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Your term paper will focus on the culture of human sexuality. In this course we have learned that many popular assumptions about sex, gender, and sexuality as “natural” are in fact deeply “cultural,” but what does this mean? What is the advantage of thinking more critically about human sexuality as “cultural?”

Your final term paper will make an argument for the importance of a critical understanding of human sexuality as “cultural.” To guide you, consider how you would respond to a friend/relative/family member who strongly believes that our gender, sex, and sexuality are “natural,” or biologically determined?

It is up to you how you want to build your argument, but you are required to draw on as much of the scholarly literature from this course as you can to support your thesis. The important part of this assignment, is that you will be making an argument to someone who is not familiar with this scholarly literature, so make sure you define your terms. You are also required to support your argument with as many

cross-cultural examples from this course as you can

. You are free to use outside sources, but it is not required. The minimum length for this essay is 1000-1500 words, but you are free to write more if you’d like.

There are a number of strategies one can take to argue that human sexuality is “cultural.” It may also be helpful to explore the evolutionary aspects of sex, and the acknowledgment that there is a biological, or “natural” aspect of our sexuality, drawing on human evolution and the our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, the great apes. In what ways are human and non-human primate sexualities different and similar? What are the arguments of cultural constructionists and biological determinists within the realm of human sexuality? It will also be essential to consider the “cultural” dimensions of sexuality. Some other questions one may consider are, how has science conceptualized human sexuality? In what ways has the scholarly understanding of sexuality changed? How do contemporary biologically and culturally focused anthropologists understand human sexuality today, and how do they differ? What kind of political/social marginalization are we supporting when we uncritically conform/perpetuate gender norms? How do gender and other identity categories mark difference and reflect power relations in the United States, or elsewhere, and what are the consequences of this social stratification? You certainly do not need to answer all of these questions, and you can certainly create other questions you think are important.

“Night to his Day”:
The Social Construction of Gender
Judith Lorber
Excerpts from: Paradoxes of Gender (Chapter 1) by Judith Lorber, ©1994 Yale University
Press. Permission was granted by Yale University Press to include this passage in Seeing
Gender. Originally published with assistance from the foundation established in the memory of
Phillip Hamilton McMillan of the Class of 1894, Yale College.
Talking about gender for most people is the equivalent of fish talking about water. Gender is so
much the routine ground of everyday activities that questioning its taken-for-granted
assumptions and presuppositions is like wondering about whether the sun will come up.1
Gender is so pervasive that in our society we assume it is bred into our genes. Most people find
it hard to believe that gender is constantly created and re-created out of human interaction, out of
social life, and is the texture and order of that social life. Yet gender, like culture, is a human
production that depends on everyone constantly “doing gender” (West and Zimmerman 1987).
And everyone “does gender” without thinking about it. Today, on the subway, I saw a
well-dressed man with a year-old child in a stroller. Yesterday, on a bus, I saw a man with a tiny
baby in a carrier on his chest. Seeing men taking care of small children in public is increasingly
common-at least in New York City. But both men were quite obviously stared at – and smiled at,
approvingly. Everyone was doing gender – the men who were changing the role of fathers and
the other passengers, who were applauding them silently. But there was more gendering going
on that probably fewer people noticed. The baby was wearing a white crocheted cap and white
clothes. You couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl. The child in the stroller was wearing a dark
blue T-shirt and dark print pants. As they started to leave the train, the father put a Yankee
baseball cap on the child’s head. Ah, a boy, I thought. Then I noticed the gleam of tiny earrings
in the child’s ears, and as they got off, I saw the little flowered sneakers and lace-trimmed socks.
Not a boy after all. Gender done.
Gender is such a familiar part of daily life that it usually takes a deliberate disruption of our
expectations of how women and men are supposed to act to pay attention to how it is produced.
Gender signs and signals are so ubiquitous that we usually fail to note them – unless they are
missing or ambiguous. Then we are uncomfortable until we have successfully placed the other
person in a gender status; otherwise, we feel socially dislocated. In our society, in addition to
man and woman, the status can be transvestite (a person who dresses in opposite-gender clothes)
and transsexual (a person who has had sex-change surgery). Transvestites and transsexuals
carefully construct their gender status by dressing, speaking, walking, gesturing in the ways
prescribed for women or men whichever they want to be taken for – and so does any “normal”
For the individual, gender construction starts with assignment to a sex category on the basis of
what the genitalia look like at birth.2 Then babies are dressed or adorned in a way that displays
the category because parents don’t want to be constantly asked whether their baby is a girl or a
boy. A sex category becomes a gender status through naming, dress, and the use of other gender
markers. Once a child’s gender is evident, others treat those in one gender differently from those
in the other, and the children respond to the different treatment by feeling different and behaving
differently. As soon as they can talk, they start to refer to themselves as members of their
gender. Sex doesn’t come into play again until puberty, but by that time, sexual feelings and
desires and practices have been shaped by gendered norms and expectations. Adolescent boys
and girls approach and avoid each other in an elaborately scripted and gendered mating dance.
Parenting is gendered, with different expectations for mothers and for fathers, and people of
different genders work at different kinds of jobs. The work adults do as mothers and fathers and
as low-level workers and high-level bosses, shapes women’s and men’s life experiences, and
these experiences produce different feelings, consciousness, relationships, skills – ways of being
that we call feminine or masculine.3 All of these processes constitute the social construction of
Gendered roles change – today fathers are taking care of little children, girls and boys are
wearing unisex clothing and getting the same education, women and men are working at the
same jobs. Although many traditional social groups are quite strict about maintaining gender
differences, in other social groups they seem to be blurring. Then why the one-year-old’s
earrings? Why is it still so important to mark a child as a girl or a boy, to make sure she is not
taken for a boy or he for a girl? What would happen if they were? They would, quite literally,
have changed places in their social world.
