Notes on Chapter 8 by Bonvillain and Chapters 1, 2, and 3 by Nanda

Notes on Chapter 8-“Gender and the Body” by Bonvillain

This chapter discusses how a culture’s belief systems convey cultural constructs of gender. Included in this discussion are beliefs about the human body and how they influence cultural constructs as well as the possibility of a third gender category as seen in some native societies in North America. Beliefs about the different physiological processes of the genders reveal some patterns in cultural constructs of gender. As Bonvillain puts it, “Notions concerning physiological attributes are often metaphors for underlying attitudes about an individual’s place in his or her society.”

A Third Gender

  •  This discussion is started by reviewing various terms given to people of a third gender-finally ending with the term “Two-Spirit” because it not only denotes the spiritual component of the third gender but also because of its neutrality regarding biological sex. According to evidence given by Callender and Kochems (1983) there were 113 native North American societies that recognized people of a third gender. Two-Spirits were a great example of the distinction between biology and gender-they were not categorized by their sex but by the roles they took in society. Oftentimes they were given a special prestige because of roles and spiritual powers they were given that no other gender had. Members of these societies could become a Two-Spirit because of either personal inclination, that is they felt called to a role not normal to their sex at a young age, or because of a spiritual calling, in which case they would have a vision or a dream that gave credibility to their decision to become a Two-Spirit. Many societies would recognize the decision to become a Two-Spirit with rituals that would publicly mark their status. Two-Spirits often took on the economic role that was opposite to their biological sex-for ex. a female Two-Spirit might hunt while a male Two-Spirit might dress and take on the role of a female.
  • Two-Spirits were often seen as prosperous, not only because they could perform the economic role of a man or a woman or both, but also because they often served in quasi-religious roles in their community that no one else could do. The third gender members took on the hairstyle and dress of the social role they filled rather than of their biological sex. For the most part they dressed and took on the appearance of the sex opposite of their own and would marry someone of the same-sex but opposite social function. For example, a female Two-Spirit would marry a female. Because these societies viewed Two-Spirits as a third gender, their sexual relations were not viewed as homosexual or heterosexual. There was no taboo associated with their relationships, that is, after they became westernized. The social and sexual lives of Two Spirits always matched up with the gender role they took on (I don’t think this statement is accurate. Bonvillain’s whole point is to emphasize how the Two-Spirit was a third gender. What you’re describing here is more like transgender). Important-Two Spirits never married other Two-Spirits and their sexual activity was specific to them, not under the homosexual or heterosexual assignments that a Western worldview would give.
  • The existence of Two- Spirits is evidence of the flexibility in the gender systems of native North American societies and also of the equality present between the genders. Not until the late 19th and early 20th c. did these societies start to adopt Euro-American attitudes and practices that led to a decline in the number of Two- Spirits; despite this, some still exist.

Instructor Comments: Take away point here is how the Two-Spirit is a third gender. This poses an important challenge to western models of gender construction which rigidly line up with biological sex. In other cultures the relationship between sex and gender is more flexible.

The Body and its Role in Reproduction


  •  In most societies much more attention is given to the onset of puberty in females (menarche) than to physical changes in males. Some societies view a female’s menarche as a blessing with delight and others respond with fear and shame. These responses often show underlying views on a woman’s position in society. One example is the elaborate rituals that take place in Apache society-menarche is greeted with a positive response, Bonvillain states, “Her health and longevity are celebrated, as are her gifts to society of motherhood and productive work.” In sharp contrast to this is the response of the Tiwi people in northern Australia. Females experiencing menarche are placed under many restrictions that highlight taboos and fears associated with menstruating. The rituals performed by the Tiwi highlight the control of men over women. In India, women are isolated and restricted not just during menarche but during every menstruation cycle.
  • Boys’ coming of age is not as physically noticeable as menarche, but it’s often celebrated, either collectively or individually. Examples include the collective initiations of the Kpelle in Liberia which include physical changes such as circumcision and scarring. Many Native American tribes stress individual quests for visions to mark a boy’s passage to manhood.


  • Beliefs about the roles women and men play in reproduction often reveal underlying messages about men’s and women’s worthiness. In many cultures people believe men and women contribute different substances or qualities to the fetus-this can be seen in Jewish Talmudic writings, a Western metaphor that depicts the man giving the “seed” and portrays male as active and woman as passive, and in rural Malaysians’ belief in differences in men and women in regards to intellect and emotions. Throughout the world many beliefs restrict a woman’s activity during pregnancy, and occasionally a man’s activity as well. Additional burdens may be placed on women who are unable to reproduce. Patriarchal societies such as India and China will ostracize barren women. Sterility is often sometimes accounted for by a woman’s prior evil doings.


