Human Differences: Culture, Gender, and Sexuality
“Everybody is unique!” is the mantra of the modern era. Many people pride themselves on being different and one of a kind — particularly in Western popular culture and media — and anybody spending any time studying and working with people will tell you there is a great deal of truth to this.
Three of the most prominent, salient, and obvious variations among people are differences in culture, gender, and sexuality/sexual orientation.
Psychology and culture
You live in a truly global society. People are more connected than ever, the world seems smaller, and you can encounter an array of differences at a pace and scale never before seen in history. In the past, you might be lucky if you met someone from a different culture once a month (depending on where you lived); now, you can meet people from all over the world on the bus, at Starbucks, or online.
Psychology as a field would be incomplete without an understanding of how different cultural contexts influence individual minds and behavior. Cross-cultural psychologist John W. Berry at Queen’s University in Canada proposes that much of what is known as “psychology” is what he calls “culture bound” and “culture-blind”:
Culture-bound: Psychology is most popular in Western societies (Europe, the United States, and Canada). As such it has limited understanding of people outside of those regions — not exactly a universal science considering that the majority of the world’s population lives outside of those areas.
Culture-blind: The psychology of Europe, the U.S., and Canada has a tendency to largely ignore the influence of culture on the mind and behavior.
How do you address these issues? Cross-cultural psychology is the study of how culture influences the mind and behavior. And when referencing “culture,” think on a societal level. This can be religious groups, ethnic groups, or even geographic groupings such as “Californian” — and if you think there aren’t different cultures in California compared to New York, just ask a New Yorker.
Choosing a view: From the inside or out?
Two approaches that a researcher can use to gain insight and information from another culture and its practices are the emic and etic technique first developed by K.L. Pike in the 1960s.
Emic: The emic approach involves approaching a culture different from one’s own without preconceived notions as an “outsider” and seeking to understand from the perspective of the “insider” of that culture. An example of an emic approach would be to investigate or collect data on intergroup conflict (for example, rival gangs in Los Angeles, California) from the perspective of the gang member themselves by using a technique called the ethnographic interview in which the research subject describes his or her experience as openly and freely as possible.
An advantage to the emic approach is that it gives very authentic data, specific to a particular culture or group. A disadvantage is that the data or findings might not be applicable beyond that specific situation or group, posing a problem of generalization.
Etic: The etic method approaches understanding with all the preconceived notions and methods of the “outsider.” An example of an etic approach would be to investigate or collect data on gang-versus-gang conflict by administering a series of personality tests to individual members that were developed for the general population.
An advantage to the etic approach is that findings might be more generalizable, but a disadvantage might be that outside bias might influence the interpretation of the findings.
It is generally expected that a combined emic and etic approach is the best way to capture the complexities in cross-cultural research.
Exploring indigenous psychologies
Is there a “Japanese Psychology”? Is there a “Brazilian Psychology”? Is there a “Tamil Psychology”? The short answer is yes. One of the goals of cross-cultural psychology is to look for variations in “other” cultures that are not present in “our own.”
Not all mental disorders are found in all cultures; or, at the very least, the manifestation of specific disorders varies somewhat or to some degree. The hallucinations of schizophrenics, for example, vary by culture (seeing things vs. hearing things, or smelling things).
Indigenous psychology also studies culture-bound syndromes — mental disorders that are only recognized and manifest in specific cultures. Here are some of the more interesting ones:
Running amok (Malaysian origin): A sudden outburst of aggression or violence and running around wildly.
Falling out (African American; Caribbean): Alteration in consciousness including passing out in response to stress.
Susto (Mexico, Central America, South America): Displaced soul resulting from trauma.
Koro (Asia): A man’s sudden grasping of his penis for fear that it will retract into the body. For a women, fear that her nipples may protract.
Pibloktog (Arctic and Inuit): Seizure, losing consciousness, amnesia, breaking furniture, eating feces, yelling obscenities.
And something can be a norm in one culture that would be considered a disorder in another. For example, grieving in some cultures includes extended periods of mourning, not going out into public, wearing black, not remarrying, and not attending family events. These are expected norms. In Western cultures, this behavior might be diagnosed as depression.
Other studies have noted other cross-cultural differences. For example, immigrants to North American from Haiti and Eastern Europe are less trusting of others than Western European Americans and African Americans. Asian Americans show fewer outwards signs of depression than European Americans, who clearly smile less and display more negative emotion when depressed.
Looking for universals
Are there psychological universals? Cross-culture studies have been conducted in a wide range of areas, such as developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, and psychopathology. Cross-cultural similarities have been found for such phenomena as theory-of mind, counting ability in infants, and mate preferences (in almost all cultures studied, men value attractiveness and chastity more than women do, and women value status and financial prospects).
