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  • Writer's pictureAllison Compton

Why Should We Care About the History of Gender & Sexuality?

La Pastiche Blue by Georgia O'Keeffe

Image credit: La Pastiche Blue by Georgia O'Keeffe

People have not always related to their bodies, their gender, or their sexuality in the way they do today. When a baby is born, the first (or maybe the second) question someone will ask will usually be: "is it a boy or a girl?" This is a loaded question, implying all of the social and parental expectations, performative acts, and gender stereotypes related to these categories that are placed on a person before they are even born. (If you've ever groaned at the rise of the gender reveal party, you're in the right place!) Even one's sexual orientation is thought of as a fixed identity and locked in as either straight or gay, ignoring the incredibly diverse range of sexual desire and activity in the human species. This is why the study of gender and sexuality history is incredibility important. It provides context and it encourages us to see that gender relations and sexuality are not an uninterrupted line of progress to the modern era. Here's why people should learn about and understand these topics in more detail.

It Reveals the Continuity & Change of Gender Relations & Understandings of Sexuality

By studying the history of gender and sexuality; patterns in gender relations, family life, and views about the body and sex begin to emerge and become more obvious.

We can see what has remained fairly consistent across time and even most cultures, for example:

  • Gender stereotypes and social roles associated with biological sex have existed since time immemorial.

  • Pro-natalist rhetoric and the maternal imperative are directed towards females across history.

  • Violence is considered a male prerogative.

We can see changes in attitudes toward gender and sexuality as well, for example in:

  • Mainstream ideas about what behaviour is considered acceptable based on one's biological sex.

  • Attitudes toward specific sexual acts as well as the openness of a society in regards to discussing sex and allowing the display of sexual imagery in art and media.

  • Views about the purpose of marriage and sex.

  • Gender roles and expectations can vary by socioeconomic class and race.

It Shows us How Gender was Constructed & How these Ideas Were Challenged by People in the Past

When we trace the continuity and change of gender norms, roles, and expression, we see how it was constructed and the purposes behind why it was constructed in a certain way. Why were men encouraged to be physically strong and stoic through much of history? They were the gender allowed to exercise violence when defending their family or their nation, and they needed to be emotionally distant when doing committing acts of violence. Why were the core facets of femininity marriage, domesticity, and child-rearing? These things controlled women economically and socially and benefited men by ensuring the transfer of property and wealth to legitimate children.

While many people may be familiar with the idea of separate public (masculine) and private (feminine) spheres, this was a class-based vision of ideal gender roles, and there were many challenges to gender norms in the past. For example, poor, working-class, and racialized families could probably not survive if they lived according to the separate spheres ideology of gender relations. While most women did spend most of their time raising children, they also made incredibly significant contributions to the family economy: they would tend vegetable plots, care for livestock, sell any surplus of homemade goods they created, and even take in laundry, spinning, and sewing to earn money for the family. All the while, men were praised as the family breadwinners and the work of women in the home denigrated and undervalued.

However, men also bucked the mainstream gendered order, especially when it came to sex. Throughout history males have had sexual contact with other males, especially in institutional settings for education, employment, and the military that did not allow women. These acts usually involved an adolescent male playing the passive role to an adult man; and this behaviour was not not considered homosexual in the sense that we understand the term today. Additionally, men visited sex workers even as the ideal of the monogamous marriage became more conventional. There is even plenty of evidence in historical sources and advertisements that men sought out sex workers who would flip the gendered script, dominate them, and perform acts of sadism.

It Demonstrates Who Has Power in Society & Who Doesn't

Historians of gender, especially of the socialist or Marxist bent, present the 'woman question'—why have women (as a group) consistently held less social, political, and economic power than men (as a group)?—as one of the most confounding conundrums. In order to notice this pattern historians, classicists, archaeologists, and anthropologists have collected data from a wide range of sources, across cultures, and across a large swath of time.

By focusing on more than politics and war, we open our eyes to the day-to-day lives of the people in the past. We can also begin to make conclusions about gender roles, how they worked in the family, larger community, and became associated with direct and indirect power and prestige within a society. Why is this important? If we understand all of this, it gives us context for why and how gender works as a tool of power or subordination.

