How do sociological perspectives on sexuality differ from biological explanations

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Human beings are first and foremost social entities that function within wider social units. The social unit in the family, peer, gender or wider social context provides security through its inclusion, its sense of ‘belonging’. However, it also imposes its own set of rules upon an individual’s behavior.

Our current western culture theoretically values individuality to an unprecedented degree. Yet in any culture, including our own, a common set of values and ‘normal’ behavior patterns must be adhered to. Without these qualities social cohesion would not be possible. Within the context of our social environment we learn to ‘role-play’ the gender, personal and character traits with which we feel most comfortable.

One of the most dynamic areas of social interaction is that of sexuality and sexual identification. We recognize certain character traits, behavior patterns, dress codes, body language and even language usage as ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’. But are these gender differences instinctive or socially acquired?

Sociobiologists like Wilson (1975a) and Barash (1979) follow Darwin’s footsteps who purports that there is a biological basis for gender-specific roles and that human sexuality and gender roles can be explained by their role in the reproduction cycle of our species. According to this theory, men are more promiscuous than women because nature has given them the opportunity to father countless offspring (millions of sperm). Therefore, their instincts drive them to have as many partners as possible, thereby ensuring that their genetic configuration will be successful in the following generation (Wilson, 1975a, p.314). Women, on the other hand, again because of biological imperatives (finite number of possible children), are more selective of partners. Although not monogamous, their biological imperative drives them to select the best possible mating partner. ‘Best’ in this context is the individual that has positive genetic/physical attributes and/or financial status – the ability to nurture the future family unit.

As men try to copulate with as many possible partners of the opposite sex, they must compete amongst themselves for supremacy and dominance so that they are more suitable partners to more women. The more successful and competitive a male is, the greater his ability to select partners, which he chooses again according to underlying biological imperatives as our own perception of beauty is again biologically influenced – lustrous hair, skin tone, curvaceous body shape and a full set of teeth are all indicative of a healthy breeding mate. The male’s instinctive need to dominate implies that males are natural aggressors. Accordingly, to some sociobiologists, this is the underlying basis for war and territoriality in men.

Women, as they are physically capable of having only a finite number of offspring, possess a greater focus on protecting their children and, as a result, have greater nurturing instincts as opposed to men.

To some feminist sociobiologists like Shulamith Firestone (1972) purport that the inequality of sexes is also viewed from a biological base. When women are pregnant or looking after infants, they are totally dependant themselves on the male for physical survival. In order to provide support, the male places the demand that the woman becomes ‘his’ so that he can ensure that the offspring for which he provides are truly his. The male, as a result, assumes and retains a dominant role within the family structure. So the biological family, in fact, provides the blueprint for the inequalities that exist within our economic and social system as men became dominant in all social and economic fields. From this position, even crimes such as child-abuse, assault and murder can be attributed to biological factors such as ‘the selfish gene’ of stepparents that directs them to oust children who do not carry their own genes (Dawkins, 1976).

From a somewhat different perspective, biologists Robert Ardrey in his book ‘The territorial Imperative’ and Macfarlane Burnet (1970) proposed that man has the instinct to occupy and hold territory in order to attract mates. The dominance/hierarchical structure that exists in all animal groups also influences human behaviour and the male practices dominance both within his gentry and on females.

Diversions from the biological imperatives, such as homosexuality, are generally explained away by socio-biological theories as irrelevant, aberrant behaviour or defective genes. However, if this socio-biological premise is correct and our gender roles and sexual drives are motivated strictly by biological urges, it would mean that our behaviour is instinctive and not learned. Yet Rose, Kamin and Lewontin have noted that ‘the human infant is born with relatively few of its mental pathways committed’.

Also, gender roles, sexual relations, gender values and even nuclear family cohesion are not homogenous across cultures. If the only factor governing our gender relations were biological in nature, then there would be no cultural divergence from the norm and yet we have numerous examples of non – homogeneity. If sex is motivated only by the underlying biological need, then it would follow that sex practices would not change and yet we see that amongst men and women the age of first copulation has changed over the last 50 years from 18 to 16 and 19 to 16 respectively (Juliet Richters & Chris Rissel, Deakin Uni. Reader, ‘Sex in Australia’, p.113). Sexual mores and standards are also changing from one generation to the next although the prevailing double standards affecting the two sexes remain (Susan M Jackson & Fiona Cram, Deakin Uni. Reader ‘Disrupting the sexual double standard: heterosexuality’ pp.113-114).

