Developing a full gender identity is an essential component of developing as a whole. It’s something we’re almost entirely unaware of for a time of our lives and even by the time one does come to understand it, it has already been biased and shaped a specific way due to a whole variety of factors, especially our individual cultures.
To begin, it’s necessary for me to provide you with the specific differences between gender, gender roles, and the socialization of gender itself. Gender “refers to the attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex”; it is not a synonym for sex to mean the genitalia provided upon birth. Gender roles are very similar, though it is more so referring to the role or actual behavior learned by an individual as the culturally accepted version of what society associates with that individual’s gender. Then there’s gender socialization: “the process by which cultural information about gender is transmitted from one generation to the next within the ecocultural context” (Best, 2015). To connect the pieces; you are assigned a gender at your birth, then by going through the process of gender socialization, are understand the concept gender and what your gender’s role is according to society. The development of gender identity usually occurs throughout middle to late childhood with heavy emphasis on the initial way we learn to understand gender as a concept and as it applies to people. However, gender identity is still especially important throughout the rest of the lifespan, including during one’s adolescent years when undergoing biological changes commonly marked with rituals and ceremonies to mark the coming of age.
Before any of that occurs, one must go through the process of learning to understand gender itself. Lawrence Kohlberg paved the way to an answer when he proposed a three step acquisition process to gender identity, beginning first with the need for the child to learn to label the “self and others accurately”, also referred to as gender identity (Frable, 1997). Secondly, he proposed the individual must learn the concept of gender stability that states that boys become men and girls become women, it doesn’t change biologically speaking. His final proposed step of the process was the understanding of gender constancy, or in other words, the child learning that being male or female is permanent and not changed by cultural gender cues. Later, theorists Slaby and Frey (1975) took this basis of information to expand it into a measurement scale of the development of gender with the inclusion of an additional, base step as well as a reorganization of the structure of the theory. Their stage one was known as a base or floor, where the child is unaware of or incorrectly assumes gender distinctions. The second, third and fourth respectively were then the gender identity step from Kohlberg, followed by gender stability and concluding with gender consistency. It is also common for theorists today to include a different task required for understanding of gender identity: motive. After one understands that identity continues over time (gender stability), they must next understand that the identity is not changed by will or wishes (motive). Through successful completion of these mental tasks, children begin to understand gender.
Once there is an understanding of gender, an initial base gender identity has been formed which may then ultimately be affected by a variety of different factors. The roles and expectations played by the parents is one of the most important ones as so many of its different dimensions may influence gender development. Parents may intentionally or inadvertently hold expectations regarding their child’s gender that reflect the parents’ memories of their own childhood. The interpretations the parents have of their child’s biological sex traits are portrayed through “the names that boys and girls are given, how they are dressed and cared for, what behaviors are considered appropriate, and what tasks and roles they are taught” and are all influenced according to culture (Best, 2015). As a result, the child grows up with a culturally derived script to assume, written by their parents, which will guide their behavior until they fully understand their own gender label or roles. This is important because these scripts ultimately shape the way the children are socialized, which in turn only further fuels the way they cement their gender identity.
Another factor that influences gender development is the differential treatment of girls and boys. The Logoli people of Kenya have sharp sex differentiations and thus also differential treatment of the females and men. In hunter-gatherer, traditional cultures such as the rural Logoli or the Sambia people of New Guinea, the men have a completely different role with traits and expectations more highly valued over those of females. These societies typically differentiate between the sexes throughout most aspects of their culture beginning at very young ages. Beginning with simple task assignment, you will see that the Logoli people recruit young girls for the domestic work overwhelmingly more than they do for the boys who are often being taught to or are assisting in hunting among other “male” activities. Even in somewhat less rural settings where education may be an option, the differentiation has the potential to determine as far as who will go for school and for how long.
