Chat with us, powered by LiveChat Intersections | Gen Paper

G e n de r
I DE A S , I N T E R A C T I O N S , I N S T I T U T I O N S

S e c o n d e d i t i o n

Soc i o l og y T i T l e S

W. W. N o rT o N

The Contexts Reader, THIRD EDITIon, edited
by Syed Ali and Philip N. Cohen

Code of the Street by Elijah Anderson
The Cosmopolitan Canopy by Elijah Anderson
Social Problems, THIRD EDITIon, by Joel Best
The Art and Science of Social Research by

Deborah Carr, Elizabeth Heger Boyle,
Benjamin Cornwell, Shelley Correll, Robert
Crosnoe, Jeremy Freese, and Mary C. Waters

The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social
Change, sEconD EDITIon, by Philip N. Cohen

You May Ask Yourself: An Introduction to
Thinking like a Sociologist, fIfTH EDITIon,
by Dalton Conley

Race in America by Matthew Desmond and
Mustafa Emirbayer

The Real World: An Introduction to Sociology,
sIxTH EDITIon, by Kerry Ferris and Jill Stein

Essentials of Sociology, sEvEnTH EDITIon,
by Anthony Giddens, Mitchell Duneier,
Richard P. Appelbaum, and Deborah Carr

Introduction to Sociology, ElEvEnTH EDITIon,
by Anthony Giddens, Mitchell Duneier,
Richard P. Appelbaum, and Deborah Carr

Mix It Up: Popular Culture, Mass Media,
and Society, sEconD EDITIon, by
David Grazian

Give Methods a Chance by Kyle Green and
Sarah Esther Lageson

Readings for Sociology, EIgHTH EDITIon,
edited by Garth Massey

Families as They Really Are, sEconD EDITIon,
edited by Barbara J. Risman and
Virginia E. Rutter

Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the
Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on
Violence by Patrick Sharkey

Sex Matters: The Sexuality and Society
Reader, fIfTH EDITIon, edited by
Mindy Stombler, Dawn M. Baunach,
Wendy O. Simonds, Elroi J. Windsor,
and Elisabeth O. Burgess

American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on
Campus by Lisa Wade

Cultural Sociology: An Introductory Reader
edited by Matt Wray

American Society: How It Really Works,
sEconD EDITIon, by Erik Olin Wright and
Joel Rogers

To learn more about Norton Sociology, please visit

Ge n de r

L i S a Wa de
occidental college

M y r a M a r x F e r r e e
University of Wisconsin–Madison


New York • London

S e c o n d e d i t i o n

W. W. Norton & Company has been independent since its founding in 1923, when William
Warder Norton and Mary D. Herter Norton first published lectures delivered at the People’s
Institute, the adult education division of New York City’s Cooper Union. The firm soon expanded
its program beyond the Institute, publishing books by celebrated academics from America and
abroad. By midcentury, the two major pillars of Norton’s publishing program—trade books and
college texts—were firmly established. In the 1950s, the Norton family transferred control of the
company to its employees, and today—with a staff of four hundred and a comparable number of
trade, college, and professional titles published each year—W. W. Norton & Company stands as
the largest and oldest publishing house owned wholly by its employees.

Copyright © 2019, 2015 by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
All rights reserved
Printed in the United States of America

Editor: Sasha Levitt
Assistant Editor: Erika Nakagawa
Project Editors: Taylere Peterson and Diane Cipollone
Managing Editor, College: Marian Johnson
Managing Editor, College Digital Media: Kim Yi
Senior Production Manager: Ashley Horna
Media Editor: Eileen Connell
Associate Media Editor: Ariel Eaton
Media Editorial Assistant: Samuel Tang
Marketing Director, Sociology: Julia Hall
Design Director: Jillian Burr
Director of College Permissions: Megan Schindel
Permissions Specialist: Bethany Salminen
Photo Editor: Travis Carr
Composition: Achorn International, Inc.
Manufacturing: LSC Communications-Harrisonburg

Permission to use copyrighted material is included in the Credits, which begins on page 485.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Wade, Lisa (Professor), author. | Ferree, Myra Marx, author.
Title: Gender / Lisa Wade, Occidental College, Myra Marx Ferree, University of Wisconsin,
Description: Second Edition. | New York : W. W. Norton & Company, [2018] | Revised edition

of the authors’ Gender : ideas, interactions, institutions, [2015] | Includes bibliographical
references and index.

Identifiers: LCCN 2018039801 | ISBN 9780393667967 (pbk.)
Subjects: LCSH: Sex role. | Sex differences. | Feminist theory.
Classification: LCC HQ1075 .W33 2018 | DDC 305.3–dc23 LC record available at https://lccn

ISBN: 978-0-393-66796-7 (pbk.)

W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10110
W. W. Norton & Company Ltd., 15 Carlisle Street, London W1D 3BS
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0

a boU t t h e aU t hor S

L is a Wa de is an associate professor of sociology at Occi-
dental College in Los Angeles, where she does research at
the intersection of gender, sexuality, culture, and the body.
She earned an MA in human sexuality from New York Uni-
versity and an MS and PhD in sociology from the University
of Wisconsin−Madison. She is the author of over three dozen
research papers, book chapters, and educational essays. Her
newest book, American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on
Campus, is the definitive account of contemporary collegiate
sexual culture. Aiming to reach audiences outside of aca-
demia, Dr. Wade appears frequently in print, radio, and tele-
vision news and opinion outlets.  You can learn more about
her at or follow her on Twitter (@lisawade) or
Facebook ( /lisawadephd).

M y r a M a r x F e r r e e is the Alice H. Cook Professor of
Sociology at the University of Wisconsin−Madison. She is
the author of Varieties of Feminism: German Gender Politics
in Global Perspective (2012), co-author of Shaping Abortion
Discourse (2002) and Controversy and Coalition (2000), and
co-editor of Gender, Violence and Human Security (2013),
Global Feminism (2006), and Revisioning Gender (1998) as
well as numerous articles and book chapters. Dr. Ferree is
the recipient of various prizes for contributions to gender
studies, including the Jessie Bernard Award and Victo-
ria Schuck Award. She continues to do research on global
gender politics.

p r e Fa c e i x


2 I DE A S  9
The Binary and Our Bodies . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12
Gender Ideologies . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 23
The Binary and Everything Else . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 29

3 BODI ES  3 9
Research on Sex Differences and Similarities . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 41
Defining Difference . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 43
Similarities Between the Sexes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 54

How to Do Gender . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 69
Learning the Rules . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 75
Why We Follow the Rules . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 78
How to Break the Rules . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 85
The No. 1 Gender Rule . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 88

Intersectionality . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 94
Economic Class and Residence . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 96
Race . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 99
Sexual Orientation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 108
Immigration . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 111
Ability, Age, and Attractiveness . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 115

6 I N EQUA LI T Y: M EN A N D M A SCU LI N I T I ES  1 2 5
The Gender of Cheerleading . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 126
Gendered Power . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 129
Gender for Men . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 135
Can Masculinity Be Good? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 152

con t e n tS


7 I N EQUA LI T Y: WOM EN A N D F EM I N I N I T I ES  1 5 9
Cheerleading Today . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 159
Gender for Women . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 161
The Big Picture . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 184

8 I NST I T U T IONS  191
The Organization of Daily Life . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 192
Gendered Institutions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 196
The Institutionalization of Gender Difference . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 197
The Institutionalization of Gender Inequality . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 201
Institutional Inertia and Change . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 212

9 CH A NGE  219
The Evolution of Sex . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 220
The Evolution of Marriage . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 229
The Funny ’50s . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 233
Going to Work . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 241
Work and Family Today . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 244
Conclusion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 248

10 SEx UA LI T I ES  2 51
Sex: The Near History of Now. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 252
Sex and “Liberation” Today . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 255
Gendered Sexualities . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 258
College Hookup Culture . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 275

11 FA M I LI ES  2 87
Gendered Housework and Parenting . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 288
Barriers to Equal Sharing . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 304
Going It Alone . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 308
New, Emerging, and Erstwhile Family Forms . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 312

1 2 WOR K  321
The Changing Workplace . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 322
Job Segregation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 326
Discrimination and Preferential Treatment . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 339
Parenthood: The Facts and the Fiction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 348
The Changing Workplace, Revisited . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 351

1 3 POLI T ICS  3 57
The State . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 362
Social Movements . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 376

14 CONCLUSION  3 8 9

GLOssary 397
NOTes 405
crediTs 485
iNdex 487

c o n t e n t s

Pr e Face

Writing a textbook is a challenge even for folks with lots of teaching experience
in the subject matter. We would never have dared take on this project without
Karl Bakeman’s initial encouragement. His confidence in our vision was inspir-
ing and kept us going until the project could be placed into the very capable
hands of Sasha Levitt, who ushered the first edition to completion with her
meticulous reading, thoughtful suggestions, and words of encouragement. Sasha
has since become an invaluable part of the revision process, with a perfect mix
of stewardship, cheerleading, and collaborative fact-checking. She has kept us
on target conceptually as well as chronologically, challenged us to think hard
about the points that first-edition readers had raised, and yet kept the revision
process smoothly moving forward to meet our deadlines. Without her firm hand
on the tiller, our occasional excursions into the weeds might have swamped
the revision with unnecessary changes, but her attention to updating sources
kept us cheerful with the new evidence we landed. The revision might have bal-
looned with the new material we identified, but her editorial eye has kept us in
our word limits without sacrificing anything important. Sasha has become a
true partner in the difficult process of adding the new without losing the old,
and we could not have pulled it off without her.

Of course, Karl and Sasha are but the top of the mountain of support that
Norton has offered from beginning to end. The many hands behind the scenes
include project editor Diane Cipollone for keeping us on schedule and collating
our changes, production manager Ashley Horna for turning a manuscript into
the pages you hold now, assistant editors Erika Nakagawa and Thea Goodrich
for their logistical help in preparing that manuscript, designer Jillian Burr for
her keen graphic eye, and our copyeditor, Katharine Ings, for crossing our t’s
and dotting our i’s. The many images that enrich this book are thanks to photo
editors Travis Carr and Stephanie Romeo and photo researchers Elyse Rieder
and Rona Tuccillo. We are also grateful to have discovered Leland Bobbé, the artist


whose half-drag portraits fascinated us. Selecting just one for the first edition was a col-
laborative process aided by the further creative work of Jillian Burr and Debra Morton
Hoyt. Selecting a second was equally exciting and challenging. We’re grateful for the
result: striking covers that we hope catch the eye and spark conversation.

We would also like to thank the reviewers who commented on drafts of the book and
its revision in various stages: Rachel Allison, Shayna Asher-Shapiro, Phyllis L. Baker,
Kristen Barber, Miriam Barcus, Shira Barlas, Sarah Becker, Dana Berkowitz, Emily Birn-
baum, Natalie Boero, Catherine Bolzendahl, Valerie Chepp, Nancy Dess, Lisa Dilks,
Mischa DiBattiste, Erica Dixon, Mary Donaghy, Julia Eriksen, Angela Frederick, Jessica
Greenebaum, Nona Gronert, Lee Harrington, Sarah Hayford, Penelope Herideen, Mel-
anie Hughes, Miho Iwata, Rachel Kaplan, Madeline Kiefer, Rachel Kraus, Carrie Lacy,
Thomas J. Linneman, Caitlin Maher, Gul Aldikacti Marshall, Janice McCabe, Karyn
McKinney, Carly Mee, Beth Mintz, Joya Misra, Beth Montemurro, Christine Mowery,
Stephanie Nawyn, Madeleine Pape, Lisa Pellerin, Megan Reid, Gwen Sharp, Mimi Schip-
pers, Emily Fitzgibbons Shafer, Kazuko Suzuki, Jaita Talukdar, Rachel Terman, Mieke
Beth Thomeer, Kristen Williams, and Kersti Alice Yllo, as well as the students at Babson
College, Occidental College, Nevada State College, and the University of Wisconsin−
Madison who agreed to be test subjects. Our gratitude goes also to the users of the first
edition who offered us valuable feedback on what they enjoyed and what they found miss-
ing, either directly or through Norton. We’ve tried to take up their suggestions by not
merely squeezing in occasional new material but by rethinking the perspectives and
priorities that might have left such concerns on the cutting room floor the first time
around. We hope the balance we have struck is satisfying but are always open to further
criticism and suggestions.

Most of all, we are happy to discover that we could collaborate in being creative over
the long term of this project, contributing different talents at different times, and jump-
ing the inevitable hurdles without tripping each other up. In fact, we were each other’s
toughest critic and warmest supporter. Once upon a time, Lisa was Myra’s student, but in
finding ways to communicate our interest and enthusiasm to students, we became a team.
In the course of the revision, we came to appreciate each other’s strengths more than ever
and rejoice in the collegial relationship we had in making the revision happen. We hope
you enjoy reading this book as much as we enjoyed making it.

Lisa Wade
Myra Marx Ferree

p r e f a c e

G e n de r
I DE A S , I N T E R A C T I O N S , I N S T I T U T I O N S

S e c o n d e d i t i o n

a m a n in heels is r idicu lous.

— c h r i s t i a n l o u b o u t i n



Among the most vicious and effective killers who have ever lived were the men of the Persian army. In the late 1500s, under the reign of Abbas I, these soldiers defeated the
Uzbeks and the Ottomans and reconquered provinces lost to India
and Portugal, earning the admiration of all of Europe. Their most
lethal advantage was the high heel.1 Being on horseback, heels
kept their feet in the stirrups when they rose up to shoot their mus-
kets. It gave them deadly aim. The first high-heeled shoe, it turns
out, was a weapon of war.

Enthralled by the military men’s prowess, European male aris-
tocrats began wearing high heels in their daily lives of leisure,
using the shoe to borrow some of the Persian army’s masculine
mystique. In a way, they were like today’s basketball fans wearing
Air Jordans. The aristocrats weren’t any better on the battlefield
than your average Bulls fan is on the court, but the shoes sym-
bolically linked them to the soldiers’ extraordinary achievements.
The shoes invoked a distinctly manly power related to victory in
battle, just as the basketball shoes link the contemporary wearer
to Michael Jordan’s amazing athleticism.

As with most fashions, there was trickle down. Soon men of all
classes were donning high heels, stumbling around the cobble stone
streets of Europe feeling pretty suave. And then women decided


Chapter 1  I n t r o d u c t I o n4

they wanted a piece of the action, too. In the 1630s,
masculine fashions were “in” for ladies. They
cut their hair, added military decorations to the
shoulders of their dresses, and smoked pipes. For
women, high heels were nothing short of mascu-
line mimicry.

These early fashionistas irked the aristocrats
who first borrowed the style. The whole point of
nobility, after all, was to be above everyone else.
In response, the elites started wearing higher and
higher heels. France’s King Louis XIV even decreed
that no one was allowed to wear heels higher than
his.2 In the New World, the Massachusetts colony
passed a law saying that any woman caught wear-
ing heels would incur the same penalty as a witch.3

But the masses persisted. And so the aristo-
crats shifted strategies: They dropped high heels
altogether. It was the Enlightenment now, and
there was an accompanying shift toward logic
and reason. Adopting the philosophy that it was

intelligence—not heel height—that bestowed superiority, aristocrats donned
flats and began mocking people who wore high heels, suggesting that wear-
ing such impractical shoes was the height of stupidity.

Ever since, the shoe has remained mostly out of fashion for men—cow-
boys excluded, of course, and disco notwithstanding—but it’s continued to
tweak the toes of women in every possible situation, from weddings to the
workplace. No longer at risk of being burned at the stake, women are allowed
to wear high heels, now fully associated with femaleness in the American
imagination. Some women even feel pressure to do so, particularly if they
are trying to look pretty or professional. And there remains the sense that
the right pair brings a touch of class.

The attempts by aristocrats to keep high heels to themselves are part of
a phenomenon that sociologists call distinction, a word used to describe
efforts to distinguish one’s own group from others. In this historical exam-
ple, we see elite men working hard to make a simultaneously class- and
gender-based distinction. If the aristocrats had had their way, only rich men
would have ever worn high heels. Today high heels continue to serve as a
marker of gender distinction. With few exceptions, only women (and peo –
ple impersonating women) wear high heels.

Distinction is a main theme of  this book. The word gender only exists
because we distinguish between people in this particular way. If we didn’t

shah a bbas i, who ruled Persia between
1588 and 1629, shows off not only his
scimitar, but also his high heels.

I n t r o d u c t I o n 5

care about distinguishing men from women, the
whole concept would be utterly unnecessary.
We don’t, after all, tend to have words for phys-
ical differences that don’t have meaning to us.
For exam ple, we don’t make a big deal out of the
fact that some people have the gene that allows
them to curl their tongue and some people don’t.
There’s no concept of tongue aptitude that refers
to the separation of people into the curly tongued
and the flat tongued. Why would we need such
a thing? The vast majority of us just don’t care.
Likewise, the ability to focus one’s eyes on a close
or distant object isn’t used to signify status and
being right-handed is no longer considered bet-
ter than being left-handed.

Gender, then, is about distinction. Like tongue
aptitude, vision, and handedness, it is a biological
reality. We are a species that reproduces sex ually.
We come, roughly, in two body types: a female
one built to gestate new life and a male one made
to mix up the genes of the species. The word sex
is used to refer to these physical differences in
pri mary sexual charac teristics (the presence of
organs directly involved in reproduction) and sec-
ondary sexual characteristics (such as patterns
of hair growth, the amount of breast tissue, and
distribution of  body fat). We usually use the words
male and female to refer to sex, but we can also use male-bodied and
female-bodied to specify that sex refers to the body and may not extend to
how a person feels or acts. And, as we’ll see, not every body fits neatly into
one category or the other.

Unlike tongue aptitude, vision, and handedness, we make the biology of
sex socially significant. When we differentiate between men and women,
for example, we also invoke blue and pink baby blankets, suits and dresses,
Maxim and Cosmopolitan magazines, and action movies and chick flicks.
These are all examples of the world divided up into the masculine and the
feminine, into things we associate with men and women. The word gender
refers to the symbolism of masculinity and femininity that we connect to
being male-bodied or female-bodied.

Symbols matter because they indicate what bodily differences mean in
prac tice. They force us to try to fit our bodies into constraints that “pinch”
both physically and symbolically, as high heels do. They prompt us to invent

louis X i V, king of France from 1643 to
1715, gives himself a boost with big
hair and high heels.

Chapter 1  I n t r o d u c t I o n6

ways around bodily limitations, as eyeglasses do. They are part of our collec-
tive imaginations and, accordingly, the stuff out of which we create human
reality. Gender symbolism shapes not just our identities and the ideas in our
heads, but workplaces, families, and schools, and our options for navigating
through them.

This is where distinction comes in. Much of what we believe about men
and women—even much of what we imagine is strictly biological—is not
naturally occurring difference that emerges from our male and female bod-
ies. Instead, it’s an outcome of active efforts to produce and maintain differ-
ence: a sea of peo ple working together every day to make men masculine
and women feminine, and signify the relative importance of masculinity
and femininity in every domain.

Commonly held ideas, and the behaviors that both uphold and challenge
them, are part of culture: a group’s shared beliefs and the practices and
material things that reflect them. Human lives are wrapped in this cultural
meaning, like the powerful masculinity once ascribed to high heels. So gen der
isn’t merely biological; it’s cultural. It’s the result of a great deal of human
effort guided by shared cultural ideas.

one of these people is not like the others. We perform gendered distinctions like the one shown
here ever y day, often simply out of habit.

I n t r o d u c t I o n 7

Why would people put so much effort into maintaining this illusion of

Imagine those aristocratic tantrums: pampered, wig-wearing, face-
powdered men stomping their high-heeled feet in frustration with the lowly
copycats. How dare the masses blur the line between us, they may have cried.
Today it might sound silly, ridiculous even, to care about who does and
doesn’t wear high heels. But at the time it was a very serious matter. Success-
ful efforts at distinction ensured that these elite men really seemed different
and, more importantly, bet ter than women and other types of men. This was
at the very core of the aristocracy: the idea that some people truly are supe-
rior and, by virtue of their superi ority, entitled to hoard wealth and monop-
olize power. They had no superpowers with which to claim superiority, no
actual proof that God wanted things that way, no biological trait that gave
them an obvious advantage. What did they have to dis tinguish themselves?
They had high heels.

Without high heels, or other symbols of superiority, aristocrats couldn’t
make a claim to the right to rule. Without difference, in other words, there
could be no hierarchy. This is still true today. If one wants to argue that
Group A is superior to Group B, there must be distinguishable groups. We
can’t think more highly of one type of person than another unless we have
at least two types. Distinction, then, must be maintained if we are going to
value certain types of people more than others, allowing them to demand
more power, attract more prestige, and claim the right to extreme wealth.

Wealth and power continue to be hoarded and monopolized. These
ine qual ities continue to be justified—made to seem normal and natural—by
prod ucing differences that make group membership seem meaningful and
inequality inevi table or right. We all engage in actions designed to align
ourselves with some people and differentiate ourselves from others. Thus
we see the persistence of social classes, racial and ethnic categories, the
urban-rural divide, gay and straight iden tities, liberal and conservative par-
ties, and various Christian and Muslim sects, among other distinctions.
These categories aren’t all bad; they give us a sense of belonging and bring
joy and pleasure into our lives. But they also serve as clas sifications by
which societies unevenly distribute power and privilege.

Gender is no different in this regard. There is a story to tell about both dif-
ference and hierarchy and it involves both pleasure and pain. We’ll wait a bit
before we seriously tackle the problem of gender inequality, spending sev-
eral chapters learning just how enjoyable studying gender can be. There’ll
be funny parts and fascinating parts. You’ll meet figure skaters and football
players, fish and flight attendants and, yes, feminists, too. Eventually we’ll get
to the part that makes you want to throw the book across the room. We won’t
take it personally. For now, let’s pick up right where we started, with distinction.

The on es w iTh ey el ashes a r e gir ls;

boys don ’T h av e ey el ashes.

— F o u r -y e a r – o l d e r i n d e s c r i b e s h e r d r aw i n g 1



Most of us use the phrase “opposite sexes” when describing the categories of male and female. It’s a telling phrase. There are other ways to express this relationship. It was
once common, for example, to use the phrase “the fairer sex” or
“the second sex” to describe women. We could simply say “the
other sex,” a more neutral phrase. Or, even, “an other sex,” which
leaves open the possibility of more than two. Today, though, peo-
ple usually describe men and women as opposites.

Seventeenth-century Europeans—the same ones fighting over
high heels—didn’t believe in “opposite” sexes; they didn’t even
believe in two sexes.2 They believed men and women were better
and worse versions of the same sex, with identical reproductive
organs that were just arranged differently: Men’s genitals were
pushed out of the body, while women’s remained inside. As Fig-
ure 2.1 shows, they saw the vagina as simply a penis that hadn’t
emerged from the body; the womb as a scrotum in the belly; the
ovaries just internal testes. As the lyrics to one early song put it:
“Women are but men turned outside in.”3

Seventeenth-century anatomists were wrong, of course. We’re
not the same sex. The uterus and fallopian tubes of the female
body come from an embryonic structure that is dissolved during
male fetal development. Conversely, men’s internal sexual and


Chapter 2  I D E A S10

reproductive plumbing has no corollary inside most women. The penis is
not a protruding vagina, nor the vagina a shy penis.

But the idea that we are opposite sexes is not completely right either. The
penis and scrotum do have something in common with female anatomy.
The same tissue that becomes the scrotum in males becomes the outer labia
in females; the penis and the clitoris are formed of the same erectile tissue
and clustered nerve endings; and testes and ovaries are both gonads that
make germ cells (sperm and eggs), one just a modified version of the other.
If you’re curious what it feels like to have the genitals of the other sex—and
who hasn’t wondered?—the truth is you probably already have a pretty good
idea just by having genitals yourself. Our bodies are all human, developing
from the same blob of tissue, modified to enable sexual reproduction. So
while it’s not perfectly correct to say there’s only one sex, neither is it per-
fectly correct to say we’re opposites.

Nevertheless, opposite is the word we use, and it has strong implications:
that whatever one sex is, the other simply is not. Today most people in most
Western countries are familiar with this idea, referred to in sociology as the

f i g u r e 2 . 1  | 17th century illustr ation
of the vagina and uterus

This anatomical illustration from 1611 of the interior of a vagina (left)
and the exterior of a vagina and uterus (right) shows the renaissance
idea of female genitalia—an internal phallus.

11i d e a s

gender binary. The word binary refers to a system with two and only two
separate and distinct parts, like binary code (the 1s and 0s used in comput-
ing) or a binary star system (in which two stars orbit each other). So the term
gender binary refers to the idea that there are only two types of people—
male-bodied people who are masculine and female-bodied people who are
feminine—and those types are fundamentally different and contrasting.

Because we tend to think in terms of a gender binary, we routinely speak
about men as if they’re all the same and likewise for women. The nervous
parent might warn his thirteen-year-old daughter, for example, “boys only
want one thing,” while the Valentine’s Day commercial insists all women
love chocolate. In fact, most of us embrace gender categories in daily life
and talk about “men” and “women” as if membership in one of these catego-
ries says a great deal about a person. We might say “I’m such a girl!” when
we confess we’re addicted to strawberry lip balm, or repeat the refrain “boys
will be boys” when observing the antics of a young male cousin. If we’re
feeling hurt, we might even comfort ourselves by saying “all men suck” or
“women are crazy.” All these phrases rely on the idea that the terms men and
women refer to meaningful categories.

We often talk this way but, when push comes to shove, we’ll admit that
we don’t necessarily believe in such rigid gender stereotypes, especially
when they’re applied to us. When asked, most people will say they sort of
do . . . and sort of don’t . . . conform to the relevant stereotype. Maybe we’re
a woman who adores romantic comedies but is also first in line for the next
superhero movie. Or maybe we’re a man who enjoys a hot bath after a rugby
game. This sort of mixing and matching of interests is typical. Accordingly,
a large number of us don’t believe we, personally, conform to a stereotype.
And, in fact, when we stop and think about it, many and perhaps most of the
people we know well don’t fit into the stereotypes either. This leads us to
the first of many probing questions we will attempt to answer throughout
this book:

I f w e d o n ’ t l e a r n t h e i d e a o f t h e g e n d e r b i n a r y b y
o b s e r v i n g t h e p e o p l e a r o u n d u s , w h e r e d o e s t h e i d e a
c o m e f r o m?

This chapter will show that people who grow up in most contemporary
Western societies learn to use a set of beliefs about gender as a scaffold for
understanding the world. If we are well socialized, we will put people and
things into masculine and feminine categories and subcategories out of habit
and largely without thinking. We apply the binary to human bodies, believ-
ing men and women to have different and nonoverlapping anatomies and
physiologies. We also apply it to objects, places, activities, talents, and ideas.

Chapter 2  I D E A S12

We become so skilled at layering ideas about gender onto the world that
we have a hard time seeing it for what it really is. We don’t notice when gen-
der stereotypes don’t make sense. Even more, we tend to see and remember
things consistent with gender stereotypes, while forgetting or misremem-
bering things inconsistent with those stereotypes. In other words, gender is
a logic that we are talented at manipulating, but it is manipulating us, too.

Don’t feel bad about it. Essentially all societies notice and interpret sex-
related differences in our bodies, so we are no different in that sense. In fact,
we’ll explore some of the other ways that people have thought about gender
in a later section. Before we do, though, let’s take a closer look at our own
unusual ideas about gender—the gender binary—and review the biology of sex.


At thirteen years old, Georgiann Davis’s parents brought her to the doctor with
abdominal pain. 4 After extensive examination and testing, she was told she had
“underdeveloped ovaries” with a high chance of becoming cancerous. Her par-
ents consented to surgery to remove them. Six years later she requested her
medical records in the routine process of acquiring a new doctor, only to learn
she’d never had ovaries at all. The doctors had lied: In fact, she’d had testes.

Georgiann was diagnosed with what physicians now call androgen insen-
sitivity syndrome.5 At fertilization, a Y sperm combined with an X egg, putting
her on the biological path to becoming male. But her cells lacked the ability to
detect the hormones that typically masculinize a body. So, even though she had
XY chromosomes and testes that produced testosterone and other androgens,
her testes remained in her abdomen as if they were ovaries, and the develop-
ment of her external genitalia followed the female body plan.

People with androgen insensitivity syndrome are intersex, born with a
reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit the typical definitions of female
or male. People who are intersex remind us that while we tend to take for granted
that everyone is unambiguously male or female, the path to such a straightfor-
ward body involves many complicated steps. Step one is conception. If a sperm
with an X chromosome meets an egg, the fertilization kicks off the development
of a female; if the sperm contains a Y chromosome, it kicks off the development
of a male. Since all eggs have an X chromosome, men typically have an XY
chromosomal profile and women have an XX. This, however, is just the begin-
ning of a complex process involving at least eight steps, as shown in Table 2.1.

If the fertilized egg is XY, we should expect to see the development of testes.
Setting this process in motion involves not just a Y chromosome but also several
genes on the X chromosome and dozens of other genes located on yet other chro-

T H e B i N a R Y a N d O U R B O d i e s 13

mosomes.6 If this situation occurs and the testes begin making their particular
cocktail of androgens and estrogens, then internal and external genitalia typ-
ical of males will develop. At puberty, the boy will grow pubic hair in a differ-
ent pattern than his female counterparts and experience a deepening of his
voice. He will probably have less breast tissue than the average female-bodied

Without the intervention of a Y chromosome, a fertilized egg will follow a
female development path. The fetus will develop ovaries and internal and exter-
nal genitalia typical of females. At puberty, the brain will instruct the ovaries
to produce a different cocktail of androgens and estrogens that stimulate fem-
inine patterns of body fat, an upside-down triangle of pubic hair, breasts, and a
menstrual cycle.

Becoming a “man” or “woman” in the United States today, though, involves
more than just physical development. It is considered normal for a male-bodied
person, for example, to identify as male, feel good about one’s identity as a man,
and behave in masculine ways. This is his gender identity, a sense of oneself
as male or female. Most of us also learn to communicate our gender identity
through our appearance, dress, and behavior. This is our gender expression.

Most of us assume that one’s body, gender identity, and gender expression
will all line up but, as Georgiann’s case illustrates, sometimes they don’t. Doz-
ens of conditions can result in a body that isn’t clearly male or female, or one
that doesn’t match the identity or expression of the person who inhabits it. In
fact, it is estimated that at least one out of every hundred people is intersex and
more than one in ten report feeling as masculine as they do feminine, or more
gender atypical than typical.7

T a b l e 2 . 1  | stePs toWard BecoMing a “Man” or a “WoMan”
in the united states

Step Male Path Female Path

chromosomes XY XX

gonads testes ovaries

hormones androgens/estrogens estrogens/androgens

external genitalia penis, scrotum clitoris, labia

internal genitalia seminal vesicles, prostate,
epididymis, vas deferens

vagina, uterus, fallopian

secondary sex

pubic hair, deep voice,
Adam’s apple

pubic hair, breasts,

gender identity male-identified female-identified

gender expression masculine feminine

Chapter 2  I D E A S14

The 10 Percent

People with intersex bodies are living proof that not everyone fits into a gender
binary that allows only for opposite sexes. We all almost certainly know at least
one intersex person—and we likely don’t know who they are. Like Georgiann,
sometimes even the people with the intersex condition don’t know they are
intersex. While some people are diagnosed as intersex at birth, other times it’s
discovered later in life; sometimes a person never learns of it at all.

Some intersex conditions are chromosomal. While most humans have XX or
XY sex chromosomes, others are XXY, XXXY, XXX, XYY, or X. These condi-
tions are caused by an anomaly in the cell division with which our bodies make
egg and sperm. Sometimes sex chromosomes “stick” to each other and resist
dividing with the rest of our chromosomes. Through this process, a person can
make a sperm or egg with no chromosomes or two chromosomes instead of just
one. In other cases, variations in development can produce male-bodied indi-
viduals with XX chromosomes (in which a gene on the Y chromosome critical
for the development of testes has crossed over onto an X) and female-bodied
individuals with XY chromosomes (in which that same gene was damaged or

A person can carry XXY chromosomes, for example, if a sperm carrying an
X and a Y merges with an egg with an X.8 A person born with three X chromo-
somes (after an XX egg merges with an X sperm) has what is called triple X syn-
drome.9 Some women are born with only one chromosome, which occurs when
an X egg or sperm merges with an egg or sperm without a sex chromosome.10
Because the Y chromosome has so few genes, men can’t be born with only a Y;
an X is essential to life.

With the exception of being born with a lone Y, none of these conditions is
fatal and both children and adults with these conditions tend to blend in with
XY and XX people relatively easily. Most have gender identities that match the
appearance of their perceived sex. Most XXX women will never even know they
have a chromosomal condition at all because they typically don’t exhibit any
symptoms (other than being slightly tall). People with XXY chromosomes are
often especially tall and have broader hips and less body hair than men who
are XY. Women with only one X are somewhat more recognizable; they tend
to be a bit short and have distinctive features. People with these chromosomal
conditions are sometimes ( but not always) infertile and sometimes ( but don’t
always) face specific health problems.

Intersex conditions can also be caused by hormones. Sometimes a fetus has
a hyperactive adrenal gland that produces masculinizing hormones. If the fetus
is XX, then the baby will be born with an enlarged clitoris that resembles a
small-to-medium-sized penis. Most babies born with this condition identify as
female when they grow older and are perfectly healthy, as it is not a medical prob-

T H e B i N a R Y a N d O U R B O d i e s 15

lem to have a slightly large clitoris. Georgiann’s condition is also a hormone-
based departure from the path to unambiguous male and female bodies; it is
caused by an inability of cells to recognize androgens released by the testes
both before and after birth. All of these outcomes occur in nature and reflect
varieties of human development.

The gender binary, however, leaves no room for variety, so sometimes
intersex children still undergo surgery in order to bring their bodies into line
with social expectations, even when surgery is medically unnecessary.11 Upon
adulthood, many of these children have questioned the necessity of these pro-
cedures, noting the pain and suffering that accompanies any surgery, the fre-
quent loss of physical function, the inability of infants or small children to give
consent, and the mis-assignment of children to the “wrong” side of the binary.
The work of intersex activists—those who, like Georgiann, have been trying to
draw attention to the problems with medically unnecessary surgery before the
age of consent—has influenced many doctors to delay surgery until people with
intersex bodies can make informed decisions, but surgeries on infants have not
ended. Discomfort with bodies that deviate from the gender binary continues
to motivate some physicians and parents to choose medically unnecessary sur-
gery for infants and children.

Another example of a group whose gender markers sometimes don’t con-
form to the gender binary are, in many parts of the Western world today, called
transgender. Also referred to simply as trans, the
term refers to a diverse group of people who experi-
ence some form of gender dysphoria, a discomfort
with the relationship between their bodies’ assigned
sex and their gender identity, or otherwise reject the
gender binary.

In the United States, trans-identified people have
recently gained much greater visibility. Laverne Cox,
for example, star of the television show Orange Is
the New Black, appeared on the cover of Time maga-
zine and was named Woman of the Year by Glamour
magazine in 2014. Olympic decathlon gold medalist
Caitlyn Jenner announced her tran sition on the cover
of Vanity Fair in 2015. Jazz Jennings, a transgender
teenager, was given a reality show on TLC that same
year. And in 2017, Danica Roem became the first
openly trans person elected to a state legislature;
she defeated the incumbent, a man who had intro-
duced a bill that would have restricted trans rights.

The term trans includes people who undergo a
full surgical transition, but also people who do not.

danica roem is a singer in a death
metal band and the first openly trans
person to be elected and ser ve in a u.s.
state legislature.

Chapter 2  I D E A S16

Some want nothing more than to be as male or female as possible. To this end,
some trans people take hormones to masculinize or feminize their bodies, have
gender-confirmation surgeries to remake their bodies into ones with which they
feel more comfortable, and live as the other sex. Others do only some or none
of these things. Thomas Beatie, for example, made headlines when he became
pregnant with the first of what would be three children. Thomas was born female
but began to identify as a boy during childhood. He underwent some surgical
transformation at age twenty-three but chose not to undergo a hysterectomy,
preserving his ability to get pregnant and bear children.

Some trans people, then, identify as men or women, others identify as trans
men or trans women, and still others identify as nonbinary, outside of or between
the binary between male and female (also described as genderqueer). This
includes people who identify as gender fluid, without a fixed gender identity.
In light of these new terms, the word cisgender is increasingly used to refer to
male- and female-bodied people who comfortably identify and express them-
selves as men and women, respectively.

While some trans, genderqueer, gender-fluid, and nonbinary people prefer
to be referred to by the pronouns he/him and she/her, others prefer gender-
neutral pronouns like the singular they/them or an alternative gender-neutral
singular like ze/zir. Some times people choose a gender identity and stick with

Thomas beatie was female-bodied at birth but chose to live his adult life as a man. because he
opted not to undergo a hysterectomy, he was able to give birth to three children.

T H e B i N a R Y a N d O U R B O d i e s 17

it; other times they evolve. Increasingly, social organi-
zations are responding to these preferences. Facebook
now offers dozens of gender-identity labels as well as a
freeform field. It also allows people to choose up to ten
identities and decide which friends see which, allowing
users to control how they pre sent themselves to differ-
ent audiences. Dating sites, including Grindr, Tinder,
and OkCupid, now allow people to identify as nonbinary.
Nods to nonbinary identities, gender fluidity, and sim-
ple nonconformity are happening throughout American
society. The makeup company Cover Girl, for example,
hired James Charles to be its first male-identified ambas-
sador and Calvin Klein released a fragrance it describes
as “gender free.”

These new ideas, shifting policies, and corporate deci –
sions are increasingly inclusive of the estimated 10 per –
cent (or more) of the human population who don’t—or
don’t want to—fit into a rigid gender binary. And it’s
becoming clearer, as we learn more about both biology
and identity, that there is no obvious way we could place
them into the binary anyway. How would we decide
where people with intersex bodies go? To qualify as
male or female, does a person’s body have to match every
gender criterion, from chro mosomes to hormones to
genitals to identity? If so, what do we call the estimated
76 million people on earth who can’t claim a “perfectly”
male or “perfectly” female body? Would it be better to
pick just one criterion as the determinant of sex? Which
one? Should genitals trump chromosomes? Or are chro-
mosomes more “fundamental”?

Moreover, who cares? If bodies function but don’t fit into the gender binary,
is that a problem? Who gets to decide? And where do we draw the line? How
many millimeters separate a child with a small penis at birth and a child diag-
nosed as intersex? And if someone’s body does fit all the criteria but their iden-
tity and expression diverge, why not give them tools that allow them to better
fit their bodies to their gender identity, just as we provide eyeglasses or allow
surgery for people with limited vision? How much body manipulation is “good”
and how much is “bad”? And who gets to decide what to demand or allow?

Questions abound. And the truth is, we can’t answer them satisfactorily. We
can’t because we’re trying to impose a false binary on reality. Human bodies
just don’t come in the neat packages a gender binary assumes. Not even, in fact,
when we consider the 90 percent of the population who seem like they do.

a brand’s willingness to hire
James charles—covergirl’s first
coverboy—indicates growing sup-
port of genderqueer performances.

Chapter 2  I D E A S18

The Other 90 Percent

Remember, the gender binary doesn’t just allow for only two sexes, it also makes
the much stronger claim that we are “opposite sexes.” The idea of “oppositeness”
makes blurring the boundaries between masculinity and femininity “queer”
and encourages cisgender men and women to maximize apparent difference in
their gender expression, making the gender binary appear more real than it is.
This is necessary because male and female bodies are not in a biological binary
at all. They are far more alike than different. Even for physical characteristics on
which there is a clear gender difference, we see a great deal of overlap.

Height is a great example. The average man is five and a half inches taller
than the average woman.12 So men are taller than women, right? Well, not really.
The average man is taller than the average woman, but because both men and
women come in a range of heights, some women are taller than many men, and
many men are taller than some women. This is not a binary difference, one that
posits that all men are taller than all women; it’s an average difference, a mea-
sure of tendency, not absolutes (Figure 2.2).

We see this type of overlap in all sex-related traits. There are hairy women
and men who can’t grow a mustache; men with breasts and women with flat chests;

f i g u r e 2 . 2  | the r ange and overlaP in height aMong
aMerican Men and WoMen





59 61 63 65 67 69 71 73 75
Height (inches)




Source: Cheryl D. Fryar, Qiuping Gu, and Cynthia L. Ogden, “Anthropometric reference data for children and
adults: United States, 2007–2010,” National Center for Health Statistics, Vital and Health Statistics 1, no. 252
(October 2012).

T H e B i N a R Y a N d O U R B O d i e s 19

women with strong bodies and broad shoul ders
and slender men who lift weights with little result.
Even our reproductive abilities aren’t perfectly binary.
There are women who can’t bear children, includ-
ing all women who live past menopause. The truth
is that our physical traits—height, hairiness, shape,
strength, agility, flexibility, and bone structure—
overlap far more than they diverge and vary widely
over the course of our lives.

We believe in a gender binary, though, so the
vast majority of cisgender people work hard to try
to minimize this overlap, pressing our bodies into
ideal male or female shapes. This is true even of
the people we consider to be the most naturally
perfect. Supermodel Adriana Lima, for example,
once revealed the incredible routine she uses to
prepare her body for the Victoria’s Secret catwalk.13
Already genetically blessed with a culturally ideal
female body, she nonetheless has to train, restrict,
and prepare. For months before the show she works
out every day with a personal trainer. For the three
weeks before, she works out twice a day. A nutri-
tionist gives her protein shakes, vitamins, and sup-
plements to help her body cope with the workout
schedule. She drinks a gallon of water a day. For
the final nine days before the show, she consumes
only protein shakes. Two days before the show, she
begins drinking water at a normal rate; for the final
twelve hours, she drinks no water at all.

While this is an extreme example, consider how much time, energy, and
money nonsupermodels spend trying to get their bodies to conform to our
beliefs about gender. Women choose to eat salad, for example, when they’d rather
have a burger and fries, while men are encouraged to make a spectacle of over-
eating. Gyms are effectively gender segregated, with most men at the weight
machines trying to build muscles and most women on the exercise machines
trying to lose weight. Women try to tone their bodies by building lean but not
overly noticeable muscles with yoga and Pilates; men drink protein shakes and
try to bulk up. Gender differences in size and strength aren’t very pronounced
naturally, but we sure do work hard to make them appear that way.

Similarly, many women take pains to keep their faces, legs, and armpits free
of hair if there is any chance of it being spotted, sometimes shaving their entire
pubic area, too. Men’s body hair, in contrast, is seen as naturally masculine; they

victoria’s secret model adriana lima
struts her stuff on the runway, display-
ing a body bestowed to her by nature
and painstakingly sculpted by personal
trainers and dietitians.

Chapter 2  I D E A S20

have the option to let it all hang out. By shaving, women preserve the binary
idea that women don’t have body hair and men do.

We gender the hair on our heads, too. Long hair and certain short styles
signify femininity. Cropped hair is more masculine. Women bleach their hair
blonde, sometimes platinum blonde, a hair color that is natural almost exclu-
sively to children. Men almost never choose this color. When women go gray,
they often cover it for fear of looking old. On men, in contrast, gray hair is often
described as a sexy “salt-and-pepper” look.

People also tend to wear clothes that preserve the illusion of the gender
binary. This starts when we’re children, partly because clothes for kids are
designed to emphasize gender difference.14 Color-coding is one way we do it,
with reds, grays, blacks, and dark blues for boys, and pinks, purples, turquoises,
pale blues, and whites for girls. Beyond the gendered superhero/princess
divide, boys’ clothes are also decorated with trucks, trains, and airplanes; girls’
with sparkly stars, hearts, and flowers. Even the animals decorating children’s
clothes are gendered, with lions and dinosaurs for boys, and kittens and bun-
nies for girls. Girls’ clothes are tighter and cut to emphasize curves that they
don’t yet have—shirts for girls, for example, sometimes cinch at the waist or
include lower necklines—whereas boys’ clothes, even in the exact same sizes,
are looser, boxier, and show off less skin. Clothes for boys are even made with
stronger fabrics and more robust stitching than those of girls, on the assump-
tion, perhaps, that boys will be active in their clothes and girls will not.

As adults, these trends in color, cut, and quality continue. Meanwhile, many
women wear padded or push-up bras to lift and enhance their breasts and wear
low-cut tops that emphasize and display cleavage (which men aren’t supposed to
have). High heels create an artificially arched spine that pushes out the breasts
and buttocks. Form-fitting clothes reveal women’s curves, while less form-
fitting or even baggy clothes on men make their bodies appear more linear and
squared off. Fitted clothes also help women appear small, while baggier clothes
make men seem larger. Trying on clothes designed for the other sex is a quick
and easy way to test how much they contribute to our masculine and feminine

When diet, exercise, and dress don’t shape our bodies into so-called opposite
ideal forms, some men and women resort to chemicals and cosmetic surger-
ies. Men are more likely than women to take steroids to increase their muscle
mass or get bicep, tricep, chin, and calf implants that make their bodies appear
more muscular and formidable. Women are more likely to take diet pills. Some
undergo liposuction. If they don’t think they’re curvy enough, some women
choose to get buttock implants or have a breast augmentation. Conversely, breast
reduction surgeries are one of the most common plastic surgeries performed on
boys and men, who are often horrified by the slightest suggestion of a “breast.”
The surgery is now the second most common cosmetic procedure for boys under

T H e B i N a R Y a N d O U R B O d i e s 21

eighteen (exceeding breast augmentation for girls of the same age) and the third
most common procedure for men of all ages.15

In addition to working on the shape of their bodies, people learn different
ways of moving their bodies that help tell a story of big, muscular men and
small, delicate women. Masculine movements tend to take up space, whereas
feminine movements minimize the space women inhabit. A masculine walk is
wide, with the arms held slightly away from the body and the elbows pointed
out. A feminine walk, in contrast, involves placing one foot in front of the other,
swinging the arms in front of the body, and tucking the elbows for a narrower
stride. A masculine seated position is spread out, disparagingly referred to as
“manspreading.” A man might open his shoulders and put his arms out to either
side and spread his legs or rest an ankle on a knee, creating a wide lap. Women,
in contrast, are taught to contain their bodies when seated. Women often sit
with their legs crossed at the knees or the ankles, with their hands in their lap,
and their shoulders turned gently in.

The sheer power we have over our bodies is illustrated by drag queens and
drag kings, conventionally gendered men and women who dress up and behave
like members of the other sex, usually for fun or pay. Some make a hobby, or
even a career, of perfecting gender display, manipulating their bodies to signify
either masculinity or femininity at will.

Drag queens and kings are excellent examples of how physical characteris-
tics can be manipulated, but we all do drag in the sense that we use our bodies
to display an artificially rigid gender binary. None of the tools used by drag
queens to make their bodies look feminine is unfamiliar to a culturally compe-
tent woman. Makeup, fitted clothes, high heels, jewelry, and carefully styled hair
are everyday tools of femininity. The queen may wear heavier makeup, higher
heels, and more ostentatious jewelry than the average woman, but it’s not really
different, just exaggerated.

Surgery to correct the “ambiguous” genitals of intersex children and gender-
affirmation surgery are both ways people respond to a gender binary that makes
their bodies problematic; working out, dieting, and push-up bras are other ways.
The cumulative  effect of this collective everyday drag show is a set of people
who act and look like “women” and a set who act and look like “men.” If male and
female bodies were naturally “opposite,” as the binary suggests, we wouldn’t
feel compelled to work so hard to make them appear that way. Instead, much of
the difference we see doesn’t emanate from our bodies themselves but rather
is the result of how we adorn, manipulate, use, and alter our bodies—including
through surgery and drugs.

In sum, the logic behind the gender binary—that people come in two strongly
distinct types—doesn’t account for people whose biological markers aren’t clearly
in the male or female category, those whose identity or expression doesn’t match
their biology, or those who are actively working to force their bodies into a binary

Chapter 2  I D E A S22

in her “ warpaint ” project, artist coco layne shows how she transitions from appearing male to
appearing female by way of her hairstyle, makeup, and clothes.

G e N d e R i d e O L O G i e s 23

that doesn’t exist in nature. Without this effort at distinction, some people would
still be what our culture considers masculine or feminine, since some of our bod-
ies do naturally conform to those types, but we wouldn’t look as different as we do.

We do this work, though, or are forced to resist it, because we live in a society
that believes in the gender binary. Not all societies do. In the next section, we’ll
take a quick tour through a few examples of societies that think about gender in
significantly different ways. It reveals that the gender binary is just one way of
thinking about the bodies with which we’re born. Gender may be universal, that
is, but how we think about it is not.


The gender binary, like the one-sex vision of the seventeenth-century anato-
mists, is an ideology, a set of ideas widely shared by members of a society that
guides identities, behaviors, and institutions. Gender ideologies are widely
shared beliefs about how men and women are and should be. The gender binary
presumes that one’s biological sex, gender identity, and gender expression all
“line up”—that is, that we are all either male-man-masculine or female-woman-
feminine. When we look around the world and backward through history, how-
ever, we don’t see a universal gender ideology. Instead, we discover a dizzying
array of different gender ideologies, ones that reveal that the gender binary is
just one of many ways of thinking about gender.

To begin, some societies acknowledge three, four, or even five genders.
When Europeans began colonizing what would become the United States in
the late 1400s, more than one hundred American Indian tribes, for example,
recognized people who were simultaneously masculine and feminine.16 These
individuals dressed and behaved like the other sex, but they weren’t consid-
ered male or female. They were third and fourth genders, described collectively
today as two-spirit. Charlie Ballard, a two-spirit who lives in Oakland and is a
descendant of the Anishinaabe, Sac, and Fox tribes, explains that a “[t]wo-spirit
is a whole person that embodies feminine and masculine traits.”17 The Navajo
also have a fifth, gender-fluid category for a person whose gender is constantly
changing, a nádleehì: sometimes a man, sometimes a woman, and sometimes a
two-spirit. If a person is a nádleehì, no one is surprised by these changes, which
can occur monthly, daily, hourly, or even by the minute.

In Hawaii, individuals who mainlanders might describe as two-spirit are
called māhū. Kaumakaiwa Kanaka’ole, a Native Hawaiian recording artist who
identifies as māhū, describes it as “the expression of the third self.”18 In the Cook
Islands, similarly identified people are called akava’ine. In Tonga, they use the

Chapter 2  I D E A S24

word fakaleiti. And in Samoa they say fa’afafine, which translates to “in the man-
ner of a woman.”19

In Oaxaca, Mexico, feminine-acting male-bodied people identify as muxe; in
Brazil, travesti; and in India and Bangladesh, hijra, a third sex that is recognized
by both governments and used in official documents.20 Unlike two-spirits and
the third genders of Polynesia, who adopt the everyday behaviors and typical
appearance of the other sex, hijras, muxes, and travestis perform a different and
sometimes exaggerated femininity. Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, who uses the pro-
noun “she,” is a hijra who lives in Maharashtra, India. She explains her hijra
identity this way:

Being called gay or a man really upsets me. . . . A hijra is [someone who has transi-
tioned from] male to female, but we don’t consider ourselves female because cul-
turally we belong to a completely different section of society. . . . They say it’s the
soul which is hijra. We feel we are neither man nor woman, but we enjoy femininity.
I enjoy womanhood, but I am not a woman.21

A muxe interviewed for the documentary Beyond Gender, who uses the pronoun
“they,” had something similar to say about identity: “There are men, women, and
muxes,” they said. “I am so comfortable being in between two. I myself represent

Two hijras prepare to dance during a transgender conference in new delhi.

G e N d e R i d e O L O G i e s 25

duality of two things because I have the strength of a male and the sensitivity of a
female.”22 Another interviewee explained that they thought that generally people
were fearful of the spaces in between masculinity and femininity, but that “being
a muxe allows you to defeat that fear so that you can be your own self.”23

Both hijras and muxes represent a third gender distinct from gay men and
from each other. They reveal that there is no universal, or natural, set of gender
identities. Gender identities are specific to cultures and places, such that how a
person comes to identify depends on where and when they grow up. “I don’t think
that anywhere else it could be the exact same,” says a muxe in Oaxaca, “because
clearly the Istmo region is a thing of its own with a history of years and years.
It’s not a recent thing and this is what makes it unique. Obviously you cannot
export it or replicate it.”24 Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, or Danica Roem may not
have identified as trans if they had grown up somewhere else or at another point
in history. This isn’t to say that their experience here and now isn’t authentic,
only to suggest that how we interpret our feelings about our bodies will vary
depending on the cultural resources we have for thinking about gender.

Genders other than man and woman are part of traditions all over the world:
Pakistan, Thailand, Indonesia, Italy, Kenya, Tanzania, the Philippines, Nepal,
Oman, Benin, Myanmar, Madagascar, Siberia, New Zealand, Australia, Peru,
Ethiopia, Egypt, the Congo, and likely more.25 Each of these cultures differs
in how it conceptualizes the categories it recognizes and what role nonbinary
people play. Sometimes they are expected to “prove” their membership by chang-
ing their bodies. Travestis, for example, are expected to feminize their bodies
and hijras traditionally must show impotence. Other times the only requirement
is community acknowledgment, as is the case for two-spirits.

In other words, genitals don’t always determine one’s gender. This is the case
for the Gerai in West Borneo. The anthropologist Christine Helliwell spent time
living with this group of subsistence farmers, immersing herself in the Dayak
culture. They were studying her, too, and she discovered that her gender was
uncertain to them for some time. This was, she said,

despite the fact that people [knew] both that I had breasts (this was obvious when
the sarong that I wore clung to my body while I bathed in the river) and that I had
a vulva rather than a penis and testicles (this was obvious from my trips to defe-
cate or urinate in the small stream used for that purpose, when literally dozens of
people would line the banks to observe whether I performed these functions differ-
ently from them).26

From her Western point of view, breasts and a vulva counted as strong evidence
she was female, but not to the Gerai. “Yes, I saw that you had a vulva,” said a
member of the community when she inquired, “but I thought that Western men
might be different.”

Chapter 2  I D E A S26

For the Dayak, being a man or woman is not tied to genitals. It is tied to exper-
tise. A “woman” is a person who knows how to distinguish types of rice, store them
correctly, and choose among them for different uses. As Helliwell learned more
about rice and gained practice in preparing and cooking it, she became “more
and more of a woman” in their eyes. Still, for many, her gender remained at least
a little ambiguous because she “never achieved anything approaching the level
of knowledge concerning rice-seed selection held by even a girl child in Gerai.”

The Dayak are not unique in divorcing gender from genitals. The Hau in
New Guinea do, too. They see masculinity and femininity as parts of the char-
acter that grow and fade with age and experience. For the Hau, children become
male or female at puberty and then, over the life course, men lose masculin-
ity with every son they father and women gain masculinity with each son they
bear, until elders are again genderless. In pre-1900s Japan, in the years after
puberty but before boys became full-fledged adults, they could occupy the sta-
tus of another age-constrained gender: wakashu, a highly desirable third gender
permitted to have sex with both men and women.27

Among the Lovedu in Zambia, gender is assigned neither by genitals nor
age but by status.28 A high-ranking woman “counts” as a man. She might marry
a young woman and be the socially recognized “father” to their children (who
are biologically fathered by the young woman’s socially endorsed lover). A sim-
ilar system has been documented among the Nnobi in Nigeria.29

In the Netherlands, children are taught that men and women are different
but overlapping categories.30 The Dutch do not teach children that men have
“male” hormones and women have “female” hormones, as we typically, and
wrongly, do in the United States. Instead, they teach them that all people have a
mix of so-called male and female hormones, just in different proportions, which
is true.31 Further, they also emphasize that hormone levels vary among men
and among women (not just between them) and that these levels rise and fall in
response to different situations and as people of both sexes age.

Sometimes the biological quirks of a community shape its gender ideology.
In an isolated village in the Dominican Republic, it became common for girls to
become boys at puberty. A rare genetic condition called 5-alpha-reductase defi-
ciency became concentrated in the community. The condition made genetically
male children appear to be female until puberty, at which time what had been
thought to be a clitoris grew into a penis and their testes suddenly descended
from their abdomen. These children would then simply adopt male identities
and live as men the rest of their lives. The villagers experienced this as a com-
pletely routine event, calling such boys guevedoces, or “eggs at twelve.” A simi-
lar phenomenon happens among the Simbari in Papua New Guinea. They name
the girls who grow up to be men kwolu-aatmwol, or “female thing transforming
into male thing.”

G e N d e R i d e O L O G i e s 27

In some places, strict social rules lead to the acceptance of temporary or
permanent sex-switching. In Afghanistan, girls are not allowed to obtain an
extensive education, appear in public without a male chaperone, or work outside
the home.32 These restrictions are typically discussed as a burden for girls and
women, but they can also be a burden on families. Daughters can only go out in
public if they are chaperoned by a brother. Having a brother gives girls freedom
and parents more flexibility; they can send their children on errands, to school,
or on social visits without their supervision. Since boys can also work outside
the home, sons can be a source of extra income. Families without sons can’t do
any of these things, so some simply pick a daughter to be a boy. They cut her
hair, change her name, and put her in boy’s clothes. This type of child is called a
bacha posh, or “dressed up as a boy.” One father of a bacha posh explains:

It’s a privilege for me, that she is in boys’ clothing.  .  .  . It’s a help for me, with the
shopping. And she can go in and out of the house without a problem.

Sex-switched children are accepted in Afghanistan. In fact, the phenomenon is
common enough that most people are unsurprised when a biological girl sud-
denly becomes a social boy. Relatives, friends, and acquaintances accept and
participate in the illusion. Later, when the child reaches puberty, she becomes

Mehran rafaat, a six-year-old bacha posh in a fghanistan, poses cheekily with her twin sisters.
a fter puberty, she will stop playing the part of a boy and be considered a girl again.

Chapter 2  I D E A S28

female again. Meanwhile, the family might choose
a younger sibling to take over her role.

Unlike a bacha posh in Afghanistan, girls in
Albania can live as boys and grow up to be socially
recognized men.33 To do so, girls have to publicly
promise they’ll remain virgins. The role of the virg-
jinesha, or “sworn virgins,” emerged in the early
1400s when war left a dearth of men in many com-
munities. Since only men had certain rights—to
buy land, for example, or pass down wealth—all
families needed either a biological man or some-
one  who could stand in for one. Many girls would
take the oath after their father or brother died. A
similar identity emerged in the African Dahomey
Kingdom in the 1700s; when the male population
was decimated by war, women were allowed to
become warriors, but only if they promised to remain

“It was my decision as well as the family’s,”
explained Nadire Xhixha, who became a virgjine-
sha at thirteen years old when the only boy among
her eight siblings tragically died. Speaking of her
young adulthood, she said: “I lived freely, like all
men back then. I smoked, I drank rakia [fruit brandy]
and did many other things that were characteristic
of men at the time.” Xhixha lived the rest of her life

as a man: “I’ve never done women’s domestic chores such as cleaning and cook-
ing. I lived in the village and worked alongside men. I worked hard. I worked
like a man and lived like one.”35 Xhixha is one of a dwindling group of sworn
virgins who still live in Albania today. As women are granted more rights, fewer
girls feel the need to adopt a male identity for themselves or their families.36

How many genders are there? Is gender flexible? Can it change over the life
course? Is it harmful to adopt a different gender identity for strictly practical
reasons? Does it have anything at all to do with genitals? The answers to all
these questions make sense only in concrete and specific times and places. Our
sexed bodies are real, but gender ideologies can vary considerably, leading us
to interpret our bodies, and our feelings about them, in many different ways.
Might we have identified differently if we had grown up with different opportu-
nities or faced different demands?

The ideology that dominates in the West—the gender binary—is somewhat
unusual in requiring all bodies to fit into two and only two categories. It
demands that certain traits and talents align with our bodies throughout our

haki is one of the remaining
“sworn virgins” of a lbania. born
female, haki has lived her entire
adult life as a man. 

T H e B i N a R Y a N d e V e R Y T H i N G e L s e 29

entire lifetime, to the exclusion of aspects of one’s personality or other factors
such as age, status, or expertise. We impose this binary on our bodies, as we’ve
discussed, but also, as we’ll talk about next, everything else.


Gender is a social construct, an arbitrary but influential shared interpretation
of reality.37 Social constructs are the consequence of social construction, the
process by which we layer objects with ideas, fold concepts into one another,
and build connections between them. The metaphor of “construction” draws
attention to the fact that we are making something. This construction is “social”
because, to be influential in society, the meaning ascribed to something must
be shared.

Consider the word hippo as an example. The word doesn’t look or sound any-
thing like an actual hippopotamus, but English speakers have agreed that this
particular assortment of lines and curves means a giant, gregarious, aquatic
artiodactyl with stumpy legs and thick skin. And, likewise, when I say “hip”
plus “oh,” you know what I mean because we’ve given that order of those sounds
that meaning.

Language is just an elaborate series of social constructs, but so is much of
our daily lives. Most of us, in fact, start off every morning with a social con-
struct: breakfast. In the United States, people sometimes call breakfast the
“most important meal of the day.” In parts of Eastern Europe, like Poland and
Hungary, they double down on this idea, enjoying a traditional “second break-
fast” (as do the Hobbits of Middle Earth). During the Middle Ages in Europe,
though, they skipped breakfast altogether. The influential thirteenth-century
Dominican priest Thomas Aquinas called breakfast praepropere, roughly trans-
lated as “the sin of eating too soon.” It was allowed only for children, the elderly,
the weak, and hard laborers.38

Whether one eats in the morning, and how often, is a social construct; so is
what one eats. In the United States, it’s traditional to eat either bacon and eggs
or something sweet like cereal or pancakes, but breakfast varies around the
world. In Korea, a traditional breakfast includes a savory broth-based soup with
vegetables, something most Americans would recognize as lunch. In Japan,
breakfast is often a rice stir-fry with dried fish in soy sauce. In Istanbul, it
includes a healthy serving of olives. In Iceland, a slurp of cod liver oil. In Egypt,
fava beans and a tomato-cucumber salad.39 The variation in traditions reveals
that “breakfast food” is a social construct.

We gender sweet and savory foods as feminine and masculine, respectively,
too. Women can and do eat bacon and eggs for breakfast, but shoveling in a good,

Chapter 2  I D E A S30

hearty portion of salty, fatty protein is a manly way to eat breakfast. And while
men often have a sweet tooth, a waffle drenched in syrup-covered strawberries
with a dollop of whip cream is a meal more easily associated with women. This
gendering of breakfast food is an example of the social construction of gender.

The Social Construction of  Gender

In the process of socially constructing the world, we often layer objects, charac-
teristics, behaviors, activities, and ideas with notions of masculinity or feminin-
ity. Sociologists use gender as a verb when talking about the process by which
something becomes coded as masculine or feminine. So we will sometimes say
something is “gendered” or that we “gender” or are “gendering” things.

We gender just about everything. Ask yourself: Who, stereotypically, is a
sports fan? Who do we expect to play rugby? Soccer? How much opportunity
do women have to play American football? Men are allowed to figure skate, but
are male figure skaters “masculine”? Are women basketball players feminine?
Who cheers for whom?

Who, stereotypically, drinks Diet Coke? Coke Zero? Monster energy drinks?
At dinner, who do we expect will order a steak? A salad? Who do we think is
more likely to become a vegetarian? At a bar who, stereotypically, orders beer?
A cosmopolitan? Whiskey? White wine?

Who, stereotypically, plays the drums? The flute? Who DJs? Who dances?
Who sings? Which teenagers, typically, babysit? And which mow lawns? Who
do you expect to major in computer science, engineering, physics? How about
nursing or elementary education? After college, who, stereotypically, becomes
a therapist? A CEO? For those who do not go to college, who do we expect will
become a construction worker? A receptionist?

Even animals are divided by gender. In children’s books, mice and rabbits
are usually made to be female, but wolves and bears are made to be male. Are
men, in their heart of hearts, allowed to love unicorns? Are women expected to
have a pet snake?

Dogs, physics, energy drinks, and bacon and eggs. All these things are
associated with masculinity, thrown together in a senseless pile. Whiskey and
lawn-mowing share little in common, except that we associate them with men.
Likewise with femininity. Nothing connects Diet Coke, ice skating, and being a
therapist except the cultural prescriptions tying them all to women. Our social
constructs, then, the collection of things we lump together as masculine or fem-
inine, don’t rely on logical connections between and among them. Instead, they
are a jumble of unrelated ideas.

Not only are these things mostly unrelated, they’re often contradictory. Con-
sider how women are believed to be naturally inclined to do the most selfless

T H e B i N a R Y a N d e V e R Y T H i N G e L s e 31

job in the world (raising children) at the same time they’re stereotyped as vain
and overly concerned with trivial, superficial things (like fashion and makeup).
If the latter is true, do women really make good parents? Likewise, men are
believed to be especially capable of running a company, but they are also ste-
reotyped as dopes who can’t be counted on to remember to run the dishwasher.
Are they focused and competent or not?

The gender binary also causes us to falsely disconnect masculine ideas from
feminine ones, making it harder to form connections between these ideas. For
example, even though we are taught that women have small hands and good
coordination, making them ideal for needlework and sewing, we rarely notice
that such characteristics would also make them excellent surgeons. The ways in
which sewing and surgery are alike tends to escape our notice because they’ve
been socially connected to femininity and masculinity, respectively, which
we culturally expect to be opposites. Likewise, because we imagine men to be
rational and women emotional, we think that the opposite of rational is emo-
tional. In fact, rationality and emotion are linked. 40 When people suffer brain
trauma that interferes with their ability to feel emotions, their decision-making
powers are inhibited because emotion is a key part of careful decision-making,
not its antithesis. Our association of emotion with women and rationality with
men, however, falsely presents them as opposites.

Seeing Gender

We’ve grown up learning to see gender in the world and, sometimes frustrat-
ingly, we see it whether we like it or not. Metaphorically, this is because we wear
gender binary glasses—a pair of lenses that separates everything we see into
masculine and feminine categories. We acquire prescriptions for our gender
binary glasses as we learn the ways of our culture. As we grow up, our prescrip-
tions get tweaked as ideas about gender change around us. Some of us may
even have weaker prescriptions than others. We all, however, own a pair.

If we belong to multiple subcultures, as most of us do, we may even have
several different pairs of glasses. Sometimes we’ll disagree about gendered
meanings because someone else sees things a bit differently. A guy who grew
up in Taos, New Mexico, with a father who sells healing crystals may have a
different idea about what counts as masculine than his college roommate whose
dad is the football coach. But when they argue, they will likely still argue about
what is and isn’t within the category of masculine. In other words, they may have
diff erent prescriptions, but they are both wearing glasses.

Our glasses help us see the world the way most other people around us do,
but they also help us preserve the binary itself. We actively use our glasses, in
other words, to gender the world around us. We need to do this because reality

Chapter 2  I D E A S32

doesn’t conform to a simple pink and blue vision of the world. Faced with these
contradictions, our glasses encourage us to engage in progressive gender
binary subdivision, the practice by which we divide and re-divide by gender
again and again, adding finer and finer degrees of masculinity and femininity
to the world. In one study, for example, boys showed little interest in My Little
Pony toys until a researcher painted one black, gave it a mohawk, and added
spiky teeth. 41 You can make a unicorn masculine after all.

We can do this progressive subdivision with just about anything. Dogs are
masculine, for example (as opposed to the feminized cat), but poodles are fem-
inine. Among poodles, though, the large standard poodle is a more mascu-
line sort, while the teensy toy poodle is more feminine. Similarly, most people
agree that cooking dinner is considered a feminine task, unless dinner involves
grilling steak in the backyard or is done for pay at a restaurant. Housework is
feminized and yard work is masculinized, unless we’re talking about flower gar-
dening, a subcategory of yard work associated with women.

The process of subdivision makes gender a complex cultural system rather
than a single, rigid division of the world into masculine and feminine. In fact,
subdivision is necessary for the whole idea of the gender binary to survive. Any
time a challenge arises, like the poodle, we can protect the binary by dismiss-
ing deviations from it with reference back to the binary itself. If the guitar is a
masculine instrument, how do we explain the pretty girl singing a love song
while gently strumming a guitar cradled in her lap? We subdivide the guitar
into electric (more masculine) and acoustic (more feminine) and further subdi-
vide playing styles such that gentle strumming is feminized, and louder, more
aggressive playing is seen as more appropriate for a man.

Likewise, if emotion is coded female, then what is anger? The masculiniza-
tion of anger is a result of subdividing emotions in order to preserve the idea
that women are more sensitive than men. Somehow our belief that men are
prone to anger coexists with our belief that they rationally control their emo-
tions. We don’t resolve the contradiction by admitting the stereotype is false.
Instead, we resolve it by subdividing emotions into masculine and feminine
types. Because of the gender binary, men can be angry without being labeled

Subdivision allows us to dismiss the toy poodle, pretty strummer, and emo-
tional man as exceptions and not question the rule. In this way, we can maintain
the illusion that the gender binary occurs naturally. Divisions of gender also
make the gender binary appear to be timeless, even as cultures are constantly
changing and the rules are being rewritten. When women began wearing pants
in the mid-1900s, for example, their choice of attire was viewed as breaking
the rule that men wore pants and women wore skirts. In the 1940s, the actress
Katharine Hepburn was more than a little scandalous in slacks. By the 1960s,

T H e B i N a R Y a N d e V e R Y T H i N G e L s e 33

tight jeans and hip-hugging slacks further feminized pants, subdividing that
category of clothing to reaffirm the binary. Today the binary persists despite
women’s ubiquitous adoption of pants. It just looks a little different: Men wear
“men’s pants” and women wear “women’s pants.” Progressive subdivision, then,
makes the gender binary endlessly flexible, able to accommodate whatever
challenges and changes emerge over time.

Thanks to our gender binary glasses, gender becomes part of how our brain
learns to organize the world. Cells in our brains that process and transmit infor-
mation make literal connections so some ideas are associated with other ideas
in our minds. This phenomenon, called associative memory, is a very useful
human adaptation. It’s how we learned to think “big mouth, sharp teeth” and
then “danger!” It’s why we couldn’t separate the idea “red” from “stop” even if we
tried. (Both associations today can save our lives.) Associative memory latches
onto gender, too, so when we grow up with a gender binary, our brain forms
clusters of ideas revolving around the concepts of masculinity and femininity.
Our brains, in other words, encode the gender binary.

Researchers can tap into our subconscious brain organization with the
Implicit Association Test (IAT). 42 The IAT measures subconscious beliefs by
comparing how quickly we can make connections between items. We are faster
to connect two associated items than nonassociated items. In one study, gender-
stereotyped words like mechanic and secretary were flashed on a computer
screen, followed by a male or female name. 43 The viewer’s task was to identify
the name as male or female as quickly as possible. Results showed that, on aver-
age, it takes longer for a person to identify a name as male if it was preceded
by a feminized word like secretary than with a masculinized word like mechanic.
Viewers have to cognitively “shift gears.” Many studies have confirmed this
experiment, showing that we unconsciously associate feminine things with one
another and masculine things with one another. (You can take the IAT yourself
online at

Another term for such embedded associations is stereotypes: fixed, over-
simplified, and distorted ideas about categories of people. People who explicitly
endorse gender stereotypes tend to show the strongest unconscious associations,
but even those of us who refute stereotypes test “positive” for them on the IAT.
Stereotypes are a natural way for human brains to work and it may be impos-
sible to rid ourselves of them. Knowing them simply means that we’re well social-
ized to a particular culture. We can be aware of how they distort our perception
of reality and try to counter our brains’ automatic stereotyping, but only if we
have attention to spare. 44

When our ability to think about resisting gender stereotypes is inhibited
(when we are distracted or asked to respond quickly), essentially all of us revert
to stereotypical thinking. For instance, when asked to perform the challenging

Chapter 2  I D E A S34

task of recalling a series of random words, study respondents often use the gen-
der binary as a scaffold on which to structure their recollections. In one such
study, people were offered a set of masculine, feminine, and neutral words like
wrestling, yogurt, bubble bath, ant, pickup truck, shirt, water, steak, and flower.
When asked to recall the words later, respondents would cluster the words by
gender, saying wrestling, pickup truck, and steak in a row, then yogurt, bub-
ble bath, and flower. 45 Sometimes they would even add gendered words that
weren’t on the original list, adding beer, perhaps, or perfume because they fit
so nicely with the concepts of steak and flower. Somehow, they just seemed to

Socially trained brains help us get along with others whose brains are
similarly trained. In other words, our gender binary glasses give us cultural
competence, a familiarity and facility with how the members of a society typ-
ically think and behave. It’s how we know most people think unicorns are sup-
posed to appeal only to girls, even if we personally believe that the love of
unicorns should know no bounds. This knowledge is important. In order to inter-
act with others in a meaningful way, we need a shared understanding of the world.
How do we communicate the idea of hippo, after all, if we’re the only person
around who thinks it’s pronounced “washing machine”?

Whether out of conviction, mere habit, or the desire to see the world in the
same way as people around us, we routinely apply a gender binary to character-
istics, activities, objects, and people. This isn’t reality; it’s ideology. Our culture
posits a gender binary, and we apply that binary to our world by peering at it
through gender binary glasses. And those glasses, it turns out, bring the world
into false focus.

Blurred Vision and Blind Spots

Our gender binary glasses enable us to perceive the world the way the people
around us do, but they also often distort our vision. 46 Our lenses warp reality,
causing us to dismiss, forget, and misremember the exceptions to the rule we
encounter daily. Without this distortion, this constant inattention to deviations
from the binary, the gender binary would appear patently false. It’s preserved
not because it’s real, then, but because we learn to ignore or un-see evidence
that falsifies it.

In a classic study, for example, five- and six-year-olds were shown both
stereotype-consistent pictures (e.g., a boy playing with a train) and stereotype-
inconsistent pictures (e.g., a boy cooking on a stove). 47 One week later, asked
to recall what they had seen, children had more difficulty remembering the
stereotype-inconsistent pictures than the stereotype-consistent ones. They also
sometimes reversed the sex of the person in the picture (e.g., they remembered

T H e B i N a R Y a N d e V e R Y T H i N G e L s e 35

a girl cooking) or changed the activity (e.g., they remembered a boy fixing a
stove). Many later studies have confirmed that children are more likely to for-
get an experience that deviates from stereotypes—skateboarding girls or belly-
dancing boys—than one that fits in. 48

This is true of adults, too. Stereotype-consistent experiences are more likely
to be remembered and remembered correctly than stereotype-inconsistent
ones. 49 We pay less attention to stereotype-inconsistent information and are
quicker to forget it. When it is ambiguous as to whether what we are observ-
ing is stereotype-consistent or stereotype-inconsistent, we tend to assume the
former, strengthening our preconceived notions. We may assume, for example,
that a man who shoves a woman is attacking her, while a woman who shoves a
man is defending herself, using gender stereotypes to interpret the encounter.
Further, when we actively seek information, we tend to seek that which affirms
our beliefs, not that which challenges them. Whenever stereotypes are acti-
vated, those stereotypes influence our attention, thinking, and memory, and they
do so in their own favor.

Stereotypes are so powerful, in fact, that they are a source of false memo-
ries. In one study, people were asked to watch a dramatized account of a bicycle
theft.50 The actors playing the thieves varied. In some videos, the criminal was
a masculine man, in others a feminine man, a feminine woman, or a masculine
woman. Study subjects could remember more about the theft if the criminal
conformed to gender stereotypes. This is because, just as with the words yogurt,
bubble bath, and flower, it is easier to remember a set of ideas if they conform
to a preexisting schema (in this case, criminal behavior = masculine = men).
The authors write, “When eyewitnesses are exposed to a theft, gender schemas
will enhance recall,” but only if the criminal followed gender expectations and

This phenomenon applies even to memories we would think would be imper-
vious to such effects. In one surprising study, French high school students were
asked to fill out a quick survey about whether men or women were better at math
and art.52 Reminded of the gender stereotypes, they were then asked to report
their own scores on a national standardized test they’d taken two years prior.
Amazingly, women underestimated their own performance on the math portion
of the test and overestimated their performance on the art portion. Men misre-
membered in the opposite direction.

In these ways, and in many others, our gender binary glasses distort what
we see. They often bring things into false focus and affect our cognition and
memory. When we see counterevidence, it tends not to enter into our daily
interpretation of the world. We may soon misremember it as having confirmed
our preexisting beliefs. And our brain has been trained to direct us to make
gender-stereotypical associations even if we are consciously prepared to say
those stereotypes are wrong.

Chapter 2  I D E A S36

R ev isiti ng t he Q uestion

I f w e d o n ’ t l e a r n t h e i d e a o f t h e g e n d e r b i n a r y b y
o b s e r v i n g t h e p e o p l e a r o u n d u s , w h e r e d o e s t h e i d e a
c o m e f r o m?

Humans socially construct their worlds and gender is one way we do so. We

use a gender binary to understand things, ideas, objects, activities, places, and
more. We even apply the binary rule to our bodies, often treating gender-
nonconforming bodies as in need of being fixed and putting responsibility on
them for the misfit between their experience of gender and our cultural norm
rather than on the gender binary itself. Many other cultures offer more space
between and outside of male and female gender categories. This has been chang-
ing in the United States, as all cultures change. Still, despite growing awareness
of nonbinary bodies, most Americans are still uncomfortable with the more
than 10 percent of people who challenge their placement on the binary.

The gender binary also continues to press the remaining 90 percent to
embody the gender binary much more closely than they naturally do. Mean-
while, everybody tends to underperceive variation in gender identity and expres-
sion. We apply a binary gender ideology to the world and what we end up seeing
and remembering is false on many fronts. We assume our culture’s arbitrary
connections are the only way that the binary can be organized, erase nonbinary
alternatives in our and other cultures, and subdivide our gender categories to
draw attention away from the ways the binary doesn’t work. This leads us to for-
get that gender stereotypes fail to describe most people we know well, including
ourselves, and fail to notice that masculinity and femininity are jumbled and
often contradictory categories. Our gender binary glasses distort our cognition,
influencing what we see, as well as if and how we remember it.

