Gender and sexuality

Institutions of higher learning dissect and study sex, gender and sexuality in numerous ways. Some of the important institutions which have played a significant role in the study of sexuality are churches, politics, medicine, and sociological/psychological research. These affiliations have been criticized in the works of Gayle Rubin, Leonore Tiefer and Judith Lorber. Rubin's Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality, evaluates that in the 17th century, the church was the institution which everyone obeyed (Rubin 1984:278). On the other hand, Tiefer in her, The Medicalization of Sexuality: Conceptual, Normative, and Professional Issues, posits that medicalization influences and constructs sexuality in many fields, but most importantly the psychological field (Tiefer 1996:254). Finally, in Lorber's Beyond the Binaries: Depolarizing the Categories of Sex, Sexuality, and Gender, she states that by researching on multiple levels of analysis rather than on a single one, a variety of gendered sexual statuses can allow the analysis of processes within structures (Lorber 1996:152-154). This essay's main purpose is to provide a critical analysis of the society's constant changing perspectives and how they facilitate in the specific time period's institutions of higher learning.

Early in the history of the Western Hemisphere, religious institutions which were of higher learning at the time played the role of public guidance and judicature. The church governed society, and at the time played the role of a state as well as a religious institute (Rubin 1984:278). Many people had to follow these laws leaving no room for freedom. The Catholic tradition, powerful at the time, held that sex is sinful unless it was performed within traditional boundaries (i.e., marriage and procreation) (Rubin 1984:278). The institution further put rigorous restraints towards the sexuality of women. Generally, erotic behaviour at the time was considered bad unless there was a certain reason to excuse it for having taken place (Rubin 1984:278). Those who committed the "sin" of performing deviantly were to deserve the harshest of punishments, and were forced to repent for what the church viewed as immoral behavior (Rubin 1984:279). Out of this construct, sex laws were derived from the Bible, preventing acts between homosexuals (Rubin 1984:279). Thus, during this era homosexuality was labeled a sin.

As religion started to lose its hold over society, the state became the body of governance. The state gave birth to numerous harsh laws which were directed towards the repression of those who were not at the peak of the erotic pyramid (Rubin 1984:288). The penalties for violating sex statutes were blown out of proportion compared to any social or individual harm - states imposed severe criminal penalties (Rubin 1984:288-291). Further, erotic behaviours ignited by women were strict and judgmental - a woman should not be acting out of construct. Women who did were labeled as mischievous and promiscuous by society. The political institute, however, mainly focused on the behaviours of homosexuals. If they did anything out of social order, laws criminalized them and their sexual behavior, which in reality are freely chosen (Rubin 1984:291). Therefore, at the beginning of the 20th century, the focus of homosexuality shifted from being viewed as sinful on a religious basis, to being viewed as a criminal act. All of these changes in labels have taken place because of the constant alterations in social constructions and perspectives. As times have changed, there have been more influential thinkers who have viewed the deviants of society as sexually or mentally deficient.

Uprisings against the church and the new ideas of humanism brought forth by many thinkers a new pattern of thoughts and acts. A critical time period of this drastic change is best outlined in the 20th century when the state attempted to find the root cause of the 'problems' for the deviant behaviours that were prevalent in society. As a way for the state to observe these forms of behaviours, they turned to psychologists for a more in depth look into the world of homosexuality. Psychology was given a lot of importance, due to its belief that sex was all in the mind. If one was "deviant," they were said to have a psychological problem, because they believed that the dilemma resided in their psyches. Due to this, medicine and psychiatry as institutions of higher learning multiplied the groupings of sexual misbehavior. At this point in time, low status sex practices were directly linked to mental diseases or symptoms of defective personality integration. (Rubin 1984:280)

Psychologists looked for a way to correct what they saw as a chemical imbalance in the psyche of a homosexual, hence looking forward to new ideas of medicine to help 'cure' a homosexual individual. Doctors now were not attempting to identify misconducts with 'problems' or trying to validate that they were innate or biological. There were however changes affecting sexuality because of constant alterations in social skills and viewpoints (Tiefer 1996:266). New types of professions were emerging with fresh resources and skills for understanding sexuality on a medical and analytical basis. Further, economic and political developments transformed the medical practice. The old economic and patriarchal systems of marriage yielded to an egalitarian and companionate ethic which valued personal, emotional, and sexual satisfaction, in turn creating a new perspective of the varieties of people that reside in a society (Tiefer 1996:266-268). For example, homosexuals at this point in time were given more freedom to express themselves.

Changes in the way the society views its population has changed drastically from the 17th century to the present. This task has been able to take place because different levels of analysis have deconstructed the categories of sex, sexuality and gender to build the present complex research designs, and has established different ways of thinking (Lorber 1996:151). For instance, the views on homosexuals have been modified because the meaning of gender and sexuality alone cannot be used by researchers to identify them (Lorber 1996:150). Perspectives about a certain issue change over time, with certain rules and regulations placed during times of moral panics. Thoughts, beliefs, and ideas about a specific viewpoint alter due to the institution's dominance over the people it serves. New establishments will rise up against the old ones which have different purposes of existing, and which help adjust the views of others. Therefore, the standpoints of people are malleable because they are socially affected and constructed over time.


  • Lorber, Judith. 1996. "Beyond the Binaries: Depolarizing the Categories of Sex, Sexuality, and Gender." Pp. 143-159 in Sociological Inquiry, Blackwell Publishing.
  • Rubin, Gayle. 1984. "Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of Politics of Sexuality." Pp. 267-319 in Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, edited by Carole Vance. Boston: Routledge and Kegan.
  • Tiefer, Leonore. 1996. "The Medicalization of Sexuality: Conceptual, Normative, and Professional Issues." Pp 252-282 in Annual Review of Sex Research. Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality.

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