Gender and Sexuality in Middle Adolescence
Social interactions are influenced not only by the characteristics of a particular relationship (e.g., secure/insecure) but also by the social constructions of the relationship partners themselves (e.g., gender/sexuality). Extensive research on the development of childhood gender understanding and gendered behaviors has documented that, by middle adolescence, most teens have an elaborate self-construction of their gender identity. Gender identity refers to one’s biological sex as well as to one’s identification with gender roles, a set of attitudes and behaviors associated with the cultural conventions of being male or female (Bailey, 1996; O’Brien, 1992; Green, 1985). Adolescents show a range of behaviors from stereotypically male to stereotypically female (see Feiring, 1999a; Tolman, Spencer, Rosen-Reynoso, & Porche, 2003).
For example, a teenager girl, Annie sees the family wedding as a romantic occasion. Unlike a teenger boy, Rick, Annie is excited and eager to attend her first wedding. Her mother has told her many romantic stories about her own wedding, and she hopes to catch the bouquet!
Gender identity is composed of five major components (Egan & Perry, 2001):
- Membership Knowledge. Knowledge of membership in a gender category (e.g., “I am a girl”)
- Gender Typicality. The degree to which one feels like a typical member of a gender category (e.g., “I’m just like the other girls”)
- Gender Contentedness. How happy one is with one’s gender assignment (e.g., “I like being a girl”)
- Pressure for Gender Conformity. The degree to which one feels pressure from parents, peers, and oneself for conformity to gender stereotypes (e.g., “I ought to act like a girl”)
- Intergroup Bias. The extent to which one believes one’s sex is superior to the other (e.g., “Girls are better than boys”) (adapted from Carver, Yunger, & Perry, 2003)
For example, most children recognize that social expectations for the activities of boys and girls are stereotyped by sex (e.g., boys are football players, girls are cheerleaders). In addition, most school-age children conform to gender boundaries for self-presentation (e.g., dress, hairstyle) that are strictly enforced by peer culture (Martin, Ruble, & Szkrybalo, 2002; Thorne, 1993). By adolescence, most children can recognize that gender-role stereotypes are social conventions. However, most still choose the “safe” alternative of behaving in sex-stereotypic ways (O’Brien, 1992).
But how accurate are stereotypes about sex differences between males and females? Researchers have examined previous research findings using a technique called meta-analysis. In meta-analyses of social behaviors, sex differences in aggression appeared fairly reliably across different studies but tended to be smaller in more recent studies. Overall results of meta-analyses indicate that sex differences decrease with age and that only about 5% of the difference is due to gender (Hyde, 1984).
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