Ne x t . . .

The idea that gender is socially constructed likely bumps up against things
we hear about blue and pink brains, the male sex drive, or female empathy, all
seemingly irrefutable biological differences between men and women. With
this in mind, we’ll tackle this question next:

T h e g e n d e r b i n a r y m i g h t b e a n i d e o l o g y, b u t t h e r e a r e r e a l
d i f f e r e n c e s b e t w e e n m e n a n d w o m e n , r i g h t ?

This question is so much harder to answer than you might think.

T H e B i N a R Y a N d e V e R Y T H i N G e L s e 37

F O R F U R T H e R R e a d i N G

Fausto-Sterling, Anne. “The Five Sexes: Why Male and Female Are Not Enough.”
The Sciences (March/April 1993): 20–24.

Lorber, Judith. Paradoxes of Gender. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.
Martin, Carol, and Diane Ruble. “Children’s Search for Gender Cues.” Current Direc-

tions in Psychological Science 13, no. 2 (2004): 67–70.
Paoletti, Jo. Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America. Bloomington:

Indiana University Press, 2012.
Ridgeway, Cecilia L. Framed by Gender: How Gender Inequality Persists in the Mod-

ern World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Risman, Barbara. Where Will the Millennials Take Us: A New Generation Wrestles

with the Gender Structure. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.
Rupp, Leila. “Toward a Global History of Same-Sex Sexuality.” Journal of the His-

tory of Sexuality 10, no. 2 (2001): 287–302.

Men a r e froM north Da kota ,

woMen a r e froM South Da kota .

— k at h r y n D i n D i a 1



In a part of the ocean so deep that no light can reach it, an ang-lerfish hunts. She attracts prey with a glowing lure that springs from her forehead and looks suspiciously like something other
creatures would like to eat. No matter if they are bigger than she,
as she can swallow prey up to twice her body size.

She pays no attention to her male counterpart, who is tiny in
comparison. Females can grow over three feet long, but males are
never longer than a few centimeters. He, in contrast, needs her
desperately. Born without a lure, a male anglerfish can’t catch prey
and, without a stomach, he couldn’t digest it if he did. A male’s only
chance at survival is finding a female before he dies of starvation. If
he’s so lucky, he’ll latch onto her with his mouth, initiating a chem-
ical reaction that slowly dissolves his face into her body. Eventu-
ally he will lose all his organs and his entire body will waste away,
except his testicles. A healthy female anglerfish will carry many
pairs of testicles on her body, all that is left of the males who found
their fate with her.

This is high sexual dimorphism. The phrase refers to typical
differences in body type and behavior between males and females
of a species. Across the range of species on Earth, some are highly
sexually dimorphic and some are less so. The high end includes
the green spoonworm (the male lives its entire adult life inside the


Chapter 3  b o d i e s40

female’s digestive tract); peacocks (males carry a resplendent half-moon of a
tail with which to dazzle relatively drab females); and elephant seals (males
outweigh females by about 4,600 pounds).

Other species have much lower sexual dimorphism. The male and female
Fischer’s lovebird, for example, look so much alike that even ornithologists
(professional bird-folk) can’t tell by looking. They have identical plumage,
near-identical behavior, and their genitals are inside their bodies. Very
experienced bird handlers might be able to tell based on feeling the width of
a bird’s pelvis (the females’ are wider to allow egg-laying), but most people
have to resort to genetic testing to know for sure.

Considering the range of sexual dimorphism among animals helps us
put human sex difference in perspective. Given some of the extremes, we
should be rather impressed by how obviously similar we are. If humans were
as dimorphic by size as elephant seals, for example, the average man would
tower six feet above the average woman. If we were as sexually dimorphic
as the blanket octopus, the human man would be no bigger than a wal-
nut. Human men don’t have appendages that human women do not have
(beyond the genitals, of course), like the horns of the Alaskan moose or the
rhinoceros beetle, the mane of the lion, the poisonous claw of the platypus,

in some species, males and females appear ver y different from each other; in other species
less so. elephant seals, lions, and anglerfish are all species that are more sexually dimorphic
than humans.

41R E S E A R C H O N S E X D I F F E R E N C E S A N D   S I M I L A R I T I E S

or the bulging cheek flaps or bulbous nose of the orangutan and the probos-
cis monkey, respectively. Nor do human males come in pretty colors like the
male species of many birds. If we were like Northern cardinals, men would
be bright red with a black mask around their eyes and throat and women
would look more or less as they do now.

Male and female humans are not exactly the same but, as Dorothy Say-
ers once said: “Women are more like men than anything else in the world.”2
Yet, we’re more clearly male and female than your average pair of lovebirds.
That’s why we posed the question we did at the end of the last chapter:

T h e g e n d e r b i n a r y m i g h t b e a n i d e o l o g y, b u t t h e r e a r e r e a l
d i f f e r e n c e s b e t w e e n m e n a n d w o m e n , r i g h t ?

Most Americans believe that men and women are “basically different” in
many ways and that biology explains much of this difference.3 This chap-
ter reviews the research on sex differences and similarities with the aim of
understanding whether and how men and women are basically and biologi-
cally different. Are we different? How different are we? And is biology why?
Prepare to be confused. These questions are much more difficult to answer
than you might think. The answers involve a model of the relationship
between biology and society that is far more complex than even scientists
once imagined.


From a practical perspective, getting a clear understanding of how men and
women are alike and different is a real challenge. As you’ll see, whether we find
differences, what causes those differences, and how large they are varies over
time and across cultures; bodily differences respond to psychological manipu-
lation and practice and training. They’re also sensitive to how we design studies
and define measurements. We would have to amass a lot of evidence and con-
sider all the possible influences in order to determine which differences we find
consistently and which we don’t. And that’s just what a team of psychologists
led by Ethan Zell did.

Zell and his colleagues combined over 20,000 individual studies with a com-
bined sample size of more than 12 million people.4 It included over 21,000 mea-
sures of 386 traits: data on differences between men and women in thoughts,
feelings, behaviors, intellectual abilities, communication styles and skills, person-
ality traits, measures of happiness and well-being, physical abilities, and more.

Chapter 3  b o d i e s42

They separated the variables into ones for which there appeared to be negligible to
no difference between men and women, and those for which there was evidence
for small, medium, large, or very large differences. Table 3.1 shows the results:
39 percent of possible differences were negligible to nonexistent, 46 percent were
small, 12 percent were medium, 2 percent were large, and 1 percent were very large.

The average difference between men and women—on all traits included in the
study—fell into the small category, illustrated by the bell curve in Figure 3.1. The
graph represents levels of self-esteem (from low on the left to high on the right) and
the height of the curve represents the number of people who reported each level.
Few people have very low self-esteem (far left) or very high self-esteem (far right).
While Zell and his colleagues’ analysis offered good evidence for a statistically
significant difference between men and women, it’s not a large one.

Other variables that fell into the categories of small to negligible to non-
existent differ ence included reading comprehension and abstract reasoning;
talkativeness, likelihood of self-disclosing to friends and strangers, tendency to

interrupt others, and asser tiveness
of speech; willingness to help others;
negotia tion style, approach to leader-
ship, and degree of impulsiveness;
symptoms of depression, coping strat –
egies, life satisfaction, and happi ness;
vertical jumping abil ity, overall activ-
ity levels, balance, and flexibility;
willingness to delay gratification and
attitudes about cheating; likelihood of
wanting a career that makes money,
offers security, is challenging, and
brings prestige; and some measures
of sexual attitudes and experiences
(e.g., disapproval of extramarital sex,
levels of sexual arousal, and sexual

T a b l e 3 . 1  | the Size of obServed Sex differenceS
Size of the Difference % of Variables in Each Category

Negligible to Nonexistent 39%

Small 46%

Medium 12%

Large 2%

Very Large 1%

f i g u r e 3 . 1  | An iLLUStr Ation of A
“SMALL” difference
betWeen Men And WoMen


43D E F I N I N G D I F F E R E N C E

Medium-sized differences included physical aggression and visual-spatial
abilities (turning a two- or three-dimensional object around in one’s head),
while the largest sex differences were for some measures of physical ability,
especially throwing ( because these differences are related to size, they are par-
ticularly pronounced after puberty). Large differences were also found in some
measures of sexuality: frequency of masturbation and approval of casual sex.5
Two traits show especially strong sexual dimorphism: sexual identity (most
men identify as male and most women identify as female) and sexual object
choice (most men are sexually interested in women and most women in men).
Are these, then, the “real differences” our opening question asked about?

It depends on how you define “real.”


When we wonder about the real differences between men and women, it’s help-
ful to consider what kind of evidence we would need to conclude that we’ve
discovered them. Is it enough just to be able to measure differences, like Zell
and his colleagues did? Is it important that those differences be stable? That is,
should the characteristics we’re measuring be relatively unchanged across an
individual’s life? Or, even more, true throughout human history? To count as
real, do they need to be found in all or most societies? Would finding a biologi-
cal cause of the difference make it seem more real? And if we do find a biological
cause, does it count as real only if it resists cultural influences like education
and training? The following sections explore these questions by considering
different definitions of the word “real.”

Definition 1: Sex differences are real if  we can measure them

Zell and his colleagues noted differences on 61 percent of characteristics. These
are real in that the studies they included in their summary really observed them
in real life. They are observed differences: findings from surveys, experiments,
and other types of studies that detect differences between men and women. Is
this what we mean by “real”?

Maybe not. There are lots of reasons why differences might be observed,
and we might consider some of those observations to be more indicative of an
underlying truth than others. For example, people sometimes act differently if
they’re being observed. Women smile more often than men, and men are more
likely to engage in heroic helping behavior than women, but only if they know
they’re being watched.6 Men are just as likely as women to offer emotional sup-
port to friends on social media via a private message, but less likely to do so

Chapter 3  b o d i e s44

publicly.7 When people think they’re alone or acting without an audience, sex
differences can fade or disappear.

People also lie. Men typically report higher rates of masturbation than
women, but when scientists do studies in which they increase the motivation
to be honest ( by, say, hooking up a man to a fake lie detector) and decrease
their motivation to lie ( by ensuring that the answers are anonymous), the fre-
quency with which men report masturbating drops to the same level as wom-
en’s. We see similar patterns in reported number of sexual partners and age at
first intercourse.

In other cases, psychologists have discovered that they can manipulate
study results quite easily. If you remind study subjects of a stereotype right
before the test, in a trick called priming, test scores will reflect that stereotype.
For example, if women are asked to identify themselves by their gender imme-
diately before a test of empathy, the ability to understand and sympathize with
others’ feelings, they will do better than those who didn’t answer a gender ques-
tion.8 Because women as well as men tend to associate empathy with women,
priming women to think of themselves as women encourages them to focus on
these capacities and may motivate them to try to do better. For men, reminding
them that they’re male lowers their scores.

You can also depress women’s scores on empathy tests simply by asking
them to imagine themselves as men for a few moments before they begin the
experiment. In one study, women were asked to write a fictional story about
a day in the life of a person named Paul.9 Half were asked to write in the first
person (“I”) and the other half were asked to write in the third person (“he”).
Women who wrote in the first person did better on the empathy test than their
male counterparts, but women who had imagined themselves to be men did just
as badly as the male study subjects.

Does this mean that women have an ability to be empathetic that men don’t
have, but only if they’re motivated to be so? Nope. Men can be motivated to
score higher on tests of empathy, too. You can do this by tricking them into
thinking that the task they’re performing is one that men are stereotypically
good at (perhaps telling them that you’re measuring leadership ability) or by
offering a social or financial reward for doing well.10 Similarly, men (presumably
heterosexual ones) will do better on tests of empathy if they’re told that women
really like sensitive guys.11

Observed differences may also be quite obviously the result of social and
cultural conditions. We might observe that women are more likely to carry a
purse and have long hair and men are more likely to carry a wallet and wear
their hair short. That’s real, but these are simply learned differences, ones that
are a result of how we’re raised (for example, religion or parenting) or our socio-
cultural environment (like education or media consumption). We know, for

45D E F I N I N G D I F F E R E N C E

example, that parents tend to see their sons as big, strong, and active and their
daughters as little, pretty, and cute, then treat them accordingly.12 Girl babies are
more likely to be talked to; boy babies more likely to be handled. Accordingly,
girls may develop quicker and stronger language skills than boys, while boys
might outpace girls on motor skills. Is that what we’re getting at when we’re
asking the question about real differences? Probably not. Some differences are
simply a result of how we’re treated.

The differences Zell and his colleagues observed, then, are real in that we
really observed them, but they don’t necessarily stand up when we poke and
prod at them. Some are quite obviously just norms for men and women, unre-
lated to anything but culture. Others can shift, reverse, and disappear when
we manipulate the conditions of the data collection. Perhaps what we need is a
definition that carries more heft and stands up under such examination.

Definition 2: Sex differences are real if  they are observed
in all or most contemporary and historical cultures

Questions like the one this chapter is exploring—regarding the “real” differences
between men and women—imply that we’re interested in universal human truths,
ones that are true around the world and throughout history. If we could find such
a difference, we would have a compelling reason to think it was real. The major-
ity of research on sex differences, however—in fact, the majority of research on
behavioral differences of all kinds—uses subjects only from societies that are
Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic, five words that add up to
the acronym WEIRD.13

And it turns out these samples really are weird: only 12 percent of the world’s
population lives in such a country and the people who do have been shown to be
quite unusual compared to everyone else. When we do research that compares
across cultures (over time and across countries and subcultures within a coun-
try), we discover that our weird samples have resulted in unusual findings, ones
that don’t stand up when we do research elsewhere.14

Let’s take math ability as an example.
In 1992 the toy company Mattel released a talking Barbie doll that said,

among other things, “Math class is tough!” Many people still believe that girls
and women struggle in mathematics more than boys and men.15 At the time
Barbie was making her confession, it was true. Disparities in skill emerged in
high school, with boys scoring slightly higher than girls on the math portion
of the SAT, the standardized test for college admissions.16 In the intervening
twenty years, however, the gap has narrowed as girls have started to take math
classes at the same rate as boys. This equivalence in test results suggests that

Chapter 3  b o d i e s46

the difference in performance in the 1990s had more to do with training and
practice than gender.17

If we look at mathematical abilities across developed nations, girls do about
as well as boys in about half the countries.18 In the other half, boys outperform
girls. In a few outlier countries, such as Iceland, girls outshine boys signifi-
cantly. So, whether men or women appear to be better at math depends on what
country you’re looking at. Still, boys do better than girls more often than girls
do better than boys, so maybe that’s evidence that boys are slightly better than
girls at math on average.

If you look a bit closer at the data, though, you’ll also discover that this is true
only if you compare boys to the girls in their own country. Math ability varies
so widely across societies that sometimes girls who do worse than boys in their
own country do significantly better than boys in other countries. For instance,
though Japanese girls do less well than Japanese boys, they generally outper-
form American boys by a considerable margin.19

How we measure math ability also matters. Even if men and women are
equally capable on average, men are more likely to be math geniuses.20 Boys
outnumber girls in the top 1 percent of math ability. Among twelve- to fourteen-
year-olds, math prodigies are more likely to be male at a ratio of 3:1. So that’s
impressive. But, less impressively, boys are also more likely than girls to strug-
gle with math.21 Boys are more likely than girls to get nearly all the answers on a
math test right, but they’re also more likely to get nearly all the answers wrong.
So when boys do better, they are usually also doing worse.

But, this, of course, also varies by country, over time, and across subgroups.
Even among those whose math scores are in the top 1 percent, boys outperform
girls among only some parts of the U.S. population. White male students out-
perform white female students at this high level of ability, but among Asians in
the United States, girls outperform boys. Looking cross-culturally, girls also dom-
inate the top 1 percent in Iceland, Thailand, and the United Kingdom. Boys, then,
do not always outnumber girls when we look at the highest-scoring students.
And in the United States, as girls and women have closed the gap between the
average ability of males and females, they’ve also been closing the gap at the
highest levels of mathematical ability.22 We mentioned earlier that today boys
outnumber girls at the genius level 3:1; in the 1980s, the ratio was 13:1. 23 That’s
quite a remarkable catch-up.

In any case, performance on the standardized tests used to evaluate ability
doesn’t predict who will get the highest grades in math classes. Girls in U.S.
high schools and colleges get higher grades in math than boys.24 While only
a few decades ago most math majors were men, today they’re about 50 percent
female. Six times as many women get PhDs in mathematics today as they did in
1976.25 And neither high scores on the SAT nor high grades predict who will opt

47D E F I N I N G D I F F E R E N C E

for math-related careers. Many high-scoring girls don’t go into these careers,
and many poorly scoring boys do.

So, are men better at math than women? In part, it depends on how we test
for math aptitude. If you go by standardized tests, sometimes boys outperform
girls, but if you go by grades, girls outperform boys. If you test for genius-level
math ability, boys in some populations outperform girls, but if you test for aver-
age level, girls and boys come out about even. And lastly, if you look at the most
poorly performing students, girls come off looking much more capable than
boys. But none of these generalizations about difference is consistent among
groups in any given country, across countries, or even over time in a single

In fact, the best predictor of whether boys or girls do better in math is belief.
Sex differences in math ability are lowest in countries whose citizens are least
likely to believe that men are better at it.26 There is a strong correlation between
sex differences in math ability and the level of gender inequality in a country
(Figure 3.2).27 The differences diminish, and then disappear, as men and women

f i g u r e 3 . 2  | Gender GAP in MAth AcroSS coUntrieS










Test score

between girls
and boys

Gender gap, math

Women’s emancipation (GGI)








GGI index


Note: With the exception of PRT (Portugal) and Iceland (ISL), the countries are abbreviated as their first three letters.
Source: Guiso Luigi, Fernando Monte, Paola Sapienza, and Luigi Zingales. “Culture, Gender, and Math.” Science 320,
no. 5880 (2009): 1164–65 .

Chapter 3  b o d i e s48

become more equal. It’s all about practice. When girls are required and encour-
aged to take the same classes as boys and have the opportunity to go into math-
based careers, we see the lowest sex difference on tests of math aptitude. All
this suggests that the sex difference in math performance has more to do with
training, practice, and opportunity than gender.28

This complex story about math ability is just one example of the way that
observed sex differences often vary over time and across cultures. It isn’t true
of every observed sex difference. For example, female advantage in reading
and male advantage in mental rotation (the ability to imagine an object rotat-
ing in your mind) do seem to be cross-culturally consistent, but the magnitude
of the advantage varies considerably.29 Men’s greater interest in thrill- and
adventure-seeking compared to women has remained constant since 1978, but
the size of the difference has shrunk.30

When observed sex differences show variation over time and across cultures,
it suggests that they are not inevitable and universal. When we see less varia-
tion, assuming they are “real” is more plausible. When sex differences resist
cultural influence, it might be a hint that they are not just related to gendered
stereotypes and opportunities, but may be part of being biologically human.
That’s our next definition.

Definition 3: Sex differences are real if  they are biological

Biological differences include ones caused by our genes, hormones, and our
brains. Let’s review what scientists know about our bodies and how they do,
don’t, or might contribute to sex difference and similarity.

g e n e s  Our genes are a set of instructions for building and maintaining our
bodies. Each of us has a unique set of genes, our genotype, and an observable
set of physical and behavioral traits, our phenotype. By our current working
definition, the differences described by Zell and his colleagues are biological if
they are phenotypes expressing differences shaped by our genes.

Individuals defined as genetically female carry XX chromosomes and genet-
ically male individuals carry XY. Most peo ple assume that the Y, by virtue of
being present in most men and absent in most women, is a source of sex dif-
ferences. In fact, it’s not.31 At least, not directly. As the image on the next page
shows, the X chromosome is far larger than the Y chromosome and has ten
times as much genetic material.32 Research is still ongoing, but so far it seems
that the Y chromosome doesn’t do much other than give XY fetuses function ing
testes and facilitate male fertility. Weirdly, it also causes hairy ears.33 That’s it.

Once the Y chromosome has set a body on the path to being male, though,
other genetic consequences follow. Some genes are expressed only if they are

49D E F I N I N G D I F F E R E N C E

in a male or female body, such as the genes that
allow a woman to breastfeed. The expression of
others is influenced by their hormonal environ-
ment. The baldness gene, for instance, thins hair
on the head only in the presence of high levels
of testosterone, so most women who carry the
gene don’t show signs of baldness. Curiously, the
same gene that produces high voices in women
also gives men low voices.

The fact that most women have two X chro-
mosomes and most men have only one seems
to be a greater source of sex differences than
the presence or absence of the Y. Human beings
need only one X chromosome (that’s why men
can exist with only one of them) and so women’s
two Xs are redundant. The female body responds
by using only one at a time. Which one they use,
though, is random. In some cells the X chromo-
some they received from their father is active
and, in others, the one they received from their mother.34 This means that
XX women can put a more diverse set of genes to work than can XY men. Twice
as much. And that has some interesting effects.

Men’s single X chromosome, for example, is why they are more suscep-
tible  to recessive traits, ones that won’t be expressed in the presence of a gene
for a dominant trait. If a trait carried on the X chromosome is recessive, men
are more likely to show that trait, since they need to inherit only one gene to
express the trait, whereas women need to inherit it on both their Xs. The inabil-
ity to see the difference between red and green is an example. Men are fifteen
times more likely than women to be red-green colorblind. If their single X has
the gene for colorblindness, the cells in their eyes won’t be able to detect the dif-
ference. No backup. Women, on the other hand, have to inherit two copies of the
gene to be functionally colorblind. If they inherit only one gene for colorblind-
ness, then some of the cells of their eyes will be colorblind and the other half
won’t be. So, such a woman will see the color differences better than the average
colorblind man (though not quite as clearly as if she didn’t have the gene at all).

Genetic influences like these contribute to some average physical differ-
ences between men and women. They also determine whether we develop
ovaries or testes. This then sets most of us on hormonal paths to have male or
female bodies, which influences physical outcomes like throwing ability. But
the sex chromosomes themselves—despite being one of the biological differ-
ences between the categories male and female—don’t seem to cause all that
many differences of interest.

Despite its mighty reputation, the y chro-
mosome contains substantially less
genetic material than the X chromosome.

Chapter 3  b o d i e s50

Most people, when inquiring about “real” sex differences, aren’t thinking
about breastfeeding, colorblindness, and hairy ears. They’re thinking about the
things that Zell and his colleagues measured: personality traits, emotional states,
cognitive abilities, and physical potential. Most of those things, though, don’t
have sex-specific genetic causes. At least, not ones that we’ve discovered. To con-
sider biological contributors to these other characteristics, we have to consider
the influence of hormones and brain function.

h o r m o n e s  Our hormones are messengers in a chemical communication sys-
tem. Released by glands or cells in one part of the body, hormones carry instruc-
tions to the rest of it. They trigger masculinization and feminization in utero
and at puberty. They regulate basic physiological processes, like hunger and the
reproductive cycle. And they influence our moods: feelings of happiness, confi-
dence, and contentment. They are part of what inspires us to have sex, get into (or
run away from) fights, and settle down and raise a baby.

Importantly, it’s a mistake to use binary language and say that men have
“male hormones” and women have “female hormones.” All human hormones
circulate in both men’s and women’s bodies, but some of them do so in different
proportions. Men tend to have higher levels of androgens and women higher
levels of estrogens. It’s also wrong to say that androgens are “masculinizing”
and estrogens are “feminizing.” Estrogen sometimes has the same effects in
females that testosterone has in males. During fetal development, for example,
it is estrogen, not testosterone, that produces the changes in the male brain that
differentiate men from women. Just as we are not “opposite sexes,” our hor-
mones are far from opposite in their chemical structure, presence, or function.

Still, differing levels of these hormones might contribute to sex differences.
Testosterone usually gets the most attention. In fact, testosterone is strongly
related to sex drive in both women and men and may be related weakly to phys-
ical aggression in men.35 Since most men have more free testosterone than
most women, this fact might partially explain why men are, on average, more
aggressive than women and report higher sex drives (though social explana-
tions for these likely play a role, too).36

Testosterone levels also correlate with visual-spatial ability, such as mental
rotation.37 Very high and very low levels of testosterone are correlated with poor
visual-spatial ability, so high-testosterone women and low-testosterone men do
best on visual-spatial tests because they both fall into the middle range. As
men’s and women’s hormones fluctuate, their performance on tests fluctuates as
well; women score better right before ovulation (when their testosterone levels
are highest) and men score better in the spring (when their levels are lowest).

There is good evidence, too, that the hormone cycles that regulate women’s
menstrual cycles correspond to mild changes in mood, sexual interest, and
partner choice,38 but we see no changes across the menstrual cycle in women’s

51D E F I N I N G D I F F E R E N C E

memory, creativity, problem-solving ability, or athletic, intellectual, or academic
performance.39 Men experience hormone fluctuations as well, on both daily and
seasonal cycles (testosterone is higher in the morning than other times of day,
and in the fall compared to other times of year for men in the Western Hemi-
sphere). Interestingly, studies of mood fluctuations in men find that they are
just as emotionally “unstable” as women. 40 In other words, men get “hormonal”
sometimes, too.

The relationship between hormone level and observed difference isn’t straight-
forward, though. Men’s bodies respond similarly to wide variations in testoster-
one levels (between 20 percent and 200 percent of normal). In contrast, women
have been shown to be more sensitive to lower levels of testosterone, so women
exposed to small amounts of extra testosterone tend to respond similarly to men
exposed to large amounts.41 That might explain why men and women don’t show
greater differences in sexual desire.

The differences that correlate with hormone levels are also quite small. Hor-
mone fluctuations that regulate mood, for example, are a relatively minor force
in determining our state of mind compared to, say, whether it’s Monday morn-
ing or Friday afternoon. 42 And, in any case, none of these differences has been
shown to have an impact on a person’s ability to be successful at work. Average
differences in mental rotation ability, for instance, don’t affect whether men or
women are capable of working in jobs like engineering or architecture. 43

In sum, we find differing levels of androgens and estrogens in men’s and
women’s bodies and those hormones have been linked to a limited number of
observed differences: levels of aggressiveness, sex drive, and visual-spatial
ability, as well as when ( but not whether) we experience changes in mood. All
the effects are small, with the possible exception of sex drive.

These may be good candidates for the “real” differences we’re after. And
hormones may also indirectly produce sex differences by influencing the dev el-
opment of our brains.

b r a i n s  The fetal brain develops in a sex-specific hormonal environment
and there is research suggesting that sex differences are a consequence. 44 Sci-
entists have documented average sex differences, for example, in brain anat-
omy (the size and shape of its parts), composition (characteristics of the tissue),
and function (rate of blood flow, metabolism of glucose, and neurotransmitter
levels). 45 Women have smaller brains on average (mostly explained by their
overall smaller size), and men and women have different ratios of gray matter
to white matter in some regions. 46 None of these differences is particularly pro-
nounced and all are average differences with significant overlap (like the bell
curve illustrating sex differences in self-esteem in Figure 3.1).

When we look at all the differences at once, though, we discover that female-
like structures in a single brain often coexist with male-like structures. One study,

Chapter 3  b o d i e s52

for example, examined 625 brains, measuring the ten regions with the strongest
evidence for sexual dimorphism.47 Only 2.4 percent of the brains were internally
consistent: all male-like or all female-like. This means that 97.6 percent of us are
“gender nonconforming” in our brains and more than half of brains show sub-
stantial overlap. 48 What scientists have found, then, is that there are average
differences between men and women in some structures and functions of the
brain, but that tells us little about what any given person’s brain will look like.

To complicate things further, studies tying these differences to traits or abili-
ties remain largely elusive.49 In other words, we don’t know what the differences
found in some parts of the brain actually do. Since it’s unethical to expose devel-
oping fetuses to varying levels of hormones merely out of curiosity, directly test-
ing what the effects might be in humans is difficult. One theory is that some of
these physiological differences may actually be functioning to compensate for
others, producing similarity from difference.50 That is, our bodies may be evolved
to enable sexual difference for the purposes of reproduction, but also compensate
for any maladaptive differences that arise as a consequence of the tricky task of
building male- and female-bodied people. So, counterintuitively, some differences
might cause sameness. That’s not the kind of “real” difference we’re after either.

We do know that girls who are exposed to unusually high levels of androgens
during fetal development are more likely than other girls to prefer “boy” toys and
choose boys as playmates; they display more aggression and less empathy; and
they’re more likely to identify as nonheterosexual and express dissatisfaction
with being a girl or woman.51 But there’s no reason to expect these girls’ brains to
be any more sex-typed than your average person’s. Hormones likely have some
influence on fetal brain formation, but the outcomes are far from straightforward.

Other research also suggests that gender identity and sexual orientation are
determined in part by hormonally caused brain differences, though the evidence
is not especially clear or strong.52 The genitals develop earlier in pregnancy
than the brain, so it’s possible that the hormonal environment of the developing
brain could be different from that of the developing genitals, creating discrep-
ancies between the two. This might explain why some people experience same-
sex desire or gender dysphoria, which is the feeling that one’s biological sex and
gender identity don’t match. Research evaluating whether queer-identified wom-
en’s or trans men’s brains share traits with heterosexual, cisgendered men’s brains,
and queer-identified men’s and trans women’s brains share traits with heterosex-
ual, cisgendered women’s brains, is going on now—again, findings are suggestive
but not especially clear or strong. Most neurologists believe that hormonal influ-
ence on the brain during fetal development plays a role, but only a small one.

We are able to observe differences between male and female bodies by looking
at genes, hormones, and brains. These are biological, to be sure. But are they
real? Some biological features are mutable, responsive to efforts to shift or dis-

53D E F I N I N G D I F F E R E N C E

rupt them. Because we have bodies, everything about us is fundamentally bio-
logical, but biology isn’t always destiny and biological traits aren’t always fixed.
If biologically based differences can be decreased in size, erased, or reversed
quite easily, do they still count as real?

Consider mental rotation, our very best candidate for a large biological cog-
nitive sex difference (Figure 3.3). It turns out that mental rotation can be taught,
quickly and easily.53 One study found that assigning women to a semester of
Tetris (a simple video game that involves rotating and fitting various geometric
shapes into one another) almost closed the preexisting gap between men’s and
women’s scores.54 In another study, just ten hours of video game play reduced
the gap to statistical insignificance.55 In a third study, five and a half hours of
video game play erased the sex difference.56 And in a fourth experiment, just
two minutes of practice before the test did the same.57

It turns out that whatever natural ability an individual has for mental rota-
tion, both men and women can improve with a little bit of practice.58 Indeed,
the difference between the scores of people with training and people without
training is larger than the difference between men and women.59

While this finding doesn’t rule out an inborn biological advantage for boys,
neuroscientist Lise Eliot argues that ultimately, sex difference in mental rotation
ability is probably the result of the fact that we don’t teach mental rotation in
school (so no one learns it there), and boys have a greater likelihood of learning
it elsewhere (playing with building toys, spending lots of time with video games,
and being involved in sports).60 This theory gets added support from evidence
that the sex difference we see in children from middle- and high-income back-
grounds is not seen in children from low-income backgrounds, where boys don’t
have as much access to video games and building toys.61

f i g u r e 3 . 3  | exAMPLe of A MentAL rotAtion tASk

(a) (b)

Mental rotation tasks like this one measure how easily and accurately you can determine
whether two figures are identical except for their orientation. assembling jigsaw puzzles is
one use of this skill.

Chapter 3  b o d i e s54

Even the most robust cognitive sex difference we’ve ever measured is mutable,
minimizable, and even erasable by instruction and practice, undone with just a
few minutes of Minecraft.62 As two prominent cognitive scientists explained, “Sim-
ply put, your brain is what you do with it.”63 In fact, lots of observed differences
respond to intervention (and we will discuss more examples in the next section).
For now, let’s consider one final definition of real—the most strict of all.

Definition 4: Sex differences are real if  they are biological
and immutable

Perhaps a sex difference could count as real if it were observed, had a known
biological cause, and could not easily be overcome by social interventions like
training and priming. Sex differences in size and, by extension, throwing ability
and some other physical differences would qualify. Gender identity and sexual
orientation may be good candidates. And there are others, to be certain. Pos-
sibly different levels of sexual desire, aggression, empathy, and thrill-seeking.
And, of course, there are the hairy ears.

But the majority of the sex differences documented by Zell and his col-
leagues probably would not qualify under this definition. This is a good time to
remember the anglerfish. We’re sexually dimorphic in that we reproduce sex-
ually, and the process of making us reproductively male and female appears
to lead to some other average differences. But on the spectrum of high-to-low
sexual dimorphism, we’re on the low side. We’re of a similar size and weight,
we have (almost) all the same appendages, we have the same desires, traits,
and physical and cognitive abilities, even if there are some average differences
here and there. Why do we think we should be able to establish a whole host
of large, immutable biological differences between men and women, beyond
the very necessary physical differences required for sexual reproduction, in the
first place? We’re quite clearly not “opposites.”

But . . . why not? Why aren’t we more different?
Well, that’s another kind of question altogether.


If it seems odd to ask about the similarities between men and women instead of
the differences, it’s because it is. What we call “science” today began to emerge
during the Enlightenment in the 1700s. It would come to challenge religion as
the arbiter of what was true and right. At the time, most men believed that it
was obvious that women were an inferior category of human and they set about

55S I M I L A R I T I E S B E T W E E N T H E S E X E S

using science to prove it. Since distinction is a necessary precondition for hier-
archy, a science of sex differences emerged.

When scientists posed their research questions, then, they almost exclu-
sively posed variants of the one with which we began this chapter: “What are
the real differences between men and women?” And they have been asking ver-
sions of this question for over 300 years. They’ve measured, weighed, poked,
prodded, imaged, and assayed men’s and women’s bodies to find proof of the
gender binary. It’s a wonder, really, that they haven’t found more definitive and
more consequential differences.

It took a very long time before anyone thought to wonder whether there were
any other questions to ask. Like what explains our similarities. To close out
this chapter, then, let’s explore some of the theories for why human males and
females are so much alike. We’ll explore three: biosocial interactions, intersec-
tionality, and evolution.

The Natural Power of Human Culture

One of the things that makes humans stand out from all other animals is the
extent to which we wrap ourselves in culture. We live on the same planet as all
other earthly beings; we encounter the same trees and look at the same sky.
But we live, simultaneously, in our collective imaginations, in a world that we
invent, one with things that don’t exist in nature: corporations, economies, wed-
ding vows, holidays.

By virtue of being cultural, we’re also diverse. Take any two human societies
3,000 miles apart and you’ll find countless differences in their cultural practices
and ideas. As a species, in fact, our ways of life are not just more varied than
those of any other primate on earth; they are more varied than those of every
other primate combined.64 That is why reality shows like Wife Swap—in which
two women from two very different backgrounds swap families for the purpose
of producing mayhem—can run for seven seasons. Commenting on this, psy-
chologist Cordelia Fine observed: “Other animals are fascinating, to be sure.
Many are highly flexible and adaptable. But there just aren’t that many ways to
be a female baboon.”65

This diversity is not merely cultural, though; it’s natural. That is, it’s our biol-
ogy that makes it possible for us to be culturally different from one another.
Understanding this is important because it helps us avoid the discredited and
fruitless argument referred to as the nature/nurture debate. The “nature” side
is premised on the idea that men and women are born different, and the “nur-
ture” side presupposes that we become different through socialization alone.
Both sides are wrong.

Chapter 3  b o d i e s56

Scholars from all disciplines now overwhelmingly reject naturalism, the
idea that biology affects our behavior independently of our environment. Like-
wise, we reject culturalism, the idea that we are “blank slates” that become who
we are purely through learning and socialization. This should make sense. Any
given sex difference can’t be purely a result of “nurture” (a culturalist assump-
tion) because it is only through our bodies that we encounter our social world.
Nor can it be purely “nature” (a naturalist assumption) because our bodies
don’t exist in a vacuum. We begin interacting with the environment from the
moment we are conceived, and all our biological functions evolved in the con-
text of that interaction.

Instead, to understand humanity we have to consider biocultural inter action:
how our bodies respond to our cultural environment and vice versa (Fig –
ure 3.4).66 To describe our species with only nature or culture is like describing
a rectangle with reference to only its length or width. Without both pieces
of information, there is no rectangle.67 Likewise, without both biology and cul-
ture, it’s impossible to understand what it is to be human. The evidence for this
is so overwhelming that scientists now agree that it makes no sense to talk
about “human nature,” except insofar as “the social is the natural.”68

Perhaps the most obvious example of biocultural interaction involves phys-
ical characteristics like flexibility, strength, and speed. Within biological lim –
its,  our bodies react to use by developing the capacities we ask of them. We
can get faster if we train, stronger if we lift, and more flexible if we stretch. In
societies that ask people to develop these capacities, they will. And in ones
that ask women and men to develop different capacities, men’s and women’s
bodies will be more different than they would be otherwise.

Consider marathons. Women in Western soci-
eties were discouraged from running for cen-
turies and formally excluded from competing in
marathons until the 1970s. In that time, men got
much faster. When women were first allowed to
compete, they were much slower than men, but
they’ve gotten faster, too. In fact, they’ve got-
ten faster much more quickly than men ever
did. Men collectively took approximately thirty
years to shave thirty minutes off their best time;
it took women only five.69 Today the men’s rec –
ord is still faster than the women’s record, but
by less than ten minutes (Figure 3.5). What men
and women are allowed and encouraged to do
by culture shapes what their bodies are capable
of doing.

f i g u r e 3 . 4  | biocULtUr AL
inter Action


57S I M I L A R I T I E S B E T W E E N T H E S E X E S

f i g u r e 3 . 5  | MAr Athon WorLd recordS by Gender









1920 1940 1960 1980 2000 2020



Source: International Association of Athletics Federations.

This is true of our brains, too.70 Remember those kids playing Tetris? Consis-
tent with what we know about brain plasticity, the change in ability manifests
itself in our neuroanatomy. In one study, the brains of twelve- to fifteen-year-old
girls were measured before and after a three-month period during which they
played Tetris for an hour and a half each week.71 At the end of the study, their
brains were heavier and showed enhanced cortical thickness, with heightened
blood flow to the area. Another study showed shifts in brain function.72 Practice
matters. Changes in the brain have been documented in response to a wide
range of activities: juggling, dancing, singing, meditating, and even driving a
taxi.73 Of course they have. Our brain is a cultural organ, responding to our
social environment.

Even our hormones and our genes are designed to respond to culture.74 When
we experience a culturally defined “win,” for example, our bodies cooperate by
using hormones to make us feel good about it.75 Testosterone rises and falls in
response to our interactions. If a man is anticipating a competition, his levels
will rise. If he wins the contest, they’ll go up further; if he loses, they’ll go down.76
This is true not only for sports, but for games like chess, too.77 It also works if
he’s just sitting on the couch watching his favorite team.78 If he does something
he thinks is cool—like drive a sports car—his testosterone gets a bump; if he does
it in front of other people, it jumps even higher.79 In the immediate aftermath
of the 2008 presidential election, for example, men who supported the losing

Chapter 3  b o d i e s58

candidate saw a drop in their testosterone levels; those who supported the win-
ning candidate did not.80 We think of behavior as being “testosterone fueled”
when, in fact, it’s also “testosterone fueling.”81

Emerging evidence suggests that this is true in at least some ways for
women, too. In one study, for example, women asked to exert power over oth-
ers under experimental conditions found that doing so resulted in a rise in tes-
tosterone.82 The authors suggest that gender differences in who is expected,
allowed, and enabled to exert power may shape the average hormonal profiles
of men and women. “A lifetime of gender socialization,” they write, “could contrib-
ute to ‘sex differences’ in testosterone.”

This phenomenon has society-wide implications. In men, forming a commit-
ted romantic relationship produces a decline in testosterone.83 Having a baby can
bring that testosterone level down even more.84 A study of two communities in
Tanzania found that such hormonal shifts can happen at the group level, too.85
Hadza men were involved fathers, taking care of children alongside women.
Datoga men did not parent, leaving the work to mothers. The difference in behav-
ior was reflected in their testosterone levels: On average, Datoga men had higher
levels than Hadza men.

Our genes also respond to the environment in a process called gene-
environment interaction. Instead of dictating our phenotype in a simple, one-
directional way, our genotype is flexible.86 Each gene can express itself in many,
sometimes thousands of, different ways. Our bodies adapt on the fly, smartly
designing and redesigning themselves in response to the challenges of their
environment. Even identical twins become genotypically different over time.87

Highly aggressive people, for example, often carry genes for aggression, but
we have learned that having those genes does not, in itself, make a person vio-
lent. To express themselves in ways that facilitate violence, the genes need to
be triggered by trauma.88 Living in a happy home with loving parents decreases
the likelihood that a person genetically predisposed to aggression will become
aggressive. In contrast, poverty, a dysfunctional family life, and abuse all increase
the chances that the genes for aggression will be “turned on” and lead to violent
behavior. Genes matter: A person without a genetic predisposition for violence
probably won’t grow up to be violent, even if he or she suffers trauma.89 But genes
don’t work in a vacuum. A person with the genetic predisposition may never
become violent at all; it all depends on the quality of his or her life.

In some cultures, men are nurturing; in others, they are less so. In some
environments, people genetically primed become aggressive; in others, they
don’t. Why? Because humans are not strictly evolved to be either nurturers or
warriors. Instead, biology has given them the potential to be either, and more.
Our brains, our bodies, the chemicals that circulate within them, and the genes
that build them are all prepared to respond to our cultural environment. We
have evolved to be flexible.

59S I M I L A R I T I E S B E T W E E N T H E S E X E S

So, in societies in which men and women are pressed into very different
social roles, we might see the sexes developing quite different strengths and
weaknesses. But these aren’t necessarily “real.” They’re biological, to be sure,
but they’re embodied through a process of gender segregation and differential
treatment. They are deceptive differences: ones that, by being observed, can
make it seem as if men and women are more sexually dimorphic than they are
across different times and cultures.90

Alternatively, in societies that put men and women onto the same path, they
might look more alike than different. Our own society is probably somewhere in
between. There are many ways in which we raise our girls and boys very similarly:
they live in the same houses, have access to the same foods, go to the same types
of schools, and so on. Then again, we dress them differently, buy them different
toys, and encourage different activities, on average. Based on these facts, we
should expect some differences (in sportiness, for example, or interest in dance),
but also quite a lot of similarities (like the increasingly equal mastery of mathe-
matics). If human bodies are designed to rise to the cultural occasion, embodying
a gender binary is one way we do it, but challenging that gender binary is another.
So sex similarity is as much a human biological possibility as sex difference.

if  fathers are actively involved with their children, their bodies respond in ways that help them
be good dads.

Chapter 3  b o d i e s60

Intersectionality: Putting Gender in Context

Another reason why men and women are so much alike is because they share so
many other identities in common. Male-bodied and female-bodied people may
be biologically designed to play different roles in reproduction at some point
in their lives, but they are often the same race, class, nationality, religion, and
more. Sometimes people live in societies that expect very different things from
men and women. And while there are ways in which biology predisposed us to
be different, the manifestation of such differences may be muted by the things
men and women share: national, regional, and local cultures, for example, and
the quality of their education, their diet and health, their occupations, their fam-
ily structure, and social networks. And some male- and female-bodied people
identify and express themselves as women or men, respectively, or trans, gen-
der fluid, or nonbinary. Others belong to subcultures that otherwise encourage
gender-nonconforming behavior, like some queer communities.91

Differences and similarities between women and men are filtered through
these other life experiences. Men, for example, have 20 to 30 percent greater
bone mass and strength than women, making women twice as likely to break
a bone and four times as likely to be diagnosed with osteoporosis.92 Genes
and hormones contribute to this discrepancy, but an individual’s bone health
is also strongly affected by diet, leisure activities, and type of work.93 Accord-
ingly, among ultra-Orthodox Jewish adolescent boys, the gender pattern is
reversed.94 Boys in these communities are tasked with intensive study of reli-
gious documents from a young age, so they spend much less time exercising
and more time indoors than other boys their age. As a result, their bones never
grow as strong as those of their sisters, who have lighter study loads, do more
physical chores, and get more sunlight. Both the biological and the cultural influ-
ence of gender on bone mass and strength, then, is mediated by the power of

The idea that gender is not an isolated social fact about us but instead inter-
sects with our other identities is called intersectionality.95 We are not just
males and females. A woman might be a white, middle-class, married woman
who is religiously observant—once Catholic, now Evangelical Christian—and
a parent of a two-year-old (with one on the way), who loves karaoke and votes
Democratic. Or she might be an Eastern European immigrant to Milwaukee who
moved to New Orleans, fell in love with jazz and bourbon, and plays rugby. Or
perhaps a purposefully childfree bisexual Texan who works for the Girl Scouts,
manages her epilepsy, collects Legos, and likes to spoil her quirky nephew.

We’re going to talk a lot more about intersectionality later. For now, just
notice that all the things that make us who we are shape our individual per-
sonality traits, emotional tendencies, cognitive abilities, and physical potential.
When men and women share other identities and life experiences, those things

61S I M I L A R I T I E S B E T W E E N T H E S E X E S

bring the sexes together, producing even physical similarities as our complex
bodies respond to shared cultural environments.

Evolution, Similarity, and Variation

Human males and females evolved to have different roles in reproduction: one
sex carries, delivers, and nurses the babies, and the other contributes new genetic
material. Given this, it is tempting to look to theories of evolution for straightfor-
ward accounts of “real” sex differences. And, in fact, it’s common to hear people
arguing that because we’ve evolved to have different roles in reproduction, we’ve
also evolved to have different roles in life. This, however, doesn’t stand up to the
facts. There is overwhelming evidence for the process of human evolution, but
not for the idea that men and women have evolved to be two very different kinds
of humans, and especially not “opposite sexes.”

Sometimes men and women have more in common with each other than they do with others of
their own sex.

Chapter 3  b o d i e s62

To start, evolution-based thinking about humans often asserts that the so-called
nuclear family—a mother and father with children who live together without
extended kin—is natural. But this family form didn’t exist until very recently.
For most of our species’ existence, humans lived together not in heterosexual
pairs but kin groups, culturally variable collections of people considered family.

In forager societies—ones in which people migrate seasonally, following
crops and game across the landscape—groups were relatively egalitarian. The
responsibility for providing food fell on both men and women, and food was
shared with everyone in the group.96 Because everyone traveled together, evo-
lution as a process would select for similarity in walking speeds. Similarly, both
women’s and men’s bodies responded to their shared environment, whether a
hot or a cold one, by adapting together to regulate body temperature by size and
shape and color. Thus, some local groups evolved to be characteristically taller
or shorter, heavier or lighter, darker or lighter.97

Instead of difference, then, there are good reasons we might have evolved
similarities. Our ancestors lived together in common environments. They knew
the same people, ate the same foods, traveled the same territory, shared the
same beliefs, and raised the same kids. If it’s evolutionarily adaptive for half the
population to be good at something (making pottery, for example, or remem-
bering where the bison graze), it could hardly be evolutionarily adaptive for the
other half of the population to be bad at it.

It might even be deeply maladaptive. In a crisis, it could be fatal for a tribe to
consist of two types of people who are incapable of taking on the work assigned
to the other. Sudden shortages of male-bodied or female-bodied members in a
group demanded that the other sex be able to cross the cultural divide. Think of
the millions of single fathers across the world today. It simply doesn’t make sense
that men and women would evolve to have wildly different cognitive abilities,
levels of physical strength, personality traits, or emotional dispositions. Being
able to share responsibilities and substitute for one another is actually incredi-
bly useful. Adaptive, even. There were (and are) strong evolutionary pressures
toward sameness.

This is true even in terms of reproduction and childrearing. Children were
born to women but raised by the larger group. Fatherhood was a social rather
than a biological concept. First, we don’t know how much early humans under-
stood about what role men played in reproduction. And, second, because men
had a genetic interest in all the group’s children—any of whom could be defined
as part of his lineage depending on the rules of the particular society—whose
sperm were involved wasn’t really relevant. As a result, women’s sexuality was
generally less tightly regulated than it has been in the past few hundred years.
Without an interest in establishing paternity, there was also little need to con-
trol a fertile woman’s sexual behavior.

63S I M I L A R I T I E S B E T W E E N T H E S E X E S

Instead of being a strictly biological behavior, both men and women have
always made sexual decisions in response to cultural rules.98 Cultures, for exam-
ple, sometimes assumed it was women rather than men who were more sexual;
sometimes they expected fathers to initiate sons into homosexual relation-
ships.99 Overall, outside of the imperative to form nuclear families, there was
more tolerance of homosexual behavior and more room for third genders (like
the māhū of Hawaii, the muxe of Mexico, and the hijra of India discussed in the
last chapter).100 In fact, bi- and homosexual behavior may well have cemented
alliances between people of the same sex, strengthening each of their posi-
tions in their groups and enhancing their access to reproductive sex (as it does
among Bonobo chimps, our closest relative).101 Tolerance of same-sex behavior
also opened up possibilities for gender reassignments (like the Albanian sworn
virgins) and female “husbands” (like among the Lovedu in Zambia).

The notion that men evolved to be promiscuous and avoid emotional entan-
glements with women is also a myth. The ability of men to “sow their seed” (to
impregnate as many women as they can) is based on the idea that there was an
endless field of fertile women to plow.102 This was almost never the case. At any
given time, the majority of women in a kin group were too young or too old to
get pregnant; were already pregnant, with reduced fertility due to breastfeed-
ing; or were infertile for unknown reasons. Even sex between two healthy fertile
individuals only results in a pregnancy 3 percent of the time.103 And, outside
of monogamy, another guy’s sperm might get to the egg first. Most men would
have been lucky to sire twelve to sixteen children in their lifetime, not so many
more than women’s birthing nine to twelve. Instead of sowing seeds, a man’s
reproduction was probably maximized by having regular sex with a single
woman or a few women with whom he was friendly.

Gender does appear to have mattered to most or all human groups through-
out the history of our species, and we have almost certainly evolved to notice
and care about the difference between males and females, but even this is not
sufficient for producing evolved sex differences. Communities typically gen-
dered their tasks, but how they were gendered varied. Bearing and nursing chil-
dren was an exception, of course, because only (some) female-bodied people
could do that. But in foraging societies, maternity would have been more of a life
stage than a lifestyle. Hunting large animals often involved whole communities
working together or groups of men of certain ages or statuses. Some forms of
provision (gathering, farming, and hunting smaller animals) were more likely
to be women’s than men’s work.104 Still other tasks, like building houses, were
sometimes considered feminine and sometimes masculine work according to
the idiosyncrasies of cultural groups. Even after settled agriculture emerged,
tasks and statuses were jumbled in multiple, cross-cutting hierarchies of
value.105 Our ancestors lived intersectional lives.

Chapter 3  b o d i e s64

In other words, the social constructions of gender among early human
groups were just as cross-culturally variable, historically changing, and ideo-
logically jumbled as ours. None of this was consistent enough to account for an
evolution into an “oppositeness” that spans the whole human species. Instead,
current ideas about the “real” differences between men and women are based
on what we see now in our WEIRD (Western, educated, industrial, rich, demo-
cratic) societies, which are really new ways of organizing gendered social life
largely explained by the consolidation of power into large countries.106

To summarize, the idea that humans have evolved rigid and specific roles
for individuals of each sex—that our different reproductive roles make for differ-
ent life roles—doesn’t do justice to the diversity of our ancestral environments,
the power of our cultures, or our actual evolved biology. We have always had
complex social lives (where gender was just one thing that mattered) and have
always needed to cooperate and respond to unpredictable environments. All
this means that, for humans, sexual dimorphism in nonreproductive capacities
would not be particularly advantageous. We shouldn’t be so surprised, then, to
discover that research on sex differences has detected more overlap than the
gender binary would predict. There may be ways in which we are different, and
in some cultures those differences may be quite pronounced, but we also have
the biological capacity to be quite alike.

R ev isiti ng t he Q uestion

T h e g e n d e r b i n a r y m i g h t b e a n i d e o l o g y, b u t t h e r e a r e r e a l
d i f f e r e n c e s b e t w e e n m e n a n d w o m e n , r i g h t ?

Well, sure. But it’s not nearly as simple as it sounds. As H. L. Mencken famously
observed: “There is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plau-
sible, and wrong.”107 It would be easy to say that the sex differences we observe are
biological and immutable. It would be equally easy to say that they are cultural
and easily undone. Neither is true.

Instead, both the sex differences and similarities we see are the result of a
complex interplay between biology and society. These dynamic intersections
are progressive (each moment we are someone slightly different from the
moment before), contingent (what happens is dependent on what is happen-
ing  both inside and around us), and probabilistic (making it more likely for
some outcomes to occur and less likely for others, but never entirely determin-
ing the future). To paraphrase Edward O. Wilson, biology has us on a leash,
but the leash is very, very long.108

If the biological flexibility enabled by that long leash is adaptive, allowing
us—both as individuals and as a species—to respond to whatever environmental

65S I M I L A R I T I E S B E T W E E N T H E S E X E S

demands we encounter, then sex should be no exception. The gender binary
that characterizes men and women as “opposite sexes” isn’t reflected in the sci-
ence and fails to do justice to what we know about human biology and history.
Moreover, what differences we do find are also shaped by life experiences that
are not centrally about gender.

For the remainder of this book, then, it’s important not to fall back on expla-
nations that offer simple answers. Biology matters, gender matters, society mat-
ters, and they all work together to make us the people we are. That’s our true
nature. We’re an extraordinary species with a rich sociocultural life, one that
men and women share, and our bodies have been designed for that flexibility.

Ne x t . . .

OK, fine, so establishing that men and women are substantially different from
one another isn’t as easy as pop culture leads us to believe. But it still seems like
men and women are different. They move differently, decorate themselves dif-
ferently, choose different college majors and careers. If these differences aren’t
biological and immutable, then what are they? It’s a good question:

I f m e n a n d w o m e n a r e n ’ t n a t u r a l l y o p p o s i t e , t h e n w h y
d o t h e y a c t s o d i f f e r e n t l y s o m u c h o f t h e t i m e ?

It’s time to put the “social” in social theory.

F O R F u R T H E R R E A D I N G

Browning, Frank. The Fate of Gender: Nature, Nurture and the Human Future. New
York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016.

Cherney, Isabelle D. “Mom, Let Me Play More Computer Games: They Improve My
Mental Rotation Skills.” Sex Roles 59 (2008): 776–86.

Fine, Cordelia. Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society. New York:
W. W. Norton and Company, 2017.

Guiso, Luigi, Ferdinando Monte, Paola Sapienza, and Luigi Zingales, “Culture, Gen-
der, and Math.” Science 320, no. 5880 (May 30, 2008): 1164–65.

Jordan-Young, Rebecca. Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Wade, Lisa. “The New Science of Sex Difference.” Sociology Compass 7, no. 4 (2013):

Zell, Ethan, Zlatan Krizan, and Sabrina Teeter. “Evaluating Gender Similarities and
Differences Using Metasynthesis.” American Psychologist 70, no. 1 (2015): 10–20.

you ’r e bor n na k ed a n d the

r est is dr ag.

— r u pa u l


In the last chapter, we reviewed what we know about the role of biology in contributing to the gender binary. After searching our genes, hormones, and brains for the source of our differences, we
concluded that while men and women may not be biologically iden­
tical, we’re not particularly dimorphic either. This may be because,
while there are some biological forces pushing us apart, there are
likely others—the potential evolutionary benefits of similarity, the
responsiveness of our bodies to cultural influences, and the inter­
sections of our identities, for instance—that bring us closer together.

We’ve also conceded that we do act in gendered ways much of
the time, leading us to pose the question:

I f m e n a n d w o m e n a r e n ’ t n a t u r a l l y o p p o s i t e ,
t h e n w h y d o t h e y a c t s o d i f f e r e n t l y s o m u c h o f
t h e t i m e ?

Indeed, men and women do seem to be quite different in their choices
about how to use their time and effort, often in ways that match ste­
reotypical expectations. Women, for example, are 3.9 times as likely
to major in education as men, while men are 4.3 times more likely to
major in engineering.1 Men prefer to play sports for exercise, while
women are more likely to do Pilates, yoga, or dance.2 Women are


Chapter 4  p e r f o r m a n c e s68

more likely than men to say that religion is “very important” to them and
participate actively in religious activities.3

Even though we are rather similar, then, we often make divergent choices.
These choices apply to an amazing range of activities and are both obvious
and subtle. It’s not just in careers and activities. We embody gender in little
ways, too. It’s in how we look at our fingernails, for example (with our hand
held out and fingers splayed or with the palm turned toward us and the fin­
gers curled in), how we hold a cigarette (between the thumb and forefinger
or between two forefingers with the palm facing in), or how we hold hands
with a partner of the other sex (men’s palms are usually pointed backward
and women’s pointed forward such that her body is placed just slightly
behind his as they walk). So, there are many differences between men and
women in practice.

In this chapter, we explain such gendered social patterns as a consequence
of social interaction, working on, through, and sometimes against individual
biological or psychological predispositions. We argue that we learn complex
sets of gendered expectations that tell us how to behave as men and women
in varying situations. We sometimes act in gendered ways out of habit, but
also come to understand that if we fail to do so, others may tease, hassle, or
hurt us. We aren’t simply socialized as children into gendered roles that we

W hen men and women hold hands, who leads and who follows? how do we learn to hold hands
“right ”? gender becomes part of how we inhabit the world, sometimes in the subtlest of ways.

69H O W T O D O G E N D E R

then automatically perform as adults. Instead, the process of acquiring a gen­
dered sense of self is an active and ongoing one.

None of us, however, simply follows gendered expectations thoughtlessly.
We become crafty manipulators. We make exceptions (for ourselves and oth­
ers), and we apply very different standards depending on the situation and the
person. In response, we each develop a way of managing gendered expecta­
tions that works for us as unique individuals—sometimes, even, as gender­
nonconforming ones.

Sometimes it’s easy to follow the rules and sometimes it’s incredibly hard.
Following rules creates cultural boundaries that are often painful for the peo­
ple who are on the wrong side of them, by choice or circumstance. Sociologist
Michael Kimmel says it beautifully:

For some of us, becoming adult men and women in our society is a smooth and
almost effortless drifting into behaviors and attitudes that feel as familiar to us as
our skin. And for others of us, becoming masculine or feminine is an interminable
torture, a nightmare in which we must brutally suppress some parts of ourselves
to please others—or, simply, to survive. For most of us, though, the experience falls
somewhere in between.4

The guy who hates football or has a gluten allergy to beer sometimes feels
like an outsider. So, too, does the woman who wants to wear a tux to the prom
or can’t walk in heels. The man whose body is limber and powerful and who
loves to dance to classical music may in fact train rigorously to be a ballet
dancer, but he pursues these pleasures at the risk of critical assessments
from others who question his gender or his sexuality. Likewise, women who
are tall and strong and enjoy playing basketball sometimes find that the
pleasures of their own bodies can come at a cost to their social life if oth ­
ers judge them to be “unfeminine.”

Still, because it’s easier to obey gender rules than break them—and life is
challenging enough as it is—many of us behave in gendered ways most of
the time. So, we contribute to those gendered patterns that we see around
us, sustaining the illusion that the gender binary is natural and inevitable.


Sociologists use the phrase doing gender to describe the ways in which we
actively obey and break gender rules. Gender rules are instructions for how
to appear and behave as a man or a woman. They are, essentially, the social
construct of gender restated in the form of an instruction. Such a rule was at the

Chapter 4  p e r f o r m a n c e s70

center of a story told by psychologist Sandra Bem about her four­year­old son,
Jeremy, who decided to wear a clip in his hair to preschool one day. Bem recalls:

Several times that day, another little boy insisted that Jeremy must be a girl
because “only girls wear barrettes.” After repeatedly insisting that “wearing bar-
rettes doesn’t matter; being a boy means having a penis and testicles,” Jeremy
finally pulled down his pants to make his point more convincingly. The other boy was
not impressed. He simply said, “Everybody has a penis; only girls wear barrettes.” 5

Jeremy’s schoolmate stated his objection in the form of a general rule. It wasn’t
that he didn’t like it when boys wore barrettes, or that Jeremy specifically didn’t
look fetching in a barrette, it was that only girls and no boys under any circum­
stances should wear one. Jeremy’s schoolmate articulated a rule for all boys
that Jeremy had broken: Only girls wear barrettes.

You could likely brainstorm hundreds of such rules if you tried. They apply
to every area of our lives, specifying how we should dress and decorate our
bodies and homes, what hobbies and careers we should pursue, with whom we
should socialize and how, and much more. Most of us do gender when we get
ready in the morning; stand, sit, and walk; choose leisure activities; do our work;
curate our personalities; and do routine activities like eating, bathing, driving,
and even having sex.

Every day we do thousands of things that signal masculinity or femininity
and we do them according to gender rules. When using social media, for exam­
ple.6 Women’s choices tend to reflect the rules that they are supposed to be
attractive, social, and sweet. They are more likely than men to try to make them­
selves appear beautiful or sexy in their pictures and to feature friends and fam­
ily members. Women also post more pictures overall. Men, in contrast, appear
to respond to gender rules that dictate they be active, independent, and anti­
authority. Their profile pictures often include images of them playing sports,
looking tough, and getting into trouble. While women are almost always look­
ing into the camera, men will sometimes be looking away. Men are also more
likely than women to be alone in their pictures or posing with expensive objects.
There are gender differences in how men and women react to others online, too.
Women are more likely to react and more likely to do so positively, with con­
gratulations or encouragement. Men’s reactions are more likely than women’s
to be argumentative, insulting, or ironic. These are, of course, only average dif­
ferences, and the men and women you know may be different, but most people
follow the rules much of the time.

Many of us learn a huge variety of gender rules implicitly, gradually absorb­
ing them as we become increasingly acculturated into our families, communi­
ties, and societies. Some rules are relatively rigid (e.g., men do not wear eye­
shadow), while others are more flexible and negotiable (if, in your part of the

71H O W T O D O G E N D E R

world, men do not have long hair or wear lipstick, how long is too long and does
lip balm count?). You can also likely brainstorm rules that straightforwardly
contradict one another, because the rules vary among cultures, change over
time, and shift across contexts. We tend to become most aware of the rules when
we are trying to master new ones; for example, we self­consciously “try on” adult
gender attitudes and behaviors as we enter adolescence or when we choose a
“look” and set of friends upon entering a new school.7 At such transition times,
our self­consciousness about gender conformity rises because we are aware that
social acceptance can be at stake.

Cross-Cultural Variation in Gender Rules

Most gender rules are simple cultural agreements. For instance, grown men in
the United States are supposed to physically touch each other only in very ritu­
alized ways (like the back slap in the “man hug” or the butt slap in football for a
job well done). In France and Argentina, however, men kiss on the cheek when
they greet one another. In some Middle Eastern societies, men even hold hands.

Likewise, whereas skirts are strongly feminized in the United States, men
wear kilts in Scotland and, in Arab countries, men wear a white robe called a

president george W. bush welcomes saudi Crown prince a bdullah to his texas ranch. holding
hands is not an accepted way for two adult men to touch in the united states but is a common
practice in some Middle eastern cultures.

Chapter 4  p e r f o r m a n c e s72

thawb, often with a pink­and­white head covering. The color pink doesn’t have
feminine connotations in Arab countries the way it does in the West. And in
Belgium, pink isn’t for girls, nor is it gender neutral; it’s for boys. Flowers are
another icon of femininity in the West, but certain floral patterns on a kimono
clearly signal masculinity in Japan.

What women and men don’t wear is also dictated by gender rules. In the
United States, it’s against the rules for women to expose their breasts in public.
We take this so seriously that whether women should be allowed to breastfeed
in public is still a hot debate. This obsession with hiding women’s nipples seems
unduly conservative from a European standpoint; in some parts of Europe, it
is perfectly acceptable for women to sunbathe topless. Americans might be
surprised to hear that Europeans describe Americans as irrationally prudish.
Many Americans, as well as Europeans, in turn, condemn the “veiling” prac­
tices associated with Islam. Like Europeans judging Americans for covering
their breasts, Americans tend to think it is irrationally prudish for women to
cover their heads. Only because the idiosyncrasies of our own culture tend to
be invisible to us does it seem obvious that women should cover some parts of
their bodies but not others.

It often isn’t until we read about, travel to, or move to a different country, or
otherwise very different cultural milieu, that we encounter rules that are notice­
ably unfamiliar to us, revealing our own rules as culturally specific. When we
do, we become briefly aware of making choices, deciding either to follow or flout
these local gender rules, before they again begin to seem “normal.” For example,
one study of Japanese women who went to work at multinational firms abroad
found that carrying a briefcase or drinking beer with colleagues was initially
alien to their idea of femininity. After becoming more comfortable in their new
environment, however, many did not want to be assigned back to Japan, where
this would not have been acceptable behavior for a woman.8 We get practice at
adapting to new gender rules throughout our lives because the gender rules we
encounter are constantly undergoing both subtle and dramatic shifts.

Historical Variation in Gender Rules

While the rules for doing gender often feel timeless, they are, in fact, always
changing. Consider the earring.9 In the 1920s, only women of Italian and Span­
ish descent and sailors pierced their ears. For the women, it was an ethnic
practice, similar to the small dot or bindi that Hindu women wear on their fore­
heads, while sailors wore them in the hope that a gold earring might serve as
payment for a proper burial were they to sink, wash ashore, and be found by
strangers. An American girl born in the 1930s wouldn’t have pierced her ears,

73H O W T O D O G E N D E R

but she might have worn clip­on earrings. Clip­on earrings went
out of style and pierced ears went mainstream in the 1960s.

In that decade, boys probably wouldn’t have worn earrings
of any kind. When their sisters and all her friends were getting
their ears pierced, the only young men doing so were hippies
and homosexuals. Twenty years later, during the ’80s, male
musicians and athletes popularized wearing earrings, but only
in one ear. If a man decided to get an ear pierced, he would
have gotten it in the left ear if he identified as heterosexual and
the right ear if he were gay. A few decades after that, the side
of the head would be irrelevant and the piercings would have
signified nothing.

Whether and which ear is pierced is no longer culturally
meaningful, but earring style remains so. Women are more
likely to wear either elaborate or dainty earrings to signify
femininity; men typically wear simple studs or small hoops.
And now we pierce other things, too, and in gendered ways.
Belly­button piercings are found almost exclusively on women,
whereas men are more likely to stretch their earlobes with
plugs or pierce their septum (that wall of tissue that separates
the nostrils).

Gender rules change. They change across time, as the ear­
ring example illustrates, and also from context to context.

Contextual Variation in Gender Rules

Many of us take for granted the rules that guide our own gender display and
easily adapt to cultural change. Our flexibility tends to mask the fact that the
United States itself is a turbulent mixture of subcultures. Accordingly, doing
gender, even in our daily lives, requires that we simultaneously know the rules
of the cultural mainstream as well as those of the alternative cultures we visit.
In other words, we need more than one pair of gender binary glasses.

Goths are a striking example. Amy Wilkins, a sociologist who studied a group
of self­identified Goths in the Northeast, explains that they defy conventional
gender expectations. Both women and men strive to attain a distinctive, even
frightening appearance:

Goths tell the world and each other who they are by making their bodies freaky.
Goth bodies are cloaked in black, pierced, tattooed, dyed, powdered white. The
Goth style juxtaposes medieval romanticism with bondage wear; puffy velvet with

Michael b. Jordan, villain
of the mega-hit superhero
movie Black Panther, wear-
ing his earrings. or, to
protect the gender binar y,
we might say “studs.”

Chapter 4  p e r f o r m a n c e s74

skin-tight PVC. Goths may sport dog collars and spikes, or fishnets and corsets—all
in somber colors: black or blood red.10

Goths cultivate a countercultural appearance, but they also go to work at places
like banks and elementary schools. Some of them “do Goth” all the time, but
most will adjust to more mainstream expectations when necessary, washing off
the white powder when they’re at work and leaving the dog collar at home.

Goths are an example of cultural traveling, moving from one cultural or
subcultural context to another and sometimes back. Belinda did another kind
of cultural traveling when she came out as a lesbian. As she joined a new
community, she encountered people who policed her into a whole new set of
subculture­specific gender rules:

Basically, within the lesbian community, I was completely made fun of. I used
to have people make fun of me for carrying a purse and looking “too girly” and,
“Oh, you’re not really gay.” Just those kinds of comments. So that was really hard
for me when I was coming out because I just wanted to be taken seriously, you
know? . . . So, my response to that [when I first came out] was to kind of change to
become less feminine, change my body posturing and the way that I dress and cut
off all my hair and that kind of stuff. 11

Like Belinda, many of us have to adapt to new contexts and even adjust our
look for different audiences. We all make cultural adjustments throughout our
day and week. A guy driving home from a night at the sports bar with his bud­
dies, during which he yelled at the TV, threw back beers, and pounded the table,
will likely resort to a polite and professional manner the next morning at work.
Both of these self­presentations are versions of masculinity. Likewise, a college
student may comfort crying children at her job at a day care center, look to hook
up at a party that night, and drag herself to class in sweats the next morning
prepared to discuss the week’s reading. In each context—the nurturer, the flirt,
and the student—she does femininity differently.

The gender rules that apply to varying contexts can be quite nuanced. Know­
ing exactly what style and behavior rules are appropriate for a wedding (is it a
day or night wedding?), a first date (is it coffee or dinner?), and a job interview
(do you want to project creativity or reliability?) requires sophisticated calcula­
tions. Most of us make these cultural transitions rather easily, often flawlessly.
And thank goodness. People who are incapable of “tuning” their behavior to the
social context are at risk of coming off as psychologically disturbed or willfully
deviant. The same glowing, silver gown that made an actress seem so glamor­
ous on the red carpet at the Oscars would make her look drunk or deranged if
she wore it at the grocery store the next morning.

In sum, we learn a set of gender rules that is specific to our societies. We also
learn how that set of gender rules varies—from the funeral home to the class­

75L E A R N I N G T H E R U L E S

room, from Savannah to San Francisco, and from age eight to eighty—and how
to adjust to those changes. We don’t get just one pair of gender binary glasses
when we’re kids; we get many pairs. And we’re constantly getting new prescrip­
tions as needed.


Children begin to learn gender in infancy.12 They can tell the difference between
male and female voices by six months old and between men and women in pho­
tographs by nine months old. By the time they’re one, they know to associate
deep voices with men and high voices with women. By two and a half, most
children know what sex they are and are “reaching out to social norms,” trying
to learn the rules.13 By three years old, they tend to prefer play partners of their
own sex and think more positively about their own group compared to the other.

Parents sometimes have to make hard decisions about how much to encour­
age their children to embrace or reject gendered expectations.14 Some are ada­
mant that gendered behavior is biological and see gender nonconformity as a
sign that something is terribly wrong. Others feel equally strongly that gendered
behavior is purely social and unnecessarily constraining and are as quick to

attendees at a gothic festival in poland congregate, showing off their unique fashion. they
likely tone down their appearance when in less goth-tolerant settings.

Chapter 4  p e r f o r m a n c e s76

push their children away from stereotypical behavior as other parents are to
encourage it. Most parents are somewhere in between and, for reasons we’ll
explore later, are more comfortable with their girls’ gender nonconformity than
their boys’.

Children grow up in households, then, with varying levels of gender confor­
mity and adherence to gendered divisions of labor. Sometimes taking out the
trash is a dad’s job, sometimes it isn’t, and sometimes there’s no dad. All chil­
dren, then, learn the gender rules followed in their homes, but they also have to
contend with an outside world that generally affirms gender difference. Most
toy stores still sell “boy toys” and “girl toys,” categorized in binary ways and
coded with gendered messages about which sex is smart, caring, pretty, and
tough.15 Teachers sometimes separate school activities and games into boys
versus girls; community and school sports are usually sex segregated, such that
girls and boys rarely play alongside or against each other.16 More often than
not, children’s television and books tell gender­stereotypical stories.17 By the
age of five, kids have absorbed a great deal of complex and even contradic­
tory information about gender.18 These are a child’s first pairs of gender binary

Once children have gender binary glasses, they often begin to act in ways
that reflect them, especially if their parents or peers reward or display gender­
stereotypical behavior.19 Children orient themselves to toys they believe are gen­
der appropriate and begin to make assumptions about other people based on their
gender. In preschool, they use gender as a criterion for whom to befriend and
play with. They actively engage with the gender binary, sometimes even invent­
ing gendered beliefs based on their observations, like one four­year­old who
announced confidently to his parents on the way home from an Italian restau­
rant: “Men eat pizza and women don’t.”20

Developmentally, gender rules are absorbed just like all the other rules kids
are busy learning, like how to cross the street safely, what’s fair between sib­
lings, and how to behave in a classroom. Growing up is all about learning rules,
and kids themselves can be pretty rigid about doing things “right.” This rigidity
peaks around age six, which is exactly when many parents throw their hands
up and give their sons toy guns and their daughters Barbie dolls. Though this
rigidity is often used as evidence that gender is biological, psychologists have
shown that it is largely because children aren’t yet capable of absorbing and
negotiating the rules in their full complexity.21 Childhood rigidity is a learning
phase more than proof of biological predispositions.22

As children learn that gender norms are not quite so strict, they become
much more flexible about their own and others’ conformity to gender expecta­
tions. They also actively resist these expectations and, as the story about Jere­
my’s barrette suggests, they teach each other the rules they (think they) know.
Children, then, are participants in their own and others’ socialization. They, like

77L E A R N I N G T H E R U L E S

us, are negotiating gender rules from the get­go and setting up consequences
for both one another and the adults around them. Sociologist Emily Kane, for
example, describes giving into her preschool boy’s desire for a set of trading
cards glamorizing images of violent combat.23 She preferred not to encourage
her five­year­old to identify with this version of masculinity, but when her hus­
band found him quietly crying after school because he was excluded from play­
ing with his friends—“all the boys had these cards,” he explained—she relented.24
It was a choice between allowing her child to have a toy that she did not like
and a son’s loneliness and alienation. She bought the cards.

As we grow up, our ability to do gender in ways others will accept is not so
rigid as to require a specific set of trading cards. Especially if we’re exposed to
children and adults who resist gender rules, we begin to see more flexible pos­
sibilities for ourselves.25 We also learn to navigate gender rules in more sophis­
ticated ways. Most of us become more tolerant of ambiguity and contradictions.
But we continue to reach out to gender norms, continually learning and adjust­
ing to new sets of gender rules that we encounter as we interact with new people,
new places, and a changing social terrain.

Learning the rules, then, is a lifelong process that we actively negotiate. This
means that a model of socialization in which genderless children are taught a
gender role in their childhood, one that they then carry out over the rest of their
lives, is wrong. This assumes that children are victims of their environment,
infected with rigid versions of masculinity or femininity, never to recover fully.
This is the model of socialization that assumes giving boys trucks or girls
Barbie dolls is “injecting” children with a “virus” of sex­typed dualism that
they will carry in them forever.

This “injection” idea of socialization fails on three fronts. First, it suggests
that socialization is somehow finished by the time we’re adults. Second, it leaves
no room for the possibility that we actively consider and resist gender rules,
something that Jeremy was doing even in preschool. Third, because the model
fails to acknowledge that people resist and change gender rules, it can’t explain
cultural changes, such as the ones that made pierced ears acceptable at differ­
ent times for women and men.

Accordingly, sociologists prefer a learning model of socialization that sug­
gests that socialization is a lifelong process of learning and relearning gendered
expectations as well as how to negotiate them. We don’t get socialized once and
for all but are constantly being socialized. This gives us credit for being smart
members of our culture. We aren’t cultural dupes; we are cultural experts who
consciously and strategically adapt our behavior to changes in our social envi­
ronments. We do this in negotiation with others, learning to manage conflict
along the way, though usually without resorting to dropping our pants like Jer­
emy. We may get Barbie dolls but use them in unexpected ways, digging holes
with their pointed toes or throwing their heads around like balls. Boys who are

Chapter 4  p e r f o r m a n c e s78

encouraged to play with trucks rarely grow up to be truck drivers. We are pre­
sented with symbols of gender from our childhood onward, but how we use the
meanings our culture intends them to convey is partly up to us.


Like the contents of the gender binary, then, the rules only seem simple and stable
over time. Instead, they are complicated, constantly shifting, and even contra­
dictory. We learn them, better understanding their intricacies as we grow older.
And we follow them, more or less, much of the time. We do so out of habit, for
pleasure, and because of encouragement and punishment from others.


Sometimes we follow gender rules because they are part of our culture. We
simply become habituated. We get used to walking and sitting in a certain
way, own a wardrobe of already appropriately gendered clothes, and have
experiences in rewarding gender­conforming activities.

All this repeated practice allows us to do gender without really thinking
about it. Psychologists call such frequently repeated behaviors “overlearned”;
they are learned not only by our minds but by our bodies—like riding a bike or
typing on a keyboard—so we no longer need to think about them.26 Men’s shirts,
for example, are typically made so that the buttons are along the right and the
button holes along the left; women’s shirts are typically made the opposite way.
When was the last time you had to stop and think about the relative location of
the buttons and button holes on your clothes while getting dressed? Your hands
just automatically go to the right places. Such overlearned knowledge often
becomes especially noticeable when someone transitions from identifying and
displaying masculinity to femininity, or vice versa.

