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Understanding Gender Terms

Sociologists study gender to focus on male-female differences in behavior and appearance that have been socially created besides seeking to understand the mechanisms by which people learn and perpetuate society's expectations about sex-appropriate behavior and appearance. The distinction between sex and gender can be broadly defined, as sex is a biological distinction determined by the anatomical traits essential to reproduction. According to Tierney, gender is the socially created and learned distinctions that specify the ideal physical, behavioral, and mental and emotional traits characteristic of males and females.

Sociologists have come up with a gender ideal that exaggerates the characteristics that make a person the so-called perfect male or female. Gender ideals may not exist in reality, but that does not stop people from trying to achieve them

According to Bern, Gender polarization is the organization of social life around male-female ideals, so that people's sex influences every aspect of their life. Gender polarized ideas strongly influence not only sexual attraction between men and women but also the expression of emotions toward persons of the same sex. While all societies distinguish between male and female, some also recognize a third category.

Gender expectations are learned and culturally imposed through a variety of social mechanisms, including socialization, situational constraints and commercialization of gender ideals. Sociologists argue that one's position in the social structure can channel behavior in stereotypically male or female directions.

The belief that one sex and by extension, one gender is superior to another, and that this superiority justifies inequalities between sexes, is sexism. One example of sexism is the belief that men are prisoners of their hormones, making them powerless in the face of female nudity or sexually suggestive dress or behavior. Still another sexist ideology claims that men are not capable of forming relationships with other men that are as meaningful as those formed between women. People who behave in ways that depart from ideals of masculinity or femininity are considered deviant, in need of fixing, and subject to negative sanctions ranging from ridicule to physical violence.

When sociologists study inequality between males and females, they seek to identify the social factors that put one sex at a disadvantage relative to the other.

Social inequality exists between men and women when one category relative to the other (1) faces greater risks to physical and emotional well-being, (2) possesses a disproportionate share of income and other valued resources, and/or (3) is accorded more opportunities to succeed. In its most basic sense, the feminist perspective advocates equality between men and women.

A basic sociological definition of feminism is "a perspective that advocates equality between men and women." Questions about what that equality looks like and how equality should be achieved distinguish feminist camps from one another.

Sociologists take a feminist perspective when they emphasize in their teaching and research the following kinds of themes: the right to bodily integrity and autonomy, access to safe contraceptives, the right to choose the terms of pregnancy, access to quality prenatal care, protection from violence inside and outside the home, freedom from sexual harassment, equal pay for equal work, workplace rights to maternity and other caregiving leaves, and the inescapable interconnections between sex, gender, social class, race, culture, and religion.