Gender policing

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Gender policing is the imposition or enforcement of normative gender expressions on an individual who is perceived as not adequately performing, through appearance or behavior, the sex that was assigned to them at birth (see gender performativity). Gender policing serves to devalue or delegitimize expressions that deviate from normative conceptions of gender, thus reinforcing the gender binary. According to Judith Butler, rejection of individuals who are non-normatively gendered is a component of creating one's own gender identity.[1] Gender mainstreaming is a public policy concept, whereas gender policing is a more general social phenomenon.

It is common for normative gender performances of gender to be encouraged and rewarded, while non-normative performances are discouraged through punishment or generally negative reactions. Policing of non-normative performances ranges in intensity from relatively minor discouraging comments to brutal acts of violence. Tactics of gender policing also vary widely, depending in part on the perceived gender of the individual target.[2]

Heteronormativity and the gender binary[edit]

Gender policing aims to keep gender roles rigid and aligned according to the gender binary. The gender binary is the idea that gender exists as the opposition between man and woman. Heteronormativity, as an institution, is an extension of this belief that posits that gender and sexuality are expressions of biology. This functionalism of biology asserts that male and female genitalia only serve the purpose of procreation, which creates gender roles that manifest from a perceived innate desire, giving sexuality a specific purpose within society.[1]

Gayle Rubin's writing in "The Traffic in Women" links the creation of the gender binary to the subordination of women in western society. Rubin studied the works of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Levi Strauss to gain a better understanding of the creation of the "sex/gender system". Rubin found that "woman" was a role created in opposition to "man" and served the purpose of building power, trade relationships, and mutual aid through the exchange of women by marriage. These Kinship systems necessitated rules, which had to be policed to ensure their continued survival. These rules crystalized into heteronormativity, culturally instilling the rules for accepted sexuality in western society.[3]

Man and woman as categories can not exist without the other to enforce what they are and are not. The same can be said of heterosexuality and homosexuality. These categories are created out of their opposition, forming power dynamics. Michel Foucault referred to this creation of identities, through creating discourse surrounding the ideal, as reverse discourse. This antagonistic relationship between identities is the basis for gender policing. Deviation from normative expression, of either gender or sexuality, is often met with varying degrees violence.[4]

Patriarchy and hegemonic masculinity[edit]

Patriarchal societies perpetuate masculine dominance in all aspects of life. Patriarchy privileges masculine thought and expression creating a gender hierarchy where women and the feminine are subordinated. The concept of hegemonic masculinity describes a hierarchy even within masculinity itself. Hegemonic masculinity allows for the terms and expression of masculinity to be renegotiated according to time, culture, and class status, allowing for the rationalization of its continued dominance.[5]

The gender hierarchy created by patriarchy and hegemonic masculinity creates competition for dominance resulting in the policing of gender and sexuality. Policing of masculinity in a heteronormative society reinforces the gender binary. Individuals seeking to reaffirm their position in a masculine hierarchy seek out and police individuals performing inadequately. Those performing inadequately must either conform to the accepted forms of gender and sexual expression or risk violence and ostracism.[2]

Fathers are more likely than mothers to enforce gender boundaries, or police the gendered expressions of their children. Second, both fathers and mothers enforce gender boundaries more frequently with sons than with daughters.[6] Research on the topic of parental gender policing has shown that female children who display traditionally masculine traits or behaviors receive more social and parental acceptance than male children who exhibit traditionally feminine tendencies.[6][7] Many scholars on the subject argue that this is due to the greater value assigned to "masculine" traits or behaviors compared to "feminine" ones, and/or beliefs that "tomboyism" is temporary.[6][7] At least one study indicates that parents across various social locations celebrate and encourage their preschool age daughters to engage in gender nonconformity, such as wearing sports-themed clothing and participating in traditionally male activities.[6] However, other research indicates that in part due to peer and parental pressures, "tomboys", or female children with "masculine" traits or behavioral tendencies, frequently either abandon these tendencies in adolescence, or adopt a more feminine performance but retain many masculine skills and traits.[7] Pressures to conform to gender norms increase with age, and often manifest in these children being "instructed or shamed to conform to traditional femininity – in dress, appearance, posture, manner, interests, and dating."[7]


Fields of knowledge that claim to be universal are still created within societal frameworks that have their own rules and biases. A patriarchal society gives privilege to masculine thought and excludes other points of view and histories. All discourse created in a patriarchal society can be said to acquiesce to hegemonic masculinity.[1][4][3]