Once we have overlearned a rule, we don’t experience it as oppressive but as
natural, however arbitrary it may be. Accordingly, it’s often easy to follow gen­
der rules, especially ones that are fundamental in our culture; we mostly do so
unconsciously. American men don’t often deliberate, for instance, about whether
to pee sitting down or standing up. We potty train boys in the sitting position, but
then make active efforts to train them to pee standing up such that, as men, the
position is something they mostly take for granted as normal. On the flip side,
it never occurs to most American women to pee standing up, even though, with
parental training and practice, the majority could probably do so with little mess

79W H Y W E F O L L O W T H E R U L E S

(or, at least, no more mess than that frequently left behind by men). In some parts
of the world, such as Ghana or China, women do stand up to pee, whereas men in
Germany and Japan often do not.

Many of the gender rules that we follow, then, are simply a matter of habit,
overlearned and often nonconscious.


More than simply being habitual, following gender rules can be quite pleasur­
able. For a man who has overlearned conventional American masculinity, it is
rewarding to enact that masculinity at a sports bar with the guys. He knows the
script, the beer tastes great, and his team might win. The same is true for enact­
ing those aspects of femininity that are overlearned. Many women, for instance,
enjoy dressing up and looking nice in a specifically feminine way.

For just this reason, we may especially enjoy opportunities to do gender elab­
orately. You may relish formal events like quinceañeras, bar and bat mitzvahs,
high school proms, and weddings. These events all call for strongly gendered
displays: suits or tuxedos for men, dresses or gowns for women. It can be fun
to pamper yourself at the salon, bring flowers to your date, and open doors or
have them opened for you. It feels great to know that you look especially beau­
tiful in your dress or unusually dashing in your tux. Success is intrinsically
rewarding, and that is no less true when the success comes from performing
gender in ways that other people admire.

Some of the pleasure of doing gender can come from doing gender in defiant
ways. Evan Urquhart, for example, a self­identified “butch lesbian woman,” ini­
tially started wearing men’s clothes because she wanted to attract women who
liked women; in the queer circles in which she lived, wearing men’s clothes—
breaking mainstream gender rules, that is, but following subcultural ones—was
one way for her to communicate a lesbian identity.27 She was surprised to dis­
cover, though, that wearing men’s clothes wasn’t just effective at attracting the
attention of the kind of women she liked; it also felt good:

I realized almost immediately that I was feeling far more comfortable and con-
fident and that I liked the way I looked in the mirror for the first time in my life.
Other people who knew me said I looked more natural, more like my clothing fit my
personality. It felt a bit like I’d been wearing an uncomfortable, ill-fitting costume
all my life.

Doing masculinity was pleasurable for Evan, and so she adopted the style. Since
she was part of a subculture with a set of alternative gender rules that enabled
her presentation, she was able to do gender in that way and enjoy it.

Chapter 4  p e r f o r m a n c e s80


Sometimes we follow the rules simply because we’re being observed. Consider
the act of farting, a great example of a behavior that is sensitive to context. In
a study of 172 college students, over half of heterosexual women, but only a
quarter of the heterosexual men, reported being anxious about the possibility
that someone might overhear their flatulence.28 For men, a good fart can be a
source of pride. “Because if it’s strong,” said one, “it’s more manly.” Almost a
quarter of heterosexual men said they sometimes farted in front of people on
purpose; only 7 percent of heterosexual women said the same. Nonheterosexual
men, interestingly, were the least comfortable with others’ awareness of their
flatulence, and nonheterosexual women sat squarely between heterosexual
men and women.

Of course, the nature of the audience matters, too. If observation changes
what we do, then who is doing the observing is part of why. A study of women’s

there’s nothing new about drag: even in 1915, people found it fun. this group of women is enjoying a night
on the town donning suits, drinking beer, smoking cigars, and playing pool.

81W H Y W E F O L L O W T H E R U L E S

public eating—dining in restaurants with a companion—found that women din­
ing with male companions took smaller bites and ate more slowly than women
dining with other women.29 They were also more likely to sit still, maintain good
posture, and use their napkins more delicately. The author of the study, sociol­
ogy major Kate Handley, explained:

When their companion was a man, women used their napkins more precisely and
frequently than when their companion was another woman. In some cases, the
woman would fold her napkin into fourths before using it so that she could press
the straight edge of the napkin to the corners of her mouth. Other times, the woman
would wrap the napkin around her finger to create a point, then dab it across her
mouth or use the point to press into the corners of her mouth. Women who used their
napkins precisely also tended to use them quite frequently.

In contrast, women dining with a female companion generally used their nap-
kins more loosely and sparingly. These women did not carefully designate a specific
area of the napkin to use, and instead bunched up a portion of it in one hand and
rubbed the napkin across their mouths indiscriminately.

Both the farting and the eating examples reveal that gender isn’t necessarily a
part of who we are but rather something we perform when others are listening
or watching. Sometimes those others, moreover, aren’t simply passive observers
but people who actively encourage or punish us.


Sometimes we follow the rules because breaking them can attract negative atten­
tion. Let’s revisit the story of Jeremy and his barrette. Jeremy’s indignant school­
mate felt confident that he was entitled to enforce the unwritten rule that boys
don’t wear barrettes. Despite Jeremy’s protestations, his schoolmate remained
insistent, pushing Jeremy to defend his decision to wear one. Sociologists use
the term gender policing to describe responses to the violation of gender rules
aimed at promoting conformity.

When we are policed, we are being taught that negative consequences will
follow if we fail to learn the rules and follow them, at least when someone is
watching. Gender policing happens every day. It comes from our friends, our
love interests, our parents, bosses, and mentors. It’s part of our daily lives. Some
of it can be brutal and painful (especially for people who don’t fit in binary
boxes), but much of it is friendly and humorous or takes the form of teasing.
Consider these stories from our students:

As James came in from a Saturday night with friends, his father warned,
“Get to bed. We’re going to the woods tomorrow.” “Nah, Dad,” the son

Chapter 4  p e r f o r m a n c e s82

replied. “I can’t.” His dad began to tease him, saying: “What? You too
good to go hunting with your dad now?”

Chandra goes to her economics class wearing sweats, a ponytail, and no
makeup. A guy with whom she’s been flirting all semester says to her,
humorously, “Aw! What’s with the sweats?! I thought you liked me!”

Sun, waiting in line to use a single­stall bathroom, sees that the men’s
bathroom is open and starts toward it. As she walks in, her friend says,
“You’re not going to use the men’s bathroom, are you!?”

In each of these stories, a person breaks a gender rule and is then subjected to
a demand for them to give an account, an explanation for why the person broke
the rule that works to excuse his or her behavior. In the first example, James’s
disinterest in going to the woods with his dad broke a common rule in rural
working­class communities: Men should want to hunt. When Chandra’s guy
friend used her appearance to suggest she wasn’t interested in him, he affirmed
the rule: Women should dress up for men they want to impress. Sun’s friend
expressed surprise that Sun would dare to use a restroom labeled “Men.” The
rule is clear: Use the appropriate gender-designated bathroom.

A raised eyebrow, a derisive laugh, or a comment like “Are you sure you want
to do that?” are what sociologists think of as accountability, an obligation to
explain why we don’t follow social rules that other people think we should know
and obey. We are reminded of our accountability to gender rules when people
raise an eyebrow at our behavior, quiz us on our decision­making, or offer mild
disapproval. Being held to account is a gentle way to induce conformity. It is
easier to avoid awkward questions and others’ approval is rewarding. Over time,
accountability can make big differences in our lives. Asking women to account
for their ambition, for example, may undermine their willingness to develop or
indulge it, while calling men to account for being insufficiently ambitious will
steer them toward seizing challenges and showing off their successes.

Mildly negative reactions to gender nonconformity, though, and the threat
of being unpopular, are reasonably tolerable prices to pay for the freedom to
be ourselves. What is less easily tolerated are demands for an account that are
intended to shame us and push us back in line. This more aggressive response
to breaking gender rules is captured in the term policing, a response to the vio­
lation of gender rules that is aimed at exacting conformity. When women are
called “dyke,” “bitch,” or “cunt,” they are often being policed for being strong or
assertive, characteristics that a binary lens sees as masculine and unacceptable
for women. Conversely, when men are called “pussy” or “girl,” they are often
being accused of not being strong or assertive, and in the logic of the gender
binary, that means not masculine. The accusation that a woman is being “bossy”
or the put­down phrase “nice guys finish last” applied to a man who isn’t suffi­
ciently aggressive are ways that both women and men do gender policing.

83W H Y W E F O L L O W T H E R U L E S

Because of policing, the risks of nonconformity go beyond just being judged,
though that can be bad enough. We can lose our friends, lovers, or the support
of our parents. We may be fired or passed over for jobs or promotions because
our gender display doesn’t please clients or coworkers. Gender policing can also
be emotionally and physically brutal. The FBI reported 1,363 victims of hate
crimes against sexual minorities, trans, and gender­nonconforming people in
2016.30 Sexual minorities break the rule that men should have sex with women
and women should have sex with men. Trans and gender­nonconforming people
break the rule that people’s gender identity and performance should match their
apparent biological sex. Sometimes the consequences for breaking these gen­
der rules is living with other people’s discomfort; sometimes it’s violence.

Because the rules themselves vary situationally, so does the nature of our
accountability and our risk of being policed. It is certainly dangerous to be
queer in some contexts, but it can be quite fun at Halloween or at gay­friendly
bars. Middle school boys who study hard may be teased for being “fags,” but if
they adopt a tough­guy performance to avoid taunting, they may be policed by
their teachers and parents for trying to look and act “hard,” especially if they are
not white. Female athletes may be told by their coach to be more aggressive on
the field but policed by their parents or peers if they don’t show a more “ladylike”
gender performance off it. We, like Jeremy, are policed into multiple and even
contradictory gender displays by people with various, often clashing agendas.

Some of us may also be more heavily or lightly policed than others. In con­
texts where there is a high tolerance for both gender nonconformity and sex­
ual minorities, identifying as nonheterosexual can be a blanket excuse, getting
people out of following lots of rules, even those that have nothing to do with
signaling sexual attraction. In contexts where there is low tolerance, though,
sexual minorities may feel that their safety depends on hyper­conforming.
Cisgendered men and women, especially if their bodies naturally fit into gen­
dered expectations (like short, thin women and tall, strong men) may face fewer
demands for accountability than people who identify as trans or whose bodies
don’t give as strong cues about being female or male. A less obviously male or
female person may threaten others’ sense of right and wrong, making them feel
entitled to push that person to “prove” who they are by adorning themselves in
the signs of masculinity or femininity, like gendered jewelry, clothes, shoes,
and hairstyles.31

Both policing and the milder calls for gender accountability are more influ­
ential if they come from someone we care for (like your girlfriend or boyfriend)
or who has power over us (such as your boss). We also hold ourselves account­
able, kindly and cruelly. We watch TV and read fashion blogs or lifestyle mag­
azines to learn how, and how not, to dress. We read the sports section to make
sure we can talk about who won the big game last night and how. We stand in
front of the mirror and inspect our faces, scrutinize our bodies for too much or

Chapter 4  p e r f o r m a n c e s84

not enough hair, and hope for bumps and bulges in gender­appropriate places.
We anticipate not just questions, but consequences, if we fail to meet gender

We inspect our behavior no less than our bodies: Were we too loud or forward?
Too meek or agreeable? Sometimes we call ourselves ugly names or feel shame
or disgust. We punish our bodies with overexercise or starvation. We police our
words and our tone of voice, watching to ensure that we don’t sound too opinion­
ated (if we’re women) or too emotional (if we’re men). We may force ourselves to
major in engineering when we really prefer English literature because we know
we’ll later be judged by the size of our paycheck; or we may choose to stay single
because our friends will never let us hear the end of it if we let them know we’re
gay; or we may not tell a guy that we like him because we fear being seen as

We even recruit others to help keep us accountable. We ask each other to
evaluate our bodies, our clothes, and our interactions with others. When women
get ready for a party together, they frequently ask one another to assess their
outfits, looking for a second opinion as to whether they are wearing just the
right clothes. Many women try to follow this tricky rule: Women should dress
sexy but not slutty. “You can wear a short skirt or a low­cut top,” we hear, “but not
both.” There may be nothing malicious in this; it is simply women trying to help
their friends follow the rules that they know apply to them.

We also use media, often unconsciously, to advertise and test gender rules
with our friends and family. When we get together to watch the Oscars and
snark at the outfits or take pleasure in laughing at a man’s failure on some real­
ity TV show, we are telling each other what makes a person likable, look good, or
deserve respect. Often, our evaluations are gendered. Through these routines,
we learn what our friends think is ugly, slutty, sloppy, gay, bitchy, weak, and
gross and, accordingly, how we should and shouldn’t dress and act around them.
Collective reactions to celebrity fashions and personalities, then, can serve to
clarify and affirm rules, giving us resources to avoid being policed.

And, of course, we participate in policing others directly. We create conse­
quences for those who break the rules. We kindly ask for accounts when we want
to warn our friends and family members that they are at risk of being policed by
someone less benevolent than we are. If we are deeply disconcerted by seeing a
rule we care about broken, we may give in to the temptation to be mean­spirited
or cruel in policing even those we call friends. We may even feel a sense of injus­
tice or unfairness if the rules we follow—sometimes at a sacrifice—are broken by
others who can do so without apparent consequences.

Between accountability, the social demand for an explanation, and policing,
we collectively ensure that our choices about whether and how to follow gen­
der rules have real social consequences. Some are mild and some are severe,
but they all shape the distribution of rewards and punishments. Facing this, we

85H O W T O B R E A K T H E R U L E S

have three choices: follow the rules, break the rules and face the consequences,
or figure out how to persuade others to let us break the rules.


Breaking gender rules is routine. Sometimes we break the rules because it is
impossible to follow them, no matter how badly we would like to. The mother
undergoing chemotherapy, for example, may not be able to care for her husband
and children the way she feels she should. The aging man may not be able to
perform sexually the way men are told they must. Likewise, the guy who is five
foot two simply can’t be taller than most women.

Other times, rules are downright contradictory, like the one that says that
men should be able to drink a lot of alcohol but also remain in control. Or maybe
we’re part of a subculture that requires breaking gender rules endorsed by the
mainstream, like the female rancher whose daily life involves getting poop on
her shoes. Sometimes we don’t have the resources to follow a rule, like the man
who can’t afford to treat women on dates. At times we break a particular rule
because we have concluded that following it is personally undesirable or socially
wrong, like people who identify as nonbinary and mix and match forms of
gender expression.

Although policing is about using social pressure to make noncompliance
costly, not every deviation from a gender rule results in negative consequences
for the rule breaker. Remember the three stories discussed earlier in this chap­
ter? In each case, it turns out, the rule breaker got away with breaking the rule.
Each avoided any penalty by offering an acceptable account.

Let’s revisit the stories, this time following them through to the end:

As James came in from a Saturday night with friends, his father warned,
“Get to bed. We’re going to the woods tomorrow.” “Nah, Dad,” the son
replied. “I can’t.” His dad began to tease him, saying: “What? You too
good to go hunting with your dad now?” James just said, “No, football
tryouts are next week and I was gonna run drills with Mike in the morn­
ing.” “Go get ’em, son,” said his father.

Chandra goes to her economics class wearing sweats, a ponytail, and no
makeup. A guy with whom she has been flirting all semester says to her,
humorously, “Aw! What’s with the sweats?! I thought you liked me!” And
she smiles and replies, “Hey! I just came from the gym.” He reassures
her, “I figured. I was just kidding.”

Sun, waiting in line to use a single­stall bathroom, sees that the men’s
bathroom is open and starts toward it. As she walks in, her friend says,

Chapter 4  p e r f o r m a n c e s86

“You’re not going to use the men’s bathroom, are you!?” Sun says, “I
wouldn’t, but I really have to go!” Her friend nods sympathetically.

As these stories illustrate, we can get away with breaking rules if we have a
good excuse. When the characters above say, “Football tryouts are next week,”
“I just came from the gym,” or “I really have to go,” they are offering an account
to justify why they are breaking the rule.

These accounts may or may not be true, but they offer a sufficient explana­
tion to others that makes gender nonconformity incidental rather than inten-
tional. That is, the rule breaking isn’t interpreted as an attack on the rule itself
but an unfortunate and unavoidable deviation. In this way, accounting does
more than excuse one’s behavior. By explaining why an exception should be
made in their case, the speakers are affirming the rule itself. So James really is
saying: “[Of course I would go hunting], it’s just that football tryouts are next
week.” Chandra is saying: “I [would have dressed up for you, but I] just came
from the gym.” And Sun is saying, “I wouldn’t [use the men’s bathroom nor­
mally], but I really have to go!”

Importantly, these speakers didn’t respond, “Actually I don’t like hunting” or
“Who says I have to dress up for you?” or “It’s stupid that I can’t use the men’s
bathroom!” Such responses reject the rule altogether. This is actually quite
rare; people don’t usually defy gender rules outright because confronting them
head­on can cause conflict. Instead, if the rule breaker affirms the legitimacy
of the rule, the one asking for an account is usually satisfied, and conflict is

Interestingly, such verbal affirmations of the rule often work just as well as
a change in behavior; infractions are punished only when they aren’t excused.
That’s why trans men are more likely to be victims of hate crimes than guys
dressed up like women at Halloween. Halloween is an account. It is a way for
men to say, “[I would never dress like a woman normally, but] it’s Halloween!”
A trans person has no such excuse. The Halloween reveler is an exception that
proves the rule; being trans is an attack on the rule itself.

In addition to learning the rules in all their variety, then, part of gender
socialization is learning what exceptions and accounts are acceptable in differ­
ent social circles. Accounting is therefore a skill. Jeremy had not yet mastered
the art of accounting. He wasn’t sophisticated enough to negotiate his gender
with his schoolmate and resorted instead to dropping his pants, a rather primi­
tive way of proving he was a boy. Explicit conflict over gender rule breaking is
typical of younger kids who have just begun to learn the rules and haven’t yet
mastered the act of explaining away violations. In contrast, adults tend to be
quite good at offering accounts, though some of us are better at it than others.

But there is always the risk that our accounts will fail. Our student Jeff
spoke of his failed account:

87H O W T O B R E A K T H E R U L E S

I told my guy friends I couldn’t hang out with them because I was going to a movie
with my girlfriend. They asked me what movie and I said, sheepishly, because I
knew they were going to laugh at me: Sweet Home Alabama. They laughed hyster-
ically because I was going to see a “chick flick.”

Jeff broke a rule: Guys don’t watch chick flicks. And his friends policed him by
laughing. So Jeff offered an account, but it didn’t work:

Even though I really did want to see the movie, I said: “Because [my girlfriend]
wants to see it, and if she’s not happy, then I’m not happy.” This just made them
laugh at me more. “You’re totally whipped!” they cried.

Jeff’s account failed to excuse his rule breaking (seeing a chick flick) because it
broke another gender rule about heterosexual relationships: Men don’t submit
to their girlfriends’ desires. While Jeff’s account might have worked in an all­girl
or mixed­gender group, his account wasn’t accepted by this particular group of
young, single men, who responded to his accounts with shaming and sanction­
ing. Despite his best efforts, his gender performance was policed.

We make strategic decisions as to when and how often to test the limits of
our rule breaking. We may tend to overconform when we are in an unfamiliar
setting but break lots of rules in a familiar setting, and we may even provide
accounts on behalf of others when we know them or the setting well. “Janice
is taking up the trumpet just like her big brother,” we might comment. “I sup­
pose the family can’t afford another instrument.” Or “John is being so quiet and
self­effacing; he must be really nervous with his father in the room.”

Higher social status usually provides greater immunity from others’ polic­
ing. Those of us who think more quickly on our feet, are opinion leaders among
our peers, or are exceptionally well liked or charismatic can get away with an
amazing amount of rule breaking. You probably know someone who gets a pass
on rules. And some people like to test the rules more than others, trying to see
how much they can get away with. We all probably know someone like this, too,
just as we know people who are extremely risk averse. All of us, though, break
the rules at least a little bit. We sometimes make strategic gambles, breaking the
rules in situations where we suspect we will have our accounts accepted or the
stakes are low if they are not.

Like following the rules, breaking the rules can be fun, empowering, and
rewarding. The risks of breaking a rule may be outweighed by the value of doing
something you want or nudging the world toward a future society you’d like to
see. When a woman wears sweats and a baggy T­shirt to class, she sends the
message that she doesn’t care what anyone else thinks, and that can be empow­
ering. Wearing sweats and a baggy T­shirt, however, is only defiant in the con­
text of a rule against doing so. So breaking rules doesn’t mean you’re “free” from

Chapter 4  p e r f o r m a n c e s88

them. It is as much a reaction to the rules as following them. Even the shape of
rebellion, then, is determined by the gender binary and its dictates.

In sum, because we can’t or don’t want to follow gender rules, we break them
quite frequently. We can do this fairly easily most of the time, so long as we offer
a “good” excuse, one that affirms the rule that is being broken. All of this affir­
mation makes the rules seem legitimate and true. That is, we manage simulta­
neously to break and affirm the rules, making it seem like everyone buys into
them, while still accommodating a wide range of both male and female behavior.


Gender rules vary across cultures, subcultures, and history; intersect with
other identities; and vary in strength. But one rule transcends all identi­
ties and is true across cultures and subcultures and throughout recent his­
tory. That rule is do gender.32 No matter how you do gender, if you want to be

thanks to her lovable personality, comedienne and talk show host ellen degeneres gets a pass
on strict gender rules. her talk show continues to attract record numbers of audience members,
even as she dons menswear, keeps her hair short, and appears with her wife.

89T H E N O . 1 G E N D E R R U L E

treated like an integrated member of society—a
person whom others want to know, work with,
play with, and love—doing gender in some recog­
nizable way is compulsory. In the West, this gen­
erally means that you must identify as a man or
a woman, not both, and not something else. And
you must perform a culturally recognizable form of
masculinity or femininity, especially if you could
conceivably pass as the other sex and/or natu­
rally look a little androgynous. Usually this per­
formance is expected to match one’s genitals. Even
in places that are welcoming of trans men or
women, people who identify as trans are usually
expected to do a recognizable version of masculin­
ity or femininity. And cultures with more than
two genders also expect the members of third,
fourth, and fifth gender cat egories to be recog­
nizable as such.

If you do not do gender, you become culturally
unintelligible. You will be so outside the sym­
bolic meaning system that people will not know
how to interact with you. This is the experience
of one sociologist, Betsy Lucal, an androgynous­
looking woman who doesn’t do femininity. She

Using my credit cards sometimes is a challenge. Some clerks subtly indicate their
disbelief, looking from the card to me and back at the card and checking my signa-
ture carefully. Others challenge my use of the card, asking whose it is or demand-
ing identification. One cashier asked to see my driver’s license and then asked me
whether I was the son of the card holder. Another clerk told me that my signature on
the receipt “had better match” the one on the card.33

What Lucal understands all too well is that if you really don’t or can’t do gender,
it is a serious communicative crisis for everyone interacting with you. Conse­
quently, most of us do gender at least a little—and usually more than a little.
Doing gender preserves our membership in our cultural community and ensures
that those around us treat us with a modicum of benevolence.

This need to be culturally intelligible is why we see gendered social patterns.
We see them because everyone is doing gender. We may not do it all the time,
we may not do it enthusiastically, and we may not do it in the same way. We may
not even do it in accordance with our genitals, but we do it. And while we don’t

trans women like Caitlin Jenner can
avoid some policing by following the gen-
der rules that newly apply to them.

Chapter 4  p e r f o r m a n c e s90

hesitate to provide accounts in order to break the weaker rules, the strong rules
are followed by almost everyone, lest one face truly harmful and dangerous
levels of policing. The strongest rule of all—the rule to do gender—has nearly
100 percent compliance.

Thus, while the contents of the gender binary are constantly shifting as we
move across time and space, the binary itself persists. It persists in our minds
( because we fashion our perception of the world to match it); it persists in our
bodies ( because we adorn and manipulate them to reflect it); and it persists in
our society ( because we perform it in interaction with others).

R ev isiti ng t he Q uestion

I f m e n a n d w o m e n a r e n ’ t n a t u r a l l y o p p o s i t e , t h e n w h y d o
t h e y a c t s o d i f f e r e n t l y s o m u c h o f t h e t i m e ?

We see gendered patterns in society because we learn rules for gendered per­
formances through lifelong processes of socialization. The gender rules them­
selves are incredibly complex, varying across time, cultures, subcultures, and
even contexts. We adjust our gendered performances, often seamlessly and
unconsciously, as we encounter different situations and audiences.

Sometimes we follow these rules because it is enjoyable to do gender well.
Much of the time, however, we follow them out of habit. At other times, we quite
consciously follow rules. We may do so because we feel accountable to ourselves
and others. Or we may expect and want to avoid policing.

Being policed by others pushes us to comply with gender norms in order to
avoid feeling humiliated, stupid, or excluded—or to avoid physical harm. And
we police others, too, because it can give us the inverse feeling of satisfaction,
superiority, and entitlement. Accounts are a way of deflecting the negative con­
sequences of rule breaking. They are part of the ordinary give and take of social
life, in which making ourselves understandable to others is how we participate
in creating shared meanings.

Even rule breaking, though, has a way of affirming the binary and its rules.
If we know the rules, we can offer a good excuse, one that assures the questioner
that we are committed to the rules, just like he or she is, in all cases but this one.
As long as most people, most of the time, can offer satisfactory accounts for rule
breaking, such violations will not undermine our collective enforcement of the
rules and the gender binary they uphold.

Accountability, accounting, and policing all function to produce and protect
the gender binary in the face of bodies, personalities, interests, and inclinations
that are diverse, regardless of the gender label we hang on ourselves. If we were
naturally feminine or masculine in this binary way, there would be no need to
police gender performances. Because the rules are complex, and even contra­

91T H E N O . 1 G E N D E R R U L E

dictory, we learn to do gender and account for rule breaking in many different
ways. The fact that we can know, follow, and justify different sets of rules for
different contexts is another indication that our gender is not simply a part of
our biology over which we have no control.

Somewhere between reaching out to learn the rules, learning how to follow
them flexibly, accounting for the many instances in which we break them, and
seeking subcultures that share our sense of what rules were “made to be bro­
ken,” we manage to develop a way of doing gender that more or less works for
us, given our opportunities and constraints. We grow up into culturally adept,
gendered adults and leave some of the rigidities of childhood behind.

Ne x t . . .

Our strategy for managing gendered expectations, of course, is also shaped by
other personal characteristics, such as our social class and residential location,
race and ethnicity, immigration status, sexual orientation, age and attractive­
ness, and our physical abilities and disabilities. It is to this fact that we turn
next, asking:

I f g e n d e r i s j u s t o n e p a r t o f w h o w e a r e , w h y i s n ’ t i t
c r o w d e d o u t b y a l l t h e o t h e r t h i n g s a b o u t u s t h a t a r e
m e a n i n g f u l a n d c o n s e q u e n t i a l?

The answer will add many more layers of complexity to our theory of gender.


Bridges, Tristan. “Doing Gender with Wallets and Purses,” Inequality by (Inte-
rior) Design ( blog), April 2, 2013, www.inequalitybyinteriordesign.wordpress

Jacques, Juliet. “What Sort of Woman Do I Want to Be?” Guardian, February 9, 2011.
Kane, Emily W. The Gender Trap: Parenting and the Pitfalls of Raising Boys and

Girls. New York: New York University Press, 2012.
Lucal, Betsy. “What It Means to Be Gendered Me: Life on the Boundaries of a Dichot­

omous Gender System,” Gender & Society 13, no. 6 (1999): 781–97.
Ridgeway, Cecilia L. Framed by Gender: How Gender Inequality Persists in the Mod-

ern World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
West, Candace, and Don Zimmerman. “Doing Gender.” Gender & Society 1, no. 2

(1987): 125–51.

Ev Er sincE

i’ v E bEEn in a

w hEElch a ir , i’ v E

stoppEd gEtting

catca llEd.

— F E m K o r s t E n 1


By now you’ve been introduced to the idea that gender isn’t something we are, but something we do. Gender rules offer guidance on how to act, and we often follow them. People
we interact with push us to follow gender rules, too. While we
sometimes break them, we usually do so in ways that affirm the
rule itself. As a result, gendered patterns emerge.

One might observe, however, that gender is just one of many
things about us that make us who we are. Some of us fit easily into
the gender binary, but many of us don’t; some bodies bring admi-
ration, other bodies bring pity or derision; some of us have lots of
money to spend, others have less. Our gender, then, sits alongside
many other socially salient facts about us. Accordingly, we asked:

I f g e n d e r i s j u s t o n e p a r t o f w h o w e a r e , w h y i s n ’ t
i t c r o w d e d o u t b y a l l t h e o t h e r t h i n g s a b o u t u s
t h a t a r e m e a n i n g f u l a n d c o n s e q u e n t i a l?

Other things don’t crowd out gender because the other things
about us are themselves gendered. Gender, in other words, inflects
all our other identities, just as our other identities inflect our gender.
Gender isn’t more important than age, for example, nor is age more
important than gender. Instead, there is a gendered way to age.


Chapter 5  I n t e r s e c t I o n s94

Age is what sociologists call a social identity, a culturally available and
socially constructed category of people in which we place ourselves or are
placed by others.2 Many social identities carry substantial personal signif-
icance and interpersonal consequence. In the United States, these include
sexual orientation, race, citizenship status, gender, class, age, religion, dis-
ability status, body size, whether we live in an urban or rural environment,
and arguably more. These identities matter. We read other peoples’ appear-
ances, body language, accents, turns of phrase, and fashion choices for signs
of these identities and tend to filter information about people through them.

Our social identities can be intensely felt and deeply meaningful, but we
don’t come to them in a vacuum. Through the process of distinction, our cul-
tures invent them and give them meaning and value. Because they are social,
some identities bring us privilege, unearned social and economic advantage
based on our location in a social hierarchy; others do not. These identities—
including gender—then interact to shape our lives in complex ways.

This is how it comes to be that there is a gendered way to age. Likewise,
there is a gendered way to manage being rich or poor. Whatever our race,
we experience it in gendered ways, too. Similarly, the experiences of being
gay or straight, or an immigrant, native-born, or indigenous are all simul-
taneously gendered. All these things together make up our complex social
identities, shaping the kinds of gender rules to which we are held account-
able and our ability to both follow and break them.

This chapter explores how gender interacts with some of our other iden-
tities. It first reintroduces the idea of intersectionality—the term used to
describe this phenomenon—then explores how some social identities carry
expectations that require or inspire people to do gender differently. It would
be impossible to do justice to every intersection of culturally relevant iden-
tities; there are thousands of such intersections. Instead, this chapter simply
offers some models of how gender might intersect with other social posi-
tions. Be alert for other intersections and think about how gender intersects
in sometimes surprising ways as identities combine to make us the unique
individuals we are.


When asked to imagine a “man” or a “woman,” most Americans don’t at first
envision a female coal miner, a native of Mexico, or a man in a turban. The myth-
ical inhabitants of the gender binary—the prototypical man and woman who
usually come to mind—fit into a rather narrow slice of reality. They are usually
white, middle or upper class, heterosexual, able bodied, urban, Christian, and

95I N T E R S E C T I O N A L I T Y

native-born American. In other words, the gender
binary normalizes one kind of man and one kind
of woman by setting aside other types of people.
This is good for maintaining the binary because
marginalizing certain populations as exceptions,
like subdividing, keeps the story of gender differ-
ence simple, but it doesn’t reflect real life.

In real life, we’re not just male, female, trans, or
nonbinary—we don’t just have a gender—instead,
we’re multifaceted individuals with many iden-
tities. Accordingly, understanding how we do
gender has to address that complexity.3 We intro-
duced this perspective in Chapter 3 as intersec-
tionality, a term that refers to the fact that gender
is not an isolated social fact about us but instead
intersects with all the other distinctions between
people made important by our society.

When we do gender, we are also expected to account for all these other iden-
tities. We do gender, for example, but also parenthood. When those two identi-
ties combine, we get motherhood and fatherhood, two intersectional identities
that are policed very differently. How we follow or break the social rules related
to motherhood and fatherhood is further shaped by what is possible given our
income, marital status, and health as well as whether we are at risk of discrimi-
nation due to our race, sexual orientation, or religiosity (or lack thereof ).

Juggling all these identities, we hope to build lives that are consistent with
our values and goals, while adapting to the unique positions we occupy not just
on—or off—the gender binary, but a much, much more complicated cultural map.
If this sounds fraught with difficulty, it is—and much more so for some than oth-
ers. Still, all of us try our best to manage the expectations, opportunities, and
constraints we face. Finding a way of doing gender that works for us as unique
individuals who are also shaped by other aspects of our identity and the mate-
rial realities of our lives is called a gender strategy. 4

Our varying strategies add up to many culturally recognizable masculine
and feminine archetypes. There is the Girly Girl, who emphasizes her feminin-
ity most of the time; the Tomboy, who rejects many feminine characteristics;
the Jock, whose identity revolves around sports; and the Dork, who prefers
World of Warcraft to football. These recognizable stereotypes (no less socially
constructed, of course, than “man” and “woman”) guide us in carving out an
identity that we like and can feel good about. From there, we try to “be our-
selves,” breaking the rules associated with the subcategories of masculinity and
femininity in order to try to be recognized as not just a Party Girl, Farm Boy,
or Science Geek.

do these folks look “normal”? if so, it’s only
because a merican culture centers white,
middle-class heterosexuals, defining
ever yone else as outside the norm.

Chapter 5  I n t e r s e c t I o n s96

The remainder of this chapter looks at how some of our personal character-
istics and social identities shape our gender strategies, including our economic
class; the countries, states, and cities where we live; our race and ethnicity; our
immigrant status and whether our country’s official language is our first lan-
guage; our sexual orientation; and what our body looks like and can or can’t do.
Remember that these aren’t the only important social identities we carry, and
this chapter only scratches the surface of all the ways even this handful of iden-
tities intersects. It’s simply an introduction to how this thing called intersec­
tionality works.


Many countries, including the United States, are characterized by significant
inequalities between the richest and poorest members of society. Middle- and
upper-class families tend to live in cities and suburbs surrounded by excellent
social services, educational opportunities, and employment options. In contrast,
many poor and working-class people live in modest suburban developments,
inner-city neighborhoods, or small communities in rural America, including on
land reserved for Native American nations, most of which have fewer resources
and opportunities than wealthy communities. These variables—economic class
and place of residence—intersect with each other and with gender, making cer-
tain gender strategies more available to some Americans than others.

Individuals with higher incomes and greater wealth have more resources
to shape their lives to match their ideals. Many men in high-pay, high-status
occupations, for instance—men who work as lawyers, doctors, and account
executives—often invest heavily in their career and identify strongly with their
job. A senior personnel manager named Bill, a participant in a study on work-
place norms, revealed that his life was focused almost exclusively on work.5 He
argued that no one in his line of work could get ahead without putting in at least
fifty or sixty hours per week. Emily, his wife, stayed home and took care of their
house and four children. Of his marriage, Bill said,

We made a bargain. If I was going to be as successful as we both wanted, I was
going to have to spend tremendous amounts of time at it. Her end of the bargain
was that she wouldn’t go out to work. So I was able to take the good stuff and
she did the hard work—the car pools, dinner, gymnastics lessons.  .  .  . Emily left
Oakmont College after two years when we got married. . . . I really had it made. I
worked very long hours and Emily just managed things.6

Earning more than enough money to support his family on one income, and
married to a woman whom he believes is happy to manage things at home, Bill’s

97E C O N O M I C C L A S S A N D R E S I D E N C E

gender strategy was to excel in the masculine pursuit of extraordinary career
success. He was a Breadwinner.

Because Emily was married to a Breadwinner, she had the option of choosing
a Family Focused strategy that allowed her to concentrate on raising children,
being a good partner to her husband, and keeping a beautiful home. Some
upper-class married women embrace this strategy; they welcome the opportu-
nity to be out of the rat race and feel good about investing in their children’s
or husband’s success. Others may feel pressure from their spouses or others to
stay home. In either case, to be Family Focused is also to risk becoming finan-
cially dependent on their partner (for now) or their children (later).

Some affluent married women may reject this binary division of labor from
the start and instead bargain with their husbands for a Co-Breadwinner strat-
egy in which they nurture their own careers, too. Because they earn enough
money between the two of them, Co-Breadwinners can have paid help take care
of the housework and childcare that a Family Focused spouse would do. This
was the strategy adopted by another family. Both lawyers, Seth and Jessica
identified strongly with their jobs and could afford to hire a nanny, a house-
keeper, a gardener, a driver, and a neighborhood boy to play with their son,
allowing them to put in a combined 120 hours of work each week.

Our gender strategies are not only a reflection of our personalities but also
the twists and turns of our lives.7 Both women and men are more likely to adopt a
Family Focused strategy when they encounter limited job opportunities, marry
someone with a high-paying job, or discover, perhaps to their own surprise, that
they prefer parenting. Men and women are more committed to careers when
they discover that they enjoy and are good at them. In other words, the strat-
egies that we plan for as teenagers and young adults often turn out to be mal-
adaptive or otherwise unsatisfying, so we often end up being happy in places
we never intended to go.

Our strategies, though, are never just a result of personality and chance;
they are also contingent on our class status. Few families can afford to leave a
spouse at home, like Bill did, or hire as much domestic help as Seth and Jessica
did. Instead, most two-parent families need both incomes to make ends meet.
If they have children, these families’ options are limited to Breadwinner/Sup-
portive Spouse or Super Mom/Super Dad. Supportive Spouses take a part-time
or low-effort job that allows them to prioritize a partner’s Breadwinner role, pro-
ducing a one-and-a-half income compromise for the family. Super Moms (and
sometimes Super Dads) take on the challenging task of working a full-time job,
being a parent, and being responsible for housework and other family needs,
including—if married—supporting their spouses’ work. Most single mothers are
pushed into the Super Mom strategy by default; they must do it all because
there is no one else, they’re unlikely to make enough money to hire outside help,
and the workplace is unsympathetic and inflexible.8

Chapter 5  I n t e r s e c t I o n s98

Importantly, there are still a lot more Super Moms than Super Dads and
many fewer female Breadwinners than male ones. This is in part because which
strategy we choose is influenced not just by our preferences and resources but
by how other people judge our choices in light of our gender. Men who focus on
work are less likely to face policing than women, especially if the men are Bread-
winners. In some instances, men can do minimal amounts of childcare and be
considered model fathers. “I get more credit than she does,” said one postal
worker dad who made a point to be an involved parent.9 “I just feel like I’m doing
what any person should do,” said another involved dad, shaking his head over
how his wife’s friends swooned over his participation.10 Women, in contrast, are
held to a higher standard and are more likely than men to be blamed if the
house is messy or the kids are misbehaved. Men, for their part, are judged more
harshly for failing to earn enough income.

Working-class men who want to be involved fathers may raise eyebrows if
they opt to be a Stay-at-Home Dad; the Super Dad is a more socially accept-
able  strategy. A study of working-class emergency medical technicians, for
example, showed that these men prioritized their families alongside their work.11
As one explained: “[I]t’s long hours at times, but honestly, I get four days off in
a row with my kids. How many people get that much?”12 Implicitly contrast-
ing himself with the Breadwinner who can’t take off much time from work, this
Super Dad embraced active parenting as part of his gender strategy.

Working-class men try to carve out a masculinity that both feels good and is
possible given their circumstances, sometimes actively contrasting their blue-
collar masculinity with that of white-collar men whom they may disdain as
“wimps” and “paper-push[ers].”13 Construction workers sometimes adopt this
gender strategy.14 Their bosses may be Breadwinners, but because they also
stay in air-conditioned trailers in front of computers all day, the workers can
claim to be the “real men” doing the “real work” on site. They may “not know
what fork is used for salad,” like their bosses do, but they know “which drill bit
is used for different forms of masonry under different and varying conditions,”
something their managers do not know.15 With this logic, these Blue-Collar Guys
can embrace a strategy that is available to them and feel good about themselves
as men.

Similarly, women who grow up on farms or ranches may be accustomed to
dressing and acting in ways consistent with the work they do to help their fam-
ilies.16 In response, some of these women may embrace the Tough Gal strategy.
Ester, for example, grew up on a farm and enjoyed the physical and often dirty
work: “I helped my dad a lot on the farm, raising . . . livestock,” she said.17 “I really
enjoyed driving the farm machinery! It just empowered me, driving a tractor or
truck.” Teresa, who grew up in a similarly rural town, said of her high school:
“There were farm girls [who] might dress up for the prom, but they also could
slaughter a hog.”18 Tough Gals may take pride in their ability to do things asso-

99R A C E

ciated with boys and men, while also disdaining the Girly Girl as overly soft or
dependent. Like Blue-Collar Guys, they may contrast their own femininity with
that of different kinds of women in ways that make them feel good about who
they are.

All these examples demonstrate that our gender strategies aren’t simply
products of our individual personalities and luck. They are also shaped by the
constraints and opportunities afforded by our class status, the places where we
grew up, and the norms of local subcultures. In the next section, we’ll discuss
how our gender identities also intersect with race.


Like our economic class and place of residence, race shapes our gender strat-
egies and gender shapes our experience of race. Race—like gender—is a social
construction and an important distinction in American life.19 Some racial
groups are denigrated, others valorized; all are subject to advantages and dis-
advantages related to their unique histories. In this section, we look at three
examples: the experiences of gender for black, white, and Asian Americans.

working construction requires skill, strength, and a tolerance for risk, all things that may
make these men feel good about themselves as men even if they aren’t drawing paychecks as
large as some.

Chapter 5  I n t e r s e c t I o n s100

African American Men and Women

The United States sustained a system of racialized slavery for over 200 years.
This system of racism—social arrangements designed to systematically advan-
tage one race over others—was justified, in part, by the argument that white
elites weren’t captors but caretakers. Proponents of enslavement argued that
the complicated responsibilities of freedom were simply too much for black peo-
ple’s simple minds.20 Black men were stereotyped as jolly buffoons who were
helpless to take care of themselves, let alone anyone else. Like women and chil-
dren, it was argued, black men needed a “master” to take care of them.

After emancipation in 1865, the stereotype of black men as weak and inef-
fectual was no longer useful to white supremacists. Much more useful was the
idea that black men were aggressive, prone to criminality, and sexually danger-
ous. With this justification, the white population terrorized the black commu-
nity in a vicious, violent, and often deadly campaign to keep black people “in
their place.”21

Beliefs about black people in the United States still reflect these strategic
stereotypes designed to shore up white power. Black people are stereotyped
as tougher and more athletic than white people, meaner and more aggres-
sive, and prone to criminal behavior and sexual promiscuity.22 These char-
acteristics, notably, are also stereotypes of masculinity. Black men, then, are
frequently stereotyped as hypermasculine: super aggressive (as athletes or
criminals) and super sexual (as players, philanderers, and potential rapists). In
other words, for black men, being black intensifies expectations based on their

This stereotyping starts when boys are children. Sociologist Ann Ferguson
showed how teachers in the United States interpret the bad behavior of white
and black boys differently.24 White boys are seen as inherently innocent; they
may misbehave, but it is not out of malice. Black boys, in contrast, are stereo-
typed as prone to criminality; their misbehavior is “stripped of any element of
childish naïveté.”25 As a result, black boys are more likely than white boys to
be suspended from school.26

As early as kindergarten, parents of black boys start teaching their sons how
to manage other people’s racist ideas.27 If they want to be seen as “good,” black
boys have to perform an unusual degree of deference, to behave in ways con-
sidered “sissy” when performed by white boys. Even otherwise innocent behav-
iors may be read as suspicious if performed by a black child. A woman named
Rebecca, for example, recalled trying to explain to her teenage nephew that a
hoodie wasn’t necessarily just a hoodie on his young, black body:

I tried to explain that to him because he didn’t understand. He said, “I am just
wearing my hoodie.” [I said,] “But baby, I understand what you are doing, and

101R A C E

there is nothing wrong with that, but if you walk through the neighborhood near
my school, [people] see something different.” 28

It wasn’t fair that he couldn’t wear what his white peers could wear without the
risk of attracting unwanted attention, Rebecca said, but it was reality.

This “enactment of docility” and hyperawareness of others’ prejudice is sim-
ply preparation for adulthood.29 Indeed, some adult black men report adopting
strategies designed to manage the racist hypermasculine stereotypes that others
attribute to them. Some take care never to raise their voice. Others make a point
to dress professionally even in nonprofessional settings. Some report never jog-
ging in white neighborhoods, lest it look like they’re running away from or toward
something or someone.30 The journalist Brent Staples, a six-foot-two black man,
describes whistling classical music when he walks on dark streets late at night.
“Everybody seems to sense that a mugger wouldn’t be warbling bright, sunny
selections from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons,” he writes wryly.31 The Gentle Black Man,
and other strategies meant to defray mistrust based on one’s skin color, is a way
of doing masculinity that some black men use to avoid being stereotyped as a
Dangerous Black Man.

This does more than just interrupt racist narratives; it’s a survival strategy.
Young black men, even teenagers and young boys, are twenty-one times more
likely to die at the hands of police than their white counterparts, despite the fact
that they are less likely than young white men to be engaged in criminal activity
(Figure 5.1).32 In the majority of cases, black men who die at the hands of police

f i g u r e 5 . 1  | KILLED BY POLICE DURING ARREST,

13% 63%

U.S. population

All victims

Not attacking when killed

Not attacking when killed; not killed with rifle or shotgun











Black White Hispanic

Source: 2012 Supplementary Homicide Report, FBI.

Chapter 5  I n t e r s e c t I o n s102

are unarmed and nonviolent. In fact, they are more likely to be unarmed and
nonviolent than men of other races who die in this way, suggesting that in many
cases the only thing threatening about a black man is the combination of his
race and gender.33 This is what motivated the creation of the hashtag #black-
livesmatter and inspired Colin Kaepernick and many of his fellow professional
football players to kneel for the National Anthem before games.

It’s not only black men who are imagined to be more masculine and more
threatening than white people; black women are also attributed traits associated
with masculinity. Like the stereotypes of black men, these stereotypes of black
women are related to what white elites found useful.34 Slave captors required
both men and women to do hard labor and suffer harsh punishments, and
enslaved women were sometimes forced into sex and required to produce chil-
dren for their master. If black women had been stereotyped as physically frail,
emotionally delicate, and sexually pure, as white women were, then none of this
could be justified.35 To protect both the institution of slavery and the ideology
of gender, black women were stereotyped as more like black men than white
women: masculine instead of feminine.

The stereotype that black women are unfeminine persists today, such that
black women are frequently confronted with the perception that they are less
feminine than white women, regardless of how they act.36 That is, a black wom-
an’s race interferes with people’s perception of her as feminine. Because of this,
the Girly Girl strategy is harder for black women to pull off than the Tough
Gal strategy. This is especially true if they appear more “African”: have tightly
curled hair, darker skin, broader noses, and fuller lips.

The contemporary notion of the Strong Black Woman—a black woman who
can withstand any amount of disappointment, deprivation, and mistreatment—
has its roots in this idea.37 So does the notion of the Angry Black Woman, which
includes the idea that black women are louder, pushier, and more demanding
than other women.38 Research on health care suggests that this stereotype leads
physicians to take black women’s pain and suffering less seriously.39 When black
mothers struggle to make ends meet when working poorly paid jobs, instead of
being praised as Super Moms, they’re often denigrated as “welfare queens”: not
just poor mothers but bad ones. 40 These same stereotypes are also part of why
the sexual assault of white women is taken more seriously than that of black
women. 41

And, just like black boys and men, black girls are punished more severely
than white girls by their teachers and are, as adults, more likely than white
women to be killed in interactions with police. 42 Intersectionality scholar
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw has jumpstarted a campaign, represented by the
hash tag #sayhername, that aims to draw attention to the police violence dispro-
portionately faced by black women. 43

103R A C E

To counter stereotypical beliefs and the accompanying risks, many black
women try to overcompensate by doing more femininity than they would oth-
erwise. 44 In some cases, this may be because they know a performance of fem-
ininity will be rewarded, whereas failing to do it will be punished. The writer
Hannah Eko, for example, a black woman who is frequently misgendered, observes
that avoiding this requires her to do more femininity than similar-looking women
with different skin tones:

I’m supposed to go to frustrating lengths to “prove” I’m feminine and offset my
blackness ( keep my hair long, my voice soft, my clothes appropriately girly),
while women who are white or lighter in appearance are given more latitude for
experimentation. 45

On white women, she notes, androgynous clothes and very short haircuts are
seen as playfully “boyish”; on black women, they’re intimidatingly “manly.”

But there are costs to conforming to white standards of beauty. Because
femininity is implicitly white, doing femininity can feel like doing whiteness.
So some black women may feel that adopting a Girly Girl strategy is capitulat-
ing to or internalizing racism. “Our oppression has been so well done,” said an

people gather in Union square in new York city to participate in a #sayhername vigil for black
women and girls killed at the hands of the police. drawing attention to the fact that black
women also are being killed makes the media more accountable for the gendered way danger-
ous overpolicing is being depicted. (photo source: mia Fermindoza)

Chapter 5  I n t e r s e c t I o n s104

African American teenager named Nia, “we don’t even see that our own values
in terms of beauty are very skewed.”46 For her, resisting white standards of fem-
inine beauty was “empowering.”

Nia embraced a Black Is Beautiful strategy. Such a strategy might involve
selecting African-inspired clothing styles and colors, wearing headwraps or
hairstyles like braids or dreadlocks, and reframing characteristically black fea-
tures as both feminine and beautiful. But because black femininity is policed
differently than white femininity, these women likely pay costs—both interper-
sonal and professional—for this self-love, and contend with a higher likelihood
of being mistreated or even abused by authority figures.

For black women, then, the Girly Girl, Tough Gal, and Black Is Beautiful strat-
egies are always both gendered and raced. Each comes with both benefits and
costs, sometimes deadly ones. Black women, though, are not the only people in
America struggling with intersecting expectations. Asian Americans are, too.

Asian American Men and Women

Asian American men face a predicament precisely opposite that of African
American men. While black men are stereotyped as hypermasculine, East
Asian men are stereotyped as deficiently masculine. If black men and women
are masculinized, Asian men and women are feminized. 47 Asians of both
sexes are assumed to be smaller, lighter, and less muscular than whites. Asian
women are stereotyped as quiet, deferential, and shy, while Asian men are often
depicted as less masculine than other races: nerdy, not brawny; passive and
reserved; even deficiently sexual.

These stereotypes don’t come out of thin air but, like the stereotypes of Afri-
can Americans, are rooted in history.48 During the gold rush of the 1800s, the
United States brought Chinese men as laborers, often against their will. Tens of
thousands of men, living in all-male groups, had to learn how to perform domes-
tic tasks for themselves. Later, when they were forced out of their jobs in farm-
ing, mining, manufacturing, and construction, they became servants or opened
businesses offering domestic services to the wider population. By virtue of doing
“women’s work,” East Asian men were feminized in the cultural imagination.

For Asian men, then, racial stereotypes interfere with their ability to conform
to gender expectations. Some Asian men try to counter this stereotype by act-
ing more aggressively than they otherwise would. 49 Gary, a Chinese American
lawyer who describes himself as a “jockish type,” explains: “Well, I think the ste-
reotype is that Asian men are docile. . . . That is the reason I decided to be a trial
attorney—to cut against that.” Being a trial attorney requires Gary to fight on
behalf of his clients, a behavior that is inconsistent with the Asian stereotype.

105R A C E

Gary’s Assertive Asian gender strategy—being gregarious, dating fre-
quently, excelling in athletics, and achieving in a job that requires him to be
aggressive—has worked out well for him: He is a very successful lawyer. But it is
also a daily battle. Most of his potential clients, he explains, have never encoun-
tered a Chinese American lawyer and worry that he won’t be able to represent
them well. “Do I have to overcome [the stereotype] every day?” Gary asks him-
self out loud. “Yes, I do.” He has to prove to others, continually, that he is not
passive in the courtroom.

Asian women are also racially feminized. In the mid-1800s, thousands of
Chinese and Japanese women were brought to the United States against their
will to work as sex slaves.50 A trader might pay a starving family in China $40
for a daughter and then sell her to a brothel in San Francisco for $2,500. The
large numbers of Asian prostitutes, alongside the Japanese geisha stereotype,
hyperfeminized Asian women as demure, passive, and sexually available.

The stereotype lives on as Asian women continue to face a hyperfeminiza-
tion relative to white women, an intensification of gender expectations like that
experienced by black men. Asian women are often expected to be passive and
deferential and may receive unwelcome attention for these presumed traits.51
Karen Eng, a Japanese American, describes the stereotypical Asian woman:

The fantasy Asian is intelligent yet pliable, mysterious yet ornamental. She’s also
perpetually prepubescent—ageless and petite, hairless, high­pitched, girly. . . . As
I once overheard someone saying, she’s “tuckable” under the arm.52

This fantasy Asian girl appeals, particularly, to men who want a submissive
girlfriend or wife, but Eng has no interest in being “tuckable.” She doesn’t want
to be anyone’s geisha or China doll, but some men assume that she will be: “No
matter how many combinations of combat boots, 501s, and ratty Goodwill
coats you wear,” she says, “they still see a little Oriental flower.”53

Eng doesn’t adopt an Oriental Flower strategy because it conflicts with her
self-concept. Instead, she uses an Assertive Asian strategy of her own. Lisa, an
eighteen-year-old Korean American, has adopted this strategy, too:

I feel like I have to prove myself to everybody and maybe that’s why I’m always
vocal. I’m quite aware of that stereotype of Asian women all being taught to be
submissive. . . . I don’t want that to be labeled on me.54

But while Gary can use his identity as a man to account for behavior incon-
sistent with the feminized Asian stereotype, Asian women can’t account for
their counterstereotypical behavior that way. Accordingly, some Asian women

Chapter 5  I n t e r s e c t I o n s106

use different strategies for different audiences. Andrea, a twenty-three-year-old
Vietnamese American, describes her strategy switching:

When I’m with my boyfriend and we’re over at his family’s house or at a church
function, I tend to find myself being a little submissive. . . . But I know that when
I get home, he and I have that understanding that I’m not a submissive person.
I speak my own mind and he likes the fact that I’m strong.55

Asian women and men, then, like black men and women, face challenges
because of the way gender stereotypes intersect with beliefs about their race.

White American Men and Women

In contrast to African and Asian Americans, white Americans are racially
unmarked. The unmarked category is the social identity that is assumed for a
role or context without qualification. Taxi drivers are assumed to be male and
nurses female, which is why we still sometimes hear phrases like “female taxi
driver” and “male nurse.” Likewise, though same-sex marriage is legal, it’s still
largely assumed to be between a man and a woman unless it’s marked as a “gay”
marriage. Being unmarked means that it’s likely that others see us as the norm
in a specific role. In contrast, being marked is an acknowledgment that we’re
an outlier or deviation.

Unless marked with a modifier like Cuban or Native, then, Americans are gener-
ally assumed to be white (and Christian, middle class, heterosexual, etc.). “Amer-
ican” and “white American” are usually synonymous, which is why politicians
can get away with saying things like “real Americans” or “working families” and
most people understand they’re contrasting white Americans to immigrants,
people of color, Muslims, and people using stigmatized government benefits.

Because white Americans are unmarked—considered just “regular people”
in the United States—they are also considered “normal.” This includes being
“normally gendered”: whites are not seen as too masculine or too feminine, or
not masculine or feminine enough, based on their race alone. Consequently, if
they have the personality and resources for it, white men and women can rather
easily adopt any of a range of gender strategies, including the most widely
prized ones. In high school or college, a young woman who is born into the mid-
dle class with genes that give her light skin and a petite, thin body type can be
an All-American Girl, while the young man who is sufficiently athletic, racially
white, and class privileged can be an All-American Guy.

By virtue of being unmarked, white Americans also carry the stigma of being
“regular,” “plain,” and “uninteresting.” Whiteness is even sometimes used as a met-
aphor for normal or boring: Nonexperimental sex is “vanilla,” clean-cut people are
“white bread,” and an unimportant untruth is a “white lie.” This is another reason

107R A C E

why the Family Focused, Supportive Spouse, and Breadwinner are implicitly white
strategies: They are imagined to be the opposite of cool, exciting, or dangerous.

Accordingly, some middle-class white people try to distance themselves from
the respectable but bland image that is bestowed on them by virtue of their race
and class. The Goths discussed in Chapter 4 were doing just that. Most were white
and middle class and “doing” freakiness was a way for them to “become a little
cooler” and “differentiate themselves from the mainstream.”56 They enjoyed the
disconcerting effect their appearance had on others. Unlike, say, black men, who
are often perceived as threatening, white folks have to work hard to make other
people uncomfortable.

White people don’t always carry every possible privilege, though. When
being white intersects with being poor and living in an urban neighborhood,
these realities intersect with whiteness. Sociologist Amy Wilkins studied poor,
urban white women who lived alongside and identified with their black and
Puerto Rican neighbors.57 These women adopted the “street” fashion, manner-
isms, and language of their neighbors of color with whom they shared a class
but not a racial background. This Tough Gal strategy offered white women free-
dom from the more restrictive gender rules for middle- and upper-class white
women—they could be assertive, outspoken and openly sexual—but the strategy
came at a cost. The women of color in their neighborhoods sometimes called
them “wannabes” and described them as imposters. Summarizing, Wilkins writes,

White girls who “don’t know who they are.” They’re loud, annoying, always fight­
ing, too proud of having sex. They wear the wrong clothes. They smoke the wrong
cigarettes. They talk wrong, have the wrong attitudes, and have the wrong prior­
ities. And they have the wrong boyfriends.58

By virtue of being white, these women had to try harder to enact the Tough
Gal strategy, and the women of color around them recognized it as overdone
and possibly even inappropriate. From the perspective of the poor white women
who adopted this strategy, however, being a “wannabe” was one of their best
options. Without class privilege, these young women didn’t have the option to
be an All-American Girl, so being a Tough Gal gave them “an inhabitable, if
stereotyped and degraded, persona.”59

These discussions of the options typically faced by white, black, and East
Asian men and women are only a peek into how race, like economic class and
place of residence, shapes opportunities for performing gender. People from Latin
America and the Middle East as well as South Asians and Native Americans
have their own particular challenges that are not captured by these exam ples.
And an increasing proportion of all Americans are identifying as multiracial,
which further complicates the strategic choices available. But intersectionality
is about more than just race and class. We turn next to sexual orientation.

Chapter 5  I n t e r s e c t I o n s108


Contemporary Western societies are strongly heteronormative, designed on the
assumption that everyone is heterosexual. Just as most tools are designed for
right-handed people and most homes for the able-bodied, our society is designed
primarily for heterosexuals. Accordingly, the unmarked sexual orientation is
heterosexuality. The most commonly used marked categories are gay, lesbian,
and bisexual; together, these groups are considered sexual minorities.

Unmarked individuals are generally presumed heterosexual unless there are
culturally recognizable signs indicating otherwise. In the United States, some of
these culturally recognizable signs are directly related to sexual orientation (for
example, displaying a “gay” wedding photo at work), but many are instead related
to gender expression: Effeminate men are read as gay while masculine women are
often assumed to be lesbian. Indeed, some of us claim to have excellent “gaydar,”
or the ability to detect, radar-like, sexual minorities in our presence. What we are
looking for is neither the presence nor the absence of sexual desire for people
of the same sex, but rather gender deviance: “swishy” men and “manly” women.
That is, we are looking for people who are breaking gender rules.

The American tendency to expect gay men to act feminine and lesbians to act
masculine means that heterosexuals may be motivated to avoid gender-bending
strategies. A heterosexual woman who performs “too much” masculinity may
be suspected to be a lesbian. This may or may not bother her on principle, but
she may consider the possibility that it will be interpreted as a signal that she’s
sexually uninterested in men. To attract men’s sexual attention, she may feel she
has to do a certain amount of femininity. Likewise, some heterosexual men may
avoid feminine styles and interests for the same reason: it might send the wrong
signals. Societies that conflate gender-bending with same-sex attraction create
incentives for heterosexuals to conform to gender norms lest their identity be

Facing these same constraints, but often with different motivations, sexual
minorities do gender in a variety of ways depending in part on whether they want
to “pass” as heterosexual. Many want to keep their sexual orientation a secret
from at least some people because of heterosexism, individual and institutional
bias against sexual minorities. Since our gaydar is tuned to detect gender devi-
ance, gender conformity is an excellent way to hide in plain sight. Brandon, for
example, a white gay man living in rural Colorado, explained how he tries to pass
as heterosexual: “I try to live as straight a life as possible. Whether it’s dressing,
the car I drive, the area I’m in. When I fill up at a gas station, my greatest fear is to
look at another guy the wrong way.”60

Brandon feels compelled to hide his sexual orientation because of compulsory
heterosexuality, the gender rule that men be attracted to women and women

109S E X U A L O R I E N T A T I O N

to men. In some cases, breaking this rule can attract vicious or violent policing,
especially if one is gender nonconforming.61 Even for sexual minorities living in
places where being “out” isn’t dangerous, though, following gender rules can be
advantageous. Many people are more tolerant of sexual minorities who are gen-
der conforming than those who are gender deviant. Asked how she would feel
about having a lesbian roommate, for example, a college student expressed just
this sentiment:

If my roommate was a lesbian and she was more feminine, I think I would be more
comfortable.  .  .  . [If she was] like me—she looked girly—it wouldn’t matter if she
liked guys or girls. But if it was someone that was really boyish, I think it would be
hard for me to feel comfortable.62

Likewise, a gay Latino man insisted: “I could never bring home someone that
was the stereotype of a joto or maricón,” using derogatory Spanish words for
feminine-acting gay men. “He wouldn’t fit in with the family.”63 People who are
gay or lesbian, but not queer, are sometimes more accepted, both among sexual
minorities and in the wider society.

Because sexual minorities face prejudice not based just on their sexual ori-
entation but also their gender performance, some sexual minorities adopt a Not

olympians gus Kenworthy and adam r ippon both identify as gay but have adopted ver y
different gender strategies.

Chapter 5  I n t e r s e c t I o n s110

Too Queer strategy. Some women do this because femininity suits them. Others
do so because—as with black women—presenting a conventionally (white, het-
erosexual) feminine appearance brings rewards, while failing to do so brings
costs. One tall, forty-one-year-old white lesbian copywriter named Rebecca, for
example, explained that she uses makeup to mute her “difference” from hetero-
sexual coworkers and clients: “I even try to take a little bit of that threat off, you
know, by saying you don’t have to worry about me being different.”64 Some gay
men also adopt the Not Too Queer strategy.65 This overall strategy of minimiz-
ing difference is also called homonormativity, a practice of obeying most gen-
der rules with the noted exception of the one that says we must sexually desire
and partner with someone of the other sex.

One challenge for women and men who adopt a Not Too Queer strategy is
recognizability. In a heteronormative society, gender conformity may make
same-sex sexual orientation invisible.66 Gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals may
want to be visible for multiple reasons: They may want to upset heteronormativ-
ity, find people to date or marry, or ward off unwanted attention from the other
sex. With this in mind, they might adopt a Recognizably Butch or Queer strat-
egy.67 For women, this strategy might involve adopting more masculine clothes
and mannerisms and avoiding makeup and long hair. One forty-year-old woman

I have a dyke look that I assume when I want to fit in more with lesbian social
settings, and I think I’ve been more careful about keeping my haircut very crisp
and clean so I can look more dyke­y when I want to.68

Doing gender in a way that communicates our sexual identity to both main-
stream society and subcultures can be especially tricky for people who identify
as bisexual. If gender nonconformity marks one as gay or lesbian, and confor-
mity marks one as heterosexual, what is a person who is attracted to both or all
sexes to do?

Race matters here, too. Sexual minorities of color often discover that queer
spaces are also white spaces, while communities of color can be homophobic
spaces, ones that are not just oriented toward heterosexuals but hostile toward
sexual minorities.69 Malachi, for example, a two-spirit-identified member of the
Sturgeon Lake First Nation, explains how his people had lost sight of their third-
gender tradition in the process of colonization, leading him to face homophobia
at home. In a nearly Canadian city, he encountered more tolerance for his gender
identity and sexual orientation but less for his race. In the urban gay commu-
nity, he explained, “there still is all of the stereotypes and being discriminated
for being aboriginal.”70

The way that racial stereotypes are gendered affects how much femininity
needs to be performed if lesbians and bisexual women want to be seen as less

111I M M I G R A T I O N

“different.”71 Because stereotypes about East Asians include the idea that they are
more feminine than white people, Asian lesbians may not need to work as hard
to seem “normal,” but they may have a harder time being recognizably lesbian
or bisexual. One Cambodian American lesbian explained that she felt she had to
adopt a combination of Recognizably Butch and Assertive Asian to get people to
see her as she is:

I guess that’s one reason why I’m so in your face and out about being a dyke. . . .
I’m invisible as a lesbian because I look in [an Asian] cultural way—that is, where
I have long hair, you know—and I despise that invisibility.72

For Asian lesbians, doing femininity makes them extra invisible.
Conversely, to be seen as feminine, black lesbians have to confront stereo-

types applied to both black people and lesbians, both of which masculinize
them.73 Accordingly, they may face more pressure than either white or Asian
women to perform femininity, since appearing heterosexual may be one of the
few nonstigmatizing identities that they carry, especially if they are also work-
ing class or poor. In a study of black lesbian women in New York City, for exam-
ple, those who adopted a Recognizably Butch strategy knew they were risking
policing from the wider society, including their own African American commu-
nity.74 About half chose to dress in a more feminine way for this reason, though
a fifth described choosing to dress somewhat masculine and the rest adopted
a variety of gender-blending styles. Those who didn’t adopt a masculine look
risked being invisible as queer in the predominantly white lesbian feminist com-
munity. Notably, even black women who did adopt more masculine styles often
went unnoticed by white lesbians, perhaps because the white women attri buted
whatever masculinity they did perceive to the black women’s race.

In some parts of the West today, then, sexual minorities are embraced; in oth-
ers, same-sex desire is still stigmatized; and whether we want to be out is also
dependent on our particular personalities. Whatever the case, our gender perfor-
mances are read as signs of our sexual identity. How all of this works, of course,
can change, if one crosses a border and encounters a new set of cultural rules.


When people move from one country to another, the gender strategies they
employed in their place of origin may suddenly be impossible or undesirable.
Immigrants may find themselves in an entirely different social class or a strange
new living environment. They may be struggling to learn a new language and
face xenophobia, institutional and individual bias against people seen as foreign.

Chapter 5  I n t e r s e c t I o n s112

In some cases, they are suddenly a racial or ethnic minority and unfamiliar with
the stereotypes others apply to them.

When sexual minorities migrate from one country to another, for example,
they encounter new cultural rules about how to do gender that intersect with the
recipient country’s unique approach to sexual orientation. Americans tend to
endorse group identities based on interests or membership in political, religious,
and ethnic groups. Accordingly, many believe that people have a right to be “out”
and recognized for one’s sexual identity. In France, though, sexual orientation is
supposed to be a marginal part of one’s self concept, eclipsed by a generic French-
ness. What’s important, one man explained, “is that you’re French before any-
thing and we don’t care if you’re anything else.”75 Wearing your identity on your
sleeve is considered distasteful and making a big deal about coming out is seen
as overly theatrical.

When Xavier moved to the United States, he welcomed the opportunity to
adopt a gay identity. “I don’t feel there is one way to be an American,” he explained.
“You can hyphenate your identity in the U.S. while you can’t really in France.”
Danielle, who immigrated to France, enjoys her new country for just the opposite
reason: “[I]n the U.S., people want to know your label immediately,” she explained.
She prefers things the French way.

members of trans Queer pueblo, a group that advocates for the rights of lgbt undocumented
immigrants, participate in the phoenix pride parade. people of color who are also sexual
minorities and immigrants face harsh policing across all their intersectional identities.

113I M M I G R A T I O N

Some immigrants have a harder time finding strategies that connect their
gender identities, sexual desires, and national, racial, and ethnic backgrounds.
A study of men who immigrated to London from sub-Saharan Africa found that
many were happy to be living in a society that was more accepting of homosex-
uality, but they still resisted identifying as “gay.”76 The term implied a lifestyle
they didn’t embrace. One African immigrant explained:

If I say gay, it comes with lots of associations and ideas in terms of how you live
your life, what kind of culture you are into, what kind of music and kind of the
whole construct around that label that most of us, even me, I don’t associate
myself with.77

This man was still trying to find a gender strategy that bridged the gap between
his cultural background and the gender rules and gay culture he encountered
in London.

Just as sexual minority immigrants may begin rethinking their identity,
men and women who migrate as married couples may begin rethinking what
it means to be a husband and wife. Doing so may mean adjusting to a new eco-
nomic class; their skills and educational degrees may not translate into the
same privileges in their new country, while smaller social networks and language
barriers limit job choices.78 Some immigrants adjust their ideas of masculinity
and femininity accordingly.79 Immigrant couples who once enjoyed the Bread-
winner/Family Focused strategies may discover that their new circumstances
require them to establish economic and domestic in- or inter-dependence.80

Wives who migrate without their husbands, for example, often face very low
wages and little job protection but feel great pride in being able to help support
their families back home.81 Wives who stay home may discover that an absent
husband similarly requires them to take on tasks previously ruled unsuitable for
women. One woman, for example, who stayed in Mexico while her husband went
to the United States, remarked on her responsibilities for taking care of both the
feminine and masculine tasks of the home and joked: “Now I am a man and a

Husbands who migrate without their wives may also develop skills that they
were able to avoid learning in their home countries. A migrant to the United
States named Marcelino, for example, explained how his circumstances required
him to adjust his gender strategy:

Back in Mexico, I didn’t know how to prepare food, iron a shirt or wash my clothes.
I only knew how to work, how to harvest. But . . . [ here] I learned how to do every­
thing that a woman can do to keep a man comfortable. . . . Necessity forced me to
do things which I had previously ignored.83

Chapter 5  I n t e r s e c t I o n s114

While many men migrate in order to fulfill the masculine responsibility of bread-
winning, in the process they may develop feminine skills to counterbalance the
loss of female household support.

Married couples who migrate together must adjust their gender strategies as
a couple. Some wives transition from Family Focused to Super Moms. A Mexican
migrant to the United States, for example, explained: “I now have three jobs. I take
care of the house and kids, I take care of my husband, and I clean hotel rooms. I
work ten hours a day outside of the home and six hours in the home.”84 Like all
Super Moms, migrant mothers struggle to keep up with the demands on their
time, even if they enjoy their newfound opportunities and responsibilities.85

In response, some migrant women begin to change their ideas about what
kind of woman they want to be and what kind of husband they prefer. Rosa, an
interviewee from El Salvador, explained:

Maybe it’s the lifestyle. Here [in the U.S.], the man and the woman, both have to
work to be able to pay the rent, the food, the clothes, a lot of expenses. Probably
that . . . makes us, the women, a little freer in the United States. . . . In this country
if you are courageous and have strength, you can get ahead by yourself, with or
without [a husband]. . . . I would say that’s why here the woman doesn’t follow the
man more.86

When women like Rosa embrace a new gender strategy in response to new
cultural and economic realities, they often ask their husbands to embrace a new
gender strategy, too, one more like the Super Dad. Ricardo talked about the

Here we both work equally, we both work full­time.  .  .  . If she is asked to stay at
work late, I have to stay with the children.  .  .  . In El Salvador it was different. I
never touched a broom there [laughing].  .  .  . Here, no. If she quits, we don’t eat.
It’s equal.87

Jacobo, from Guatemala, is enthusiastic about his wife working and has high
hopes for her future:

There are many opportunities here [in the U.S.] and she is smart in business and
she can learn English quickly.  .  .  . It upsets me to find her at home all the time
[ babysitting], when she could be doing something better.88

Not all migrants adopt sharing strategies. Some men, like Ricardo and Jacobo,
respond positively to the change that comes with economic interdependence;
other husbands resist. Likewise, some women pine for the days when they could
be Family Focused or afford maids and nannies. Whatever choices migrants

115A B I L I T Y , A G E , A N D A T T R A C T I V E N E S S

make, however, are shaped by the differently gendered opportunities and con-
straints they encounter, as well as those related to their other identities.

Stories of immigration reveal how dependent our gender strategies are on
our social context. Travel from one geographical place to another creates both
new opportunities and new constraints, all of which interact with gender. There
are other kinds of traveling, too, which brings us to our final set of identities:
aging and disability. Both are a kind of travel: through time into an older body
or through accident or illness into a body that works quite differently.


Bodies are one of our most potent resources for doing gender. Our body’s age,
abilities and disabilities, and degree of conformity to conventional standards
of attractiveness combine to shape what gender strategies we can pull off.89 To
begin, let’s consider ability and disability.

The Gender of Disability

Thanks to ableism, individual and institutional bias against people with differ-
ently abled bodies, disabled people are often at a disadvantage when interacting
with other people and making their way in their society. In addition to contend-
ing with ableism, disabled men and women also face specific challenges when
attempting to do gender.

When asked to describe what it means to be a man, Jerry—a sixteen-year-old
wheelchair user with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis—emphasized self-reliance.
A man, he explained, is “fairly self-sufficient in that you can sort of handle just
about any situation in that you can help other people and that you don’t need
a lot of help.”90 For Jerry, growing up meant struggling to live up to his idea of

If I ever have to ask someone for help, it really makes me feel like less of a man. I
don’t like asking for help at all. You know, like even if I could use some, I’ll usually
not ask just because I can’t, I just hate asking.

Not only did Jerry himself feel like less of a man as a result of his disability, but
his female peers similarly didn’t seem to see him as a “guy.” “I might be a ‘really
nice person’ [to them],” he said, “but not like a guy per se. I think to some extent
that you’re sort of genderless to them.”91

Like Jerry, most disabled men have to accept not only an inability to be
self-sufficient but also the inability to live up to other masculine ideals, like the

Chapter 5  I n t e r s e c t I o n s116

ability to be physically assertive and sexually successful. If a disabled man has
the resources to live alone and pay for renovations, technologies, and human
assistance—that is, if he is quite wealthy or commands a very high salary—he may
be able to retain much of the illusion of self-sufficiency he enjoyed before he was
injured. Damon, for example, a quadriplegic who requires twenty-four-hour per-
sonal care, was able to feel independent because he could afford to be so. Explain-
ing, he emphasized that he has help, but he is in charge, “directing” both people
and activities:

I direct all of my activities around my home where people have to help me to
maintain my apartment, my transportation, which I own, and direction in where
I go. I direct people how to get there, and I tell them what my needs will be when I
am going and coming, and when to get where I am going. . . . I don’t see any reason
why [I can’t] get my life on just as I was having it before.92

For Damon and some other disabled men, regaining independence is an Able-
Disabled strategy that preserves a sense of masculinity. It may even enhance
it, given that men with disabilities must overcome great obstacles to have what
other men may take for granted.

Not all men, however, have Damon’s resources. A study of young black and
Latino men from impoverished inner cities found that adapting to degrees of
paralysis due to spinal cord injuries left them feeling like “half a man.”93 They
pointed to the inability to enact the same highly physical masculine Tough Guy
strategy that their neighborhoods encouraged and they had once enjoyed. “No
longer could the men walk with a swagger and stand tall in a way that emanated
power; no longer could the men have sex anywhere at any time; no longer could
the men physically fight a potential threat.”94

In the absence of money, disabled men may opt to adopt an Emphatically
Hetero strategy designed to remind others that they retain a distinctly mascu-
line sexuality.95 A man named Roger, for example, experienced problems with
memory, speech, and motor control caused by brain injuries sustained in a car
accident. To compensate, he embraced the sexual objectification of women, plas-
tering his living space with images of “bikini-clad women lying on cars and
motorbikes.”96 When the female sociologist who interviewed him entered his
home, he immediately winked at her and asked her to do his dishes. His humor
emphasized the fact that while he was disabled and she was not, he was still a
man. Enacting a more youthful version of this strategy, a young man named
Dag who was paralyzed at twenty-two used a programmed speaking device to
whistle at women.97 Dag’s strategy, like Roger’s, was a way to remind others that
he was not just male but masculine.

Sports are another arena that offers disabled men the opportunity to assert
their masculinity. Wheelchair rugby, originally called “murderball,” is an aggres-

117A B I L I T Y , A G E , A N D A T T R A C T I V E N E S S

sive and risky contact sport that enables players to prove their athletic prowess
and fearlessness in the face of danger. The fact that they play through their par –
ticular physical limitation suggests an extraordinary degree of manliness, coun-
teracting the loss of masculinity they experienced when they were injured.

If men’s identities are troubled by an inability to be assertive with their bod-
ies, women’s identities are more often tied up with their ability to be physically
attractive. Like able-bodied women, disabled women learn the cultural rule that
it’s important for women to be sexy at the same time that stereotypes of the
disabled portray them as unsexy, even asexual.98 Beth, a woman with multiple
sclerosis, writes: “I am sure that other people see a wheelchair first, me second,
and a woman third, if at all.”99 Disability rights activist Judy Heumann explains:

You know, I use a wheelchair, and when I go down the street I do not get to be sex­
ually harassed. I hear nondisabled women complaining about it, but I don’t ever
get treated as a sexual object.100

Some women respond to this degendering and desexualization by trying to con-
form to gendered expectations as much as possible. Harilyn was one of these
women. She writes:

I was determined to prove I was a “normal” woman. I deliberately sought the
most handsome man to parade around. . . . I became pregnant out of wedlock at

w heelchair rugby allows disabled men to reclaim their masculinity by proving that they are
just as assertive and competitive as they were before their injur y.

