Friday, June 29, 2012

Sex, Gender, Sexual Orientation

There is quite possibly nothing more confusing, and yet so many people think they know all there is to know, as the topic of sex. Much like the human brain, sex is something that is relatively simple, at yet extremely complex at the same time, especially when you through a psychologist at the subject. Let's start by taking apart some of the terms, and then perhaps complicating the issue slowly. This may end up being the beginning of a series of blog posts, or just a REALLY long one. Either way, it's time to begin.

Sex: from a relationship perspective, this is an activity that takes place between, usually, two, preferably consenting, adults. Many people hear the word sex and envision some act of copulation that runs the gamut from mundane missionary coitus to kinky to erotica and any point in between. Sex in this respect is one of those topics that we try the hardest in many modern societies, despite many movements to the contrary, to keep hidden and mysterious from the "innocents" (mostly children). but "sex" also has another meaning.

Sex: the biological characteristics of being male or female. The genotypes XX (female) and XY (male). The physical appearances of primary and secondary sex characteristics that tells the rest of the world what Nature decided you were supposed to be. When you fill out a demographic survey and they ask for "sex," they are asking about this feature, not whether you've been recently active in the boudoir.

Gender: the psychological and social properties of being male or female. On the surface, sex and gender seem to be the exact same thing. For the majority of the population, they are the same. Most individuals classify themselves as either male or female and this personal classification matches with societal expectations and the person's biological make-up. For a small percentage, however, their sex and gender are not aligned. There are cases in which a person feels they were "born into the wrong body" or that "nature made a mistake" when it assigned their sex. These individuals have the potential to become transgender.

Transgender: an individual whose biological sex does not coincide with their psychological gender and who subsequently, through medical therapies and/or surgery, corrects this miss-match  by changing the physical biological sex to the gender. In other words, a biological male becoming a biological female to match her gender identity as a female or a biological female becoming a biological male to match his gender identity as a male. A transgender should not be confused with a transvestite, however.

Transvestite: an individual who becomes aroused and/or can only achieve orgasm when wearing clothing intended for the opposite sex. Most transvestites are well aware and comfortable with their gender identity as male or female. They simply show a preference for masculine (if they are a female) or feminine (if they are a male) clothing when involved in sex. This should not be confused with a cross-dresser.

Cross-dresser: an individual who wears the clothes of the opposite sex for, primarily, comfort reasons. Some males simply feel that female clothing is more comfortable and they would much rather wear a skirt than a pair of pants. Our society, unfortunately, shuns this form of fashion and many cross-dressers feel the need to hide their preference because it is considered abnormal. Unless there is any sexual arousal involved with the cross-dressing, that's all it is--dressing across gender lines. In modern society, primarily western and American culture (these are what I am most familiar with), it is more acceptable for a woman to cross-dress in male clothing than for a man to cross-dress in female clothing. Personally, I could be considered the occasional cross-dresser, as I find some of my husband's shirts to be more comfortable than the tighter, form-fitting styles meant for most women. I even had a few pairs of "boys" jeans and jean shorts when I was younger because I liked the fit better than the "girl" equivalents. Cross-dressing does not usually lead to transvestism or transgendered individuals, although it could be a precursor.

Now, here's where things can start to get confusing. So many people start to mix gender with sexual orientation. Sexual orientation relates to one's attraction, physically and romantically and erotically, to an individual based on that other individual's gender/sex. Labeling of one's sexual orientation is partially dependent upon one's own gender and the gender of one's love interest.

Heterosexual: being attracted (emotionally, romantically, physically, erotically, sexually, etc.) to someone of the opposite sex/gender. That means that if your sex is male and your gender is male and you are attracted to primarily females, then you are a heterosexual male. If your sex is female and your gender is female and you are attracted to primarily males, then you are a heterosexual female. [Note: I use the word "primarily" in deference to the ideas of Kinsey, who postulated that very rarely is an individual exclusively heterosexual or homosexual.]

Homosexual: being attracted (etc. as stated above) to someone of the same sex/gender. That means that if your sex is male and your gender is male and you are primarily attracted to males, then you are a homosexual male. If your sex is female and your gender is female and you are primarily attracted to females, then you are a homosexual female.

Bisexual: being attracted (as stated above in the etc.) to someone regardless of gender/sex. A bisexual tends to be pulled, throughout their lives, almost equally by both males and females. In this case, one's own gender and sex does not particularly affect the classification, as there is mutual attraction to both sexes anyway.

Now, it is possible to have an individual's gender and sexual orientation to require a more complex examination in order to determine actual sexual orientation. Consider the case of the "male lesbian," for example. This would be an individual whose sex (biology) is male, but whose gender (psychological identification) is female, who is attracted to females. On the surface, this individual might be considered a heterosexual male. However, because one's gender is more important to psychologists in determining how one is identified, the homosexual orientation is actually more accurate. In true technicalities, this person is not actually a "male lesbian," but rather a (potential) transgender homosexual female.

If you've come this far and your head has not exploded, then I congratulate you for your efforts to understand. I will leave you here, hopefully with much food for thought and a little more understanding of what I did warn you was an incredibly complex topic. I will continue this topic, in a subsequent blog post, with the concepts of one's personality as defined along gender lines (masculine, feminine, androgynous, undifferentiated). Needless to say, any time we talk about one's gender or sex it conjures up a world of complexity that is too often muddled via attempts to oversimplify and stereotype things.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Sociopath vs. Psychopath

This post is actually coming from a direct question from a student in one of my classes. I felt I didn't answer her as best I could, so I thought I would take the time, after gathering my thoughts correctly, to put this topic to rest. First of all, "sociopath" is an actual psychological term used my clinical psychologists, whereas psychopath is not.