It is in these cultures with sharp sex distinctions that there is usually some sort of coming initiation or coming of age ritual. For most females, it concerns marking the girl’s first period. Commonly, after females in Sri Lanka get their first period they are celebrated by friends and family with gifts as well as undergoing something of a spa-like treatment in isolation before being dressed with a Sari and jewelry, symbolizing new womanhood. Similarly positive, the Krobo people of Ghana have a festival in April called “Dipo” to initiate girls into adolescence because they believed the girls who participated in the ceremony while still a virgin will make good wives. During the festival, the girls are half-clothed to represent a transition into adulthood and are decorated with beads and cloth around their waists. After two days the ceremony ends and the girls then have a portion of their head shaved and are treated to a meal as a closing event of the ceremonies. One of the most unique occurs in Indonesia, where boys or girls of a certain age (girls must have had their first period) undergo a process known as “mepandes”, which is really just filling teeth, enacted with the intention of ridding evil forces like desire, greed, and anger. During this ceremony, it is occurring before sunrise with religious songs accompanying the event and is carried out by a priest. Other areas of Ghana also undergo a much less pleasant sort of ritual to mark when girls become women. Here, once they have their first period it is common to separate the girls away from the rest of the village for four weeks. At least at the end, there’s also a village-wide ceremony to celebrate.
Boys undergo rituals too, though not in honor of their reproductive system. Rather often times there is some sort of ritual to commemorate their entrance into manhood; the time they can be sexually active perhaps or are expected to marry or take on other responsibilities contributing to the community. One specific culture I want to focus on that has a ritual for boys at precisely the age of ten is the Sambia people of New Guinea. They are a hunter-gatherer society in the rain forest mountain valleys, separated from most of the rest of society. Their particular belief that absolutely everything is inherently male or female runs parallel to a secondary belief that “femaleness” is innate and more efficient than maleness. Here, gender formation (for men) is intended as a function of the initiations they undergo. Once the boys complete the roughly six different stages of the masculinization process, they are able to engage in heterosexual behavior and get married and possibly even have kids. It’s much harder than it sounds though, as the six stages occur from ages 6-10 and are intended to turn the boys into warriors. It is imperative to the processes of and teaching the ceremony is the notion that women can be dangerous to men. This led to the underlying purpose of the initiation ritual; boys are taught to detach themselves from their mothers and other women to prove they can live without them while also proving their masculinity. The initiation itself is somewhat erotic or sexual in what it consists of. The first stages include having a sharp stick of cane is inserted deeply into the nostrils until profuse bleeding occurs and also engage in “copulating” with older (male) warriors to “make them grow”. The cane acts as a symbol of strength and shows an ability to sustain pain. The fellatio and ingesting of semen on the other hand are believed necessary to manhood because they believe boys cannot mature to men without ingesting semen and adhering to the notion that it is a commonly accepted thing. Once completed, they have officially become men and more specifically, warriors.
There are still other factors that influence the overall development of one’s gender, though their impact is not as significant. After the initial understanding of the concept of gender to go through the process during childhood of following the culturally prescribed schema set forth by your parents and culture, one can progress in their life and continue to develop their identity. Because gender identity is a “person’s perception of having a particular gender, which may or may not correspond with the sex at birth”, it is an integral part of the development of one’s identity as a whole that continues throughout the lifespan (Bandura & Bussey, 1999). It is so essential that one have a full understanding of their most basic self of whom they can grow, mature, and add onto over the years to eventually grow into their true, full identity.
Bandura, A., & Bussey, K. (1999). Social Cognitive Theory of Gender Development and Differentiation. Psychological Review,106(4), 676-713. Retrieved April 19, 2017, from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/aac7/97414129d5c51c528e402a94d60a5786387d.pdf.
Best, D. L., & Luvender, K. L. (2015). Gender Development: Cultural Differences. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 742-749. Retrieved April 19, 2017. Definitions Related to Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity in APA Documents. (n.d.). Retrieved April 19, 2017, from https://www.apa.org/pi/lgbt/resources/sexuality-definitions.pdf
Frable, D. E. (1997). Gender, Racial, Ethnic, Sexual, and Class Identifications . Annual Review of Psychology,48(24), 1-4. Retrieved April 19, 2017, from http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.psych.48.1.139?u rl_ver=Z39.88- 2003&rfr_dat=cr_pub%3Dpubmed&rfr_id=ori%3Arid%3Acrossref.org&jour nalCode=psych
Munroe, R. H., Shimmin, H. S., & Munroe, R. L. (1984). Gender understanding and sex role preference in four cultures. Developmental Psychology,20(4), 673-682. doi:10.1037/0012-1618.104.22.1683 Real men drink semen? |The Sambia Tribe’s initiation from Boyz to Men. (2014, September 25). Retrieved April 19, 2017, from http://www.orijinculture.com/community/masculinisation-dehumanization-sambia-tribe-papua-guinea/