To explain why gendering is done from birth, constantly and by everyone, we have to look not
only at the way individuals experience gender but at gender as a social institution. As a social
institution, gender is one of the major ways that human beings organize their lives. Human
society depends on a predictable division of labor, a designated allocation of scarce goods,
assigned responsibility for children and others who cannot care for themselves, common values
and their systematic transmission to new members, legitimate leadership, music, art, stories,
games, and other symbolic productions. One way of choosing people for the different tasks of
society is on the basis of their talents, motivations, and competence – their demonstrated
achievements. The other way is on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity – ascribed membership in
a category of people. Although societies vary in the extent to which they use one or the other of
these ways of allocating people to work and to carry out other responsibilities, every society uses
gender and age grades. Every society classifies people as “girl and boy children,” “girls and boys
ready to be married,” and “fully adult women and men,” constructs similarities among them and
differences between them, and assigns them to different roles and responsibilities. Personality
characteristics, feelings, motivations, and ambitions flow from these different life experiences so
that the members of these different groups become different kinds of people. The process of
gendering and its outcome are legitimated by religion, law, science, and the society’s entire set of
Western society’s values legitimate gendering by claiming that it all comes from physiology female and male procreative differences. But gender and sex are not equivalent, and gender as a
social construction does not flow automatically from genitalia and reproductive organs, the main
physiological differences of females and males. In the construction of ascribed social statuses,
physiological differences such as sex, stage of development, color of skin, and size are crude
markers. They are not the source of the social statuses of gender, age grade, and race. Social
statuses are carefully constructed through prescribed processes of teaching, learning, emulation,
and enforcement. Whatever genes, hormones, and biological evolution contribute to human
social institutions is materially as well as qualitatively transformed by social practices. Every
social institution has a material base, but culture and social practices transform that base into
something with qualitatively different patterns and constraints. The economy is much more than
producing food and goods and distributing them to eaters and users; family and kinship are not
the equivalent of having sex and procreating; morals and religions cannot be equated with the
fears and ecstasies of the brain; language goes far beyond the sounds produced by tongue and
larynx. No one eats “money” or “credit”; the concepts of “god” and “angels” are the subjects of
theological disquisitions; not only words but objects, such as their flag, “speak” to the citizens of
a country.
Similarly, gender cannot be equated with biological and physiological differences between
human females and males. The building blocks of gender are socially constructed statuses.
Western societies have only two genders, “man” and “woman.” Some societies have three
genders-men, women, and berdaches or hijras or xaniths. Berdaches, hijras, and xaniths are
biological males who behave, dress, work, and are treated in most respects as social women; they
are therefore not men, nor are they female women; they are, in our language, “male women. “4
There are African and American Indian societies that have a gender status called manly hearted
women – biological females who work, marry, and parent as men; their social status is “female
men” (Amadiume 1987; Blackwood 1984). They do not have to behave or dress as men to have
the social responsibilities and prerogatives of husbands and fathers; what makes them men is
enough wealth to buy a wife.
Modern Western societies’ transsexuals and transvestites are the nearest equivalent of these
crossover genders, but they are not institutionalized as third genders (Bolin 1987). Transsexuals
are biological males and females who have sex-change operations to alter their genitalia. They
do so in order to bring their physical anatomy in congruence with the way they want to live and
with their own sense of gender identity. They do not become a third gender; they change
genders. Transvestites are males who live as women and females who live as men but do not
intend to have sex-change surgery. Their dress, appearance, and mannerisms fall within the
range of what is expected from members of the opposite gender, so that they “pass.” They also
change genders, sometimes temporarily, some for most of their lives. Transvestite women have
fought in wars as men soldiers as recently as the nineteenth century; some married women, and
others went back to being women and married men once the war was over.5 Some were
discovered when their wounds were treated; others not until they died. In order to work as a jazz
musician, a man’s occupation, Billy Tipton, a woman, lived most of her life as a man. She died
recently at seventy-four, leaving a wife and three adopted sons for whom she was husband and
father, and musicians with whom she had played and traveled, for whom she was “one of the
boys” (New York Times 1989).6 There have been many other such occurrences of women
passing as men to do more prestigious or lucrative men’s work (Matthaei 1982, 192-93).7
Genders, therefore, are not attached to a biological substratum. Gender boundaries are
breachable, and individual and socially organized shifts from one gender to another call attention
to “cultural, social, or aesthetic dissonances” (Garber 1992, 16). These odd or deviant or third
genders show us what we ordinarily take for granted – that people have to learn to be women and
men. Men who cross-dress for performances or for pleasure often learn from women’s
magazines how to “do” femininity convincingly (Garber 1992, 41-51). Because transvestism is
direct evidence of how gender is constructed, Marjorie Garber claims it has “extraordinary
power… to disrupt, expose, and challenge, putting in question the very notion of the ‘original’ and
of stable identity” (1992, 16) …
For Individuals, Gender Means Sameness
Although the possible combinations of genitalia, body shapes, clothing, mannerisms, sexuality,
and roles could produce infinite varieties in human beings, the social institution of gender
depends on the production and maintenance of a limited number of gender statuses and of
making the members of these statuses similar to each other. Individuals are born sexed but not
gendered, and they have to be taught to be masculine or feminine.8 As Simone de Beauvoir said:
“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman…; it is civilization as a whole that produces this
creature… which is described as feminine” (1952, 267) ….
