When it comes to childhood sexual abuse and sexual assault, men experience enormous confusion and distress in relation to gender and questions of sexuality. Given the degree of complexity inherent in these issues it is worth taking time to clarify and become familiar with the common terms, their meaning, and how they inter-relate. In addition to the working definitions in the article below, we recommend checking out:
Sex refers to biological status of being identified male or female. Sex is typically determined with reference to chromosomal sex, or a basic difference in genitalia (usually the latter). Being born male or female has historically been seen as a ‘solid fact’ of biology, even in critical discussions about gender, however we acknowledge that these categories are not so clearly distinct, as some people are born intersex or of intermediate sex (hermaphroditism). That human genitalia overlap to a certain degree is often omitted from these discussions, but we are aware that a simple definition of sex, based on a biological dichotomy between two groups, is a gross and inaccurate oversimplification of a far more complex situation (Giffney & Hird, 2008; Hird, 2004; 2009; Kaplan & Rogers, 1990; Roughgarden, 2009).
We will not explore the discussion of what biological sex really is, except to note that most authors do not regard it an easy task to find a single criteria, or even a group of criterion, by which we can judge biological sex (see discussions of this in Hyrd, 2004; Hyrd, 2009; Roughgarden, 2009; and articles by Fausto-Sterling), and that a substantial number of people are intersex, not readily fitting into a dichotomous sexual category as male or female (Bornstein, 1994; Roughgarden, 2009). In more recent times (esp. Judith Butler), there has been a growing suggestion that emphasis on these biological categories is the product of dividing practices of gender (simplified binary thinking), noting how people are modifying and reshaping their bodies according to gender ideals, rather than with reference to biological sex.
Sex also refers to the practice of sex, the physical act of engaging in sexual/sexualised behaviour/sexual intercourse.
Gender is commonly understood to refer to the state of being identified as a girl or boy (child) and as a man or woman (adult). When we talk here about gender, we mean the social norms, concepts, expectations, and rules that go with growing up and living your life as a boy, girl, man, or woman.
Gender is different from sex. Typically, the first thing you are told or asked about a newborn baby is whether the baby is a boy or a girl (their sex). This then influences how the child is dressed, what presents they are bought as they grow up, what sports they play, how they are treated by others, and how they come to see and think about themselves (their gender).
Growing up in our culture, boys and men come to understand and live their lives in relation to established gender identities, whereby certain behaviours and ways of being are associated with boys and men, and are accordingly identified as signifying manhood — being manly or masculine. These gendered expectations can vary from culture to culture, throughout different time periods or generations, and within cultures and sub-cultures.
In our culture, gender operates as a binary system. What we mean by this is that some behaviours and qualities have become allocated or divided up according to whether they are considered masculine or feminine. The expectation is that a man is not meant to act like a woman, and a woman is not meant to act like a man. In this system, gender differences are often amplified. For example, we often refer to men and women as ‘the opposite sex.’ However, not everyone identifies with one or the other of these categories, preferring to identify as transgender, non-gendered, or gender-queer.
Elsewhere, Frey (2004) has argued that gender is actually an identity concept unique to Western culture, and that its application to other periods of history, and to other geographical locations and cultures, is partially anachronistic (see also Connell, 1993). The most important point for practitioners to remember is that gender arises as a kind of commentary on biological sex, but is generally regarded as separate from biological sex. Not all males appear (stereo-) typically masculine, and not all females (stereo-) typically feminine. Gender, then, is the cultural discourse about biological sex. It is a reference point by which we make sense of our world and ourselves. It is something that is acted upon, negotiated and lived every day.
Again, as all definitions do, the above definition vastly oversimplifies the reality of people's lives. See the sociological writings of Raewyn Connell (1989; and 1995 in particular for a nuanced approach to gender), the philosophical work of Judith Butler (1990; 1993), and the biological analyses of Myra Hird (2004), Evelyn Fox Keller (2000) and Anne Fausto-Sterling (1985).
Sexuality refers to the thoughts, feelings, behaviours (practices), and desires that represent, constitute and order our erotic lives. Whilst upon investigation gender can appear complex and difficult to grasp, sexuality can be even trickier. Here, sexuality is understood as a collection of our sexual thoughts, feelings, behaviours, desires, interests, expressions, and practices that make up our erotic lives in all their sexual diversity. Having said this, in our culture, sexuality is quite often discussed and understood with reference to ‘sexual identity,’ which emphasises a more or less fixed sexual orientation or preference that propels people to make sexual connections with either the opposite biological sex, the same biological sex or some combination of the two. For example, when someone asks “What is your sexuality?” they are typically asking, “What is your sexual identity?” The foregrounding of a more expansive definition on practices and pleasures, does not exclude
Sexual Identity refers to culturally prescribed ways of understanding and ordering our erotic attractions and relations through sex and gender based identity categories. Common sexual identity categories utilised in Western literature are straight, gay, bisexual, asexual, heterosexual and homosexual. Discussions related to sexual orientation and sexual preference are typically understood within these established sexual identity categories. This places a defining focus on the sex/gender identities of the parties involved, rather than the practices a person engages in and gains pleasure (or pain) from. Within this system, a person's sexual orientation or preference is identified by reference to the person's sex and gender and the sex and gender of the other person.
The terms ‘heterosexual/homosexual’ and ‘gay/straight’ are sometimes used interchangeably in our culture. However it is important to possess an awareness of the different histories of these terms and preferred usage. Whereas gay has a proud history relating to individual and community self definition since the Stonewall riots of 1969, the term homosexual (and heterosexual) is a product of the nineteenth century ‘Psychopathia Sexualis’ medicalisation of sexual desire, which comes with normative judgements and the prescription of some sexual practices/identities as healthy and others as unhealthy, some as natural and others as perverted.
The term queer has been used by some people since the 1990s because of the way it emphasises personal definition and choice. Queer refuses to be defined in relation to a biological based sexual identity that advocates societal change on the basis “I was born this way.” It sees established sexual identity categories as constraining and limiting. Queer advocates and supports a sexual ethics and politics of choice, whereby individuals have the opportunity and the right to participate in same sex and different sex consensual sexual relations without becoming defined or ‘identified’ as gay/straight, homosexual/heterosexual, or even bisexual.
It is important for practitioners to become familiar with how these concepts and identity categories operate, and how they can shape and influence the lives and life possibilities of men who have been sexually abused. Men who have experienced sexual abuse or assault may hold some very fixed ideas about gender and sexuality that can produce confusion, anxiety, distress, and that can limit options for change.
If practitioners do not possess a broader understanding and critical analysis of how gender, sex, and sexuality ‘identity’ categories can be enabling and constraining, and how to navigate through this difficult terrain, then it can add to the challenges men find themselves confronted by.