Healthy Sexuality

What Does It Mean to Be a Man or a Woman?: How Messages About Gender Have Shaped Your View of Sexuality

In your experience, what does it mean to be a man or a woman?  How do you define masculinity and femininity?  In a time when we’re having more conversations about gender and identity, these questions are more in focus than they have been in our cultural past.  We look at the classic 1950s American housewife and scoff at this repressive stereotype of femininity.  We cry out against the misogyny we see in our culture.  But where do we come to understand our own perceptions of gender and sexuality?

Many of our ideas about masculinity and femininity are formed as a result of our upbringing and how gender roles were on display in our families or childhood.  Often, our families leave gaps in understanding of sexuality that we then fill through observing outside influences.    Two of the biggest influencers of our view of sexuality are the media and churches/religious institutions. 

Influences from the Media

In my undergraduate studies, I took a developmental psychology course where we completed a project focused on messages adolescents receive about sexuality from the media.  We reviewed three popular TV shows and coded stereotypes about men, women, and sexuality.  What I learned from this project was how sexuality and gender roles are closely tied to sexual intimacy, rather than masculinity and femininity.  These shows gave plenty of messages about men and women: dominance of men over vulnerable women, men as obsessed with sex, women judged for sexual behavior, women as objects whose only aim is to please men sexually, and expectations of women’s body shapes and sizes.  What the shows left out, unfortunately, were answers to major questions that adolescents are faced with, including what it means to be a man or a women. 

Pornography also has a strong effect on masculinity and femininity.  Expectations for sexual relationships are influenced by the images and behaviors of the actors.  Aggressive imagery in pornographic images affects men’s perceptions of women and can lead to increased aggression in both men and women and/or mistaken beliefs about women and sexual assault.  Women who view pornography may become desensitized to the violent imagery and view themselves as objects in the way they are portrayed in sexual scenes.

Influences from Churches and Religious Institutions

What about church or spiritual influences on your views of maleness and femaleness?  In general, church culture can give confusing messages about what it means to be a man or a woman

For men, church cultures can emphasize masculinity as involving leadership, whether in a pastoral role at a church or as a husband and father in a family.  This pressure to lead can cause men to feel overwhelmed by carrying the weight of stress and decision-making in the family or church, while women are expected to submit to their husbands’ or pastors' leading.

For women, a common message involves dressing modestly in order to not “tempt” the men, married or otherwise, in their lives.  This implies that women are responsible for men’s purity.  It is assumed that men are visual creatures who react to the sight of a woman’s body, while women are more relational and therefore aren’t affected by seeing men’s bodies.  (Funny how the popularity of films like Magic Mike may tell us something otherwise.)  In extreme, this belief can contribute to a culture that blames women for such things as sexual harassment or assault.

Distortion of ideas about men and women can lead to dissatisfaction in marriages and inaccurate expectations about sexual intimacy.  It can affect how women or men view themselves and can lead to lower self-esteem or self-worth.

Take some time to think through the messages that you received about masculinity and femininity and how that has influenced your perceptions about yourself and those around you.  Ask yourself some of these questions:

  • What are some of the early messages you received about what it means to be male? To be female?

  • What messages does the media give you about what it means to be a man or a woman?

  • What messages do the church and religious institutions give you about what it means to be a man or a woman?

  • If you are a man, what about you feels masculine? What aspects of your personality fit into your concept of masculinity? On the flip side, where do you struggle to feel like a man?

  • If you are a woman, what about you feels feminine? What aspects of your personality fit into your concept of femininity? Where do you feel less feminine?

Men and women are different.  Both bring unique strengths and weaknesses to the table.  And there are a multitude of ways to be masculine or feminine.  You bring a uniqueness to your personal identity that isn’t bound by stereotypes or cultural ideas that have been suggested to you about what it means to be male or female. This is a big topic, but my hope is that taking these questions and starting to think about them for yourself or talk about them with others will lead you into a greater understanding of your own ideas surrounding masculinity and femininity.

As you begin to explore an understanding of your own views of men and women, you might recognize some patterns in your experience that have affected your relationships or even your own self-esteem.  I’d love to be available to help you talk through what you discover and make steps toward change and a healthy view of yourself.  Restored Hope is an Ann Arbor based therapy office offering counseling services to individuals seeking to live a more wholehearted life.  Give me a call today at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here to talk with me today.