern Africa), and sold into slavery by

Europeans as a teenager, Baartman was taken to Europe from her home in Capetown, South

Africa, to be part of the “human freak show circuit” in England. Her body was displayed

mainly for White Europeans of the time, who saw her as exotic and inferior.121 Half-naked and

displayed in a cage that was only five feet tall, Baartman was subjected to “the gaze and

prodding of strangers” and was used by her captors and the public to hold up stereotypes of

the inferiority and hypersexuality (extreme in sexual appearance or desire) of Africans.122 She

was labeled as hypersexual and “exotic” and objectified to such a degree that her genitalia

and buttocks were preserved and kept on display in Paris after she died in 1816. They

remained on display for more than 150 years; her body was only returned to South Africa for a

proper burial in 2002. Baartman may be gone, but the lore surrounding her life became a

leading stereotype of Black female sexuality and an enduring example of colonialism, in

which one country politically and economically controls the people and resources of another

geographic area.

Notions of sexuality rooted in culture have political consequences that continue for

generations. One example is the way that Black sexualities, often like the kind used to exploit

Sara Baartman, have been used to justify racism. The Jezebel caricature portrayed Black

women as highly sexual and “lusty.”123 Similarly, the Brute caricature portrayed Black men as

savage sexual predators.124 These sexualized caricatures were used to justify slavery and later

the Jim Crow system of discrimination, which legally enforced segregation between Blacks

and Whites in the southern U.S. Since Black women were convincingly portrayed as over-

sexualized and tempting, their continued rape by slave owners could be justified.125 Once

Black men were convincingly portrayed as dangerous predators, then lynching or murdering

Black men for even looking at a White

woman could be justified.126 Scholars like

bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins stress

that these extremely sexualized images

still exist, though in softer or subtler forms.

Modern images, instead of being

mobilized to justify colonialism, are used

to justify capitalism: we use racialized

bodies to sell stuff. 127

We see racialized sexual

stereotypes of all sorts. Take this beer ad,

for example, which plays on the idea of

Latinas as “hot.” A recent study shows


Gender and Sexuality (Fall 2021)

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that the predominant image of Latinas in American media is highly sexualized, or “hot,”128

while Latino men are overwhelmingly portrayed as dominant and “macho.”129 Since Latinos

are the most underrepresented group in American film, even a single portrayal can make a

big impact.130

Or take the example below of a commercial for Mountain Dew. In the commercial, a

goat assaults a waitress when they run out of Mountain Dew. Later, the White waitress is asked

to pick her assailant in a police lineup. All of the suspects are Black men.


These images and stereotypes help rationalize and reproduce social inequalities. Think

about what stereotypes do: they oversimplify things. They reduce the world’s complexity and

make social relations more straightforward. The trouble is, stereotypes are distorted, one-sided,

and exaggerated. The more we’re surrounded by these distorted images, the more they

become part of our everyday understanding. And the more they’re part of our landscape, the

more likely we are to believe them. So breaking through harmful social stereotypes is an

important part of creating a fairer world for everyone.

The social control of sexuality

Puberty, the process of becoming a sexually mature individual, is a biological event.

Once we go through it, we’re theoretically capable of sexual reproduction (though

sometimes not entirely). But in the U.S., it’s now typical for people to wait to have children until

years after they are biologically able to do so. Among U.S. women who have ever had a child,

their average age at first childbirth is 23; among men who ever have children, it’s almost 26.131

And that’s only the average. We see wide variation by race, class, education level, and

region. The average age has been increasing over time, as well.

Mountain Dew Releases Arguably the Most Racist Commercial in History

Gender and Sexuality (Fall 2021)

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For good or ill, a number of demographic, economic, and cultural factors help

determine when our potential fertility is expressed. In sociological terms, we say that social and

cultural institutions exert social control over sexuality. Social control refers to the way we

enforce normative behaviors through social interaction, values and worldviews, and laws.

In the case of sexuality, institutional social control exerts itself in multiple areas of life,

many of which we don’t even realize. Consider the example of erectile dysfunction (ED), a

condition in which men have trouble achieving or maintaining a penile erection. Sounds

pretty medical, doesn’t it? But scholars like Leonore Tiefer argue that our sexuality has been

medicalized, a process in which society understands or defines a problem in medical terms.