Chapter 5  I n t e r s e c t I o n s118

seventeen, which was extremely affirming for me. One of my proud moments was
parading around the supermarket with my belly sticking out for all to see that I
was indeed a woman, and that my body worked like a normal woman’s body.101

Occupying a position in “no woman’s land” can inspire women to hyper-
conform, as Harilyn did, but it can also give them permission to resist cultural
definitions of femininity.102 Some disabled women find that their injury or ill-
ness gives them the insight and permission they need to escape from rigid stan-
dards of beauty. As one disabled woman with some difficulty with motor control
explained: “If I tried to put on mascara, I’d put my eye out, you know; I could
never physically do it.”103 For her, being unable to enact the Girly Girl strategy
has been liberating:

It’s meant that I’m dealing with having a better balance in life as a person, not
just as a person with a disability. So I think that we’re able to be who we are as
women ’cause we don’t fit the stereotype maybe.104

Class also plays a role. Siv had adopted a Family Focused strategy before an
accident left her paralyzed from the chest down with only some arm movement.105
Fortunately for her, this didn’t disrupt her gender strategy very much; with her
husband’s income and her disability check helping to pay for help around the
house—a housekeeper and nurse—she was able to continue on as the emotional
center of her family. Siv “came out with her femininity intact.”106

Disability interacts with masculinity and femininity, as well as other things
about us, making the transition to a life with a disability different for men and
women. Age is another life transition, one that we all face, and one that inter-
sects with attractiveness in gendered ways.

Age and Attractiveness

Society has strict age-related rules that pressure us to “act our age.”107 So, as we
grow older, our ability to “pull off” different gender strategies changes. Sociolo-
gist Cheryl Laz explores the language we use to discuss the ways in which age
limits our behavior:

“Act your age. You’re a big kid now,” we say to children to encourage indepen­
dence (or obedience). “Act your age. Stop being so childish,” we say to other adults
when we think they are being irresponsible. “Act your age; you’re not as young as
you used to be,” we say to an old person pursuing “youthful” activities.108

Staying up all night at clubs is typically seen as fun-loving for young adults;
among forty-somethings, a sign perhaps that someone is failing to “settle down.”

119A B I L I T Y , A G E , A N D A T T R A C T I V E N E S S

Becoming a parent is believed to be a blessing at thirty, a curse at thirteen. Learn-
ing to snowboard seems typical for a twenty-eight-year-old but risky for a fifty-
eight-year-old. Just as there are gender rules, then, there are age rules. These
rules press us to “do” our age by doing things that are judged as neither “too
immature” nor “too old” for the number of candles on our birthday cake.

These age-related rules are gendered. Socially, men and women age at  dif-
ferent rates and in different ways. Playing with dolls may be tolerated in a
two-year-old boy who isn’t expected to know the rules, but worrisome in a twelve-
year-old boy who, by then, is seen as breaking a rule that he is supposed to want
to obey. Girls, in contrast, can play with dolls throughout childhood and even
collect them in adulthood with little to no need to account for that interest.

People learn early on that age matters for how they do gender. Consider Anna-
Clara, Fanny, and Angelica, three eleven-year-olds already well versed in these
rules. Anna-Clara explains:

Frankly it’s ridiculous to wear thong [underwear] at our age. Eighth, ninth grade,
that’s when girls start to be mature enough for it. When you are, like, in the fifth
grade, it looks ridiculous if you walk around with thongs.109

Anna-Clara’s friends, Fanny and Angelica, may admire high heels, but they
believe they’re not yet ready for them. Angelica recalls: “I saw these beige boots,
which I thought were nice. But I wouldn’t buy them. They had rather high heels.”
Fanny concurred, remarking that she’d be more than happy to police Angelica if
she were to break this rule: “If Angelica wears such shoes, I tell her that they’re
adults’ shoes.”

These eleven-year-olds will eventually age into thongs and high heels—their
brothers will not, at least not without paying pretty severe consequences—but
they will also age back out again. This is because, in addition to age-related gen-
der rules, aging limits and changes our options for how to do gender in more
physical ways. As we age, our appearance and physiology may no longer sup-
port certain strategies (like high-impact athleticism and long days in fashionable
shoes); our bodies become increasingly disabled by injury, illness, and time; our
age is interpreted by others as ugliness; and we come to face ageism, an insti-
tutionalized preference for the young and the cultural association of aging with
decreased social value.110

Because more emphasis is placed on women’s physical attractiveness than
men’s, however, women lose more esteem as they age.111 For women, writer
Susan Sontag explains, beauty is tightly tied to youth: “Only one standard of
female beauty is sanctioned: the girl.”112 In other words, for women, preserving
youthfulness and preserving attractiveness are one and the same. For men, she
argues, there are two standards of beauty: the boy and the man. This allows

Chapter 5  I n t e r s e c t I o n s120

men to transition to a different attractiveness as they age, one not available to
women. She writes:

The beauty of a boy resembles the beauty of a girl. In both sexes it is a fragile
kind of beauty and flourishes naturally only in the early part of the life­cycle.
Happily, men are able to accept themselves under another standard of good
looks—heavier, rougher, more thickly built. A man does not grieve when he loses
the smooth, unlined, hairless skin of a boy. For he has only exchanged one form
of attractiveness for another: the darker skin of a man’s face, roughened by daily
shaving, showing the marks of emotion and the normal lines of age. There is no
equivalent of this second standard for women. The single standard of beauty for
women dictates that they must go on having clear skin. Every wrinkle, every line,
every gray hair, is a defeat.113

Once a woman’s youthful beauty fades, she will be expected to adopt a strategy
of invisibility. The asexual and maternal Grandma, perhaps. Duncan Kennedy,
who studied fashion-advice TV shows, explains:

Old women  .  .  . are expected to accept the conventional social assessment that
they are sexually unattractive, and dress so as to minimize their sexuality. If
they dress sexily  .  .  . [they] are likely to be interpreted as rebels or eccentrics or
“desperate,” and sanctioned accordingly.114

Women have to get the timing just right. If they adopt this strategy too early,
they’ll be accused of “letting themselves go.” If they wait too long, they’ll fail to
“age gracefully.” The term cougar reveals this kind of policing, implying that
older women who are interested in sex with younger men are predatory animals.

We see such bias, for example, in the evaluation of the “realness” of mar-
riages between men and women when one is an American citizen and the other
is attempting to immigrate. In a study of an advice forum for people attempt-
ing to get their partners to the United States, concerns about what marriages
are fraudulent are both gendered and aged.115 When the American partner is a
woman who is older than her male partner, observers tend to assume that the
younger man is exploiting her. On the assumption that no young man would
genuinely choose to be with a woman who is “past her prime,” observers raise
a “red flag” on the relationship. “Sorry to be blunt,” said one such observer to a
woman seeking advice, “but you sound desperate. You see it as love. He sees it
as his ticket to America.”

In contrast, when an American man is seeking immigration papers for a
substantially younger woman, his behavior is regarded as “rational” instead
of desperate—a logical choice for a well-resourced man who desires a sexually
available and grateful domestic helper. This is the case even when he explicitly

121A B I L I T Y , A G E , A N D A T T R A C T I V E N E S S

uses an agency that matches U.S. men with women
seeking such a “ticket” into the country. A healthy
relationship is assumed to involve his money and
her attractiveness, so in these gendered calcula-
tions an older man and young woman look right
together. Determining whether a couple is attempt-
ing to defraud the U.S. government, then, is a gen-
dered process related to beliefs about what kind
of age-discrepant relationships are “normal” and

Aging is gendered, but it’s also intersectional,
and it takes more of a toll on some groups than oth-
ers. Class-privileged All-American Boys may grow
up to be Breadwinners and, then, Distinguished Gen-
tlemen, replacing the admiration they enjoyed for
their looks and physical fitness with the admiration
that comes with building a successful career and
becoming a valued leader. An aging body may be
harder on a Blue-Collar Guy who relies on his body’s
ability to do the demanding job on which his sense
of masculinity rests. As his physical abilities fade, he
may come to rely on his ability to demand respect
as a family Patriarch.

Wealthier women can look younger longer with
excellent nutrition, good med ical care, expensive
beauty products, well-made and well-fitting clothes,
gym memberships, personal trainers, and even cos-
metic procedures. Some older women with high lev-
els of cultural recognition participate actively in public life as Grande Dames.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Jane Fonda, and Oprah Winfrey are proud older women
who get respect, but not everyone has the resources or profile required to do
so. And, no matter how many resources a woman has, her aging appearance
will likely be judged and penalized more harshly than a man’s.

Aging can be worse for working-class women like service workers and home
care workers who, like working-class men, also work in physically demanding
jobs. Sometimes their work trades directly on their attractiveness. Waitresses
and receptionists, for example, may see their employability slip or their raises
and tips decline as they age, without having the class privilege that enables
them to replace looks with occupational success. It’s a cruel reality: Because
beauty is expensive, working-class women, on average, lose their looks more
quickly than more class-privileged women, at the same time that losing their
looks carries greater costs.

in her eighties, supreme court Jus-
tice ruth bader ginsburg is known for
wearing a “super diva” t-shirt during
workouts. she is one of a small number
of women who has been able to combine
authority and attractiveness to become
a widely admired grande dame.

Chapter 5  I n t e r s e c t I o n s122

Moreover, women who live in unsafe urban environments, who have few
opportunities for exercise and few amenities for doing so, may be more likely to
be obese in middle age and to have age-related diseases like high blood pres-
sure and diabetes.116 The passing years take a greater toll on the poor and people
of color than others. New research now shows that the persistent experience
of discrimination over a lifetime does harm to the body, aging both men and
women more quickly and contributing to illness.117 Attractiveness and ability
intersect, influenced by our other identities and circumstances, shaping our
gender strategies throughout our lives.

R ev isiti ng t he Q uestion

I f g e n d e r i s j u s t o n e p a r t o f w h o w e a r e , w h y i s n ’ t i t
c r o w d e d o u t b y a l l t h e o t h e r t h i n g s a b o u t u s t h a t a r e
m e a n i n g f u l a n d c o n s e q u e n t i a l?

Gender isn’t crowded out by other characteristics because it doesn’t compete
with those things, it colludes with them. Gender intersects with our other
socially salient identities, inflecting them with gendered meaning, and every
social position allows for different combinations of distinctions that carry costs
and rewards. As we carve out a masculine or feminine identity, we develop strat-
egies designed to manage all these expectations, constraints, and opportunities.

Some gender strategies are more realistic for us than others. Our individ-
ual characteristics, the organization of our societies, distinctions of value in
our culture, and economic resources available to us all affect what we can pull
off personally. Where we fall in this complex landscape of inequalities shapes
the consequences for deviation from and conformity to gender rules. In simple
words, we don’t all have the same choices for doing gender.

Given our lot in life, most of us try to adopt a gender strategy that maximizes
our own well-being and life chances. We often try to claim widely admired iden-
tities and distance ourselves from stigmatizing ones, but we don’t all have the
same resources to do so. So we often choose the least stigmatizing identity we
can, like the “wannabes”; reject the rules, like those who insist that Black Is
Beautiful; or try to negotiate with what is valued, like Blue-Collar Guys. We also
experiment with multiple strategies across different situations, like the women
who oscillate between Oriental Flower and Assertive Asian, or we use posi-
tive elements of masculinity or femininity to push away stigma, like the Able-
Disabled and the Not Too Queer. We accept that others may accuse us of
de-emphasizing parts of ourselves, like the black woman who attempts All-
American Girl or the working-class man who is a Super Dad. We know we can’t be
everything to everyone, but we walk the tightrope of social disapproval across
the complicated set of distinctions as best we can.

123A B I L I T Y , A G E , A N D A T T R A C T I V E N E S S

Ne x t . . .

We are diverse individuals, with identities that go far beyond just gender, who
use our free will and cultural competence to manage others’ expectations of us.
This is much easier for some of us than others, and some of us have much better
options. Yet, we see a pattern in how men and women respond to these chal-
lenges: Men tend to find the gender binary, the science that attempts to uphold
it, and the social rules that enforce it, less objectionable than women and peo-
ple of other genders. And men have a much weaker tradition of protesting the
way things are and asking for change. This seems like a good time to pose the

I f b o t h m e n a n d w o m e n a r e c o n s t r a i n e d b y a b i n a r y
g e n d e r s y s t e m , w h y i s i t t h a t m o r e w o m e n t h a n m e n f i n d
t h i s s y s t e m u n f a i r ?

This question brings us to the part of the book where we directly tackle the
issue of inequality.

F O R F U R T h E R R E A D I N G

Anzaldúa, Gloria. “La Conciencia de la Mestiza.” Borderlands/La Frontera: The New
Mestiza. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987.

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the
Politics of Empowerment, 2nd Ed. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Collins, Patricia Hill and Sirma Bilge. Intersectionality. Malden, MA: Polity, 2016.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé W. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics,

and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (1991):

Espiritu, Yen Le. Asian American Women and Men: Labor, Laws and Love. Lanham, MD:
Rowman and Littlefield, 2008.

Gerschick, Thomas J. “Toward a Theory of Disability and Gender.” Signs 25, no. 4
(2000): 1264.

Hoang, Kimberly. “Transnational Gender Vertigo.” Contexts 12, no. 2 (2013): 22–26.
Moore, Mignon R. Invisible Families: Gay Identities, Relationships, and Motherhood

among Black Women. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.
Sontag, Susan. “The Double Standard of Aging.” The Saturday Review, Septem-

ber 23, 1972, 29–38.
Wilkins, Amy. Wannabes, Goths, and Christians: The Boundaries of Sex, Style, and

Status. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

W H At A piece of Wor k is m A n!

—W i l l i A m s H A k e s p e A r e

men and masculinities

For a study of men’s experience reading lifestyle magazines, a young man named Reid was asked to reflect on the impact gender rules had on him: the rules that a man should be emo-
tionally and physically strong, at the top of his game professionally,
and sexually successful with women. in response, Reid said that
aligning those expectations with his real self was a type of work:
“[R]econciling the expectations that other people in my life may
have of what a man should be,” he said, was something he had to
actively do.1 Finding a gender strategy that felt “right” to him didn’t
come entirely naturally. He didn’t find the work especially onerous—
“it’s pretty easy for me,” he explained—but he acknowledged that
it wasn’t so easy for others.

the last chapter discussed how living in a gendered society
requires men and women to develop culturally recognizable gen-
der strategies. this chapter explores, in more detail, what that looks
like for men, arguing that a rigid gender binary system that requires
us to do gender in specific ways is not optimal for either men or
women. men don’t always experience this as a burden but, as Reid’s
comments suggest, it’s still work.

this chapter also considers why men haven’t been on the fore-
front of the movement to challenge the gender binary. the politi-
cal activism aimed at changing gender relations has been called


Chapter 6  i n e q u a l i t y : m e n a n d m a s c u l i n i t i e s126

“feminism” and the “women’s movement” because it has been primarily
led and supported by women. even today it is women, more than men, who
object to the way their lives are gendered.2 this leads us to our question:

I f b o t h m e n a n d w o m e n a r e c o n s t r a i n e d b y a b i n a r y
g e n d e r s y s t e m , w h y i s i t m o r e w o m e n t h a n m e n f i n d
t h i s s y s t e m u n f a i r ?

this chapter resolves this question by looking at how the costs and rewards
of doing gender are distributed unequally. While men and women both need
to do gender in order to be seen as fully functional members of society, we
do not do gender in symmetrical ways, and the consequences of our gender
performances are not the same. this is because the gender binary is hierar-
chical. it places men above women, values masculinity above femininity, and
routinely brings men and women together into relationships in which women
are positioned as helpers to men.

this is bad for both men and women, but in different ways. For men more
than women, it narrows the range of life experiences that seem acceptable
and right. For women more than men, it results in reduced social status, lower
financial rewards, and an expectation that men’s needs and interests should
take priority. Gender inequality, then, isn’t just about preferring men over
women. it involves a far more complex calculus. let’s begin with an example.


at its inception in the mid-1800s, cheerleading was an all-male sport. charac-
terized by gymnastics, stunts, and crowd leadership, it was considered equiva-
lent in prestige to that flagship of american masculinity: football. as the editors
of the Nation saw it in 1911:

The reputation of having been a valiant “cheer-leader” is one of the most valu-
able things a boy can take away from college. As a title to promotion in profes-
sional or public life, it ranks hardly second to that of having been a quarterback.3

indeed, cheerleading helped launch the political careers of three u.s. presidents:
dwight d. eisenhower, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan were cheerlead-
ers. 4 actor Jimmy stewart was head cheerleader at Princeton. Republicans Rick
Perry, tom delay, and mitt Romney all led cheers for their schools’ teams.

Being a cheerleader was a “great responsibility” and a “high honor.”5 compar-
ing cheerleaders to Pericles of ancient athens—statesman, orator, and military

127T H E G E N D E R O F C H E E R L E A D I N G

general—the New York Times in 1924 described stanford university’s all-male
cheerleaders as “lithe, white-sweatered and flannel-trousered youth” projecting
“mingled force and grace” and a “locomotive cheer.”6 as late as 1927, cheerleading
manuals still referred to the reader exclusively as a “man,” “chap,” or “fellow.7

Women were first given the opportunity to join squads when large num-
bers of young men were deployed to fight World War i, leaving open spots that
women were happy to fill. the entrance of women into the activity, though, was
considered unnatural and even inappropriate. argued one opponent in 1938:

[Women cheerleaders] frequently became too masculine for their own good.
We find the development of loud, raucous voices  .  .  . and the consequent devel-
opment of slang and profanity by their necessary association with [male]
squad members.8

cheerleading was too masculine for women.
When the men returned from the war, there was an effort to push women

back out of cheerleading. some schools even banned female cheerleaders. in
1939, Gamma sigma, the national college cheerleaders’ fraternity, refused to
include female cheerleaders or recognize squads that did. “every year there is
a campaign to take them in,” said the fraternity’s president, “but every year we
keep them out.”9 ultimately, of course, the effort to preserve cheer as an exclu-
sively male activity was unsuccessful. With a second mass deployment of men
during World War ii, women cheerleaders were here to stay.

the men of the Yale University cheerleading team stand proud in 1927.

Chapter 6  i n e q u a l i t y : m e n a n d m a s c u l i n i t i e s128

But that wasn’t the end of the story. instead of changing how we thought
about women, the presence of women in cheer changed how people thought
about cheering. Because women were stereotyped as cute instead of “valiant,”
cheerleading’s association with women led to its trivialization. By the 1950s, the
ideal cheerleader was no longer a man with leadership skills; it was someone
with “manners, cheerfulness, and good disposition.” in response, boys pretty
much turned away from cheerleading altogether. By the early 1960s, men with
megaphones had been replaced by perky girls with pom-poms:

Cheerleading in the sixties consisted of cutesy chants, big smiles and revealing
uniforms. There were no gymnastic tumbling runs. No complicated stunting.
Never any injuries. About the most athletic thing sixties cheerleaders did was a
cartwheel followed by the splits.10

in the span of a hundred years, cheerleading evolved from a respected pursuit
to a silly show on the sidelines. as it became more female, its value and prestige
declined. By 1974, those same stanford cheerleaders were described as “simple
creatures” who needed only two things: “blondeness, congenital or acquired,
and a compulsively cute, nonstop bottom.”11

By the 1960s and 1970s, cheerleaders were primarily female and the activity became less
about leadership and more about support and sexiness.

129G E N D E R E D P O W E R

We’ve seen similar changes repeatedly in recent american society: in leisure
activities like cheer, but also in occupations like “secretary,” and in literature and
the arts. We may even be seeing such changes right now, as women are increas-
ingly entering college majors like biology or careers like law. the “demotion” of
an arena of life as it undergoes a “sex change” is common. understanding these
demotions requires exploring the relationship between gender and power.


Patriarchy: Then and Now

america and many european societies were patriarchies well into the 1800s
and, in some cases, the 1900s. the literal meaning of the word patriarchy is
“the rule of the father.” it refers to the control of female and younger male family
members by select adult men, or patriarchs.

in fully patriarchal societies, only patriarchs have rights. Women have no right
to their own bodies and no right to the children they bear. men decide where the
family lives and whom their children marry. if a woman works outside the home,
she does so only with the permission of the head of household (a father, brother,
or husband), and her earnings are given directly to him. a patriarch may have
social and legal permission to punish his wife or wives and his children physically,
brutally if he chooses. He is “the king of his castle,” so his word is law at home.

meanwhile, because men alone have legal and civil rights, only men are enti-
tled to act freely in the outside world, where they may—or may not—choose to
represent the interests of their wives and children. in societies like these, women
cannot vote, serve on juries, use birth control, work after marriage, keep their
own wages, attain a divorce, have custody of their children, enlist in the mili-
tary, own property, hold political office, or sue for discrimination, among many
other restrictions.

life really was like this for a long time, but as democracies replaced monar-
chies, the relationship among citizens changed, first among men with wealth and
then among wider classes of men. democratic states offered a new political bar-
gain that gave rights to an ever-increasing range of men. Patriarchy was slowly
replaced by a democratic brotherhood, the distribution of citizenship rights
to certain classes of men. each newly incorporated class of men—sometimes
represented by political parties, unions, or fraternal associations like elks and
Knights of columbus—often tried to keep the next class of men out. But slowly,
as poor men, men of color, immigrants, and indigenous men fought for the
rights of citizenship offered to elite men in these early democracies, the brother –
hood grew.

Chapter 6  i n e q u a l i t y : m e n a n d m a s c u l i n i t i e s130

Women had to fight, too. Only gradually, in struggle after struggle, did they
see victories, earning one hard-fought right at a time.12 these struggles have
changed both laws and customs so that today most Western countries are based
upon formal gender equality—the requirement that laws treat men and women
as equal citizens. incredibly, though the idea is rather new and was once con-
sidered absurd, equal rights for women has come to be seen as common sense.
most people in most countries today, that is, see both classic patriarchy and its
modified form in democratic brotherhoods as deeply and unacceptably unfair.

However, even as patriarchy has steadily declined as a principle of law, its
underlying way of thinking about gender still persists. First, even though people
no longer need to be male to count as full citizens, men continue to be conceived
of as the generic human, with women as deviant from the norm. men, in other
words, are the unmarked human. this becomes clear when we consider how polit-
ical concerns are separated into political issues and women’s issues; the bathroom
symbol for men’s is the same one used for person on “walk” signs and elsewhere;
classes on gender are often assumed to be primarily about women, as if only
women are gendered; and cartoon animals, in the absence of cues like hair bows
or long eyelashes, are assumed to be male.13 men’s identity as men is often invis-
ible, even to themselves, while women’s identity as women is usually centrally
important. all too often, in other words, men are people and women are women.

some argue that man stands in for human, so the stick figure in pants, for
example, really does reflect all of us. But that’s not how our brains work. studies
show that the words he, his, and man, when used generically to refer to individ-
uals or the human race, tend to conjure up images of men, not men and women
together.14 the words human, individual, and person work the same way.15 Women
are all too often excluded from the terms in practice, even if they’re in the defini-
tion. One sign we still live in a modified patriarchy, then, is the persistent center-
ing of men as normal or neutral and the marginalizing of women as a modified,
nonneutral type of person.

We see this in media, too, where men’s characters and stories predominate
(Figure 6.1). a study of the top-grossing 200 nonanimated films in 2015, for
example, found that only 17 percent were headlined by women without a male
co-lead.16 male characters received almost twice as much screen time as women
and had more than twice as many lines. Half of the movies that have won
Best Picture since 1929 fail to pass the Bechdel test, a check as to whether a
movie has even a single scene in which two named female characters talk to
one another about something other than a man.17 We see similar dynamics in
comics, primetime television commercials, video games, children’s books, and
cartoons.18 Girls and women don’t take center stage in american media as often
as boys and men, reflecting the general belief that women can identify with men
( because men are people), but men can’t identify with women ( because women
are women).

131G E N D E R E D P O W E R

second, patriarchal thinking persists in the continued equation of power
with masculinity.19 in both classic patriarchies and democratic brotherhoods,
the right of an individual to act in the world authoritatively was contingent on
being male. to have power was to be a man. in other words, power itself was
gendered. in contemporary american english, masculinity and femininity are
still used as synonyms for power and powerlessness, respectively. according
to, synonyms for the word power include male, manful, manlike,
manly, and masculine, while synonyms for weakness include effeminate, effete,
emasculate, and womanly.20 likewise, the word femininity is said to be synony-
mous with the terms docility, delicacy, and soft ness, whereas the word mascu-
line is taken as synonymous with the terms courageous, hardy, muscular, potent,
robust, strong, and vigorous.21

these synonyms reveal that gender is a metaphor for power.22 to be seen as
less masculine is to be seen as less powerful, even feminine. conversely, to be
powerful is to invoke the aura of masculinity. if we want to tell someone to stop
being weak and grasp power, we tell them to man up. if we want to communi-
cate that a person, idea, or institution is strong, we often do so with gendered
language: powerful cars are “testosterone-charged,” aggressive rock music is

f i g u r e 6 . 1  | ProPortion of words sPoken by men vs.
women in best Picture–winning films*

2000, American Beauty

0% 20% 40% 60% 80% 100%

2002, A Beautiful Mind

2001, Gladiator

2005, Million Dollar Baby

2004, The Lord of the Rings:
The Return of the King

2007, The Departed

2006, Crash

2009, Slumdog Millionaire

2008, No Country for Old Men

2011, The King’s Speech

2010, The Hurt Locker

2014, 12 Years a Slave

2013, Argo

2016, Spotlight

2015, Birdman































*all female and male characters who speak more than one hundred words.
source: data from Hanah anderson, “the Pudding,”

Chapter 6  i n e q u a l i t y : m e n a n d m a s c u l i n i t i e s132

“cock rock,” and to find one’s courage is to “strap
on a pair.”

in the media, just as men are overrepresented,
they are more likely than women to be portrayed
as aggressive, brave, and physically strong.23 an
analysis of 34,476 comic book characters, for exam-
ple, found that male superheroes were more likely
than female ones to have super strength, stamina,
and invul nerability.24 in contrast, female super-
heroines specialized in mental instead of physical
powers, like empathy, precognition, or seduction.
even among superhumans, then, masculinity is
closely tied to strength and invulnerability, with
femi nine powers more mental and manipulative.

most societies today are a far cry from classic
patriarchies, where fathers were little kings, or dem-
ocratic brotherhoods, where men closed ranks to
exclude all women. But neither is patriarchy wholly
gone. instead, american and many other societies
are contradictions: characterized by both some
degree of formal gender equality and the persis-
tence of patriarchal ideas. We call these mod-
ern societies modified patriarchies, societies in
which women have been granted formal gender

equality but where the patriarchal conflation of power with men and masculinity
remains a central part of daily life.

most of us live in societies, then, that are widely, even if unofficially, charac-
terized by patriarchal relations. specifically, three relations of inequality shape
the hierarchical nature of contemporary gender dynamics: sexism, androcen-
trism, and subordination.

Relations of  Inequality

Sexism is the favoring of male-bodied over female-bodied people, both ideo-
logically and in practice. it’s the best word to describe valuing male over female
children, the belief that women are naturally weaker than men, or the conviction
that men are better suited for public office.25 evidence of sexism is ubiquitous.
in a recent study, for example, 127 professors of biology, chemistry, and physics
were asked to evaluate the application materials of a fictional person seeking
a laboratory manager position.26 Half the professors received a résumé with a

this drawing of an ideal leader assumes
a male body and masculine demeanor
are essential.

133G E N D E R E D P O W E R

female name; the other half received the exact same résumé with a male name.
On average, compared to male applicants, females were rated as less competent,
less hirable, and deserving of less mentorship and a lower salary. Both male and
female professors showed this bias.

Psychologist Janet swim and colleagues reviewed 123 similar experimental
studies asking subjects to evaluate writing, artwork, behavior, job applications,
and biographies attributed to fictional men or women.27 the aggregated study
results show that, holding everything else constant, women are evaluated less
positively than men. the same résumé, piece of art, or life’s work is seen as less
impressive if the evaluator thinks it was created by a woman instead of a man.
Our legacy of patriarchal gender relations tilts people’s preferences toward men,
putting a thumb on the scale in favor of male-bodied people.

if sexism is sex-based prejudice, then androcentrism is gender-based prej-
udice: the granting of higher status, respect, value, reward, and power to what-
ever is seen as masculine compared to what is seen as feminine. androcentrism
is different from sexism because it doesn’t reward people with male bodies over
people with female ones; instead, rewards accrue to anyone who can do mascu-
linity. androcentrism means what is valued in men (masculinity) tends to be
valued in everyone, but what is valued in women (femininity) tends to be val-
ued only in women. this is why women wear pants, but men don’t wear skirts;
why women become surgeons, but men have largely abandoned pediatrics; and
why women have pushed their way into soccer and ski jumping, but men are
leaving synchronized swimming and softball to the ladies. it’s why girls who
are boyish are affectionately called tomboys, but boys who act girlish are deri-
sively called sissies.

the pattern is clear, for example, with first names. 28 Once a traditionally
male name starts being given to girls, the rate at which parents give it to boys
starts to decline. the name leslie, for example, was almost exclusively for boys
until the 1940s.29 as it rose in popularity for girls in the 1970s, it fell in popu-
larity for boys. a selection of names that have undergone a similar “sex change”
are listed in table 6.1. such changes are always from male to female. the very
fact that parents may give their daughters traditionally male names is evidence
that a touch of perceived masculinity is considered good or advantageous for
girls, but femininity does not do the same for boys.

in a third relation of power, men and women are brought together into hierar-
chical relationships. the placing of women into positions that make them sub-
servient to or dependent on men is called subordination. nursing, for instance,
is not just feminine and female, it also puts nurses into a subordinate relation-
ship with doctors.30 doctors tell nurses what to do; nurses “help” doctors do their
job. the same is true for the gendered relationships between managers and their
assistants, dentists and dental hygienists, and lawyers and paralegals.31 these

Chapter 6  i n e q u a l i t y : m e n a n d m a s c u l i n i t i e s134

occupational roles are gendered. in the united states, women represent 90 per-
cent of registered nurses, 91 percent of receptionists, 95 percent of administrative
assistants, 95 percent of dental hygienists, and 86 percent of paralegals.32 some
men become receptionists and paralegals, of course, but this doesn’t change the
underlying understanding that it’s “women’s work.” likewise, women become
managers and dentists, but typically the support they receive from subordinates
is still provided by women.

Because the subordination of women to men is seen as normal, we sometimes
even see it between men and women in otherwise equal positions.33 sociologist
Patricia Yancey martin, who spent years observing interactions in Fortune 500
companies, recounted many ways in which women were expected to help or
support male colleagues as if they were an assistant.34 in one case, two vice
presidents stood talking in a hallway as a phone rang, unanswered. after a few
rings, the man asked the woman why she wasn’t answering the phone. in fact,
this was no more her job than his, but because she was a woman, it just seemed
to make sense that she do it. even when they have the same job title, women are
more likely than men to be asked, or silently expected, to make the coffee, plan
parties, take notes, order food, and clean up after meetings, as well as attend to
clients or colleagues having emotional breakdowns. notably, none of this work
brings any rewards or accolades for women. it is just expected of them.

When roles are gendered, then, they often place a woman in a position subor-
dinate to a man, helping him (and cheering him on) as he does the high-profile,
exciting, well-rewarded work. the supporting role is a distinctly feminine one,
and it brings men and women—and masculine and feminine activities—into a
distinctly close yet unmistakably hierarchical relationship. and as we just saw,
this sometimes happens even when men and women are otherwise equal.

We do not live in a world that simply insists upon gender distinction. We live
in one that imbues men, masculine people, and masculinized activities with more
visibility, status, value, and power than women, feminine people, and feminized
activities. this is what makes gender about power, not just difference. these

T a b l e 6 . 1  | u.s. nAmes given PrimArily to girls tHAt were
once given eXclusively to boys

addison Bailey Hadley lindsay monroe shelby

allison Beverly Haven madison Paris stevie

ashley Blair Kelsey mcKenzie Peyton sydney

aubrey cassidy Kennedy mcKinley Presley taylor

avery dana lauren meredith Reagan Whitney


135G E N D E R F O R M E N

asymmetries in the gender binary—and the relations between men and women
that emerge—make doing gender a different challenge for men and women. For
the remainder of this chapter, we’ll talk about how men negotiate the hierarchical
gender binary.


Doing Masculinity, Avoiding Femininity

sociologist emily Kane was interested in how the hierarchical gender binary
influenced parents’ interactions with their kids, so she set out to interview par-
ents about their children’s gender-conforming and nonconforming behavior.35
she found that parents of boys expressed near universal distress over boys’
interest in the “icons of femininity.”36 Kane explains:

Parents of sons reported negative responses to their sons’ wearing pink or frilly
clothing; wearing skirts, dresses, or tights; and playing dress up in any kind of
feminine attire. Nail polish elicited concern from a number of parents, too, as
they reported young sons wanting to have their fingernails or toenails polished.
Dance, especially ballet, and Barbie dolls were also among the traditionally
female activities often noted negatively by parents of sons.37

Parents’ negative reaction to boys’ “feminine sides” reflects androcentrism and
the stigmatizing nature of femininity for men. they took for granted that femi-
nine interests and behaviors were inappropriate and were confused when their
boys acted this way. it suggested something was wrong. “is he going to grow up
to be gay? trans? does he have a bad relationship with his father? is his mother
too overbearing? What is going on!?” the behavior demanded explanation.
Kane found that even parents who were tolerant of gender deviance themselves
often sought to protect their sons from social disapproval by discouraging their
adoption of femininity in public.

Kane’s research was conducted in the early 2000s, so it best describes the
childhood environment of today’s young adults. While newer data, from 2017,
shows that about 68 percent of americans believe that it’s a “good thing” for
parents to encourage children to explore the toys and activities typically asso-
ciated with the other gender, a gender difference remains: 76 percent of people
think this is a good idea for girls, while 64 percent think it’s a good idea for
boys.38 Younger people and women are more supportive of cross-gender play
than older people and men, but no matter how you slice the data, people tend to
feel more comfortable when girls do it than boys.

Chapter 6  i n e q u a l i t y : m e n a n d m a s c u l i n i t i e s136

Because of these lessons, boys tend to grow up learning to avoid femininity.
a whole host of slurs reflect this imperative: like sissy or soft, used to suggest
that a boy is not boy enough, and cuck or pussy-whipped, applied to men who
are perceived to be overly deferential to women. likewise, insults like girl and
woman literally use a female identity to disparage boys and men. Other com-
mon slurs reference women or femininity, like bitch and douche. all these terms
reflect a sexist and androcentric world, telling both boys and girls, in no uncer-
tain terms, that being feminine makes you a girl and being a girl is worse than
being a boy or man.

the slurs related to homosexuality—fag, homo, gay—send the same message.
Being gay is actually incidental.39 any man or boy who is perceived to be fem-
inine attracts these slurs. in fact, studies have shown that boys and men often
actively avoid calling known homosexuals by these terms, even when they oth-
erwise liberally pepper their language with them. in one study of college ath-
letes, “everything was fag this and fag that,” but after some of their teammates
revealed their sexual orientation, the athletes stopped using it in reference
to the gay players. 40 “they say, ‘this is gay,’ and ‘that’s gay,’ ” one gay athlete
explained, “but they don’t mean it like that.”41 in other words, they don’t mean
“gay” as in gay; they mean “gay” as in feminine. accusations of homosexuality
are forms of gender policing. this is true, also, of slurs like cocksucker and the
phrase suck my dick; each denigrates someone who sexually services a man—
male or female—and thereby inhabits the feminine side of the binary.

the chorus of slurs stigmatizing men who perform femininity sends a con-
sistent message, a rule designed to guide all men’s behavior: Guys, whatever
you do, avoid acting like a girl. in at least some parts of their lives, then, men
face enormous pressure to avoid doing anything associated with women. and,
indeed, 69 percent of young men say that they feel at least some pressure to be
ready to throw a punch if provoked, 61 percent say they feel pressure to have a
lot of sexual partners, and 57 percent say they feel pressure to talk about women
in a hypersexual way. 42

these same young men, though, are less likely than men of previous genera-
tions to see themselves as “very masculine.” Only 24 percent describe themselves
that way and, even among older men, only about third do so.43 since many men
don’t naturally feel this way, being sufficiently masculine and avoiding feminin-
ity can require constant vigilance, extending to the most trivial of things—even
what men are allowed to drink. in an online slideshow with the title “drinks men
should never Order,” the list of drinks men are compelled to avoid includes any-
thing blended or slushy; Jell-O shots or anything “neon”; white zinfandel; drinks
with “an obscene amount of garnish”; anything with whipped cream; anything
that ends with “tini” (except an “honest” martini); malt beverages (unless they
are “40s”); anything with diet coke; cosmopolitans (they’re “downright girly”);
wine coolers; anything that comes with an umbrella; anything fruity (including

137G E N D E R F O R M E N

fuzzy navels, Bacardi breezes, mai tais, screwdrivers, margaritas, daiquiris, and
alabama slammers); all mixed drinks (seriously, all of them); and anything with a
straw.44 a similar slideshow (there are dozens) concludes with the insistence that,
above all else, a guy can’t have anything “she’s having” on the assumption that
anything a woman drinks is immediately off-limits for men.

Because of androcentrism, anything a woman does can become off-limits for
men. One result is male flight, a phenomenon in which men abandon feminiz-
ing arenas of life. this is what happened with cheerleading as well as to many
classic boys’ names. as we’ve hinted, the same happens in professional occu-
pations. 45 a study of veterinary school applications, for example, found that
for every 1 percent increase in the proportion of women in the student body,
1.7 fewer men applied.46 One more woman was a greater deterrent than $1,000 in
extra tuition. male flight exacerbates the trend toward feminization initiated by
women’s entrance, quickly ramping up the pace at which a given domain seems
inappropriate for men. and like we saw with cheerleading, once an activity or
occupation becomes feminized, its value is diminished.

men will even flee quite valuable arenas to avoid femininity. consider edu-
cation. Women are now outperforming men at all levels of schooling. they are
more likely to be identified as “gifted and talented” in elementary school, half
as likely to be held back a year in middle school, and less likely to drop out of
high school. 47 they get higher grades in high school and take more advanced
classes. 48 in fact, there is no longer any level of higher education in which
men dominate. Women earn 61 percent of associate’s degrees, 57 percent of
bachelor’s degrees, and 60 percent of master’s degrees. they even earn 52 per –
cent of Phds. 49

as girls and women have come to excel in school, boys and men have increas-
ingly associated education with femininity. thinking studiousness is for girls,
they don’t study or, if they do, they may hide their hard work.50 underachieve-
ment is seen as cool for men, especially if they pretend not to care. accordingly,
men have become less interested in educational achievement than women,
especially if they’ve strongly internalized the rules of masculinity.51 Will men
abandon education because women are getting too good at it? What else will
they let go once schooling, “honest” martinis, and “James” have gone to the
girls? and why are men doing this to themselves?

Hegemonic Masculinity

Hegemony is a sociological concept used to help us understand the persis-
tence of social inequality. it refers to a state of collective consent to inequality
secured  by the idea that it’s inevitable, natural, or desirable. an idea is hege-
monic only when it is widely endorsed by both those who benefit from the social

Chapter 6  i n e q u a l i t y : m e n a n d m a s c u l i n i t i e s138

conditions it supports as well as those who do not.
Hegemony, then, means widespread consent to
relations of systematic social disadvantage.

the phrase hegemonic masculinity refers to
a type of masculine performance, idealized by
men and women alike, that functions to justify
and naturalize gender inequality, assuring wide-
spread consent to the social disadvantage of most
women and some men.52 the practice of hege-
monic masculinity creates the “real man” in our
collective imagination who theoretically embodies
all the most positive traits on the masculine side
of the gender binary. He has the athlete’s speed
and strength, the ceO’s income, the politician’s
power, the Holly wood heartthrob’s charm, the fam-
ily man’s loyalty, the construction worker’s man-
ual skills, the frat boy’s tolerance for alcohol, and
the playboy’s virility.

We then attribute these individual traits to the
category “man.” all men, sim ply by virtue of being
men, can make a claim to all of them, even if they
aren’t able to achieve the impos sible goal of being
all those things. a married father who loves only
his wife, for example, may nod approvingly at the
playboy and say, “We men love to chase women.”

meanwhile, the playboy, who is a struggling musician, can point to the politi-
cian and say, “We men are in control,” while the politician points to the frat boy
and says, “We men like to party hard.” that frat boy may be getting solid cs, but
he can point to the doctor and say, “We men are ambitious,” while the doctor,
who may never have punched anyone in his life, can cheer on the professional
boxer and say, “We men know how to fight.” the boxer, who voluntarily submits
to getting hit in the face, can point to the scientist and say, “We men are logical.”
You get the idea. Just by membership in the category, all men get to identify
with the characteristics we attribute to men in general. in this way, men benefit
from the hegemony of masculinity. they can lay a socially valid claim to advan-
tage by virtue of the traits attributed to their sex.

interestingly, not all the traits believed to be typical of men are good. in
fact, many are negative.53 television commercials often show men as bumbling
parents, perpetual adolescents, and sex-crazed losers. they drink too much and
fight too easily. Because masculinity is hegemonic, though, men’s bad behav-
iors are either excused, with the typical “boys will be boys” account, or used to
allow them to avoid subordination in “helping” roles.

Quarterback tom Brady represents the
hegemonic man, one who, by virtue of
seeming to live up to masculine expec­
tations, affirms the idea that men are
superior to women.

139G E N D E R F O R M E N

One negative stereotype, for example, is that men are dirty. if so, who can
blame them if they don’t help keep the house clean? “i have a very high thresh-
old for squalor,” one man said, comparing himself to his wife. “if my partner
could bear the filth past the point that i get triggered to clean i believe the sit-
uation [would] lean more in her favor.”54 “it is not that it is women’s work,” said
another, “women . . . are [ just] far more particular about cleanliness than men.”55
aw shucks, these guys are saying, the women around me just happen to have
higher standards of cleanliness, so i guess they will have to do the grunt work.

similarly, the stereotype that men are bad with kids is used to excuse dads
from having to take care of them, the stereotype that men are competitive gives
them a pass for being uncomfortable if their wives make more money, and the
stereotype that they’re “naturally” aggressive gives them permission to lose
their temper. “i stepped on toes,” said a businessman about being confronta-
tional at work, but insisted: “if you want to play it safe . . . you don’t get a hell
of a lot done.”56 “it don’t matter how much a man loves his wife and kids,” said
another man about the stereotype that men are sexually insatiable, “he’s gonna
keep on chasing other women.”57

such accounts are called exculpatory chauvinism, a phenomenon in which
negative characteristics ascribed to men are offered as acceptable justifications
of men’s dominance over women.58 Exculpatory means “to free someone from
blame,” while the word chauvinism refers, in this context, to bias in favor of men.
exculpatory chauvinism, then, refers to the tendency to absolve men of respon-
sibility for performances that embody negative male stereotypes, while simul-
taneously offering social rewards for such behavior, such as free time from
family life, success at work, and a license to enjoy dominating others.

men, in this logic, aren’t all good and they’re certainly not necessarily better
than women; they’re just better suited to lead, score, decide, and defend. exculpa-
tory chauvinism doesn’t say that men are superior human beings, just that they’re
“designed for dominance.”59 so, for men to be seen as rightly in charge, it’s not
necessary for male stereotypes to be positive; men need only to position these
stereotypes in such a way as to reap the rewards of the most highly valued
parts of life.

importantly, however, the benefits of masculinity are not awarded equally to
all men. some men are able to enact more of the features of hegemonic masculin-
ity. and some are able to get away with more “bad” behavior than others. Hege-
monic masculinity helps men, but it also hurts them, and it does so unequally.

The Measure of Men

Failures to embody hegemonic masculinity can cause some men to be seen (or
even see themselves) as lesser men. these judgments establish and reflect a

Chapter 6  i n e q u a l i t y : m e n a n d m a s c u l i n i t i e s140

hierarchy of masculinity, a rough ranking of men from most to least mascu-
line, with the assumption that more is always better. along the hierarchy we find
multiple masculinities that vary in their distance from the hegemonic ideal,
the nature of the deviation, and in their intersections with other identities. the
plural of the word refers to the fact that men do masculinity differently given
their social positions, intersectional identities, and the highly variable contexts
of each interaction. they do so, though, not without consequence, but in ways
that advantage and disadvantage them.

Because hegemonic masculinity draws on values associated with the priv-
ileged ends of all hierarchies in a society, not just the gender hierarchy, the
ability to embody this ideal is greater for a man in Western societies who is
well educated, tall, affluent, white, heterosexual, able-bodied, fit, christian, and
native-born. accordingly, men who are subordinated in other hierarchies are
vulnerable to being judged as failing to embody hegemonic masculinity and
as rightly belonging lower on this hierarchy. this is why asian men are often
imagined to be not manly enough, and why disabled and aging men sometimes
feel like they’re losing their masculinity; society defines “real men” as some-
thing they’re not. Black and white working-class men are often portrayed as
particularly strong with hard-working bodies, but black men are seen as lack-
ing the economic power that “real” hegemonic masculinity implies and white
working-class men’s masculinity is deemed compensatory and imbalanced:
tough to the point of brutishness and, thus, unintelligent and prone to violence.

men who are physically weak, emotional, uncool, or who break important
gender rules are all vulnerable to being defined as lesser men. Boys and men
report that having a chubby or fat body is read as weakness, while lean bod-
ies with large muscles communicate confidence, power, and mental strength.60
Beginning in earnest in the 1980s, the mass media in the united states have
held male bodies up to greater scrutiny, often idealizing hard-bodied, bulging
physiques that are unattainable for most men.61 as a result, negative body image
is increasing among men and boys, and is especially noticeable among sexual
minority men.62

even men who are blessed with the physical bodies, cultural identities, social
circumstances, and personalities that allow them to perform hegemonic mascu-
linity most easily will never be able to rest assured that they are “real” men.
men’s ability to meet these standards is limited by the inherent contradictions
of the ideal. consequently, men’s social status is always at risk, no matter how
privileged they seem. all men fail sooner or later. they will fail, first, because
the hegemonic man is an impossible fiction: a jumble of idealized, contradictory
elements. a person can’t be both a perfect husband and a playboy, a team player
and an aggressive egotist, or hard bodied and hard drinking. no single man
will ever be able to approximate the full scope of hegemonic masculinity.

141G E N D E R F O R M E N

meanwhile, as contexts change, the masculinities men are expected to per-
form often shift around them, making for social traps into which men can fall.
For example, considering the rules of “guy talk,” evan put it this way:

There is . . . your kind of dodgy uncle who takes you to the pub or you’re out with the
boys and that [ locker room talk is] just a normal common talk. . . . So you’re under
pressure to express masculinity at the pub, but then once everyone’s around,
you’re expected to invert that, that’s where the conflict is. And then there’s corpo-
rate pressure and societal pressure basically to suppress it, but there is this kind
of masculine pressure to exaggerate it.63

evan is aware that a crass sort of guy talk is demanded in some contexts and
punished in others. While he has agency to choose what types of masculinity
to do and knows the rules about when and where to deploy each type, he is also
sensitive to the constant possibility that he might misjudge a situation and do
the wrong masculinity at the wrong time.

at an even more basic level, men will fail to live up to hegemonic masculin-
ity because hegemonic masculinity claims that its performers never lose. Yet,
no one can win all the time. a man’s masculinity is potentially undermined
by competitive losses, disability, or age. all men will at times, or eventually,
find themselves lacking in some way, leading every man “to view himself—
during moments at least—as unworthy, incomplete, and inferior.”64 as michael
Kaufman, a scholar of masculinities, explained:

Whatever power might be associated with dominant masculinities, they also can
be the source of enormous pain. Because the images are, ultimately, childhood
pictures of omnipotence, they are impossible to obtain. Surface appearances
aside, no man is completely able to live up to these ideas and images.65

But many men try. they try to “stay in control,” “conquer,” and “call the shots”;
they try to “tough it out, provide, and achieve” and, in the meantime, they have
to repress the things about them that conflict with hegemonic masculinity.66
they have to try not to feel, need, or desire the things they’re not supposed
to feel, need, or desire. to do otherwise is to face to emasculation, a loss
of masculinity.

“Fragile” Masculinity

men’s calculated and even exaggerated avoidance of femininity is described
in pop culture as a type of fragility. as sociologist Gwen sharp explains it, it’s
as if “masculinity is so fragile that apparently even the slightest brush with

Chapter 6  i n e q u a l i t y : m e n a n d m a s c u l i n i t i e s142

the feminine destroys it.”67 sensitive to emasculation, men are more likely than
women to respond to gender cues on products, avoiding those that signal fem-
ininity.68 as a result, some companies design products intended to soothe and
reassure men of their manliness. Often this is subtle, but sometimes it’s not.
Products like “Brogurt” (yogurt for men), “Brogamats” (yoga mats for men),
“mandles” (candles for men), and “Kleenex for men” are tongue-in-cheek. Or
are they? they certainly work to reassure men that their dabbling in femininity
won’t diminish their manliness. and when we spy the sleek, dark gray line of
dove men care personal grooming products, or others like it, we’re seeing the
same phenomenon.

Fragile masculinity is premised on the notion of precarious masculinity,
the idea that manhood is more difficult to earn and easier to lose than wom-
anhood.69 a woman is something one is, while a man is something one does,
meaning that womanhood is bestowed at birth, but manhood is attained and
sustained through action. testing this idea, psychologist Jennifer Bosson led a
study in which subjects were asked to finish the sentences “a real man . . .” and
“a real woman . . .”70 the results revealed that men usually completed the first
sentence with an action (for example, “a real man works hard”) and the latter
with a trait (“a real woman is honest”). Women just are women, but men have to
prove they’re men every day.

in the face of a threat, the precariousness of masculinity can lead to
compensatory masculinity, acts undertaken to reassert one’s manliness in the
face of a threat. in a subsequent study, Bosson randomly assigned male college
students to either braid ropes or braid hair. after five minutes of braiding, the
men were told that they could choose their next activity: hitting a punching bag
or doing a puzzle.71 the men who braided hair were twice as likely to choose
boxing as the men who braided rope. Braiding hair, in other words, was emas-
culating enough that these men sought out an activity that allowed them to
reestablish a sufficient level of masculinity.

Other scholars doing similar studies get the same results. men whose mas –
culinity is threatened do more pushups, consume more energy drinks, and report
an increased likelihood of buying an suV.72 they are more likely to exhibit
homophobia, endorse male superiority, excuse violence and sexual assault, and
want their country to go to war.73 Researchers have also found that because
expressing care for the health of the earth is considered feminine, men litter
more than women, recycle less, eat less sustainably, and use more energy.74 some
men even go so far as to avoid ecofriendly branded colors. the future of life on
our planet, in other words, is in the hands of men who are made nervous by the
color green.

importantly, it’s not necessarily women who men are nervous around. much
of the policing of men is done by men themselves. in a set of interviews with col-
lege students, men talked about the importance of seeming masculine in front

143G E N D E R F O R M E N

of their male friends. chauncey described putting his “man face” on.75 Jason
reported that he only listened to R&B music when he was alone. Kumar would
do “stupid hook-up things . . . just to kind of prove yourself.”76 chet talked about
the difficulty he had being open with even his closest friends: “if a guy starts
opening up to another guy, he will joke around like, ‘You look like you are ready
to make out with me.’ . . . i have done it.”77 men must do masculinity in order to
avoid policing, much of which comes from other men.

classic patriarchies and democratic brotherhoods were always as much
about relations among men as they were about relations between women and
men; modified patriarchal relations still are. Hegemonic masculinity doesn’t
simply position men above women, it arranges men in a hierarchy all their own,
one that takes into account all of men’s intersectional identities. this hierarchy
grants men the privilege of looking down on women, but it also positions them
such that other men may be looking down on them. to be a man in america is
to be arrayed in a hierarchy according to how well one does masculinity and
threatened, constantly, with the possibility of failure and slippage.

Because many men are toward the bottom of this hierarchy, or were once or
will be, it’s simply not true to say that all men always have more power than all
women. Being male is an advantage, yes, and being a masculine male is a greater
advantage, for sure. But men who can’t or won’t do masculinity, or whose mas-
culinity is stigmatized, will find themselves near the bottom of the masculine
hierarchy. Women with other kinds of privilege—like race or class privilege—may
enjoy greater overall social esteem.

Because gender is not the only game in town, men’s disadvantages can sig-
nificantly outweigh their gender advantage. White women have more wealth
and live in better neighborhoods than black men (and black women) do, for
example, and can mobilize racial power to continue to exclude them. moreover,
because of colorism, a racist preference for light over dark skin, a light-skinned
latina woman may have more social power than a dark-skinned latino man.
Because we are also arranged in a class hierarchy, a male gardener likely has
significantly less esteem and opportunity than the rich woman whose flowers
he cultivates; because of disability stigma, an able-bodied woman may be taken
more seriously than a man with a spinal cord injury; because of religious preju-
dice, a christian woman may pass through airports with more ease than a mus-
lim man. it’s important to remember that some women have significantly more
power, resources, and status than some men, even if men, on average, have more
than women. as Kaufman explains: “Within each group, men usually have priv-
ileges and power relative to the women in that group, but in society as a whole,
things are not always so straightforward.”78

as a result of the expectation that men live up to an impossible ideal, the
uneven way in which masculine power is distributed, and the pressure men
face to be someone they’re not, many individual men do not feel particularly

Chapter 6  i n e q u a l i t y : m e n a n d m a s c u l i n i t i e s144

powerful at all. many feel downright powerless in many areas of their lives: at
work, in their relationships, and in relation to other men on whose judgment
their status in the hierarchy of masculinity depends. men, it turns out, often feel
a disconnect between who they are and the power “men” are said to have. there
is a good reason for this, but it is not, as some like to argue, because we no longer
live in a society characterized by gender inequality. instead, hegemonic mascu-
linity affirms men’s power over other men as well as men’s power over women.

For men, then, there are also costs to pay. and because gendered hierar-
chies  are strongly and even violently policed, both conformity and resistance
can be dangerous.

The Danger of  Masculinity

extreme conformity to the more aggressive rules of masculinity, or hypermas ­
culinity, is glorified in many corners of our culture.79 We particularly ideali-

zeit in some music genres (such as rap and heavy
metal) and in action movies and video games that
glamorize male violence and erase its real-life
consequences. We also see hypermasculine per-
formances by some athletes (especially in highly
masculinized sports like football and hockey).
these performances naturalize male violence,
aggression, and anger. moreover, because hege-
monic masculinity assumes one can never be too
masculine, men’s violence can be justi fied by say-
ing that they’re protecting or defending someone
or something good (see, for example, the good
guy with a gun in countless Hollywood movies
every year).

despite the prevalence of hypermasculinity,
men are not naturally violent. instead, men must
be trained to resist the sensation of empathy and
encouraged to enter dangerous situations enthu-
siastically.80 We see hypermasculinity nurtured
in some fraternities, occupations, military units,
police squads, neighborhoods, gangs, and prisons.
men in these situations may avoid demonstrat-
ing feminized qualities like empathy, nurturance,
kindness, and conflict avoidance in favor of exagger-
ated performances of verbal and physical aggres-
sion. almost no man does hypermasculinity all
the time, but sometimes a man’s mother, girl-

the movie poster for 300: Rise of the Empire
glamorizes hypermasculine violence.

145G E N D E R F O R M E N

friend, or wife is the only person who ever sees him without his hypermas-
culine mask.

suppression of empathy often starts somewhere around middle school. to
be close friends, men need to be willing to confess their insecurities, be kind
to each other, and sometimes sacrifice their own self-interest—a description of
friendship that men themselves articulate and say they want. this, though, is
incompatible with the rules of masculinity that define bonds among men as
based on competition and expressed in aggressive acts. so as boys grow up
to be men, they learn to resist the impulse to connect nonhierarchically with
other men.81

Psychologist niobe Way interviewed boys about their friendships in each
year of high school. she found that younger boys spoke eloquently about their
love for their male friends but, at about age fifteen, this began to change. One
boy, for example, said this as a freshman:

[My best friend and I] love each other  .  .  . that’s it  .  .  . you have this thing that is
deep, so deep, it’s within you, you can’t explain it. It’s just a thing that you know
that person is that person. . . . I guess in life, sometimes two people can really, really
understand each other and really have a trust, respect and love for each other.82

By his senior year, he had changed his mind:

[ My friend and I] we mostly joke around. It’s not like really anything serious or
whatever. . . . I don’t talk to nobody about serious stuff. . . . I don’t talk to nobody.
I don’t share my feelings really. Not that kind of person or whatever.  .  .  . It’s just
something that I don’t do.

in part because of the rules of masculinity, adult, white heterosexual men have
fewer friends than women and other men.83 since friendship strongly correlates
with physical and mental health, this is one way in which closely following the
rules of masculinity is bad for men.84 there are many others.

h a r m t o t h e s e l f  taking masculinity to an extreme makes men danger-
ous to others, but it also threatens to make men dangerous to themselves. men
are significantly more likely than women to disregard their own safety. they
are more likely than women to break seat belt laws, drive dangerously, smoke
cigarettes, take sexual risks, and abuse drugs and alcohol; they make up 75 per-
cent of those arrested for drunken driving and 82 percent of those arrested for
public drunkenness.85 they are almost three times more likely to die in a car
accident.86 they go into dangerous jobs and may resist safety rules, accounting
for 93 percent of occupational deaths.87 among teens who help their families

Chapter 6  i n e q u a l i t y : m e n a n d m a s c u l i n i t i e s146

professional bodybuilder ronnie coleman breathes pure oxygen immediately after competing
in mr. olympia. organizers make oxygen available backstage because contestants are fre­
quently lightheaded after their performance.

with farm work, boys are less likely than girls to use protective gear and take
safety precautions.88

some argue that being male is the strongest predictor of whether a person
will take risks with their health.89 men are less likely than women to undergo
health screenings, get regular exercise, see a doctor if they feel sick, and treat
existing illnesses and injuries.90 the association of lotion and body care with
women leads men to dismiss the importance of sunscreen. it should then come
as no surprise that men are two to three times more likely than women to be
diagnosed with skin cancer.91

likewise, high school and college athletes accept competitive demands that
they exercise so hard that they overheat and collapse on the field, while body
builders can die from the damage done to their bodies with steroids and diuretics.
the image above shows Ronnie coleman breathing through an oxygen mask,
immediately after walking off the stage at the mr. Olympia competition. He
would take first place. Photographer Zed nelson explains that oxygen is fre-
quently administered to contestants: “the strain of intense dieting, dehydra-
tion, and muscle-flexing places high levels of strain on the heart and lungs,
rendering many contestants dizzy, light-headed, and weak.”92

sociologists douglas schrock and michael schwalbe summarize the
research on men and self-harm:

147G E N D E R F O R M E N

As with crime, much of this health-damaging behavior may be symbolic, intended
to signify capacities to control one’s own life, to be invulnerable and needless of
help, and to be fearless and hence not easily intimidated by others. The effort to
signify a masculine self . . . can be toxic.93

in fact, men are more likely than women to avoid seeking help for depression
and are three and a half times more likely than women to commit suicide.94

harming others men are also more likely than women to commit violent acts
against others. this is partly a result of men’s anti-empathy training, and pos-
sibly also a form of compensatory masculinity. men account for 88 percent of
those charged with murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, 77 percent of those
charged with aggravated assault, 70 percent of those charged with family vio-
lence, 78 percent of those charged with arson, 86 percent of those charged with
robbery, and 91 percent of those charged with unlawful carrying of weapons
(table 6.2).95

though men enact the overwhelming majority of violence, the gendered
nature of violence often remains invisible because we tend to accept that men

T a b l e 6 . 2  | Arrests by seX, 2016
Offense charged Percent male

murder and nonnegligent manslaughter 88

Rape 97

Robbery 86

aggravated assault 77

Burglary 81

arson 78

larceny-theft 58

motor vehicle theft 78

Fraud 62

embezzlement 51

Vandalism 78

Weapons; carrying, possessing, etc. 91

drug abuse violations 77

driving under the influence 75

source: Federal Bureau of investigation, “crime in the u.s., 2016.” Retrieved

Chapter 6  i n e q u a l i t y : m e n a n d m a s c u l i n i t i e s148

are naturally this way. though this may slowly be changing, the fact that it is
men who commit most violence is taken as ordinary and unremarkable. so,
the fact that gang violence, suicide bombings, serial killings are also all over-
whelmingly perpetrated by men seems normal, as does the fact that, of the 216
mass shootings in the united states since 1996, only five were committed by a
woman acting alone.96

men are also more likely to join violent hate groups, those organized around
hatred toward and the enactment of violence against others: white supremacist
and neo-nazi groups, for example, and islamist jihadist collectives.97 Women
join these groups, too, but they are a minority and are less likely than male
members to engage actively in physical fights, train for violent conflict, or enact
terrorist plots. Research on what attracts men to these groups reveals that
many are not particularly drawn to the hateful ideology so much as the promise
of a connection to especially masculine men who affirm their own manliness.

Young boys are often targeted as recruits. many, like those who engage in
other violent behavior, are on the bottom end of the masculine hierarchy, bul-
lied and made to feel small and weak. Hate groups promise them “an alternate
route to proving manhood.”98 tore Bjørgo, for example, a former skinhead from
sweden, described the appeal of the hate group this way:

When I was 14, I had been bullied a lot by classmates and others. By coincidence,
I got to know an older guy who was a skinhead. He was really cool, so I decided
to become a skinhead myself, cutting off my hair, and donning a black Bomber
jacket and Doc Martens boots. The next morning, I turned up at school in my
new outfit. In the gate, I met one of my worst tormentors. When he saw me, he was
stunned, pressing his back against the wall, with fear shining out of his eyes. I
was stunned as well—by the powerful effect my new image had on him and others.
Being that intimidating—boy, that was a great feeling! 99

the attraction of hate groups can’t be explained by masculinity alone, but we
can’t explain the appeal without it either.

Hegemonic masculinity—this single standard of esteem for men—makes the
position of even the most advantaged men perilous. meanwhile, it sometimes
presses them to put themselves or others in danger, or actively do harm even
to those whom they profess to care about, whether these are their “brothers” in
a fraternity or an army unit or a romantic partner. this is what is called toxic
masculinity, strategic enactments of masculinities that are harmful to both the
men who enact them and the people around them. While the hegemonic ideal is
not the same as the toxic versions that are drawn from it, some men’s efforts to
live up to it can be harmful.100

so why don’t parents, boys, and men just say no to hegemonic masculinity?

149G E N D E R F O R M E N

Bargaining with Patriarchy

instead of repudiating hegemonic masculinity and the harm it can do, many
men embrace strategies that allow them to benefit from being men, even if it
simultaneously gives other men status over them. in other words, being girly
places one at the bottom of the male hierarchy, and that’s bad, but being a girl
would be even worse. accordingly, many men, even those who populate the
bottom rungs of this hierarchy, will defend hegemonic masculinity, and many
parents who want their boys to have as much status as possible when they grow
up will do so, too.

this is called a patriarchal bargain—a deal in which an individual or group
accepts or even legitimates some of the costs of patriarchy in exchange for receiv-
ing some of its rewards.101 Both men and women make patriarchal bargains.
When men do so, they accept some degree of subordination on the hierarchy of
masculinity in exchange for the right to claim a higher status than women and
some other men.

Few men make these bargains out of a simple desire to exert power over oth-
ers. instead, they make them because status translates into resources that raise
their quality of life and protect them from stigma and physical harm. esteem from
others—and the intimacies, connections, and jobs into which it translates—offers
people autonomy, safety, and life satisfaction. men make patriarchal bargains
because they want to maximize their happiness, not necessarily because they
desire to dominate other men and women. they may be encouraged to do this
from the time they’re little by parents who want them to succeed, understanding
that raising a boy who refuses to play by patriarchy’s rules opens him up to
criticism and limits his options in life.

Patriarchal bargains, then, are about figuring out how to thrive in a patriarchal
society. For men, fundamentally, they’re about investing at least a little in their
identity as a man—the kind of person patriarchy has historically privileged—and
finding pleasure, or safety, in distancing oneself from women, femininity, and
feminine men. this includes not only doing masculinity and avoiding femininity,
but putting men first and women second: seeing other men as more valuable,
important, and authoritative people in general (while making exceptions for
specific women like mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives).

We start making patriarchal bargains as children. sociologist michael mess-
ner described a moment during his boyhood when he made such a bargain. He
sensed early on being a boy and not a girl was important and that being a boy-
ish boy was important, too. it was easy to figure out that sports were a “proving
ground for masculinity” and that excelling would bring approval. attracting this
esteem, however, also meant enforcing the hierarchy as he ascended it. in partic-
ular, he recounts teasing and bullying a nonathletic boy. this, he explains, was

Chapter 6  i n e q u a l i t y : m e n a n d m a s c u l i n i t i e s150

“a moment of engagement with hegemonic masculinity” where he acquiesced to
patriarchy, agreeing to uphold a masculine hierarchy that empowered him but
disempowered others.102

all along the hierarchy of masculinity, men make patriarchal bargains. men
often rise to the top of the hierarchy exactly by doing so and, once they’re there,
their privileged status depends on enforcing it. at the highest levels of large,
powerful corporations, for example—where 80 percent of the leadership is male
and 72 percent is both white and male—high-status men often close their net-
works and hoard information and opportunities.103 One way they do so is by
forming cliques—or “old boys’ clubs”—that women and less privileged men have
a hard time breaking into.

in the study of interactions of Fortune 500 companies discussed earlier, for
example, male employees often socialized, but only among themselves.104 Women
weren’t invited to these bonding sessions and, if they invited themselves, tended
to feel unwelcome. men of color often felt the same. masculinity can be mobilized
to create pleasurable bonds among men, but that bonding is also exclusionary,
leaving out specific kinds of others in order to protect the masculine hierarchy.

Because patriarchal bargains involve valuing other men more than women,
sometimes men forget that women are part of their audience at all. Jokes that
sexually objectify or demean women, for example, are sometimes told in front
of women because the men telling them are trying to impress their male col-
leagues or friends. What women think of these jokes isn’t part of their calcu-
lation, because their performance of masculinity really isn’t for them. in one
workplace incident, for example, a man brought a pair of women’s underwear to
a board meeting and pretended to discover them in his pocket. the men in the
meeting laughed uproariously; the women did not.105 the men were surprised
at their female colleagues’ objection to the hijinks, claiming it was only to be
“funny.” they had made a patriarchal bargain long ago, one that focused their
attention on other men who, not incidentally, were also usually the ones who
held the keys to raises and promotions. they were unpracticed at consider-
ing how a woman might respond to such a joke because considering women’s
responses wasn’t something they routinely did.

men lower on the masculine hierarchy also make patriarchal bargains. Gay
men, for example, have a choice: they can choose to emphasize their masculin-
ity so as to maximize the power that comes with being men or align themselves
with women against the gender binary. sometimes they do the former. in one
case, a group of gay male students formed a college fraternity.106 though they
had two relevant identities—they were gay and they were men—they allowed
heterosexual men to be members of the fraternity, but not gay women. in this
way, they sought to highlight the more socially valuable identity. the brothers
only welcomed women as “little sisters,” the (ostensibly heterosexual) women
who play a supportive role in Greek life. One brother explained:

151G E N D E R F O R M E N

I would prefer straight women because the lesbians would try and take over. A
straight woman might enjoy being a little sister and attending functions and
hanging out, while a lesbian would consider the role subordinate and get tired of
it quickly, trying to dominate and manipulate the program. Basically, a straight
woman might understand the role while a lesbian would not. . . . I see their role as
supportive and basically helping out.107

as this quote illustrates, these gay men welcomed women into their fraternity,
but only as subordinates. meanwhile, they were enthusiastic about making alli-
ances with men of all sexual orientations.

nerds, dorks, and geeks form a trifecta of subordinated masculinities mar-
ginalized by some combination of social awkwardness, lack of athleticism, and a
penchant for video and role-playing games. these men often know they’re near
the bottom of the hegemonic hierarchy of masculinity, but rather than reject
hegemonic masculinity, they embrace their position in exchange for the right to
exclude, subordinate, and sexually objectify women.108 this practice exploded
into public awareness in 2014 with the controversy now known as #gamergate.
male gamers mobilized as defenders of their male-dominated world, target-
ing a group of women who were publicly questioning the sexism prevalent in
video games.109

fans in tokyo line up to play the new Grand Theft Auto video game. the game’s advertising
prominently features a buxom blonde in a bikini.

Chapter 6  i n e q u a l i t y : m e n a n d m a s c u l i n i t i e s152

this bonding among men crosses racial and class lines, as illustrated by the
career of white rapper eminem. throughout his career, eminem has aligned
himself with black people, both musically and politically, at the same time that
he has embraced misogyny and homophobia.110 in his ninth album, released in
2017, he critically refers to President donald J. trump’s support of confederate
monuments and associates him with nazis and white supremacists. On other
tracks, though, he raps graphically about women’s body parts, alternating com-
pliments with gendered insults and sexual demands. On still another track,
he takes the perspective of a serial killer who targets young, beautiful women.
in calling for trump’s impeachment and criticizing his policies for their impact
on people of color, eminem claims a position on the political left, but his politics
do not extend to support of women, nor to black men who are gay. eminem has
made a patriarchal bargain.

Paradoxically, it may be the men who benefit the least from hegemonic mascu-
linity (including poor men, black men, nerds, and gay men) and the men who ben-
efit the most (like the leadership at Fortune 500 companies) who defend it most
aggressively.111 men at the bottom of the hierarchy are trying to hold onto what lit-
tle privilege they have, while men at the top are invested in resisting any change
to the hierarchy on which they are so comfortably perched. all men, however, are
pressed to bargain with patriarchy, one way or another, in an effort to squeeze
some benefit from the gender binary and its attendant hierarchy. When they do
so, they affirm hegemonic masculinity rather than attack it, aiming to improve
their position, not tear the whole thing down. at the very least, this protects them
from the negative consequences of challenging the system.


in america today, some men are actively trying to find new ways of being men,
ways that don’t hold up patriarchy, reward hypermasculinity, or oppress women
or other men. they are acting to distance themselves from sexist, androcen-
tric, subordinating, and toxic forms of masculinity. in doing so, they’re asking
whether it’s possible to identify as a man and do masculinity in a way that is
good for them and for others.

these men are inventing and adopting what are called hybrid masculinities,
versions of masculinity that selectively incorporate symbols, performances, and
identities that society associates with women or low-status men.112 these men
may mix aspects of femininity into their personalities, “queer” their lifestyles,
resist the impulse to climb the masculine hierarchy, and refrain from making
choices that advantage them at the expense of others. Hybrid masculinities are

153C A N M A S C U L I N I T Y B E G O O D ?

interesting because they potentially undermine the importance of gender distinc-
tion, give femininity value, de-gender hierarchical relationships, and deconstruct
the hierarchy of masculinity.113

Hybrid masculinities, then, could be an exciting step toward a more gender-
equal society. unfortunately, while there is considerable academic study left to
do and much more everyday experimentation left to try, the existing research
doesn’t yet support the idea that men who adopt hybrid masculinities are doing
so in ways that substantially undermine gender inequality. instead, they do more
to obscure it: feminizing or queering styles of expression but failing to do much
to challenge men’s hold on powerful positions.114

an example, to start: For over a decade, and on four continents, an anti-rape
campaign that used the slogan “my strength is not for Hurting” aimed to teach
young men not to sexually exploit others.115 the goal was admirable, but in
emphasizing men’s strength and their responsibility to protect women, the cam-
paign reinforced the idea that women are weak and in need of protection, as
opposed to the idea, for instance, that women have rights to their own bodies
that deserve to be respected. the campaign tried to persuade men to be chival-
rous instead of exploitative, but it didn’t challenge the underlying unequal rela-
tionship between men and women.

scholars argue that these hybrid masculinities aren’t living up to their poten-
tial for several reasons. First, some hybrid masculinities are largely symbolic.
a corporate boss, for example, may heartily endorse the formation of a support
group for his female employees but resist investing resources into understand-
ing their problems or helping them succeed. a married man may identify as
gender egalitarian and supportive of feminism but neglect to do his fair share of
the housework and childcare. Or a heterosexual man may condemn homopho-
bia and befriend gay men but vote for politicians who are anti-gay because
they promise to keep his taxes low. supporting women, identifying as gender
egalitarian, and embracing sexual minorities help move our societies toward
greater equality, but more concrete changes—shifts in our laws, how we spend
money, and how we organize families—are needed to realize it.

second, men who adopt hybrid masculinities sometimes ask for “extra credit”
for being “good” men. the faith-based pro-family organization “Promise Keepers,”
for example, a nearly thirty-year-old movement that operates on three continents,
is based on the idea that men should be good caretakers of their family, but also
naturalizes men’s role as the head of the household.116 like the “strength” cam-
paign, the “Keepers” movement encourages men to adopt a hybrid masculinity
that incorporates a feminine ethic of care, but it also positions men’s power over
women as inevitable. in the anti-rape campaign, it’s inevitable because men’s
ability to overpower women is unquestioned (in fact, fighting back stops an
attempted rape 82 percent of the time).117 in the “Keepers” case, men’s control of

Chapter 6  i n e q u a l i t y : m e n a n d m a s c u l i n i t i e s154

women is guaranteed by divine decree. God says so. the implication is that a
woman should be grateful to be married to a man who doesn’t exploit his (right-
ful) power over her.

the final problem we find with hybrid masculinities is the tendency for men
who adopt them to use them to claim status. When men claim to be “good men,”
they are often also claiming to be “better” than men they identify as “bad,” and
those men are usually ones who are already on the lower end of the masculine
and other hierarchies. in this case, differentiating between “good” and “bad”
men just becomes another way to affirm, not break down, hegemonic masculin-
ity and the hierarchy of men.

One study, for example, examined the ideals adopted by rich young men
attending a therapeutic boarding school: a rehabilitation-focused school serving
high school–age boys who had developed drug and alcohol problems, with tuitions
ranging between $4,500 and $9,500 a month.118 most boys initially resisted the
idea that they needed to be open about their personal pain, share their emotions,
and develop expressive communication styles. as they adjusted to their new
school’s expectations, however, they reframed these typically feminized traits as
characteristic of a secure and healthy masculinity, contrasting themselves with
boys and men whose masculinity was still fragile, compensatory, or toxic.

this translated into a sense of entitlement to the class privilege that they
would have upon graduation. school administrators taught them to lead off-
site alcoholics anonymous meetings and sponsor community members, thus
putting teenagers in charge of men of all ages, from varied backgrounds, with
substantially more experience with both addiction and recovery. nonetheless,
the school encouraged the young men to see themselves as “leaders” of these
“lesser” men, thanks to their enlightened masculinities. this further prepared
them to go on to lead as privileged adults. “my dad and i used to have major
trust issues,” said one of the boys:

[ He] used to threaten to kick me out, take me out of the will, all that. Now that
we’ve worked through our issues and actually talk and trust each other with
things, he’s talking about putting me in charge of one of the divisions of his com-
pany after I get a degree.119

as this quote shows, these young men may have redefined their masculinity,
but they have used that redefinition to justify stepping right into their position
at the top of the masculine hierarchy. moreover, by adopting a hybrid masculin-
ity, they now thought that they weren’t just lucky to have dads who could launch
their careers, but genuinely deserving of that advantage by virtue of being bet-
ter men.

men who adopt hybrid masculinities often see themselves as the “good
guys,” but they still value the fact that they’re guys. continuing to embrace an

155C A N M A S C U L I N I T Y B E G O O D ?

idealized masculinity that they believe differentiates them in important ways
from women, they remain invested in gender distinction and seem to resist
giving up the substantive advantages being male affords them.120 in this way,
hybrid masculinities are just another patriarchal bargain, a way for men to dis-
tance themselves from recognizably sexist, androcentric, and subordinating
attitudes and behaviors, but in ways that still give them benefits over women
and other men.

so, can masculinity be good?
We don’t know. Gender scholars—including many, many men—have spent a

lot of time trying to answer that question.121

the trouble is that we live in a modified patriarchy, a culture in which mas-
culinity has been used to symbolize and represent superiority over women and
lesser men for more than four thousand years. masculinity is power; it’s always
been power. Power is part of the definition—masculinity is synonymous with
measures of strength, dominance, and high status—and its meaning is gained
in the context of a gender binary. so its very existence is dependent on a con-
trast with a femininity that is weak, subordinate, and low status.

if we somehow excised from masculinity the dominating, toxic, and com-
pensatory behaviors, alongside all the other bad things like being afraid to
express emotions, then what is left is a series of wonderful traits: duty, honor,
hard work, sacrifice, leadership, and the like. and that’s lovely. But for these
to be traits of men, we must also say that women are not these things. and is
that true? is that fair? are women not dutiful, honorable, and hard working? do
they not sacrifice? can they not lead? the truth is that “good men” aren’t good
men, they’re good people and they share good traits with women, who are good
people, too.

can masculinity be good? We don’t know. We know that men can be good.
But whether they need masculinity to do it is an open question.

We also need to ask: is masculinity good for men? On that we have stronger
data. masculinity is one of the things that make men feel good about them-
selves, but it’s also a substantial form of oppression. in many ways, it hurts men.
it hurts some men a lot. it hurts men who disinvest in masculinity and pay the
price as well as many of those who embrace it. after all, it is some men’s belief
that they should somehow be better than women and other men—that they are
failures if they’re not—that is the cause of much of their sadness, self-loathing,
and silent suffering.

R ev isiti ng t he Q uestion

I f b o t h m e n a n d w o m e n a r e c o n s t r a i n e d b y a b i n a r y
g e n d e r s y s t e m , w h y i s i t m o r e w o m e n t h a n m e n f i n d
t h i s  s y s t e m u n f a i r ?