  • Practices related to birthing vary widely among cultures. Many cultures have birthing attended exclusively by women, sometimes a male ritualist intervenes. Most births in America were attended by midwives up until the 1900s. Patriarchal control can be seen in attempts by medical doctors in America and Europe to stop the practice of midwifery. These include campaigns by the Catholic Church and physicians during the 15th and 16th c. to stop lay healers, many of which were women. Campaigns by physicians in early 20th c. helped enact laws to prevent midwifery, despite physicians’ warnings, infant and mother deaths actually increased with the decrease of midwifery.
  • One example of a medical procedure that has a questionable health benefit is that of laying a woman in childbirth on her back in the dorsal position. This prevents her active involvement in the birthing process, denies the aid of gravity, and even lessens the strength of contractions. Midwifery has made a small comeback and allows for alternative birthing positions. If a midwife is practicing in a hospital, she must conform to institutionalized standards and cannot allow for alternative positions.

Women’s So-Called Reproductive Illnesses

  • Starting in the middle of the 19th c. and carrying on into the 20th c., natural processes that occur in a woman’s body were viewed as medical problems that needed to be corrected or controlled. Examples of this include viewing menstruation and menopause as detrimental to a woman’s ability to function normally which was used as evidence against a woman’s involvement in occupations that required control and concentration. These views are misogynistic and contribute to the view that a man’s physiology is normal while a woman’s in faulty in some way.
  • In the late 19th c., physicians started to believe that a woman’s entire mental and physical well-being was connected to the condition of her reproductive organs and so certain barbaric practices were put into use to help correct any “problems”. Examples of this include clitoridectomy (removal of clitoris) to “cure” strong sexual desire or masturbation and ovariotomy (removal of the ovaries) to aid a large range of psychological distresses including anxiety, fearfulness etc.
  • These negative and ludicrous views of a woman’s reproductive experience have lessened but have not gone away. In the 1980s, the label PMS (premenstrual syndrome) was given to any emotional or behavioral variance caused by a change in hormones during the time leading up to menstruation. There are many problems with this label-there isn’t sufficient evidence cross-culturally to prove the existence of this disorder, in fact, most symptoms reported are physical symptoms such as back-ache etc. Maureen Fitzgerald (1990) questioned 3 different sets of Samoan women about PMS. Those who had been exposed to the concept reported symptoms of PMS while those women who had not heard of PMS and viewed menstruation as normal only reported physical discomfort typical of menstruation that they viewed as bearable and natural. Fitzgerald concluded that those women who had been exposed to the medical models that included PMS had another category of illness to influence the way they viewed their own biological processes.
  • Another scientific area of study that has many difficulties is that of the symptoms surrounding menopause. Like PMS, menopause has been linked to problems viewed as illness, including osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease. In a study done by Margaret Lock, many Japanese women did not experience hot flashes and other symptoms associated with menopause by Western medicine. This was in sharp contrast to women in Canada who reported about 60% of the women experiencing somatic symptoms such as hot flashes. Another interesting point was that Japanese women are starting to develop a negative attitude towards menopause which can be attributed to exposure of Western medical models that they are exposed to through media etc. Bonvillain finishes by saying that these “illnesses” are simply cultural constructs set up that give a negative view of women and their place in society. Bonvillain states, “And both conditions [PMS and menopause] are said to have psychological symptoms that render women unlikely, perhaps unfit, to succeed in prestige occupations.”

Instructor Comments:  The big point that Bonvillain is trying to make here is how society uses medicine as a means to control people. The authority of doctors (whom we perceive as impartial and benevolent) can then be used to justify social inequality.

Female genital mutilation

  • (FGM) or female circumcision removal of part or all of the genitals of prepubescent girls, infibulation (stitching closed) of the vaginal opening, leaving only a tiny opening for urine and menstrual fluid Term female circumcision is misleading since it implies an operation similar to male
  • circumcision which is the removal of skin vs. the removal of healthy organs.
  • Prevalent in 28 countries in Africa and other regions as well. Most severe forms found in Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia. Some less sever forms in Arabian Peninsula, Indonesia, Malaysia
  • Not started by the Islamic religion but it occurs among people of both it and the Christian faith.
  • Much debate over the effects of FGM. [Say a bit more about what you mean here. What debate are you referring to? Which effects do you mean?] Justification in cultural beliefs, dangers of female sexuality, need to ensure virginity for marriage, infibulation ensures sexual fidelity to husband, and increases husband’s sexual pleasure. Some tribes of women in Africa support the practice and see it as a tradition, rite of passage into womanhood. Others oppose it because of its brutality and see it as a continuation of the subordination of women.
  • FGM raises the risk of death during childbirth, both for mother and child.
  • 1995- FGM declared a violation of human rights
  • 1996- U.S. grants asylum for women fleeing genital mutilation rite.
  • Reluctance in people of the nations to change, the practice is a source of income for those who perform the procedures
  • Patriarchal society- reluctance from men to marry a woman who has not had this procedure, stems from man’s wish to obtain more sexual pleasure despite the pain caused to their wives.
  • While many people around the globe may see this as a terrible practice, Bonvillain makes a point to give the reader both perspectives- that of those who oppose the practice, and the perspective of the tribes who practice it and believe in it.