Ultimately, as can be found with many issues in psychology, the “answer” to the human universal versus cultural variability question is that broadly speaking, the components of the mind and human behavior can be thought of as (by varying degrees) both universal and variable across cultures.
Psychology and gender
Perhaps the most simple and obvious human differences are sex and gender, male or female, masculine or feminine. Nearly all descriptions of other people when we talk about them, tell stories, describe them, or research them include an accounting of sex and gender.
Sex refers to an individual’s biological status as either male or female, including anatomy. For the most part, you are born with your sex. Gender is not so cut and dry. Gender refers to the behavior and characteristics defining masculinity or femininity, which is understood to be psychologically, socially, and culturally constructed. Gender can be correlated with sex to some degree, but everyone knows people who are sexually male who are feminine in gender and vice versa.
Finding a place in the continuum
Gender manifests itself psychologically and behaviorally in what psychologists call gender roles. A gender role is a collection of social norms and expectations for a person who identifies or is identified as either masculine or feminine, man or woman. The presence of gender roles in societies gives rise to stereotypes and biases, prejudices, and judgments, of course. However, the world is still very “gendered,” and people are still pretty much viewed through the lens of gender role and gender role categories.
Psychologist Sandra Bem developed the Bem Sex-Role Inventory as a way to characterize an individual’s gender in relation to a scale. Bem’s inventory identifies the following as characteristics typically associated with being masculine, feminine, or neutral:
Masculine: Acts as a leader, aggressive, ambitious, analytical, assertive, athletic, competitive, defends own beliefs, dominant, and forceful
Feminine: Adaptable, affectionate, cheerful, does not use harsh language, gentle to needs of others, soft-spoken, tender, warm, compassionate, and loyal
Neutral: Adaptable, conscientious, friendly, helpful, jealous, moody, secretive, solemn, theatrical, and unpredictable
There is no value judgment associated with Bem’s breakdown. Certainly both masculine and feminine traits are valuable in their own right, and certainly their utility and usefulness will vary by situation and context.
Looking at gender differences
Gender stereotypes abound. Girls can’t do math. Men are uncaring. We know that stereotypes are often a shortcut for critical thought and all too often take us down the wrong road. But consistent differences between men and women have been found in research, such as higher rates of aggression and violence in men, higher rates of substance abuse in men, and higher rates of depression in women.
Women’s and men’s leadership styles vary as well, with women adopting a more democratic and participatory approach and men adopting a more autocratic and directive approach.
At one point in history, scientists claimed that women had inferior brains. However, modern neuroscience demonstrates no difference in general intelligence between men and women. Some studies suggest that men perform better at spatial and math abilities while women have stronger verbal abilities, but these findings are so small that they are irrelevant in the real world. So why are there so few women in science and technology? If it’s not biology, then is it culture, family influence, or sexism? The answer to this question is yet to be found.
Psychology and sexuality
Whom are you sexually attracted to? Sexual attraction is part of what defines a person’s sexuality. A person’s sexuality consists of his or her
Sexual biology (for example, genitals and arousal)
Psychosocial functioning (attractions, emotions, and beliefs)
Behavior (masturbation and intercourse)
Clinical aspects (erectile dysfunction and fetishes)
Cultural aspects (prohibitions of premarital sex or gender roles)
Laying the building blocks of sexuality
The development of sexuality is thought to begin in childhood, or at least the roots of adult sexuality are thought to come from childhood.
Infants, toddlers, and young kids
Of course, one’s sex first becomes evident at birth (or younger if you get a fetal ultrasound), thus marking the early stages of sexuality. A person’s sex carries with it biological predispositions (attraction tendencies) and cultural expectations (he’s going to be a “ladies’ man”). The sexuality development process is just beginning. An infant’s closeness with parents (being hugged, cuddled, bathed, and dressed) is a precursor to sexuality and it’s possible that disruptions or unhealthy experiences in these interactions can lead to difficulties with sexuality later in life. (These are not seen as “sexual” experiences for an infant but rather precursors to later developed sexuality, as they relate to physical closeness.)
As infants turn “kids,” there is a growing awareness and curiosity about their bodies and genitals. It is not unusual to see children “play” with their genitals and engage in “show” games to others. They may even stimulate themselves by rubbing their genitals against toys or other objects. Simultaneously, there is an awareness of parental reactions and attitudes toward the body in general and genitals in particular. These experiences can range from shaming, to embarrassment, to laughter, to acceptance. Keep in mind that an overly negative tone should be avoided.