Many cultures go beyond clothing, gestures, and demeanor in gendering children. They inscribe
gender directly into bodies. In traditional Chinese society, mothers once bound their daughters’
feet into three-inch stumps to enhance their sexual attractiveness. Jewish fathers circumcise their
infant sons to show their covenant with God. Women in African societies remove the clitoris of
prepubescent girls, scrape their labia, and make the lips grow together to preserve their chastity
and ensure their marriageability. In Western societies, women augment their breast size with
silicone and reconstruct their faces with cosmetic surgery to conform to cultural ideals of
feminine beauty. Hanna Papanek (1990) notes that these practices reinforce the sense of
superiority or inferiority in the adults who carry them out as well as in the children on whom
they are done: The genitals of Jewish fathers and sons are physical and psychological evidence
of their common dominant religious and familial status; the genitals of African mothers and
daughters are physical and psychological evidence of their joint subordination.9
Sandra Bern (1981, 1983) argues that because gender is a powerful “schema” that orders the
cognitive world, one must wage a constant, active battle for a child not to fall into typical
gendered attitudes and behavior. In 1972, Ms. Magazine published Lois Gould’s fantasy of how
to raise a child free of gender-typing. The experiment calls for hiding the child’s anatomy from
all eyes except the parents’ and treating the child as neither a girl nor a boy. The child, called X,
gets to do all the things boys and girls do. The experiment is so successful that all the children in
X’s class at school want to look and behave like X. At the end of the story, the creators of the
experiment are asked what will happen when X grows up. The scientists’ answer is that by then
it will be quite clear what X is, implying that its hormones will kick in and it will be revealed as
a female or male. That ambiguous, and somewhat contradictory, ending lets Gould off the hook;
neither she nor we have any idea what someone brought up in a totally androgynous manner
would be like sexually or socially as an adult. The hormonal input will not create gender or
sexuality but will only establish secondary sex characteristics; breasts, beards, and menstruation
alone do not produce social manhood or womanhood. Indeed, it is at puberty, when sex
characteristics become evident, that most societies put pubescent children through their most
important rites of passage, the rituals that officially mark them as fully gendered – that is, ready
to marry and become adults.
Most parents create a gendered world for their newborn by naming, birth announcements, and
dress. Children’s relationships with same-gendered and different-gendered caretakers structure
their self-identifications and personalities. Through cognitive development, children extract and
apply to their own actions the appropriate behavior for those who belong in their own gender, as
well as race, religion, ethnic group, and social class, rejecting what is not appropriate. If their
social categories are highly valued, they value themselves highly; if their social categories are of
low status, they lose self-esteem (Chodorow 1974). Many feminist parents who want to raise
androgynous children soon lose their children to the pull of gendered norms (Gordon 1990,
87-90). My son attended a carefully nonsexist elementary school, which didn’t even have girls’
and boys’ bathrooms. When he was seven or eight years old, I attended a class play about
“squares” and “circles” and their need for each other and noticed that all the girl squares and
circles wore makeup, but none of the boy squares and circles did. I asked the teacher about it
after the play, and she said, “Bobby said he was not going to wear makeup, and he is a powerful
child, so none of the boys would either.” In a long discussion about conformity, my son
confronted me with the question of who the conformists were, the boys who followed their
leader or the girls who listened to the woman teacher. In actuality, they both were, because they
both followed same-gender leaders and acted in gender-appropriate ways. (Actors may wear
makeup, but real boys don’t.)
For human beings there is no essential femaleness or maleness, femininity or masculinity,
womanhood or manhood, but once gender is ascribed, the social order constructs and holds
individuals to strongly gendered norms and expectations. Individuals may vary on many of the
components of gender and may shift genders temporarily or permanently, but they must fit into
the limited number of gender statuses their society recognizes. In the process, they re-create
their society’s version of women and men: “If we do gender appropriately, we simultaneously
sustain, reproduce, and render legitimate the institutional arrangements …. If we fail to do gender
appropriately, we as individuals – not the institutional arrangements – may be called to account
(for our character, motives, and predispositions)” (West and Zimmerman 1987, 146).
The gendered practices of everyday life reproduce a society’s view of how women and men
should act. Gendered social arrangements are justified by religion and cultural productions and
backed by law, but the most powerful means of sustaining the moral hegemony of the dominant
gender ideology is that the process is made invisible; any possible alternatives are virtually
unthinkable (Foucault 1972; Gramsci 1971).10
For Society, Gender Means Difference
The pervasiveness of gender as a way of structuring social life demands that gender statuses be
clearly differentiated. Varied talents, sexual preferences, identities, personalities, interests, and
ways of interacting fragment the individual’s bodily and social experiences. Nonetheless, these
are organized in Western cultures into two and only two socially and legally recognized gender
statuses, “man” and “woman.”11 In the social construction of gender, it does not matter what
men and women actually do; it does not even matter if they do exactly the same thing. The
social institution of gender insists only that what they do is perceived as different.
If men and women are doing the same tasks, they are usually spatially segregated to maintain
gender separation, and often the tasks are given different job titles as well, such as executive
secretary and administrative assistant (Reskin 1988). If the differences between women and men
begin to blur, society’s “sameness taboo” goes into action (Rubin 1975, 178). At a rock and roll
dance at West Point in 1976, the year women were admitted to the prestigious military academy
for the first time, the school’s administrators “were reportedly perturbed by the sight of
mirror-image couples dancing in short hair and dress gray trousers,” and a rule was established
that women cadets could dance at these events only if they wore skirts (Barkalow and Raab
1990, 53).12 Women recruits in the U.S. Marine Corps are required to wear makeup – at a
minimum, lipstick and eye shadow – and they have to take classes in makeup, hair care, poise,
and etiquette. This feminization is part of a deliberate policy of making them clearly
distinguishable from men Marines. Christine Williams quotes a twenty-five-year-old woman
drill instructor as saying, “A lot of the recruits who come here don’t wear makeup; they’re
tomboyish or athletic. A lot of them have the preconceived idea that going into the military
means they can still be a tomboy. They don’t realize that you are a Woman Marine” (1989,
If gender differences were genetic, physiological, or hormonal, gender bending and gender
ambiguity would occur only in hermaphrodites, who are born with chromosomes and genitalia
that are not clearly female or male. Since gender differences are socially constructed, all men
and all women can enact the behavior of the other, because they know the other’s social script:
“‘Man’ and ‘woman’ are at once empty and overflowing categories. Empty because they have
no ultimate, transcendental meaning. Overflowing because even when they appear to be fixed,
they still contain within them alternative, denied, or suppressed definitions” (Scott 1988a, 49).
