Gender and Sexuality

Gender Norms and Sexuality

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This paper examines societal response to women who violate gender norms. To examine these reactions, the author engaged in three behaviors that are typically identified as male behavior: chewing tobacco in public, engaging in a football game with a group of males, and changing a tire while a male companion stood by and did nothing. People did not react in the hostile manner expected; in fact, the only hostile reaction was directed at the male bystander when the author changed the tire. However, though behavior was not hostile, it was also not geared towards encouraging women to defy gender norms.

Gender Norms and Sexuality

Though some people suggest that men and women have achieved de facto equality, most social science researchers continue to believe that one’s behavior is very dictated by gender. Gender roles and norms have a strong influence on how people behave. Men and women are expected to behave in a way that reflects broad-based gender stereotyping. For example, men are expected to be direct and assertive, while women are expected to use indirect tactics to achieve their goals. “Thus, on the basis of culturally defined gender roles, men and women are expected to behave in certain ways; when they violate these expectations, others may evaluate them negatively.” (Aguinis & Henle, 2001).

Although engaging in obviously gender-incongruent behavior may seem unusual, the fact is that women who wish to succeed in business are often called upon to behave in ways that defy gender stereotyping. Unfortunately, behaving in a successful and assertive way may actually make women appear less credible. In a study determining the effect of non-verbal cues on a woman’s perceived authority, Aguinis and Henle discovered that:

The participants rated the female employee as having a negative source of power when she engaged in a nonverbal behavior incongruent with gender role expectations (i.e., direct eye contact). In addition, they evaluated her as having less power when she engaged in a nonverbal behavior congruent with her social role but incongruent with the managerial role (i.e., relaxed facial expression). Alternatively, the results of the study involving a male employee (Aguinis et al., 1998) indicated that direct eye contact led to higher credibility ratings than did indirect eye contact. In addition, Aguinis et al. (1998) found that a relaxed facial expression, as compared with a nervous facial expression, enhanced perceptions of reward power, legitimate power, expert power, referent power, and credibility power but not of coercive power. Thus, in comparison, we found in the present study quite the opposite impact of nonverbal behavior on power perceptions — that is, the female employee’s direct eye contact did not increase the participants’ perceptions of her credibility but, rather, led to perceptions of her coerciveness.

Also, the relaxed facial expression, as compared with the nervous facial expression, decreased, rather than increased, the participants’ perceptions of the power of the female employee. (Aguinis & Henle, 2001).

The impact of gender norms and sex roles is not limited to employment; it also impacts social behavior, specifically risk-taking behavior. Studying risk-taking behavior in a sexual context, Sullivan et. al. discovered that men were more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior than women. They believed that this behavior was the result of sexual scripts, which incorporate gender role stereotypes:

The traditional sexual script designates men as initiators and aggressors in heterosexual relations with women, pressing for sexual access both within and beyond the relationship boundaries even to the point of coercion. In line with this model and our behavioral findings, men were less likely than were women to view sex as significant to establishing intimacy with a partner and were less invested romantically in their primary relationships. Further, men endorsed stronger traditional beliefs about the gender roles in sexual relationships. Men also reported engaging more often in sex that they did not want than did women. Men may view refusing sexual opportunities with women as antithetical to scripts dictating appropriate “masculine” forms of sexual behavior. Others studies have found that men are reluctant to admit to engaging in unwanted sex with a woman for fear of appearing unmasculine, a situation that may lead them to pursue sexual opportunities they might otherwise judge unsafe. (2006).

It is clear that gender norms can have an impact on people. First, gender norms dictate how people perceive behavior. The exact same behavior can be construed in very different ways, when people of different genders engage in that behavior. It would seem clear that this would be true for overt behaviors, but even behaviors as subtle as body language can fall into gender stereotypes. Furthermore, gender norms help drive behavior. For example, it appears that because men are expected to engage in more sexual activity, they engage in riskier sexual activity. However, more significant than the risky element of male sexuality is the fact that men reported engaging in more unwanted sexual behavior than women, suggesting that men felt compelled to engage in sexual behavior to fulfill a gender norm. (Sullivan et. al, 2006). That suggests that men are expected to engage in riskier behavior. In fact, it is interesting to note that many behaviors that are considered masculine are also behaviors that society considers risky behaviors. These behaviors include things like chewing tobacco in public, joining a group of males to play football, and working on an automobile with a man standing by and doing nothing. All of these behaviors have some type of risk involved. Therefore, in order to study how the author’s peers would react to gender incongruent behavior, the author chose to engage in those behaviors and observe reactions.


The author, an adult female, chose to engage in a variety of traditionally-masculine behaviors to determine how society reacted to her participation in those activities. In addition to selecting behaviors that have traditionally been designated as masculine, the author chose to engage in behaviors that are generally considered somewhat risky, as well, because men are generally expected to engage in risky behavior while women are expected to be more cautious. The author selected a male companion as an observer, who came with her for each of the events, with the purpose of recording public reaction to her gender-incongruent behavior.

The first experiment was for the author to chew tobacco in public. The author went to an ice house, where she had previously observed a substantial number of males chewing tobacco. To ensure that the chewing behavior was noticed, the author put the tobacco in her mouth at the ice house, and made sure to spit into a Styrofoam cup in front of people. To ensure that multiple people observed this behavior, the author put new chewing tobacco in her mouth every fifteen minutes, and made sure to spit every five minutes. This experiment lasted for one hour.

