Along with bodies there are many assumptions about gender and sex. First, it is often assumed that certain genitals and other bodily features mean that someone is a man (e.g. penis and more bodily hair) or a woman (e.g. vulva and breasts). However, there is actually a massive variation in genital and body appearance. Around 1 in 100 people are ‘intersex’ meaning that their genitalia at birth aren’t clearly a penis or a vulva. Some have surgery and some do not. Some people have physical accidents or illnesses which change their bodies or genitals (e.g. loss of penis or testicles due to accident; hysterectomy or mastectomy for cancer treatment or prevention; loss of head hair due to chemotherapy). Many men have breasts and many women have hairy bodies. Trans* people may (or may not) modify their genitalia and/or other bodily features over their lives. Generally it is worth challenging common assumptions that gender identity, outward appearance and genital appearance necessarily all go together. All bodies are different, so whatever someone’s bodies and genitals appear like we will need to learn how they work for that particular person in order to have sex with them.
There are also strong cultural assumptions that certain sexual practices go with certain genders: notably that men will initiate sex, will be more dominant and active during sex, and that sex is not complete until a man has orgasmed; that women will be the ones who say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to someone else’s sexual advances, that they will be more submissive and passive during sex, and that their orgasm isn’t necessary for sex to be complete. Generally speaking men who have a lot of sex with different people are viewed positively and women who do the same are viewed negatively (the sexual double standard). All of these assumptions are problematic. There are women who love sex and men who do not, women who dominate and men who submit, and active women and passive men. There are also many people who don’t fit neatly into these boxes of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ (e.g. tomboys, metrosexuals, new men, drag kings and queens, genderqueer people, androgynous people, gender neutral people, femme men, butch women, etc.)
The pressures around gender and sex can mean that men feel very pressurized to perform (as if erections and orgasms prove their masculinity) and women feel that they must have sex in order to keep their relationships (often meaning that they are more concerned with what their partners wants than what they want). Such pressures can lead to sexual problems and distress.
30. Blackless, M., Charuvastra, A., Derryck, A., Fausto-Sterling, A., Lauzanne, K. & Lee, E. (2000). How Sexually Dimorphic are we? Review and Synthesis. American Journal of Human Biology, 12, 151-166.
31. Weatherall, A. (2002). Gender, Language and Discourse. London: Routledge.