Nonetheless, though individuals may be able to shift gender statuses, the gender boundaries have
to hold, or the whole gendered social order will come crashing down…
Gender as Process, Stratification, and Structure
As a social institution, gender is a process of creating distinguishable social statuses for the
assignment of rights and responsibilities. As part of a stratification system that ranks these
statuses unequally, gender is a major building block in the social structures built on these
unequal statuses.
As a process, gender creates the social differences that define “woman” and “man.” In social
interaction throughout their lives, individuals learn what is expected, see what is expected, act
and react in expected ways, and thus simultaneously construct and maintain the gender order:
“The very injunction to be a given gender takes place through discursive routes: to be a good
mother, to be a heterosexually desirable object, to be a fit worker, in sum, to signify a
multiplicity of guarantees in response to a variety of different demands all at once” (Butler 1990,
145). Members of a social group neither make up gender as they go along nor exactly replicate
in rote fashion what was done before. In almost every encounter, human beings produce gender,
behaving in the ways they learned were appropriate for their gender status, or resisting or
rebelling against these norms. Resistance and rebellion have altered gender norms, but so far
they have rarely eroded the statuses.
Gendered patterns of interaction acquire additional layers of gendered sexuality, parenting, and
work behaviors in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Gendered norms and expectations are
enforced through informal sanctions of gender-inappropriate behavior by peers and by formal
punishment or threat of punishment by those in authority should behavior deviate too far from
socially imposed standards for women and men.
Everyday gendered interactions build gender into the family, the work process, and other
organizations and institutions, which in turn reinforce gender expectations for individuals.14
Because gender is a process, there is room not only for modification and variation by individuals
and small groups but also for institutionalized change (Scott 1988, 7).
As part of a stratification system, gender ranks men above women of the same race and class.
Women and men could be different but equal. In practice, the process of creating difference
depends to a great extent on differential evaluation. As Nancy Jay (1981) says: “That which is
defined, separated out, isolated from all else is A and pure. Not-A is necessarily impure, a
random catchall, to which nothing is external except A and the principle of order that separates it
from Not-A” (45). From the individual’s point of view, whichever gender is A, the other is
Not-A; gender boundaries tell the individual who is like him or her, and all the rest are unlike.
From society’s point of view, however, one gender is usually the touchstone, the normal, the
dominant, and the other is different, deviant, and subordinate. In Western society, “man” is A,
“woman” is Not-A. (Consider what a society would be like where woman was A and man
The further dichotomization by race and class constructs the gradations of a heterogeneous
society’s stratification scheme. Thus, in the United States, white is A, African American is
Not-A; middle class is A, working class is Not-A, and “African-American women occupy a
position whereby the inferior half of a series of these dichotomies converge” (Collins 1990, 70).
The dominant categories are the hegemonic ideals, taken so for granted as the way things should
be that white is not ordinarily thought of as a race, middle class as a class, or men as a gender.
The characteristics of these categories define the Other as that which lacks the valuable qualities
the dominants exhibit.
Societies vary in the extent of the inequality in social status of their women and men members,
but where there is inequality, the status “woman” (and its attendant behavior and role allocations)
is usually held in lesser esteem than the status “man.” Since gender is also intertwined with a
society’s other constructed statuses of differential evaluation – race, religion, occupation, class,
country of origin, and so on – men and women members of the favored groups command more
power, more prestige, and more property than the members of the disfavored groups. Within
many social groups, however, men are advantaged over women. The more economic resources,
such as education and job opportunities, are available to a group, the more they tend to be
monopolized by men. In poorer groups that have few resources (such as working-class African
Americans in the United States), women and men are more nearly equal, and the women may
even outstrip the men in education and occupational status (Almquist 1987).
As a structure, gender divides work in the home and in economic production, legitimates those in
authority, and organizes sexuality and emotional life (Connell 1987, 91-142). As primary
parents, women significantly influence children’s psychological development and emotional
attachments, in the process reproducing gender. Emergent sexuality is shaped by heterosexual,
homosexual, bisexual, and sadomasochistic patterns that are gendered-different for girls and
boys, and for women and men – so that sexual statuses reflect gender statuses.
When gender is a major component of structured inequality, the devalued genders have less
power, prestige, and economic rewards than the valued genders. In countries that discourage
gender discrimination, many major roles are still gendered; women still do most of the domestic
labor and child rearing, even while doing full-time paid work; women and men are segregated on
the job and each does work considered “appropriate”; women’s work is usually paid less than
men’s work. Men dominate the positions of authority and leadership in government, the military,
and the law; cultural productions, religions, and sports reflect men’s interests.
Gender inequality – the devaluation of “women” and the social domination of “men” – has social
functions and a social history. It is not the result of sex, procreation, physiology, anatomy,
hormones, or genetic predispositions. It is produced and maintained by identifiable social
processes and built into the general social structure and individual identities deliberately and
purposefully. The social order as we know it in Western societies is organized around racial
ethnic, class, and gender inequality. I contend, therefore, that the continuing purpose of gender
as a modern social institution is to construct women as a group to be the subordinates of men as a
group. The life of everyone placed in the status “woman” is “night to his day-that has forever
been the fantasy. Black to his white. Shut out of his system’s space, she is the repressed that
ensures the system’s functioning” (Cixous and Clement [19751 1986, 67)…
There is no core or bedrock human nature below these endlessly looping processes of the social
production of sex and gender, self and other identity and psyche, each of which is a “complex
cultural construction” (Butler 1990, 36). For humans, the social is the natural. Therefore, “in its
feminist senses, gender cannot mean simply the cultural appropriation of biological sexual
difference. Sexual difference is itself a fundamental – an scientifically contested – construction.