The second experiment was for the author to join a male-only group to play football. The author went to a park by her house, where people play a lot of pick-up football games. After observing how people where playing, the author left her male observer, and would ask to join in pick-up games. The observer watched to see if she would be accepted into the game. If she was allowed to join the game, the observer then watched to see if the style of play changed once the author began playing.

The third experiment was for the author to change the tire on her car, while the male observer stood by and watched. This experiment was conducted on a well-traveled road, which had substantial shoulder room. It was not conducted during rush-hour time, but there was still constant traffic on the road. The observer watched the faces of people in passing cars and made notes about people who stopped to offer assistance.


The first experiment involved the chewing tobacco. Interestingly enough, for the first half-hour of the experiment, the observer did not notice any behavior that seemed to reflect dissatisfaction with gender norms. One female looked disgusted that the author was using chewing tobacco, but she looked equally disgusted that a man was using chewing tobacco as well. Another woman completely ignored that the author was using chewing tobacco, but told a man who was chewing tobacco that it was a disgusting habit. The only gender-based comment that anybody made was a man who approached the observer, clearly thinking he was the author’s significant other, and said, “I bet it’s fun to kiss her when she’s been doing that.”

The second experiment involved playing in a pick-up football game. The author approached five groups of men before any of them allowed her to play the game. The men who declined her requests to join their groups were very polite, but they expressed their concerns that they would injure her. One of the groups offered to change the game to touch football, if the author really wanted to play, but would not play tackle football with her. The sixth group invited the author to play, but they studiously avoided tackling her. In fact, they allowed her to play, and then seemed to structure the entire game around keeping the ball away from her, except for allowing her to actually score; in an action that the observer was forced to conclude was intentional. Two of the men playing that game asked the author for her phone number after the game. No groups of men allowed the author to join the game and continued playing the same type of rough-and-tumble tackle football that they were playing prior to her request.

The third experiment involved the author changing a flat tire, with her male companion standing by and not helping. No female drivers stopped to offer assistance, nor did they seem to react to the author changing the tire. Four male drivers stopped to offer assistance. Two of them continued on their way when the author assured them that she had it under control. One of the drivers insisted that she allow him to change the tire, but did not act in an insulting manner towards the male companion. The fourth driver actually chastised the male companion, telling him that he should never let a lady change a tire, and politely insisted that the author allow him to help her. A fifth person stopped, came by to see if anyone needed help, and told the male observer, “Man, I wish my girlfriend could change a tire. Where’d you find her?”


Generally, people did not respond to the gender incongruent behavior in a negative or hostile manner.

In fact, the behavior that resulted in the greatest number of negative comments was a behavior that is not only highly indentified as masculine, but also generally considered to be a disgusting and unhealthy habit: chewing tobacco. None of the comments that people made about the chewing tobacco had a gender bias. None of the comments that people made to the author about the author playing football or changing the tire on the automobile were inherently negative. Therefore, on the surface it might appear that there is not a tremendous bias against people acting outside of their gender roles. However, the results of the investigation actually argue against just such a conclusion.

First, it must be noted that the study was flawed. The inclusion of chewing tobacco as a gender-incongruent behavior was not a wise decision. Chewing tobacco is a very weighted behavior in modern society. Using tobacco products of any kind is increasingly unacceptable in today’s society. Although chewing tobacco does not expose bystanders to physical danger, like smoking does, it is still a behavior that reveals one to be not conscious about one’s health. On its own, this behavior may make someone appear stupid or reckless, regardless of one’s gender. In addition, chewing tobacco is also a behavior that appears to be divided among class lines; the mere fact that it must be spit out involves breaking social taboos, which are present for men and women in polite society. People simply are not supposed to spit things out of their mouths in public. Therefore, the inclusion of chewing tobacco in the study made it difficult, if not impossible, to determine if the negative reactions to the author’s chewing tobacco were due to the fact that she was a woman, or simply due to the fact that she was doing something revolting.

However, the remaining two experiments did reveal something about how people respond to gender role incongruities. First, it was interesting to note that no women stopped to offer assistance with changing the tire. It is a gender norm for men to offer roadside assistance, but for women, because of a perception of danger, to neglect to do so. The author’s experience verified that societal norm. Though not all male passersby stopped to render aid, the only people who did stop were men. The majority of the men seemed as if they would have stopped if a single male was on the side of the road changing a tire as well; they seemed genuinely helpful. However, the most hostile reaction that anyone in the entire experiment had was directed at the male observer when the author was changing the tire. However, it is important to note that this person was not hostile to the author for stepping outside of her gender role, but to the male observe for failing to comply with his gender role. That unequal reaction should come as no surprise, given that men generally face greater social pressure to comply with gender norms.

In fact, the responses to the author’s requests to play football did much to reveal society’s attitude towards women who step outside of prescribed gender roles. First, there is resistance, but that resistance is couched in paternalistic terms. None of the men refused to allow the author to play by stating that they did not want to play with a woman, but instead insisted that they were concerned that she would be injured if they did allow her to play. Moreover, the one group of men that allowed the author to play football with them changed their playing style once she joined the game. Women may not be as openly discouraged from defying gender norms as men are, but that does not mean that gender roles for women are any less rigid and unforgiving than those for men.


Aguinis, H., & Henle, C. (2001). Effects of nonverbal behavior on perceptions of a female employee’s power bases. The Journal of Social Psychology, 141(4), 537-539.

O’Sullivan, L.F., Hoffman, S., Harrison, a., & Dolezal, C. (2006). Men, multiple sexual partners, and young adults’ sexual relationships: understanding the role of gender in the study of risk. The Journal of Urban Health. 83(4): 695-708.

Gender Norms and Sexuality