Chapter 6  i n e q u a l i t y : m e n a n d m a s c u l i n i t i e s156

there are good reasons for men to find the system unfair. Because gender rules
make femininity only for women, men must avoid performing it. their daily lives
and social interactions with both men and women are constrained by this imper-
ative. as a result, men may repress those parts of themselves that don’t reflect
hegemonic masculinity and emphasize those that do, sticking only to man-
approved masculinity, at least in public or around certain kinds of people.

it’s no surprise, then, that men sometimes find the rules of masculinity to be
strict, arbitrary, and even painful. many men, though, follow gender rules and
press others to do so, too, because upholding the hierarchical gender binary
means preserving the privileges that come with maleness. this means often
rough policing of the boundaries of masculinity. this can make masculinity
dangerous, creating circumstances in which men are pushed to make danger-
ous choices, exposed to violence, or incited to harm others.

under these conditions, men make strategic choices. sometimes, they have
to choose between following the rules or being seen as a failure; at other times
masculine privilege may feel like the only kind of advantage they have. men
also may think that the costs of getting too close to femininity are too high.
accordingly, most men make patriarchal bargains in at least parts of their lives.

still, no amount of bargaining protects them from the fear of emasculation.
Wherever they fall in the hierarchy, all men have to live with some fear of losing
the traction they’ve gained and sliding down to join those on whose disadvan-
tage their advantage depends. ironically, men who may have the most to gain
by rejecting the gender binary—those who fail to approximate the hegemonic
ideal, live miserably under its rules, or are victimized by others for their rule
breaking—are often the ones who are the most defensive about it because their
grip on it is most fragile. they defend hegemonic masculinity because at the
very least it guarantees them superiority over somebody: women.

this helps explain why so few men actively challenge the gender binary, but
we have yet to tackle why so many women do. to answer our question fully, we
need to understand women’s experiences.


Bridges, tristan, and c. J. Pascoe. “Hybrid masculinities: new directions in the
sociology of men and masculinities.” Sociology Compass 8, no. 3 (2014): 246–58.

connell, Raewyn W. Masculinities, second edition. Berkeley: university of cali-
fornia Press, 2005.

edwards, Keith, and susan Jones. “ ‘Putting my man Face On’: a Grounded the-
ory of college men’s Gender identity development.” Journal of College Student
Development 50, no. 2 (2009): 210–28.

157C A N M A S C U L I N I T Y B E G O O D ?

Johnson, alan. “can a man Be a Human Being?” Unraveling the Knot ( blog), septem –
ber 2, 2015.

Kimmel, michael. Healing from Hate: How Young Men Get Into—and Out of—Violent
Extremism. Berkeley: university of california Press, 2018.

Pugh, allison. “men at Work.” Aeon, december 4, 2015.

Way, niobe. Deep Secrets. cambridge: Harvard university Press, 2011.

Some of uS a r e

becoming the

men w e wa nted

to m a r ry.

— g l o r i a S t e i n e m

Women and Femininities

The last chapter focused on how gendered power shapes men’s experiences. this chapter discusses women’s lives. it argues that, on the one hand, women have a lot more freedom than
men to enjoy both masculine- and feminine-coded parts of life, a
freedom that offers women many exciting opportunities and simple
pleasures. on the other hand, because doing femininity is at least
some what compulsory, and we live in an androcentric society,
women also have to adopt gender performances that harm them as
individuals and produce group disadvantage. after reviewing the
realities facing women, the chapter concludes with an overview
of the big picture. But first, the chapter starts the way the last one
did: with cheerleading.


as you now know, in the 1800s male cheerleaders were respected for
their ability to lead a crowd. Women joined teams during World War ii,
eventually prompting men to abandon the activity. By the 1960s, cheer-
leading teams were essentially all female and served simply to sup-
port male athletes. no longer equivalent to being a quarterback,
cheerleading was now a cute sideshow to the main event.


Chapter 7  I n e q u a l I t y : W o m e n a n d F e m I n I n I t I e s160

it wouldn’t stay this way. eventually, cheerleading would be remasculinized—
by women. By the 1990s, cheer involved intense athleticism. Gymnastics were
back and stunts became increasingly difficult and dangerous. an entire indus-
try was built around cheer competition.1 Between 1990 and 2012, injuries among
cheerleaders would increase almost twofold; concussions almost tripled.2

today, men are slowly returning to cheerleading. Recruitment aimed at men
again appeals to their masculinity, emphasizing physical strength and, this time,
access to women. “Want strong muscles? Want to toss girls? our Cheer team
needs stunt men!!” encouraged a recruitment poster at a university.3 “in cheer-
leading,” echoed a football player–turned-cheerleader, “you get to be around all
these beautiful women.”4

despite these changes, cheer retains feminine dimensions. Female cheer-
leaders wear sexy outfits that offer their bodies as spectacles for others to enjoy.
a cheerleader’s primary job still is to root for football and basketball teams.
that is, it remains largely a “feminine auxiliary to sport,” not the serious main
event.5 Cheer also retains a performative aspect that seems unsuited to men. sociol-
ogists Laura Grindstaff and emily West, who did research on cheerleaders, explain:

Appearing before a crowd requires that cheerleaders be enthusiastic, energetic,
and entertaining. This is accomplished not just through dancing, tumbling,
or eye-catching stunts, but also through the bubbly, peppy, performance of

cheerleaders at a university of nevada, las Vegas, basketball game blend feminine grace,
peppy enthusiasm, and impressive athleticism.

161G E N D E R F O R W O M E N

“spirit.” . . . It includes smiling, “facials” (exaggerated facial expressions), being
in constant motion, jumping, and executing dynamic arm, hand, and head
motions—all considered feminine terrain.6

as one male cheerleader said, somewhat embarrassedly, “a game face for a cheer-
leader is a big smile,” not exactly the threatening grimace or strained expres-
sion associated with the competitiveness or exertion believed to characterize
“real” sports.7

most people still associate cheerleading with femininity and, as a result, con-
tinue to take it less seriously than other physical activities. as a result, despite
the high-impact athleticism that now characterizes many squads, less than half
of U.s. high school athletic associations define high school cheerleading as a
sport and neither the U.s. department of education nor the national Collegiate
athletic association (nCaa) categorizes it as one.8 instead, cheerleading is fre-
quently labeled an “activity,” akin to the chess club. accordingly, cheerleading
remains unregulated by organizations responsible for ensuring the safety of
athletes, leading to higher rates of injury among cheerleaders than among amer-
ican football players.9 among all types of high school and college sports, cheer-
leading accounts for a whopping 66 percent of injuries to female athletes with
the potential to result in permanent disability.10

Cheerleading is somehow simultaneously masculine and feminine, hard-core
and cute, athletic and aesthetic, admired and belittled. it also sexualizes femi-
ninity, making women’s ability to appeal to assumed-heterosexual men centrally
important, even if they’re pulling off impressive physical feats at the same time. it
is, in other words, very much like what being a woman can feel like today. Unlike
men, who are encouraged to avoid femininity and do masculinity, women are
strongly encouraged to embrace both.


in many ways, the daily lives of women are much less constrained than those of
men. Unlike men, who face policing when they do gender in ways that are asso-
ciated with the other sex, women’s performances of masculinity are often regarded
positively, such that women today are doing almost everything men do. People
are starting to notice that girls are pretty great. in fact, in a dramatic change from
the past, american parents may no longer prefer having sons to having daughters.11

emily Kane, the sociologist who documented parents’ nervousness about
their sons’ performances of femininity, for example, found that parents weren’t
at all troubled by their girls’ gender-nonconforming behavior.12 in fact, they were
downright tickled if their daughters wanted to wear a dinosaur backpack, collect

Chapter 7  I n e q u a l I t y : W o m e n a n d F e m I n I n I t I e s162

bugs in the backyard, or dress up like a superhero. they favorably described their
daughters as “rough and tumble” and “competitive athletically,” even endorsing
their girls’ interest in icons of masculinity like trucks and tools.13 and while
they felt a need to uncover a reason for their sons’ preference for girly things,
their daughters’ interest in masculine things needed no such explanation. since
masculine activities are highly valued, it made perfect sense that girls would
be drawn to them and parents would be proud.

adult women benefit from this greatly. Women now have the freedom to enjoy
the complex flavors of scotch, the rigorous training of law school or the military,
the risks and rewards of casual sex, and the thrill of learning to fly an airplane
or compete in extreme sports. they can become construction workers or archi-
tects and feel the deep satisfaction of watching one’s work materialize; they can
become surgeons or Ceos and choose to take responsibility for human life and
corporate profits. in fact, in 2016 the very last occupation off-limits to women
in the United states—combat positions in the military—was officially opened.14

these developments are all rightly interpreted as signs that women have
gained much equality with men, a state of affairs most americans endorse. mea-
sured by the scope of gender rules, then, the life options of women in contempo-
rary Western societies are undoubtedly more open than men’s. it’s a good time
to be a woman. But there’s a catch.

many people admire women who enter masculine occupations, not only because they are
defying stereotypes but because, by virtue of being associated with men, such occupations are
more esteemed than feminine ones.

163G E N D E R F O R W O M E N

The Importance of Balance

While women are allowed and even encouraged to do masculinity, a woman who
performs too much masculinity attracts the same policing as a man who does
even a little femininity. Women who perform too much masculinity violate the
gender binary and break the number one gender rule, the rule that one has to
identify as male or female and perform gender in a way that’s consistent with
their identity. in other words, if women want to do masculinity, they have to
balance it with femininity.

Women who do this, who carefully walk a line between masculinity and fem-
ininity, are the new female ideal. only 32 percent of americans say that people
look up to “womanly women” (compared to 53 percent who say that they look up
to “manly men”).15 not surprisingly, then, only 19 percent of young adult women
today describe themselves as “very feminine,” compared to about a third of Gen
Xers and Boomers and the majority of those in the generation before.16 While
men still resist describing themselves as “nurturing” and “sensitive,” women are
about as likely or even more likely than men to describe themselves as “phys-
ically strong,” “assertive,” and “intelligent.”17 the model woman, the one all
women are supposed to try to be these days, is not the perfect picture of femi-
ninity; she is both feminine and masculine.

Reflecting this change in the ideal woman, media coverage often fawns
over women who do both masculinity and femininity gracefully. Christmas
abbott, for example, is a CrossFit competitor, nationally ranked weightlifter,
and the first woman to serve in a nasCaR pit. media profiles of abbott high-
light her achievements in these masculine-coded arenas, but they often also
balance their glowing accounts with references to her femininity. at Cnn, for
example, the narrator concludes with the reassurance that abbott “refuses to
leave her femininity behind” and “remains a woman in every sense.” onscreen,
abbott explains:

The ongoing joke is, if I’m not in tennis shoes, I’m in pumps. And I love wearing
dresses and curling my hair. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t like to get dirty.
You know, I like to work. I like to be physical in my work. And I think that it’s been
overlooked that women can do both.18

abbott asserts that doing “both” is an “overlooked” possibility for women, but in
fact, it’s a widely endorsed ideal. elsewhere, a profile of abbott in Cosmopolitan
emphasizes that she “doesn’t have to choose between being strong and beau-
tiful.”19 she replies: “You can be a gym rat and turn around and be a hot little
minx.” at the tattoo-focused Inked magazine, where she is profiled and  photo-
graphed naked, it is remarked that her tattoos include everything from  butter-
flies to pistols and a figure holding both a flower and a sword.20 the message,

Chapter 7  I n e q u a l I t y : W o m e n a n d F e m I n I n I t I e s164

she explains, is “Be nice to everybody but always
be ready to protect yourself.” now that’s balance.

What people find so impressive about abbott
is not simply the fact that she excels in masculine
areas like nasCaR and weightlifting. instead, it’s
in her balance of both masculinity and femininity:
she’s strong and beautiful, in sneakers and heels,
in dresses and dirty. and the beauty, heels, and
dresses aren’t incidental; they’re a critical part of
her self-presentation.

as abbott illustrates, women have the oppor-
tunity to do masculinity and earn the esteem that
comes with valued traits and activities. But there
are limits to how much appropriation of mascu-
linity will be tolerated by others. Being intelligent,
ambitious, outspoken, and sporty is great, but being
properly feminine is essential. in this way, doing
femininity can be understood as an account for
break ing the rule that requires women to leave the
guy stuff to guys. it’s a way of saying: “i know it
looks like i’m encroaching on men’s territory but
be assured i know my place as a woman.” When
women acquiesce to the requirement that they
perform femininity, it is a way of letting the men
around them know that they know that they’re still
first and foremost female. Presenting themselves
as objects for the heterosexual male sexual imag-
ination, as abbott does, is one very effective way
to do this.

the requirement that women balance masculine interests, traits, and activ-
ities with conventional femininity is called the feminine apologetic. the term
points to how a woman’s performance of femininity can be a way to soothe oth –
ers’ concerns about her appropriation of masculinity. abbott “gets away with”
being masculine by also performing a conventional feminine sexual attrac-
tiveness. she, like other women in the West today, is allowed to do “anything
she wants to do,” as long as she also sends clear signals that she wants men’s
approval. this is the lesson Barbie teaches us so well: Barbie can do anything—
she can be a doctor, an astronaut, an athlete, or a presidential candidate—but
the impor tant thing is that she look good while doing it. Barbie’s relentless
takeover of so many masculine arenas would be quite a bit more threatening
if she wasn’t doing a bang-up job of performing femininity, too.

Presenting oneself as a sex object is one
way for women who do masculinity, like
crossfit competitor and weightlifter
christmas a bbott, to balance their
gender performance.

165G E N D E R F O R W O M E N

abbott has an advantage in this regard. she was born blond into a society
that privileges whiteness, with features considered conventionally pretty. it’s
easier for her to do the feminine apologetic than it is for women who aren’t at
ease with or granted as much femininity to start. a woman named Zoe, for
example, who identifies as a black lesbian, invokes Barbie when explaining the
difficulty she had identifying with the femininities she saw represented around
her: “i never felt like a girl,” she said. “there weren’t even black people on tV
when i was growing up. the white people were Barbie, and i am not Barbie.”21

Zoe couldn’t identify with Barbie and didn’t want to be an all-american Girl,
so figuring out a balance between masculinity and femininity that others would
approve of was more challenging for her. Women who are ascribed masculin-
ity by american culture—like queer and black women—may not have as many
options for mixing in masculinity. instead, they may be forced to perform a fem-
inine apologetic regardless of whether they deliberately mix masculinity into
their personas.

For black women, this is often a question of hair.22 Femininity is implicitly
white, so light-colored, long, straight, or gently wavy hair is associated with fem-
ininity. accordingly, black women with curly or kinky dark hair have to decide
whether to leave it natural, wear wigs, or try to force it to resemble a white
aesthetic. many high-profile black women do the latter, including women as

like christmas a bbott, the character of wonder woman, played by gal gadot in the 2017
feature film, is both sexy and strong. a male love interest affirms that she’s still feminine
enough to fall in love.

Chapter 7  I n e q u a l I t y : W o m e n a n d F e m I n I n I t I e s166

powerful as michelle obama and Beyoncé. others choose to stay natural, like
Beyoncé’s sister, solange Knowles. sometimes they do so because it fits with
their identity and politics. this was certainly true for Jenny, an african ameri-
can woman. she explains her decision to wear hers in dreadlocks:

I consider myself in a constant state of protest about the realities of cultural
alienation, cultural marginalization, cultural invisibility, discrimination, injus-
tice, all of that. And I feel that my hairstyle has always allowed me, since I started
wearing it in a natural, to voice that nonverbally.23

While black women can choose to wear their hair in ways that reflect their own
personal values and aesthetics, they must also contend with the way others
respond to them. as Jenny knows very well, on black women in america, hair-
styles aren’t personal, they’re political. Black women’s hair has been the sub-
ject of decades of lawsuits.24 natural hairstyles like twists and braids were not
allowed for women in the military until 2014.25 in 2016, a U.s. federal court held

regardless of their personal preferences, both beyoncé and Solange K nowles must make stra-
tegic decisions about what to do with their hair, knowing that others will evaluate them based
on their choices.

167G E N D E R F O R W O M E N

that it’s legal for an employer to fire a person for their hairstyle; in the case at
hand, a woman who wore her hair in dreadlocks.26 By forgoing the natural, black
women can offer a feminine apologetic, and possibly a race apologetic, too, one
that can help them succeed in white-dominated spaces. making their hair look
less “black” is a way of saying: “i’m not that kind of black woman.” the kind, that
is, that doesn’t know her place.

Referencing this kind of policing in the voiceover for a nike commercial, the
tennis champion serena Williams, herself african american, states matter-of-
factly, “i’ve never been the right kind of woman. oversized and overconfident.
too mean if i don’t smile. too black for my tennis whites. too motivated for
motherhood.”27 the visuals show her, victorious on the tennis court, with natu-
ral hair, and the narration takes a turn: “But i am proving, time and time again,”
she says, “there’s no wrong way to be a woman.”

serena is indisputably one of the greatest athletes—of any gender—of all time.
if anyone is proof that women can do and be anything, she is it. But her claim that
there is no wrong way to be a woman is aspirational. We’re not there yet.

Right Balances and Wrong Ones

Women do sometimes refuse or fail to perform enough conventional femininity
to effectively soothe the concerns of the people around them. in practice, then,
there are wrong ways to be a woman. We call them pariah femininities: ways
of being a woman that, by virtue of directly challenging male dominance, are
widely and aggressively policed.28 Women who perform pariah femininities are
ones who don’t defer to men (bitches, ballbusters, cunts, and nags), who don’t
seem to care if men find them attractive (dykes and hags), who have or withhold
sex without concern for whether men approve (sluts, whores, teases, and prudes),
or who do not form households with men (shrews, spinsters, and old maids).

such women don’t balance, they defy. they refuse to perform a femininity
that compliments hegemonic masculinity. or, they simply cannot do conven-
tional femininity. they have too little money, the wrong mix of identities, or the
wrong bodies: ones that are overweight, disabled, old, or otherwise not ame-
nable to a sexualized gaze.

these femininities are described as pariah because they are stigmatizing to
the women who adopt or are ascribed them. to do them is to risk rejection, verbal
attack, violence, and even ostracism. Choosing these identities can be exhilarat-
ing, because defiance is a thrill, but doing so puts women at risk of attracting the
familiar slurs, and worse.

the punishments for women who embody pariah femininities reveal that
women are afforded the opportunity to balance masculinity and femininity, but
not exactly as they like and not in any proportion they please. Women must do

Chapter 7  I n e q u a l I t y : W o m e n a n d F e m I n I n I t I e s168

enough femininity and the right kind of femininity, given their subcultural envi-
ronment and mix of identities. a woman working on a construction site, for exam-
ple, might talk dirty and wear coveralls like her male colleagues but also need to
prove her femininity by regularly going on dates with men. an out lesbian work-
ing as an aggressive prosecutor at a law firm may be expected to wear a pencil
skirt, heels, and colorful blouse to court. a woman from a conservative religious
background may be allowed to pursue a high-powered career, so long as her
family knows that she plans to quit her job as soon as she marries. What mix of
femininity and masculinity women choose to perform depends on their partic-
ular intersection of identities and context, but one thing is for sure: if you’re a
woman, your gender presentation needs to be balanced just right.

Because a central feature of socially constructed womanhood is attractive-
ness to presumed heterosexual men, that aspect of femininity—being conven-
tionally sexually attractive—is often a nonnegotiable part of striking the right
balance. some behaviors cross an invisible line. Half of high school girls play
sports, for example, and a quarter pursue careers in science, technology, or
math, but only 5 percent of women let their armpit hair grow.29 studies show
that a majority of college students identify women with armpit hair as radically
feminist, overly aggressive in their gender politics, and possibly man-hating.30
Women whose choices signal a rejection of the sexualized definition of feminin-
ity are perceived as especially threatening.

in sum, the requirement that women do femininity, combined with the more
recent option also to do masculinity, gives women a great deal more behavioral
freedom than men have today. Women can adopt a wider range of interests,
activities, and behaviors, while men are mostly constrained by the imperative to
avoid femininity. Women, of course, also face constraints related to their gender
performance, but women’s constraint is of a different sort than men’s: she can
do (almost) anything she likes, so long as she also acts to affirm the hierarchical
gender binary on which men’s privilege and power depend. that means doing
sufficient levels of a certain kind of femininity, particularly the imperative to
make herself attractive to heterosexual men.

the constraints women face, though, extend further. not only are they required
to do specific amounts and kinds of difference from men, they are required to do
inferiority to men. Because femininity is, by definition, disempowering.

Doing More, Winning Less

Recall that we live in a modified patriarchy, one that associates power with men
and masculinity and powerlessness with women and femininity. Whatever per-
sonality traits, styles, activities, and spheres of life are deemed feminine, then,

169G E N D E R F O R W O M E N

are going to be subject to the three relations of gender inequality: sexism,
androcentrism, and subordination.

s e x i s m  Because of enduring sexism, a woman’s mere femaleness is always
a possible source of prejudice. as we discussed in the last chapter, this means
that whatever women do, they have to do it better than men if they want to be
evaluated as equally good. one well-documented case of such prejudice is the
orchestral audition.31 Beginning in the 1970s, some orchestras switched to “blind”
auditions. the hiring committee would sit in the theater and see only a large
blind or screen. the musician would walk forward from the back of the stage, sit
behind the screen, play, and leave. they would be heard but not seen. the hope
was that the process would result in the committee hiring the best musician,
without regard to sex, race, or any other prejudicial factor.

at first, there was no change in the proportion of women hired, suggesting
that sexism was not to blame for the low numbers of women in orchestras. But
then someone noticed a sound: footsteps. When a woman walked across the
stage, the click-clack of her high heels, compared to the clop-clop of men’s flats,
was giving her away. When they required all musicians to take off their shoes
before they walked across the stage, the likelihood that a woman would advance
to the final rounds rose by about 50 percent.

For better or worse, life isn’t a barefooted, blind audition. in most circum-
stances, all other things being equal, a woman can be as good as a man—as smart,
creative, talented, hard-working, strong, devoted, diligent, or accomplished—and
she’ll be evaluated as less than. even when she does more, when she outper-
forms her male counterparts, she’s likely to win less.

a n d r o c e n t r i s m  Women must also contend with androcentrism. Because
femininity is disparaged relative to masculinity, the gender rules that require a
feminine apologetic also require women to perform a devalued identity.32 many
traits associated with femininity are quite actively disparaged in our societies.
some of us think that focusing on the feminized task of raising children makes
women boring or unambitious. We look down on mom-related activities—like
scrapbooking, recipe swapping, and attending Pta meetings—or make fun of
“mom jeans” and “mom hair.” on the flip side, women who are obsessed with fash-
ion are “shallow.” if they wear skimpy clothes, they’re “insecure.” and if they get
cosmetic surgery, they’re “desperate.” meanwhile, if a woman can’t manage both
to mother and conform to a culturally determined definition of sexual attractive-
ness, she fails doubly.

sometimes androcentric disparagement of people who do femininity is
shrouded in what sounds like a compliment. sociologists call this benevolent
sexism: the attribution of positive traits to women that, nonetheless, justify

Chapter 7  I n e q u a l I t y : W o m e n a n d F e m I n I n I t I e s170

women’s subordination to men.33 We may put women on pedestals and revere
them on the assumption that they’re supportive, loving, patient, and kind, but
this reverence is a double-edged sword. Women’s ability to love others, in this
narrative, is beautiful, but it’s also an emotional weakness that threatens their
ability to compete and dominate in work, sports, or politics. Being nice doesn’t
win games, promotions, or elections.

Likewise, conventionally feminine women are admired for their graceful and
small bodies, but it’s also believed that these bodies leave them incapable of
strenuous physical tasks and vulnerable to attack. this leaves them in need of
assistance and protection from stronger, more physically powerful people (that is,
men). Benevolent sexism, by making women more dependent on men by virtue
of the positive characteristics attributed to femininity, ultimately positions women
as inferior. in this way, it is the inverse of exculpatory chauvinism. While the lat-
ter uses negative stereotypes about masculinity to justify men’s dominance, the
former uses positive stereotypes about women to justify their subordination.

androcentrism is why we can’t speak of a hegemonic femininity the way we
speak of a hegemonic masculinity. Recall that the hegemonic man represents
all the traits we value in an ideal person. that’s why both men and women are
encouraged to emulate him. there is no hegemonic femininity because femi-
nine traits and activities are seen as desirable only for women. there are ideal-
ized femininities, certainly, that women can strive to attain, but feminine traits
and activities are not universally desirable. no version of femininity is seen as
good for everyone, male and female alike.

s u b o r d i n a t i o n  Finally, because power is gendered, the requirement to do
femininity is also the requirement to do subordination. the areas in which women
are seen as naturally superior to men, for example, are often self-sacrificial.
Women, it is believed, are better suited than men to forgo their leisure time, edu-
cations, and career aspirations in order to help others. the icons of femininity—
mother, wife, nurse, secretary, teacher—are supportive, not leading roles, and
ones that leave women less intellectually developed, accomplished, and impres-
sive than men.

someone doing femininity well smiles at others sweetly, keeps her voice
melodic, and asks questions instead of making declarations. a conventionally
feminine person lets others take care of her: open her door, order her meal, and
pay her tab. a feminine sexuality is one that waits and responds, never acts
or initiates. a feminine body is small and contained; “[m]assiveness, power, or
abundance in a woman’s body is met with distaste.”34 subordination is about
never bothering others with one’s own discomfort or concerns.

sociologist dana Berkowitz’s research on Botox, for example, a toxin injected
into the face to smooth wrinkles, found that it specifically reduces women’s abil-

171G E N D E R F O R W O M E N

ity to project negative emotions that might cause discomfort in others: scowls
of disapproval, grimaces of distaste, furrowed brows of worry, and tight eye-
brows of anger. it even erases what is known as “resting bitch face,” ensuring
that women always look pleasant.35 Botox, then, enables women to do feminin-
ity better by ensuring that no one around them is able to read their faces for
unladylike thoughts.

Women can feel the need to do this even in extreme circumstances.36 a
study of white, middle-class midwestern american mothers revealed that many
of them tried to be nice even in the midst of giving birth. they showed inter-
est in others, tried to be gracious, and avoided raising their voices or making
demands, preferring to try to “give birth like a girl.” if they failed, they apolo-
gized, to their husbands, the staff, and anyone they might have bothered. one
of these mothers, Valerie, recalled her experience:

I remember between contractions here, I could hear the other people in the
next room, and I remember thinking—’cause I was very loud at this point—and I
remember thinking I felt bad because I was being so loud and this poor woman
[giving birth] in the next room must be thinking awful thoughts about me.37

in the next room, it turned out, the other woman giving birth was worried about
Valerie. she sent in a note later, via the nurse, letting Valerie know that she
hoped her labor went well.

Being considerate of others in the middle of giving birth is very nice indeed,
but it may come at the cost of one’s own well-being. it’s hard work to try to be
lovely while undergoing one of the most demanding and painful experiences
of any human’s life. and withholding information or not standing up for one-
self under such circumstances can be dangerous. Understanding that there are
costs to being unladylike, though, some women “discipline themselves from the
inside out.”38 they put others first, even when it is difficult or dangerous to do so.
that is the very definition of subordination.

all of this is, truly, about power. to do femininity is to do deference and to
do deference is to do femininity, so much so that even computerized assistants,
like siri and alexa, default to female.39 more broadly, the bodily styles, facial
expressions, and demeanors we associate with femininity are all associated
with deference. Whatever the power hierarchy, the performance of feminin-
ity overlaps with the performances of those who are interacting with people
with power over them: job applicants with their interviewers, enlisted soldiers
with their superiors, and students in the offices of their professors. Feminin-
ity, the philosopher sandra Lee Bartky writes, is “a language of subordina-
tion.”40 We know this because we see it used to indicate subordinate status in
other contexts:

Chapter 7  I n e q u a l I t y : W o m e n a n d F e m I n I n I t I e s172

In groups of men, those with higher status typically assume looser and more
relaxed postures; the boss lounges comfortably behind the desk while the appli-
cant sits tense and rigid on the edge of his seat. Higher-status individuals may
touch their subordinates more than they themselves get touched; they initiate
more eye contact and are smiled at by their inferiors more than they are observed
to smile in return. What is announced in the comportment of superiors is confi-
dence and ease.41

Likewise, speech forms associated with women—hedging (“i’d kind of” and “it
seems like”), hyper-politeness (“i’d really appreciate it if” and “if you don’t mind”),
and questions in response to questions (like answering “When would you like
to eat dinner?” with “around seven o’clock?”)—are actually typical not just of
women, but of all people in weak positions relative to others. 42

When women refuse to do subordination—when they don’t keep their voices
down, offer a pleasant countenance for men, or defer to male authority—they
stray into pariah territory. and that makes them a target of hostile sexism, the
use of harassment, threats, and violence to enforce women’s subservience to
men. Hostile sexism relies on patriarchal gender relations, since the anger some
men feel toward women is rooted in a sense of entitlement to having women
in the roles of carers, helpers, sex partners, or admirers. When women don’t
subordinate themselves to men, then, it can feel to some men like an assault on
their rights. this can lead some men to feel a sense of aggrieved entitlement,
anger that something men rightfully own or deserve is being unjustly taken or
withheld from them. 43

Compared to such hostile sexism, it’s easy to interpret benevolent sexism as
expressing a female-friendly gender order, but that’s not how it works. they are
two sides of the same coin: Benevolent sexism rewards women’s subservience
with men’s approval, protection, and support (sometimes called “chivalry”), but
if women fall or jump from their pedestal, hostile sexism takes its place. Pro-
tection and support are revoked in favor of verbal or physical assault. Benevo-
lent sexism is Plan a; hostile sexism is Plan B. Reflecting this, societies usually
either have low rates of hostile and benevolent sexism or high rates; the two
types of sexism rise and fall together. 4 4

take street harassment as an example, remarks some men make in public to
women they don’t know. often these oscillate between niceties and sexualized
hostility. Compliments can quickly turn into insults and threats if they are not
met with the response the men think they deserve: a feminine apologetic in the
form of a smile, a “thank you,” or another polite response. Women who ignore
or reject men’s compliments are often subjected to a vicious onslaught of insults
or threats. Likewise, in intimate relationships, attention and flattery can quickly
turn toward control and coercion.45 and women who become the targets of such
hostility are often blamed for it on the assumption that they could have, and

173G E N D E R F O R W O M E N

should have, offered a femi nine apol-
ogetic to appease their partners.

Benevolent sexism isn’t a kindness,
then, it’s a trap. if both the risk and
protection are at the hands of men—
that is, if men are the problem and gen-
tlemen are the solution—then women
are always positioned such that they
need men in order to be safe. more-
over, it’s difficult to know which men
are threats and which are protectors.
should a woman accept this man’s
offer to walk her home? Who is more
dangerous to her: the man in the alley
or the man she’s suddenly alone with
on the street at night? the latter she
thinks of as a friend but, then again,
three-quarters of women who are sexu-
ally victimized are assaulted by some-
one they know. 46 What to do? this is
the type of difficult calculation women
make routinely as part of their strate-
gic practice of femininity.

in this sense, hostile sexism is
a measure of the cracks in the sys-
tem. if women never challenged male
authority—and if sexual minority men,
gender-noncon forming men, and trans
men and women never behaved in ways
that undermined the gender binary—
there would be less need to reassert
patriarchy by force. in fact, it is some-
times the lowest-status men, desper-
ately holding onto the bottom rungs
of the masculine hierarchy, who are
most threatened by disruptions to
gender distinction and hierarchy. in a study of gamer behavior, for example,
it wasn’t all men but rather the men with the lowest scores who most aggres-
sively attacked women players. 47 this suggests that sexually charged taunts,
insults, pranks, and violence are about gender policing: putting “uppity” women
back “in their place” so as to preserve the gender binary and the illusion of
male superiority.

cartoonist b. deutsch illustrates what it feels
like to be sandwiched between both hostile
and benevolent sexism.

Chapter 7  I n e q u a l I t y : W o m e n a n d F e m I n I n I t I e s174

Women, then, have more freedom than men to do gender as they like. they can
do both masculinity and femininity. However, the combination means women
are required to adopt features and behaviors that are actively disparaged, indi-
cate weakness, or naturalize service to others. and, if they don’t want to do these
things, there is a carrot and a stick—a benevolent and a hostile sexism—that
may change their minds. With these three strikes against them, women struggle
to attain the power, prestige, and personal accomplishment that are the currency
of masculine arenas. and, whether or not they strike a balance that pleases oth-
ers, both doing—and not doing—femininity can be dangerous.

When Being a Woman Gets Dangerous

h a r m f r o m o t h e r s  in 2014, at the University of California, santa Barbara,
a college student named elliot Rodger murdered three asian men before set-
ting out to get revenge on women. in his video manifesto, he proclaimed:

I am going to enter the hottest sorority house at UCSB and I will slaughter every
single spoiled, stuck-up, blond slut I see inside there. All those girls I’ve desired
so much. They have all rejected me and looked down on me as an inferior man if
I ever made a sexual advance toward them.48

When all was said and done, he’d injured thirteen and murdered six. then he
killed himself.

Rodger felt that he was positioned unfairly low in the masculine hierarchy.
mixed Chinese-British ancestry, he considered himself superior to asian men
by virtue of being half-white. He was especially infuriated when black and asian
men, who he considered lesser, “won” the “prizes” to which he believed he was
entitled, specifically socially desirable women (white, blonde, and attractive).

Rodger did not believe, deep down, that women had the right to deny him
their bodies. He felt entitled to sex with these women. His desire to kill them, in
other words, was motivated by the belief that they were not obeying the rules of
femininity, which included subordinating themselves to his sexual needs. His
mass shooting was an act of gender policing and an example of hostile sexism
rooted in aggrieved entitlement.

When aggrieved entitlement leads to murder, the crime can be described as
a misogynistic murder. Misogyny refers to men’s fear and hatred of women with
power. and misogynistic murder is the killing of women by men who are moti-
vated to punish women for (attempting to) exercise that power. such murders
are disturbingly common. in 1989, marc Lepine murdered fourteen women in a
killing spree in montreal, during which he repeatedly screamed, “i want women!”
and “i hate feminists!” in 1996, darrell david Rice murdered two women camp-

175G E N D E R F O R W O M E N

ing in Virginia, explaining that they “deserved to die because they were les-
bian whores.”49 in 1998, a teacher and four female students, chosen because of
their sex, were killed by arkansas middle schoolers mitchell Johnson and
andrew Golden. in 2006, Charles Roberts iV went to an amish schoolhouse,
separated the boys from the girls, and shot ten girls, killing five. in 2009, George
sodini, angry at being sexually “rejected” by women, walked into an aerobics
class and sprayed bullets into the crowd of female strangers.50 in 2010, Gerardo
Regalado killed his wife and then shot six more women at a Florida restaurant,
sparing the men. in 2016, arcan Cetin, a man with a history of domestic vio-
lence and sexual harassment—who had once allegedly told a friend, “american
girls hate me”—went to a makeup counter in a macy’s and killed four women
and a man.51 in 2018, at least two men would praise elliot Rodger shortly before
engaging in mass murder. one of them was alek minassian; he mowed down
pedestrians in toronto, killing ten, mere minutes after vowing on Facebook to
“destroy” women who sexually rejected him. the other was nikolas Cruz. Prom-
ising “elliot Rodger will not be forgotten,” Cruz walked into stoneman douglas
High school in Parkland, Florida, with a semi-automatic weapon, killing three
adults and fourteen teenagers.52

it is obvious that the victims of such mass killers are innocent of any blame,
but the same inference is not always made when homicides and abuse are car-
ried out by the partners, ex-partners, or would-be-partners of specific women.
this is the kind of abuse and homicide we see daily. approximately 25 percent
of women have been victims of intimate partner violence, compared to 11 per-
cent of men.53 about 4.5 million women have had an intimate partner threaten
them with a gun.54 acting on such threats, boyfriends and husbands commit
39 percent of all female homicides; in contrast, girlfriends and wives commit
3 percent of male homicides.55 twice as many women as men will be victims
of sexual assault, and both men and women are substantially more likely to be
assaulted by men than women.56 sometimes even mass shootings aren’t imper-
sonal: 54 percent involve the targeting of an intimate partner or family mem-
ber.57 a quarter of all casualties of mass shootings are children known to the
shooter, primarily his own or his intimate partner’s.

in the United states, sexual minorities and people who are gender noncon-
forming are sometimes attacked or killed because they violate gender rules;
trans women and men who display femininity are most often targeted.58 it is
estimated that transgender women are more than four times more likely than
other women to be killed; trans women of color are at particularly high risk.59
Policing gender, in other words, can be truly violent. in 2017, sexual minority
cis men and trans women accounted for 85 percent of those killed in gender-
and sexual orientation–related hate crimes, reflecting the pattern of violence
against not just those who deviate from the binary but those who adopt femi-
ninity when they do.60

Chapter 7  I n e q u a l I t y : W o m e n a n d F e m I n I n I t I e s176

such murders, and other forms of hostile sexism, are not caused by women
or gender nonconformity but by men’s misogyny and homophobia.61 they are
caused by a mixture of hatred, anger, and fear. this is not a problem of individ-
ual men, and it certainly can’t be chalked up to mental illness. this is a social
problem. it’s the persistence of patriarchal ideas—the idea that women and fem-
inine people should subordinate themselves to men and masculinity—that fuels
aggrieved entitlement and the violence that comes with it.

( m i s) m a n a g i n g h a r m  When women set out to manage the violence they
expect or experience from men, they sometimes engage in self-harm or vic-
tim blaming. Women often blame themselves for the violence they suffer and
offer excuses for men. in one study, even the volunteers at a domestic violence
shelter who insisted on principle that women were never to blame for their own
assaults, were in practice quite likely to offer women’s own behavior to explain
what “set him off.”62

on college campuses, women sometimes accuse sexual assault victims of
being “naïve” or “stupid.” “she somehow got like sexually assaulted,” said one
woman about an acquaintance who’d been victimized. “all i know is that kid
[that raped her] was like bad news to start off with. so, i feel sorry for her but it
wasn’t much of a surprise for us. He’s a shady character.” By suggesting that she
and her friends knew better than to hang out with the perpetrator, she suggests
that information and social savviness can keep women safe.

For many women, imagining that the target “must have done something”
wrong or stupid gives them a false sense of security. it also requires women
to restrict their lives in the hope of staying safe, or at least safer: monitoring
what one says online, for example, not being out alone after dark, and never get-
ting too drunk. Being opinionated, out alone, or drunk does not warrant being
attacked, but deciding that being these things is somehow “stupid” or reckless
does increase the likelihood of self-blame should things go wrong. as Laurie
Penny says about suggestions that her writing provokes internet trolls:

What makes victim-blaming so insidious is that it isn’t just about shifting the
blame—it’s about sending a message to anyone else who might be dumb enough
to think they can do whatever that victim was doing and get away with it.63

notably, dividing women into those who are and aren’t smart enough to protect
themselves from violence also undermines the solidarity necessary to fight to
end it once and for all.

many women find themselves in a double bind: if they are vulnerable and
deferential, they are easy prey, but if they are self-protective and self-assertive,
they are pariahs. this is, of course, only if they don’t believe they are capable

177G E N D E R F O R W O M E N

of protecting themselves in the first place. in the West, women’s bodies are
socially constructed as weaker and more fragile than men’s—inherently vulner-
able to and helpless in the face of men’s violence—and women often internalize
this idea.64

even women who are born male-bodied often come to believe this. inter-
views with trans women show that as individuals transition from male to
female, most learn to embody a sense of physical vulnerability.65 trans women,
like cis women, are more likely than cis men to be subject to sexually objecti-
fying gazes and touched without permission. meanwhile, adopting women’s
fashions—heels that shorten and unbalance their stride and skirts that restrict
how they bend and sit—reduces the power and freedom women sense in their
own bodies. they’re also subject to all the stereotypes about the female body,
including the idea that it is inherently vulnerable to men’s stronger and more vio-
lent bodies. despite being socialized as men and being, on average, taller and
more muscular than cis women, trans women often come to feel similarly vul-
nerable. a trans woman named Rebecca, for example, said the following when
asked if she walks alone at night:

I just don’t do it. I used to when I was a man. Yeah, I’d be anywhere I wanted to. I
didn’t fear anything but as a woman, yeah, I’m very cautious. . . . Because we are
victims. We’re the type of person that other people prey upon because we’re the
weaker sex, so to speak.66

Having internalized the idea that women are “victims” and the “weaker sex,”
Rebecca now acts accordingly. Between her sense of herself as vulnerable and
the very real statistics on trans women’s victimization, it’s easy to see why.

Part of women’s struggle to redefine femininity is overcoming an inability to
imagine that they are loud, strong, angry, or dangerous. self-defense instructors,
for example, often teach women who assume, wrongly, that they are helpless to
defend themselves against a man. in fact, maneuvers that take little strength—a
thumb to the eye socket, a punch to the throat, an elbow to the nose, a quick kick
to the knee cap, or a twist of the testicles—can often bring an attempted assault
to an end.67 Research has shown that hollering, fighting back, or fleeing reduces
the likelihood of a completed rape by 81 percent, without increasing the severity
of injuries sustained by victims.68

Women are powerful, but they often don’t recognize, or they resist using, that
power. this is a problem even in sweden, one of the most gender-egalitarian
countries in the world. to that end, kindergarten teachers in sweden are now
actively and effectively teaching girls how to yell.69 Called a “compensatory gen-
der strategy,” the idea is to counter the gender-stereotypical socialization the

Chapter 7  I n e q u a l I t y : W o m e n a n d F e m I n I n I t I e s178

kids are getting elsewhere. Boys, then, are being taught to give massages and
girls are being told to “throw open the window and scream.”

How individual girls and women manage risks of violence will vary, of
course, but the collective challenge women face is in finding a way to fight
back against misogyny. to the extent that conventional femininity offers only a
choice between victim (helpless but protected by benevolent sexists) or pariah
(powerful but punished by hostile ones), women will find it difficult to claim a
strategy of self-assertion that is effective, feels good, and is tolerated by the peo-
ple around them.

Bargaining with Patriarchy

though women have choices about how to do femininity, and options for mixing
in masculinity, they are still subject to rules and restrictions when it comes to
their gender performances. Women, then, like men, make patriarchal bargains
to maximize their autonomy, safety, and well-being in the face of sexism, andro-
centrism, and subordination. Whereas men are presented with essentially one
kind of bargain, adopting hegemonic masculinity as much as they can or else
accepting low status in the masculine hierarchy, women can choose among
three types of bargains.

one bargain involves trading one’s own attainment of power for the pro-
tection and support of a man. this bargain involves performing emphasized
femininity, an exaggerated form of conventional femininity “oriented to accom-
modating the interests and desires of men.”70 With this strategy, a woman
attempts to perfect a performance of femininity in exchange for the support of
a man who will share his privilege with her. stay-at-home moms, for example,
have struck one such patriarchal bargain, making their family-focused strategy
their side of a gendered economic deal. they provide feminized, unpaid work in
the home for their husband and children. in return, their husbands share their
income and benefits: providing a well-stocked kitchen, vacations, affordable
health insurance, and a secure retirement.

other women—disparagingly called “gold diggers”—offer their beauty and
attentiveness to economically successful men. aspiring models who work the
high-end party circuit, for example, can get work as nonsexual partners for very
wealthy men.71 the women get designer clothes, gourmet meals, and luxury
trips in exchange for performing a “strategic intimacy” that allows the men to
feel attractive and important. Likewise, in high-end clubs in Vietnam, corpo-
rate men hire beautiful women to smooth their negotiations with male clients.72
in some cases, a woman doing emphasized femininity may become a rich man’s
wife. in exchange for financial support, these women promise to keep their bod-
ies taut, their clothes flattering, and their hair and faces attractive. the man

179G E N D E R F O R W O M E N

has a lovely companion, then, to appreciate and
display, either as a “trophy wife” or a temporary

the family-focused wife and the lovely compan-
ion are making the same patriarchal bargain: doing
a version of emphasized femininity in exchange
for male support. in both cases, the woman’s per-
formance contributes to men’s relative status, helps
men succeed economically, and enhances men’s
quality of life. Women have traded the direct
attainment of their own power for the indirect
attainment of his. neither raising kids nor being
beautiful pays the rent, ensures women they
won’t be destitute when they’re old, or makes their
voices heard.

thus, the position of those who perform empha –
sized femininity is always precarious; they can’t
control how much reward men offer and on what
terms. they are dependent on men’s ongoing will-
ingness to support them, even as the things they
have to offer decrease in value. Children grow up
and leave the house, and beautiful faces and bod-
ies face the march of time. it’s a risky bargain for
women: what upper-class men have to offer (money
and status) are universally desirable goods and
likely build over their lifetimes, whereas the bar-
gaining position of women who are counting on
their emphasized performance of femininity inevitably will weaken.

Being a doctor’s wife is risky, so instead many women have decided that it
is safer and more practical to become doctors themselves. Women with ambi-
tions to enter male-dominated professions may make a patriarchal bargain that
involves being “just one of the guys,” a strategy sociologist michael Kimmel
refers to as emphatic sameness. in his study of the first women to integrate
military schools, Kimmel found that some women tried to make the fact that
they were female as invisible as possible.73 distancing themselves from other
women, they tried to be “cadets” instead of “female cadets.”

many women do emphatic sameness, downplaying the feminine in them-
selves in exchange for the right to do quite a bit of masculinity. these women
may declare majors associated with men and deride women who major in fem-
inized subjects like literature or elementary education. they may make sports
a central part of their lives and dismiss cheerleaders as not real athletes. they
may choose not to have children and decide that mothers are not serious about

to this day, marilyn monroe remains an
icon of emphasized femininity.

Chapter 7  I n e q u a l I t y : W o m e n a n d F e m I n I n I t I e s180

pursuing personal or professional accomplishments. By embracing androcen-
trism, they hope to avoid both benevolent and hostile sexism.

in fact, doing emphatic sameness is a way for some women to gain power as
individuals in a society that values masculinity. the bargain has limits, though.
First, this strategy is probably only possible in very specific kinds of masculin-
ized contexts, those where men have agreed to tolerate the presence of women
who are very successful in the performance of masculinity. everyone at the mil-
itary school Kimmel studied, for example, was doing masculinity. that’s how
everyone—male or female—fit in and succeeded. in such a context, the require-
ment that women balance masculinity with femininity may be relaxed.

second, emphatic sameness is a limited individual bargain because it
depends on the denigration of femininity in general. the majority of women
who do emphatic sameness reject femininity but are still understood by others
to be female. they may not be rewarded for their performance of femininity,
but the expectation that they will reveal their intrinsic femininity at some point
remains. if they are heterosexual, finding a sexual partner may demand being
disavowed as a “pal.” if they are not, being perceived as asexual may be the
only way to avoid pariah status. in either case, their bargain backfires: they end
up embodying the very thing they’ve agreed is valueless.

moreover, this bargain reinforces the idea that women and girly stuff are
trivial and worthless. so, the emphatic sameness bargain undermines attempts

a n emphasized sameness approach allows this woman to blend in with male recruits to the
new york Police department.

181G E N D E R F O R W O M E N

to empower women as a group, even if it allows individual women to have more
power than they would otherwise. notice that the most successful women (sur-
geons, judges, politicians) usually rely on a team of less advantaged women
(housekeepers, nannies, nurses, secretaries). the surgeon may have achieved
a level of prestige usually reserved for a man, but she does so on the backs of
other women who do devalued, still-feminized work on her behalf.

most women don’t do either emphasized femininity or emphatic sameness
consistently. in different contexts or times of their lives, they may strike dif-
ferent bargains. they alternate between masculinity and femininity in accor-
dance  with a patriarchal bargain called gender equivocation, using masculinity
and femininity strategically when either is useful and culturally expected.

this was the case, for example, for a group of young women studied by sociol-
ogist nikki Jones.74 these women were all enrolled in a violence-intervention
project located in a low-income, mostly african american neighborhood of Phil-
adelphia. Living in high-violence neighborhoods, the women had developed
strategies for both doing gender and staying safe. Like their male peers, they
were willing to fight to protect their reputation. despite this tough Gal strategy,
the women understood that in some contexts they were required to perform
femininity and were rewarded for doing so.

Jones documents a young woman, Kiara, collecting signatures for a neigh-
borhood petition. she approached strangers assertively to discuss the petition,
strategically drawing on both feminine flirtation and masculine argumentation
to get signatures. she would flirt with male acquaintances walking by, but then
defiantly criticize the police as they passed the station. she was, when she needed
to be, she said, “aggressive for the streets,” but could also, when it was useful to
her, be “pretty for the pictures.”75 When it came to her gender performance, Kiara
equivocated, using whichever strategy provided the best bargain at the moment.

these patriarchal bargains—emphasized femininity, emphatic sameness, and
gender equivocation—are not equally available to every female-bodied person.
the women studied by Jones largely didn’t have the option to choose empha-
sized femininity; their tough Gal strategy acknowledged that knowing how to
fight “like a man” was necessary to survive in their neighborhoods. Likewise,
the ability to perform emphasized femininity to land a rich husband depends in
part on a person’s particular body and face. not everyone is born with a conven-
tionally attractive, physically able body that they can train to be slim and grace-
ful. it helps to have some money to start with, too. Conversely, some women
may not have the temperament to be a family-focused parent or the ambition or
opportunity to pursue a demanding career. most women aim to find a bargain
that seems practical and potentially rewarding, even if not ideal. However, no
matter what bargain women make, there is a cost to be paid.

it’s called the double bind, a situation in which cultural expectations are
contradictory, making success unattainable. satisfying only one or the other

Chapter 7  I n e q u a l I t y : W o m e n a n d F e m I n I n I t I e s182

expectation inevitably means failure, and it is impossible to do both. in the case
of women in contemporary Western societies, the double bind refers to the idea
that to be powerful is to fail as a woman and to succeed as a woman is to give
up power.

Women can and do fall from grace in either direction. We see this phenome-
non, for example, in sports. south african olympian sprinter Caster semenya is
an example of a woman who was attacked for doing too little femininity, whereas
tennis player anna Kournikova is an example of an athlete who did too much.
semenya’s physical body, surprisingly fast races, and refusal to do femininity
both on and off the track led to an investigation of her biological sex that threat-
ened her career. Under this pressure, she submitted to a public makeover—a last-
ditch attempt at an apologetic.

in contrast, Kournikova’s successful embodiment of femininity pushed her
out of her tennis career and into modeling. today she is frequently mocked as
one of the worst professional athletes of all time; the fact that she was once ranked
eighth in the world is eclipsed by her sex appeal. she still frequently graces the
covers of men’s magazines.

Backlash against female politicians also often reflects the double bind. Women
candidates have some ability to gender equivocate on the campaign trail, but this
bargain doesn’t necessarily help them.76 on the one hand, women are criticized
for not being sufficiently feminine. in 2012, Geun-hye Park, then a candidate for
president of south Korea, was criticized by her opponent for not having chil-
dren. Her opponent’s spokesman said that she “has no femininity” because she
wasn’t “agonizing over childbirth, childcare, education, and grocery prices.”77
Both Julia Gillard, former prime minister of australia, and angela merkel, the
current chancellor of Germany, have faced similar charges. Because these female
leaders don’t have children, critics said, “they’ve got no idea what life’s about”
and are not “real women.”78 even women with children can find their emphasis
on gender sameness—their toughness or status in masculinized positions—used
against them. one need not approve of all of nancy Pelosi’s or Hillary Clinton’s
political positions to recognize the hostile sexism underlying the caricatures of
them as emasculating shrews.

on the other hand, if female candidates do emphasized femininity, this tends
to hurt them, too.79 Consider the treatment of sarah Palin, the Republican choice
for vice president, during the 2008 presidential primaries. on the campaign,
she emphasized her femininity with long hair, stylish clothes that hugged her
body, and a cheerful demeanor. But because she performed femininity, Palin was
seen as pretty but incompetent: a contrast to the masculinized image of a smart,
strong, and effective politician.80 male commentators gushed over her attrac-
tiveness, saying that she was “by far the best-looking woman ever to rise to such
heights” and “the first indisputably fertile female to dare to dance with the big

183G E N D E R F O R W O M E N

dogs.” But they also pejoratively called her “girlish,” compared her to a “naughty
librarian,” and dubbed her “Caribou Barbie.” a pundit for CnBC claimed that
she was politically successful only because “men want to mate with her” and
said that he (and other men) would vote for her because he wanted her “lying
next to me in bed.” it wasn’t long before she became a joke to much of amer-
ica, inspiring miLF memes and look-alike stripper contests in Las Vegas. While
Palin certainly had her faults, her downfall was also distinctly gendered.

on a national stage, how can an ambitious woman strike a balance between
masculinity and femininity that pleases everyone? if voters tolerate some kinds
of balances but not others, and the balances they tolerate differ across regions;
between the cities, suburbs, and countryside; up and down the class ladder; and
along the political spectrum, among other divides, how can a woman ever escape
the double bind?

Women, like men, make patriarchal bargains to maximize their autonomy
and well-being. men face substantially tighter restrictions than women, but the

caster Semenya’s astonishingly fast times on the track and disinterest in performing gender
while she raced prompted the international association of athletics to investigate her biologi-
cal sex. her makeover for You magazine (right) was an effort to assure others of her femininity.

Chapter 7  I n e q u a l I t y : W o m e n a n d F e m I n I n I t I e s184

bargains available to them—while fewer than those available to women—offer
greater rewards. Women enjoy more flexibility because there are more socially
endorsed strategies for them to use, but no matter what bargain women seek to
make, the outcomes are not in their favor.


Gender inequality has been a part of Western culture for a very long time.
through all that time, people have been actively challenging the basis, logic,
and fairness of patriarchal ideas and practices. today, those people are called

Feminism, most simply, is the belief that all men and women should have
equal rights and opportunities. the word was borrowed from the French in the
late 1800s, when many women around the world were still the property of men
by law. it has been used ever since to describe efforts to reduce women’s dis-
advantage relative to men and free both men and women from harmful and
oppressive gender stereotypes.

While feminism is principally concerned with gender inequality,
intersectionality—differences among men and among women—has become cen –
tral to the conversation. especially since the 1970s, scholars and activists have
been theorizing what it means to include all women in their mission.81 Ulti-
mately, it became clear that if one cared strictly about gender inequality, a fem-
inist utopia was entirely compatible with other types of injustice. in this imaginary
world, women would simply be equal to “their” men—ones of the same race, class,
and so on. if those men were disadvantaged by other forms of injustice, then
women would be, too. this was morally objectionable to most feminists because
it charted a feminism for only rich, white, and otherwise privileged women.
many argued this was not feminism at all.

today many feminists, arguably most, take as their target the matrix of
domination, a structure in which multiple hierarchies intersect to create a pyr-
amid of privilege, leaving on top only those people who are advantaged in every
hierarchy.82 as a result, when someone identifies themselves as feminist today,
they often mean to say they’re part of a network of activists targeting a wide
range of injustices. other social justice movements have pushed for this more
inclusive feminism, arguing that it’s important to consider not just one injus-
tice at a time, but how they work on each other simultaneously to create bar-
gains that are not merely patriarchal but also cement class, race, and sexuality
as interacting systems of inequality. in this sense, intersectionality has been
theorized as not just part of our identities or social locations, but as a call for
social practices that challenge unjust systems of all kinds.83

185T H E B I G P I C T U R E

in addition to embracing intersectional analysis, feminists have been on
the forefront of theorizing masculinity and the way the gender binary might be
harmful to men. many men today identify as feminist or pro-feminist, and they
have formed organizations aimed at fighting gender inequality and its harmful
effects on both men and women.84 in Canada, men founded the White Ribbon
Campaign, an effort by men to end men’s violence against women, now active
in sixty countries.85 the national organization of men against sexism in the
United states works toward gender equality on the belief that “men can live
as happier and more fulfilled human beings by challenging the old-fashioned
rules of masculinity that embody the assumption of male superiority.”86 and
men Can stop Rape works to promote “healthy, nonviolent masculinity” and
“cultures free from violence.”87 there are many more such organizations around
the world.

even in the very early years of feminism, people understood that it had the
potential to change men’s lives for the better as well as women’s. the early fem-
inist Floyd dell, writing in 1917, argued: “Feminism will make it possible for the
first time for men to be free.” He believed feminism was the path to full human-
ity and the only hope for true love between men and women. Criticizing the elite
marriages he saw around him, he wrote:

When you have got a woman in a box and you pay rent on the box, her relationship
to you insensibly changes character. . . . It is no longer a sharing of life together—
it is a breaking of life apart. Half a life—cooking, clothes, and children; half a
life—business, politics, and baseball. It doesn’t make much difference which is the
poorer half. Any half, when it comes to life, is very near to none at all.88

dell would likely be impressed at the lives women are leading today, thanks to a
real reduction in both legal and interpersonal forms of explicit sexism. But he’d
be deeply troubled by the continued pressure men face to live half a life.

this pressure has, in fact, been getting worse, not better. since the 1970s,
both men and women have become increasingly androcentric.89 men are feeling
more pressure than ever to conform to a narrowing range of acceptable mas-
culinities. even hybrid masculinities—those that mix femininity in—seem to
uphold patriarchal relations. our societies have yet to deliver on the promise to
men that dell envisioned.

as we’ve seen, contemporary gender relations are not ideal for women
either. it will become increasingly clear in the coming chapters that women’s
bargains with patriarchy are limited in rewards. mixing in more masculinity
helped accelerate women’s participation in the economy in the 1960s but the
increases stalled out by the 1990s.90 the percent of women in the workforce, for
example, went up by 30 percentage points between 1962 and 1992 but has only

Chapter 7  I n e q u a l I t y : W o m e n a n d F e m I n I n I t I e s186

risen a few percentage points since. the gap between women’s pay and men’s
also narrowed substantially during these years but has been relatively stable
since the mid-1990s.91 Between 1971 and 1981, sex segregation in white-collar
occupations declined precipitously, but since the mid-1980s it’s been steady.
the percent of Phd recipients who identify as female went up by about 20 per-
centage points in the ten years before 1981 but took another thirty years to move
another 20.92

this state of affairs inspired scholars to argue that the United states and other
similar Western countries are in the middle of a stalled revolution, a sweeping
change in gender relations stuck halfway through.93 Women have increasingly
embraced opportunities in masculine arenas, but few men have moved toward
feminine options. this new gender order hurts both men and women, but differ-
ently; men suffer more as individuals, while women are harmed more as a group.

men are harmed as individuals because hegemonic masculinity pushes
them to obey its imperatives. androcentrism restricts men’s lives, asking them
to destroy or hide parts of themselves that don’t fit the hegemonic model. as a
result, they have narrower life options. some men find this oppressive; others
don’t, not because it isn’t repressive—there’s no doubt that it is—but because
there are worse things than being boxed into valued and rewarded roles in soci-
ety. a lot of men aren’t that upset, it turns out, by being told they shouldn’t do
something they learned to not want to do, concluding that it’s oK to leave high
heels, dirty diapers, and salads to women. masculinity is oppression, in other
words, dressed up as superiority, which isn’t so bad, at least for those whose
superior standing doesn’t seem to be slipping away from them.

our gender regime is bad, then, for men’s mental and physical health as indi-
viduals, but collectively works out better for men on the whole. as a group, men
benefit because hegemonic masculinity is socially and economically rewarded;
it is the face of power, which they see as theirs. men face less pressure to bother
with things we’ve learned to belittle, to defer to others, or to sacrifice their own
needs. in fact, because men are required to eschew femininity as much as pos-
sible, men are free to grab brazenly for power, act on self-interest, and mobilize
support from other men for their success in ways that are actively disparaged
for women. When the gender binary does exact costs from men, they are more
likely to interpret this as individual failure than systematic outcomes of patri-
archal legacies.

in contrast, as individuals, women benefit from the greater flexibility that
modified patriarchy affords them but face more harm as a group by the costs that
sexism, androcentrism, and subordination still impose collectively. all women,
regardless of the bargains they strike as individuals, must contend with the
risks of assault and the possibility of becoming a pariah. all their diverse strat-
egies are fitted within the boundaries of gender inequality. Collective costs
include benevolent or hostile sexism, being hamstrung by the double bind,

187T H E B I G P I C T U R E

dependency on men for safety and support, and the requirement to adopt deval-
ued, subordinating, and sexualized gender performances.

all this limits women’s ability to perform gender in ways that truly disrupt
the system. Women as a group pay more of the costs of the hierarchical gen-
der binary, then, measured by the economic vulnerability and physical danger
they face; as such, women are more likely to name and resist the unfairness of
these costs.

the revolution is yet unfinished, but the resistance is hard to miss.

R ev isiti ng t he Q uestion

I f b o t h m e n a n d w o m e n a r e c o n s t r a i n e d b y a b i n a r y
g e n d e r s y s t e m , w h y i s i t t h a t m o r e w o m e n t h a n m e n
f i n d t h i s s y s t e m u n f a i r ?

the gender binary is a distinction, not just a difference; it’s about hierarchy. the
masculine side of the binary is presumed to be not just different but better than
the feminine side. and most of us have internalized this idea, at least a little,
learning to see men and masculine people as more valuable and impressive
than women and feminine people.

as a result, girls and women are generally encouraged to mix a little mas-
culinity into their personality and enter previously male-dominated leisure
activities and occupations. Unlike men, for whom the other sex’s territory is
stigmatizing, for women, it can be quite appealing. it feels good to excel in are-
nas that others value. it brings status and reward, sometimes even from the
people whose opinions matter most: men with good positions in the masculine
hierarchy and control over most social rewards. Why wouldn’t women want to
embrace the opportunity to do a little masculinity, or even quite a lot? in fact,
women’s eagerness to incorporate masculinity and move into masculine arenas
is proof of femininity’s low value. in hindsight, one of the reasons women have
been so keen to embrace masculinity is because it feels good to be seen as bet-
ter than the women who do not. this is their patriarchal bargain.

Women who do just masculinity, though, or who don’t perform the right kind
of feminine apologetic, will not be rewarded. they will be policed, often and
severely, and even women with flawless performances still may face abuse and
be blamed for provoking it. Yet all women must do at least some femininity
and, when they do, they’ll be performing a devalued identity, one that seems
rightfully subordinated. as individuals, women can resist these mechanisms
of oppression by deftly doing masculinity and strategically appropriating mas-
culine roles. some women will do so spectacularly, rising to the corner offices of
the biggest companies and powerful positions in our government. But women

Chapter 7  I n e q u a l I t y : W o m e n a n d F e m I n I n I t I e s188

as a group will never be on an equal footing with men because men aren’t
required by virtue of their gender to perform powerlessness and deference.

this is why women, more so than men, have fought to dismantle patriarchy.
it’s also why the word “feminism,” and not “masculinism,” has come to repre-
sent the movement, though today it is as much about freeing individual men
from repressive gender rules as it is about giving women the choices patriar-
chy denies them. Likewise, feminists are increasingly intersectional in insist-
ing that liberating both men and women will involve challenging every axis
of all our societies’ intersecting oppressions: racism, colorism, ableism, het ero-
sexism, class inequality, and prejudices based on religion, immigration status,
cognitive difference, physical size, mental illness, and more. the real story
about gender and power isn’t a simple one about women’s disadvantage, then,
but a complicated one that reveals the costs that a hierarchical gender binary
imposes on the vast majority of us, a system of unequal gender relations that is
just one part of a wider matrix of domination. and feminism is what we call our
efforts to undo it.

Ne x t . . .

thus far we’ve discussed the social construction of gender in our ideas, the polic-
ing of gendered performances in interaction, and patriarchal power relations.
these are all very powerful forces. But what about free will, self-determination,
and personal initiative? We’re a free country, after all—isn’t it still possible to
reject the gender binary; ignore what other people say; refuse to accept or enact
sexism, androcentrism, and subordination; and live a life free of all this gender
stuff, even if that means paying some social costs? How about deciding to give
up male privilege or to live with the low status of a social pariah? that line of
inquiry leads us to our next chapter:

W h e n i t c o m e s d o w n t o i t , r e g a r d l e s s o f s o c i a l
c o n s t r u c t i o n a n d s o c i a l p r e s s u r e , d o n ’ t w e l i v e i n a
s o c i e t y i n w h i c h i t ’ s p o s s i b l e t o j u s t b e a n i n d i v i d u a l?

it turns out, no.

F O R F U R T H E R R E a D I N G

Friedman, Hilary Levey. “soccer isn’t for Girly Girls? How Parents Pick the sports
their daughters Play.” The Atlantic, august 6, 2013.

Glick, Peter, and susan Fiske. “an ambivalent alliance: Hostile and Benevolent
sexism as Complementary Justifications for Gender inequality.” American Psy-
chologist 56, no. 2 (2001): 109–18.

189T H E B I G P I C T U R E

Halberstam, Judith. “an introduction to Female masculinity: masculinity without
men.” in Female Masculinity. durham: duke University Press, 1998, 1–43.

Katz, Jackson. The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men
Can Help. naperville, iL: sourcebooks, inc., 2006.

mears, ashley. Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model. Berkeley: University
of California Press, 2011.

Yancey martin, Patricia. Rape Work: Victims, Gender, and Emotions in Organization
and Community Context. new York: Routledge, 2005.

NothiNg is possible w ithout

people, but NothiNg l asts

w ithout iNstitutioNs.

— j e a N m o N N e t 1


Thus far we’ve talked about the way that individuals look through gender binary glasses, internalize gender norms, and police their own and others’ gender performances. We’ve
also discussed how our ideas about men and women—and our  ex ­
pectations for our own and others’ behavior—aren’t just different;
they’re unequal. Finally, we’ve considered how people get away
with breaking gender rules and form communities that support
the gender rules they endorse. This makes it seem like, no matter
how pervasive the gender binary lens and how strong the pres­
sure to do gender, an individual can make the difficult decision to
live a gender­neutral or gender­fluid life if he or she wants to. In
other words:

W h e n i t c o m e s d o w n t o i t , r e g a r d l e s s o f s o c i a l
c o n s t r u c t i o n a n d s o c i a l p r e s s u r e , d o n ’ t w e l i v e
i n a s o c i e t y i n w h i c h i t ’ s p o s s i b l e t o j u s t b e a n
i n d i v i d u a l?

The answer to this question is, in fact, no. Gender is a set of ideas
and something one does when interacting with other people, but
it’s also an organizing principle that permeates our social institu­
tions. Because ideas about gender shape the environments in which


Chapter 8  I n s t I t u t I o n s192

we live, these ideas exert an influence on our lives independent of our own
beliefs, personalities, and interactions. It’s simply not true that if we reject
the gender binary as individuals, and refuse to let others police us, we’ll be
free of gender. Gender—and gender inequality, too—is part of the fabric of
our lives.

We’ll start by introducing the idea of the institution, then discuss
how institutions are gendered in ways that reproduce both difference
and inequality.


Most schools in the United States—from kindergarten to college—take a three­
month break during the summer. Most kids enjoy the break without asking why,
but there’s a reason we do it this way. Not a natural reason, but a social one.

Before the late 1900s, urban schools met year­round while rural schools met
for only six months, letting students off to help on their families’ farms.2 Urban
schools eventually decided to break during the summer because that was
when the wealthy liked to travel and also because, before the invention of air­
conditioning, schools were oppressively hot and stuffy during those months. As
education became more important and fewer kids were growing up on farms,
rural schools increased the length of their abbreviated school year to match that
of urban schools. Our precious summer vacation was born.

Summer vacation has a history, then, but today we mostly just accept that
this is how things are done. It is now part of how Americans “do” school. In
this sense, American education is an example of what sociologists call an
institution, a persistent pattern of social interaction aimed at meeting a need
of a society that can’t easily be met by individuals alone.

The institution of education meets the needs of individuals to educate their
own and others’ kids. Giving the next generation the information and skills
they’ll need to be productive workers and responsible citizens is difficult or
impossible for today’s parents, who generally don’t have the knowledge, the
know­how, or the time to teach their kids themselves. In response, we take on
education collectively, creating a systematic way to achieve the goal of an edu­
cated citizenry.

Carefully organized and controlled, the institution of education dictates the
when, where, and how of teaching: the standards, curricula, and credentials stu­
dents and teachers are held to; occasions for enacting them (like the first day of
school, graduation, field trips, and snow days); and teachers’ unions that nego­
tiate with districts and states to determine pay. The institution of education

193T H E O R G A N I Z A T I O N O F D A I L Y L I F E

involves organizations: primary and secondary schools, colleges, and univer­
sities as well as federal and state departments of education, private and charter
schools, and companies (like those offering the SAT, ACT, and other tests, as
well as test prep). There are also commonly accepted routines—parents help­
ing with homework, organizing carpools, and holding fund­raising events—and
spectacles like swim meets, senior prom, and graduation.

For the most part, all these organizations and routines are taken for granted
as just what school is like. In this sense, much of how we achieve institutional­
ized tasks is simply normative. Norms are beliefs and practices that are well
known, widely followed, and culturally approved (like back­to­school shopping
trips). Conformity with institutionalized ways of doing things is also secured
with formal policies, which are explicit and codified expectations, often with
stated consequences for deviance (like rules related to attendance). Many pol­
icies elaborate on and reinforce norms, transforming common sense into reg­
ulations (like no cheating on tests); some policies explicitly are intended to
override and change beliefs and practices that have become the norm (like tex­
ting in class). Some norms and policies are strongly enforced while others are
enforced only weakly.

Because institutions are about collectively meeting the needs of individuals,
they are very different from the social forces we’ve discussed so far. We can try

a merican high school students toss their caps to celebrate completing one stage of education
as it is institutionalized in the united states.

Chapter 8  I n s t I t u t I o n s194

to get cultural ideas we don’t like out of our brains, surround ourselves with
people who support our personal choices, and accept whatever consequences
come with breaking social rules, but it is essentially impossible to avoid insti­
tutions. They impose themselves on our lives.

If you didn’t have a stay­at­home parent or a parent who is a teacher, for exam­
ple, your summer vacation was likely inconvenient or expensive for them. Child
care during those months may have strained their budget while, depending on
your age, leaving you at home to fend for yourself might have been criminal
neglect. Yet the trouble it caused your parents didn’t make the institution magi­
cally transform. Summer vacation is summer vacation. In this way, institutions
affect our lives whether we like it or not. Our institutions are social inventions,
but they are so pervasively and persistently part of our lives that they seem like
concrete, unmovable, nonnegotiable facts of life.

We can’t just be an individual, then, because we are part of a society that is
replete with institutions. Education is but one example. We also have institu­
tions designed to promote global peace and prosperity (involving, but not lim­
ited to, the United Nations, World Health Organization, and Doctors Without
Borders); defend the country (the military, the Central Intelligence Agency, the
Department of Homeland Security); keep citizens safe from violent crime (neigh­
borhood watch programs, prisons, law enforcement, and the judiciary); enable
transportation (airlines, public buses and trains, road construction, highway
patrol, waterways); promote social welfare (food­stamp programs and Social
Security, psychiatric institutions, child social services); raise the next generation
(schools, camps, youth groups, and families); deliver and monitor health care (hos ­
pitals, insurance companies, the American Medical Association); promote the
national economy (regulations on printing money, incorporating businesses,
borrowing and lending, insuring property, discharging debt); entertain, inform,
and make life meaningful (newspapers, organized religion, professional sports,
art, the film industry); and shape the overall conditions of life and the future of
our societies (advocacy organizations, labor unions, nonprofit groups, political
parties, and legislative bodies).

These are all institutions. Together, they form the social structure: the entire
set of interlocked institutions within which we live our lives. We call it a “struc­
ture” because institutions, in concert, create a relatively stable scaffolding. If
we want to be a doctor, for instance, we know we have to go to college and then
medical school. The path, or structure, already exists. We know we are expected
to follow it and we trust that a medical degree will still be a requirement to
begin a career in medicine when we finish our schooling eight or more years
later. The stability of institutions, and the relationships between them, provide
a framework that enables us to make rational decisions about our future. Struc­
tures are helpful because they help us know what we wish to accomplish, as well
as how to do so.

195T H E O R G A N I Z A T I O N O F D A I L Y L I F E

And yet, the social structure is also a source of constraint. Sometimes climb­
ing the scaffolding requires resources we don’t have. If we can’t afford the combi­
nation of tuition and eight years out of the workforce required to become a doctor,
we probably won’t become one. It wouldn’t matter how much medical knowledge
and experience we amassed, we’d still be criminals if we practiced without a
license. Or we may not have access to the right scaffolding at the right time.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, many medical schools did not accept women or
they set a 5 to 10 percent cap on female admissions, so many women who were
interested in medicine did not apply to medical school, thinking it unrealistic,
or didn’t get in if they did.

Institutions both enable and constrain our lives, but there is no opting out. We
can condemn state and federal governments as incompetent and corrupt, become
an anarchist, and stay home on voting day, but Congress is still going to pass
legislation to which we will be held accountable. And if we break the law and
get caught, we’ll face legal penalties even if we personally object to the law.
We could go “off the grid” to avoid capitalism, find an isolated spot in the wil­
derness, cut down trees, build a hut, and live off roots and berries. Then again,
where did we get our ax? Will we bring a book on poisonous mushrooms? Even
the hermit will buy a few things to get along and, in any case, he or she can’t
help but draw on knowledge acquired through institutions like schools, fam­
ily, and the mass media.

until quite recently, medical schools limited the number of women they allowed to enter degree
programs in any given year.

Chapter 8  I n s t I t u t I o n s196

We live in, through, and with institutions and, by shaping our opportunities,
they shape our lives. These institutions, moreover, are gendered.


A gendered institution is one in which gender is used as an organizing principle.
In a gendered institution, men and women are channeled into different, and often
differently valued, social spaces or activities and their choices have different and
often unequal consequences.

Education, for example, isn’t just an institution, it’s a gendered institution.
Education is gendered through both norms and policies. Policies like gendered
honorifics for teachers (“Mr.” and “Ms.”), gender­specific dress codes, and gender­
segregated classes, like separate sex education units for girls and boys, make
gender an organizing principle of schooling. Meanwhile, informal norms further
make gender part of the routine practice of school. There is no policy requiring
that the girls populate the monkey bars and boys populate the sports fields at
recess, for instance, but that may be how kids distribute themselves nonetheless.3

Many American elementary school playgrounds feature this kind of “geog­
raphy of gender,” but the importance of gender often fades once students return
to the classroom, where students are rarely seated by gender but instead seated
alphabetically or arranged in other ways conducive to an orderly classroom.4 In
education, as well as other institutions, the importance of gender varies.5 Kinder­
garten play kitchens and AP math classes, for example, may be more gendered
than nap time and Algebra I. Gender salience—the relevance of gender across
contexts, activities, and spaces—rises and falls across the different parts of the
institutional landscape.

Whether via policies or norms, gender is a persistent feature of elementary
education, making it a gendered institution. When new students arrive, they
are inserted into this already­existing system. The system is reproduced and
enforced by a collection of others who assign esteem and stigma, or success and
failure, according to how well new students follow or otherwise contend with
the existing norms and policies. If you, an intrepid first grader, were to arrive at
one of these schools, you would quickly learn when and how gender was impor­
tant. You could then choose whether to conform or deviate, but you would con­
tend with it one way or another.

Gendered institutions are interesting from a sociological point of view
because they affirm and enforce both gender difference and inequality. In the
next two sections we’ll talk about why gendered institutions matter, starting
with an intimate example: our plumbing.

197T H E I N S T I T U T I O N A L I Z A T I O N O F   G E N D E R D I F F E R E N C E


A Room of  Her Own

In developed countries, public sanitation is an institution, and thank goodness.
It would be impossible for all individuals in a complex society to build and main­
tain a personal toilet in every location in which they might find themselves, so
providing a safe and sanitary way to eliminate personal waste is a social task.
Without sanitary institutions, our daily lives would include routine exposure to
both the act and product of urination and defecation. We would, in other words,
have to poop in public, smelling and stepping over other people’s feces, exposed
to the diseases that humans harbor in bodily fluids. In fact, 14 percent of the
world’s population does just that.6

Where you live, however, you likely benefit from a sewer system that quietly
and invisibly transports human waste to treatment plants where it is variably
burned, hauled off to landfills, given to farmers, and released back into the water
supply. Above ground, sanitation policies ensure the provision of bathroom facil­
ities in workplaces, schools, restaurants, department stores, government build­
ings, airports, and elsewhere. We typically find men’s and women’s rooms in these
locations, requiring us to pick one or the other. This makes public sanitation a
gendered institution.

The idea that men and women should have separate bathroom facilities
emerged during the 1800s. During that era, women and men were first brought
together as workers in factories. The idea of men and women working side by
side on the factory floor threatened to upset cherished Victorian beliefs about
the differences between them. One such belief was that women were more frag­
ile than men and, therefore, less suited to working for pay. Reflecting this belief,
the Department of Labor reported in 1913 that a “woman’s body is unable to
withstand strains, fatigues, and [de]privations as well as a man’s.”7 As a solution,
another study recommended the provision of “rest or emergency rooms” on the
assumption that women were “likely to have sudden attacks of dizziness, faint­
ing or other symptoms of illness.”8 Restrooms, a word you likely recognize, were
small private rooms with a bed or chair available to women workers struck by
some sudden feminine malady. The provision of restrooms reasserted women’s
fragility, easing the threat that their presence in the workplace posed to the
Victorian gender ideology.

Women’s restrooms served a second purpose, too. Employers placed them
between the factory floor and the women’s toilets so that women had to pass
through them on their way to the bathroom. Whenever a woman went into the

Chapter 8  I n s t I t u t I o n s198

restroom, then, men could pretend she was just going to rest; they could be in
happy denial that women ever went in to poop. In other words, sex­segregated
bathrooms, with the restroom as a buffer, allowed Victorian women to carefully
conceal any sign of bodily functions and allowed men to pretend that women
never used the bathroom at all.