Both ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are woven of multiple, asymmetrical strands of difference, charged with
multifaceted dramatic narratives of domination and struggle” (Haraway 1990, 140).
Gender is, in Erving Goffman’s words, an aspect of Felicity’s Condition, “any arrangement
which leads us to judge an individual’s.. . acts not to be a manifestation of strangeness. Behind
Felicity’s Condition is our sense of what it is to be sane” (1983, 27). Also see Bern 1993; Frye
1983, 17-40; Goffman 1977.
In cases of ambiguity in countries with modern medicine, surgery is usually performed to
make the genitalia more clearly male or female.
See Butler 1990 for an analysis of how doing gender is gender identity.
On the hijras of India, see Nanda 1990; on the xaniths of Oman, see Wikan 1982, 168-86;
on the American Indian berdaches, see Williams 1986. Other societies that have similar
institutionalized third-gender men are the Koniag of Alaska, the Tanala of Madagascar, the
Mesakin of Nuba, and the Chukchee of Siberia (Wikan 1982, 170).
Durova 1989; Freeman and Bond 1992; Wheelwright 1989.
Gender segregation of work in popular music still has not changed very much, according to
Groce and Cooper 1989, despite considerable androgyny in some very popular figures. See
Garber 1992 on the androgyny. She discusses Tipton on pp. 67-70.
In the nineteenth century, not only did these women get men’s wages, but they also “had
male privileges and could do all manner of things other women could not: open a bank account,
write checks, own property, go anywhere unaccompanied, vote in elections” (Faderrnan 1991,
For an account of how a potential man-to-woman transsexual learned to be feminine, see
Garfinkel 1967,116-85, 285-88.
Paige and Paige (1981, 147-49) argue that circumcision ceremonies indicate a father’s
loyalty to his lineage elders – “visible public evidence that the head of a family unit of their
lineage is willing to trust others with his and his family’s most valuable political asset, his son’s
penis” (147). On female circumcision, see El Dareer 1982; Lightfoot-Klein 1987; van der Kwaak
1992; Walker 1992. There is a form of female circumcision that removes only the prepuce of the
clitoris and is similar to male circumcision, but most forms of female circumcision are far more
extensive, mutilating, and spiritually and psychologically shocking than the usual form of male
circumcision. However, among the Australian aborigines, boys’ penises are slit and kept open,
so that they urinate and bleed the way women do (Bettelheim 1962, 165-206).
10. The concepts of moral hegemony, the effects of everyday activities (praxis) on thought and
personality, and the necessity of consciousness of these processes before political change can
occur are all based on Marx’s analysis of class relations.
11. Other societies recognize more than two categories, but usually no more than three or four
(Jacobs and Roberts 1989).
12. Carol Barkalow’s book has a photograph of eleven first-year West Pointers in a math class,
who are dressed in regulation pants, shirts, and sweaters, with short haircuts. The caption
challenges the reader to locate the only woman in the room.
13. The taboo on males and females looking alike reflects the U.S. military’s homophobia
(Berubé 1989). If you can’t tell those with a penis from those with a vagina, how are you going to
determine whether their sexual interest is heterosexual or homosexual unless you watch them
having sexual relations?
14. On the “logic of practice,” or how the experience of gender is embedded in the norms of
everyday interaction and the structure of formal organizations, see Acker 1990; Connell 1987;
Smith 1987.
Acker, Joan. 1990. “Hierarchies, Jobs, and Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations.”
Gender and Society 4, 139-58.
Almquist, Elizabeth M. 1987. “Labor Market Gendered Inequality in Minority Groups.” Gender
and Society 1, 400-414.
Amadiume, III. 1987. Male Daughters, Female Husbands: Gender and Sex in an African
Society. London: Zed Books.
Barkalow, Carol, with Andrea Raab. 1990. In the Men’s House. New York: Poseidon Press.
Beauvoir, Simone de. 1953. The Second Sex, translated by H. M. Parshley. New York: Knopf.
Bern, Sandra Lipsitz. 1981. “Gender Schema Theory: A Cognitive Account of Sex Typing.”
Psychological Review 88, 354-64.
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Article 20
Arranging a Marriage in India
Serena Nanda
John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Sister and doctor brother-in-law
invite correspondence from North
Indian professionals only, for a
beautiful, talented, sophisticated,
intelligent sister, 5’3″, slim, M.A.
in textile design, father a senior
civil officer. Would prefer immigrant
doctors, between 26–29 years. Reply
with full details and returnable photo.
A well-settled uncle invites matrimonial correspondence from slim,
fair, educated South Indian girl,
for his nephew, 25 years, smart,
M.B.A., green card holder, 5’6″.
Full particulars with returnable
photo appreciated.
Matrimonial Advertisements,
India Abroad
arranged. Even among the educated middle classes in modern, urban India, marriage is as much a concern of the families
as it is of the individuals. So customary is
the practice of arranged marriage that there
is a special name for a marriage which is
not arranged: It is called a “love match.”
On my first field trip to India, I met
many young men and women whose parents were in the process of “getting them
married.” In many cases, the bride and
groom would not meet each other before
the marriage. At most they might meet
for a brief conversation, and this meeting
would take place only after their parents
had decided that the match was suitable.
Parents do not compel their children to
marry a person who either marriage partner finds objectionable. But only after
one match is refused will another be
As a young American woman in India
for the first time, I found this custom of
arranged marriage oppressive. How
could any intelligent young person agree
to such a marriage without great reluctance? It was contrary to everything I believed about the importance of romantic
love as the only basis of a happy marriage. It also clashed with my strongly
held notions that the choice of such an
intimate and permanent relationship
could be made only by the individuals involved. Had anyone tried to arrange my
marriage, I would have been defiant and
Young men and women
do not date and have
very little social life
involving members of
the opposite sex.