Michel Foucault viewed Psychoanalysis as a secular confession concerned with finding our natural sexual selves. The problem, Foucault argued, is that sexuality is cultural and any narrative created around it gives the subject the illusion of identity rather than experience. Psychoanalysis conducted in a hetero-normative society would view any deviation as a failing to achieve that ideal. Rather than someone being seen as performing an act, they would be seen as embodying that which society deemed inadequate.[4]

Gayle Rubin wrote about Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theory in "The Traffic In Women". Rubin states that Jacques Lacan's analysis of Freud views the Oedipus complex as the crisis experienced by a child when internalizing kinship rules. The child becomes aware of the sex/gender system and organizes itself accordingly. Neurosis is seen as having an understanding of this system yet failing to adapt to it. Lacan's separation of the Phallus from the physical penis elucidates societies privileging of the masculine and gender's separation from biology. In Rubin's view psychiatry further policed accepted gender and sexual expression by deeming non normative behavior as mentally and emotionally stunted.[8] Rubin also saw that this system of internalizing norms privileged heterosexual masculinity while outlining the psychic oppression society inflicts on women and femininity.[3]

Racialized gender[edit]

Race and gender are both social constructs that produce hierarchies within themselves. Similar to the way the classification of "man" cannot exist without "woman", "white" people cannot exist without "black" people. Race as a classification arose from European capitalist colonialism. European colonists deemed those who weren't "white", primitive and deserving of domination and "civilizing". Global colonialism by European capitalists imposed European ways of knowing and being on the peoples they colonized. This included a racialized and patriarchal conception of gender. The view of colonized peoples as primitive created a distinction between "white" (human) and "black" (property or inhuman). The view of "black" as other than human excluded "black" people from classifications of gender. In western society, being "white" and middle class continue to inform gender norms, leaving "non-white" people unable to perform accepted femininity or masculinity. The effects of the intersections of race, class, ability, and gender are studied in intersectionality theory.[9]


An individual's expression of gender is often first policed by their parent(s), as well as other elder authorities such as teachers and day care providers, at a very young age. Gender policing is part of the process of "gendering" children, or socializing them in a way considered conventionally appropriate to their assigned sex. Once children are taught gender norms and experience their enforcement, they are likely to begin policing others – both their peers and their elders.

Ethnographic research in preschools has also contributed to the body of knowledge related to gender policing. This research has suggested that teachers give their students gendered instructions about what to do with their bodies. Across several schools, teachers gave boys explicit bodily instructions more frequently than girls, indicating that boys' bodies are policed more often than girls'.[6] However, this may be because teachers were more forceful with their instructions to girls, who were also usually quicker to follow instructions, thus teachers did not need to repeat themselves as often. Teachers were also more likely to direct boys to cease behaviors (e.g. running, throwing objects), whereas they were more apt to instruct girls to alter them. For example, girls were given directive bodily instructions such as "talk to her, don't yell, sit here, pick that up, be careful, be gentle, give it to me, put it down there."[6] As a result, a wider range of potential activities is available to boys than girls, because although they are dissuaded from some, they are not directed to engage in specific activities as often as girls are. According to Martin, the scholar and sociologist who conducted this research, "Gendering of the body in childhood is the foundation on which further gendering of the body occurs throughout the life course. The gendering of children's bodies makes gender differences feel and appear natural, which allows for such bodily differences to emerge throughout the life course."[6]

Adolescence is a developmental stage in which peer groups are especially important, and peer relationships take primacy over familial relationships. It is also a stage during which gender policing amongst peers becomes increasingly common. Adolescents have already been introduced, during childhood, to normative gender expressions and social expectations therein by elders. These expectations are then reinforced during adolescence, largely by peers gender policing one another. In this (and every) stage of development, gender policing is especially prevalent in explicitly gendered environments, such as bathrooms, locker rooms, and sports teams.