This usually means that we use medical language to describe it and rely on medicine to treat

it.132 Alcoholism, pregnancy, attention-deficit disorder, and even baldness were all initially

understood as social problems, but became understood as medical disorders.

Figure 4: Average Age of First-Time Moms by Race

Tiefer argues that the medicalization of ED was helpful for some men because it led to

the development and marketing of drugs that can help men get and keep a reliable erection.

But medicalization also creates problems. The medicalization of erections (or lack of them)

reinforces the idea that there is an ideal erection that all men should have. Additionally, all the

(Source: CDC/NCHS, National Vital Statistics System)

Gender and Sexuality (Fall 2021)

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attention given to ED continues to stress phallocentrism, or a worldview that centers the

phallus (the symbolic ideal of the penis) in sexual acts and society more broadly. The

medicalization of ED draws our attention toward it, so much so that penile-vaginal intercourse

is understood as the only sex act worth our attention.133 Medicalization provide us with a

framework of medical intervention and a framework of understanding: What’s important to

us? What’s normal or abnormal? Who or what is responsible? What’s the best way to solve it?

These collective understandings are a form of social control: they enforce certain sexual

behaviors and sexuality-related worldviews.

Let’s take another example: sex education. An article about individuals’ memories of

sex ed contains the following anecdote:

…I do not remember learning much about actual “safe sex.” I do remember,

however… my teacher passing a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup around class, telling us to

“do whatever we wanted to it.” After people had licked it, thrown it on the ground,

stuck their pencil into it, etc., she claimed that “having sex with more than one person is

exactly the same. No one wants to eat this peanut butter cup, so why would someone

want to have sex with you if you have been ‘passed around.’”134

This lesson, and variations of it, are taught in schools across the United States. It raises a

question: what is the purpose of sex education? And what does it have to do with the social

control of sexuality?

In abstinence-only sex education,

students are taught that abstinence is expected

of them. It has an eight-point legal definition

outlined in Section 510(b) of Title V of the Social

Security Act, but the main characteristic is that

abstinence-only education “has as its exclusive

purpose teaching the social, psychological, and

health gains to be realized by abstaining from

sexual activity.”135 Note the word “exclusive”;

these programs are forbidden from including

certain information. For example, they are

generally not allowed to provide students with

information about contraception (like condoms),

other than to note failure rates.136

Comprehensive sex education generally “stresses the importance of waiting to have

sex” while offering information about how contraception works, so students can avoid

unwanted pregnancies and sexually-transmitted infections (STIs).137 Information about STIs is

critical; in 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that rates of

gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis had increased for five straight years, hitting an all-time high


Better sex education in schools

Gender and Sexuality (Fall 2021)

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in 2018.138 Comprehensive sex ed programs typically include a wider variety of information for

students and a range of ethical perspectives on sexuality.

In the case of abstinence-only education, we can see how social control works. An

institution (the school system) attempts to socialize a population (kids and teens) to adopt

specific behaviors. Comprehensive sex education may not stress behavioral changes up front,

but it too attempts to enforce certain behaviors, like using condoms. As Émile Durkheim taught

us, this type of social control exists in every society (though in different forms) as a way for

societies to regulate themselves.139 But there are struggles and disagreements over what or

who needs controlling. Sexuality may be inextricably linked to our bodies, but cultural factors

have a lot to do with the ways in which we express that sexuality.

As we conclude this chapter, our hope is that you’ve begun to think about the ways in

which gender and sexuality are not simply unchanging facts of biology, but social relations

that we actively construct, experience, and express. Sociologist Sam Richards once said, “My

students often ask me, ‘What is sociology?’ And I tell them, ‘It’s the study of the ways in which

human beings are shaped by things that they don’t see’.”140 While we all experience gender

and sexuality, we can’t fully understand them unless we examine intersections between the

smallest and largest aspects of social life. From our individual personal histories to historical

power relations, from everyday interactions to large-scale institutions, our job is to study how a

wide range of social forces shape us. As you continue to think about the sociology of gender

and sexuality, we hope you will keep digging to discover all those factors we don’t see.







6: Gender and Sexuality

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