At the first opportunity, I began, with
more curiosity than tact, to question the
young people I met on how they felt
about this practice. Sita, one of my
young informants, was a college graduate with a degree in political science. She
had been waiting for over a year while
her parents were arranging a match for
her. I found it difficult to accept the docile manner in which this well-educated
young woman awaited the outcome of a
process that would result in her spending
the rest of her life with a man she hardly
knew, a virtual stranger, picked out by
her parents.
“How can you go along with this?” I
asked her, in frustration and distress.
“Don’t you care who you marry?”
“Of course I care,” she answered.“
This is why I must let my parents choose
a boy for me. My marriage is too important to be arranged by such an inexperienced person as myself. In such matters,
it is better to have my parents’ guidance.”
I had learned that young men and
women in India do not date and have
very little social life involving members
of the opposite sex. Although I could not
disagree with Sita’s reasoning, I continued to pursue the subject.
“But how can you marry the first man
you have ever met? Not only have you
missed the fun of meeting a lot of different people, but you have not given yourself the chance to know who is the right
man for you.”
“Meeting with a lot of different people doesn’t sound like any fun at all,”
Sita answered. “One hears that in America the girls are spending all their time
worrying about whether they will meet a
man and get married. Here we have the
chance to enjoy our life and let our parents do this work and worrying for us.”
She had me there. The high anxiety of
the competition to “be popular” with the
opposite sex certainly was the most
prominent feature of life as an American
teenager in the late fifties. The endless
worrying about the rules that governed
our behavior and about our popularity
ratings sapped both our self-esteem and
our enjoyment of adolescence. I reflected that absence of this competition
in India most certainly may have contributed to the self-confidence and natural
charm of so many of the young women I
And yet, the idea of marrying a perfect stranger, whom one did not know
Article 20. Arranging a Marriage in India
and did not “love,” so offended my
American ideas of individualism and romanticism, that I persisted with my objections.
“I still can’t imagine it,” I said. “How
can you agree to marry a man you hardly
“But of course he will be known. My
parents would never arrange a marriage
for me without knowing all about the
boy’s family background. Naturally we
will not rely only on what the family tells
us. We will check the particulars out ourselves. No one will want their daughter
to marry into a family that is not good.
All these things we will know beforehand.”
Impatiently, I responded, “Sita, I
don’t mean know the family, I mean,
know the man. How can you marry
someone you don’t know personally and
don’t love? How can you think of spending your life with someone you may not
even like?”
“If he is a good man, why should I not
like him?” she said. “With you people,
you know the boy so well before you
marry, where will be the fun to get married? There will be no mystery and no romance. Here we have the whole of our
married life to get to know and love our
husband. “This way is better, is it not?”
Her response made further sense, and
I began to have second thoughts on the
matter. Indeed, during months of meeting many intelligent young Indian people, both male and female, who had the
same ideas as Sita, I saw arranged marriages in a different light. I also saw the
importance of the family in Indian life
and realized that a couple who took their
marriage into their own hands was taking
a big risk, particularly if their families
were irreconcilably opposed to the
match. In a country where every important resource in life—a job, a house, a social circle—is gained through family
connections, it seemed foolhardy to cut
oneself off from a supportive social network and depend solely on one person
for happiness and success.
Six years later I returned to India to
again do fieldwork, this time among the
middle class in Bombay, a modern, sophisticated city. From the experience of
my earlier visit, I decided to include a
study of arranged marriages in my
project. By this time I had met many Indian couples whose marriages had been
arranged and who seemed very happy.
Particularly in contrast to the fate of
many of my married friends in the
United States who were already in the
process of divorce, the positive aspects
of arranged marriages appeared to me to
outweigh the negatives. In fact, I thought
I might even participate in arranging a
marriage myself. I had been fairly successful in the United States in “fixing
up” many of my friends, and I was confident that my matchmaking skills could
be easily applied to this new situation,
once I learned the basic rules. “After all,”
I thought, “how complicated can it be?
People want pretty much the same things
in a marriage whether it is in India or
In a society where
divorce is still a scandal
and where, in fact, the divorce rate is exceedingly
low, an arranged marriage is the beginning of a
lifetime relationship not
just between the bride and
groom but between their
families as well.
An opportunity presented itself almost immediately. A friend from my
previous Indian trip was in the process of
arranging for the marriage of her eldest
son. In India there is a perceived shortage of “good boys,” and since my
friend’s family was eminently respectable and the boy himself personable,
well educated, and nice looking, I was
sure that by the end of my year’s fieldwork, we would have found a match.
The basic rule seems to be that a family’s reputation is most important. It is
understood that matches would be arranged only within the same caste and
general social class, although some
crossing of subcastes is permissible if the
class positions of the bride’s and
groom’s families are similar. Although
dowry is now prohibited by law in India,
extensive gift exchanges took place with
every marriage. Even when the boy’s
family do not “make demands,” every
girl’s family nevertheless feels the obligation to give the traditional gifts, to the
girl, to the boy, and to the boy’s family.
Particularly when the couple would be
living in the joint family—that is, with
the boy’s parents and his married brothers and their families, as well as with unmarried siblings—which is still very
common even among the urban, uppermiddle class in India, the girls’ parents
are anxious to establish smooth relations
between their family and that of the boy.
Offering the proper gifts, even when not
called “dowry,” is often an important
factor in influencing the relationship between the bride’s and groom’s families
and perhaps, also, the treatment of the
bride in her new home.
In a society where divorce is still a
scandal and where, in fact, the divorce
rate is exceedingly low, an arranged marriage is the beginning of a lifetime relationship not just between the bride and
groom but between their families as well.
Thus, while a girl’s looks are important,
her character is even more so, for she is
being judged as a prospective daughterin-law as much as a prospective bride.
