Gender: The Nature vs. Nurture Debate

gender-boyI’ve posted several times on the topic of gender — the social and biological aspects of what determines a man or a woman; the subject is one I’ve been interested in for a long time. Learning more about the topic has made it clear that the origins of gender and sex are not as simple and uncomplicated as some might believe.

There are generally two sides to the nature versus nurture debate of gender. There are those who believe that sex and gender are for the most part, biologically determined and that the two sexes think and act differently, often in opposing ways. This group also tends to believe that gender is fixed and not much changing across cultures and time periods.

On the other side of the debate are the nurture folks who hold that sex –the physical characteristics of a person– may be biological, but gender — the way that sex is shown in the outside world, is socially manufactured. They believe that men and women are taught explicitly and implicitly how to be men and women. This group also tends to believe that most gender stereotypes are false.

Nature via Nurture

Enter a third, smaller but growing group. Those who believe in the nature via nurture origin of gender think that both biological and environmental aspects combine to create what we recognize as men and women — the way they think, act, dress, and even how they look. Many who are partial to the nature via nurture explanation also assert that what is determined by a person’s sex chromosomes and what is determined by environment is not entirely clear and can’t be separated.

My thoughts tend to fall more within this group. Although I may view things differently in the future, I tend to think that nature and nurture both influence gender, possibly to the same extent. This is because most aspects of sex and gender,  when looked at closely, either show both biological and social roots, and the entirety of them points neither to biology or culture, completely:

  • gender-girlWithin gender, there is a range of behavior that spans time periods. Throughout history there have always been women who just weren’t ladylike enough, and men who weren’t tough enough. This suggests some biological roots, but not a binary one of two separate sexes determined by an X or Y chromosome.
  • Traits that have largely been shown to be genetic can vary with surrounding factors. Height, for example, is influenced by environment and nutrition, even if it is inherited. So if gender is biological, this does not rule out culture playing a big role in how gender is shown.
  • Gender stereotyping begins even before a baby is born — male babies are thought to behave one way and female babies another. With such stereotyping early on, it seems nearly impossible to say which behavior is actually biological and which are nurtured through beliefs about gender.
  • Sex hormones have been shown to influence men and women to differ on things such as hearing and verbal fluency. This suggests a strong biological component, but hormonal levels also depend on environment, such as the mother’s surroundings, health, and nutrition.
  • Attempts to raise children in the opposite sex –raising those who were born physically male as girls and children who were born physically female as boys– has turned up mixed results. Which could be taken to mean that both genes and environment ultimately create gender.

These, and more, leads me to believe that sex and gender, like many behavioral and physical traits, is a product of nature and nurture, often working together. Without one or the other, what we know as men and women wouldn’t be quite the same.

Where do you fall on the spectrum of nature and nurture when it comes to gender? And why?

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14 thoughts on “Gender: The Nature vs. Nurture Debate

  1. Well it’s about time that the third group rises! It always seemed obvious to me that we are a blend of innate characteristics and things we have learned.

  2. Hi Sherry, that was quick! :)

    Interesting that we are on the same page with this. I’d always thought majority of readers and most commenters believed in nature much more than nurture. That is, they think nurture has an influence, but it’s mostly biology that makes men and women.

  3. There are cultures associated with gender, just like there are with race and nationality. I have always felt that I had the right to accept the norms of my cultures (woman, black, American, singer, etc) that worked for me, and ignore those that don’t.

    I think we can use our knowledge of various cultures to start interactions with others, but that can only be a STARTING point. We must be observant and refine our view of this person as we get more information.

  4. Are we talking what makes a woman a woman and a man a man or are we talking about sexual orientation? Physically it’s all down to DNA and as we learn more about how DNA influences us we may get closer to understanding Sexual Orientation. I believe that nurture can make us something that we are not and that if this occurs individuals can suffer a lifetime of doubt and confusion. Parents beware!!!! Don’t dress your man child in PINK and your gals in dungarees!
    What bothers me with so many kids being brought up by their mothers alone is the kids lack a good male role model. I wonder what emotional and psychological difficulties these kids will experience in later life because of this. This is definitely nurture is it not?

  5. The thing is, gender is a social construct and there can be more than two. You (well, a society) can have many different gender categories that don’t correspond with male and female sex.

    But other than that, NOTHING is 100% nature with humans. So yes, a great deal of gender is nurture. But I’m not sure if it’s possible to determine how much, because, as you pointed out, socializing into gender roles starts from the day one.

    I think we’re far from truly understand how sex or gender work. But I must say I hate the “armchair gender determinism”, that is, when people try to explain human behavior with gender stereotypes they treat like biological facts. “Men can’t control their sexual urges”, “women are not visual so that’s why they don’t like porn”, etc.

  6. I also personally believe that Nurturing has a huge role in shaping us. When we are born, we are taught at tender age >>>

    For Girls: How to sit, how to be more feminine, how to be gentle and and yo can never go home dirty like a boy

    Boys : Are taught, how to be tough, boys don’t cry, boys have to play outside and like soccer e.t.c

    e.g. As much as biologically a boy is a male, however at the young age — he is still a “blank canvas” — Hypothetically speaking:

    his surrounding (is the paint)
    and influences ( are the brushes)
    and his environment (the idea/vision of what is going to be painted) —
    and the family and him (are the artists to some degree.)

