For Teachers & Professionals
The Problem of concepts such as Femininity and Masculinity in Sex education
The concepts of femininity and masculinity can be a problem in many everyday situations. These two concepts have historically been associated with one's biological sex. If we search for the definition of femininity, we find that it is “the quality or nature of the female sex: the quality, state, or degree of being feminine or womanly” and the same for masculinity.
The first one is historically seen as more deeply rooted in nature and biology. It was a basic premise of physicians in late eighteenth-century France that women were quite distinct from men by virtue of their whole anatomy and physiology. This structural difference was thus reflected on the social plane: 'Nature has not simply distinguished the sexes by a single set of organs, the direct instruments of reproduction: between men and women there exist other differences of structure which relate more to the role which has been assigned to them' (Cabanis, 1956, I: 275). The softness of the tissues was then reflected in the notion of the females' higher sensitivity. It is also important to note that the biological differences had more important consequences for females than men: women's occupations were taken to be rooted in and a necessary consequence of their reproductive functions, whereas men's jobs were unrestricted. Women were destined to the family and the private sphere, whilst men could participate in social and cultural groups.
These concepts can be defined only from this perspective. With time, the definitions have become more elusive and it’s more of a deeply rooted distinction in shared knowledge. This knowledge has been passed through centuries in different ways: media, school, religion, science and cultural traditions are examples of some areas that shape and regulate our views of what is considered feminine or masculine today. Within the field of education, the arguments that are used in biology classes can weigh heavily and have significant impacts on how students regard themselves. To put it simply, it’s like still in education the explanation of female anatomy is connected to the female role of childbearing, and penile-vaginal intercourses are associated with the norm and the sanctity of marriage. For some reason, biological explanations are perceived as more genuine and fundamental than other explanations. The use of concepts such as biology provides a tone of scientificity, something that is considered an important aspect today. The expectation that education should be based on current research can be regarded as a part of expected ‘scientificity’. Students as well as science teachers use educational textbooks and rely on their content, but sometimes it is appropriate to be vigilant and take a critical stance in accordance with the intentions of the curriculum. Research itself on gender issues is subject to cultural bias and must be therefore assessed critically. Too often, also, the research on animal sexual behaviour has been translated as it was research conducted on human sexual behaviour.
Following these arguments, it is the notion of what is “normal and natural” and what is not. “At first culture formalised nature according to human norms, then these versions of nature are used to naturalise the same human norms”.
The context of events shapes the actions that are possible. For the school as an educational setting, it is important to examine what kinds of images the teaching represents and what consequences it has. An important part of teaching is to open up different imaginary performances of femininity and masculinity so that students have the opportunity to develop subjectivity. In particular, femininity has been shaped through the male lens and needs a whole new definition, a representation of women being more than just mothers.
What should teachers in this regard be aware of?
1. Check the textbooks
Biology textbooks used are not always updated with the latest research results. In these textbooks, there might not be a paradigm shift in terms of the presentation of animal sexual strategies, from those described as fixed female-male strategies to those including significant variations in sex and sexual behaviours that occur both within and between species.
2. Avoid anthropomorphism
If a teacher starts a lesson by saying: “Today we will talk about how animals behave and why they behave as they do and then we’ll make a little connection at the end to humans, too. We are, after all, animals too, so it’s quite logical”, they are assuming that human behaviour is the same as animal behaviour and thus human behaviour can be judged with a natural lens. Images of femininity and masculinity are constructed by the personification of animal behaviour. It is taught about what animals “want” and animals are presented with the titles Dr./Mr./Mrs. The resource-guarding male is presented as a male who owns things, while females present to him to get those resources in exchange for sex. Stories emanating from human metaphors both stir in some obsolete presentations of human sex roles and also reinforce known, ingrained and traditional gendered representations.
3. Distinguish reproduction from sexuality
Human sexuality is far more complex than the mere reproduction of the animal world. When we use animals as a basis for comparison, we assume that human sexuality is also based only on smell, hormones, swollen genitals and other visible signs of readiness. The male sees them and has intercourse in order to assure pregnancy. As humans, we have sex for far more purposes. In reproduction constructs, ready-made gender roles form a structure of ‘offspring production’, whereby the gender refers to two homogeneous categories, based on heteronormativity. Actions are connected to a structure defined by biological differences, divided between male and female, and not to a structure defined by social relations. But it can also be inverted, as social relations are attributed on the basis of reproduction. Teaching sexuality must comprehend far more topics, such as relationships, love, psychological aspects and subjective roles.
4. Avoid the “male and females want different things” frame
The idea of separating the sexes in terms of needs, wants and behaviour. This is rooted in the concept that males and females are different and opposite. This is a common approach in several stories with reference to nature but is irrelevant in terms of human sexuality.
These are some of the things to bear in mind when referring to biology when talking about human sexuality. Science education can offer opportunities for new images, but only if it problematises its presentations and opens up articulations that can encourage and highlight other kinds of images. It is a significant challenge for teachers and students to qualify what is considered as ‘natural’ in terms of femininity and masculinity. Luckily, a historical retrospective consideration inspires us to feel some hope for change, although with a ‘touch’ of slowness.
Orlander, A. A. (2016). ‘So, what do men and women want? Is it any different from what animals want?’Sex education in an upper secondary school. Research in Science Education, 46(6), 811-829.
Shildrick, M., & Price, J. (Eds.). (1999). Feminist Theory and the Body: A Reader. Routledge.
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