Where she would be living in a joint
family, as was the case with my friend,
the girls’s ability to get along harmoniously in a family is perhaps the single
most important quality in assessing her
My friend is a highly esteemed wife,
mother, and daughter-in-law. She is religious, soft-spoken, modest, and deferential. She rarely gossips and never
quarrels, two qualities highly desirable
in a woman. A family that has the reputation for gossip and conflict among its
womenfolk will not find it easy to get
good wives for their sons. Parents will
not want to send their daughter to a
house in which there is conflict.
My friend’s family were originally
from North India. They had lived in
Bombay, where her husband owned a
business, for forty years. The family had
delayed in seeking a match for their eldest son because he had been an Air
Force pilot for several years, stationed in
such remote places that it had seemed
fruitless to try to find a girl who would be
willing to accompany him. In their social
Even today, almost all marriages in India are arranged. It is believed that parents are much more effective at deciding whom their daughters should marry.
class, a military career, despite its economic security, has little prestige and is
considered a drawback in finding a suitable bride. Many families would not allow their daughters to marry a man in an
occupation so potentially dangerous and
which requires so much moving around.
The son had recently left the military
and joined his father’s business. Since he
was a college graduate, modern, and well
traveled, from such a good family, and, I
thought, quite handsome, it seemed to
me that he, or rather his family, was in a
position to pick and choose. I said as
much to my friend.
While she agreed that there were
many advantages on their side, she also
said, “We must keep in mind that my son
is both short and dark; these are drawbacks in finding the right match.” While
the boy’s height had not escaped my notice, “dark” seemed to me inaccurate; I
would have called him “wheat” colored
perhaps, and in any case, I did not realize
that color would be a consideration. I
discovered, however, that while a boy’s
skin color is a less important consideration than a girl’s, it is still a factor.
An important source of contacts in
trying to arrange her son’s marriage was
my friend’s social club in Bombay.
Many of the women had daughters of the
right age, and some had already expressed an interest in my friend’s son. I
was most enthusiastic about the possibilities of one particular family who had
five daughters, all of whom were pretty,
demure, and well educated. Their mother
had told my friend, “You can have your
pick for your son, whichever one of my
daughters appeals to you most.”
I saw a match in sight. “Surely,” I said
to my friend, “we will find one there.
Let’s go visit and make our choice.” But
my friend held back; she did not seem to
share my enthusiasm, for reasons I could
not then fathom.
When I kept pressing for an explanation of her reluctance, she admitted,
“See, Serena, here is the problem. The
family has so many daughters, how will
they be able to provide nicely for any of
them? We are not making any demands,
but still, with so many daughters to
marry off, one wonders whether she will
even be able to make a proper wedding.
Since this is our eldest son, it’s best if we
marry him to a girl who is the only
daughter, then the wedding will truly be
a gala affair.” I argued that surely the
quality of the girls themselves made up
for any deficiency in the elaborateness of
the wedding. My friend admitted this
point but still seemed reluctant to proceed.
“Is there something else,” I asked her,
“some factor I have missed?” “Well,”
she finally said, “there is one other thing.
They have one daughter already married
and living in Bombay. The mother is always complaining to me that the girl’s
in-laws don’t let her visit her own family
often enough. So it makes me wonder,
will she be that kind of mother who always wants her daughter at her own
home? This will prevent the girl from adjusting to our house. It is not a good
thing.” And so, this family of five daughters was dropped as a possibility.
Article 20. Arranging a Marriage in India
Somewhat disappointed, I nevertheless respected my friend’s reasoning and
geared up for the next prospect. This was
also the daughter of a woman in my
friend’s social club. There was clear interest in this family and I could see why.
The family’s reputation was excellent; in
fact, they came from a subcaste slightly
higher than my friend’s own. The girl,
who was an only daughter, was pretty
and well educated and had a brother
studying in the United States. Yet, after
expressing an interest to me in this family, all talk of them suddenly died down
and the search began elsewhere.
“What happened to that girl as a prospect?” I asked one day. “You never mention her any more. She is so pretty and so
educated, what did you find wrong?”
“She is too educated. We’ve decided
against it. My husband’s father saw the
girl on the bus the other day and thought
her forward. A girl who ‘roams about’
the city by herself is not the girl for our
family.” My disappointment this time
was even greater, as I thought the son
would have liked the girl very much. But
then I thought, my friend is right, a girl
who is going to live in a joint family cannot be too independent or she will make
life miserable for everyone. I also
learned that if the family of the girl has
even a slightly higher social status than
the family of the boy, the bride may think
herself too good for them, and this too
will cause problems. Later my friend admitted to me that this had been an important factor in her decision not to pursue
the match.
The next candidate was the daughter
of a client of my friend’s husband. When
the client learned that the family was
looking for a match for their son, he said,
“Look no further, we have a daughter.”
This man then invited my friends to dinner to see the girl. He had already seen
their son at the office and decided that
“he liked the boy.” We all went together
for tea, rather than dinner—it was less of
a commitment—and while we were
there, the girl’s mother showed us
around the house. The girl was studying
for her exams and was briefly introduced
to us.
After we left, I was anxious to hear
my friend’s opinion. While her husband
liked the family very much and was im-
pressed with his client’s business accomplishments and reputation, the wife
didn’t like the girl’s looks. “She is short,
no doubt, which is an important plus
point, but she is also fat and wears
glasses.” My friend obviously thought
she could do better for her son and asked
her husband to make his excuses to his
client by saying that they had decided to
postpone the boy’s marriage indefinitely.
“If a mistake is made
we have not only ruined
the life of our son or
daughter, but we have
spoiled the reputation of
our family as well.”
By this time almost six months had
passed and I was becoming impatient.
