Sex identity refers to the social criteria by which men and women are defined within society. Although physical sex is biologically determined, sex identity, or gender, is defined culturally. There is thus variation in how women and men worldwide identify themselves with respect to each other.
The way in which a society defines sex identity is based on its cultural framework. Cultural definitions of sex identity are linked with a society’s sex roles, which are in turn connected with the society’s subsistence pattern, economic structure, kinship system, religious system, and so forth. Cultural ideas about sex identity therefore define ideal identities for women and for men and provide mechanisms by which individuals can live up to those ideals.
Identity and roles are related to the extent that specific roles are often a component of identity. Therefore, although sex identity is ascribed, meaning that it is given to an individual by society, it is also partly achieved by an individual through the fulfillment of the social roles that correspond to his or her identity. For example, primary sex roles include reproductive and productive roles. Where these sex roles are integral components of sex identity, failing to procreate or to perform the subsistence tasks associated with one’s sex may lead to social stigma and doubts concerning an individual’s true identity as male or female.
Other aspects of identity include general disposition and behavior. It is often the case that particular personality traits and their expression in specific socially defined ways contribute to an individual’s perceived sex identity. Since a major aspect of sex identity concerns one’s relationship with the opposite sex, male and female sex identities are often constructed in opposition to each other. Therefore, the personality traits, behaviors, and dress code that are considered appropriate to each sex are frequently in binary opposition to each other.
While this opposition of male and female identities is a human universal, societies differ in the extent of overlap between the two identities. While some cultural schemes delineate strict divisions between female and male identities so that they symbolize discrete categories, others have a large number of roles and behavioral traits that are considered to be characteristic of both sexes, with a few traits that are used as barometers of masculinity and femininity.
The opposition between female and male is mediated by alternate genders in many societies, particularly in North America. Societies such as the Navajo and the Mohave recognize that it is possible to assume a sex identity that does not correspond to one’s sex at birth. For example, a biological male may assume the sex identity of a woman by taking on female chores, behavior, and dress.
People learn their sex identity from their parents and other members of their society through enculturation, the process whereby cultural values, practices, and meanings are instilled in an individual. This is done through various means such as verbal instruction, observation, and imitation, and the use of corrective measures in cases of inappropriate behavior. These measures aim to encourage the individual to adhere as closely as possible to the cultural ideal of what is masculine or feminine.
A primary means by which people achieve their sex identity is through initiation rites that mark the passage into adulthood. These rites are usually performed in adolescence and are designed to enforce adherence to characteristics of the appropriate sex identity and to teach youths how to fulfill their eventual roles.
It is therefore during initiation rites that youths prove that they are able to fulfill adult roles and to live up to their society’s standards for female or male identity. For example, initiation rites may stress the ability to endure pain. In the case of the Kpelle of Liberia, male initiates are separated from their community for several years and made to endure circumcision and scarification as well as general harsh treatment. Throughout this period, they learn various tasks associated with men’s work.
On the other hand, a girl’s first menses may prompt the arrangement of a ceremony where themes that are central to women’s lives are stressed. Among the Apache of North America, for instance, a girl’s puberty ceremony invokes aspects of fertility and motherhood. Through various phases of the ceremony, allusions are made to Changing Woman, an Apache deity that symbolizes fertility and female strength.
Regardless of the form it takes, sex identity is an integral part of individual identity in most societies. Since it is learned from early childhood onward and is continually reinforced through various social mechanisms, this component of identity is often perceived to be normal and natural to the members of a given society.
- Bonvillain, N. (1998). Women and men: Cultural constructs of gender. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Brettell, C. B., & Sargent, C. F. (Eds.). (1993). Gender in cross-cultural perspective. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Ortner, S. B., & Whitehead, H. (Eds.). (1981). Sexual meanings: The cultural construction of gender and sexuality. New York: Cambridge University Press.