  7. Well billy if you knew history you’d know that at one point in time boys did wear pink because it was considered a masculine color. You’d also know that boys (up until the age of 8 or 9) wore dresses. As well with girls, blue was considered a feminine color. You say nurture makes people something they’re not? How about forcing people into boxed gender roles? If anything that makes people something they’re not. The fact of the matter is (whether this is biological or not) both men and women have masculine and feminine traits.

    At any rate, I agree with Mira, humans aren’t totally black and white. I never liked the view that “men are entirely and completely one way” and “women are totally and completely another way” while treating anything that goes against this as unnatural. While I don’t discount biology, I think people don’t realize how socialized men and women are.

  8. First, I LOVE PORN, especially the interacial ones where the guys are blonde. Yum!. Got a few I’ve saved to my favourites if anyone’s interested……

    Agree with both nature and nurture having an equal impact on the genders.

  9. Now that we’re oversharing, I don’t like IR porn. I guess I don’t know where to find decent, non-racist one. Heck, I don’t know where to find movies featuring attractive males. (Which I believe is the number one reason women don’t like porn: all power to Ron Jeremy, but his type is not exactly what turns me on).

    (Mainstream) porn is made from a male POV, and it’s obviously targeted to men and their fantasies. Of course many women won’t like it.

  10. Ooooooooo, Mira, you and I need to talk, re porn, goodlooking male “actors”, because I can recommend 4!!!!!!!!. And what in blazes do you mean by “non-racist” I/R porn?. Please expound.

  11. @Mira & foosrock
    How did this turn into a discussion about porn? :P But yeah, you’re both right. Pretty much all of mainstream porn is made by hetereosexual men so it’s going to aimed at them as well. I also have a hard finding “female friendly” porn, I’ve looked into feminist porn and it’s okay. It is difficult to find IR that’s not racist.

  12. Sherry, good standpoint.

    Billy,

    “Are we talking what makes a woman a woman and a man a man or are we talking about sexual orientation?”

    We are talking about what makes a man or a woman. Sexual orientation is a related topic, that I posted on as I was reading Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why.

    “What bothers me with so many kids being brought up by their mothers alone is the kids lack a good male role model. I wonder what emotional and psychological difficulties these kids will experience in later life because of this.”

    It is nurture. But there are so many boys raised by a single mother or primarily by a mother. I haven’t noticed a huge difference, especially if they have other male influences like uncle, grandfather, etc. But the ones I’ve known have been pretty nice, I guess. *shrug*

    Mira,

    “The thing is, gender is a social construct and there can be more than two. You (well, a society) can have many different gender categories that don’t correspond with male and female sex.”

    Yes.

    “I think we’re far from truly understand how sex or gender work.”

    Right. It seems like the more I learn, the more complex it gets.

    ‘But I must say I hate the “armchair gender determinism” ‘

    I’m not too food of any sort of determinism, but I’ve been trying to understand the point of view of determinists.

    ‘ “Men can’t control their sexual urges”, “women are not visual so that’s why they don’t like porn”, etc.’

    Oh, I thought women didn’t like porn because it’s catered to men and the little female porn there is involves an ugly man or is just very cheesy? :D

    On a serious note, some women do like porn, and they’re not rare.

  13. “As much as biologically a boy is a male, however at the young age — he is still a “blank canvas” — Hypothetically speaking:

    his surrounding (is the paint)
    and influences ( are the brushes)
    and his environment (the idea/vision of what is going to be painted) —
    and the family and him (are the artists to some degree.)”

    Great way to paint it. :)

    RenKiss,

    “You say nurture makes people something they’re not? How about forcing people into boxed gender roles?”

    From this viewpoint, I agree — nurture does make people something they’re not, all the time. :) A lot of things we do we probably would not if we hadn’t been taught that it was the right way to do things or the right way to be.

    At the same time, how can you make someone into something they’re not? Once they become something, that is what they are. Unless we assume people have fixed ways of being, from birth, which I don’t since I’m nature via nurture. I don’t think nurture can’t creat something out of nothing, at least in biology the environment works on what is there.

    “The fact of the matter is (whether this is biological or not) both men and women have masculine and feminine traits.”

    I agree, I’ve always thought that people have a mix of both what is seen as masculine and feminine traits. Some swing more towards one end than the other. The problem is that the traits that are seen as not correlating with their gender are belittled and can be basically forced dormant, e.g. the assertive woman who is called bossy, pushy, and manly. People are not very accepting of traits that go against the social construct of gender.

    foosrock,

    “First, I LOVE PORN, especially the interacial ones where the guys are blonde. Yum!. Got a few I’ve saved to my favourites if anyone’s interested…”

    Ahahaha.

  14. Mira,

    “Heck, I don’t know where to find movies featuring attractive males…(Mainstream) porn is made from a male POV, and it’s obviously targeted to men and their fantasies. Of course many women won’t like it.”

    Lol, I should start reading all the responses before I comment, since I just repeated what you said, in a jokey way. :)

    foosrock,

    “Ooooooooo, Mira, you and I need to talk, re porn, goodlooking male “actors”, because I can recommend 4!!!!!!!!”

    You know of goodlooking porn actors? If you want, you can post them (their names, that is :P) in the Clouds. Others may also be interested…

    RenKiss,

    “How did this turn into a discussion about porn?”

    I guess as long as we can somehow relate this back to gender and gender stereotypes and norms, it is fine. ;)

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