Paper 1

This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

Sex and Gender

2005 First Web Papers

On Serendip

Paper 1

Alex Heilbronner

For the first seven or eight years of my life, gender did not play a large role in how I viewed myself and how I viewed others. I was a girl, and I knew the physical differences between boys and girls, but I was in no way concerned with these differences or their implications. I was raised in an environment that did not emphasize gender or the differences between genders; as a young child, there were more important defining characteristics, like whether you were four and three quarters or just four and a half, and whether you watched Barney, or thought it was for "babies." These examples may seem trite, but the life of a preschooler is much simpler than that of a teenager.

Of course, as I aged I became more and more aware of the gender roles often imposed upon us as children, and of the non-physical differences between women and men. I noticed my relationships with members of the opposite sex changing; I now find it difficult to have a friendship with a male peer without there being at least a small sexual undertone. Basically, I went from being a completely unsexual child to being a sexualized young woman in the span of ten years. This paper is an attempt to combine memoir and ethnography in a way that will explore how sexuality (particularly heterosexuality, which is the extent of my sexual experience) affects gender roles as we age.

As previously stated, my early childhood in no way focused on gender. My two preschool friends, Cortlandt and Russell, and I loved to make mud pies, watch movies, play tag, and wrestle. Looking back on it, I believe my early inter-gender relationships were very much like brother-sister relationships (though I don't have any brothers and therefore cannot actually say whether this is accurate). I never felt any pressure to be more "girly," or to spend more time with girls. Neither my parents nor my teachers ever put emphasis on gender; we were never divided according to gender (there were no contests where the teams were divided into "beastly boys" and "gossipy girls," unlike the teacher Barrie Thorne (Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School, 1994) interviewed), and when playing make-believe, I never felt restricted to typically female roles. I see this clearly when I look back on my Halloween costumes through preschool and elementary school.

Before I was old enough to choose my own costume, my parents always dressed me up as a pumpkin, a character that I associate with neither gender. When I began to pick my own Halloween costumes, I was a ninja turtle, a pirate, and a vampire—three characters generally associated with men. My parents were always enthusiastic about helping me accessorize these costumes; my mother made me a turtle shell out of a cardboard box, helped me find a hook and eye patch, and painted my face ghostly white to add an essence of the undead to my vampire costume. I was never interested in being a princess or a fairy, and the adults in my life were completely fine with that. At the time, it didn't even occur to me that I was choosing to be typically male characters; I just decided to be what I wanted to be, without concern as to whether or not I could be Donatello the ninja turtle and Alex the four year old girl at the same time.

As I got older and left preschool, I stopped spending so much time with boys. My new best friend, Hannah, and I did not play tag or wrestle. Rather, we played make-believe games with stuffed animals and Beanie Babies. We were the "moms" and the inanimate objects were our kids, sort of a warped version of playing house. This was my first experience putting myself in a gendered role, the role of mother. I continued to play rowdier games with my male friends, but began spending more time with girls.

Fast forward eight years. I am thirteen, painfully awkward, and have begun to look at boys less as playmates and more as potential love interests. I had my first boyfriend in seventh grade, though it was more about the title and less about us acting in any way like boyfriend and girlfriend. Since then, an interesting phenomenon has occurred: most boys I interact with, who I think are really great, kind, sweet, and such supportive friends actually think I am romantically interested in them. That is, they confuse my friendly affection for a desire to date them.

I remember the first time I noticed this pattern. I was about fourteen, and was overwhelmed with the question, "since when has it been impossible for girls and guys to be friends?" I thought back to my male friends from preschool through about sixth grade and could recall how easy it was for us to fully and wholly just be friends.

When you are younger, your life isn't controlled by hormones, and you are therefore free to think about members of the opposite gender without focusing in on their sexuality (not sexuality as sexual preference, but sexuality as just a general sexual-ness of their being) and then being drawn in to notice their gender. For example, wrestling was a pastime of mine when I was a young child, but it was considered inappropriate to wrestle with boys after puberty began. I recall someone else making this point, though I cannot recall if it was in the Thorne reading, Anne Lesnick's paper, or the Serendip message board. The obvious reason for co ed wrestling to be taboo after a certain developmental stage is due to the sexual nature it would take on were its participants sexual beings.

Since puberty, I have noticed that the boys I pay attention to because I feel they are my close friends tend to think I am paying attention to them because I want to be involved with them romantically (and as I got even older, perhaps just sexually, no romantic strings attached). From the time I was fifteen to when I turned eighteen, I can think of at least five boys (perhaps the more appropriate term would be young men) who thought I had a crush on them while I was happily thinking to myself, "oh what a good friend I have." This imbalance in our relationships permanently altered our friendships, as they resented me for "leading them on," and I resented them for the false sense of friendship they offered me when really they had ulterior motives.

In college, I have found that my male "friends" are not so much friends in the same way that my female friends are. Rather, they are boys that enjoy my company and invite me to parties at Haverford. This may be due to the fact that I attend a women's college, and am not put in living situations with males. I suspect that, were I to attend a co educational university and live on a co ed floor, I would have relationships with boys much like the relationships I now have with girls (more emotionally intimate and less sexually driven), as our relationships would be based on the brother-sister model of inter-gender relation rather than the boyfriend-girlfriend model.

Due to my dearth of brother-sister-style relationships, most relationships I have with males my age have a flirtatious, if not overtly sexual, undertone. When I was young, my male friends never told me I looked nice, or greeted me with a kiss on the cheek, or made sexual comments to me to see how I would react. This is not to say that every boy I interact with immediately starts hitting on me; I do have some male friends from home with whom I feel a closer connection than I do with my male friends at surrounding colleges. I suspect this is because I have known them longer, and have had more time to develop relations with them that are not based on casual conversation and flirtatious interactions at parties. These boys are my "brothers," in the brother-sister model of relationships.

Another interesting aspect in the development of my relationships with members of the opposite sex is the evolution of flirtation. What was considered to be a blatantly flirtatious comment in seventh grade is now, as a sophomore in college, considered to be a commonplace interaction between guys and girls. This is due to the sexualization that most people experience as they enter and pass through puberty; flirting is relative to the stage of life you are in, much like sexual experiences in general. A young teenager would be regarded as precocious and perhaps over experienced if she or he were sexually active, whereas many college students are sexually active and it is not considered inappropriate by the general college population.

Throughout this paper I have used terms for both genders that may seem inappropriate. I would now like to take a moment to address my use of language in this paper. Terms such as "guy" may seem overly casual, yet I feel the male people with whom I spend my time are not men, in the semantic sense of the term. The use of the words "boy" and "girl" may seem to refer to children, but I often consider myself to be a girl, especially when considering myself in relation to people of the male gender, boys. This seems to be socially acceptable for my peers, as we call our significant others "boyfriend" and "girlfriend," rather than "manfriend" or "woman friend." There comes a point where your peers are no longer boys and girls, but men and women. I feel I am not at that point yet, and it would be awkward to refer to my guy friends as my male friends, or the men with whom I am friends.

Undeniably, relations between the sexes change as you age. For better or for worse, gender categories become more concrete, and interactions between the sexes become more sexually oriented as we ourselves become more sexually oriented. The sexuality of a person has a strong effect on the way he or she interacts with members of the opposite sex, as one gender may no longer view the other gender as a population of playmates, but as a population of sexual or romantic partners.

| Course Home | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:51:41 CDT