At some point, children inevitably asking how babies are made, and how parents respond to this varies widely. Some give a biologically informed talk, whereas others engage in elaborate fairy tales. It is best not to avoid this discussion because a curious child is bound to find out one way or another; parents should want to be in control of their child’s access to that type of information. Crushes and attractions start to emerge and children may even talk about “marrying” or “having a boyfriend” in reference to a class or playmate.
As children approach adolescence they have a fairly clear understanding of the anatomical differences between boys and girls. Attitudes toward nudity in the home can change as children become more “mature.” Kids may engage in “playing house” or “doctor” as a way to explore their sexual arousal, attractions, and bodies. Experimentation may be with either gender. This type of sex play is not generally considered harmful under ordinary and relatively innocent circumstances.
However, behavior that appears to be “age-inappropriate” such as overly adult-like actions and adult sexual language use may be a warning sign of possible inappropriate sexual exposure or abuse. Also look for the following warnings that a child may be being sexually abused:
Refusal to change for gym or to participate in physical activities
Reluctance to be left alone with a particular person or people
Sexual knowledge, language, and/or behaviors that are unusual and inappropriate for their age
There could be other reasons for these behaviors, but take seriously any suspicion of sexual abuse of children.
Puberty and adulthood
Puberty marks a significant stage of sexual development. Bodies and physiology go through immense changes. Surveys suggest that the average age of first intercourse is 16 years old for boys and 17 years old for girls. Teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases become real concerns as well. These issues remain ongoing into adulthood.
Defining healthy sexuality
Having a “healthy sex life” is common fodder for daytime talk shows, books and magazines. Defining healthy sexuality is not about moralizing or upholding any particular set of cultural values per se, but is seen as a “health issue” and is defined in terms of a healthy adult relationship in which the rights, well-being, and satisfaction of all involved is central.
Deciding what’s attractive
Every year, people spend billions of dollars trying to make themselves more attractive. And people also want someone “good-looking” to be with. It’s not just physical attributes, personality plays a big role in who you are attracted to, as do a host of other attributes such as moral values and career. Where do our attraction preferences come from?
Once again, nature and nurture are at play in the development of sexual attraction. From a biological (nature) perspective, sexual attraction is referred to as sexual selection and is understood within an evolutionary context. Sexual attraction is a function of keeping the species alive!
But attraction is immensely individualized and heavily culturally influenced. What might make one person attractive to one person and not another is subjective. Research has turned up some features common to both female and male attractiveness, however, such as financial stability, waist-to-hip ratio (curvaceousness) in women, and the “inverted triangle” (shoulders, chest, waist) for men. However, these must not be oversold. Not everyone likes blondes, or curves, or muscles, or. . . you get the idea.
Getting your bearings on sexual orientation
There is great variety in sexual attraction, but one determinant that plays the biggest role is sexual orientation, defined as an individual’s patterns of emotional, romantic, and sexual attractions to men, women, or both sexes. Sexual orientation exists on a continuum with three main orientations: heterosexual (attractions to the opposite sex), gay/lesbian (attractions to the same sex as oneself), and bisexual (attractions to both men and women).
Sexual orientation is considered separate from one’s biological sex and gender identity. You could be a feminine (gender) male (sex) who is attracted to women (heterosexual) or a masculine woman attracted to women.
The causes of sexual orientation have yet to be firmly discovered through scientific research. It is considered both biologically determined and environmentally shaped. Research shows the relative influence of such variables as genetics, hormones, and cultural influences, but no one factor has been crowned “the cause.” Some people have judged that being gay, lesbian, or bisexual is a lifestyle “choice” that a person makes, but many gay men, lesbian women, and bisexual men and women report feeling as if they had “no choice” and simply knew how they felt from an early age. They simply were attracted to whom they were attracted to, period.
Until 1973, being gay or lesbian was considered a mental disorder and was diagnosable by psychiatrists with the aim of providing “treatment.” Mainstream psychology now considers these sexual orientations as normal variations of human sexuality. These are not disordered people — just people.
It is important to note that prejudice and discrimination continue to negatively impact members of the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered) community, and these influences can lead to stress-related difficulties. Rather than viewing these sexual orientations as disorders, psychology has come to focus on helping individuals in the LGBT community overcome and cope with discrimination. Psychologists have developed programs focused on helping teens to “come out,” especially those in communities that still have a difficult time accepting persons who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered. Psychologists also explore gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered social and identity development. Therapies and therapists that claim to change an individual’s sexual orientation (for example, if a man no longer wishes to “be gay”) have not been demonstrated to be effective from a scientific perspective. Such “treatments” are considered outside the mainstream, and are not supported by the American Psychological Association.