By: Chelsey Brown, The Chicago School of Professional Psychology
Common misconceptions concerning gender, gender identity and biological sex are present in the United States today, perhaps because society continues to reinforce ‘gender norm’ behavior and punish ‘gender atypical’ behavior. Whatever the reason, it is important to understand that “normative gender role behavior is socially constructed and maintained” and there is in fact, no normal behavior for any one gender because there are actually no true genders (Haldeman, 2000, p. 194). So strong is the social construction of gender norms that individuals considered to be ‘gender atypical’ have been diagnosed with illnesses and psychiatric disorders, and have received treatment to correct their behaviors, which may be problematic for society than for the individual.
Many people make the assumption that sex and gender are synonymous. Actually, the American Psychological Association defines sex as a person’s biological status according to their sex chromosomes and other anatomical features (2011). Gender, however, “refers to the attitudes, feelings and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex” (APA, 2011, p.1). Therefore, gender norm behaviors are completely constructed by cultural associations with biological characteristics. There is in fact, no scientific link between the socially constructed idea of gender and the anatomy of biological sex. This distinction is often neglected by society, but is of utmost importance. A person’s biological sex does not automatically determine a person’s gender.
Once the distinction between sex and gender has been made, it is important to understand gender identity and expression. Gender identity refers to a person’s sense of himself or herself as a particular gender, while gender expression explains the way in which a person communicates their gender within a culture (APA, 2006). Sex, gender, gender expression, and gender identity are independent of one another and can each fall along a continuum, broadening the typical view that people fall on one side of a spectrum. For example, a person can be labeled biologically male at birth, labeled male by society, identify as a woman, and have a masculine gender presentation.
Slater (2013) warned against the claim that gender behavior is rooted in evolution. The evolutionary approach has allowed gender norm behaviors to emerge and continuously contact reinforcement, therefore perpetuating the belief these behaviors actually exist to serve an evolutionary purpose and can consequently be right or wrong. How can a person behave contrary to the norm of their gender when there is no such norm? Haldeman (2000) explained that “gender behavior is socially constructed; its perceived normalcy, or lack thereof, rests wholly in the perspective of the observer” (p. 194). This lack of understanding contributes to the misunderstanding that gender can assume specific, normal behaviors. Gender atypical behaviors appear to be “at odds with the socially constructed expectations associated with gender” and can therefore make society very uncomfortable (Haldeman, 2000, p. 192).
Individuals who exhibit gender atypical behaviors have often been targeted for treatment in an effort to prevent “abnormalities” such as transsexualism or some forms of homosexuality. Some traditional approaches to correcting these behaviors include play reconditioning, discrimination training, response cost programs, shaping athletic behaviors for young boys, and planned ignoring contingent on the occurrence of gender atypical behavior (e.g., Rekers & Lovaas, 1974; Rekers et al., 1977; Rekers & Mead, 1979).
Rekers (2009) introduced a more recent approach to treating gender atypical individuals. The goal of this particular approach is psychological security “in a gender that matches the child’s anatomy” (Rekers, 2009, p. 10). Some techniques involved in this treatment program include finding same sex role models and peers for the child, praising gender appropriate behavior and gently discouraging inappropriate behavior, and shaping athletic skills for boys and homemaking skills for girls.
Fortunately, there are some approaches to gender behavior that are not corrective. Brown (2006) explained that many parents, teachers and mental health professionals are taking the steps to support gender atypical individuals. Oak Park Day School, for example, is dismantling gender stereotypes by using a “gender-neutral vocabulary.” This approach allows children to “move back and forth until something feels right” (Brown, 2006, p. 1).
As behavior analysts, we should reject the idea that it is easier to change the individual’s behavior than it is to change societal practices. Most importantly, we must ask ourselves “whose problem is it?” What are the ethical implications for treating an individual whose behavior makes society uncomfortable, but is not harmful for the individual? How should we approach an individual who exhibits gender atypical behavior but is asking for help in an effort to avoid being emotionally or physically harmed by others?
We still live in a world where most people assume that little boys should play with trucks and little girls should play with dolls. These behaviors have been reinforced for decades, and it is assumed that these behaviors are the norm. The labeling of biological sex at birth is immediately followed by a prediction of that person’s behavior according to socially constructed gender norms. Before we approach gender behavior in a corrective manner, we should recall Skinner’s (1957) claim that the organism always behaves as it ought to behave. In other words, society has made a bad prediction about gender behavior. Everyone is already doing what they should be doing, so what are we trying to fix?
American Psychological Association. (2006). Definition of terms: Sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pi/lgbt/resources/sexuality-definitions.pdf
American Psychological Association. (2011). Definition of terms: Sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pi/lgbt/resources/sexuality-definitions.pdf
Brown, P. L. (2006, December 2). Supporting boys or girls when the line isn’t clear. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/02/us/02child.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0
Haldeman, D. C. (2000). Gender atypical youth: Clinical and social issues. School Psychology Review, 29, 192-200.
Rekers, G. A., & Lovaas, O. I. (1974). Behavioral treatment of deviant sex-role behaviors in a male child. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 7, 173-190.
Rekers, G. A., Willis, T. J., Yates, C. E., Rosen, A. C., & Low, B. P. (1977). Assessment of childhood behavior gender change.
Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 18, 53-65.
Rekers, G. A., Mead, S. (1979). Early intervention for female sexual identity disturbance: self-monitoring of play behavior. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 7, 405-423.
Rekers, G. A. (2009). Treatment of gender identity confusion in children: Research findings and theoretical implications for preventing sexual identity confusion and unwanted homosexual attractions in teenagers and adults. Retrieved from http://www.genesisce.org/docs/IdentityConfusion.pdf
Skinner, B. F. (1956). A case history in scientific method. American Psychologist, 11, 221-233.
Slater, D. (2013, January 13). Darwin was wrong about dating. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/13/opinion/sunday/darwin-was-wrong-about-dating.html?r=0
This piece was originally published as a part of the Summer 2014 SBRP SIG Newsletter.