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Gender essentialism is the philosophy that key differences exist between people of different gender groups. These differences influence the way they behave and the options available to them in life.
Under the theory of gender essentialism, the characteristics applied to a person are based on the gender they are assigned at birth and cannot be changed during a person’s lifetime. There is no scientific research supporting the concept of gender essentialism.
Under gender essentialism, women are expected to act in a way traditionally associated with femininity and men are expected to act in a masculine way. These behaviors might concern the way they express their gender or their sexuality. For example, a person born with a penis is expected to dress in shirts and pants, rather than skirts and dresses, and feel attracted to women. When people act outside the expected norms, they may be met with confusion, hostility, or even violence.
Many groups have rejected gender essentialism. Feminists and men’s rights activists believe gender essentialism limits individuals simply because of their genitalia. For example, gender essentialism might suggest women cannot be the breadwinner because this is a role traditionally associated with men. They also feel that gender essentialism is informed by gender stereotypes, rather than facts about gender, and that it reinforces these stereotypes. These groups also feel gender essentialism is often used as an excuse for behaving in a gender-biased way, like giving a woman a lower salary than a man.
People who identify outside the two binary genders, including intersex and transgender people, also reject gender essentialism because this system only addresses what is quintessentially male or female according to the gender identified at birth.
The LGBTQ community also struggles with the idea of gender essentialism because it has little space for sexualities outside heterosexuality. Even when people accept a couple in a homosexual relationship for example, they may speculate on which partner is “the man” or “the woman” in the relationship. This assumption a male and a female role must exist in a successful partnership, even when people present as the same gender, can be damaging.
Critics also say that gender essentialism raises expectations that can lead to feelings of oppression and social anxiety for people lying outside the gender norms. For example, as traditional gender biases tell us men are always in the mood for sex, men may feel pressured to initiate and consent to sexual contact even when they don’t want to do so.