Furthermore, work by anthropologists Malinowski, Benedict and Mead on the allocation of social and labor roles claim that ‘there is no natural division on the basis of biological sex nor are all societies male dominated to the same degree’. Ancient Minoan civilization, for example, seems to have been a matriarchy, where the all-important priesthood was the exclusive domain of females and where even the throne was passed along matrilineally (Sinclair Hood, The Minoans, pp.141-145). Finally, although virtually all cultures have some form of division of labour, based on gender, the work itself may take any form (Claude L�vi-Strauss, 1956).

Even the nuclear family can have variable manifestations between cultures. In Polynesian Hawaii where polygamy was practiced by both sexes, children had a number of ‘mothers’ and ‘fathers’ who were all mutually responsible for the nurturing of the child. Next, the notion that man universally demands the exclusive rights to a woman in order to ensure the legitimacy of their children is challenged by the American plains Indians who, with the consent of their partner, would sometimes offer their partners’ sexual favours to a guest. Beauty in the opposite sex is also not universal.

Inca noblemen deformed their skulls in order to attain elongated foreheads; ottoman Turks considered obese women the apex of feminine charm, whilst western women suffer anorexia nervosa in their quest for our culturally and socially accepted form of beauty. Lastly, we have examples of societies where even the concept of the heterosexual norm is challenged. In the state of Ancient Sparta, homosexual behavior was not only permitted but also virtually enforced upon its citizen army through a number of statutes of the Lycurgan code (Alex. Nikodemou, 1995, ‘ Erotic Friendship of the Ancient Greeks’ pp. 86-89).

So therefore biological imperatives alone cannot account for all the variations of human relationships. Biological requirements may be the underlying bedrock of our social structures but human beings are highly complex beings, as mentioned earlier, that start life with very few instinctual ‘hardwiring’. It has been proven that parents reinforce behaviour that they feel fit the image of the sex of their child. So our behaviour patterns and our gender (as opposed to our sexuality) are socially constructed, not genetically acquired. R.W. Connell (1995) proposed that our gender-specific attributes are acquired in a five-step process in which the people around the individual enforce his or her gender role through a series of rewards and punishments (Sociology Themes and perspectives, p.316).

Another failing of the ‘biologic’ model is that it is generic i.e. it can only provide broad statements on the fundamentals and interaction of the two sexes. However, sociology as a science also examines the individual’s interaction with his social environment. And ultimately, every man and woman does not behave the same as all other men and women. Nor do all men display the same dominant behaviour or women submissive behaviour. In a different approach to gender relations, post-structuralist Michael Foucalt (1977) states that power games are all-pervasive and continually projects pressure on all. So in this context it is not correct to say that one gender has power over another. Rather, we all vie on a daily, cross-gender basis for supremacy with all surrounding females and males.

No matter the influence that biology has on sexuality, it only has meaning and expression within social relationships. In fact, it seems that there is a current tendency in sociology to no longer focus on the argument of the extent to which gender roles are influenced by either biological or social factors, and to focus on marginalized groups. Postmodernism identified the active role-playing and continued identity remake that individuals engage in. The feminist movement drew attention to the specific nature of women within the social framework but then splintered into a number of specific groups representing different aspects of feminine thought. R.W. Connell (2005) has shown how the concept of masculinity has been transformed in the last few centuries because of historical social developments and splintered into a dominant and ‘orderly’ masculinity.

Numerous essays on gay gender and sexual identity have been conducted with the same results, that in fact there is no one ‘gay gender’ but in fact a variety of male homosexual forms. ‘Levi-Strauss structured man in an Anthropological way by saying that man makes a passage between a natural and a cultural state by learning. In this passage man obeys laws he does not invent, rather it’s a natural mechanism of the mind. Sociology, by virtue of its subject matter is an ever-expanding discipline and will no doubt diatribe on new gender and social phenomena as they emerge’

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