The idea caught on. In 1887, Massachusetts enacted the first law mandat­
ing sex­segregated toilets.9 By 1920, forty­three states had followed suit. Today,
every state in the United States requires the provision of separate bathrooms for
men and women in every public building and private business with a minimum
amount of foot traffic.10

Gender and Bathrooms Today

Sex­segregation of toilet facilities has become a powerful norm, if an increas­
ingly contested one. Even if we think it’s silly, most of us use the “correct”
bathroom in public if at all possible. To most of us, using the other gendered
bathroom seems wrong. This is often true even when the bathrooms in question
are stand­alone rooms with a single toilet and a door that locks. Accordingly,

Nurses rest in a women’s “restroom.”

199T H E I N S T I T U T I O N A L I Z A T I O N O F   G E N D E R D I F F E R E N C E

most of us have likely found ourselves waiting patiently in line to use the proper
toilet while ones designated for the other sex sit empty.

Notably, if there isn’t a single stick figure on the door, we’ll use the same
restroom as someone of the other sex without hesitation. This is true in many
smaller businesses and workplaces with only one bathroom. It’s also true on
airplanes. The bathrooms at the back of the plane could be designated male­ or
female­only but, out of a concern that passengers get back to their seats as soon
as possible, they aren’t. Men and women also use the same bathrooms at home.
Having men’s and women’s bathrooms in your house would be a novelty, a gag.
Everyone knows it’s completely unnecessary.

Just as in the Victorian era, then, today’s sex­segregated bathrooms serve
social, not biological functions. Most people don’t think that women need a
fainting couch within arm’s reach, but different bathrooms continue to allow
women to keep bodily functions we still define as “unladylike” away from men.
Likewise, gender­specific bathrooms allow women to do body work that’s sup­
posed to remain invisible; when done in public, fixing one’s hair, smoothing one’s
clothes, checking for blemishes, and reapplying lipstick all reveal to the viewer
that appearing effortlessly feminine requires a lot of work and surveillance. Sex
segregation of bathrooms gives women a sex­segregated space in which to do
this. To a lesser extent, the same is true for men.

Providing different bathrooms for men and women also assumes that every­
one needs to protect their private parts from the other sex, but not the same sex.
In other words, the policy assumes everyone is heterosexual. That bathrooms
are designed without same­sex desire in mind is obvious when we consider that
bathrooms not only separate “men” from “women,” but are actually designed
with the expectation that male­bodied people will expose their penises to one
another when urinating. This approach to bathrooms was obviously institution­
alized before homosexuality became a part of popular consciousness.

And, of course, sex­segregated bathrooms uphold the gender binary itself.
They don’t allow for the possibility that some people don’t identify as either
male or female, are male but look female (or vice versa), appear altogether gen­
der ambiguous, or are in the process of transitioning. Betsy Lucal, the gender­
ambiguous sociologist we discussed earlier, described the challenge of using
bathrooms in public places:

Encounters in public rest rooms are an adventure. I have been told countless
times that “This is the ladies’ room.” Other women say nothing to me, but their
stares and conversations with others let me know what they think. I will hear them
say, for example, “There was a man in there.” 11

In response, Lucal has to make efforts to try to reduce the chances that she’ll be
stared at, insulted, or even confronted by managers or police:

Chapter 8  I n s t I t u t I o n s200

If I must use a public rest room, I try to make myself look as nonthreatening
as possible. I do not wear a hat, and I try to rearrange my clothing to make my
breasts more obvious. . . . While in the rest room, I never make eye contact, and I
get in and out as quickly as possible. Going in with a woman friend also is helpful;
her presence legitimizes my own. People are less likely to think I am entering a
space where I do not belong when I am with someone who looks like she does.12

Trans, genderqueer or fluid, and ambiguous­appearing individuals like Lucal can
be significantly inconvenienced by sex­segregated bathrooms, but the binary
approach to sanitation can cause everyone problems from time to time, like when
we really have to go and there’s a long line for one bathroom but not the other, or
when we’re trying to help a child or elderly person of the other sex use a public
toilet. Eliminating sex­segregated bathrooms, or requiring the provision of at
least some gender­neutral ones, is often described as a policy that would help
nonbinary people, but it would actually help cis people, too.

In the past few years, the politics of bathrooms have increasingly become a
topic of public debate. Currently, U.S. federal law makes it illegal for employers
to force trans employees to use the bathroom that corresponds to their sex at
birth and not their gender identity, but doesn’t offer trans students the same
protection.13 Nineteen states have passed laws protecting trans people’s right
to use the bathroom of their choice in any public place.14 Many airports, sports
arenas, and other large facilities have added “family bathrooms” or gender­
neutral “disabled” ones, which offer a way around the gender binary for trans
folks as well as for fathers with daughters and mothers with sons.

Other states, mostly in the South, have passed or considered bills restricting
bathroom rights, largely based on the claim that allowing trans people access to
women’s bathrooms (but, notably, not men’s) is dangerous. Opponents of Hous­
ton’s failed anti­LGBT discrimination law, which included trans bathroom rights,
made the case like this:

Any man at any time could enter a woman’s bathroom simply by claiming to be
a woman that day. No one is exempt. Even registered sex offenders could fol-
low women or young girls into the bathroom and if a business tried to stop them,
they’d be fined. Protect women’s privacy. Prevent danger.

A supposed risk to cisgender women and girls, based on an assumption that all
penis­bearing humans are potentially dangerous, is a common justification for
anti­trans bathroom bills today.

Historically, the vulnerability of women and girls was also the argument
made against desegregating bathrooms by race. In the 1940s, the specter of race­
integrated bathrooms was used to argue against racial integration more gener­

201T H E I N S T I T U T I O N A L I Z A T I O N O F   G E N D E R I N E Q U A L I T Y

ally.15 Opponents of integration pointed out that it would mean the end of white­
only bathrooms, falsely claiming that it would put white women in danger from
diseases carried by black women. A few decades later, in the 1970s, it was the
possibility of black men using white women’s restrooms that helped sink the
proposed equal rights constitutional amendment sought by feminists. So, when
opponents of trans bathroom rights make references to women’s safety, they
are drawing on a long American tradition of portraying white women as vul­
nerable and white men, black men, and black women as dangerous. Today it is
supposedly trans women who are the threat; the details have changed, but the
strategy is the same.

The example of sex­segregated bathrooms shows how institutions can be gen­
dered, as well as how the intersection of gender with other identities can be polit­
icized. It also reveals how policies can enforce ideas about gender and be both
introduced and changed when there is political and public will. And the politics
around trans access to restrooms is a good reminder that institutional changes
can often have effects well beyond the targeted constituency, giving everyone
more flexibility in how they use the facilities.

Institutions, though, do more than make certain ideas about gender differ­
ence part of daily life, they also contribute to gender inequality. To understand
this latter point better, let’s turn to an institution many of us first encounter on
the school playground: sports.


How individuals experience sports varies tremendously. Some find it intimidat­
ing, some exhilarating; some shrink from the competition, others come alive
under pressure. Some of us are blessed with strong and graceful bodies that
bound, bend, and twist; others of us struggle to gain quickness, coordination,
and endurance. We all have to work harder at this as we get older and our bodies
become less spry.

Regardless of whether we like sports, they’re part of an institution that shapes
our experiences. Little Leagues and after­school programs are complex organi­
zations that engage children in sports in prescribed ways. Once American chil­
dren start school, they may be required to take physical education classes that
teach certain sports and not others; schools are also sites where team play and
competition are taught and encouraged. Our teams need someone with whom
to have matches, bouts, or games, so other schools nearby also need to field
teams for the same sports. The space and equipment requirements for various
sports—tracks, courts, fields, balls, bats, mitts, and sticks—are provided by

Chapter 8  I n s t I t u t I o n s202

schools and city and state parks departments and manufactured and sold by
companies for profit.

Colleges and universities also allocate money, space, and time to athletics.
They are driven not just by enjoyment but by the public exposure and potential
alumni dollars that accrue to schools with successful or otherwise beloved teams.
They have relationships with middle and high schools that funnel talented stu­
dents into colleges offering scholarships. The mass media follow certain college
sports, making games lucrative for colleges and networks alike. Companies, in
turn, can count on televised or streamed sporting events to find audiences to
which they can advertise their goods and services. Regulatory bodies, such as
the NCAA, define the rewards that sports can offer to athletes and the standards
of the competition.

In fact, the entire economy benefits from the institution of sport. In the United
States, sales of sporting goods exceeded $87 billion in 2016.16 Major League Base­
ball and the National Football League (the two most lucrative sports in the United
States) earned $10 billion and $14 billion, respectively, in 2017.17 The U.S. sports
industry, put together, is worth nearly $500 billion. Individuals who profit—a list
too vast to compile here, but one that includes not just owners, athletes, sports
journalists, merchandisers, and marketing executives, but also cashiers, jani­
tors, vendors, ticket takers, and owners and employees of nearby souvenir shops,
hotels, bars, and restaurants—are all invested in the industry. Meanwhile, there

the aerial view of a high school in idaho is a testament to the infrastructure required to sup-
port the institutionalization of popular a merican sports.

203T H E I N S T I T U T I O N A L I Z A T I O N O F   G E N D E R I N E Q U A L I T Y

is a vast infrastructure (stadiums, arenas, tracks) and media empire (an ever­
multiplying number of ESPN channels along with at least seventeen other
sports networks).

Sports are an impressive behemoth of institutionalization. And they are also
strongly gendered, making them an institution that, despite having changed dra­
matically in the past several decades, continues to work to establish a hierarchy
among men and demonstrate women’s supposed inferiority.

Separating the Men from the Boys

One of the first recreational physical activities taken up by women was bicy­
cling. It was the 1890s, and it changed women’s lives.18 Bicycles made women
mobile. They allowed women to travel miles from their homes. Bicycles required
lighter garments with fewer restrictions of movement, inspiring changes in the
norms of women’s dress. “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling,” said the
women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony. “I think it has done more to emanci­
pate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see
a woman ride by on a wheel.”19 Bicycles gave women freedom.

People didn’t like it.
Doctors warned that women were unfit for exertion and that bike riding would

cause headaches, heart trouble, depression, insomnia, and exhaustion.20 They
told women that riding bikes was to risk getting “bicycle face,” a possibly per­
manent clenching of the jaw and bulging of the eyes caused by strain. Bicycling
caused women to be flushed, or pale, and grimacing, but weary. It should be
reserved, the doctors insisted, for men.

Women didn’t listen. They rode bikes and, in the next one hundred years,
would progressively risk their faces and put their bodies to the test, integrating
sport after sport. Today, millions of women play sports around the world. In fact,
almost as many high school and college women play sports as do men.21

Despite the ordinariness of the female athlete today, though, sports are still
considered masculine.22 Sports are part of a boy’s basic “manhood training.”23
They are “[t]he epitome of what a man’s supposed to be.”24 Playing sports—and
thinking, watching, and talking about sports—is “astonishingly important” for
young men.25 Not surprisingly, then, most boys get involved with sports at some
level. Their first plush toy may be a soccer ball; their first T­shirt may feature a
baseball and bat. A boy’s first memories of bonding with his father may involve
watching football on TV or playing T­ball in the backyard. Informal games in
the neighborhood may transition into Little League and then participation on
school­based teams.

Because sports are so strongly associated with masculinity, excelling in
sports is one way for young boys to show they’re “real boys” and, later, “real men.”

Chapter 8  I n s t I t u t I o n s204

Sports, though, don’t simply offer boys and men an avenue through which to
claim esteem; they place individual boys and men into the hierarchy of mascu­
linity. Recall that sociologist Michael Messner described his decision to embrace
sports as his first “engagement with hegemonic masculinity,” a moment in which
he accepted that he would have to belittle other men if he was to ascend the
hierarchy.26 Importantly, he notes that sports aren’t just about individual accom­
plishment; they are also about competition: “It is being better than the other
guys—beating them—that is the key to acceptance.”27 As Messner argues, sport
“serves partly to socialize boys and young men to hierarchical, competitive,
and aggressive values.”28 While some men excel, others fail. Picking teams
may be one of the most formative experiences of hierarchy in kids’ lives, one
that can be traumatic for those boys picked last—or exhilarating for a girl cho­
sen to be “one of the guys.” In this sense, sports, especially the most mascu­
linized sports, is one way that we affirm the value of masculinity for everyone.

Most men, of course, eventually focus their energies elsewhere. As men rec­
ognize that it’s unlikely that they’ll become professional athletes, many turn their
attention to their educations, careers outside of athletics, or the daily rhythms of
raising a family. But the institution of sport will likely continue to play a symbolic
role in their lives. Some men trade the physical competition for a more passive
consumption of televised sports and sports news. Men cheer for their respective
teams on big flat­screen TVs, engaging in friendly trash­talking of opposing
teams and their fans. They jostle for relative position by owning better para­
phernalia, holding season tickets with better seats, knowing sports history and
statistics more thoroughly and, of course, bragging when their team wins. It’s a
culture­wide, feel­good, male­bonding extravaganza, one that retains a compet­
itive aspect as fans jostle for dominance. Men who aren’t interested in sports
suffer many of the same disadvantages as men who don’t play well.

No matter that most men aren’t especially impressive athletes themselves.
Because they’re men, even couch potatoes can point to the game and claim they
share something important and meaningful with LeBron James, Aaron Rod­
gers, or Cristiano Ronaldo.29 As one male fan said: “A woman can do the same
job I can do—maybe even be my boss. But I’ll be damned if she can go on the
football field and take a hit!”30 Of course, the vast majority of men couldn’t “take
a hit” either, but this is beside the point. Instead, sports like football serve as a
cultural testament to the idea that, no matter what happens, men are men and
women are women.

A Team of Her Own

Most Americans will agree that men are naturally better athletes by virtue of
their size and strength. But the truth is that our culture has selected for sports

205T H E I N S T I T U T I O N A L I Z A T I O N O F   G E N D E R I N E Q U A L I T Y

In English’s thought experiment, basketball and
football are replaced by gymnastics and horseback
riding, with nonstop coverage of long­distance
marksmanship and billions of dollars spent on
dance competitions.

This is not our world. Instead, media coverage of sports keeps a raw, grimacing, bulging,
powerful male body front and center in our culture.32 It’s no accident, argues Messner, that
the most popular sports in America are also ones based on what he terms “the most extreme
possibilities of the male body.”33 Using American football as an example, he explains:

Football . . . is clearly a world apart from women. . . . In contrast to the bare and vulnerable
bodies of the cheerleaders, the armored male bodies of the football players are elevated to
mythical status, and as such, give testimony to the undeniable “fact” that there is at least
one place where men are clearly superior to women.34

The bodies of these professional athletes serve as icons of masculine physical achieve­
ment. Their extraordinary feats of athleticism tell a story about men and male bodies. In
this way, the symbolic link between the male spectator and the male athlete establishes
men’s supposed superiority over women.

that emphasize the few physical advantages men
have over women, even going so far as to define
physical activities in which women outperform
men as not sports at all. In an alternative reality
in which this didn’t happen, we can imagine a dif­
ferent world of sports, one that worshipped and
rewarded the physical skills in which the average
woman excels more than the average man. The
philosopher Jane English tried such a thought
experiment. She pondered:

R hythmic gymnastics is exceptionally
athletic and offers feats of strength and
skill to admire, but it is not a prized and
well-rewarded part of u.s. sports culture.

Speed, size, and strength seem to be the essence
of sports. Women are naturally inferior at “sports”
so conceived. But if women had been the histor-
ically dominant sex, our concept of sport would
no doubt have evolved differently. Competitions
emphasizing flexibility, balance, strength, tim-
ing, and small size might dominate Sunday
afternoon television and offer salaries in [the]
six figures.31

Chapter 8  I n s t I t u t I o n s206

On the assumption that women are lesser ath letes than men, the institution
of sport segregates women and men in almost all cases. There are some excep­
tions—equestrianism and synchronized swim ming are sex integrated (though
we see few men in the latter)—but, in general, sex segregation in sports is the
rule. Almost all team sports feature sex­segregated teams, leagues, meets, and
games that ensure men and women never compete with or against one another.
Likewise, individual sports like long­distance running, swimming, and ski
jumping usually do not put men and women in direct competition. They even
rank records separately.

Both those on the political left and political right tend to think this is a good
way to organize sports, given the assumption that men are stronger, faster, and
bigger than women. If women played with or against men, it is argued, they’d
get hurt; if they competed against men, they’d lose; and if they went out for the
same team, they wouldn’t get on. Accordingly, sex­segregated teams are sup­
ported by both conservatives who think women are more fragile than men and
liberals who want women to have the same opportunities.

Sorting by sex, however, also organizes sports in ways that affirm cultural
beliefs in gender difference and inequality. We will explore two different ways
that sex segregation is used to affirm a hierarchical gender binary.

Dif ferent but Equal?

First, sorting allows us to require—with both policies and norms—that men
and women play the same sports in different ways. Both women and men play
hockey, for instance, but whereas men are allowed to “check” ( body slam) one
another, it is against the rules for women to do so and punishable with penalties.
Likewise, tackle football is the province of “real men”; women (and “lesser men”)
are allowed to play “flag” (also sometimes called “powder puff”) football. At
the Olympics, female competitors in BMX, or bicycle motocross, ride a shorter
course with less difficult obstacles than their male counterparts; so do the
women who compete in slalom, downhill, and cross­country skiing.35 In the case
of baseball, women are sorted into a related but different game, softball, with its
own equipment and rules. These differing policies—especially those that forbid
women to be as physically aggressive or take on the same challenges—mean
that women and men are required to do sports both differently and unequally,
with women doing a lesser version. Whether women and girls could play or ride
the way men and boys do remains an open question this way; the rules ensure
that we’ll never know.

The different aesthetic expectations for male and female athletes, some­
times encoded in judging guidelines, also create sports that reinforce beliefs
about men’s and women’s talents and abilities. Writing about the feminine apol­

207T H E I N S T I T U T I O N A L I Z A T I O N O F   G E N D E R I N E Q U A L I T Y

ogetic in figure skating, sociologist Abigail Feder keenly observed that one of
a female skater’s most useful talents is the ability to disguise the incredible
athleticism required and, instead, make it look effortless.36 Whereas male figure
skaters have been valued for appearing powerful and aggressive on the ice, the
judging norms for female figure skaters frown upon this. Instead of athleticism,
an ability to look beautiful and graceful is valued in women. She is supposed
to look serene and at rest, no matter that she is launching herself into the air
at twenty miles an hour or rotating so quickly through a flying sit­spin that she
might give herself a nosebleed.

Bodybuilding is on the flip side of the gender binary but has the same gen­
dered expectations. Judges are instructed to evaluate men only on how mus­
cular they are, but to judge women on both their muscle development and their
femininity.37 The International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness, the orga­
nization that sets the rules for judging competitions and serves as the gateway
to the Mr. and Ms. Olympia competitions, slots women into divisions that limit
accumulation of muscle mass: “bikini fitness,” “fit model,” and “wellness fitness”
(some of which have parallel men’s divisions and some of which do not).38

In these competitions, women can be penalized for being “too big.” One
judge confessed to a bodybuilder who had taken a disappointing eighth place:

in bodybuilding competitions, rules constrain women’s muscular development, rewarding
women who display sculpted but not overly muscled bodies. long hair, heav y makeup, and
sparkly bikinis act as a further feminine apologetic.

Chapter 8  I n s t I t u t I o n s208

“As a bodybuilder you were the best, but in a women’s bodybuilding competi­
tion I just felt that I couldn’t vote for you.”39 In 2005, the federation officially
requested that female bodybuilders reduce their muscle mass by 20 percent and
in 2015, the federation ended the Ms. Olympia competition altogether.

The examples of figure skating and bodybuilding show that separating women
and men allows us to require that even the most elite of athletic performances
conform to gendered expectations. It’s circular logic: The idea that men and
women have fundamentally different physical abilities is used to institutional­
ize policies that ensure women and men don’t participate in the same sports in
the same way. And because they don’t, we can easily go on believing that men
and women have fundamentally different physical abilities.

Who Loses if  Women Compete with Men?

A second way sex segregation in sports protects a belief in the hierarchical gen­
der binary is by ensuring that men and women never compete against one
another. But whom does this protect? On the assumption that women would
always come in second to men, it might seem like sex segregation protects
women, giving them a “chance.” And maybe that’s true for individual women.
But if we zoom out, it becomes clear that it’s men as a group, not women as a
group, who benefit from sex­segregated sports.

Segregation allows the assumption that men outperform women to go untested.
If we integrated sports, this would be put to the test, repeatedly. In those tests,
if women always lost, women as a group would lose nothing; we already think
they’re inferior athletes. But if men lost, they would lose much more than the
match; they would lose the presumption of male superiority.

This was Messner’s argument. Reflecting on his own experience in elemen­
tary school, he wrote:

The best athlete in my classes never got to play with us. She was a girl. Somehow
we boys all knew that she was the fastest runner, could hit a baseball further
than any of us, yet we never had to confront that reality directly. Our teachers,
by enforcing strict sex segregation on the playground, protected our fragile male
egos from the humiliation that presumably would result from losing to a girl. 40

Many young boys and their parents intuit this. In 2011 a high school threatened
to forfeit a junior varsity football game unless a girl on the opposing team sat
out. 41 Mina Johnson, a five­foot­two­inch 172­pound linebacker, had “gain[ed] a
reputation in the league as a standout junior varsity player”; she sacked a six­
foot quarterback in her very first game. Nevertheless, not wanting to be the
cause of a lost opportunity for her team, she agreed not to play. The opposing

209T H E I N S T I T U T I O N A L I Z A T I O N O F   G E N D E R I N E Q U A L I T Y

team still lost—60 to 0, in fact—but apparently that was less humiliating than
losing to a girl.

In 2017, high school golfer Emily Nash competed alongside her male peers
in the Central Massachusetts Division III Boys Tournament. 42 She was allowed
to play as a member of the team because her school didn’t have a girls’ golf
team. Because it was otherwise a boys­only tournament, however, her individ­
ual scores didn’t count. So even though she had the best tournament­wide score,
beating every other boy on every team, the first­place trophy went to the male
runner­up. Still, by virtue of being able to play at all, the message came through
loud and clear: sometimes girls beat boys at their own game.

What does sex segregation in sports do? It protects boys and men. As one
mother of a boy wrestler put it: It’s “unfair for girls to compete against boys. . . .
[It puts boys] in a no­win situation. . . . If he wins, it’s just a girl, and if he loses,
his life is over.”43 It’s important to be empathetic to the experiences of men in a
world characterized by sexism and androcentrism, but unfair to boys? Hardly.
It’s extra humiliating to lose to a girl only because we’ve already decided that
women should lose.

Still, we might object, doesn’t segregating sports by sex give women an
oppor tunity to play that they might otherwise not have? Not really. Gender is
neither a necessary nor logical way to organize sports and make competitions
fair.44 Any justification for this criterion is based on using gender as an impre­
cise substitute for other, better variables: height, weight, or athletic ability.

Consider wrestling, the sport causing the mother quoted earlier such angst.
Wrestling matches have traditionally been organized by weight class. People in
the same weight class, considered equally paired, wrestle each other. The relevant
characteristic here isn’t gender at all; it’s weight. So men and women of the same
weight class should be considered good competitors. Using this logic, girls and
women have been pressing coaches to allow them to wrestle and have been join­
ing previously all­male high school wrestling teams since the 1990s. Today, there
are thousands of female wrestlers on teams. In fact, in 2006 Michaela Hutchison
from Alaska became the first girl to win a state high school mixed­sex wrestling
championship.45 She wasn’t the last.

Basketball could also be organized according to size and skill instead of sex.
Instead of sex­segregated teams, it might make more sense to separate teams
into taller and shorter players. Tall women could play with tall men and shorter
men and women could play together. Or, alternately, we could set up mixed­
gender teams and then sort them into “fair play” leagues by average height and
relative successes. Then agility, speed, and shooting skill could be more directly
compared, with all teams competing for the players who have what they need.

The same logic applies to American football, where being big and heavy is
an advantage in several positions. Women are almost entirely excluded from
football on the logic that they’re too small to play. But most men are also too

Chapter 8  I n s t I t u t I o n s210

small to play football. Having two or more teams organized by size would give
everyone a chance to play: men, women, and other folks, too. It would reduce
the incentives for teams to strive universally to get ever bigger and would also
make hits less dangerous for those who enjoy the game but worry about the
physical toll on the body and brain.

Or, if the issue is ability, why not divide up competition that way? Foot races
are already organized according to qualifying times, so why is it necessary to fur­
ther break it down by gender? If a woman can lift as much weight or run as fast
as a man, why stop her from competing against him? If we desegregated sexed
sports, the top ranks of many might be disproportionately populated by cis men,
but they would also likely be disproportionately populated by the young, people
with resources and leisure time, and other variables that predict talent and the
ability to develop skills. We let the chips fall where they may. We could do the
same with gender. Lindsey Vonn, for example, one of the most decorated skiers of
all time, whose times very often best those of her male peers, has asked to be
allowed to enter men’s races. International racing officials have thus far said no.

proving that wrestling is not just for men, sara Dosho of japan and a line Focken of germany
compete in a bronze-medal match.

211T H E I N S T I T U T I O N A L I Z A T I O N O F   G E N D E R I N E Q U A L I T Y

She acknowledges that this will likely harm her chances of coming in first. “But,”
she has said, “I would like to at least have the opportunity to try.”46

If we did this—if we organized sports by weight, height, skill, or qualifying
times—women might be less likely than men to rise to the top of some sports,
but it’d be much more difficult to claim that women are too small, weak, slow,
or fragile to compete with men at all. There’d always be some women who would
outperform even some of the best men, as there already are. If we allowed this
fact to become clear, the belief that women are lesser athletes than men would
be much more difficult to justify. Meanwhile, we’d open sports to everyone: men
and women of all shapes and sizes, along with people who have historically
been excluded from gender­binary sports almost entirely—trans men, trans
women, and people who are known to be intersex.

We might even come to question whether the “top” leagues with competi­
tors with the most extreme body types are actually the most interesting ones
to watch. Football played without a premium on huge bodies or basketball
played by teams of people with average heights might look more exciting than
the leagues that are valued merely because they are “men’s” and thus presumed
to be “the best.” Hockey fans often speak admiringly of the excellent stick work
of the women’s teams and, with more assists and fewer dunks, women’s bas­
ketball showcases an impressive cooperation that better reflects the sport’s
roots. Some men might fit in better in these leagues, and more fans might turn
to them, if only they were not disparaged by being classified as “women’s.”

Sex­integrated sports would also ensure that women got paid what they are
worth. Segregated sports make it possible to justify paying female athletes less
than male ones. The assumption is that women are inferior athletes and less
interesting and impressive to watch, so fans don’t support them and media com­
panies don’t feature them or put much effort or money into broadcasts. As a
result, prize monies and salaries for male athletes far exceed those for female
athletes. The minimum salary for players in the National Basketball Associa­
tion, for example, is about $560,000 a season. In contrast, the average salary
for the Women’s National Basketball Association is less than 10 percent of that,
at $50,000. 47 The highest­paid professional male basketball player earned over
$34 million for the 2017–2018 season. The highest­paid female players made just
over $100,000—less than one­fifth of the minimum salary for a male player. In
2017, only one woman made the Forbes list of the top one hundred highest­paid
athletes: Serena Williams. 48

These disparities in income are pervasive throughout the sports world,
even once we account for gender differences in performances. Concluding a
study of pay in professional golfing, professor of sport management Todd Cros­
set acknowledged that male golfers outperform female golfers on average, but
these differences are, all things considered, very small. 49 Both sets of golfers are

Chapter 8  I n s t I t u t I o n s212

remarkably dedicated, skilled, and talented. To Crosset, the vast differences in
prize money—regularly over $300 million for the men’s Professional Golf Asso­
ciation Tour, compared to less than $70 million for the Ladies Professional Golf
Association Tour—largely reflect the “social significance” of male versus female
athletics, not their respective athleticism.50 Sports fans, he explained, often argue
that men’s sports get more support and attention because male athletes are bet­
ter. But, he countered:

If it was truly skill that fans were going to see, how can we explain the lack of
fan support for women’s college teams that could easily handle boys’ high school
teams, which draw more fans. Quite simply, sports have more significance for
men regardless of skill level.51

It’s sexism that drives the unequal attention and rewards that accrue to male
and female athletes; institutionalized sex segregation is the foundation on which
unequal attention and rewards rest.

The policy and norms of sex segregating sports make sports an institutional
arena in which beliefs in gender difference and inequality are routinely and rit­
ualistically rehearsed. This is part of the institution of sport, one we can opt into
or out of but can’t ignore or overrule. If we want to be athletes, we have to play by
these rules. If we’re a girl and we want to play baseball, we’re up against more than
the discomfort that sometimes comes with breaking gender rules and the polic­
ing that follows; we’re also confronted by the fact that there isn’t a girls’ baseball
team at our school. Even if there were a girls’ baseball team, though, who would
we play? Girls’ baseball teams haven’t been institutionalized and, since it takes
a community to field an entire league, changing this is very difficult.

We discuss the difficulty of changing institutionalized ways of doing things
in the final section of this chapter.


As individuals we may wish to change or ignore the institutions we confront,
but this is far more difficult with institutions than it is with ideas or social inter­
actions. Institutions are more resistant to change and more difficult to ignore
because institutional patterns reflect widespread norms and are often encoded
in formal policy. A return trip to the restroom offers a case study.

Sociologist Harvey Molotch was part of a failed effort to install a gender­
neutral bathroom during the renovation of a space designed for the edgy New

213I N S T I T U T I O N A L I N E R T I A A N D C H A N G E

York University Department of Social and Cultural Analysis.52 While the depart­
ment included trans faculty members who would clearly benefit from a gender­
neutral bathroom and other faculty members were intrigued by the opportunity
to push gender boundaries, they nevertheless ended up with conventional sex­
segregated toilets. Why?

The first reason was related to inconvenience and expense. Contractors and
designers are intimately familiar with the design requirements of sex­segregated
bathrooms, making the installation of sex­integrated ones a new challenge. Sit­
ting down to design a new kind of bathroom takes time and this is expensive. The
administration was reluctant to draw out the process and spend extra money on
a brand new restroom design. It was cheaper and faster to rely on the tried­and­
true approach. Molotch wrote:

Everyone “knows” what a building restroom should be like, that it will involve toi-
lets and sinks, signs and separations, some spaces with urinals and some not. . . .
To innovate means going back to the drawing boards, rethinking architectural
opportunities and constraints, and checking continuously to make sure everyone
is aware of the plan now being implemented. This is a hassle, one with financial
implications and new potentials for error. . . . Working through details of restroom
innovation was an extra, one that burdened an already crowded agenda.53

The second reason the initiative failed had to do with discomfort with the very
idea. The NYC Department of Buildings requires all large new buildings to
install sex­segregated facilities, so the university had to submit a petition for
an exemption. The city turned them down. The university appealed, but lost.
The building commissioner expressed “concerns about security and liability.”54

This result suited many of the future inhabitants of the building just fine, it
turned out. Not everyone actually liked the idea of gender­neutral restrooms.
Some of the female faculty cited the belief that men were messy, a discomfort
with potential for male nudity, and a fear of meeting strange men in close quar­
ters during off­hours. Meanwhile, the non­faculty staff generally was not on
board with radically rethinking gender. They weren’t gender radicals; they just
wanted to pee in peace. Molotch’s hopes for change were crushed.

As this example shows, doing things differently can be challenging on mul­
tiple fronts. This isn’t to say that institutions can’t be changed, but changing
them requires a collective shift in norms and routines. Sometimes this simply
means a slow but steady disinvestment in the old ways, like when school and
workplace dress codes began to allow girls and women to wear pants. Other
times, institutions change in response to shifts in the broader social structure,
like when women entered the workforce during World War II.

Chapter 8  I n s t I t u t I o n s214

Sometimes change is a result of the collective work of activists and politi­
cians. It was this kind of work that resulted in the passage of Title IX, an amend­
ment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which states, “No person in the United
States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the
benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or
activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”55 Passed in 1972, Title IX meant
that schools and colleges receiving federal funding could not legally give pref­
erence to men. Instead, they had to allocate their resources to men and women
in proportion to their interest and enrollment.

Here is where sports come back in. The intention of Title IX was to change the
norms that gave preference to men in all sorts of fields, from medical schools
to sports teams. Because most schools and colleges have extensive athletics
departments, sports were included among the resources that schools were
required to dole out fairly. Eventually, even grudging and partial compliance
with the requirements of Title IX dramatically increased the opportunity for
women to play sports (Figure 8.1). In the forty­five years since the passage of
Title IX, the number of female athletes climbed more than tenfold among high
school girls and more than threefold among college women. Today, 42 percent
of high school athletes and 44 percent of college athletes are female.56

The changes in the institution of sport are vis ible in baseball. When Kay
Johnston wanted to play Little League in 1950, she cut off her braids, put on her

f i g u r e 8 . 1  | ParticiPation in ncaa chamPionshiP sPorts








1982 1992 2002 2012 2016

NCAA men NCAA women









Source: NCAA, “45 Years of Title IX: The Status of Women in Intercollegiate Athletics,”
/TitleIX45­295­FINAL _WEB.pdf.

215I N S T I T U T I O N A L I N E R T I A A N D C H A N G E

brother’s clothes, and signed up under the name “Tubby.” She made the team,
but when she was found out, the national organization insti tuted a formal policy
forbidding girls from playing.57 After Maria Pepe challenged this exclusion in
1972, the court decided in 1974 that antidiscrimination law demanded opportu­
nities for girls to play Little League ball. Some of them have proved spectacu­
larly good. Ten girls have played on boys’ teams that made the Little League
World Series, and Mo’ne Davis, a thirteen­year­old with a 70 mph fastball,
pitched a shutout there in 2014.

Although most girls who play are still funneled into softball, athletes like
Davis aren’t taking no for an answer. And the people in charge of baseball
are starting to notice. As a result, the idea of integrating baseball seems more
possible than ever before. In 2016, another woman pitcher, Sarah Hudek, was
awarded the first college baseball  schol arship. In 2017, Major League Base­
ball invited one hundred girls to a “Trailblazer” weekend of competitive
baseball, following up in 2018 with a “Breakthrough” series of invitational
games to offer girls major league coaching and scouting.58 Who knows what will
happen next.

The remarkable increase in the number of women playing sports—from Lit­
tle Leagues to the pros—reveals the power of institutions to shape the experi­
ence of individuals and change social ideas. New policies allowing women to

mo’ne Davis made the cover of Sports Illustrated for her little league world series shutout.
seen in the middle of what might be a 70 mph pitch, Davis is an example of what girls and
women can do when they are given the opportunity.

Chapter 8  I n s t I t u t I o n s216

play will shift norms, making the idea that women are biologically fated to lose
to men seem less and less reasonable. Though we’ve got a long way to go, we’ve
also come quite a long way from the Victorian idea that women are so weak they
need a room to rest.

Institutions often resist change, but they are not unchangeable. When even
a minority of people recognizes that institutionalized practices are cultural, not
natural and inevitable, they open opportunities for themselves and others who
want to do things differently. This isn’t always easy, but it’s always possible. And
institutions never change unless people—like you—begin to question them. Tak­
ing chances and bucking expectations may not lead anywhere in your lifetime—
both Kay “Tubby” Johnston and Maria Pepe were booted out of Little League—
but, over time, a few rocks can become a landslide. In the moment, one never
knows what small acts of defiance are making history, but one thing is for sure:
history will be made.

R ev isiti ng t he Q uestion

W h e n i t c o m e s d o w n t o i t , r e g a r d l e s s o f s o c i a l
c o n s t r u c t i o n a n d s o c i a l p r e s s u r e , d o n ’ t w e l i v e i n a
s o c i e t y i n w h i c h i t ’ s p o s s i b l e t o j u s t b e a n i n d i v i d u a l?

When someone is so focused on the details that they miss the big picture, they
are sometimes told they can’t see the forest for the trees. Each tree is a unique
individual well worth understanding, but together they form a landscape and
an ecosystem that is equally important to understand. Thinking in terms of
institutions reminds us to zoom out and look at the forest in which we live.

To understand gender, we need to examine the institutional structures and
persistent patterns of interaction that are our landscape and ecosystem. Because
these sometimes present men and women with different opportunities and obsta­
cles, they produce gender difference and inequality regardless of the inclinations
or attitudes of the people who move through them. It’s not possible, then, to be
just an individual. Some things simply resist our personal beliefs and desires
about the way the world could or should be.

Once we recognize that some of the institutions central to our daily lives are
strongly gendered, it becomes clear that, as sociologist Raewyn Connell once
argued, there are “gender phenomena of major importance which simply cannot
be grasped as properties of individuals.”59 Societies are bigger than the sum of
their parts. Gender isn’t just an individual phenomenon; it’s an institutional
one. These institutions present real opportunities and obstacles. Because insti­
tutions are designed to last, they prove hard to change. Policies will be stub­
bornly defended by those who benefit from them, and norms create habits and
taken­for­granted expectations that are inherently sticky. Even when we can’t

217I N S T I T U T I O N A L I N E R T I A A N D C H A N G E

just step out of line and change society to fit our own preferences, individuals
working together absolutely can—and always have.

Ne x t . . .

The end of this chapter marks the halfway point of this book. By now you have
a strong understanding of how sociologists theorize gender as a set of ideas, a
relationship between our bodies and our societies, a series of ongoing actions
and interactions, and multiple interconnected institutions. Together they form
the gender order, the social organization of gender relations in a society. The
gender order is pervasive, expanding horizontally to affect all dimensions of
a society and vertically to shape everything from the individual to the whole
society. It intersects with other social hierarchies, establishing a matrix of dom­
ination that includes other inequalities, as well as gendered ones.

You’ve gained a set of theoretical tools to help you better understand what
is going on around you and how your participation both affirms and disrupts
gendered ideas, interactions, and institutions. The second half of this book takes
a different approach. Using the theory you now know, it takes a closer look at
some important parts of life: sexuality, family, the workplace, and politics. Before
talking about where we are, however, it’s helpful to talk about how we got here.
The next chapter picks up where this one left off, with the process and politics
of social change.


Berger, Peter, and Thomas Luckmann. “Society as Objective Reality.” In The Social
Construction of Reality: A Treatise on the Sociology of Knowledge. Garden City,
NY: Doubleday, 1966, 63–146.

Britton, Dana. “Gendered Organizational Logic: Policy and Practice in Men’s and
Women’s Prisons.” Gender & Society 11, no. 6 (1997): 796–818.

Cooky, Cheryl and Michael Messner. No Slam Dunk: Gender, Sport, and the Uneven-
ness of Social Change. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2018.

Davis, Alexander K. “The Hidden Privilege in ‘Potty Politics.’ ” Contexts 16, no. 3
(2017): 34–41.

Johnson, Allan. “Patriarchy, the System: An It, Not a He, a Them, or an Us.” In The
Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy. Philadelphia: Temple Univer­
sity Press, 1997, 27–50.

McDonagh, Eileen, and Laura Pappano. Playing with the Boys: Why Separate Is Not
Equal in Sports. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.





We all know the scene. He gets down on one knee in a res­taurant that is a tad above his price range. The ladies at the next table, spying him kneeling, clasp their hands
to their chests and inhale. The room is suddenly hushed. All eyes
turn toward the couple. Out pops the box. Her eyes widen; the bot­
tom lashes moisten with the first sign of tears. He pushes out his
arms, meaningfully pressing the box upward in her direction, implor­
ing as he pulls back the velvety lid to reveal a glimmering dia . . .
No, not a diamond. The ladies lean in. A thimble!

A small metal cap worn over the tip of one’s finger to protect it
from needle points was the engagement item of choice for early
Americans.1 It is just one of many items that have served as a symbol
of a commitment to marry. Rings didn’t become the standard sign of
betrothal until the late 1800s and diamond rings only became stan­
dard later still, in the 1930s. Despite the hype about how “diamonds
are forever,” the diamond engagement ring is less than one hundred
years old, with no guarantee of lasting into the next millennia.

Marriage is an institution, and a socially constructed one. Today
we think about marriage as a source of love, care, and commitment,
but it was and continues to also be governed by informal norms
and formal laws that determine the rights and responsibilities of
spouses. Marriage is also a gendered institution. It used to be much


Chapter 9  c h a n g e220

more so, with substantially fewer rights for women. Diamonds, it turns out,
haven’t always been a girl’s best friend.

Marriage has changed and is changing still. The same can be said for
the other institutions we address in this chapter: sexuality, family, and work.
Like diamond rings, things that seem timeless are often recent and frag­
ile inventions, including many of the things we take for granted as natural,
normal, or inevitable today. This chapter offers a dynamic historical view of
what often feel like static traditions. To begin, let’s start with one undeniably
transformative moment: the arrival of the Puritans on the rocky East Coast
of the North American continent.


The notion of the puritanical—zealous adherence to extraordinarily strict reli ­
gious or moral rules—was named after the Puritans, and rightly so. They believed
that sex should be restricted to intercourse in heterosexual marriage with the aim
of reproduction. All nonmarital and nonreproductive sexual activities were for­
bidden, including pre­ and extramarital sex, homosexual sex, masturbation, and
oral or anal sex, even if married. Violations of the rules were punished by fines,
whipping, public shaming, ostracism, or even death.

Women were thought to be especially vulnerable to sexual sin because they
were believed to be more sexual than men. Men were socially constructed as stal­
wart, strong, stoic; women, in contrast, as unstable, indulgent, and emotional. The
Puritans considered women to be a “weaker vessel” and, consequently, to have
“less mastery over [their] passions.”2 In their reading of the Bible, Eve succumbed
to the forbidden fruit not because she was curious, but because she couldn’t
restrain her desire. Men were supposedly more self­disciplined and concerned
with more important things than sex.

The Puritans were downright scandalized by the sexual lives of North Amer­
ica’s native residents.3 They were organized into several hundred ethnolinguis­
tic groups, so their practices and norms varied, but they were consistently more
permissive than the Europeans. As we’ve previously discussed, many tribes
accepted intercourse outside of committed relationships, both monogamy and
polygamy were practiced, unions were formed and dissolved at will, and same­
sex sex and gender nonconformity were accepted. Native Americans also often
cared very little about whose child was whose. After the arrival of the French in
the early 1600s, one Naskapi man was warned by a missionary that his failure
to police his wife’s sexual activity might result in her being impregnated by
another man. He responded: “You French people love only your own children,
but we all love all the children of our tribe.”4

221T H E E V O L U T I O N O F S E X

This Naskapi man could be rather nonchalant
about both sexual behavior and parentage, in part
because his tribe didn’t subscribe to the idea of
private property. His attitude is typical of forager
societies that migrate seasonally, following crops
and game across the landscape. Anthropologists
and archaeologists have shown that both pri­
vate property and patriarchy consistently emerge
together as societies transition from foraging to
settled agrarian societies, ones that cultivate
domesticated crops.

Since for most of human history the only way to
prove paternity was to control women, female sexual
freedom is often curtailed when societies transition
from forager to agrarian economies. Once commu­
nities put down roots, both literally and figura­
tively, there can be ownership of land. Once there
is ownership of land, there can be the consolida­
tion of wealth. Once wealth is consolidated, people
become concerned with passing it down to heirs.
And once people become concerned with passing
down wealth, it becomes important to make sure
wives don’t become pregnant with other men’s
babies. The immigrants who came from Europe in
the 1600s had already undergone this transition and,
accordingly, they had very different ideas about the
function of sex than the millions of American Indi­
ans who populated North America at the time.

Sex  for Babies

Differences like those between American Indian tribes and the Puritan settlers
are often described in cultural or religious terms, but there were concrete reasons,
too, why the Puritans were so darn puritanical. The colonizers lived a fragile exis­
tence: Many people were dying from exposure, starvation, illness, and war. They
were threatened with extinction, so reproduction was essential to the group’s
survival. This motivated the Puritans to channel their sex drive toward the one
sexual activity that made babies: penile­vaginal intercourse. It was against the
rules to do anything else and also against the rules to not do it. Having inter­
course with your spouse was required; women who weren’t getting pregnant
were encouraged to divorce their husbands and marry new ones.5

Adherence to the Puritan moral code was
often enforced by stringent punishments,
such as being locked in stocks for the
purpose of public humiliation.

Chapter 9  c h a n g e222

Population concerns also led the Puritans to be quite forgiving when people
broke the rules they held so dear. When there was survival in numbers, both
ostracism and punishment by death harmed the community as well as the indi­
vidual. So even though both men and women broke sexual rules routinely, the
harsher penalties were rarely imposed. Instead, fines and public shaming served
as a mechanism by which the Puritans could forgive sexual deviations. In other
instances, settlers bent the rules for reasons related to the sex ratio. In the
Chesapeake­area colonies, for example, men outnumbered women four to one.6
Women were sparse, so even a “disgraced” woman could count on a man being
happy to have her.

Like the rules that guide doing gender, the Puritans’ sexual rules were designed
to be broken, with exceptions made when it was for the colonists’ greater good.
They weren’t so devoted to their moral principles, it turns out, that they weren’t
willing to break them for their own benefit. In addition to forgiving their own
sins, including killing and raping Native peoples, they made it impossible for
the African women and men they enslaved to follow their rules. Slaves were
legally denied the right to marry, making nonmarital sex and childbearing inev­
itable.7 In a cruel twist, white elites would claim that black “immorality” was “a
natural inclination of the African race” in order to defend forced breeding and
their rape of female slaves.8 The colonists extolled godliness, but didn’t extend
to everyone the opportunity to be godly.

The colonists’ sexual values and behaviors were shaped not by religion alone,
but also by the rigors and culture of colonization and an economy based on
the exploitation and dehumanization of Africans and Native peoples. Their belief
in restricting sex to intercourse was compatible with their need to reproduce
themselves. When it wasn’t—when their population sustainability or economic
viability was at stake—they were happy to look the other way, forgive misdeeds,
or even make following the rules impossible. The Puritans surely earned their
reputation, but beneath the strict rules were human beings who were fallible,
rebellious, and brutally strategic.

Eventually the Puritans’ approach to sexuality would fall victim to new and
different institutional demands and opportunities: economic change, techno­
logical innovations, medical advances, and political upsets. One of those was
the Industrial Revolution.

Sex  for Love

Beginning in the 1700s and advancing through 1900, the Industrial Revolution
first brought metal tools and steam­powered manufacturing, then factories,
mechanization, and assembly lines. The need for labor drew many people out of

223T H E E V O L U T I O N O F S E X

small communities and into cities, where people
were more densely packed and more anonymous.

This was a dramatic change. In pre­industrial
agrarian societies, the majority of men and women
both lived and worked at home, whether on their
own farms or those of feudal lords. Together, moms,
dads, daughters, and sons grew crops and tended
orchards, fed and slaughtered pigs and chickens,
milked cows and churned butter, pickled vegeta­
bles and salted meat, and made things like soap,
candles, and clothes from scratch. Everyone needed
to work together to make what they needed to sur­
vive. At this time, children were still a necessity.
Babies quickly grew up to be helpers and then

Industrialization undid all of this. First, it sepa­
rated work from home. No longer sitting on fertile
land, people increasingly had to leave the house
to “go to work” in factories, mines, and shops that
belonged to others. In return, they received money,
their wage, with which they would go out and buy
the things they once made. The process by which
goods transition from something a family pro­
vided for itself into something bought with a wage
is called commodification: the making of some­
thing into a commodity, a thing that can be bought and sold.

The new industrial economy would dramatically change how people thought
about reproduction. Though useful on farms, kids became a burden in cities,
where lodging was expensive and overcrowded. This gave couples an incentive
to have fewer children, and because industrial production had made condoms
increasingly cheap and effective, they had the capacity to limit family size.9
Marital fertility rates dropped dramatically between 1800 and 1900: from 6 or
more children per woman to 3.5 in the United States, England, and Wales.10

In this context, a sexual ethic that restricted sex to efforts to make babies
didn’t make sense. People needed a new logic to guide sexual activity.11 In
response, over the course of the 1800s, Victorians slowly abandoned the idea
that sex was only for reproduction, embracing the now familiar idea that sex
could be an expression of love.12 The Romantic Era had arrived.

The Victorians also introduced the gendered love/sex binary, a projec­
tion of the gender binary onto the ideas of love and sex, such that women are
believed to be motivated by love and men by sex.13 Dualistic thinking about the

In the era of tenement housing, large fam-
ilies in cramped quarters often necessi-
tated the storage of toddlers in wire cages
attached to the windows.

Chapter 9  c h a n g e224

opposition of body and soul meant that if women were more romantic than men,
they were also less carnal.14 Reversing Puritan beliefs about women’s voracious
sexuality, the Victorians feminized love and masculinized sex.

Early feminists were among those who embraced these ideas. They advocated
the idea that women took more naturally to both sexual moderation and roman­
tic love. They thought they could convince their contemporaries that women
were men’s equals if they could persuade them that women were more spiri­
tual. In an effort to attract and support female members, Protestant churches
repeated these notions. As this idea spread throughout Victorian society, women
were re­imagined as naturally chaste, innocent of the vulgar sexual desires felt
by men, and motivated by love instead of lust.15 Men, in contrast, were believed
to be more deeply tied to their bodies, constantly torn between the carnal and
the celestial. This is when the idea of “opposite sexes” really took hold, as did
the sexual double standard, different rules for the sexual behavior of men
and women.

The Victorians sustained the notion that women were free of sexual thoughts
and men were dens of sexual depravity by giving men an outlet for their more
perverse inclinations: prostitution. Early capitalism had worsened life for those
at the very bottom.16 Prostitution was a way for poor women to support them­
selves and their families. At the same time, it functioned to protect “the virgin
of the wealthier classes and shield their married women from the grosser pas­
sions of their husbands.”17 By one estimate, London alone was home to 8,600
prostitutes in the mid­1800s. Manhattan had one prostitute for every sixty­four
men, and there was one for every thirty­nine and twenty­six men in Savannah,
Georgia, and Norfolk, Virginia, respectively.18

Just as Puritans had used the (impossible to avoid) sexual transgressions
of enslaved Africans as proof of their inferiority, Victorian intellectuals would
champion the purity of middle­ and upper­class women and scorn the “uncivi­
lized” sexual behavior of poor women.19 Today we know this as the good girl/
bad girl dichotomy, the idea that women who behave themselves sexually are
worthy of respect and women who don’t are not.

At the time, all these ideas were radically new, and they would continue to
evolve as American society entered the 1920s.

Sex  for Pleasure

The 1920s was a period of economic prosperity, technological innovation, and
artistic experimentation. Americans call this decade the Roaring Twenties; in
France it is called the Années Folles, or the “Crazy Years.”20 This era saw the
invention of “sexy,” literally; the word was first recorded to mean “sexually
attractive” in 1923.21 The ’20s were sexy because, unlike the countryside, the

225T H E E V O L U T I O N O F S E X

city offered unsupervised mixed­sex mingling that lent itself easily to flirtation
and romance.

Concentrations of people with money, free time, and the opportunity to
socialize inspired the birth of mass entertainment. Amusement parks catered
to flirtatious young people, “nickelodeons” showed newly invented moving pic­
tures with larger­than­life seductions, and burlesque clubs kept the morality
police at bay with pasties and G­strings. In Harlem and other centers of Afri­
can American life, high­end clubs featuring black musicians attracted white
patrons, encouraging racial integration and introducing them to a new form
of music: jazz. Revelers danced the “hug me close” and the “hump­back rag” in
dimly lit ballrooms where singers mastered the art of innuendo, singing “keep
on churnin’ till the butter come” and “it ain’t the meat, it’s the motion” (not songs
about food). As historians John D’Emilio and Estelle Freedman wrote, “More
and more of life, it seemed, was intent on keeping Americans in a state of con­
stant sexual excitement.”22

People in small communities, as well as in the upper classes, continued the
Victorian tradition of “calling” in which young men were invited to the homes
of young women for chaperoned visits. In cities, though, young working people
invented “dating.”23 This wasn’t dating as we know it today (an effort to find
a romantic partner); it was a social strategy. In the interest of being seen and

The Charleston, a jaunty dance invented during the 1920s, allowed men and women to dance
side by side as equals instead of together as a lead and follow.

Chapter 9  c h a n g e226

having fun, a successful dater would “go out” with a different person, preferably
an attractive and well­regarded one, every night of the week.

Dating shifted the balance of power. Because it took place in the home, call­
ing was an activity over which women had substantial control. Women decided
who came over and when, how they socialized, and provided snacks or enter­
tainments of their choice. As historian Beth Bailey writes, dating “moved court­
ship out of the home and into the man’s sphere.”24 Whereas advice books during
the Victorian era strongly discouraged men from calling without being invited,
advice books on dating scolded women who would dare “usurp the right of boys
to choose their own dates.”25

Part of the reason men were accorded such an exclusive right involved the
expense. Unlike calling, dating required that someone pay for the transporta­
tion, food, drink, and entertainment that the couple enjoyed. With no equal­pay
laws protecting women’s wages, working women could barely afford rent; enter­
tainment was an impossible luxury.26 This was the basis for treating, a practice
through which a man funds a woman’s night on the town. One government vice
investigator, horrified by this new development, reported, “Most of the girls
quite frankly admit making ‘dates’ with strange men. . . . These ‘dates’ are made
with no thought on the part of the girl beyond getting the good time which
she cannot afford herself.”27 The owners of establishments, hoping to keep the
customers coming, worked hard to convince the public that “treating” was not
tantamount to prostitution.

The inequitable responsibility for the cost of dating was not lost on men.
Some were resentful of the fact that women now expected to go out on expen­
sive dates. Men were nostalgic for the good old days of calling, which cost them
nothing. For their part, women tried to make themselves, literally, worth it.
This meant being an attractive and pleasing companion. Whereas for most of
American history a plump and voluptuous body had been conflated with health
and fertility, “reducing diets” suddenly became all the rage.28

Likewise, women began wearing makeup and nail polish, previously used
only by sex workers. During the ’20s an attractive face and body, as well as a
certain degree of sexual accessibility, became more central to a woman’s value.
Claimed one ad:

The first duty of woman is to attract. It does not matter how clever or indepen-
dent you may be, if you fail to influence the men you meet, consciously or uncon-
sciously, you are not fulfilling your fundamental duty as a woman.29

Cosmetics industry profits increased more than eightfold in just ten years, from
$17 million in sales to $141 million.30

There were ways in which the ’20s created new potential for gender equality,
too. Women’s growing freedom meant that men and women could mix socially

227T H E E V O L U T I O N O F S E X

A lipstick advertisement from the 1930s emphasizes women’s efforts to “fascinate” men while also
stressing how “natural” rather than “theatrical” or “painted” she would appear.

Chapter 9  c h a n g e228

and hold intimate conversations. Half of all women coming of age during the
Roaring Twenties had premarital intercourse, and being a virgin at marriage
was beginning to seem quaint. For middle­class men, this freedom meant that
they could have sex with female peers instead of with poor women, women they
enslaved, sex workers, and each other. These changes brought both men and
women pleasure and paved the way for more gender­egalitarian relationships.
Many young people were excited by this development and liked the idea of
finding a partner who would be a “soul mate,” someone who brought them joy
and happiness.

Still, sex remained dangerous for women. With birth control information lim­
ited by law and still condemned by most churches, 28 percent of women became
pregnant before marriage, up from 10 percent in 1850, a rise seen disproportion­
ately among the urban working class.31 Without a community in place to force
men to “do the right thing,” and with abortion newly illegal (in all states but one by
1910), women were more likely than those of earlier eras to have a child outside of
marriage.32 Since women were still paid wages much below men’s, raising a child
alone could lead to a lifetime of poverty, assuming the mother was not forced to
hand over the child to an orphanage. In other words, while the 1920s was a time

The Roaring Twenties provided ample opportunity for working-class men and women to mingle and play
out from under the watchful eyes of their parents.

229T H E E V O L U T I O N O F M A R R I A G E

of rising heterosexual opportunities, these opportunities came with huge costs
to women.

The same was true for individuals who experimented with gender fluidity or
experienced same­sex desire. Simply by virtue of crowding, cities made it pos­
sible for queer communities to emerge.33 Meanwhile, the development of mass
entertainment, and the sheer range of opportunities a large city could support,
allowed sexual and romantic subcultures to thrive. As early as 1908 it was
reported that “certain smart clubs [we]re well known for their homosexual
atmosphere.”34 No longer tied as tightly to family farms on which biological
reproduction—that is, heterosexuality—was a survival strategy, young people
could consider putting their personal passions ahead of family responsibilities.35

The combination of industrialization, urbanization, the commercialization of
leisure, and new freedoms for women all increased the ability of unmarried men
and women to congregate without supervision. This freedom altered the environ­
ment in which sexuality was experienced, as well as the norms for sexual behav­
ior. Eventually the lifestyle first enjoyed by working­class youth in cities would
become “mainstream” and the expression of same­sex desire would become
increasingly “normal.” With the exception of a short­lived detour in the 1950s,
the sexual attitudes and behaviors of young people have become increasingly
permissive ever since.36 Marital practices have changed just as dramatically.


For thousands of years, marriage served economic and political functions unre­
lated to love, happiness, or personal fulfillment.37 Prior to the Victorian era, love
was considered a trivial basis for marriage and a bad reason to marry. There were
much bigger concerns afoot: gaining money and resources, building alliances
between families, organizing the division of labor, and producing legitimate
male heirs. For the wealthy and, to some extent, the middle classes, marriage was
important for maintaining and increasing the power of families. The concerns
of the working classes were similar, if less grand: “Do I marry someone with
fields near my fields?” “Will my prospective mate be approved by the neighbors
and relatives on whom I depend?” “Would these in­laws be a help to our fam­
ily or a hindrance?”38 Marriages were typically arranged by older family mem­
bers. They thought it foolish to leave something that important to the whims
of young people.

These marriages were patriarchal in the original sense of the term. Men were
heads of households and women were human property, equivalent to children,
enslaved peoples, and servants. A woman was entered into a marriage by her
father, who owned her until he “gave her away” at the wedding. We call these

Chapter 9  c h a n g e230

patriarch/property marriages. The husband was the patriarch and his wife was
his property.

This logic—that marriage is a form of property ownership—led to many laws
that seem outrageous today. If an unmarried woman was raped, for instance, the
main concern was the harm to her father’s property. She became less valuable
when she lost her virginity, so the rapist could make amends for the bad deed by
marrying her. It was a “you break it, you buy it” rule. A wife who was believed to
be infertile could be discarded, like a broken TV, as she was useless if she couldn’t
produce sons to pass on her husband’s wealth, power, and legacy. If her husband
died, she could be inherited like livestock. In many cultures, she was passed on
to her husband’s brother; the important thing was that her future children still
carried her husband’s last name.

Feminist activists of the 1800s and early 1900s fought to end patriarch/prop­
erty marriages. One of the earliest feminist demands was for women to have the
legal right to own property rather than be property. This right would eventually
make many other rights possible: the right to vote and decide one’s own citizen­
ship; the right to work, keep one’s own wages, and build financial credit; the
right to have a voice in family decisions; and, if divorced, the right to ask for cus­
tody of one’s children. All of these issues were part of early feminist struggles.

In response to feminist activism, as well as other forces, marriage would
change. By the 1950s, on the heels of industrialization, a new kind of marriage
would be institutionalized, the one that we typically and misleadingly call
“traditional” today.

The Breadwinner/Housewife Marriage

Industrialization broke up the then­traditional family. As Americans were
increasingly pulled into the workplace, husbands and fathers were replaced by
employers. Capitalism valued cheap labor regardless of the costs to the family.
Since the subordinate status of women and children made their labor especially
cheap, capitalists were happy to employ them and pay them less. This drove men’s
wages down, leading them to fear the end of their authority over their wives and
children. Now that even men had bosses, and economic survival depended on an
entire family’s income, a patriarch’s role as head of household could be called
into question. If he was no more valuable at work than she was, then gender
would no longer organize day­to­day life and patriarchy would vanish.

Intellectuals of the time worried that capitalism would destroy the family com­
pletely, but instead of abandoning patriarchal marriage altogether—an option
advocated by some at the time—men organized to modify and modernize patri­
archy. They did so, in part, through unionization. Pushing back against capital­
ism, labor unions argued that working men had the right to be able to support

231T H E E V O L U T I O N O F M A R R I A G E

a “home and family” on their wages alone.39 Through protests, strikes, and boy­
cotts, unions carved out a new way of life for adult white men. They instituted
laws meant to reduce competition among workers (restrictions on child labor and
legislation that barred women and men of color from well­paying jobs) and enable
men’s wives to stay at home (child­rearing allowances and maternity leaves).

They eventually succeeded in institutionalizing a family wage: an income
paid to one male earner that was large enough to support a home, a wife, and
children. Built upon the family wage, a new kind of marriage emerged, the
breadwinner/housewife marriage: a separate but equal model of marriage
that defined men’s and women’s contributions as different but complementary.
Unlike patriarch/property marriage, breadwinner/housewife marriage did not
legally subordinate wives to husbands (that is, she was no longer his property),
but it did rigidly define roles: Women owed men domestic services (cleaning,
cooking, child care, and sex); in return, men were legally required to support
their wives financially. If either failed to play their part, they could sue for
breach of contract.

Some societies had stronger unions and, therefore, stronger breadwinner/
housewife policies than others. Europe went much further than the United States.
West Germany and the Netherlands, for example, paid women a wage for rais­
ing their children during the early months (and sometimes years), gave big tax
breaks to married couples with only one earner, and offered cash bonuses for
each child. Weaker “breadwinner policies” (in the United States) and stronger
ones (in much of Europe) made it more or less possible for men to support a
housewife, while pushing women out of the workforce with more or less force.

Policies put in place in the aftermath of World War II further changed how
Americans organized families. Most notably, during the ’40s and ’50s the U.S.
government collaborated with private investors to build suburbs and facilitate
homeownership. This was the birth of the “American dream.” The G.I. Bill—
designed to reward soldiers and help them reintegrate into society—offered only
white male veterans college scholarships and cheap mortgages. Meanwhile,
the government funded the building of an interstate highway system that con­
nected the cities to the countryside much more efficiently. This led to a boom
in housing developments, to which cities strung power lines and dug sewer
tunnels. These government investments transformed America into a land of
homeowners for the first time in history.

Home, though, was farther from work than ever and the growing distance
between the two cemented the idea of separate spheres, a masculinized
work world and a feminized home life. At work, male employees engaged in
production, the making of goods for sale. Since capitalism is a competitive sys­
tem, factory owners pushed workers to be as efficient as possible. Men, then, were
pressed to become the kind of people capitalism found most useful: more inter­
ested in work than family and concerned with maximizing economic success.

Chapter 9  c h a n g e232

Living in such a world required that men master the qualities of competitive­
ness, aggression, and ruthlessness. “ ‘It’s a jungle out there,’ says the stereotypi­
cal male provider when his wife and kids meet him at the door.”40

Inside that door, he was supposed to find not just a house, but a home: a
warm, comfortable space filled with people who cared for him. There would be
his loving children, doting wife, and devoted dog. Under the glow of their admi­
ration, he could recharge to fight another day. At home there was supposedly
no production, only reproduction, the making and nurturing of human beings.

In creating this environment, women were expected to specialize in a par­
ticular kind of supportive and loving emotional work that society needed. The
notion that women could and should wholeheartedly embrace this work is called
the cult of domesticity.41 It emerged as an idea during the Victorian era—at the
same time that we feminized the idea of love—and spread downward through the
social classes along with homeownership and the family wage. Together with
the ideology of separate spheres, the cult of domesticity protected at least one part
of life from the harsh capitalist values of rationality and cost­benefit analysis.

This was an entirely different kind of family. In the mixed­sex environments
innovated in the 1920s and mainstreamed over the next several decades, men and

A fter World War II, the U.S. government subsidized the building of the first suburbs, where
normative ideas of the family came to be signified by a married man and woman with two to
three fresh-faced, smiling children.

233T H E F U N N Y ’ 5 0 S

women met and got to like one another. They married by choice and were expected
to find comfort in their relationship. But becoming whole in the process of mar­
riage meant joining the feminine and the masculine together into one house­
hold. Doing this required strict enforcement of gender roles, heterosexuality,
and monogamy, leading to a short­lived and uneasy experiment: 1950s America.


The icon of Rosie the Riveter signifies the work opportunities offered to women
during World War II. In fact, women did enter many occupations previously
dominated by men. After the war ended in 1945, however, they were subject
to a countercampaign designed to push them back into the home. Marketers,
columnists, scientists, public intellectuals, and the U.S. government all decried
the undoing of the new breadwinner/housewife family, defending its gender­
specific family roles as natural. This resulted in a concerted entrenchment of
the nuclear family. As the historian Stephanie Coontz explains:

At the end of the 1940s, all the trends characterizing the rest of the twentieth cen-
tury suddenly reversed themselves. For the first time in more than one hundred
years, the [average] age for marriage and motherhood fell, fertility increased,
divorce rates declined, and women’s degree of educational parity with men
dropped sharply. In a period of less than ten years, the proportion of never-
married persons declined by as much as it had during the entire previous half

All of these trends would reverse within a few decades. Historically speaking,
then, middle­class marriages in the 1950s were weirdly family oriented.

The era was unusually conservative in other ways, too. If city life in the
1920s was high energy, sexy, and fun, the 1950s was relatively prudish. The gov­
ernment passed decency standards for Hollywood movies, ensuring that sex
was kept off the screen and bad things always happened to “bad” girls. In 1952,
books and magazines with sexual content were banned. Comic books were con­
sidered especially corrupting. In an official report, Congress argued that comic
books gave “short courses in  .  .  . rape, cannibalism, carnage, necrophilia, sex,
sadism, masochism, and virtually every other form of crime, degeneracy, besti­
ality, and horror.”43

Likewise, the idea that women were uninterested in sexual pleasure made
it inconceivable that women felt for women what men felt for them. No mat­
ter how close women were, or what they did together, no one imagined it to be
sexual. Out from under any suspicion of lesbianism, women formed intimate

Chapter 9  c h a n g e234

and romantic relationships with each other. Correspondence between women
during this time is full of language like the one found in this letter that Jeannie
wrote to Sarah in 1864:

Dear darling Sarah! How I love you & how happy I have been! You are the joy of
my life. . . . I cannot tell you how much happiness you gave me, nor how constantly
it is all in my thoughts.  .  .  . My darling how I long for the time when I shall see
you. . . . Goodbye my dearest, dearest lover . . . A thousand kisses . . . I love you with
my whole soul.4 4

It sounded like friendship at the time. Maybe it was, but maybe not.
In the 1920s, college girls breathlessly described girls on whom they were

smashing, a term they used to describe a same­sex crush. 45 These crushes
weren’t all platonic. In a survey of 1,200 female college graduates from the
1920s, 28 percent of women enrolled in single­sex schools reported that they
had been in a sexual relationship with another woman, along with 20 percent of
women at mixed­sex schools. 46 They would write letters to their mothers about
it. No one thought it odd. Instead, it was believed to be a normal developmental
phase. So long as young women eventually married men, sexual and romantic
relationships with other girls were considered harmless.

Americans in the ’50s felt quite differently, though, about intimate relation­
ships between men. 47 In the United States, the idea of a homosexual person, as
opposed to a person who engages in homosexual practices, was new. The Puri­
tans were familiar with homosexual behavior, but it had never occurred to them
that particular people were distinctively homosexual. In their view, all humans
were brimming with the potential for sin. Variation in how likely a person was to
have sex with someone of the same sex was considered a measure of how godly
they were, not an innate preference for one sex or the other. 48 While Puritans
who felt same­sex desire may have experienced guilt and shame, they would not
have paused to wonder if they were different kinds of people than anyone else.

The idea that a person could be a homosexual didn’t become a part of the
collective consciousness until World War II. One out of every eight American
males—almost every young, fit man between eighteen and twenty­six years old—
served in the war.49 As a result, unmarried people on both the front lines and the
home front found themselves largely in the company of the same sex. Indulging
in homoerotic encounters became easier and more tempting. Wrote one young
man: “The war is a tragedy to my mind and soul . . . but to my physical being, it is
a memorable experience.”50 World War II was so conducive to exploring same­sex
attraction that it’s been called “a nationwide ‘coming out’ experience.”51

With this newly imagined possibility, some soldiers rejected conventional
heterosexuality and, after the war, instead pursued a gay “lifestyle.”52 The first
gay bars in the United States opened in the 1940s and the first gay advocacy

235T H E F U N N Y ’ 5 0 S

A housewife stops to feed her son while in the midst of ironing, as the A rmy–McCarthy hearings
of 1954 play on television. The politics of the 1950s were aimed at rooting out “communist ”
ideas like child care and gender equality.

organization would be founded in 1951.53 Notably, these new communities were
mostly for men. Gay women would remain less visible to the public and each
other, at least for a while. Women in same­sex relationships were still often read
by others as “celibate” spinsters.54 Alongside poor mothers, many of these pio­
neered the field of social work; they were allowed to take such a public role spe­
cifically because they had no husbands or children.

Growing awareness and more community among men who identified as
gay invoked a backlash. Cities passed laws saying alcohol couldn’t be sold to
gays and lesbians and they outlawed same­sex dancing and cross­dressing.55
In response to the so­called homosexual menace, the U.S. government sought
to purge men who had sex with men from public jobs on the assumption that
they were “by definition morally bankrupt and, as such, politically suspect.”56
Much of the private sector followed suit. We often discuss this as a time when
the government was focused on identifying and expelling Communists, but it
was more common for people to lose their jobs for suspicion of homosexuality.
Senator Joe McCarthy, famous for these efforts, said that anyone who opposed
him was “either a Communist or a cocksucker.”57 “Mannish” unmarried women

Chapter 9  c h a n g e236

were also often fired or forced to quit. Refusing to perform a feminine apolo­
getic at work, they were suspected of gender deviance and considered a threat to
“normal” families.

The politics of the 1950s were unique. They were unusually family focused,
conformist, pro­censorship, and gender policing. We know from the Puritans,
though, and from the burgeoning queer communities at the time, that commu­
nities don’t always behave in ways that live up to mainstream values. What was
happening behind the closed doors of so­called traditional marriage?

Sex and Marriage in the ’ 50s

A young woman in the 1950s might have been seriously concerned about
her marriage prospects. Hundreds of thousands of men had been killed in the

war and tens of thousands of soldiers married
foreign women while abroad.58 The New York
Times reported that 750,000 young women
would likely never marry. The process of secur­
ing a husband, then, became serious business.
So while it may have made sense to go out with
a different guy each night in the 1920s, flitting
from guy to guy didn’t seem so smart when
there weren’t enough guys to go around. Accord­
ingly, during the 1950s dating was being edged
out by a new practice, going steady, an often
short­lived, but still exclusive, public pairing
off. Going steady was “social security”; it ensured
that a girl would always have a date on impor­
tant nights and lessened the chances that she
would end up an “old maid.”59

Ironically, this interest in marriage accel­
erated premarital sexual experimentation in
exactly the decade known most for its con­
servatism.60 Compared to couples who might
enjoy just one night together, couples that went
steady were more likely to “neck” (kissing on
the neck and mouth), “pet” (touching below the
neck), or “go all the way.” Adults objected to
these new trends but couldn’t stop them. Neck­
ing and petting, if not intercourse, were becom­
ing expected parts of any youthful romantic
relationship. According to one 1952 advice man ­

In the 1950s, the custom of going steady
among teenagers guaranteed that girls would
have companions to institutionally organized
events, such as the senior prom, and facilitated
both romantic and sexual experimentation.

237T H E F U N N Y ’ 5 0 S

ual, if a girl “wishes to be a member of the dating group,” then “mild sexual
contact” is “one of the requirements.”61

Despite the conservative overtones, the undercurrent of the 1950s—
represented by the swinging hips of Elvis and the flamboyance of Little Richard—
was a sexy one. Meanwhile, the new ubiquity of the automobile did for suburban
youth of the ’50s what living in cities had done for the working­class youth of
the ’20s: It provided the opportunity to socialize without parental supervision.
Hence the invention of “parking,” driving off to a remote location, pulling off the
road, and necking, petting, or more in the backseat.

Emotionally intense relationships led to sex and the highest rate of teen preg­
nancy in American history. At its peak in 1957, one out of every ten women
aged fifteen to nineteen gave birth.62 But there was no teen pregnancy cri­
sis. Instead of a rash of single teen mothers, the age of marriage dropped to
a one­hundred­year low and babies born “premature” (healthy­weight babies
that arrived less than nine months after the wed ding) reached a one­hundred­
year high. At the end of the Victorian era, the median age at first marriage was
twenty­six for men, twenty­two for women, and rising. By 1950, it had dropped
to twenty­three for men and twenty for women, and it would remain this way
throughout the decade (Figure 9.1).63

Eventually it would be impossible to pretend that either the youth or the
adults in the 1950s were sexual goody­goodies. The fable was dealt a heavy
blow with the publication of sexologist Alfred Kinsey’s elaborate and exten­
sive reports on the sexual behavior of 18,000 men and women.64 Published in
1948 and 1953, his books sold a quarter of a million copies. They roundly dis­
credited the idea that it was only teenagers who were breaking the sexual

f i g u r e 9 . 1  | Median age at First Marriage, 1900 –2017










1900 1920 1940 1960 1980 2000 2010 2012 2014 2016





Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplements, 2017 and earlier.

Chapter 9  c h a n g e238

rules, revealing that premarital “petting” was nearly universal, 90 percent
of men and 50 percent of women had premarital sex, 90 percent of men and
60 percent of women masturbated, and 50 percent of men and 25 percent of
women had had extramarital sex. A third of men and 13 percent of women
reported having homosexual sex, while a full 50 percent of men and 37 percent
of women reported same­sex attraction. The cat was out of the bag.

If sex was hiding behind the happy innocence of poodle skirts and saddle
shoes, unhappy marriages were disguised by the flower beds and fresh lawns
of suburban homes. By 1963, the game was up. A book called The Feminine
Mystique forever changed the way America thought of housewives. The title
referred to a mythology—the idea that women were gleefully happy as wives
and mothers—that strongly contrasted with reality. Written by feminist Betty
Friedan, it documented widespread unhappiness among middle­class mar­
ried women in the 1950s and 1960s. Writes Friedan:

Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped
for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with
her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at
night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—“Is this all?” 65

The book spent six weeks on The New York Times best seller list; its first printing
sold 1.4 million copies.66 Women wept with recognition, claiming that it was a
“bolt of lightning,” a “revelation,” a “bombshell.”67 Friedan’s book revealed the
cracks in the breadwinner/housewife model, fault lines that would contribute
to its demise.

s t r a i n e d b y s e pa r a t e s p h e r e s  While people were now marrying for
love, the separate roles of breadwinner and housewife—with the husband work­
ing overtime and the wife busy with children and housework—drained the life
out of the friendships that couples had built before marrying. The differences in
their daily lives left them strangers to one another. Less than a third of spouses
described their marriages as “happy” or “very happy.”68

Stranded in the suburbs and with few other adults to talk to, privileged
wives living the American dream often felt isolated, lonely, and bored. Many
had earned college degrees and resented being pushed out of the workforce at
the end of World War II.69 Instead of finding housework and child care endlessly
stimulating and enjoyable, many chafed under the expectation that they would
find fulfillment this way.70 Gleaming linoleum could only bring so much joy.
Child care was tedious and tiring. They worried that their brains were wast­
ing away while they did endless rounds of shopping, cooking, and cleaning.
When Redbook asked readers to send letters about “Why Young Mothers Feel

239T H E F U N N Y ’ 5 0 S

Trapped,” 24,000 women responded.71 One 1950s housewife described her life
as nothing but “booze, bowling, bridge, and boredom.”72

There was, indeed, lots of drinking. Behind the flirty cocktails of the 1950s—the
Pink Squirrel and the Singapore Sling—were women drinking just to get through
the day. Drugs, too. Pharmaceutical companies developed “daytime sedatives for
everyday” in response to housewives’ complaints.73 Unheard of in the mid­fifties,
in 1958 doctors prescribed 462,000 pounds of tranquilizers; that number more
than doubled the next year.74 White middle­class women—the group most likely to
be in a breadwinner/housewife marriage—were four times as likely to take them
as any other type of person.75 “Many suburban housewives were taking tranquil­
izers like cough drops,” wrote Friedan.76 The pills were known, colloquially, as
“mother’s little helpers.”

Wives weren’t the only ones unhappy, though. Marriage was essentially com­
pulsory for men; often jobs and promotions depended on their ability to show that
they were good family men. Bachelors were considered immature (“Why can’t he
settle down?”) or deviant (“Is he a homosexual?”). Meanwhile, men were wary
of women who saw them only as a “meal ticket,” or felt overwhelmed by being
the only person on whom their wives could rely for emotional support, not to
mention adult conversation. A whole genre of humor emerged, designed to res­
onate with men’s own sense of being trapped (hence the idea of the wife as a
“ball and chain”).

Tapping into this sentiment, Hugh Hefner launched Playboy magazine in
1953. Hefner changed ideas about masculinity.77 Encouraging men to stay sin­
gle and avoid commitment, he mainstreamed the notion of a man who didn’t
marry but was anything but gay. As the writer Barbara Ehrenreich explained,
“The playboy didn’t avoid marriage because he was a little bit ‘queer,’ but, on the
contrary, because he was so ebulliently, even compulsively heterosexual.”78 Hef­
ner introduced a new set of gender rules for men that rewarded men’s resistance
to marriage and monogamy, leading to the still­present myth that men must be
dragged, kicking and screaming, to the altar.79

Both men and women, then, enjoyed fantasizing about a life without a spouse,
kids, and a mortgage, but it was women who were truly vulnerable in marriage.

s e pa r a t e a n d u n e q u a l  While both men and women had their dissatis­
factions, women carried virtually all the risks of a breadwinner/housewife mar­
riage. These marriages weren’t overtly patriarchal—just as the Victorian ladies
had hoped, women were now seen as men’s equals: different and complemen­
tary instead of better and worse—but women were still financially dependent
on men. In classic androcentric fashion, the masculine sphere of work was eval­
uated as important and admirable, while the feminine sphere of the home was
seen as somehow less so.

