A Final Look at America’s Patriarchy: Homophobia, Sexism, and the Gender Binary

Over the course of the semester, these blogs have addressed the influence of the white patriarchy on sexuality and gender throughout American history. In the past few weeks, we have learned about American sexuality in the late 20th century and into the present day. Unsurprisingly, the white patriarchy still exists, determining what constitutes “normal” and “abnormal” sexuality and gender identity. We see blatant homophobia during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s; parents unable to grasp identities other than “male” or “female”; and double standards favoring men in this age of “hookup culture”. Nancy Jo Sales’ article “Tinder and the Dawn of the “Dating Apocalypse,”” Margaret Talbot’s article “About a Boy,” and sources found in Kathy Peiss’ Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality all show attempts of patriarchal society to push heteronormativity through homophobia, sexism, or the gender binary.

The controversy of gay bathhouses and other “sex establishments” during the AIDS epidemic highlights homophobic thought in America. Examining Ronald Bayer’s “AIDS and the Bathhouse Controversy,” one sees the blame put on gay men for the spread of AIDS and the limitations on their sexual expression because of this homophobic fear. To a number of gay men, these establishments were safe spaces and represented sexual freedom; moreover, the closure of these establishments only inhibited gay people, encouraging antigay violence and limiting sexual expression (Bayer, 480).  This elimination of safe spaces, along with the questionable correlation between bathhouses and the spread of AIDS, shows the targeted discrimination against gay people (Bayer, 478). Documented health inspection reports of these establishments only add to the notion of homophobia, noting that “three of the major risk behaviors associated with the transmission of the virus are anal intercourse, fellatio and vaginal intercourse” (Peiss, 455). In other words, sex caused the spread of AIDS. Not just sex between two men, but sex between anyone; yet, heterosexual couples were not targeted. Heterosexual couples were not told to adjust their sexual expressions. Heterosexual couples were not given the blame. This was discrimination against a sexually “abnormal” group. This was homophobia.

In addition to homophobia, modern America pushes its hetero-norms through manifestations of sexism. To find an example of sexist culture, one can look at present-day America’s “hookup culture.” Looking at Sales’ “Tinder and the Dawn of the “Dating Apocalypse,”” a double standard becomes painstakingly obvious. The sexism goes beyond objectifying women based on their Tinder profile pictures or judging them for having anonymous sex. Interviews of various men in this article reveal multiple manifestations of sexism: rating women based on “a mix of how good they are in bed and how attractive they are” and claiming it empowers them; judging women for using the same dating app the men are using, claiming the women are not worthy of marriage; and sending uninvited “dick pics” or exploiting nude pictures a woman sent are just a few examples of sexist behavior (Sales, “Tinder”). It seems men make the rules in hookup culture, congratulating each other for the same behavior women are judged for.

One final example of heteronormative America’s control of sexuality and gender is the push of the gender binary. The gender binary forces people to choose between two distinct classifications: male or female. This binary is present from birth; people are assigned a gender based on their biological sex. This binary influences expected behavior, like whether we play with dolls or action figures or wear skirts or pants. These may be individual choices, but when a person makes a choice that defies the gender norm (i.e. a male wearing a dress), society notices, and judgement arises. In “About a Boy,” Talbot discusses the gender binary’s influence in binary-defying gender identities. Talbot brings up the need parents of gender-nonconforming children feel to classify them within a binary, wanting to ask their kids if they “want to be called he or she” and if they are “trans or not” (Talbot, 63-64). Like Noelle says, “American people are rarely are comfortable with the idea that they do not exist solely in definable boxes.” I agree, and that is obvious in this case. It is hard for these parents to grasp gender that does not fall directly under male or female; even if the child were to identify as transgender, the parents, it seems, would expect them to start dressing in either a masculine or feminine way. One final way Talbot discusses the gender binary is in relation to all of the gender labels that are meant to defy said binary. Talbot questions the liberation that these labels offer, arguing that “they often seem predicated on stereotypical notions about men and women” (Talbot, 65). Do these identities free or restrict our behavior? Am I choosing this label because I do not fit the stereotypical masculine or feminine ideal? The fact that Talbot raises these questions in relation to identities that are supposed to break the gender binary is significant, as it seems to be assumed that the binary does not affect these identities.

America’s patriarchy has persisted through history; white, middle-class men have dominated multiple societal spheres, and sexuality is one of them. The manifestations of that control may have changed over time, but it is still about maintaining power and order. Sexualities or genders that do not fit the norm are othered. Gay people were given the blame for the spread of AIDS instead of heterosexuals, despite the fact that vaginal sex was one of the major risk behaviors associated with the spread. Women using dating apps are objectified, judged, and exploited while men are congratulated for the same behavior. Gender-nonconforming children are pressured into choosing to be masculine or feminine. It’s a man’s world.



Bayer, Ronald. “AIDS and the Bathhouse Controversy,” in Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality, ed. Kathy Peiss (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2002) 471-483.

“Policing Public Sex in a Gay Theater, 1995,” in Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality, ed. Kathy Peiss (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2002) 454-455.

Sales, Nancy Jo, “Tinder and the Dawn of the ‘Dating Apocalypse’,” Vanity Fair. August 6, 2016. Accessed April 26, 2017.

Talbot, Margaret. “About a Boy,” The New Yorker. March 18, 2013. Accessed April 26, 2017.

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