What is Gender Essentialism?

This outdated theory presumes men and women have intrinsic differences

University students talking in circle. Robert Daly / Caiaimage / Getty Images

Gender essentialism is the widely discredited and outdated idea that men and women act differently and have different options in life because of intrinsic or essential differences between the sexes. In other words, it is the idea that men and women are fundamentally different for reasons that are unchangeable.

Gender essentialism is often used to excuse gender-based biases in society. For example, it can be used to justify the idea that jobs traditionally held by women are often accorded less respect and lower pay.

Gender essentialism is both informed by gender stereotypes and reinforces them. It can have numerous effects on society. 

Gender Essentialism and Homophobia

This outdated concept can promote assumptions about how relationships "should" work that are rooted in essentialist notions of gendered behavior.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 be performing the male role, whatever that means.

Gender Essentialism and Non-Binary Genders

However, gender essentialism is not supported by evidence. Instead, it is a common system of biases that affect how the world works. People who identify as non-binary explicitly reject the notion of gender essentialism by forgoing either male or female identities. People who identify as male and female can also reject gender essentialist norms through actions, beliefs, and behaviors.

 

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 and boys may be taught from an early age that they are always expected to want sex.

In contrast, women are taught the opposite. This puts pressure on men to be sexual, and sexually aggressive. Simultaneously, women are encouraged to deny their sexual desires.

Gender essentialism also encourages rape culture, since men may believe they should keep pressing a woman for sex and that the man is entitled to sex.

Such dynamics may play out in same-sex couples as well. However, they can appear 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.

Refuting Gender Essentialism

People who argue against gender essentialism do not attempt to claim that male and female bodies are the same. Instead, they posit 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 some people may tend to be more active, and others more passive, in the bedroom. However, those differences would be expected to have to do more with personality and other factors than with gender.

In fact, while there is often one member of a couple who is more interested in sex, that person can be of any gender.

Arguments against gender essentialism are supported by evidence that gender expectations differ significantly across cultures. They are also supported by very different sexual and gender norms that have existed in different places and different eras. Such differences are apparent with respect to not only sexual behavior but a variety of other aspects of life. 

Sources:
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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