Hormones and Behavior

  • Popular science believes testosterone explains male aggressiveness and a lack of it explains female passiveness True or not? Does biology explain behavior?
  • Environmental triggers cause releases of hormones
  • Socialization is key in explaining behaviors like aggression and nurturance
  • Example: Treating girls and boys differently as they grow up; Interactions between parents and children; Parents interact more physically with boys, encouraging the development of stronger muscles and motor skills; punished more physically than girls, especially by fathers- result could be increased anger in boys toward fathers and could be displaced towards peers; Girls enjoy playing at home more, resulting in more adult supervision, helping with household chores, and helping to care for siblings
  • Great complexity in human behavior, not just one explanation such as testosterone


  • Eating patterns
  • Examples:  Allowing men to eat first and women eating what remains after; Female body can reflect lack of nutrition; Some pastoral and farming people in Africa deny meat to women, including chicken
  • Stereotypical men eat meat and potatoes while women like salad.
  • Women have food restrictions while pregnant, many different reasons that vary with culture.
  • In places of poverty, boys are valued more than girls and so the boys get the majority of the nourishment

Gender and Aging

  • Statistically women are living longer than men, suggested that women have more biological protections from heart disease
  • More mortality rates in men through behavior- smoking, drinking, accidents, homicides, suicides, and war
  • Women statistically seek medical attention more than men, resulting in the catching of life-threatening illnesses earlier
  • Poverty rate for old women is nearly double the rate for old men
  • It seems to me that if women live longer than men and have the opportunity to gain more wisdom with age, then why are women treated with less respect and basically discarded in their old age?

In some societies women can amas a great deal of respect working as healers.  As a healer or a doctor, women have been able to rise above traditional roles.

Healing and Healers Ju/’hoansi Healers

  • Society permits all people to become healers, including women
  • Great deal of social prestige
  • Healing powers accumulated through ritualized dancing, activates spiritual energy called num, causing a trance like state called kia. It is in this state that the practitioner can heal.
  • Men generally more practiced healers since women do no practice healing while pregnant, activating num can harm fetus. These lapses in healing affect a woman’s ability to heal as effectively as a man.
  • Some women however do become powerful healers and have a lot of social and political influence over the tribe.
  • Dances determine which practitioner will heal the sick. The giraffe dance is for men to use to activate num, enter kia, and heal. The drum dance is for women. Men and women participate in each other dances but only for support

Sri Lankan Healers

  • Differentiated system of health care o Men dominate fields of Ayurvedic (Indian) medicine and Western medicine but women have started to infiltrate these categories o Healers associated with religion such as Buddhist priests and exorcists are predominantly male
  • Sinhalese practitioners such as lay ritualists and astrologers are equally to be male as female- Sinhalese practitioners believe that a healer’s ability to cure derives from experience and also from having a “gift” or “touch” which women are more likely to have through their more compassionate natures.
  • Sinhalese do not charge for services, instead accepting goods in exchange for treatment
  • Home treatment specialists that use herbal remedies, ritual procedures and cosmological readings are predominantly female.
  • Men have more formal educations because until recently, medical institutions discriminated against women

Health Practitioners in the U.S.

  • Gender segregation in the field of health care.
  • Women make up the majority of registered nurses, practical nurses, dietitians, and medical technicians.
  • Men make up the majority of medical doctors, dentists, and pharmacists. These professions carry more prestige and make more money. Female doctors are clustered in general practice, pediatrics, and psychiatry.
  • Women’s medical professions tend to center around children, families, and emotion. Still earn less than male doctors in the same fields.