Chapter 9  c h a n g e240

The imbalance in the value attributed to work and home was literal. Men’s
work was worth something; they received a wage in exchange for it. In contrast,
women were working in and around the home just as they’d been doing since
agrarian times but getting less credit for it than ever. Capitalist rationality and
the new golden rule—he who has the gold makes the rules—replaced explicit
patriarchy. It wasn’t his penis anymore that made him the “head of household”;
it was his paycheck.

Prior to industrialization, women’s labor—both the work of maintaining a
household and the birthing and rearing of children—was understood to be work.
After industrialization, however, with the separation of work from home, wom­
en’s labor seemed to disappear; it was men who “went to work,” while women
just “stayed home.” Because women’s work was newly invisible, housewives
seemed dependent on men, but not vice versa. Her dependence on his wage was
obvious to everyone, but his dependence on her cooking, cleaning, shopping,
and child care often was not.

To be fair, a housewife would be in big trouble if she lost her breadwinner,
but a breadwinner needed his housewife, too. Without her, he had hungry, dirty,
misbehaving children he couldn’t leave alone, plus no clean clothes to wear, an
empty belly, nothing in the fridge, and a filthy house. He either had to stay home
himself or hire someone to replace his wife. Even a family wage wasn’t designed
to support a house, children, and a full­time, paid babysitter and housekeeper,

Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy, exemplifies a new ideal of masculinity that was becoming
hegemonic in the supposedly staid 1950s.

241G O I N G T O W O R K

though; it relied on him getting the domestic work for free. So, the degree to
which wives supported husbands’ breadwinning activities was swept under the
rug, so to speak.

Middle­ and upper­class women didn’t just become unpaid and unrecognized
housewives, they also gave up incomes of their own, the likelihood of having a
successful career in the future, and the status that comes with doing work deemed
important. All this was theoretically fine if the marriage lasted, her husband val­
ued her contribution, and he consistently earned a good income. If the marriage
fell apart—if the husband couldn’t hold up his end of the bargain or traded her in
for a younger, more attractive, or more submissive woman—wives could end up
divorced and destitute, often with children. This was not an unlikely scenario;
between a quarter and a third of marriages in the 1950s ended in divorce.

The government tried to protect “displaced homemakers,” as they were
called, by requiring alimony (monthly cash payments to ex­wives from their
former husbands) and making divorce legally difficult ( by requiring proof that a
spouse had broken the marriage contract, for example), but marriage remained
an intrinsically risky bet for women. Pretty soon the idea that they needed to
secure their own future incomes and opportunities “just in case” carried quite a
bit of weight.

Women looked to the workplace for answers.


At the same time that the breadwinner/housewife model was emerging as the
societal ideal, women were leaving the home to go to work. Even at its height,
the 1950s version of the traditional marriage was more myth than reality. Due
to legal discrimination, the family wage was elusive for most men of color and
immigrant men. Black soldiers were excluded from the G.I. Bill that made the
American dream a reality for white soldiers. They didn’t get the college loans and
mortgages that launched white families into the middle class and, even if they
could afford to move into the suburbs without government help, most of these
communities explicitly barred black people. As a result, many black families were
left behind in cities that governments neglected. Even among native­born, white
families, only a third could survive on a single wage. Poor women and women of
color entered the wage economy from the beginning and stayed there.

Soon middle­class white women were joining them. Before 1940, more than
80 percent of women who married left the labor force on their wedding day and
never came back.80 In the next twenty years, the proportion of married women
who worked doubled.81 Most of these were “returning workers,” mothers of some­
what older children who were willing to give up sewing their children’s clothes

Chapter 9  c h a n g e242

and baking bread and cookies in exchange for the money to buy these products.
Buying rather than making was a sign of status, a boon to the economy, and
something the kids wanted because they now saw these products on TV.

These women filled the offices of the growing corporate class, often serving
as secretaries to white­collar men, whose managerial jobs were also becoming
more common.82 Mirroring the breadwinner/housewife at home, “office wives”
filled an important role in the expanding economy. The newly visible “middle
class”—sitting between manual workers and corporate bosses—opened doors
for more and more women to work for pay. By the 1960s, when Betty Friedan
challenged the “feminine mystique,” women were already deciding they wanted
a public as well as a domestic life.

The economy also needed more workers.83 Between the loss of more than a
quarter million men in World War II and a low birthrate during the 1920s and
1930s, America had lost a substantial stock of the working population.84 In order
to keep churning, the economy had to incorporate all kinds of women, not just
poor women (who had always worked) and young women (who often worked
between high school graduation and marriage).85 To do so, rules that limited
women’s working were often discarded.

f i g u r e 9 . 2  | CoMposition oF FeMale labor ForCe by
Marital status, 1890 –1980





1890 1910 19201900 1930 1940 19601950 1970 1980

Widowed and divorced












Source: Lynn Weiner, From Working Girl to Working Mother: The Female Labor Force in the United States, 1820–1980
(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986).

243G O I N G T O W O R K

Beginning in the late 1800s, for example, marriage bans—policies against
employing married women—were common in banking, teaching, office work,
and government jobs. A majority of U.S. school districts had bans against hiring
married women, as did over half of all firms employing office workers.86 Bans
were expanded to manufacturing work during the 1930s in an effort to save
jobs for men during the turmoil of the Great Depression. After the war, however,
these bans began to seem harmful to the economy and bad for employers, who
wanted all their options. By 1951, the percent of school districts that had a mar­
riage ban had dropped from 87 to 18 percent, though pregnancy bans were often
put in their place.

Even as marriage bans were being discarded by most industries, many other
policies were more resistant to change. These included protective legislation,
policies designed to protect women and children from exploitation by restrict­
ing their workplace participation. Beginning in the mid­1800s, almost every
American state passed some protectionist laws.87 These became national in
the 1920s, and banned women from working long hours, doing night work,
lifting even moderate weights, or taking dangerous jobs (though exceptions
were made for jobs like waitressing, housekeeping, and nursing that were “for
women” regardless of these demands).

Protectionist laws were rationalized on the belief that all women were or
would be mothers, and that the state needed to protect their reproductive capac­
ities.88 While some feminists objected and resisted these laws, poorer women
were glad to have them. Women who were more concerned with being able to
get promotions or enter jobs that these laws kept out of reach were ready to see
them go, along with the barriers that schools and employers created to keep
women from getting degrees in law, medicine, and aviation.89

They recognized protective legislation as benevolent sexism; the laws used
the language of protection to slot young women into largely dead­end jobs. The
assumption that women were unsuited for certain kinds of work, or that they
would quit or be fired upon pregnancy, was a disincentive to both women and
employers in the 1950s and 1960s.90 For women, extended schooling and train­
ing might make it more likely that they would marry a man with a promising
career (get an “MRS degree,” as it’s jokingly called), but it was unlikely to have
any payoff in the workplace. Employers were loath to put any time into on­the­
job training for women on the assumption that they’d work five to seven years
and then quit upon marriage and not come back. Training them for professions
was pretty much out of the question. Instead, women were largely hired into
jobs that offered them little or no chance of building skills or moving up a pro­
motion ladder.

In 1964 this type of discrimination against women became illegal in the
United States. In a last­ditch effort to ensure that a bill mandating equal treatment

Chapter 9  c h a n g e244

of African Americans would fail, Virginia Democrat Howard Smith added “sex”
to the Civil Rights Act, thus including sex in the list of characteristics against
which workplace discrimination would be illegal: race, color, religion, and
national origin.91 He thought the idea of equal treatment for men and women
was so preposterous that it would surely kill the bill. Much to his chagrin and
surprise, it passed anyway. Only in part an accident (there were women in Con­
gress who worked to make Smith’s joke a reality), the Civil Rights Act made it
illegal to discriminate against women in the workplace.92

The enforcement of this law, however, was not automatic. Women had to
fight to make it happen. The National Organization for Women, for example,
stepped up to challenge the then­prevalent practice of segregating all job adver­
tisements by sex category. They argued that advertising job opportunities with
“help wanted—female” or “help wanted—male” was discriminatory. When the
courts agreed, it meant that women were no longer just pulled into the labor
force where employers wanted them but could at least try to choose their work­
life plans for themselves.

As the economy grew and demographics changed through the 1950s and
1960s, married women and mothers of older children increasingly entered the
workforce. As their numbers climbed but their opportunities were blocked, wom­
en’s discontent grew—both with the current system of employment and with the
breadwinner/housewife marriage as a system. By the end of the 1960s, quite a
few women were angry about the mix of devaluation and restricted choices that
they faced in trying to create a life strategy that would combine work and family.93

They set out to change that. By 1980, 51 percent of all women were employed,
and married and single women were employed at equal rates. Even 40 percent of
mothers with children under eighteen had at least a part­time job.94


In 2003, James Dobson Jr., founder of Focus on the Family, wrote: “Unless we
act quickly, the family as it has been known for 5,000 years will be gone.”95 The
truth is, the patriarch/property marriage was already gone and the breadwinner/
housewife marriage was fading fast. Even in the 1950s, the strength of the fam­
ily wage on which the breadwinner/housewife model depended was waning. The
economy was changing in ways that made marriage less essential. It was becom­
ing increasingly easy for a man of means to buy a housewife’s services in the
market. Dinner could be eaten at restaurants; maids could clean his house and
wash his laundry; and female companionship ( both free and paid) was a cock­
tail lounge away. If many of the services of a housewife could be obtained in the
marketplace, why should men marry at all?

245W O R K A N D F A M I L Y T O D A Y

For women, too, marriage was slowly becoming less essential. The Civil
Rights Act, alongside later antidiscrimination laws, began to be enforced in the
1970s. The 1972 law against discrimination in schooling opened up a number of
professional doors that had been firmly bolted. Women began to look at college
degrees as more than just a good way to find a husband. They began stream­
ing into professional education just as the United States was transitioning from
an industrial economy founded on production to a service and information
economy, one dependent on jobs focused on providing services for others (such
as waiting tables, working in nail salons, or providing administrative assis­
tance) or working with ideas (like engineers, computer programmers, and col­
lege professors).

If a woman could earn a wage herself, a state of financial dependence was
less attractive. Since men created more housework than they contributed, even
though she couldn’t afford outside help, she had fewer chores to do without a
husband around.96 Given how risky marriage was for women, and its question­
able benefits, holding out until she could find a husband with whom she could
innovate a new model of marriage, or not marrying at all, seemed like a fine idea
to some women.

Divorce laws changed, allowing both men and women to initiate proceed­
ings without proving infidelity, physical abuse, or failure to provide economic
support.97 More women were deciding that an uncooperative husband—one who
kept them from returning to school or work when the children were older or who
failed to do his share of the housework—was something they could do without.
Women themselves began some divorce proceedings, even though their living
standards fell much more than men’s did.98

Just like when gay­identified men began building lives outside of the bread­
winner/housewife marriage, women’s attempts to do so invoked a backlash.
Phyllis Schlafly, a vocal anti­feminist campaigner of the 1970s, denounced such
women as “runaway wives” and fought the emergence of new feminist social
services like shelters for women fleeing domestic violence or hotlines offering
support to rape victims.99 The long­running “mommy wars” were stoked by the
media, pitting mothers excited by new employment opportunities against those
who feared that these new options for women would further devalue the work
they did at home.100

Most women, though, wanted both: to achieve what came to be called “work­
life balance.” This was something, in fact, that almost all women wanted: poor
women in bad working conditions were more likely to want better jobs than
no job at all, while even women with great professional opportunities strug­
gled with the responsibilities at home.101 To strike a work­life balance, women
needed more than nondiscrimination laws. They needed pro­family policies
that acknowledged that some workers didn’t have wives at home taking care of
all their domestic needs. Pretty soon men would want and need this, too.

Chapter 9  c h a n g e246

Balancing Work and Family

The breadwinner/housewife model of marriage makes even less sense now than
it did in the 1950s. Both men and women are now increasingly educated and
employed for longer periods of their lives. Age at first marriage and first birth
has bounced back up. The expectation that women will leave the labor force
permanently when they have their first child, let alone at marriage, has van­
ished, as has the idea that a man becomes a good father merely by dropping
his paycheck on the table. Fathers who are engaged with their wives in the day­
to­day work of parenting and mothers who work are the norm rather than the
exception. If they need to, both men and women can do without marriage. And,
if they do marry, they will need a model of marriage that fits with the more
gender­egalitarian demands of the new economy.

In response, the breadwinner/housewife ideal has been replaced by an ideal­
ized partnership marriage, a model of marriage based on love and companion­
ship between two equals who negotiate a division of labor unique to each couple.
The law has cleared the way for such marriages. In response to over a century of
feminist activism and demands, the marriage contract today is almost entirely
gender neutral, providing the same rights and responsibilities to men and women.
Both men and women are now responsible for paying alimony to a spouse who
spent time out of the workforce to take care of the family. A male widower can
now collect his wife’s Social Security check instead of his own (in the 1950s,
1960s, and 1970s, only bereaved wives could do this). Men no longer have special
rights to manage the family money. Nearly all states now confer equal standing
to both spouses in issues of child custody.

Because partnership marriage involves a gender­neutral contract, married
couples are free to organize their lives however they wish. And they do. Coontz

Almost any separate way of organizing caregiving, childrearing, residential
arrangements, sexual interactions, or interpersonal redistribution of resources
has been tried by some society at some point in time. But the coexistence in one
society of so many alternative ways of doing all of these different things—and the
comparative legitimacy accorded to many of them—has never been seen before.102

Today we see family­focused dual­earner couples (working part­time and taking
turns caring for kids) and work­focused dual­earner couples (working overtime
and hiring gardeners, maids, and nannies). We see male breadwinners married
to housewives and, in small but growing numbers, female breadwinners mar­
ried to househusbands, too. Gay couples adopt all these family forms as well.
Grandparents are stepping back in to offer child care and income support in a
way that had become rare in the 1950s nuclear family model of the suburbs.103

247W O R K A N D F A M I L Y T O D A Y

Increasingly, the idea of nonmonogamous, polyamorous unions of more than
two people and open relationships in which couples negotiate extra­pair sex are
part of the conversation about what relationships can look like.

Marriage no longer determines one’s living arrangements. While it remains the
norm that couples will live together once married, some don’t. Some live in sepa­
rate cities either by choice or circumstance while others live in the same town
but choose to live apart, a phenomenon referred to as “living apart together.”104

While marriage is still normative, it is not so surprising anymore when peo­
ple reach their thirties, forties, or fifties without marrying.105 Just half of U.S.
adults today are married and about one in seven lives alone.106 It’s totally nor­
mal to be single, even as a “grown­up.” While it may be preferable to some, mar­
riage is no longer necessary for entrance to adulthood, nor is it a prerequisite
for having a child. It is certainly no longer a job requirement. It’s rarely used, at
least explicitly, to cement political alliances or hoard wealth.

For these reasons, marriage itself is less necessary than it was in the past,
so much so that we might ask whether it is still a major institution. Some people
choose to live together without being married, others neither marry nor cohabit.
Nearly half of Americans (44 percent) have lived with someone without being
married.107 Fully 41 percent of nonmarried people say they don’t want to marry
or are not sure.108 Parenting now occurs in the absence of marriage. Today
40 percent of children are born to unmarried parents.109 A majority of Ameri­
cans (86 percent) say that a single parent and a child “count” as a family. Mean­
while, about one in five Americans is freely choosing not to have children.

Since the primary reason to marry in Western cultures today is still love,
marriages are both more voluntary and less stable. As Stephanie Coontz
explains, the “same things that made marriage become such a unique and
treasured personal relationship during the last two hundred years, paved the
way for it to become an optional and fragile one.”110 People divorce. When they
do, they often take children with them, sometimes into new marriages, creat­
ing “blended families.” A third of Americans have a step­ or half­sibling and
13 percent are raising stepchildren.111 The high rate of divorce does not signal a
decline in the value of marriage. Instead, Americans engage in what sociologist
Andrew Cherlin calls the “marriage­go­round”: they both marry and divorce
more frequently than people in other countries.

Since marriage is more about choice and pleasure than ever, it makes sense
to some to reduce further the rules about who can marry whom.112 In 1967 the
United States Supreme Court struck down laws against interracial marriage
and, in 2015, the Court made same­sex marriage legal in all fifty U.S. states. A
majority of Americans believe that sexual minorities deserve the same rights
as heterosexuals.113 Citizens of many other countries agree: Same­sex marriage
rights are now the law in Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Colum­
bia, Denmark, England and Wales, Finland, France, Germany, Greenland,

Chapter 9  c h a n g e248

Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta,
the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nor­
way, Portugal, Scotland, South Africa,
Spain, Sweden, and Uruguay. These
decisions are increasingly paving the
way for trans men and women to be able
to marry whomever they choose with­
out scrutiny.

Despite the ascendance of this new
partnership model, the degendering of
marriage law, and the legalization of
same­sex marriage, the breadwinner/
housewife model still echoes through
our personal lives and political debates.
It competes with and sometimes lives
quietly alongside the partnership model,
producing the types of trouble that con­
tradictions cause. Still, despite the trou­
ble, and despite the clamor to return to

the breadwinner/housewife model of marriage, partnership marriage is here . . .
maybe not to stay, but for now.


When you hear people defend the idea of “traditional marriage,” you would
be smart to ask which one they mean. The patriarch/property model of mar­
riage reigned supreme for thousands of years, while the breadwinner/house­
wife model was but a blip on the historical timeline. Today’s marriage contract
reflects a partnership model that facilitates personalization. The unprecedented
diversity in family forms found in Western societies today reflects the choices
we are now able to make.

The institution of marriage has changed not only because feminists insisted
that it was unfair to women, but also because of shifts in the institutions with
which marriage intersects: industrialization, the rise of cities and then suburbs,
the demands of capitalism, global competition, technological innovation, and
more. Political activism and changing socioeconomic relations have changed
marriage as well as other institutions, warping and tweaking all of them sepa­
rately and together.

All the other institutions we discussed in this chapter are also changing. Even
sexual practices aren’t simply driven by values or nature but reflect shifts in oppor­

Since the Supreme Court made same-sex
marriage legal in 2015, same-sex couples
in many states have exercised their right
to marr y.

249C O N C L U S I O N

tunity provided by technological, economic, political, and demographic change.
Likewise, the workplace has evolved, pushing and pulling men and women into
different kinds of work and changing and being changed by their relationships
in the home. When we take the long view, we see tumultuous upheaval of social
norms and institutions, making any natural and universal idea of gender relations—
based on biology or religion or anything else—seem increasingly implausible.

Ne x t . . .

In the next four chapters, we explore the on­the­ground realities that people
face today. We start with sexuality. It is difficult to imagine, perhaps, that social
forces shape this most intimate part of our personal selves. Desire for sexual
and romantic connection is felt so deeply that it seems impervious to “outside”
influences. We imagine you might ask, in a hopeful tone:

G e n d e r e d i d e a s , i n t e r a c t i o n s , a n d i n s t i t u t i o n s m a y a f f e c t
a l m o s t e v e r y p a r t o f m y l i f e , b u t s o m e t h i n g s a r e p e r s o n a l
a n d m y s e x u a l i t y i s m i n e a n d m i n e a l o n e . I s n ’ t i t ?

Alas, dear reader, alas.


Cancian, Francesca. “The Feminization of Love.” Signs 11, no. 4 (1986): 692–709.
Coontz, Stephanie. “The World Historical Transformation of Marriage.” Journal of

Marriage and Family 66, no. 4 (2004): 974–979.
D’Emilio, John and Estelle Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in

America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.
Ehrenreich, Barbara. The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Com-

mitment. New York: Anchor Books, 1987.
Goldin, Claudia. “The Quiet Revolution that Transformed Women’s Employment,

Education, and Family.” The American Economic Review, 96, no. 2 (2006): 1–21.
Hull, Kathleen, Ann Meier, and Timothy Ortyl. “The Changing Landscape of Love

and Marriage.” Contexts 9, no. 2 (2010): 32–37.
Katz, Jonathan. “The Invention of Heterosexuality.” Socialist Review 20 (1990): 7–34.
Strasser, Susan. Never Done: A History of American Housework. New York: Macmil­

lan, 2000.


— L E O N O R E T I E F E R 1


Part of the “whole college experience,” many students say, involves going to parties, getting drunk, meeting some-one new, making out, and maybe having sex.2 These are
hookups, one-time nonromantic sexual encounters. As one stu-
dent describes it: “There’s this system that’s like, you’re gonna
get drunk, randomly meet randoms, and just, like, whatever hap-
pens.”3 Scholars call this system hookup culture, a norm on many
American residential colleges in which casual sexual contact is
held up as ideal, encouraged with rules for interaction, and insti-
tutionalized in much of higher education. All told, 70 percent of
students will hook up at least once before graduation. 4

For American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus,
your first author asked 101 students to share their experiences with
hookup culture. And they did, submitting over a million words of
gossip, theories, rants, celebrations, and stories. The resulting book,
together with lots of other excellent research, has given scholars a
pretty good idea of what sex looks like on campuses today.5

To begin, most students report being eager to experiment with
their sexuality, at least a little. They also report feeling pressure to
do college “right,” which seems to require a casual attitude toward
sex. Many students believe, or think that their peers believe, that


Chapter 10  s e x u a l i t i e s252

college is a time to go wild and have fun. They may even believe that sepa-
rating sex from emotions is what sexual liberation looks like.

For students who are enthusiastic about casual sex—up to 25 percent—
this works out well.6 Casual sex raises their self-esteem and lowers rates
of anxiety and depression. Students who don’t take well to hookup culture,
though, often struggle. About a third abstain from hooking up altogether,
leaving many feeling isolated from their peers. The remainder of students,
just under half, participate with mixed feelings and mixed experiences.

There are reasons why casual sex has so captured college life. Under-
standing hookup culture’s history helps us see that sexualities, though deeply
personal, are also expressed in a context.7 This chapter builds on the last,
exploring how gendered ideas, interactions, and institutions shape our sex ual
experiences. It also considers who benefits most from the social organization
of sexuality: the distribution of pleasure, violence, and power. Throughout, it
will become clear that the answer to the following question is no:

G e n d e r e d i d e a s , i n t e r a c t i o n s , a n d i n s t i t u t i o n s m a y a f f e c t
a l m o s t e v e r y p a r t o f m y l i f e , b u t s o m e t h i n g s a r e p e r s o n a l
a n d m y s e x u a l i t y i s m i n e a n d m i n e a l o n e , i s n ’ t i t ?

You probably suspected it. We’ve already encountered the sexual regimes
of the Puritans, the romantic Victorians, the revelers of the 1920s, and the
experimental teenagers of the 1950s. In all cases, sexual attitudes and behav-
iors were strongly influenced by the cities, circumstances, and societies in
which these individuals lived. The same is true now. To understand how,
we’ll learn about the rebels of the sexual revolution, see what followed, take
a closer look at sexuality today, and end somewhere that might be familiar.


After World War II ended in 1945, birth rates increased in North America, Aus-
tralia, New Zealand, and most European countries. In the United States, they
rose from just over two children per woman to a high of nearly four.8 By 1970 the
number of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds had increased by over 50 percent.9
We call this generation the “baby boomers.”

Youth often push boundaries set by adults and the boomers were no excep-
tion. Members of this generation protested the intractable Vietnam War and
fought for African Americans’ civil rights. Violent attacks by American govern-
ment authorities—both on the Vietnamese and on American anti-war and civil

253S E X : T H E N E A R H I S T O R Y O F N O W

rights protesters—stirred a more general resistance to authority. Boomers’
desire to find their own way rather than conform to dominant norms of sex and
gender fed into the growth of the women’s movement, gay liberation, and the
sexual revolution.10

These movements reinforced permissive rather than punitive attitudes
about sex, including rising approval of nonmarital sex and sex between teen-
agers.11 The timing was perfect. The first birth control pill went on the market
in 1960, and by 1965, it had been prescribed to six million women.12 That year,
the U.S. Supreme Court granted married people the unrestricted right to use
birth control. It extended that same right to single people in 1972 and legalized
abortion in the first and second trimesters in 1973. Suddenly men and women
could have sex together for fun with substantially less fear of an unintended
pregnancy or pregnancy-induced marriage.

Life was changing for sexual minorities and trans men and women, too. In
the summer of 1969, a group of trans, gay, and nonbinary folks changed history
when they revolted against police harassment in New York’s Greenwich Village,
kicking off several nights of protest that
would be dubbed the “Stonewall Riots.”13
The Gay Liberation Front, one of the first
gay rights organizations, was founded
a week later. On the anniversary of the
riots, the first gay pride parades were
held in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago,
and San Francisco.

By 1973 “homosexuality” would be
removed from the American Psychiatric
Association’s list of mental disorders.14
In 1977, San Francisco would elect the
first openly gay person to public office.
Inspired by “black is beautiful,” “gay is
good” became a rallying cry, and Amer-
icans began coming out in record num-
bers. Four years after Stonewall, there
were almost 800 gay and lesbian orga-
nizations in the United States. Sexual
minority men and women weren’t just out
of the closet, they were out and proud.

In the next decade, gay men’s commu-
nities would be devastated by the HIV/
AIDS epidemic.15 In the United States,
though not in other countries, HIV

Facing a hostile federal government, gay
men in the early HI V era organized their
own safer sex campaigns. Love for each
other, and for their community, was one
basis on which they mainstreamed the
use of “rubbers,” or condoms.

Chapter 10  s e x u a l i t i e s254

affected gay men early, alongside injection drug users and other vulnerable
populations. The first reports were in 1981. Within ten years, 8 to 10 million
people were infected.16 A diagnosis was a death sentence.

Because gay men were a disparaged population, politicians were slow to sup-
port research, prevention, and treatment. Gay men responded by protesting gov-
ernment inaction and exploitation by pharmaceutical companies. They also
turned to their own communities, organizing the most effective safer sex cam-
paign the world has ever seen. Way ahead of the medical community, light years
ahead of heterosexuals, and unsupported by the federal government (which
banned AIDS prevention materials that acknowledged homosexual sex), gay
men became the first people in history to normalize condom use.

Out of fear of HIV, many children in the 1980s and 1990s received at least
some comprehensive sex education, the kind that encourages abstinence but
also teaches young people how to engage in sexual activity more safely. This
education delayed the onset of intercourse and increased the chances of con-
traceptive use, without increasing the frequency of sex or number of acquired
partners.17 But there was swift backlash.18 The federal government refused to
offer funding for anything other than abstinence-only sex education, the kind
that instructs students to refrain from sex until marriage and provides no prac-
tical information beyond strategies for saying no. Beginning in the mid-1990s,
millions of federal dollars would be spent on these programs, which studies
have shown to have no effect at all, not even on rates of abstinence.19

Just as comprehensive sex education was becoming more rare, the inter-
net arrived, changing the media landscape. Among other things, the inter-
net raised the level of competition between media producers exponentially.
In 1955, the “Golden Age” of television, there were four channels. That’s one
for every 41.5 mil lion Americans. By 1994, there was one for every 1.7 million
Americans.20 As of this writing, in addition to hundreds of cable channels, there
are 170 million active webpages on the internet. That’s one website for every
45 people on the planet.

With so much competition for attention, people making media content
learned that more was more.21 More fighting, more explosions, faster cars, scar-
ier monsters, bloodier gore, cruder humor, and bigger and badder disasters.
And more sex, too. So much sex that some have argued that media has become
“pornified,” with only a thin line between so-called pornographic and so-called
non-pornographic media.22 Most young people aren’t receiving comprehen-
sive sex education at school, but they’re getting quite an education online.

Harkening back to the 1920s, when women had to be “sexy” to get treated
to a night on the town, women’s bodies have borne more of this pornification
than men’s. Women in media, particularly conventionally attractive and femi-
nine white women, are often portrayed as sexual objects. Sexual objectification
is the reduction of a person to his or her sex appeal. To be clear, it’s not the

255S E X A N D “ L I B E R A T I O N ” T O D A Y

same thing as finding someone’s body desirable; it’s attraction to a body in the
absence of an acknowledgement of the internal life of the person desired. Both
men and women are objectified in popular culture, and gay men more than het-
erosexual men, but women overall are objectified much more.23

Pornography itself has become more extreme, too. Today the pornography
industry makes billions of dollars a year producing material that is substan-
tially more exploitative and violent than in earlier eras, involving more phys-
ically punishing sex acts and degrading language.24 At the same time as there
is more pornography than ever, it is accessed more easily, and a record number
of Americans agree that it is morally acceptable.25 PornHub, one of the indus-
try’s largest websites, reported 28.5 billion visits in 2017; that’s 81 million visi-
tors a day.26

Why have so many young people embraced pornography? Maybe because
they think that to disapprove of it would be to disapprove of sex itself. Despite
the efforts of abstinence-only educators and against the wishes of many
conservative-leaning Americans, the core tenets of the sexual revolution—that
we should embrace and explore our sexualities—have become powerful ideas
in the United States.


In the decades since the 1960s, the longstanding pressure to say no to sex
has been replaced by a different pressure. Many young people in the United
States, though by no means all, have come to feel that grasping their sexual
freedom, enacting their sexual liberation, and empowering themselves require
them to say yes.27 Yes to learning about sexuality; to talking about it, brashly;
to feeling comfortable seeing it, in all its explicitness; and to displaying one’s
body sexily. Yes to kink, also, and other marginalized forms of sexual expres-
sion and whatever activities promise pleasure or discovery. And yes to doing
it casually, just for fun. To say no to any of these things, the logic goes—to be
conservative about sex, take sex seriously, or simply be uninterested in sex—
is to deprive oneself of freedom, liberation, and empowerment. Saying no is
now considered old-fashioned, even regressive.

Consider that today many people believe that being a virgin is a liability
after a certain age.28 About a third of fifteen- to twenty-four-year-olds say that
they feel pressure to be sexually active, and half of women and a third of men
report losing their virginity before they’re ready.29 “I thought that only nerds,
religious nuts, and momma’s boys were untouched when they started college,”
asserted a white heterosexual woman (in reality, half of traditional-age students
are virgins when they start college).30 On college campuses, some young people

Chapter 10  s e x u a l i t i e s256

choose to lose their virginity in a one-time hookup just so they can say they
did.31 Only about 5 percent of Americans are now virgins on their (first) wed-
ding night.32

The conflation of sexual liberation with saying yes comes out of the intersec-
tion of the women’s movement and the sexual revolution. Feminists at the time
were fighting the Victorian ideas of separate spheres and opposite sexes. These
were behind the gendered love/sex binary, that idea that women are primarily
interested in love and men primarily in sex, and the sexual double standard,
judging women harshly for their sexual behavior and lauding men for theirs.
To dismantle these ideas, feminists needed to do two things: (1) undo the sex-
ist idea that women didn’t “belong” on the masculine side of the binary, which
included the right to have and enjoy sex without criticism, and (2) undo the
androcentric idea that things on the feminine side of the binary weren’t valu-
able and good, which included a desire for love and commitment.

As we’ve seen, they got half of what they wanted. Women can now enter
male-dominated arenas and embrace at least some masculine qualities and
interests, including being sexual and having sex for sex’s sake, like a stereotyp-
ical man. But the androcentric devaluation of femininity is stronger than ever,
leading some to think that desiring love and commitment is sweet but a little
pathetic. This was based on the idea that the cavalier approach to sex charac-
terized as masculine was what a natural, freely expressed sexuality would look
like, whereas a more careful approach to sex, especially one that emphasized
the context of loving care, was overly cautious and even repressed. A feminine
approach to sex, in other words, was framed as “repressed” and a masculine
approach to sex as “free.”33 The very definition of sexual liberation came to be
modeled on a male stereotype of sexuality.

Many women today take this definition for granted, leading them to believe
that adopting a masculine approach to sex is a way of grasping their libera-
tion and gaining equality with men. This is especially true among white, hetero-
sexual women raised in middle- and upper-class families. One woman fitting
this description explained her approach to sex: “I railed against the idea that
women were needy, dependent, easily heartsick, easily made hysterical by men,
attention-obsessed, and primarily fixated on finding romance,” she said insis-
tently.34 “I did this by proving how very like a boy I could behave.” She engaged
in what she called “sexual tomboyery”:

I figured the best way for a girl to reject oppressive sexism would be to act in exact
opposition of what our sexist society expects of a decent woman; to get exactly
what she wants from men, whenever she wants it. In essence, objectify them back.

Many young women feel the same. And many young men accept this definition
of liberation, too.

257S E X A N D “ L I B E R A T I O N ” T O D A Y

Granted, there are many good things about this. The imperative to say yes
means greater tolerance for other peoples’ choices. This opens up possibili-
ties for new identities and practices, from pansexuality to roleplay.35 Once con-
sidered a sin akin to bestiality, for example, oral sex is now widely accepted. We
no longer fear that masturbation causes blindness. Over a third of women and
almost half of men have engaged in anal sex. Nine out of ten Americans report
that they would accept a lesbian, gay, or bisexual family member or friend.
People of all sexual orientations are increasingly interested in exploring forms of
consensual nonmonogamy like polyamory (the open practice and encourage-
ment of long-term intimate relationships with more than one partner at a time)
and open relationships (in which committed partners agree that each can have
sexual encounters outside the relationship). On many other measures as well,
Americans are not as puritanical as they once were.

The new imperative to say yes to sex, though, isn’t merely a lifting of old
rules, it’s a new set. Real sexual freedom would be the right to have sex or not,
however one likes, and for any reason, without social consequences. It’s not
really freedom if you have to say yes. In fact, it can feel quite oppressive for peo-
ple who don’t want to say yes, don’t want to say yes right now, or don’t want to
say yes to just anything or anyone. Many people who identify as asexual, along-
side immigrants from more conservative countries and people who hold tightly
to their faith, do not feel free in this context at all.36

But a person doesn’t have to be religious or conservative to feel pressured
by these new sexual norms. After voluntarily turning down a hookup with a
friend of a friend, for example, a student who considered herself quite radical
worried that she was being a prude:

I’m so embarrassed by that, and so I want to distance myself from it. I “know” that
I should want to have sex all the time, and should take advantage of it when I get
the chance; especially when it’s a girl who’s showing interest in me. But I didn’t. . . .
[ P]ressure to be sexual was and has been SO CONSTANT for so long. . . . I feel as
if by not voluntarily taking part in it, I am weird, abnormal, and a prude.37

Young people today often feel like having sex is more of an expectation than
an opportunity.

Moreover, the sexual playground promised by this new set of rules is not
necessarily equally fun for everyone. Even if we are more sexually free now than
we have been in the past, freedom is not the same thing as equality. To what,
exactly, are we saying yes? Like the women of the 1970s, today’s young women
want to say “yes to sex and no to sexism.”38 But that’s easier said than done.

Similarly, coming out of the closet is now an unquestioned destination for
anyone who has even an inkling of same-sex sexual desire. Accordingly, men
and women with these desires often feel compelled to be “out,” lest they be

Chapter 10  s e x u a l i t i e s258

seen by others as repressed, cowardly, or ashamed. Recall, though, that the idea
that homosexuality is an identity is rather new; both in the United States and
elsewhere, the notion that homosexuality can be merely a behavior persists. In
China, for instance, most men over the age of forty don’t recognize a gay iden-
tity, even those who have frequent sexual liaisons with other men.39 Younger
Chinese men are more likely to adopt a Western-style gay identity, but they
do not necessarily value coming out to everyone. Some Americans think simi-
larly. 40 A national survey asked self-identified heterosexuals if they’d ever had
a sexual encounter with someone of the same sex: Ten percent of women and
2 percent of men said they had. 41 Researchers studying sexually transmitted
infections have found this to be frequent enough that they define the popula-
tion as “men who have sex with men” (MSM) and “women who have sex with
women” (WSW) rather than queer-identified.

Being out is considered psychologically healthy in many parts of the West
today and many people proudly identify as a sexual minority. But some don’t.
Research on voluntarily closeted men and women shows that some people hap-
pily “decenter” their same-sex desires, opting not to act on them, without suf-
fering from shame or a sense of repression. 42 To insist that everyone who feels
such desire must identify as a sexual minority and live openly as such is no less
coercive than insisting that people may not do these things. Being out is good
and fine, but true freedom would mean embracing the choices people make,
regardless of whether they match one’s personal model of liberation.

The remainder of this chapter is dedicated to exploring the way that het-
erocentrism and gender inequality shape how we think about and engage in
sex ual activity. It will look at how we define sex, divide up desire, and array
our selves in a hierarchy of attractiveness. It will also discuss how we “do” sex
and the relationship between our sexual scripts and sexual violence.


Sex Defined

Most Americans continue to assume, absent clear signs otherwise, that new
people they meet are heterosexual and committed to monogamy, the open
practice and encouragement of long-term intimate relationships with only one
person. Accordingly, our institutions are still organized around the assumption
that every sexual or romantic couple involves one man and one woman, as indi-
cated by things like “his” and “hers” embroidered towels and wedding ring sets.
This is especially obvious around Valentine’s Day, when companies offer hotel
rooms fit for a “king and queen,” spa packages for “beauty and her beast,” and

259G E N D E R E D S E X U A L I T I E S

romantic dinners for “Romeo and
his Juliet.”

Reflecting this hetero- and
mononormativity—the normalizing
of monogamy—the word “sex” is gen-
erally used to refer to one sexual
activity in particular: penile-vaginal
intercourse. Euphemisms like “home
base” and “all the way” are widely
understood to refer to that specific
activity. It’s the “it” in “Did you do
it?” This is the coital imperative,
the idea that any fully sexually
active couple must be having penile-
vaginal intercourse (also known as
“coitus”) and any fully completed
sexual activity will include it. 43 When we ask young people directly what they
think “counts” as sex, essentially 100 percent will say intercourse, but there’s
plenty of disagreement about everything else. 4 4

Especially in certain circumstances, like virginity loss, the imperative has
substantial power. Many young people don’t think they’ve truly lost their vir-
ginity until a penis goes into a vagina, no matter how many genitals they’ve
encountered or sexual acts they’ve performed. 45 This includes some gay men
and lesbians. And though nonheterosexuals generally have more expansive
definitions of sex, the penis is still often centered. About 90 percent think
penile-anal intercourse counts as sex, for example, but there’s more confusion
about what counts as sex between women. 46

By unnecessarily constraining sexual options, the coital imperative creates
potential problems for men and women having sex together, too. When penile-
vaginal intercourse is defined as “real sex,” and everything else is just “foreplay,”
having penile-vaginal intercourse can feel compulsory. If intercourse is unde-
sired, difficult, or impossible—when women experience pain when penetrated
or when men struggle to maintain erections—the coital imperative defines their
sexuality as dysfunctional. 47

Since men reliably have orgasms during intercourse, but women do not, the
coital imperative also prioritizes an activity that privileges his orgasm at the
expense of hers. 48 So does the practice of women performing oral sex upon men
sooner in a relationship than men perform it on women, as well as more often
and with more intent to produce orgasm. 49 These two facts result in an orgasm
gap in mixed-sex pairings, a phenom enon in which women report fewer orgasms
than men. Women having sex with men enjoy, on average, only one orgasm for
every three of their partners’.50

“ Mr.” and “ Mrs.” decorative pillows and other
his and her sets highlight how our institutions
still assume that all sexual couples include a
man and a woman.

Chapter 10  s e x u a l i t i e s260

Myths about men’s and women’s bodies suggest that this gap is inevitable,
with the female orgasm finicky and the male orgasm, if anything, too eager.51
But this isn’t the case. Some countries have larger orgasm gaps than others:
the one in the United States, for example, is twice as large as the ones in Brazil
and Japan.52 When women have sex with women, they have two to three times
as many orgasms as women who have sex with men.53 As the far right column
in Figure 10.1 shows, when college women are in relationships with men and
a variety of forms of stimulation is used, they have orgasms 92 percent of the
time.54 And, when women are alone, their rate of orgasm is as high as 96 per-
cent.55 Even women who never have orgasms with male partners often do regu-
larly when they masturbate.56 Women could have just as many orgasms as men
if participants decided to prioritize it.

We naturalize the orgasm gap, though, treating it as inevitable, because we
tend to believe that women are genuinely less sexual than men.57 But that isn’t
true either. Instead, we’ve divided up desire, taking from women the pleasure of
lust and taking from men the pleasure of being lusted after.

f i g u r e 1 0 . 1  | percentage of women having an orgasm in
four sexual contexts, by occurrence of
selected sexual behaviors


1st Hookup 1–2 Previous

3 or More


Sexual Contexts











Oral Sex Only
Intercourse Only
and Oral Sex
Intercourse and
Intercourse, Oral
Sex, and Self-

Note: Oral sex refers to receiving oral sex.
Source: E. A. Armstrong, P. England, and A. C. K. Fogarty, “Orgasm in College Hook-ups and Relationships,” in Families
as They Really Are, ed. Barbara Risman (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2009).

261G E N D E R E D S E X U A L I T I E S

Divided Desire

To be sexy is to be an object of desire for others; to be sexual is to have the
capacity to experience sexual desire.58 Most of us want to both feel sexual and
be sexy but, thanks to the gendered love/sex binary, we learn to divide these
phenomena by gender.59 Men are sexual, we are told, and women are sexy. Men
desire and women are desirable. Men want women. And what do women want?
Women want to be wanted.

In sex education, for example, boys’ sexuality is overtly linked with pleasure,
if only because his orgasm is mentioned in the context of reproduction.60 Girls
are more likely to get warnings about
pregnancy and sexual coercion. The cli-
toris, the organ responsible for female
orgasm, is almost never mentioned. Par-
ents, likewise, rarely discuss the pleasur-
able aspects of sex, especially with their
daughters.61 Teenage girls are taught to
think of their sexuality as something
that can “get them into trouble” and are
more likely than teenage boys to asso-
ciate sex with violence, disease, preg-
nancy, and “bad reputations.”62

Media echoes this privileging of
male desire. Much of it assumes a
hetero sexual male gaze, meaning
that content is designed to appeal to a
hypothetical heterosexual man.63 Plot-
lines and vis uals intended to incite
men’s desire draw our attention to men’s
subjectivity, their internal thoughts and
feelings. This is an acknowledgment that
they are sexual, which is good, but it’s
also a prescription. A particular kind of
woman is consistently portrayed as  sex-
ually desirable, repetitively implying that
she is the only proper object of their sex-
ual attraction. In this way, men undergo a
process of sexual subjectification: they
are told what their internal thoughts and
feelings should be. For men attracted to
women, this prescription may limit their

Real women and girls are seen through
lenses formed by omnipresent sexually
explicit images of women’s bodies pre-
sented as desirable objects for the gaze
of the presumptively heterosexual male

Chapter 10  s e x u a l i t i e s262

ability to recognize when they’re attracted to women outside the very narrow ideal;
for men attracted to men, it may limit their ability to recognize attraction at all.

For women, the heterosexual male gaze means being regularly exposed to
idealized images of female bodies. As a result, many women internalize the idea
that their value is heavily dependent on their ability to conform to a narrow and
largely unattainable definition of attractiveness, whereas men’s value is some-
what less so.64 In one survey, people were three times as likely to say that women,
compared to men, face “a lot of pressure” to be physically attractive.65 Research
on lesbians is mixed. Some hints that they may be protected because they are
uninterested in male sexual attention, but other research suggests that the ide-
alized images still take a toll.66

We see this outsized emphasis on women’s versus men’s attractiveness
in data collected from online dating sites and apps. Data from OkCupid, for
example, the third most popular platform, reveals that both men and women value
attractiveness in each other, but men much more so (see Figure 10.2).67 The most
attractive men receive ten times the average number of messages; the most attrac-
tive women receive twenty-five times the average.

This asymmetric emphasis on women’s appearance suggests that, at least in
the abstract, women’s value is less tied to who they are and what they do, and

f i g u r e 1 0 . 2  | number of messages received vs. recipient’s
attr activeness









female recipients
male recipients

least attractive (0) medium (2.5) most attractive (5)

Source: Christian Rudder, “Your Looks and Your Inbox,” OkTrends ( blog), November 17, 2009. Retrieved from

263G E N D E R E D S E X U A L I T I E S

more tied to how they look. Understanding this, many women self-objectify,
internalizing the idea that their physical attractiveness determines their worth.
During sex, worrying about how they look may translate into a process called
spectating, watching one’s sexual performance from the outside.68 Spectating
women might try to stay in sexual positions they think are flattering, arrange
their body to make themselves look thinner or curvier, try to keep their face
looking pretty, and ensure they don’t make embarrassing noises. They may
even avoid orgasm because doing so means losing control of these things.
Because of spectating, some women have “out-of-body sexual experiences” in
which they don’t focus much on how sex feels. And, sure enough, research has
shown that the more a woman worries about how she looks, the less likely she’ll
experience sexual desire, pleasure, and orgasm.69

While heterosexual men are less likely to be sexually objectified, gay and
bisexual men in same-sex encounters can be positioned as the objectifier, the
objectified, or both. Standards of fitness and attractiveness among queer men, and
in media content aimed at them, can be as unrealistic as those aimed at women.
In response, sexual minority men report higher levels of self-objectification than
heterosexual men and a sense of being under an objectifying gay male gaze.70
One man interviewed about his experiences, for example, complained that sex
often left him feeling “used” by men:

You get tired of being used. . . . [I] was just nothing but this little receptacle. . . . It
wasn’t reciprocal.  .  .  . I need to feel like some attention is to me and I’m not just
this machine. . . . It makes me one dimensional. It just makes me an object.71

It may be that the objectifying gaze isn’t so much heterosexual as it is mascu-
line, reflecting a stereotypically male orientation toward sex that emphasizes
“scoring” over connection and (as the black, lesbian, feminist writer Audre
Lorde describes it) “sensation without feeling.”72

The discomfort of being sexually objectified may also help explain why so
many heterosexual men are uncomfortable among gay and bisexual men. Used
to being the subject, suddenly they may be an object. Many women and queer
men have grown accustomed to this feeling, whether they enjoy it or not. For
the heterosexual man who has generally been spared an objectifying gaze, it
might be quite disconcerting to suddenly be on the other side of such a one-
sided relationship.

The Erotic Marketplace

Not everyone is considered worthy of an objectifying gaze. The phrase erotic
marketplace refers to the ways in which people are organized and ordered
according to their perceived sexual desirability. The term market is typically

Chapter 10  s e x u a l i t i e s264

used to describe the abstract space in which goods and services are attributed
economic value. In the erotic marketplace, some people have more erotic “capi-
tal” than others.73 Data from OkCupid is useful here, too.

r a c e , g e n d e r , a n d s e x u a l i t y  As the chapter on intersectionality
showed, race is gendered.74 Racism and colorism play a role in the erotic market-
place, then, as does the socially constructed gender of race. Racial stereotypes
about black and Latino men—epitomized in the “black buck” and “Latin lover”
archetypes—portray them as especially sexual and sexually skilled compared
to white men.75 This is a double-edged sword, and a sharp one. By virtue of these
stereotypes, they may be desired as sexual partners—“I think when a white guy
approaches you he just wants a trophy. That’s how it always comes off,” said one
African American man about his experience in gay bars—but being fetishized
doesn’t necessarily feel good.76 It’s just another type of sexual objectification.

There’s also the possibility that black and Latino men may be perceived as
too masculine and, therefore, sexually dangerous. Representations of Latino
men in media often portray them idling on the street, oozing a vaguely threat-
ening sexuality, and harassing women who nervously walk by; the stereotype
of black men as sexually dangerous to white women has its roots in the white
supremacist need to demonize black men after the end of slavery.77 Based on
these notions, some potential partners may avoid black and Latino men.

Consequently, black and Latino men may police their own behavior, knowing
that racism means that their acts will be judged more harshly than those of white
men.78 This kind of decision has been described as a politics of respectability,
a form of resistance to negative racial stereotypes that involves being “good”
and following conservative norms of appearance and behavior.79 Because people
of color are marked categories in the United States, anything they do may be read
by others as reflecting not individual choice but group characteristics. Thus,
they face an additional layer of concern when making sexual choices: the pos-
sibility of affirming harmful beliefs about their racial group. This includes a
heightened risk of being prosecuted or suffering violence.

For Asian men, stereotypes based on race are straightforwardly negative.
When asked to describe how Asian Americans were stereotyped, Michael, a
Chinese American, responded that it “blends in with Asian-women-in-America
stereotypes.”80 He elaborated: “Asian men are smooth. Expected to be submis-
sive. Expected to be quiet and not speak up and express their feelings. And
they’re supposed to be small-dicked.” Asian men are seen by some as unmascu-
line and, therefore, sexually deficient.81 Research shows that even some Asian
women may think so.82 This led one man of Japanese and Mexican descent to
say: “Even the Asian girls that I liked, they would always like White guys.”83

We see these gendered racial patterns in the OkCupid data. In terms of
compatibility, as measured by an algorithm, all races match with all other races

265G E N D E R E D S E X U A L I T I E S

rather equally.84 But all races aren’t equally valued in the erotic marketplace.
Table 10.1 lists how often men receive replies. In a society that centers and ele-
vates whiteness, we would expect that white men would have an advantage, and
they do. White men are more likely than men of any other race to get a response
from women and the second most likely, after Middle Eastern men, to get a
response from men. In both cases, Native American men follow close behind
these men in popularity.

Conversely, black and Latino men are among the least likely to get a response
from either women or men, with Latino men doing somewhat better among men
messaging men. This suggests that the stereotype of hypermasculinity hurts
more than helps black and Latino men in the erotic marketplace. Asian men,
too, are among the groups that get the least frequent responses. In one study
of online dating behavior, college-educated white women were actually more
likely to respond to a white man without a college degree than an Asian man
with one.85

Racism—both the kind that fetishizes and the kind that denigrates—also
affects the desirability of women. Asian women, by virtue of being seen as
extra-feminine, are viewed by some as more sexually malleable than white
women; this may make them appealing to men who are looking for subservient
partners. One white American man who prefers Asian women explained: “I’m
kind of a soft guy. I really find [white] American women overly aggressive.”86
There is some evidence that this dynamic plays out among sexual minority
men, too, with Asian men being seen as sexual partners who will play a fem-
inized role.87

T a b l e 1 0 . 1  | percent chance that a man in each r acial
group will receive a response from an inQuiry

Racial Group Men Messaging Women Men Messaging Men

White 29% 45%

Native American 28% 44%

Middle Eastern 26% 48%

Pacific Islander 25% 38%

Latino 23% 42%

Asian 22% 38%

Black 22% 35%

South Asian 21% 38%

Average 28% 43%

Source: Christian Rudder, “How Your Race Affects the Messages You Get,” OkTrends ( blog), October 5, 2009. Retrieved

Chapter 10  s e x u a l i t i e s266

Table 10.2 shows that Asian, Pacific Islander, South Asian, and Middle East-
ern women do very well in the erotic market. These are the four groups most
likely to receive a response from women messaging men, and three of the top
four from women messaging women. In contrast, black women face a situation
similar to that of Asian men. Racial stereotypes that masculinize African Amer-
icans relative to whites undermine a black woman’s value in the erotic market-
place. Black women—whether they are college educated or not—are least likely
to receive a response.88 Latina women fall somewhere in between.

Actual dating and marriage patterns reflect what we see online.89 White
people are more likely to marry Latinos, Native Americans, or Asians than they
are to marry black people. Perhaps the stereotype of the “feisty Latina” or “hot
Latin lover” is less costly to Latinas and Latinos than the stereotype of the “angry
black woman” or “scary black man” is to African Americans. Here the intersec-
tion of gender and race matters, too. White men are more likely to marry Asian
than black women, and white women are more likely to marry black men than
Asian men.90 Reflecting colorism, lighter-skinned racial minorities are more
likely to intermarry with whites than darker-skinned minorities.

Evidence further suggests that people are more comfortable experimenting
with interracial relationships than they are committing to them.91 When white
teenagers date white peers, they introduce them to their parents 71 percent
of the time, but nonwhite girlfriends or boyfriends get to meet parents only
57 percent of the time. Black teenagers are also reluctant to introduce their white
boyfriends or girlfriends, though the difference is smaller. In general, the rate
of interracial dating tends to decrease as levels of commitment increase. People
are more likely to date partners of a different race than they are to live with them

T a b l e 1 0 . 2  | percent chance that a woman in each r acial
group will receive a response from an inQuiry

Racial Group Women Messaging Women Women Messaging Men

Middle Eastern 50% 52%

Pacific Islander 46% 49%

Asian 44% 53%

Latina 43% 50%

South Asian 43% 63%

White 42% 51%

Native American 42% 49%

Black 34% 47%

Average 42% 51%

Source: Christian Rudder, “How Your Race Affects the Messages You Get” and “Same-Sex Data for Race vs. Reply Rates,”
OkTrends ( blog). Retrieved from

267G E N D E R E D S E X U A L I T I E S

and they’re even less likely to marry them. Sexual minorities of both sexes are
more likely to date interracially, but race clearly still plays an erotic role.92

e r o t i c i z e d i n e q u a l i t y  Gender also straightforwardly shapes ideas about
how men and women should couple. Because of sexism, for example, couples in
which the man appears to have more power than the woman seem most natural
and desirable. Cultural norms dictate that men be taller, stronger, bigger, older,
and more educated than their female partners, and have a higher-status job
that brings in more income. It doesn’t have to be a Cinderella story, but we’ve
learned to feel attracted to a gentle asymmetry.

The data on age puts this in stark relief. Age is an imperfect measure of both
attractiveness and accomplishment: personal maturity, career success, and
finan cial security. As we’ve already seen, men seeking women put a premium
on attractiveness (which for women is conflated with youth) and a younger
woman’s lesser accomplishment is no drawback (and may even be desirable).
Men seeking women on OkCupid report that they’ll consider dating women
who are quite a lot younger, but only a bit older.93 As they age, men’s lower
bracket stays low. The average thirty-year-old man, for instance, says he’s inter-
ested in dating a woman as old as thirty-five and as young as twenty-two. A man
at forty will date a woman as old as forty-five but as young as twenty-seven.

This is what men say, anyway. In practice, men mostly seek contact with the
youngest women in their reported age bracket and women who fall below it.94
Their willingness to date “down” suggests that they prefer or will accept a mate
whose career is “behind” their own. The average woman, conversely, prefers to
date a man who is her age or older. As women age, they will accept about five
years on either side. In actual messaging, they tend to focus on men their own
age. At some point in this skewed erotic market, the oldest and most accom-
plished women and the youngest and least accomplished men are boxed out.

For men, then, being bigger, stronger, and older, having advanced degrees,
and enjoying a high-prestige, well-paid occupation are always advantages. For
women, all these things carry both advantages and disadvantages. Gains may
help her catch an accomplished man, but she might reasonably worry that too
many gains could knock her out of the competition altogether. Meanwhile, her
ability to attract men may decrease as she ages, while the men in her same age
cohort become relatively more attractive. His achievements count more toward
his attractiveness than hers do, and fading looks harm her more than him.

Many women understand this. In a study of newly admitted MBA students,
respondents were asked to indicate their expected future salaries. Half were
told that their peers would see their answers and half were told they’d be confi-
dential. There were no differences in the salaries reported by men and women
in the latter group, but single women who thought their peers would see their
answers reported salary goals $18,000 lower than single women promised

Chapter 10  s e x u a l i t i e s268

confidentiality.95 They also reported lower ambitions, less interest in leader-
ship, and less willingness to travel. Men and non-single women didn’t show
this difference. Concerned that seeming too ambitious or being too success-
ful might make them unattractive to men, women sometimes moderate their
career goals. They’re not delusional if they do. Women who make more money
than the men they’re dating are less likely to get married and, if they are mar-
ried, more likely to get divorced.96

Discrimination based on conformity to gender expectations isn’t limited,
of course, to mixed-sex matches. The very limited research on women seek-
ing women suggests that they have a slight preference for feminine women.97
A wider literature on men seeking men has found preferences for “straight-
acting” men, reflecting the hegemony of masculinity and androcentric bias
against femininity.98 On Grindr and other apps, some men try to enhance their
erotic capital by advertising their masculine qualities and concealing their
feminine ones, a practice described as mascing (a portmanteau of “masculine”
and “masking”).99

Mascing may include expressing an interest in sports, emphasizing one’s
interest in the outdoors, or growing a hearty beard. It may even include iden-
tifying as heterosexual. “[T]here are a lot of guys out there that are like me,”
said one heterosexual-identified man who regularly sought out other men for
sex.100 Many of these men actually avoided gay-identified men, preferring other
heterosexual-identified men or ones who identify as bisexual. One explained
that he liked “straight guys” because “I identify with them more because that’s
kinda, like [how] I feel myself. And bi guys, the same way. We can talk about
women [and watch] hetero porn.”101 It’s probably not necessary for every stirring
of one’s loins to prompt an identity crisis, but prejudice against femininity—
whether in oneself or in others—is still androcentrism, even when men who
have sex with men are doing it.

While our individual preferences seem very personal, the data from
OkCupid and other research into sexual preferences reveal that our aggre-
gated choices conform to social hierarchies.102 Gender and race hierarchies
clearly shape our ideas about who is an appealing and appropriate sexual and
romantic partner. And, as the next section will show, when two people are in
the position of acting on their sexual attraction to one another, gendered
dynamics persist.

Gendered Scripts

When sexual interactions unfold in real time, they are guided by information
we’ve gleaned about what sex is, how it works, who does what, and what it means.
This knowledge, or set of instructions, is called a sexual script, the social rules

269G E N D E R E D S E X U A L I T I E S

that guide sexual interaction.103 Because of sexual scripts, people with a shared
culture usually engage sexually in similar ways. Generally, sexual scripts assume
sex occurs between two people. They kiss first (closed mouth), then have close
body contact with more kissing (open mouth), and only then move to grabbing
and squeezing. Once this all has occurred, the couple gets horizontal. Then
there’s more kissing and groping, including the touching of genitals through
clothes. Clothes start coming off; usually tops before bottoms. If it’s a mixed-
sex couple, her clothes usually come off first (her shirt, his shirt, her pants, his
pants, etc.); it’s a toss-up if it’s a same-sex couple, but their sexual interactions
may be guided by differences in gender performance rather than their iden-
tity. The scripts of both mixed-sex and same-sex couples may still have a some-
what rigid ascending order of intimacy: fellatio before cunnilingus, oral before
penile-vaginal, penile-vaginal before anal, and oral before anal, all depending
on what body parts are involved.

We tend to be especially careful to follow sexual scripts when we are first
becoming sexually active, or first becoming active with a new partner. Scripts
are particularly helpful when we’re concerned about doing sex “right.” They cre-
ate predictability and ease social interaction: Did they kiss me back? Aha, now I
have clearance to try for second base. We police one another around these sexual
rules. In some cases, they’re even enforced with laws. The rule that French kissing
comes before fondling, for instance, isn’t just a guideline; someone who moves
straight to second base could be charged with sexual battery, a legal term for
unwanted but nonviolent sexual touching.

The sexual script is also gendered, featuring more masculine and more fem-
inine roles. The masculine role in sex is an assertive one involving making the
first move, touching first, pushing the interaction along, and removing a partner’s
clothes. The feminine role in sex is responsive. A feminine sexuality is one which
waits, never acts or initiates. The feminine partner is put into sexual positions by
the masculine partner. The masculine partner penetrates; the feminine partner
is penetrated.

In practice, of course, people rarely behave in purely feminine and mascu-
line ways, but men who have sex with women and women who have sex with
men will probably recognize these dynamics. People who have sex with people
of the same sex may recognize them, too, as masculinity and femininity are
not features of male-bodied and female-bodied people, respectively, but can
be “done” by anyone of any body and identity. Some gay and bisexual men may
be in the habit of playing more of a responsive than assertive role in sex. And
gay and bisexual women are quite obviously capable of playing an assertive
role with one another, otherwise they would never have sex at all.

Because the script puts women in the position of enacting a feminine version
of sexuality that is responsive to sexual activity but doesn’t initiate it, women
might not ask their male partners for orgasms or tell them how to give them

Chapter 10  s e x u a l i t i e s270

one.104 Because of the coital imperative and a gendered love/sex binary that
prioritizes his sexualness and her sexiness, orgasmic equality would require
quite a bit of reimagining of what is sexually possible. The script adds one more
layer of difficulty, because now she doesn’t just have to feel differently (not just
sexy, but sexual), she has to act differently (not just receptive, but assertive).
Likewise, men enacting a masculine version of sexuality have to do the same:
see themselves as sexy, not just sexual; learn to prioritize her orgasm as well
as their own; and find a way to be responsive in bed alongside being assertive.
All of this is a lot to overcome, especially the first few times two people are
in bed together.

The same masculine imperative to have sex, and the defining of reluctance as
feminine, is also behind the push-and-resist dynamic, a situation in which it’s
normal for men to press sexual activity consistently in the direction of increas-
ing sexual intimacy (whether he wants to or not) and for women to stop or slow
down the accelerating intimacy when he’s going “too far” (whether she wants
to or not).105 This interferes with people’s ability to enjoy what they’re experi-
encing. Men may be thinking about what they aren’t yet doing. Women, in turn,
can’t get too swept away because they can’t necessarily count on men to pace
intimacy comfortably. They, for their part, are left thinking about what they
might do. In neither case are men and women actually thinking about what
they are doing, making it difficult for either partner to be in the moment, simply
experiencing pleasure.

The push-and-resist dynamic also, predictably, contributes to sexual violence.

Sexual Violence

In the United States, one in three women and one in six men have experienced
sexual violence; young people, the working class and poor, racial minorities,
people with disabilities, people who are imprisoned, and gender-nonconforming
people are at highest risk.106 Men are the vast majority of perpetrators, repre-
senting 97 percent of people arrested for sexual assault.107 These men often
don’t believe their behavior constitutes sexual assault, even when it matches
legal definitions.108 Men who rape are more likely than other men to have been
sexually or physically abused themselves.109

t h e p o l i t i c s o f s e x u a l v i o l e n c e  That we even identify sexual
assault as a crime and collect these statistics is rather new. Among the English
who colonized the United States, women were property.110 Men could do what-
ever they wanted with their property, including rape it. If you raped someone
else’s property, though, you damaged the goods. So rape was a crime, but it
was a property crime; more like theft than assault. Enslaved people were also

271G E N D E R E D S E X U A L I T I E S

defined as property, so the men given legal right to own them could violate
them with impunity.111 The colonists denied Native American men property
rights, so unless Native women were owned by or married to white men, raping
them wasn’t a crime at all.112 Much of this was true until about 150 years ago.

Even then, things didn’t change right away. Well into the 1970s, domestic
violence, sex ual harassment, and sexual assault went largely unregulated by
the government. Violence between intimate partners was seen as part of men’s
legitimate right to “govern” their own homes. Sexual harassment was so nor-
malized that there was no name for it.113 And rape—especially when perpetrated
by a friend or acquaintance—was often dismissed as an occupational hazard
of being female. Until 2014, the United States government defined rape as a
crime against women; raping men was not a crime, leaving male victims invisi-
ble and with no legal remedies.114

To change this, activists raised money, recruited volunteers, opened domes-
tic violence shelters, and staffed rape crisis lines.115 They redefined sexual vio-
lence as a crime, collected data to demonstrate its prevalence, and argued that
state involvement was essential to protecting victims’ rights.116 Rates of rape
began to decline.117 In 1986, the Supreme Court criminalized sexual harass-
ment. In 1993, marital rape became illegal in all fifty states. In 1994, Congress
increased criminal penalties for sexual violence and began funding special sex-
ual assault units in police departments. In 2013, this was extended to include
protections for immigrant and Native American women.

These are impressive accomplishments, but there is a lot of work left to be
done. It’s still hard for victims to get justice. Commonly, they are unsure whether
what happened to them was a crime or worry they won’t be believed.118 Victim
blaming, identifying something done by victims as a cause of their victimiza-
tion, is common, and many victims fear that they will face more trouble than
the person who assaulted them.119 Only one out of every three sexual assaults is
reported to the police.120 Of those that are reported, only 2 percent will lead to a
conviction. In comparison, twice as many robberies are reported to police, with
nearly three times as many convictions.

Even in best-case scenarios, convictions can be cold comfort. In 2015, Stan-
ford swimmer Brock Turner was discovered behind a dumpster with his hands
inside an unconscious woman. He was convicted, in part thanks to a medi-
cal exam and two eye witnesses, and was sentenced to six months in jail for
assault with intent to rape and sexual penetration with a foreign object. Turner’s
father objected to any sentence at all, saying that it was a “steep price to pay for
20 minutes of action.”

But it wasn’t just his father who minimized Brock Turner’s criminal behav-
ior. The judge, too, expressed concern for Turner’s future and stated that he
didn’t believe that Turner would be “a danger to others.” Imagine being the vic-
tim in that courtroom. After being sexually assaulted, she submitted to a legal

Chapter 10  s e x u a l i t i e s272

medical exam, reported to police, and suffered through a criminal trial, only
to hear the judge say that he worried that prison time “would have a severe
impact” on her assailant. It turns out Turner only served half his sentence any-
way. Three months—a summer vacation’s worth of punishment.

Rape myths frequently underlie the decisions and judgments of police offi-
cers, medical examiners, lawyers, judges, jurors, and the victims themselves,
including the persistent belief that sexual crimes are falsely reported more
often than other crimes (they’re not).121 For male victims, women of color, and
anyone who carries socially stigmatized characteristics, it’s even harder to get
justice; police officers sometimes decide whether to investigate reports of sex-
ual assault based on the victim’s race, age, sexual orientation, or income level.122
Men of color are more likely than white men to be put on trial and be convicted
and, when they are, they receive harsher sentences.123 Black men are three and a
half times more likely to be wrongly convicted of sexual assault than white men,
and especially likely to be wrongly convicted if the victim is a white woman.124
Continuing, and increasingly intersectional, work on this issue is critical.125

r a p e a n d c u l t u r e  We have a long way to go before sexual violence
becomes rare, but it could be. In fact, it’s extraordinarily rare in some societies.126
Instead of an inevitability, sexual violence is a cultural artifact. Some envi-
ronments make it more likely than others. Environments that facilitate sexual
assault—ones that justify, naturalize, and even glorify sexual pressure, coercion,
and violence—are called rape cultures.

The idea that men are naturally sexually aggressive is part of rape culture,
as is the idea that women are inherently vulnerable to men.127 Vulvas and vagi-
nas are socially constructed as passive and physically delicate (flower-like, eas-
ily crushed or bruised) or simply thought of as a vulnerable space (a “hole”).128
Penises, in contrast, are symbolically active and strong; they become “rock hard”
and are used to “hammer” and “pound,” while men’s highly sensitive testicles
are usually left out of this equation altogether.129 All of this contributes to our
tendency to believe that men can effectively use their penises as weapons, their
bodies are otherwise invulnerable, and women are helpless to defend themselves.
In cultures where rape is rare, the social construction of men’s and women’s body
parts emphasizes the vulnerability of the penis and testicles (sensitive, floppy,
fleshy structures exposed on the outside of the body), the power of the muscles
surrounding the entrance to the vagina, and the mysterious depths into which
penises must blindly go.130

Alongside this social construction of the body are media reflections of rape
culture.131 Routine in regular programming are images that glamorize scenes of
sexual force, sex scenes in which women say no and then change their minds,
and jokes that trivialize sexual assault, especially of men. Rape scenes in mov-
ies and on television are common plot twists or character devices and often are

273G E N D E R E D S E X U A L I T I E S

This British police campaign that intends to reduce the incidence of rape does so by putting the onus of
preventative action on the woman, as do campaigns on many U.S. college campuses.

Chapter 10  s e x u a l i t i e s274

purposefully designed to be sexually titillating to male viewers. Fictional per-
petrators are disproportionately men of color and, since 9/11, Muslim.

When news media covers sex crimes, they often focus on the victim’s behav-
ior, reporting on whether she was drinking alcohol, flirting prior to the assault,
wearing sexually provocative clothes, or making risky choices.132 White women
get more sympathetic coverage. Perpetrators who seem “respectable”—wealthy,
white men, for instance—are most often given the benefit of the doubt. Not
uncommonly, stories about rape are described as “sex scandals,” as if they are
equivalent to a story about a celebrity’s kinky fetish.

Rape culture also encourages and can even compel men to enact the push-
and-resist dynamic, sometimes aggressively. As a result, many people who have
sex with men experience a range of sexual pressure, manipulation, coercion, and
force throughout their lives. It starts in elementary school.133 Much of this isn’t crim-
inal, just cruel and dehumanizing. Altogether it reveals what feminist writer Rob-
ert Jensen calls a “continuum of sexual intrusion.”134 Many sexualized interactions,
as a result, end up being coercive and manipulative, even when not criminal.

Americans’ confusion about this was on full display in 2017, when a story
about a first date with the comedian Aziz Ansari was published.135 According to
his date, after a dinner over a bottle of wine, they went to his apartment and he
quickly initiated sexual activity. Without ascertaining her comfort level or con-
sent, Ansari undressed them both and began kissing and touching her breasts,
pulling her hands toward his penis, and putting his fingers in her mouth and
vagina. When she asked him to “slow down” or mentioned that she felt “forced,”
which she did repeatedly, he would stop momentarily and then start again. Noth-
ing she said or did persuaded him to stop trying to push her into sexual activity.

The public reaction to this story, mixed between people who saw his behav-
ior as exploitative and those who saw it as entirely routine, reveals consider-
able disagreement about how hard men are allowed to push, how much pushing
women are expected to tolerate, and how hard women should have to try to get
men to listen to them. The fact that many or even most women have multiple
experiences like these is part of why the revelation of movie producer Harvey
Weinstein’s decades of abuse of women in the entertainment industry, along-
side dozens of other men outed for similar behavior around the same time,
snowballed into a hashtag. By saying #metoo, millions of women confirmed the
sheer ubiquity of coercive behavior, from merely selfish to truly egregious.136

The preponderance of this push-and-resist dynamic doesn’t make just for
confusing and uncomfortable sexual interactions, it also gives camouflage to
people who are intent on exploiting their peers, making aggressive sexual be hav-
ior seem normal or, at least, not so far from the norm. When men behave this
way, it is often brushed aside as “boys will be boys.” This is exculpatory chauvin-
ism: giving men a pass for their exploitative, cruel, and otherwise thoughtless
and dehumanizing behavior. The dynamic is also a catalyst for sexual assault.

275C O L L E G E H O O K U P C U L T U R E

We teach men, and even women, that being sexually aggressive is good, then
expect them to parse the difference between pushy and criminal. It can be a
thin line, and sometimes people cross it.

We see all of these dynamics, and more, on many college campuses today.


The prototypical American college party today is a drunken mix of elation
and recklessness. “Things get out of hand,” sociologist Thomas Vander Ven
observes, “but in an entertaining sort of way.”137 Indeed, the party is euphoric in
part because it’s just a little dangerous. At its climax, it’s a world apart—Vander
Ven calls it “drunkworld”—a place where it’s normal for people to “fall down, slur
their words, break things, laugh uncontrollably, act crazy, flirt, hook up, get sick,
pass out, fight, dance, sing, and get overly emotional.”138 Casual sex, by virtue of
being slightly reckless but oh-so-exhilarating, fits right in.

This kind of party is most often associated with fraternities, and rightly so.
Fraternity men invented this party in the 1800s and began sharing it with wider
and wider circles of peers beginning in the 1920s.139 At the time, and well into
the 1970s, colleges acted like substitute parents, treating students like children
by imposing curfews, censorship, and punishments for drinking and sexual
activity.140 The boomers successfully pushed back against these practices, and
that’s when things really got wild. The minimum drinking age was eighteen, so
students could party pretty much as hard as they wanted, and they did.141 By 1978,
when the movie Animal House cemented the relationship among college, alco-
hol, and sex, it was routine to have all-out parties in residence halls. The alcohol
industry took notice, spending millions of dollars in the 1980s to convince college
students to drink.142

Then, in 1987, the balance of power on campus shifted. The federal govern-
ment convinced all fifty states to raise their drinking age to twenty-one. Now
students who wanted to party had a problem. Campus authorities were polic-
ing residence halls, bars and clubs required an ID, and most sororities weren’t
allowed to throw parties with alcohol. First-year students, especially, were
unlikely to have upper-class friends living in private apartments and houses.
On many college campuses, then, a fraternity house was the only place stu-
dents knew to go to party like they thought they should. The men who belonged
to fraternities wealthy enough to have private houses happily filled that void,
claiming a role at the center of college life.143 This gave a small group of
students—ones who were disproportionately wealthy, white, and heterosexual,
and almost exclusively men—a lot of power to shape their peers’ social and sex-
ual lives.

Chapter 10  s e x u a l i t i e s276

This is the background to life on many residential college campuses today.
The men of wealthy, historically white fraternities—or, on some campuses, men
in other formal or informal fraternity-like brotherhoods—still have an oversized
influence on the college party scene. Members of this segment of the male col-
lege population also tend to be especially enthusiastic about hooking up, so
they throw parties that facilitate nonromantic one-time sexual encounters.144
Worrisomely, fraternity men are also more likely, on average, to report rape-
supportive attitudes and admit to having committed acts of sexual aggression.145

Students attend these parties for myriad reasons, but one reason is because
the fraternity party has become the college party: the way all students are sup-
posed to want to have fun.146 The mass media reflects this, socializing young
people into believing that college life is really as crazy as it looks on TV.147
These sexy, raucous parties resonate, too, with the current definition of sexual
liberation: saying yes instead of no and, for women, grasping one’s “liberation”
by acting like a stereotypical guy.

This is why hookup culture dominates most college campuses. It’s not
because everyone is doing it, and it’s certainly not because everyone likes it.
A third of students say that their intimate relationships on campus have been
“traumatic” or “very difficult to handle.”148 Between two-thirds and three-
quarters wish they had more opportunities to find a long-term romantic part-

Thirty-eight fraternity members attempt to squeeze into a Volkswagen Bug in 1959.
Shenanigans have been a part of fraternity life for more than 200 years.

277C O L L E G E H O O K U P C U L T U R E

ner.149 Instead, hookup culture dominates campuses because the students who
do like it have a great deal of power, and the cultural messaging students
receive—both about higher education generally and the relationship among
sex, fun, and liberation—all conspire to make hookup culture seem “right.” This
suits some students better than others.

Who Hooks Up?

Most students overestimate how often their peers are hooking up, as well as
how “far” they go and how much they enjoy it.150 According to a survey of over
24,000 students at twenty-one different colleges and universities, the average
number of hookups reported by seniors is eight.151 A third of students won’t
hook up at all and 20 percent of seniors report that they have yet to lose their
virginity. Only 14 percent of students hook up more than ten times in four
years.152 Almost half of first-time hookups include just kissing; fewer than a
third include intercourse.153

Fraternity and sorority members hook up almost twice as much as every-
one else, while students who are nonwhite, poor or working class, and non-
heterosexual hook up with their peers less often than their counterparts.154 For
sexual minorities, for example, college parties are not always safe or friendly.
Though girl-on-girl kissing is common, it’s generally assumed to be for male
attention. Some women use this activity to explore their attraction to other
women, but others report only doing it if they’re confident that the other woman
is heterosexual.155 These latter women are actually more homophobic than
women who don’t kiss other women at parties.156 The irony is not lost on gay,
bisexual, and questioning women, who often feel not only invisible but taunted
by the practice. While gay and bisexual men report higher rates of hooking up
than average, they generally don’t find the hookup scene welcoming; they’re
more likely than any other group to go off campus to hook up.157

While black men hook up somewhat more than average, black women, Latino
and Latina students, and Asian men and women are less likely than white stu-
dents to hook up.158 This is in part because when students of color hook up, they
risk affirming harmful beliefs about their racial group, so some embrace a poli-
tics of respectability. Some may explicitly define hooking up as something typ-
ical of white students and choose to distance themselves from the behavior.159
“We don’t sleep around like white girls do,” said a Filipina American express-
ing this view.160 “If I started hooking up,” said an African American man, “my
friends would be saying I’m, like, ‘acting white.’ ”161 Some men of color further
assume they can’t get away with the same level of sexual aggressiveness as
white men.162 And they’re probably not wrong. The erotic marketplace plays

Chapter 10  s e x u a l i t i e s278

a role here, too, racializing desirability. Just like in the wider culture, black
women and Asian men tend to rank low in the erotic hierarchy on campus, while
Asian and white women and white men tend to rank high.

Research also suggests that class-privileged students hook up more often than
other students.163 Among women, this may be because peers are much quicker to
ascribe the “slut” label to working-class women, even when they are less sexu-
ally active than their richer peers.164 Working-class students may also be more
focused on getting through school and may not think they can afford to focus
on their social lives. One Latina and white woman observed:

Some of these girls don’t even go to class. It’s like they just live here. They stay up
until 4 in the morning. [ I want to ask, ] “Do you guys go to class? Like what’s your
deal? . . . You’re paying a lot of money for this. . . . If you want to be here, then why
aren’t you trying harder?” 165

Students from families with tight budgets are also likely to have a job outside
of school and may live at home to save money. These students have less time to
spend partying and less opportunity to do so. Sharing a small house with one’s
parents—often a car or bus ride from the party—isn’t conducive to casual sex
or heavy drinking.166 Students who live at home, especially young women, are
subject to surveillance from parents who may have rules against drinking, drug
use, sexual activity, and staying out late. Lydia, for example, a Latina student
who lived at home, imagined that dorm life was more autonomous: “They don’t
have parents worrying about when they get home or calling them. . . . They do
as they please.”167

Men and women hook up at similar rates, but women report higher rates of
regret, distress, and lowered self-esteem.168 The gendered love/sex binary intro-
duced by the Victorians would suggest that this is because women are more
interested in love than sex and men are more interested in sex than love. In fact,
men are slightly more likely than women to say that they’d be interested in a
committed relationship.169 Women’s greater dissatisfaction is probably not due
to an aversion to casual sex not shared by men, but to their greater exposure
to sexist and subordinating experiences.