Dude, You're a Fag, a book by CJ Pascoe, examines masculinity and gender policing in high schools through ethnographic research. Pascoe largely focuses on high school boys' use of the fag epithet to establish their own masculinity by questioning or challenging others'. In this context, the use of the fag epithet is a form of gender policing, frequently applied to boys who lack heterosexual prowess or are deemed inadequately masculine or strong. According to Pascoe, "[the fag identity] is fluid enough that boys police their behaviors out of fear of having the fag identity permanently adhere and definitive enough so that boys recognize a fag behavior and strive to avoid it".[7]

During adulthood, gender policing generally becomes more subtle. However, for an individual whose gender is perceived as ambiguous, blatant forms still exist. These range from curious inquiries by children (e.g. "Are you a boy or a girl?") to gender policing in bathrooms (discussed in the following section). People who are gender-normative in appearance experience primarily behavioral gender policing, such as reminders to act in a more (or less) feminine or masculine manner. Men are more often dissuaded and shamed for feminine behavior than women are for masculine behavior. It is theorized that this is due, at least in part, to the higher societal value of masculinity.[10][11]

Transgender, androgynous, and gender non-conforming individuals[edit]

The severity of gender policing is often proportional to the extremity of non-normativity. For example, transgender individuals are likely to be victims of the most extreme and violent forms of gender policing.[12] Research regarding conformity pressures and gender resistance among transfeminine individuals (those who are assigned the male sex at birth but identify as more feminine than masculine) indicates that these persons experienced "intense and pervasive" pressures to conform to traditional masculinity, and feared exposure of their gender identity would result in physical danger or loss of legal, economic, or social standing.[13] Thus, transgender individuals must often choose between self-preservation and expressing their self-identified gender.[13]

Gender policing is especially prevalent in bathrooms due to the increased salience of gender in explicitly gendered environments (and the forced binary of "men" and "women").[14] While this issue is frequently encountered by transgender and genderqueer individuals, to a lesser extent, it is also experienced by persons with androgynous or gender ambiguous appearances. For individuals with non-normative gender identities, the choice of which bathroom to use is often laden with "anxiety, ambivalence, and anticipated harassment."[15] It is not uncommon for gender-normative people to alert security of the presence of transgender (or androgynous) individuals in a bathroom, regardless of whether the bathroom they are using conforms to their sex or to their gender identity.[15] According to Jack Halberstam, the main distinction between gender policing in the women's room and in the men's room is that in the former, not only trans women, but all gender ambiguous females are scrutinized, whereas in the latter, biological males are less frequently deemed out of place.[16] Further, compared to trans women in the women's room, trans men in the men's room are likely to be less scrutinized because men are less vigilant about intruders than women.[16] However, a trans man in the men's room is more likely to be met with violence if he does not succeed in passing.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Judith Butler (1990). Laura J. Nicholson, ed. Gender Trouble Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (PDF). Routledge. 
  2. ^ a b "The Roots Of Homophobia - Inside The Mind Of People Who Hate Gays - Assault On Gay America". PBS. 
  3. ^ a b c Rubin, Gayle. "The Traffic in Women". Literary Theory: An Anthology (PDF). 
  4. ^ a b c Spargo, Tamsin. Post Modern Encounters Foucault and Queer Theory. New York: Totem, 1999. Print.
  5. ^ R. W. Connell; James W. Messerschmidt (December 2005). "HEGEMONIC MASCULINITY: Rethinking the Concept" (PDF). Gender and Society. 19 (6): 829–859. doi:10.1177/0891243205278639. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Martin, K. 1998. Becoming a Gendered Body: Practices of Preschools. American Sociological Review, 63(4), 494-511.
  7. ^ a b c d e Dude You're A Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School (2007), by C.J. Pascoe.
  8. ^ Rubin, Gayle. "Thinking Sex" (PDF). 
  9. ^ Lugones, Maria. "The Coloniality of Gender" (PDF). 
  10. ^ Kane, E. (2006). "No Way My Boys Are Going to be like That!" Parents' Responses to Children's Gender Nonconformity". Gender and Society. 20 (2): 149–176. 
  11. ^ Carr, C. L. (1998). "Tomboy Resistance and Conformity: Agency in Social Psychological Gender Theory". Gender and Society. 12 (5): 528–553. 
  12. ^ "Policing Gender" (PDF). 
  13. ^ a b Gagné, P., & Tewksbury, R. 1998. Conformity Pressures and Gender Resistance among Transgendered Individuals. Social Problems, 45(1), 81-101.
  14. ^ Pages, The Society. "Go Where? Sex, Gender, and Toilets - Sociological Images". 
  15. ^ a b Embodied Resistance: Challenging the Norms, Breaking the Rules (2011), edited by C. Bobel and S. Kwan.
  16. ^ a b c Female Masculinity (1998), by Judith Halberstam.