We Form Social Expectations Based on Assumptions About Gender & Sexuality

Our society makes many assumptions about gender and sexuality that are incorrect, misguided, and based solely on a notion of what is mainstream or 'normal.' Why would our country need a comprehensive parental leave and childcare strategy because (usually) the female—an assumption made based on gender roles and stereotypes—will be there to care for the child? This makes mom staying home less of a choice than it is in reality. Then children growing up with heterosexual parents see only the female parent sacrificing her job/career by staying at home and accepting more precarious work on account of its flexibility, and the cycle continues with little social change. When you study how gender was constructed, it makes it pretty obvious why here has been no political and social will to make external childcare more wide-ranging and affordable for instance.

Sometimes gendered assumptions are a little more subtle. A father might teach his son, but not his daughter, certain skills. It might not even arise out of maliciously sexist beliefs, but because it is so embedded in the father's socialized script of what is considered 'masculine.' As a result, his son has a new skill, develops more confidence, and learns how to make his way in the world. Meanwhile, the daughter misses out on some valuable life skills, and later in life is perceived as less competent or intelligent when she does not possess this knowledge.

In regards to sexuality, the first sexology books and studies came to be in an effort to record the anatomy of the reproductive system, then shifted to defining normal sexuality and describing and medicalizing sexual pathologies. Figures from Richard von Krafft-Ebing (who wrote the book Psychopathia Sexualis in 1886) and Sigmund Freud (whose theories about human psychology depended heavily upon navigating the intricacies of sexuality throughout the lifespan) to Havelock Ellis and Magnus Hirschfeld, they all paved the way for the sexology research in the late nineteenth century, and provided a precedent to build upon for the research of Alfred Kinsey and Masters and Johnson in the twentieth century. Keep in mind, this is by no means an exhaustive list of people working in the field of sexology, it simply examples of some of the most influential.

Humans have Built Legal Frameworks Around Assumptions Regarding Gender & Sexuality

Not only have there been social advantages and punishments related to conforming to gender roles and the definition of sexual normalcy, the law is not unbiased when it comes to dealing with cases where gender and sexuality are at the forefront. Legal barriers have made obtaining justice for abuse and sexual violence difficult—sometimes even impossible. The conception of an 'ideal victim' of male violence is not new. In the past, and even today, women were much more likely to receive justice if her sexual past was either non-existent, or more leniently, at least considered normal. Also, she was expected to be passive, endure the violence, and not defend herself. Across time, women are also accused of provoking the violence perpetuated against them by law enforcement and the justice system. Moreover, it should be mentioned the enduring stigma men in the past and today face when they disclose they have been sexually abused or assaulted.

Property and inheritance laws have either been highly restrictive or have outright excluded the transfer of wealth to women. Many women in the past brought a dowry into their marriage. In theory, a dowry was meant to be her portion of the family estate (in money, property, or goods) to make up for the inheritance her brother(s) would receive and care for her in her advanced age. Even working-class girls usually required a dowry and worked to save up for it prior to marriage. In reality, a woman's dowry was under the total control of her husband while they were married and he could be spent in any manner he wished—and frequently did so. Gender stereotypes and assumptions about women's intellectual capabilities were used to prop up laws to prevent them from voting in elections. Women's social, economic, and political identify was completely subsumed by her husband's upon marriage and her inferiority codified in law.


The study of the history of the body, gender, and sexuality is an incredibly rich field that is endlessly fascinating. It is also intellectually challenging because it requires piecing together a variety of sources to draw conclusions about how gender and sexuality 'worked' in the past and manifested itself in daily life. It allows us to see that gender and sexuality is not static or unchanging throughout history. People who understand this history can analyze gendered assumptions and stereotypes and how they are reflected in a society's political, economic, and legal institutions. It can also reveal the consequences of social, political, and legal stereotypes. Lastly, we see examples of how people in the past have resisted social and state power that wielded these assumptions and stereotypes to regulate and silence them.



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Heron, Craig."Boys Will Be Boys: Working-Class Masculinities in the Age of Mass Production." International Labor and Working-Class History 69, no. 1 (2006): 6-34.

McLean, Lorna."'Deserving' Wives and 'Drunken' Husbands: Wife Beating, Marital Conduct, and the Law in Ontario, 1850–1910." Social History 5, no. 69 (2002): 59-91.

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