What is gender essentialism?

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The Definition of Gender Essentialism

The term gender essentialism is one that may be unfamiliar to people who have neither taken a women's studies course nor read a lot of feminist discourse on gender in society. However, gender essentialism actually refers to a very simple concept. It is the idea that men and women act differently and have different options in life because of intrinsic or essential differences between the genders.

Gender essentialism is often used to excuse gender-based biases in society. For example, it can be used to excuse how jobs traditionally held by women are often accorded less respect and lower pay. It also explains why female athletes who are too successful may be required to undergo genetic testing to determine if they're "really men". Gender essentialism is both informed by gender stereotypes and reinforces them. It can have numerous effects on society, both inside and outside of the sexual realm.

Gender essentialism may also contribute to homophobia by promoting assumptions about how relationships "should" work that are rooted in essentialist notions of gendered behavior. For example, asking a married lesbian couple, "Which one of you is the husband?" assumes that the traditional male role is necessary for a successful marriage. That further implies that one of them must therefore be performing the male role.

Gender essentialism is not correct. Instead, it is a common system of biases that affect how the world works. 

How Gender Essentialism Imperils Consent

Gender essentialism can make it difficult for people to make active choices about consent. This is, in part, because many common gender essentialist notions are about sexual behavior.

For example, men are often taught from an early age that they are expected to always want sex, whereas women are taught that they should "save themselves." This puts pressure on men to be sexual, and sexually aggressive, while encouraging women to deny their sexual desires. It also encourages rape culture by making it difficult for women to say yes to sex and making men believe that they should keep pressing until and unless women give a clear no. Such dynamics may play out in same sex couples as well, although in slightly different ways. Some gay men, for example, may have a difficult time acknowledging that they are not always interested in sex. Some lesbians may have trouble being sexually assertive.

People who argue against gender essentialism do not attempt to claim that male and female bodies are the same. Instead, they argue that there is no reason that the biological differences between the sexes should lead to specific expectations for male and female behavior. They believe that there is no reason such differences should encourage inequalities in opportunity.

In the sexual realm, the argument might be that while it may be natural for some people to be more active, and others more passive, in the bedroom, those differences have to do more with personality than gender. Such arguments are supported by evidence that gender expectations differ significantly across cultures, both with respect to sexual behavior and a variety of other aspects of life. 

Arends-Tóth J, van de Vijver FJ. Cultural differences in family, marital, and gender-role values among immigrants and majority members in the Netherlands. Int J Psychol. 2009 Jun;44(3):161-9.
Schmitt, D. P. (2003), Are men universally more dismissing than women? Gender differences in romantic attachment across 62 cultural regions. Personal Relationships, 10: 307–331.

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