What I had thought would be an easy
matter to arrange was turning out to be
quite complicated. I began to believe that
between my friend’s desire for a girl who
was modest enough to fit into her joint
family, yet attractive and educated
enough to be an acceptable partner for
her son, she would not find anyone suitable. My friend laughed at my impatience: “Don’t be so much in a hurry,”
she said. “You Americans want everything done so quickly. You get married
quickly and then just as quickly get divorced. Here we take marriage more seriously. We must take all the factors into
account. It is not enough for us to learn
by our mistakes. This is too serious a
business. If a mistake is made we have
not only ruined the life of our son or
daughter, but we have spoiled the reputation of our family as well. And that will
make it much harder for their brothers
and sisters to get married. So we must be
very careful.”
What she said was true and I promised myself to be more patient, though it
was not easy. I had really hoped and expected that the match would be made before my year in India was up. But it was
not to be. When I left India my friend
seemed no further along in finding a suitable match for her son than when I had
Two years later, I returned to India
and still my friend had not found a girl
for her son. By this time, he was close to
thirty, and I think she was a little worried. Since she knew I had friends all
over India, and I was going to be there
for a year, she asked me to “help her in
this work” and keep an eye out for someone suitable. I was flattered that my
judgment was respected, but knowing
now how complicated the process was, I
had lost my earlier confidence as a
matchmaker. Nevertheless, I promised
that I would try.
It was almost at the end of my year’s
stay in India that I met a family with a
marriageable daughter whom I felt might
be a good possibility for my friend’s son.
The girl’s father was related to a good
friend of mine and by coincidence came
from the same village as my friend’s husband. This new family had a successful
business in a medium-sized city in central India and were from the same subcaste as my friend. The daughter was
pretty and chic; in fact, she had studied
fashion design in college. Her parents
would not allow her to go off by herself
to any of the major cities in India where
she could make a career, but they had
compromised with her wish to work by
allowing her to run a small dress-making
boutique from their home. In spite of her
desire to have a career, the daughter was
both modest and home-loving and had
had a traditional, sheltered upbringing.
She had only one other sister, already
married, and a brother who was in his father’s business.
I mentioned the possibility of a match
with my friend’s son. The girl’s parents
were most interested. Although their
daughter was not eager to marry just yet,
the idea of living in Bombay—a sophisticated, extremely fashion-conscious
city where she could continue her education in clothing design—was a great inducement. I gave the girl’s father my
friend’s address and suggested that
when they went to Bombay on some
business or whatever, they look up the
boy’s family.
Returning to Bombay on my way to
New York, I told my friend of this newly
discovered possibility. She seemed to
feel there was potential but, in spite of
my urging, would not make any moves
Further Reflections on Arranged Marriage…
This essay was written from the point of
view of a family seeking a daughter-inlaw. Arranged marriage looks somewhat
different from the point of view of the
bride and her family. Arranged marriage
continues to be preferred, even among
the more educated, Westernized sections
of the Indian population. Many young
women from these families still go
along, more or less willingly, with the
practice, and also with the specific
choices of their families. Young women
do get excited about the prospects of
their marriage, but there is also ambivalence and increasing uncertainty, as the
bride contemplates leaving the comfort
and familiarity of her own home, where
as a “temporary guest” she had often
been indulged, to live among strangers.
Even in the best situation she will now
come under the close scrutiny of her husband’s family. How she dresses, how she
behaves, how she gets along with others,
where she goes, how she spends her
time, her domestic abilities—all of this
and much more—will be observed and
commented on by a whole new set of relations. Her interaction with her family
of birth will be monitored and curtailed
considerably. Not only will she leave
their home, but with increasing geographic mobility, she may also live very
far from them, perhaps even on another
continent. Too much expression of her
fondness for her own family, or her desire to visit them, may be interpreted as
an inability to adjust to her new family,
and may become a source of conflict. In
an arranged marriage the burden of adjustment is clearly heavier for a woman
than for a man. And that is in the best of
In less happy circumstances, the bride
may be a target of resentment and hostility from her husband’s family, particularly her mother-in-law or her husband’s
unmarried sisters, for whom she is now a
source of competition for the affection,
loyalty, and economic resources of their
son or brother. If she is psychologically,
or even physically abused, her options
are limited, as returning to her parents’
home, or divorce, are still very stigmatized. For most Indians, marriage and
motherhood are still considered the only
suitable roles for a woman, even for
those who have careers, and few women
can comfortably contemplate remaining
unmarried. Most families still consider
“marrying off” their daughters as a compelling religious duty and social necessity. This increases a bride’s sense of
obligation to make the marriage a success, at whatever cost to her own personal happiness.
The vulnerability of a new bride may
also be intensified by the issue of dowry,
which although illegal, has become a
more pressing issue in the consumer conscious society of contemporary urban India. In many cases, where a groom’s
family is not satisfied with the amount of
dowry a bride brings to her marriage, the
young bride will be constantly harassed
to get her parents to give more. In extreme cases, the bride may even be murdered, and the murder disguised as an
accident or suicide. This also offers the
husband’s family an opportunity to arrange another match for him, thus bringing in another dowry. This phenomena,
called dowry death, calls attention not
just to the “evils of dowry” but also to
larger issues of the powerlessness of
women as well.
Serena Nanda
March 1998
herself. She rather preferred to wait for
the girl’s family to call upon them. I
hoped something would come of this introduction, though by now I had learned
to rein in my optimism.
A year later I received a letter from
my friend. The family had indeed come
to visit Bombay, and their daughter and
my friend’s daughter, who were near in
age, had become very good friends. During that year, the two girls had frequently
visited each other. I thought things
looked promising.
Last week I received an invitation to a
wedding: My friend’s son and the girl
were getting married. Since I had found
the match, my presence was particularly
requested at the wedding. I was thrilled.
Success at last! As I prepared to leave for
India, I began thinking, “Now, my
friend’s younger son, who do I know
who has a nice girl for him… ?”
From Stumbling Toward Truth: Anthropologists at Work, edited by Philip R. Devita, 2000, pp. 196–204. Published by Waveland Press. © 2000 by
Serena Nanda. Reprinted by permission.

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