Gendered Power

Exactly because of the gendered love/sex binary, it’s assumed that men want
casual sex and women don’t, thus all women are presumed to be hooking up
with the hope that a committed relationship will evolve. This logic tells men
that every woman they hook up with wants a boyfriend, so they should act aloof
after a hookup to ensure the women don’t get the “wrong idea.” Women, for their
part, may act aloof, too. They understand that some people don’t believe women

279C O L L E G E H O O K U P C U L T U R E

are capable of being casual about sexual activity, so they go to extra lengths
to prove they can be. Whether either of the partners actually is romantically
interested in the other is beside the point; in hookup culture, revealing a desire
for connection is pathetically feminine, and nobody wants to be that.170

A majority of college students do form romantic relationships, but these
relationships tend to emerge out of a series of hookups, during which both
students may act as if they’re not interested in each other.171 In the meantime,
because women are stereotyped as less capable than men of controlling their
emotions, men have more power in these interactions. Women may enthusiasti-
cally participate in hookup culture, then, expecting to experiment sexually with
men who see them as equals, but they may discover that many men don’t see
them that way.

Deanna reflected on just such an experience for American Hookup. A guy
she had previously been with pulled her aside to glumly tell her that he wasn’t
interested in a relationship. She told him she was fine with that (and she was),
but he pressed on apologetically. “He more and more drastically emphasized
asking if I was OK,” she recounted, “as if he had somehow damaged me, seem-
ing to expect a flood of tears.”172 His behavior was revealing. She thought they
were both having fun, but he hadn’t seen it that way. Reflecting on their encoun-
ters, she wrote:

The stigma attached to women being the emotional creatures in the relationship
and the men being the physical ones had never been so apparent to me.  .  .  . He
clearly thought that he was the one with the power to hurt and I was the one that
was expected to cry with anguish.

Some men hooking up with women do not see or treat them as equals, and one
in three men report respecting their female partners less after hooking up with
them.173 This is a good recipe for creating feelings of regret, distress, and lower
self-esteem among the women who participate.

Notably, we only think that men are better at hooking up because hookup
culture is premised on a stereotypically masculine version of sexuality, which
is not the only way to experiment with or commit to multiple sexual partners.
Consensually nonmonogamous practices, for example, are based on the idea
that people can be loving toward multiple partners (in the case of polyamory)
or committed to someone emotionally without sexual exclusivity (in the case
of open relationships). In neither case does sexual nonexclusivity involve a
denigration of commitment or connection, nor require being callous or cold in
order stave off such things.

Hookup culture falsely conflates caring with committed, monogamous rela-
tionships because it’s based on a gender binary: monogamous, caring sex with
just one person (the supposedly feminine kind of sex) and nonmonogamous,

Chapter 10  s e x u a l i t i e s280

casual sex with multiple partners (the supposedly masculine kind of sex).174 If
we collapse the gender binary, we can imagine many other possibilities, includ-
ing sex that is casual and caring and nonmonogamous. What would a hookup
culture that embraced the feminine look like?

Pleasure and Danger

Sexual pleasure is also unevenly distributed. In first-time hookups, women hook-
ing up with men report 35 percent as many orgasms as their partners.175 This is
the same orgasm gap we see off campus: about one for every three. In this case,
though, we know for sure that at least some college men are perfectly capable
of giving women orgasms. The orgasm gap in hookup culture appears to be a
measure of a couple’s interest in each other, with concern for women’s orgasms
increasing as two people hook up together repeatedly and then enter a relation-
ship. When men and women are in committed relationships with each other,
the orgasm gap shrinks from 65 to 20 percentage points, with women having
80 percent as many orgasms as their boyfriends.

Both men and women are likely culprits. For their part, some men appear
to value their girlfriends’ pleasure, but not that of women with whom they only
hook up. One male college student, for example, insisted that he always cared
about “her” orgasm.176 However, when asked if he meant “the general her or the
specific,” he replied, “Girlfriend her. In a hookup her, I don’t give a shit.” Other
men take a similar approach:

If it’s just a random hookup, I don’t think [ her orgasm] matters as much to the
guy. . . . But if you’re with somebody for more than just that one night . . . I know I
feel personally responsible. I think it’s essential that she has an orgasm during
sexual activity.177

To be fair, women often don’t put their own pleasure first either: “I will do
everything in my power to, like whoever I’m with, to get [him] off,” said one
woman about her priorities during a hookup.178 Both men and women tend to
believe that men are more entitled to orgasms. This is illustrated most strik-
ingly by a bisexual student who realized, upon putting some thought into it, that
he concentrated on giving his partner an orgasm when he hooked up with men,
but getting one when he hooked up with women.179

If women experience less pleasure in hookup culture than men, they also
face more danger. One in four senior women report being sexually assaulted in
college, with 10 percent reporting that someone tried to physically force them
to have sex; 5 percent reporting that someone tried but did not succeed; and
11  percent reporting that someone had sex with them while they were uncon-
scious or otherwise incapacitated.180

281C O L L E G E H O O K U P C U L T U R E

Heterosexual women are not alone in being at high risk of victimization.
They are joined by gay men and bisexual women, who are more likely than het-
erosexual women to report being assaulted, and bisexual men, who are almost
as likely. Trans and nonbinary students almost certainly suffer high rates of
sexual assault on campus, though we don’t have good research on these popu-
lations yet.181 Heterosexual men and lesbian women have the lowest rates, with
3 percent of both groups reporting rape by physical force and 3 and 5 percent
reporting rape by incapacitation, respectively. These numbers are not trivial
either. As with the national statistics, the vast majority of perpetrators of sexual
assault are male, regardless of the sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation
of the victim, with 8 percent of college men reporting behavior matching the
definition of sexual assault.182

Rates are high on campus in part because hookup culture is a rape culture.183
Its sexual scripts make coercive behaviors look and feel normal (plying people
with alcohol or pulling them into secluded parts of a party), while making a fem-
inized interest in and concern for one’s partner off-script (including care about
their pleasure and consent). This camouflages the behavior of students who are
intent on raping their peers, but it also puts all students at risk of perpetrating
rape. If students carelessly and assertively seek sex with strangers and acquain-
tances, and do so regularly under drunken conditions, with little concern for
their sexual partners’ well-being, then we might expect high rates of coercion.

Emma Sulkowicz, a visual arts student at Columbia, made national headlines when she began
carr ying her mattress around campus to dramatize the inaction of university officials after
she reported being sexually assaulted by a fellow student.

Chapter 10  s e x u a l i t i e s282

And if men are put in the “push” role in the push-and-resist dynamic, then
we might expect men in particular to be perpetrators. Serial perpetrators are
a problem on college campuses, but a longitudinal study of rape perpetration
found that four out of five college men who commit rape before graduating are
not serial perpetrators.184 They rape only once. It may not be the content of one’s
character but the context of hookup culture—the risk-loving parties, the pres-
sure to “get” sex, and the normalization of aggressive sexual behavior—that
leads some students to commit sexual crimes.

Rape culture also makes it difficult for campus activists fighting sexual vio-
lence to hold colleges accountable for effective prevention and fair adjudication,
though much progress has been made on this front. In 2011, the Office for Civil
Rights released a statement explaining that Title IX, a law that prohibits sex-
based discrimination in education, requires colleges to be proactive in reduc-
ing rates of sexual violence.185 Responding to this clarified mandate, students
at hundreds of colleges submitted complaints to the Department of Education,
arguing that their institutions were ignoring or mishandling sexual assault.186
The results of the investigations prompted the Obama White House to develop
a guide for reducing rates and responding to alleged assaults.187 The Trump
administration has since rescinded the 2011 statement, but not before student

A ndrea Pino and A nnie E. Clark sit against a wall documenting their efforts to organize student
activists across the United States. Thanks to organizing like theirs, almost 500 colleges are or
have been under investigation by the Office for Civil R ights for mishandling sexual violence.

283C O L L E G E H O O K U P C U L T U R E

activists raised a great deal of awareness and pushed many institutions to insti-
tute better and stronger policies.

What happens next will be up to students themselves. The victim of Brock
Turner, the Stanford student who served three months in jail on three counts of
felony sexual assault, bravely released the statement she made to the court on
the day of his sentencing. “Hopefully this will wake people up,” she said, refer-
ring to his short sentence. “If anything, this is a reason for all of us to speak
even louder.”188

Communities can come together to change norms. Bystander intervention
programs—ones that educate students about sexual assault and teach them how
to spot likely incidents and safely intervene—are effective in reducing rates of
sexual violence, so are programs that teach students to recognize sexually coer-
cive behavior and practice assertive and aggressive responses.189 A next step
may be thinking bigger, not only about the acute problem of sexual assault,
but the many problems in the wider sexual culture. Promoting a culture that
values feminine approaches to sexuality, gives equal importance to female
pleasure, embraces sexual minorities and gender-nonconforming students, and
addresses intersectional inequalities could be the way to make colleges safer
spaces for all students.

R ev isiti ng t he Q uestion

G e n d e r e d i d e a s , i n t e r a c t i o n s , a n d i n s t i t u t i o n s m a y a f f e c t
a l m o s t e v e r y p a r t o f m y l i f e , b u t s o m e t h i n g s a r e p e r s o n a l
a n d m y s e x u a l i t y i s m i n e a n d m i n e a l o n e , i s n ’ t i t ?

The women’s movement, gay liberation, and the sexual revolution changed the
landscape of sexual opportunity for young Americans, but it would be wrong
to describe this cultural shift as a simple embrace of freedom. The movements
established a new set of rules for sexuality, including a new imperative to say
yes to sex. For women this presented a new set of problems. The coital impera-
tive, gendered love/sex binary, sexual double standard, and sexual script con-
tinue to give men more power in interactions, create fertile ground for sexual
violence, and contribute to the orgasm gap between men and women, while priv-
ileging an objectifying male sexual gaze. Men, conversely, are prescribed a
narrow heterosexuality, policed if they step outside its boundaries, and put at
risk of engaging in criminal behavior.

If the playground is uncomfortable for some heterosexual men and unsafe
for many heterosexual women, then sexual minorities, nonbinary individuals,
and trans men and women are at even higher risk of rejection, mistreatment,
and violence. Troubled sexual dynamics play out among these populations as
well. No sexual encounters, regardless of the identities and body parts of the

Chapter 10  s e x u a l i t i e s284

people involved, are automatically devoid of gendered power, sexual objectifi-
cation, sexual violence, or other forms of prejudice like racism.

Sex, no less than anything else about life, reflects our cultural values and is
shaped by interactional norms and institutional forces. Though it can feel deeply
personal, in many ways it’s not. That means that efforts to bring about freer and
more equal sexual opportunities will involve changing the context in which we
make our sexual choices. Since college students (who are disproportionately
white and class privileged) are often agents of social change for everyone, it will
be fascinating to see how their work influences the sexual opportunities of the
generations both ahead and behind them, as well as people who attend college
later, commute to college, or don’t go to college at all (who are disproportion-
ately nonwhite, poor, and working class).

For young people who don’t have a traditional college experience, as well as
people well beyond their college years, hookup culture may be just something
they read about in a book. The hookup script may have escaped hookup culture,
somewhat inflecting everyone’s dating experiences, but the wider American
culture still very much valorizes love, romance, and monogamous marriage.
While some college students are struggling with the dynamics of hookup cul-
ture, then, other people are attempting to follow dating scripts that more resem-
ble the 1950s, navigating engagements and weddings and extended families,
trying to keep love (and sex) alive in marriage, adjusting to aging and increas-
ingly devalued bodies, and managing divorce, re-entering the dating pool, and
possibly remarrying. Even most college students will ultimately turn away from
casual sex, and rather soon—two-thirds are married by their thirtieth birthday—
and they, too, will face new and different sexual and romantic challenges.190
What are those marriages like?

Ne x t . . .

Hookup culture may make relationships seem passé, but nearly two-thirds of
college students will be married by their thirtieth birthday.191 These marriages
have more potential to be true partnerships than any in history. For the first
time in thousands of years, marriage law prescribes to men and women the
same rights and responsibilities. One source of oppression for women appears
to have crumbled.

And yet, despite changes aimed at giving women equal footing, over the last
thirty years women who marry men have become increasingly unhappy with
their marriages. The data show that women today experience significantly less
wedded bliss than men married to women, women married to women, and
single women.192 In fact, despite the cultural messages that insist that women
crave marriage and children more than men do, research shows us that the hap-
piest women are single and without children. This prompts us to ask:

285C O L L E G E H O O K U P C U L T U R E

I f m a r r i a g e i s b e t t e r f o r w o m e n t h a n e v e r, w h y d o w o m e n
m a r r i e d t o m e n r e p o r t l o w e r l e v e l s o f h a p p i n e s s t h a n m e n
m a r r i e d t o w o m e n , w o m e n m a r r i e d t o w o m e n , a n d s i n g l e
w o m e n?

An answer awaits.


Armstrong, Elizabeth. “Accounting for Women’s Orgasm and Sexual Enjoyment
in College Hookups and Relationships.” American Sociological Review 77, no. 3
(2012): 435–62.

Armstrong, Elizabeth, Laura Hamilton, and Beth Sweeney. “Sexual Assault on
Campus: A Multilevel, Integrative Approach to Party Rape.” Social Problems 53
(2006): 483–99.

D’Emilio, John, and Estelle Freedman. Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in
America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Ghaziani, Amin. Sex Cultures. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2017.
Harding, Kate. Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture and What We Can

Do About It. Boston: De Capo Lifelong Books, 2015.
Wade, Lisa. American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus. New York:

W. W. Norton and Company, 2017.
Ward, Jane. Not Gay: Sex between Straight White Men. New York: New York Univer-

sity Press, 2015.

Oh, this w ill really
inter est m y wife.
—a h u s b a n d 1


Thanks to hundreds of years of legal reform and social change, individuals have substantially more freedom to arrange their relationships as they wish. This is what feminists have been
fighting for and what many people want. Even marriage is no longer
gendered by law, a change that also paved the way for same-sex
marriage and helped give trans men and women the opportunity
to partner without confronting gender-related hurdles.

Still, of all the folks who marry today, it is women in mixed-sex
partnerships who have the most troubled relationship to marriage.2
Counter to stereotypes, women are less eager than men to marry.
Once married, wives are less happy than husbands. More than a third
of men, but less than a quarter of women, think happiness comes
more easily to married people than singles. Men are more likely to
believe in the idea of a “soul mate”; women are more skeptical.

Women are as likely as men to have an affair that precedes
a divorce and more likely to initiate a separation. This is in part
because they’re significantly less likely than men to think a child
needs both a mother and a father. After divorce, women are hap-
pier than they were when married; for men, the opposite is true.
Accordingly, divorced women are more likely than divorced men
to say they’d prefer to never marry again.


Chapter 11  F a m i l i e s288

Women in mixed-sex marriages are also less happy than women in same-
sex marriages.3 While these marriages are similar in most ways, men mar-
ried to men, and especially women married to women, seem to have more
satisfying unions than men and women who are married to each other.
They argue less, are better at conflict resolution, and take disagreements
less personally.

All this has prompted the question:

I f m a r r i a g e i s b e t t e r f o r w o m e n t h a n e v e r, w h y d o w o m e n
m a r r i e d t o m e n r e p o r t l o w e r l e v e l s o f h a p p i n e s s t h a n
m e n m a r r i e d t o w o m e n , w o m e n m a r r i e d t o w o m e n , a n d
s i n g l e w o m e n?

The reasons have to do with how people arrange their family lives, and
these arrangements affect not just women married to men, but all kinds of
partnerships. To understand these dynamics, this chapter explores the gen-
dered nature of housework and childcare in culture and conversation, then
looks at the surprising contrast between what people say they want and how
they actually divide paid and unpaid work in practice. It will also review
new and emerging family arrangements, as well as some oldies-but-goodies,
with an emphasis on how gender intersects with other features of families.

Throughout, the chapter will show how woman bear disproportionate
responsibility for devalued and unpaid categories of labor as a result of sex-
ism, androcentrism, and subordination. This disadvantages women as a whole,
exacerbates inequality among women, and places them at odds with one
another. Unfortunately, while we think of families as places where love and
care take center stage, they are also places in which both difference and
inequality are reproduced.


Today only 20 percent of all mothers are stay-at-home moms with a working hus –
band. 4 In fact, nearly three-quarters of all moms, including almost two-thirds of
moms with preschoolers, are in the workforce.5 Accordingly, breadwinner/
housewife marriages—today better described with the gender-neutral term bread-
winner/homemaker—are outnumbered by both single-parent families and two-
parent families in which both partners engage in paid work.

Families without a homemaker face a specific challenge: finding time to do the
childcare, cleaning, feeding, and errand-running that housewives historically have

289G E N D E R E D H O U S E W O R K A N D   P A R E N T I N G

done for breadwinner husbands. For single parents and families with two or more
working parents, that work is described as the second shift, the work that greets
us when we come home from paid work.6 Groceries must be bought, dinner must
be cooked, messes must be cleaned, chores must be supervised, cars must be
gassed, homework must be reviewed, budgets must be balanced, and kids must
be bathed and put to bed. That’s a lot of work!

Working two jobs—one paid at work and one unpaid at home—can be exhaust-
ing. In fact, over half of married fathers and three-quarters of both married
and single mothers say they have too little time for themselves; a third of dads
and over 40 percent of married and single moms say they’re always rushed.7
These trends are true in most North American and Western European coun-
tries, but they are especially extreme in the United States among the middle and
upper classes.8

Further, the second shift isn’t gender-neutral terrain. Childcare and house-
work still carry the gendered meanings they did when breadwinner/housewife
families were considered ideal.9 And that’s a problem. Conflict over house-
hold responsibilities is among the top reasons why between a third and half of
all marriages will end in divorce and why becoming a parent is notoriously hard
on both mixed- and same-sex couples.10 The remainder of this section discusses
why, reviewing the social construction of childcare and housework and the
actual and ideal division of labor in families today.

Childcare and Housework in Culture

Individual mothers are the primary caregivers in only 20 percent of cultures
and, in most of these, children are given considerably more independence than
we tend to think is wise today.11 Indeed, according to historian Peter Stearns, for
most of American history children were seen as “sturdy innocents who would
grow up well unless corrupted by adult example and who were capable of con-
siderable self-correction.”12 In other words, so long as they didn’t encounter a
person who set out to harm them deliberately, children could be expected to
look after themselves, learn about life, and become well-adjusted adults.

In the 1800s, some experts even argued that too much attention paid by moth-
ers to their children was harmful. Women were given strict warnings not to over-
love. John Watson, who wrote one of the best-selling child advice books of all
time, cautioned that “mother love is a dangerous instrument”:

An instrument which may inflict a never-healing wound, a wound which may
make infancy unhappy, adolescence a nightmare, an instrument which may
wreck your adult son or daughter’s vocational future and their chances for mar-
ital happiness.

Chapter 11  F a m i l i e s290

As for affection, Watson advised: “Kiss them once on the forehead when they
say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning.” But only, he said, “if you
must.” Parents were advised against hugging, kissing, and letting a child sit in
their lap.

Responding to the Watsons of the time, wealthy white Victorian wives
embarked on a deliberate and self-interested effort to preserve their social stand-
ing.13 Recall that the gendered work/home distinction was new, emerging with
the rise of cities, and so was the idea that what women did at home wasn’t work.
Pressing back against the devaluation of their freshly separated sphere, and
adjusting to men’s disengagement from the home, these women claimed that
mothering was an essential, delicate, and time-consuming enterprise. This
was the birth of the ideology of intensive motherhood, the idea that (1) child-
rearing should include “copious amounts of time, energy, and material resources”;
(2) giving children these things takes priority over all other interests, desires,
and demands; and (3) it should be mothers who do this work.14

Intensive mothering is still culturally dominant in the United States today
among the middle and upper classes. It appeals today especially because it
intersects with the economic insecurity of the past few decades. If getting ahead
matters, then there’s no time to waste; intensive mothering starts the min-
ute, or even before, the child is born. Parents also worry that if they don’t take
steps to ensure otherwise, their children may fall below the parents’ own class
position. In an effort to protect their children against this, part of intensive
mothering includes concerted cultivation, an active and organized effort to
develop in children a wide range of skills and talents.15 This is typically aimed at
fostering high self-esteem, strong academic marks, a well-rounded set of capaci-
ties and interests, and confidence interacting with adults and navigating social

When children are small, intensive parenting means avoiding the use of
play pens or other restraining devices in favor of close supervision. Meanwhile,
concerted cultivation means providing constant interaction and stimulation;
offering brain-stimulating toys and activities; and engaging in negotiation
instead of instruction. For older children, the work includes maximizing chil-
dren’s educational achievement (volunteering at school, meeting with teachers,
helping with homework); keeping a close eye on their grades (guaranteeing
they get good marks through cajoling, threatening, or helping); and organizing
educational trips and buying learning games (trips to zoos and children’s muse-
ums, math- and science-based video games and apps). Finally, it means enroll-
ing them in and ferrying them to and from school, after-school, and weekend
activities (piano lessons, Little League, dance classes) and giving them at least
some of the material goods they want but don’t necessarily need (the “right”
clothes and accessories).

291G E N D E R E D H O U S E W O R K A N D   P A R E N T I N G

Not everyone has the time to be an intensive parent or the money to engage
in concerted cultivation, but because these approaches are endorsed by upper-
and upper-middle-class families, they tend to dominate conversations among
mommy bloggers, parenting experts, child psychologists, and advice-book authors.
Americans receive daily messages affirming the idea that it is women’s respon-
sibility to care for both the home and their children. Advertisements for home
décor, cleaning supplies, and food for families almost exclusively feature or
target female consumers.

Even when parenting guides, magazines, and newspaper articles don’t make
an explicit claim that mothers should be the primary parents, most assume they
are.16 “You’ve undoubtedly been smooching your baby and saying things like
‘Give mommy a kiss!’ ” reads one parenting magazine, revealing that by “you”
they mean the mother.17 Parenting websites sometimes feature a “Dad Zone,”
indicating that the rest of the website is really for moms.18 There’s even a sneaky
linguistic switcheroo that reveals that mothers are considered the primary
parent and fathers the secondary one. While the male version of a term usu-
ally comes before the female—for example, “men and women,” “his and hers,”
and “boys and girls”—writing about parenting usually uses the phrase “mom
and dad.”

attachment parenting, or intensive motherhood, involves keeping one’s child close at all
times—perhaps even while checking email.

Chapter 11  F a m i l i e s292

When books, magazines, and websites about parenting do address fathers, they
often aim to convince men that being an active parent is fun, engaging, and
important. Mothers don’t receive these messages on the assumption that they’re
already wholly invested. To make parenting seem right for dads, marketers
offer them shortcuts. Whereas commercials and advertisements for elaborate or
healthy meal options typically feature moms, advertisements that feature dads
are often for fast food, microwaveable meals, or pizza delivery.

If dads are not portrayed as reluctant parents, they’re often portrayed as
incompetent ones. Movies and television shows spanning decades, from Mr. Mom
(1983) to Who’s the Boss? (1984–1992) to 3 Men and a Baby (1987) to Married
with Children (1987–1997) to The Simpsons (1989–) to Kindergarten Cop (1990)
to Everybody Loves Raymond (1996–2005) to Family Guy (1999–) to Daddy Day
Care (2003) to Grown Ups (2010) to Moms’ Night Out (2014), portray dads as
bumbling and in over their head. Fathers alone with their children are often
played to comic effect: He’ll burn the toast, dress his daughter in summer
clothes on a winter day, or mix darks with lights in the washer.19 Exasperated
women are often shown swooping in and relieving men of household duties on
the understanding that it would be easier for them to just do it themselves.

the assumption that childcare is primarily for mothers shows up in advertisements for a
variety of products.

293G E N D E R E D H O U S E W O R K A N D   P A R E N T I N G

Housework and Childcare in Practice

Exposed to these cultural messages, many people internalize the idea that house-
work and childcare are feminized activities. A study of men with male room-
mates, for example, found that many of them thought cleanliness was “girly.”20
Doing masculinity meant not caring whether the house was clean, or at least
pretending not to care. “It’s whatever,” said Rick when asked about how he and
his roommates keep the house clean. He insisted that he didn’t even think about
it. “It doesn’t really matter. I mean, it’s not like something I consider. It’s not like
I’m caring about it if it happens or not.”21

Since caring about cleanliness is feminized and our society is androcentric,
these men avoided doing household tasks if they could. Jeremy explained that
when all the dishes were dirty, they’d eat out or order in rather than wash them.
When these men did do housework, they had to come up with an account: some
motivation other than a feminized desire for cleanliness. They would put off
doing laundry until they had nothing left to wear or wait to clean the toilet until
their moms were coming for a visit.

Of course, manliness, however it is socially constructed, is not a natural or
universal trait in men. So, while some men were quite comfortable with this

the a bC comedy Baby Daddy, about a twentysomething who suddenly becomes a father after a
one-night stand, uses the stereotype of fathers as incompetent caregivers to comedic effect.

Chapter 11  F a m i l i e s294

system, it frustrated other men who preferred cleanliness. “I’m not his wife,”
grumbled one cleanliness-inclined roommate. If he said nothing, he ended up
either living with the mess or doing the majority of the housework himself. If he
complained, he faced gender policing from his housemates.

Interviews with female partners of trans men also illustrate the feminization
of domestic work.22 In a study of these partnerships, women did the majority of
the housework and the trans men’s identity as men made this gendered division
of labor seem natural. Often this arrangement was justified by the trans men’s
masculinity. “He’s very forgetful and he doesn’t take care of himself and he’s
messy and all this other stuff,” said one interviewee named Lilia. “I feel like he’s
very specifically like a boy in this way.”23 That gendered division also made the
men’s female partners feel more feminine. Lilia continues: “I clean up on my
own free will and try and take care of him. . . . It makes me feel very female.”24

Studies of gay fathers suggest that childcare is feminized, too. Gay dads
sometimes use language associated with women to describe their desire for
children and their role as a caregiver. They talk about listening to their “biolog-
ical clocks,” having “maternal instincts,” and being “housewives” and “soccer
moms.”25 An excerpt from a conversation between Nico and Drew, for example,
a couple with twin toddlers, shows just how much the “mother as true nurturer”
idea pervades their thinking about parenting:

Nico: Since I don’t work as often, I am more of the mom role. I am home more with
them. I’m the one who takes them to the park during the week and I usually
feed them and . . .

Drew: Wait, I am just as much a mommy as you! Just because my job is more
lucrative does not automatically make me the dad, and besides, we both
feed them dinner, read to them, get them to bed and I always do the dishes
so that you can relax.26

Nico and Drew both used language that indicated that parenting is a woman’s
activity: the “mom role.”

Even when men are actively parenting, the feminine social construction of
childcare causes others to see it as the exception rather than the rule.27 In a
study of stay-at-home fathers, a dad named Lew explained that strangers are
regularly inspired to comment on what they view as an odd sight—a man alone
with kids:

When I go out with the kids, people always say, “Oh, so you’re babysitting the
kids today?” Or, “Oh, it’s daddy’s day,” or “You must have the day off from work,”
or something like that. They assume that I work somewhere and this is just this
random day that I happen to be with the kids, which really irritates me.28

295G E N D E R E D H O U S E W O R K A N D   P A R E N T I N G

Other stay-at-home dads report similar experiences. One dad was confronted
by a group of police officers after they received a report that a “suspicious” man
was carrying a baby. In fact, he was walking through his own neighborhood
with his own child.

Studies of male roommates, gay couples, women partnered with trans men,
and single dads all reveal the feminization of housework and childcare. And, if
we zoom out, we find that family life is, in fact, strongly gendered.29 In America
today, both men and women in mixed-sex relationships are working hard, spend –
ing about the same amount of time on paid and unpaid work combined, but the
proportion of time men and women spend in paid and unpaid work differs in
gender-stereotypical ways. On average, mothers spend twenty-five hours per
week working for pay, while fathers spend nearly forty-three hours, an eighteen-
hour difference; fathers spend about eighteen hours per week on the house and
kids while mothers spend thirty-two, or fourteen more. To put it more simply,
fathers do about two-thirds of the paid work and one-third of the unpaid work,
and mothers do the inverse.30 This disparity grows larger as relationships
become more serious: from boyfriend/girlfriend to a couple that lives together,
from cohabitation to marriage, and from married to married with kids.31

b r e a d w i n n e r s , h o m e m a k e r s , a n d s u p e r s p o u s e s  As the averages
suggest, the most common type of family is one that involves specialization
(splitting unpaid and paid work so that each partner does more of one than
the other) instead of sharing (doing more or less symmetrical amounts of paid
and unpaid work). Some of these families resemble the idealized 1950s bread-
winner/homemaker model. Advocates of this model are called traditionalists:
they believe men should be responsible for earning income and women should
be responsible for housework and childcare. Frank, for instance, explains: “I
look at myself as pretty much a traditionalist. It’s the way I am inside. I feel that
the man should be the head of the house. He should have the final say.”32 Car-
men, Frank’s wife, agrees. She just wants to be “taken care of,” she says.33

We see traditional breadwinner/homemaker marriages mostly at the high-
est and lowest family income levels.34 Highly paid men who make the elusive
“family wage” can afford for one parent to stay home. Among the wealthiest 5 per-
cent of families, 42 percent include a stay-at-home parent. These families may
rely on one earner voluntarily.

Over half of families with incomes in the bottom 20 percent of households
also have a person who stays home full-time.35 Instead of being voluntary, this
is often the only choice for poorer families. In America the average cost of infant
care is $9,589 a year, an amount that exceeds the average in-state college
tuition.36 On average, childcare for children four and under will absorb 64 per-
cent of a full-time minimum-wage worker’s earnings; in Massachusetts, where
it’s the most expensive, it absorbs nearly 90 percent of the income of that same

Chapter 11  F a m i l i e s296

worker.37 If parents are low income, they may save money by leaving one or the
other partner at home.

In one-earner families, whether high or low income, the full-time home-
maker is usually a wife. Though there are twice as many stay-at-home dads as
there were twenty years ago, they account for only 5 percent of committed stay-
at-home parents.38 Four out of five dads at home report that they’re home only
because they’re unemployed, ill or disabled, in school, or retired. African Amer-
ican, Hispanic, and Asian men, and men with limited education, are more likely
to stay home than white men and highly educated men.39

A modified version of the breadwinner/homemaker marriage is the bread-
winner/superspouse marriage, one in which breadwinners focus on work and
their spouse both works and takes care of the home. Advocates of this model are
called neo-traditionalists: They believe that a woman should be able to work
if she desires, but only if it doesn’t interfere with her “real” duty to take care
of her husband and children. Many neo-traditionalists are in “one-and-a-half”
breadwinner marriages, where women’s part-time employment is fitted around
her primary obligation to be a homemaker. Sam, for example, a neo-traditionalist,
explains that he would accept a working wife, but, “[i]f she wanted to work, I
would assume it’s her responsibility to drop the kids off at grandma’s house or
something. She’s in charge of the kids. If she’s gonna work, fine, but you still
have responsibilities.”40 Unlike breadwinner/homemaker marriages, these fam-
ilies are usually economically secure but not wealthy: well-off enough to afford
day care, but not secure enough to live on one salary alone.

Superspouses are, to put it bluntly, busy. By definition, they work full- or
part-time and still take on the lion’s share of the second shift: juggling work,
the logistics of day care, and the needs of a spouse and children. The average
employed mother spends sixty-three hours a week on paid and unpaid work. 41
She also has four fewer hours of leisure time than your average employed father
and spends more time multitasking. 42

Especially if they’re women, superspouses also do the majority of the invis-
ible work: the intellectual, mental, and emotional work of parenting and house-
hold maintenance. They do more of the learning and information processing
(like researching pediatricians), more of the worrying (like wondering if their
child is hitting developmental milestones), and more of the organizing and dele-
gating (like deciding what to cook for dinner). As you can imagine, superspouses
often wear themselves out and can feel like they’re falling short in every part of
life: as a parent, as a spouse, and as an employee.

When dads step in to do some of this work, it is often described as “giv-
ing mommy a break,” “babysitting,” and “pitching in.”43 Traditional and neo-
traditional husbands can be good “helpers,” but usually only if their partners
actively give them tasks to do. Nina, for example, who is partnered with a trans
man, describes her management of their household this way: “I remind him to

297G E N D E R E D H O U S E W O R K A N D   P A R E N T I N G

do a lot, and am the planner and really sort of controlling about a lot of things.
He is the one who is super flaky and forgetful.  .  .  . So the dynamic is me try-
ing to keep on the ball about things and him assuming that I’m going to take
care of it.”44

The constant organizing and delegating of superspouses may make it seem
like they’re in charge at home, and in a sense they are, but “the assumption of
[largely] female responsibility [also] means that, on another level, [breadwin-
ners] are in charge—because it is only with their permission and cooperation
that women can relinquish their duties.”45 Getting breadwinners to help, in other
words, can sometimes be a job all its own. Ruth, in a relationship with Cindy for
nearly a decade, comments:

I have learned how to read Cindy for moods and I know when I can get her to do
stuff and when I can’t. It’s sort of a subtle negotiation. I don’t know if she realizes
that I am scanning the moments waiting to ask her to clean out the fireplace or
hose out the garage, but that’s what I do. I sort of get in tune with the rhythm of
her life now and it seems to work.46

superspouses like Claire dunphy are a fi xture of modern families. men’s involvement in family
life often comes at the margins of their commitment to paid jobs, while women are expected to
ensure that the fundamentals at home are taken care of, regardless of what jobs they hold.

Chapter 11  F a m i l i e s298

Don had something similar to say about his same-sex partner, Gill:

I have to prod him; “bitch at him” is what he would say. I have found it difficult to
figure out ways to bring up the condition of the house without creating too much of
a fight. I sort of have learned that there are certain times to bring it up. I especially
try to avoid bringing things up when he just gets home from work. I find he is more
willing to help, or at least to hear it, later at night. Of course, he doesn’t see any of
this—it’s annoying—nor does he recognize what an effort it is to get him to help.47

Even if superspouses don’t have to do it all, then, it’s still up to them to keep track
of what needs to be done, divvy up the work, and figure out how to cajole or
entice their partners into helping. 48 This makes many superspouses into frantic
taskmasters and can create ugly interpersonal dynamics. When they have to
ask for help, superspouses often feel like “nags,” while the breadwinner may
feel “henpecked.”

This isn’t just exhausting and bad for happiness in marriage, though; it is
objectively disempowering.

The Loss of  Status and Security

Victorian women introduced the ideology of intensive motherhood as a way
to resist the androcentric devaluation of the domestic sphere, but these efforts
were not wholly successful. Housework and childcare are still low-status activ-
ities. When journalist Ann Crittenden had her first child, for example, she was
a foreign correspondent for Newsweek, a financial reporter for The New York
Times, and a Pulitzer Prize nominee. None of this seemed to matter, she said,
when she became a mother. Whereas once she’d been “The Ann Crittenden” at
fancy New York cocktail parties, now she was “just a mom.” She wrote that she
felt like she’d “shed status like the skin off a snake.”49 A woman she interviewed
about this phenomenon explained how it felt to go from being a young profes-
sional to a young mother:

We are the very women who were successful in what the women’s revolution was
all about, which was to be able to get out there and be the equal of the guys. . . .
And suddenly [you have a baby and] you’re back in the female world. It’s a
shock. . . . Raising children is still part of a relatively low-status world. Everything
was gone once I started to stay home. In my new job as a mother, I had no salary
and no professional contacts. . . . No more dinners out. No work clothes. . . . It was
as if everything were being taken away from me.50

People sometimes say that a woman who stays at home “doesn’t do anything.”
“Oh, so you don’t work?” a homemaker might be asked, as she quickly mops the

299G E N D E R E D H O U S E W O R K A N D   P A R E N T I N G

kitchen floor so she can have time to run by the dry cleaner before picking up
her child from preschool, feeding him a snack, and finding something for him
to do so she can begin preparing dinner for her spouse and ten-year-old. Even
homemakers sometimes refer to their work as “just staying home”; doing noth-
ing important, in other words.

When we have asked our students what their parents would think if they
decided to have a child right after graduation and become a stay-at-home care-
giver, both men and women often suggest that their parents would be disap-
pointed, even aghast. Among other possible responses, students imagine their
parents would ask, “What did we spend all that money on college for!?” or
exclaim, “That would be a waste of your intelligence!” It’s as if people think
parenting requires zero knowledge and even less brain power.

No wonder many men aren’t interested in doing it. In fact, many men express
just these sentiments when asked how they would feel if they specialized in
domestic labor. Josh, for instance, explains:

I would never stay home. I have a friend who’s like that, and I strongly disapprove.
The father just stays home. I think it’s wrong because his wife’s out there working
seven days a week, and he’s doing nothing except staying home.51

Gay men often view housework similarly. Rich, for example, asked, “What about
one’s self-respect?” when he contemplated being a full-time homemaker. “I don’t
see how one could live with oneself by not doing something for a living.”52 Note
how Josh and Rich’s language—“doing nothing” vs. “doing something”—betrays
their belief that feminized household labor isn’t really anything at all.

In interpersonal relationships, those who specialize in domestic work some-
times feel as though their partners don’t value their contribution to the house-
hold, and they might be right. In an interview, a husband let slip how little
regard he had for the last twelve years of his wife Kuae’s life, during which time
she’d been a stay-at-home mom:

Being the kind of person I am, Type A . . . always going after something, I wonder
what I could have done, having twelve years to sort of think about what I want to
do. I sometimes think, Wow, I could have been an astronaut in twelve years, or I
could have been something different that I’d really enjoy.  .  .  . What could I have
been in twelve years of self-discovery? 53

His comments reveal indirectly that he was wondering what Kuae had been
doing, as if taking care of a home and three children took no time at all. To him,
she had done nothing, effectively wasting those twelve years. For her part, Kuae
was well aware that her husband devalued her work at home: “I think he has
struggled with assigning value,” she said stonily.

Chapter 11  F a m i l i e s300

People who specialize in the unpaid labor of the household might also feel
they have less of a voice in their relationships. One wife who quit her job to stay
home with her children gave an example of how she’d lost bargaining power:

It’s funny now because he is the breadwinner so there have been . . . opportunities
to relocate and get a better position and the money was better. You’re just put
in a position where you have to just follow. Before when we were both working
we would talk it out. I’d say, “No, I want to stay here.” And now you really can’t.54

Stay-at-home fathers can feel similarly. About his wife, one explained,

She’s the one bringing home the money right now so I feel, in financial decisions,
I feel a little, I don’t want to use the word uncomfortable, but I mean a little bit
more uncomfortable about, saying oh, we should spend, we should buy this or do
this or that sort of thing. Yeah, I guess I’m a little self-conscious in a way that I’m
not contributing to our financial means.55

We see these status and power differences in all kinds of couples where one
person specializes in domestic work: among mixed-sex neo-traditionalists,
gender-swapped mixed-sex couples, same-sex relationships, and even poly-
amorous relationships involving three or more people.56 In losing status,
homemakers often feel at least somewhat subordinated to their breadwin-
ners.  The vulnerability that comes with taking disproportionate responsibil-
ity  for domestic work, though, isn’t limited to status and interpersonal power.
It’s also economic.

t h e m o m m y t a x  Taking time out of the workforce to raise small children
and then reentering it with less momentum means lost wages, benefits, and
Social Security contributions. A college-educated American woman, for exam-
ple, is likely to sacrifice nearly $2 million over the course of her lifetime for the
pleasures of having children.57 Mothers who take three years or more off incur,
on average, a 37 percent decrease in income; mothers who take less than a year
off see a drop of 11 percent.58 It’s wryly called the “mommy tax.”59

These numbers reveal that one of the functions of marriage is still to trans-
fer economic resources from men to women, or breadwinners to caregivers. As
long as homemakers or superspouses remain married to breadwinners who are
willing to share their income and wealth, this may not be very noticeable, but
if the breadwinners rescind their support or the family-focused spouse chooses
divorce, the economic vulnerability of the latter can become painfully obvi-
ous. This asymmetric focus, then, with caregivers spending more time with
the house and children and breadwinners spending more time at work, may
look fair on the face of it—they both put in approximately the same number of
hours on their shared lives—but because we reward only one of those jobs with

301G E N D E R E D H O U S E W O R K A N D   P A R E N T I N G

money, this asymmetry hurts caregivers (mostly women) more than breadwin-
ners (mostly men) in the long run. In same-sex partnerships, it harms anyone
who takes a feminized role.

Outsourcing Inequalities

One way to adjust this asymmetry is to hire help. Some neo-traditional fami-
lies engage in extensive domestic outsourcing: paying nonfamily members to
do family-related tasks. Such arrangements are especially common among
highly educated, career-focused, professional-class couples working in fields like
tech, medicine, law, or finance. If both parents want to remain on accelerated
career tracks, most of these families will need to hire a substantial amount of
outside help.

To a certain extent, some level of domestic outsourcing is now the rule for
families. Nannies are outsourced childcare, for example, but so is in-home or
institutional day care. We also outsource meals (eating in restaurants, getting
take-out, ordering delivery, or buying prepared meals from the grocery store),
work around the house (hiring housekeepers, gardeners, a “handyman” to fix
things, a neighbor kid to shovel the sidewalk after it snows), chores and errands
(accountants, tailors, dry cleaners, dog groomers, drivers, or mechanics), and

this photo features an example of the top of the care chain, in which the caregiving of middle-
or upper-class children becomes the responsibility of poorer women, often women of color,
whose own children receive less care as a result.

Chapter 11  F a m i l i e s302

direct childcare and instruction ( babysitters, of course, but also tutors, swim-
ming instructors, and camp counselors).

Outsourcing is a way couples with class privilege can build and maintain
egal itarian relationships, but it does nothing to undermine the devaluation of
fem inized work. Instead, it displaces the harm, pushing it off onto other, more
disadvantaged women and deepening the inequality among them.60 When fam-
ilies outsource childrearing and domestic work, the people they hire are almost
always female and poorer than the family members who are buying their services:
95 percent of domestic workers are women, 54 percent are a racial or ethnic
minority, 32 percent have less than a high school education, 46 percent are for-
eign born, and 35 percent are noncitizens.61

Domestic jobs are generally considered “bad jobs,” ones with long hours,
low pay, little flexibility, no security or chance for advancement, and few bene-
fits. The average wage for a live-in nanny, for example, is $6.76 an hour.62 Only
as of 2013 were domestic workers legally entitled to pay at or above the mini-
mum wage and to days off, overtime, and contributions to their Social Security
accounts. The Supreme Court has also denied them the right to unionize.

Importantly, many of the women who perform housework and childcare for
other people also have children of their own, and they usually are not allowed
to bring them to work. Because their wages are low, they purchase the even
lower-wage services of even poorer women. These women, in turn, leave their
own children with family members or friends. Sociologist Rhacel Parreñas calls
this a care chain, a series of nurturing relationships in which the care of chil-
dren, the disabled, or the elderly is displaced onto increasingly disadvantaged
paid or unpaid carers. She explains:

An older daughter from a poor family in a third world country cares for her sib-
lings (the first link in the chain) while her mother works as a nanny caring for the
children of a nanny migrating to a first world country (the second link) who, in
turn, cares for the child of a family in a rich country (the final link).63

Caring brings in decreasing financial returns as you go down the chain. A nanny
working for a wealthy family in the United States might earn $400 a week. She, in
turn, may pay a live-in domestic worker in her country of origin $40 a week. That
worker may leave her children to be taken care of by their older sister or grand-
mother for free.

These care chains are not only economic; they displace love and its benefits by
pushing it up the chain.64 Nannies who are also parents find their love and atten-
tion displaced onto their employers’ children.65 They spend weekdays organizing
and chaperoning character- and skill-building activities with the children they’re
paid to care for; on weekends and evenings they have to fit in their own errands,

303G E N D E R E D H O U S E W O R K A N D   P A R E N T I N G

house cleaning, and other routine activities for their own families. A nanny may
enjoy this time with her children but having to fit in all the work that’s part of her
own second shift will substantially cut down on quality time.

This displacement is especially extreme for migrants. Vicky, a thirty-four-
year-old mother who left the Philippines to work for a family in Beverly Hills,
explains how she misses her five children: “[It’s] very depressing,” she sighed. She
finds solace in loving the child for whom she nannies: “In my absence from my
children, the most I could do with my situation is give all my love to that child.”

So the child in Beverly Hills benefits from Vicky’s love as well as the love
of his or her own parents. Vicky’s time and attention are diverted from her own
children, whom she can love only from afar. That absence is partially filled by
attention from their lower-paid nanny in the Philippines, who likely has her own
child or children in an even less secure arrangement, where they are deprived
of a certain amount of love and attention from their own mother. In other words,
the excess love that the child in Beverly Hills receives comes at the expense of
other, less fortunate children.

Class-privileged women, and others married to breadwinners, can replace
themselves. In making this patriarchal bargain, they may avoid (some of ) the
mommy tax and excel at work, thereby dodging the consequences that come with
being “just” a mom or stay-at-home dad. That’s nice, but it isn’t “women’s libera-
tion,” even when women do it, because it depends on another woman coming in to
do that work. Outsourcing may help individual women and other family-focused
spouses, but it doesn’t lift up women as a group, nor does it undermine the deval-
uation of femininity or avoid perpetuating gendered forms of subordination.66

In sum, because of androcentrism, we devalue the feminized domestic sphere
relative to the masculinized work sphere. Because of sexism, we feel comfortable
expecting women to bear the brunt of this trivialized, unpaid, and sometimes
disparaged activity. And an intersectional lens reveals that when the harm is
displaced, it is often displaced onto women of color, poor women, and migrant
women. In this way, mixed-sex partnerships are a systematic form of gender sub-
ordination not unlike the relationships between doctors and nurses or bosses
and secretaries: They bring men and women into different and unequal relation-
ships. The fact that this occurs through coupling instead of occupational choices
doesn’t mean it’s not a form of inequality; it’s just a particularly intimate one.

Is this what people really want? It turns out, mostly not. When the sociolo-
gist Kathleen Gerson asked eighteen- to thirty-four-year-olds how they would ide-
ally divide homemaking and breadwinning in a mixed-sex relationship, only
a minority said they wanted to do so by gender.67 The majority—about 80 per-
cent of women and 70 percent of men across all races, classes, and family back-
grounds—said they preferred a relationship with “flexible gender boundaries.”68
Among people under thirty, almost no one idealizes strongly gendered divisions

Chapter 11  F a m i l i e s304

of labor anymore.69 Most men and women today are neither traditionalists nor
neo-traditionalists; they’re egalitarians, preferring relationships in which both
partners do their fair share of breadwinning, housekeeping, and childrearing.

This raises a question: If men and women want relationships in which they
share paid and unpaid work about equally, why do studies find that both mixed-
and same-sex couples specialize in practice? The answer, as you’ll see in the
next section, is that sharing is hard.


Both work and family are greedy institutions, ones that take up an incredible
amount of time and energy.70 High expectations for workers intersect with high
expectations for parenting, making it difficult or impossible for people to be suc-
cessful at work, feel good about how much time they spend at home, and attend to
their personal well-being.71 Often couples come to the conclusion that one or both
partners need to spend less time at work and more time at home.

Institutional Barriers

Features of the economy make it difficult for both parents to share. Real shar-
ing often means both spouses need to retreat into lower-paying, less demand-
ing occupations or, alternatively, work part-time. Most families can’t afford to
have all their income be compromised by low wages or limited hours; they may,
though, be able to afford one compromised income.

Even if a family could theoretically afford two compromised incomes, mar-
riage and employment law can make this challenging. Most families access health
insurance through a parent’s employer, but this benefit typically accrues only to
employees who work a forty-hour workweek. Families with no employer-provided
insurance rely on the health care markets—colloquially called “Obamacare”—but
these are substantially more expensive, especially for a family of three or more.
If possible, the smartest financial choice for a family is to have at least one adult
who can satisfy an entire family’s health care needs through an employer. In other
words, a breadwinner. Citizens of countries with nationalized health care don’t
face this problem, giving them more options for how to organize their families.

Among high-income earners, the Social Security tax further rewards bread-
winner/homemaker families over those that share these duties; the income of a
couple in which one earns $140,000 a year and the other earns nothing is taxed
less than a couple in which both partners earn $70,000.72 This is a tax incentive
for specializing couples and a tax burden for sharing ones.

305B A R R I E R S T O E Q U A L S H A R I N G

The scarcity of time also constrains families’ options. The placement of homes,
childcare centers, workplaces, and doctors’ offices in different parts of town is an
institutional barrier to sharing paid and unpaid work. Long commutes add to the
workday, making it even more difficult for income earners to participate in home
life. Commutes aren’t inevitable but a consequence of zoning laws that separate
residential and commercial districts. If we zoned differently, it might be easier for
families to share housework.

When couples realize that specialization is necessary, often the smartest thing
to do is rely on the career of the partner who has a higher salary and greater
opportunity for advancement. But the workplace, as the next chapter will make
clear, is no more gender-neutral than the family. In mixed-sex relationships,
men typically earn more money than women, making it sensible for many fam-
ilies to choose to prioritize the man’s career for purely economic reasons. But
even when the woman is better paid, protecting the man’s ego becomes a reason
to defer to his job, and she is the one who makes amends with housework.73

If a child arrives, it may make sense, above and beyond any biological or ideo-
logical reasons, for the mother to take time off from work instead of the father.
Many moms relish this opportunity and many dads are jealous. Still, there is a
price to pay: Each month a woman stays out of the workforce is a month in which
her partner is building a career. By the time she’s ready to work full-time again,
he’s “ahead” of her. He may have gotten a promotion or a raise; in any case, his
greater experience now makes him more employable.

Now it makes even more economic sense for the couple to prioritize his career
instead of hers. Instead of deciding to let her take a turn—so she can prioritize work
for a while and he can enjoy the pleasures of family life—she may get a part-time
job or switch to a less demanding occupation. This may be the best option for the
pair, but it also strengthens his advantage over her in the workplace and moti-
vates continued specialization. The more a couple specializes, the more economic
sense it makes to continue doing so.

As new mothers cut back on their work hours, new fathers ramp up at work.74
As is clear in Figure 11.1, additional children accelerate this trend. As a result of
their longer workdays, men often do less housework.75 In response, wives often
work even less, citing their husbands’ hours and the new housework demands
as a reason why.76 Once a couple specializes, even if they imagine it is just a
temporary concession to time pressures, there is a tendency for the disparity to
grow and grow.

All of this helps explain, too, why three-quarters of same-sex couples also spe-
cialize.77 Their divisions of labor are generally more equal than those of mixed-sex
couples, come in more diverse forms, and follow logics other than gender differ-
ence, but they are subject to the same social forces pushing them toward special-
ization.78 So, most same-sex couples specialize, especially once they have kids.

Chapter 11  F a m i l i e s306

“The truth is,” said psychologist Abbie Goldberg, “same-sex couples wrestle with
the same dynamics as heterosexuals. Things are humming along and then you
have a baby or adopt a child, and all of a sudden there’s an uncountable amount
of work.” Facing that uncountable amount of work, and state and workplace poli-
cies that reward specialization, same-sex couples make many of the same choices
that mixed-sex couples do. Sarah, for example, a woman raising five children
with her wife, explained: “For me, the choice to stay home seems easier than
us both working and both stressing about who’s going to do what. That just
seems impossible.”

Institutional forces make sharing difficult, pushing couples of all kinds toward
specialization, especially once they have children. For mixed-sex relationships,
there is further ideological pressure to make that specialization gendered.

Ideological Barriers

Recall that men were pressed into wage work during the Industrial Revolution
and told to be good cogs in the profit-making capitalist machine: reliable workers
who would put their companies before their families. In return, they were prom-
ised wives who would make their homes a caring refuge from work. Women, for
their part, were sold the cult of domesticity, an ideology that sold dependency

f i g u r e 1 1 . 1  | AVER AGE NUMBER OF PAID WORK HOURS







10 20 30 40 50





No children

Two children

One child

Three or more

Hours per week

Source: Pew Research Center, “On Pay Gap, Millennial Women Near Parity—For Now,” December 11, 2013,

307B A R R I E R S T O E Q U A L S H A R I N G

on men with the promise that women could avoid the dog-eat-dog world of work
and be supported by adoring husbands. These ideas still have a strong purchase
on American culture such that, when push comes to shove, many men have a
hard time abandoning the breadwinner role and many women find themselves
strongly drawn to the idea of being the warm center of family life.

When egalitarian men are asked about their “fallback plan,” for example—
what they would like to do if they discovered that sharing wasn’t possible—
70 percent choose a neo-traditional arrangement.79 It turns out, if equal sharing
proves too difficult, men overwhelmingly hope to convince their partners to
de-prioritize their careers and focus on homemaking and raising children. Mat-
thew exemplifies this plan:

If I could have the ideal world, I’d like to have a partner who’s making as much
as I am—someone who’s ambitious and likes to achieve. [But] if it can’t be equal,
I would be the breadwinner and be there for helping with homework at night.80

Most men value their role as workers too much—and perhaps homemaking too
little—to imagine de-prioritizing their own career. “If somebody’s gonna be the
breadwinner,” Jim said, “it’s going to be me.”81

Only a quarter of egalitarian women prefer neo-traditionalism as a fallback
plan, but they may find themselves negotiating about how to divide labor with a
husband who does. They may not like it, but they may also not be willing to let
their ideas about marriage end their actual marriage. Simultaneously, they may
find themselves the subject of a set of ideas about parenting that powerfully
shapes their thinking about their role in the family.

Whatever their beliefs about marriage, many women, especially those in the
middle and upper classes, ascribe to the ideology of intensive motherhood and
aim, or wish, to put their children at the center of their lives. “For me,” said one
such mother, “I feel it is vital to be there for my children every day, to consis-
tently tend to their needs, to grow their self-esteem, and to praise them when
they’re right, to guide them when they’re not, and to be a loving, caring mom
every minute of the day.”82

Women who can’t intensively mother will often either feel like they’re failing
at motherhood, or be judged by others as failing. Women who work full-time,
migrate to another country to support their families, do their mothering from
prison, or ascribe to a different model of motherhood, for example, are all often
criticized or pitied for their failure to do mothering right. When women can,
they often try their best to live up to this expectation. “I think that people don’t
look at you and say, ‘oh, there’s a good mother,’ ” said one such mother, “but they
will look at people and say, ‘oh, there’s a bad mother.’ Being a mother, I worry
about what everyone else is going to think.”83

Chapter 11  F a m i l i e s308

In this sense, mothers face a double bind that fathers do not. On the one
hand, their paid employment may be necessary for paying the bills, buying a
house in a good school district, or saving for college tuition. On the other hand,
intensive mothering is deemed crucial in giving their child “an edge.” This
escalating competition for maternal time has been called the “rug rat race.”84
Fear of falling behind drives many mothers to do as much as they can; and rich
or poor, no amount is ever enough.

If they have the resources, many mothers will choose to disinvest in their
careers, at least in the short term. If they have a husband, he likely agrees. Faced
with these ideological and institutional pressures, many otherwise egalitarian
women and men will choose a traditional or neo-traditional arrangement. This
may satisfy many men. Recall that the majority of men choose neo-traditional
family forms as their fallback plan, but only a quarter of women do the same.
What do women overwhelmingly choose as their fallback plan? In that same
study, they chose divorce.


As illustrated in Figure 11.2, faced with a husband who insists that they should
be a homemaker or work part-time, almost three-quarters of women would rather
divorce and raise their kids alone. Fifty-nine percent and 66 percent of women
say that parenting and working, respectively, is “very important” or, even, “one
of the most important things” in their lives.85 Only 37 percent say the same
about marriage.

What appears to be a happy convergence between men’s and women’s ide-
als—both are egalitarians—can turn into an intractable situation. When their
ideals bump up against an institutional context that makes sharing difficult,
and their fallback plans come to the fore, many couples feel betrayed and resent-
ful. Some of these couples will divorce. And, when couples separate, custody is
granted to the mother the majority of the time: 80 percent of custodial parents
are mothers and almost half of all mothers will spend at least some time as a
single parent.86

Other people simply won’t end up with someone either to share or spe-
cialize with at all. About a third of adults—including both heterosexuals and
sexual minorities—will spend their prime childbearing and rearing years
without a spouse.87 Many of these individuals will choose to have and raise chil-
dren anyway.

Sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, for example, spent five years
getting to know 162 racially diverse low-income single mothers in Philadel-
phia.88 Many of them had children while they were young and unmarried, some-

309G O I N G I T A L O N E

thing many Americans believe to be self-defeating. Why did these women make
this choice? Why didn’t they work hard in school, go to college, find a job and a
husband, and then have children?

The answer to this question is counterintuitive. While the U.S. government
has argued that the answer to unmarried mothers in poverty is to convince
them to value marriage, these young women already value marriage very much.
The marriages in their neighborhoods are all too often torn apart by poverty
and men’s imprisonment. With these relationships in mind, young women are
hopeful yet skeptical about the possibility of finding someone with whom they
can build a stable relationship. If they do find someone, they often wait five or
ten years before marrying the man they’re dating. They want to be as sure as
possible that their partnership will last. In contrast, middle-class women tend
to feel confident they can make a marriage work, so they wait only one or two
years. It’s exactly because low-income women take marriage so seriously, and
understand its fragility, that they’re less likely to marry before having a child.

And when young low-income women do get pregnant, they may have more
reason to have the child than not. Middle- and upper-class women in high school
see a child as interfering with their plans for college and a career. Poor youth
don’t often imagine that these things are on the horizon for them, and they may
be right. So why should they wait? They consider an early pregnancy less than
ideal, but something they can embrace. Moreover, children help make a difficult

f i g u r e 1 1 . 2  | MEN’S AND WOMEN’S FALLBACK PLANS









Women’s ideas Women’s

fallback position
Men’s fallback

Men’s ideas




Source: Kathleen Gerson, The Unfinished Revolution: Coming of Age in a New Era of Gender, Work, and Family (New York:
Oxford University Press, 2010), 129.

Chapter 11  F a m i l i e s310

life feel meaningful.89 Parenting is one of the few truly important and rewarding
activities that isn’t systematically made unavailable to them.

On the other end of the class spectrum, some middle- and upper-class
women make the same choice at an older age.90 As having a child “out of wed-
lock” has become less stigmatized, voluntary unmarried motherhood has
increased. Between 1994 and 2014, the number of women who reached their
mid-forties as never-married mothers tripled, and an increased proportion of
these were women with postgraduate degrees like JDs, MDs, and PhDs.91 Some
of these women cohabitated instead of marrying and some had children before
starting or completing their education, but others simply never found a part-
ner with whom to have a child. As they age, these women may perceive their
“biological clock” as offering them only a choice between “settling” for a hus-
band they wouldn’t freely choose (which some do) or having a child on their
own.92 Anna, a forty-year-old “single mother by choice,” explains how she came
to her decision:

I really believe that children are made from two people that love each other and
want to create a family. But if that is not an option, you just have to draw a way
around really. Because if you are running out of time, you just have to see what
option you have to have a child. And then have a father [ later].93

When women today have the economic resources, access to technology, and
enough social support to make a family without a husband, increasingly, they do.

Single parenting—whether after divorce or by choice—exposes the economic
vulnerability that comes with responsibility for housework and childcare. Forty-
three percent of single mothers live below the poverty line, compared to 24 per-
cent of single fathers.94 Nearly a third of families led by single mothers are food
insecure, with 13 percent using food pantries; a third spend more than half their
income on housing.95

Some of these single parents are poor because they aren’t working. This
is partly because it’s just not possible to be at work and at home at the same
time. Day care is a must. But, as we’ve already discussed, day care costs often
exceed the earnings of a person working full-time, even more than full-time, if
it pays near minimum wage. Or childcare leaves so little money left over that
it’s impossible to afford even an austere lifestyle. For some single parents, the
math just doesn’t add up.

Government subsidies for low-income single parents help some out of this
bind, but these programs are woefully underfunded in the United States and
don’t reach a large proportion of the people in need. Even if they are able to
access these programs, parents are only allowed to use them for two years, after
which they are ineligible. Twenty American states have children on waiting
lists for subsidized childcare. In the state with the longest waiting list, Texas,

311G O I N G I T A L O N E

parents of 41,600 children are eligible, but the state has no money for them and
nowhere to place them.96 When single parents can’t afford to work because of
the cost of childcare and failing public services, it contributes to the short- and
long-term financial fragility of caregivers.

Most single parents work full-time, though, and many of them are in poverty,
too. Nearly three-quarters of single moms work for wages, but this doesn’t guar-
antee financial security.97 The U.S. federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. A full-
time employee earning minimum wage who doesn’t miss a single day of work for
a year earns $290 a week before taxes; that’s $15,080 a year. According to how the
government measures poverty, that’s enough to support a single adult but, for a
single adult with a child, it’s officially below the poverty line.98 Consequently,
25 percent of single mothers and 15 percent of single fathers are working poor,
individuals who work but still live in poverty.99

The economic costs and structural contradictions of single parenting apply
to everyone, but women bear the brunt of the disadvantage. This is because
women are more likely to specialize in domestic work, more likely to end up as
single parents, and more likely to work in underpaid industries. As a result, we
are seeing a feminization of poverty, a trend in which the poor are increasingly
women and, of course, their children, too. Stunningly, becoming a mother has
been identified as the single strongest predictor of bankruptcy in middle age
and poverty in old age.100

Divorcees who are lucky enough to have a higher income, as well as the
upper- and upper-middle-class women who choose to raise children on their
own, may do fine financially. But doing so often means working demanding jobs
that require them to engage in extensive domestic outsourcing. For high-income
single mothers, this might mean hiring a nanny; for those with middle incomes,
it might involve a twice-monthly housekeeper, day care, and lots of take-out
dinners. In both cases, they’re able to trade economic resources for goods and
services that mothers have traditionally provided, at the risk of exacerbating
inequality between women.

So far we’ve discussed how ideological and institutional forces press families
to make often-gendered choices that align with a traditional or neo-traditional
ideology. These forces typically reinscribe sexism, androcentrism, and sub-
ordination. Alternatively, couples try to create equity in their partnership by
outsourcing, though this, in turn, reinscribes class, race, and migration-related
inequalities. Not uncommonly, domestic arguments about how to divide paid
and unpaid work end in divorce. Other individuals never find anyone to share or
specialize with at all and choose single parenthood out of a sense of necessity.
The financial struggles of single parents, especially when they’re low income,
signal the extent to which the system is still designed with breadwinner/
housewives in mind. That is, it is still assuming and promoting women’s depen-
dence on men.

Chapter 11  F a m i l i e s312

Perhaps that is why, in the past one hundred years, women in traditional
household arrangements have been among the most unhappy.101 Like the 1950s
housewives who took tranquilizers to get through their days, today’s stay-at-home
mothers are decidedly less happy on average than moms who work. Even if they
really wanted to be a stay-at-home wife, often they find being one less fulfilling
or comfortable than they imagined. Likewise, neo-traditional households, with
their overworked, “nagging” wives and entitled, “hen-pecked” husbands, are often
embattled and unstable. Partly for this reason, these partnerships end in divorce
more often than any other kind.102

What are our alternatives?


In this section, we review three alternative ways of arranging family life: engag-
ing in dual-nurturing, deciding not to have children, and constructing non-
nuclear families.


If one strategy for creating equity between two spouses is for both to orient
themselves toward their careers, another is for both spouses to point their ener-
gies in the opposite direction. Dual-nurturers turn away from work and toward
the home to focus together on the housework and childcare.103 They make the
second shift their priority. Pulling back on their career ambitions and financial
goals enables couples truly to share.

Not everyone has the resources to adopt this strategy. In addition to needing
to be able to tolerate lower incomes, institutional forces penalize dual-nurturers,
making it expensive and increasing the family’s tax burden. Adopting dual-
nurturing, then, means making economic sacrifices. For some dual-nurturers,
the opportunity arises because of the nature of their work: They may share farm
labor, run a small business together out of their home, hold jobs with odd but com-
plementary schedules like teachers and firefighters.104 Some have jobs with high
enough incomes that they can actually both work part-time or both forgo career
investments that would cost them too much time. But dual-nurturers are gener-
ally only able to disinvest at work if they already have some financial advantage.
A freelance editor and an accountant, for example, may each be able to work part-
time but charge very high hourly rates for what work they do. Together, they might

313N E W , E M E R G I N G , A N D E R S T W H I L E F A M I L Y F O R M S

make enough money to pay their bills, while taking turns being home during the
day with their children.

In making these choices, dual-nurturers can challenge the sexist idea that
women should be held uniquely responsible for the undervalued work of house-
work and childcare, the one that so often translates into gendered subordina-
tion. Partly for this reason, dual-nurturers are among the happiest of mixed-sex
couples.105 The higher likelihood of sharing among same-sex couples is one
theory for why they are happier on average than mixed-sex ones.106

Dual-nurturing, though, doesn’t undermine the androcentric devaluation of
childcare and housework. Instead, both partners simply have to live with it. The
low status and economic risks faced by homemakers and superspouses, in other
words, accrue to both members of a dual-nurturer couple. It takes a real ideolog-
ical commitment by both partners, along with a substantial financial advantage,
to make it work.

Even in these couples, though, the ideological commitment to the male bread-
winner and female homemaker lingers. Sociologists generally consider duties
shared if the division of labor is between 40/60 and 60/40. It turns out that half-
and-half arrangements where men and women in mixed-sex relationships split
paid and unpaid work exactly 50/50 are not the happiest of sharing agreements.107
They’re the second happiest. The happiest are ones in which there is a slightly
asymmetrical division of labor tilted in the stereotypical direction: a woman who
does 60 percent of the domestic work and a man who does 60 percent of the bread-
winning. Gender-swapped relationships—in which the man does 60 percent of the
homemaking and the woman does 60 percent of the breadwinning—are the least
happy of the three (though they are still happier than breadwinner/homemaker
and breadwinner/superspouse marriages). This suggests that people in mixed-
sex partnerships are more comfortable with almost sharing than with sharing,
and that when the script gets flipped, it can strain relationships.

Choosing Not to Have Children

Faced with the challenge of balancing work and family life, some adults choose
not to have children at all. In 2016, the U.S. birthrate was the lowest on record
in the last thirty years.108 One out of seven Americans between the ages of forty
and forty-four is without children.109 While traditionally women with higher
levels of education were most likely to eschew childbearing, women with less
education are increasingly following suit.

The decision to go “childfree” is partly a response to the demands of the ideol-
ogy of intensive mothering and concerted cultivation. Kay, a twenty-four-year-
old accountant-in-training, explained why she didn’t want to become a mother:

Chapter 11  F a m i l i e s314

To be honest, the biggest thing that comes to mind is sacrifice. And it just seems
sacrifice of your own personal identity and all of your own wishes or desires, you
have to give those up for someone else. It just seems a terrible, terrible burden.110

Especially for middle- and upper-class women and men, opting not to have chil-
dren may be attractive because it offers them the opportunity to do other inter-
esting things. This concept is still rather new for women. Highly effective birth
control options and abortion became legal and accessible only during the late
’60s and ’70s, and only since then have women had the opportunity to excel in
challenging, respected, and high-paying careers. For women who have access to
these occupations, having children is no longer the only way to feel like they’re
doing something valuable with their lives.

In fact, while some child-raising arrangements make for happier couples than
others, it is not having kids that might be associated with the greatest happi-
ness.111 It depends on how you measure it. Parents report a greater sense of pur-
pose and meaning in life than nonparents. They are more satisfied with their
lives, more assured that their life has purpose. Anthony, for example, gushed
about the meaning having a child gave to his life: “You have this little person
who desperately needs you, and nothing in the world is more important to you.”112

In contrast, nonparents may be less fulfilled, but they are happier day-to-day.
Parents, especially women, report more frequent negative emotions than non –
parents, more distressing financial problems, lower-quality marital relationships,
and higher levels of depression, distress, and anxiety. This is especially true
when parents have young children but is also true long after the kids have left
the house.113 Samantha, for example, a thirty-four-year-old professional, decided
that she wasn’t interested in the daily demands of parenting: “the little baby
voices, and the screaming, and the tantrums, and the constant questions.”114
She wanted to continue to excel in her career, travel, enjoy delicious meals, and
bask in quiet afternoons. And she did.

By this measure, parents are less happy than nonparents across the globe.115 In
almost all kinds of countries—developing or developed, socialist or democratic,
conservative or liberal—raising kids is associated with a decline in well-being. In
most cases, the more children people have, the less happy they are.

There are two clear exceptions. One is when people live in societies that offer
very little or no safety net to the old. In countries in which children keep their
parents out of poverty, people with kids are happier than people without, but only
after their kids are grown up. The other is when countries offer generous family-
friendly policies: paid time off after the birth or adoption of a child, free or afford-
able day care, flexible work hours, and ample vacation time and sick leave.116 The
United States is neither so harsh to its elderly nor so generous to its parents. In
fact, the happiness gap between parents and nonparents in the United States is
the largest in the industrialized world.117

315N E W , E M E R G I N G , A N D E R S T W H I L E F A M I L Y F O R M S

Some people realize this and choose not to have children because they believe
they’ll be happier if they do not. For women, this choice is especially fraught. The
cult of domesticity impels women to become mothers, suggesting that it is wom-
en’s nature and destiny to make homes for husbands and their children. Women
who do not do this are turning away from this social construction of womanhood
and refusing to take on a supportive role in family life. They may not be able to
perform enough feminine apologetic to satisfy some people in their lives or even
the bystanders in their social environments.

This means that women who don’t have children, especially those who never
marry, are a kind of feminine pariah. They are the shrews, spinsters, and old maids
of fairy tales. In real life, they are objects of pity, criticism, and blame. Especially
if they have children and leave them, even in safe and happy circumstances, they
risk condemnation. More than bad mothers, such women may be called monsters.
Pariah status ensures that they serve as cautionary tales, warning young women
of what will happen to them if they don’t fulfill their reproductive duty.

Extending Families

As we discussed several chapters ago, our ancestors lived mostly in kinship
groups and depended on a wide circle of biologically related and unrelated adults
for survival. And, in fact, kinship and kinship-like family structures persist in
many cultures and are emergent in others. The Mosuo in China, for example,
practice what in English is referred to as “walking marriage.”118 Mothers live with
their mothers and grandmothers, who head the family. They may maintain a long-
term, monogamous, and romantic relationship with the father(s) of their children,
but the Mosuo consider this separate from motherhood and the childrearing
home. Instead of living with the mothers of their children, fathers live with their
own mothers. They may provide financial support and visit their children, but
neither is considered necessary. The children’s primary male role models are usu-
ally their uncles, who also live with the children’s grandmother, perhaps forming
walking marriages with women living in other extended family homes.

From the Mosuo point of view, separating romantic and sexual relationships
from the bearing and raising of children is smart. It ensures that romantic whims
and sexual urges don’t disrupt the happiness, health, and home life of the child.
Meanwhile, because the family of origin is never eclipsed by a procreative family,
the Mosuo system reduces the likelihood that elders will be abandoned by their
families when they need support in old age. And if a parent dies or disappears,
there is a whole family available to care for the child.

Extended families—ones in which married couples live with aunts, uncles,
grandmas, grandpas, and other relatives—most resemble the oldest human fam-
ily form and have persisted across the world in different ways. Today it remains

Chapter 11  F a m i l i e s316

common in the Middle East, Central and South America, sub-Saharan Africa,
and Asia.119 Other societies have tried to develop modern kinship networks. On
the Israeli kibbutz, children live in group homes and are tended to by profes-
sional caregivers.120 Parents spend a few hours a day with their children, bond-
ing and playing but leaving the routine care to the professionals. Particularly
in Mediterranean and Eastern European countries, parents often select god-
parents strategically.121 Godparents may be designated guardians in the case a
child is orphaned, but they are even more likely to contribute to a child’s educa-
tion or employment; in turn, godchildren may owe caregiving or economic sup-
port responsibilities to elderly godparents. In the United States, too, extended
family ties are crucial supports for overstretched parents.122

Among many African American residents of poor and low-income neighbor-
hoods in the United States today, young mothers rely on othermothers, women
in the neighborhood who act as substitute mothers out of inclination or kind-
ness.123 In turn, they are othermothers to other women’s children. Fatherhood, as
well, is often less closely connected to biology; men often act as otherfathers,
taking an interest even in children who are not their own.124 In these communi-
ties, both maternal and paternal attention comes from many different sources.
Sometimes it takes a village—and the village rises up in response.

a professional caregiver gets five cute toddlers ready for lunch on this kibbutz in western
Galilee, israel. Kibbutz life reflects the desire of Jewish immigrants to reconstruct labor
and caregiving collectives in israel after their actual extended families were killed in the

317N E W , E M E R G I N G , A N D E R S T W H I L E F A M I L Y F O R M S

If low-income parents are forced to get creative out of economic need, sex-
ual minorities have been forced to get creative due to biological and legal con-
straints. Especially before adoption and assisted-reproductive technologies
were legally available to them, sexual minorities formed “families by choice.”125
Two men in a relationship may have recruited a close female friend to be the
mother of their child or a lesbian couple may have asked a best male friend to
donate sperm. These adults then sometimes collaborated as co-parents, with
three or four adults collectively committed to building a family together. Even in
mixed-sex couples, turning to open adoption or surrogacy often brings another
biological parent into the mix of relations with children.

Moreover, because divorce and remarriage are so common, many families
today are made up of not just mom and dad, dad and dad, or mom and mom,
but mom, stepmom, dad, stepdad, and a whole host of nonbiologically related
siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins. In these cases, many adults
share responsibility and, in the case of shared custody, children often live in
more than one household at a time.

Increasingly, families in Western societies are starting out with a mix of biolog-
ical and chosen kin. An alternative to monogamy, polyamory is the open prac-
tice and encouragement of long-term intimate relationships with more than
one partner at a time. Children born into these partnerships may have many
adults on whom they can depend, who love and care for them as families did
before the nuclear family became the norm in the West.126 They may think it
odd that other children don’t have so many adults around. As one three-year-old
growing up in a polyamorous family exclaimed incredulously after a playdate
with a child growing up in a monogamous one, “Tasha only has two parents!
Just two of them!”127

Many hands make light work, so polyamorous and other forms of extended
families have the advantage of being able to share the burden of the second
shift across more than one or two adults. It’s easier to get the kids picked up
from school, help with homework, and make dinner when there are three or four
people to do it, or when one doesn’t have to do it every night of the week. More-
over, income from several adults may give the family more economic stability
and each individual greater flexibility, perhaps enabling many adults to work
less (not a dual- but a triple- or quadruple-nurturer arrangement) or one or more
adults to carry the burden of breadwinning and domestic work (combin ing
breadwinner/breadwinner/homemaker/superspouse into one arrangement).

In these arrangements, of course, there is a high probability that the adults
who take primary responsibility for housework and childcare will be women.
And furthermore, there is no guarantee that those individuals won’t suffer
reduced status, interpersonal power, and economic security; institutional fac-
tors all but ensure that they will. Moreover, as much as such arrangements have
the potential to ease the burden of the second shift by distributing it among

Chapter 11  F a m i l i e s318

many adults, there is also the potential of burdening just one family-focused
adult with supporting multiple breadwinners. Bigger families do not necessar-
ily translate into an absence of gender ideology, but they are one way that peo-
ple are trying to manage balancing paid work and the second shift and may be
a terrain on which gendered divisions of labor may be challenged.

R ev isiti ng t he Q uestion

I f m a r r i a g e i s b e t t e r f o r w o m e n t h a n e v e r, w h y d o w o m e n
m a r r i e d t o m e n r e p o r t l o w e r l e v e l s o f h a p p i n e s s t h a n
m e n m a r r i e d t o w o m e n , w o m e n m a r r i e d t o w o m e n , a n d
s i n g l e w o m e n?

Marriage contracts are no longer explicitly gendered, but gender continues to
organize family life. Even before a couple decides to marry, they start decid-
ing how to deal with patriarchal traditions embedded in our culture: whether
to have a gender-neutral or -specific wedding, to keep their last names or share
one (and whose name remains), and to have or adopt a child—or go childfree.
These and other choices become reflected in how gender infuses housework
and childcare, too.128

In contrast to actual divisions of labor, most men and women want to build
egalitarian families in which both paid and unpaid work is shared. Even when
both partners want this kind of balance, however, deep-seated ideological beliefs
and coercive institutional forces often make sharing difficult. Facing those diffi-
culties, happy couples can discover that their fallback plans diverge dramatically.
Relationships don’t always survive the negotiations that follow.

Meanwhile, the continued feminization of housework and childcare contrib-
utes to ongoing inequality. Doing domestic work translates into a loss of status,
bargaining power, and financial security. This situation harms everyone who
specializes in this work: homemakers, single parents, working parents married
to neo-traditionalists, dual-nurturers who turn away from work, and poorly paid
domestic workers. Overwhelmingly, these people are female.

Women are less happy than men in marriage, then, because it is an institu-
tion that systematically presses them into doing the low-status domestic work of
our society. This, in turn, puts them in the position of having less interpersonal
power and financial security than the people (mostly men) on whom they have
to depend. Same-sex couples’ decisions may not be based on biological sex, but
they reflect androcentrism and gendered subordination if the domestic work is
undervalued and the person who does it loses status and becomes dependent on
their partner for economic support.