Women’s Informal Healing Roles

  • Women first to be consulted in cases of illness
  • Extension of responsibilities as mothers
  • Women are there for emotional support (encourage recovery) as well as expertise in herbal remedies, nutritional supervision, and informal medical treatment
  • Third World Countries “superior health achievers”: Sri Lanka, China, India, Zaire, Kenya, and Costa Rica. These countries institute policies supportive of women’s autonomy. Higher rates of attendance for girls in school. Lower infant mortality rates and improved life expectancy, as well as higher usage of family planning techniques in married women.
  • TWC “poor health achievers”: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Algeria, Iraq, Senegal, Sierra Leone. These countries restrict women’s activities. Low rates of girls attending school. Absence of family planning practices. Higher mortality rates, more instances of HIV/ AIDS.
  • Religious differences have significant bearing on countries views on women’s autonomy Basically, Bonvillain is saying that there is a direct correlation between the general health of a society and way women are treated.

Gender Diversity Crosscultural Variations- Nanda

Chapter 1 Multiple Genders Among North American Indians

Distribution and Characteristics of Variant Sex/Gender Roles

  • From the East Coast to the West Coast sex and gender played a role in many Indian societies. (I think she says they are mostly concentrated in the West)
  • Just because you were classified as a particular sex did not mean thatthat sex was what you were confined to. (You mean that sex did not confine a person to one gender)


  • Clothing played a big part of Indian culture.
  • If a man did women’s labor then he had to wear women’s clothing but if he did a mans job he had to wear mens clothing.
  • The Mohave male Indian did not only adopt woman’s clothing but every aspect of the female persona.


  • Males and females in some cultures could change jobs, so to speak, and get a good reputation because of it.

Gender Variance ans Sexuality

  • Being a man or woman did not define you as that particular sex (Again, we’re using sex to mean biology and gender to mean how society treats you).
  • It was not uncommon for men to have relationships with other men, women or even both when they took up the role of the opposite sex.
  • Likewise with these various tribal societies having sex with same-sex partners were not uncommon.

Biological Sex and Gender Transformations

  • Europeans often times confused gender variants as hermaphrodites.
  • However, most Indian cultures specifically treated them differently while assigning them gender variant roles.

Sacred Power

  • Gender variant persons held spiritual roles as adepts and healers within their societies.
  • Besides being drawn to the other sexes gender roles at an early age, these young Indians were somehow spiritually sent to that gender for a reason.

The Alyha: A Male Gender Variant Role Among the Mohave

  • The Alyha males were seen as better housewives than young girls.
  • When it came to having sex the Alyha were embarrassed by their own erect penis’ and always assumed the role of the woman. They practiced anal and oral sex.
  • The Alyha also faked being pregnant. He imitated up until the end and when he had defecated in a hole he would cry out and mourn with his husband as if he had a stillborn

Female Gender Variants

Coming Soon

Ch. 2 : Hijra and Sadhin : Neither Man nor Woman in India

  • In Hindu India the female principle is more active, animating the male principle which is more inert.
  • Females are looked upon as destructive and aggressive if not controlled by a man.
  • Women are believed to be more sexually voracious than men this is why men are supposed to control them.
  • The Hindu term hijra refers to what is thought to be a third sex/gender which is neither man nor woman. Hijras are primarily considered to be defective males because of their impotence and inability to procreate.
  • The hijras have an odd place in society, neither filling the traditional roles of woman nor man
  • Hijras are created by an operation in which the genitals are removed and they are not considered a hijra unless this happens.
  • Hijras like most transgender men in America have sexual relations with men.
  • Hijras perform weddings and after a child is born to bless families with fertility and hopefully more sons.
  • In Hindu India an impotent man and a woman who cannot menstruate die and are unmarried they are considered to be incomplete. Another Hindu term that refers to a female aesthetic is called sadhin.
  • Sadhins are women who renounce marriage and are celibate for life, and is publicly adopted when a woman adopts men’s clothes and cuts her hair.

Chapter 3: Men and Not-Men: Sexuality and Gender in Brazil

  • In Brazil sex/gender diversity is associated with the alternative sex/gender roles of travesty, viado, and bicha, which are most centrally defined by their sexuality, a theme that characterizes most of Latin American.
  • The underlying of the cultural variations in the sex/gender ideologies of Latin American is a shared understanding.
  • The shared understanding is based on a common root that comes from the Spanish and Portuguese culture, which men and women are opposed in every way with males being superior.
  • Brazil traditional sex/gender system flowered in the early colonial period in the sixteenth century when a plantation slave economy dominated by a class of wealthy landowners was the predominant economic and cultural feature.
  • Plantation landowner exercised absolute authority over their dominions, which led to a social hierarchy of master over African slave and men over women.
  • The social hierarchy was sanctioned by Catholic Church teaching and was sometimes enforced by violence, which became central to the Brazilian masculine identity and its system of sexual classification.
  • Men dominant the more important public spheres of political activity and workplace and women are acknowledged as superior only is realms regarded as inferior, such as domestic life.
  • Women are defined as inferior and weak but also beautiful and desirable, and subject always to control by men fathers and brothers and after marriage, husbands. • A threat to masculinity is the loss of control over women.
  • The beauty and seductiveness of women is a constant threat to their sexual betrayal, which is a view that have deep roots in the Christian ideology of women as either virgins, mothers, or whores.
  • Any betrayal of a males control is an insult to male honor.
  • Men are given the freedom of carnal love independent of reproduction where as for the women, sexual relations are joined to the obligation to conceive, give birth, and raise children within the marriage.
  • Brazilian ideology is based on the distinction between those who penetrated (the active) that is defined as masculine and those who are penetrated (the passive) is defined as the feminine. This ideology shapes the meanings of sexual relations between males and females and between same sexes.
  • Penetration symbolically expresses the hierarchical power relations at the heart of the patriarchal gender system. If penetration actually apply or doesn’t it’s the key to the sex/gender system of Brazil.
  • The position in sexual intercourse is expressed by two verbs “to eat” (comer) and “to give” (dar). Comer describes the male active penetration and domination of the female and Dar is used to describe the female passive submission to her male partner in her role of being penetrated during sexual intercourse.

Gender Diversity: Travestis, Bichas, And Viados

  • This model of relationship is between males and females is central to Brazilian understandings of gender diversity which focus on the effeminative passive male homosexual who depending on the region of Brazil and the social situation is called bicha (literally bug, pest, or female animal), viado (literally deer), or travesti (from the verb cross-dress).
  • Bichas, viados, travesties are produced through the application of the distinction between atividad and passividade to sexual relations between individuals of the same sex not soley by virtue of their sexual orientation.
  • A male who enters into a same-sex sexual relationship doesn’t sacrifice his masculinity as long as he performs active penetration and conducts himself as a male in society. An active male in same-sex sexual relations is a unmark male and he doesn’t fall into any special category.
  • A man is a man until proven or accused to have given in which he becomes a bicha or viado and if he accepts the social role he is considered to be a “real bicha”, and to take on this role is called solta pulmas. Bichas, travesties, and viados don’t dress or act like women, but they do transform their bodies but not their penis.
  • Travestis believe that even though they have transformed their bodies they can never be women because God created them to be a male and it will never change.

Men And Not-Men: The Brazilian Binary

  • Sex/gender diversity only because meaningful with each cultures distinctive sex/ gender system, which is based on a dichotomy where its not men and women but its men and not –men.
  • In Brazil the gender is not based on genitals but it is based on what they are used for.
  • If one penetrates its a man and if one gets penetrates its not a man; one is either a women or a bicha/viado and even though they don’t claim to be a women they share the same gender qualities with them. They are also to be attractive to the males, so losing their penis would lose pleasure and income.

Afro-Brazilian Religion

  • Women and pasivos dominate the leadership in Afro-Brazilian regions
  • The Most familiar Afro-Brazilian religion is Candomble, which is an organized house called terreiors.

Penetration, Possession Trance, and Gender Diversity in Candomble

  • Penetration and possession in Candomble means to reinforce and resist the dominant norms of gender relationships in Brazil and help explain the dominant norms of gendered relationships in Brazil and help explain the association of Candomble with women and pasivos.
  • In Candomble the relationships is between the spirits and humans and the gods and followers who incorporate them is analogically associated with that of male and females through the metaphor of penetration.

Changing Sex/Gender Ideologies

  • A modern Euro-American “medical” model of sex/gender relations entered Brazil in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This type of model emphasized same- sex sexual relations as detrimental to the health of society. This model has also been a challenge with in the last three decades because of gay ideology, in which both partners in a same sex relationship are viewed equally in terms of their sexually orientation.
  • This model continues with the homosexual/heterosexual divide of the medical model without it pejorative connotations is gaining a foothold in the more highly industrialized urban centers of the south Rio and Sao Paulo and for the more wealthy and educated classes throughout Brazil. The traditional pattern continues to dominate in the north and northeast among the rural less educated and poorer classes.

Week 9 Group: Mary Casteen, Jenah Moody, Immecca Benson, Randall Hopkins, and Allen Walker

About jenahmoody

I am a wife and mother. I am a former Fire Controlman in the US Navy. I am a Criminal Justice major at Old Dominion University. I love to cook and watch movies with my family.
This entry was posted in Reading Notes. Bookmark the permalink.