Sociopath: the more common label for an individual with antisocial personality disorder (see post on ANTISOCIAL). This is an individual who acts with no conscience. While most people think of serial killers and the sick, twisted individuals portrayed on shows such as Criminal Minds or and of the Law and Order franchises, they are not necessarily homicidal. Most sociopaths are simply extremely selfish--Freud might say they were almost 100% id-driven. They have a tendency to say and do whatever they want without a care for the impact on others. They may borrow or steal money without batting an eye. They may injure someone and not think twice about it. They may impose their will and/or bully someone else into submission for their own convenience. Yes, they may resort to killing and/or torture for the pleasure it brings them, but this type of behavior represents only a small proportion of the sociopaths out there.

Psychopath: using the term psychopathology as a springboard, a psychopath is just a person who exhibits abnormal behavior of any kind. Psychopathology is the study of abnormal behavior. This can include any type of psychological disorder (anxiety disorders, mood disorders, psychotic disorders, dissociative disorders, etc.) or even just someone who "acts weird" in comparison to a subset of the population, such as someone who dresses differently or has an odd way of speaking. Popular media would have you believe that all psychopaths are homicidal as well, but this simply isn't the case. In fact, much like the term "insanity," psychopath is more an invention of culture than an actual scientific, psychological term. The majority of behaviors that fall under psychopathology are actually self-inflicting harmful behaviors. Individual psychopaths very rarely represent harm to others. The greatest chance of being hurt by a psychopath is either a schizophrenic currently experiencing a psychotic episode that incorporates others in some form of delusion or hallucination, or a sociopath with homicidal tendencies, as mentioned above.

That brings me to a "bonus" term for this entry--psychotic.

A psychotic disorder is one in which an individual has a break with the shared view of reality. Organic psychoses such as dementia are caused when parts of the brain begin to deteriorate, leading to malfunctioning of reason and a person's difficulty with sorting out fact from fiction. In the case of schizophrenia (this is NOT multiple personalities!), the individual may suffer from hallucinations--inaccurate or false sensations and perceptions--and/or delusions--false beliefs that are held even in spite of evidence to the contrary. There are other symptoms such as disordered speech patterns, personality disintegration, and disorganized emotional responses that can be found in some forms of schizophrenia. Unlike a sociopath (or antisocial personality disorder), however, most schizophrenics generally do not pose a direct intentional threat to others around them. In fact, they do not live the majority of their lives in one solid state of a psychotic episode, but rather, tend to experience moments to true lucidity between psychotic episodes, especially when under the care of a physician with medical treatment. While schizophrenia is one of the most severe psychological disorders, the actual percentage of the population who can be diagnosed with it is extremely small. In addition, medical and psychological science has come a long way in helping individuals with the disorder control some of the more severe symptoms so that they are able to function in "normal" society on a day-to-day basis.

Friday, June 15, 2012


How many times were you told to "behave" by your parents or teachers? How many times did you use the same or similar phrase with someone else? The funny thing is, no matter what a child is doing he or she is behaving.

Behave: to do something. EVERYTHING you do is a behavior. Thinking, sleeping, dreaming, screaming, sitting--if you can use it in a sentence as a verb of some sort, then it is behaving. As such, behaviors are observed, measured, described, explained, predicted, controlled by psychologists of every fashion. Our whole science hinges on overt (readily observable) behaviors and covert (not readily observed and often inferred) behaviors. To us, everything a human can conceive of, even thinking and emoting, is a behavior subject to study and potential control--especially for the behaviorists.

So, any time a parent tells their child to behave, I cringe a little and the snark in me wants to inform them that the child is behaving, albeit perhaps not in the way desired. Instead of telling your child to behave, try giving them specific directions. Even "behave well" or "behave better" gives a smidgen more direction that simply "behave yourself." Giving children, or any human for that matter, such vague directions leads to a myriad of miscommunication and misinterpretation, which leads to frustration and upset.

Do yourself and others a favor and instead of demanding that someone "behave" themselves, give them specific desirable behaviors to achieve. You can even give specific behaviors to reduce or avoid. Even Dr. Tess Coleman's (Disney's remake of Freaky Friday) edict to her daughter to "make good choices" is better than "behave."

Friday, June 8, 2012


Let us begin with what discipline is NOT. It is not beating the stuffing out of your kid. It is not molding your children (or employees) into mindless robot drones who obey any and all commands without question to the point that they no longer think for themselves. Discipline is not punishment--it includes potential punishment, but also reinforcement, rules, guidelines, consequences.

Discipline is a SYSTEM. Every parent, from the authoritarian to the overly permissive, has a discipline system in place. Some systems are more effective than others, sometimes the effectiveness is dependent more upon the child than the system itself. As a system, discipline is neither inherently "bad" or "good." It is effectively neutral. The resulting behaviors [see a future blog post on BEHAVIOR/BEHAVE] can be interpreted with these affective labels, but the system itself should be seen as either effective--does it accomplish the goals it was designed for--or ineffective--does it fall short of expectations. As a system, many parents and teachers and bosses (and anyone else in a position of authority over another person or animal) choose to use both punishment and reinforcement to direct (or guide) behavior. Let us clarify these terms now. But first, the word "consequence" needs to be defined for you so that you understand the rest of this post.

Consequence is anything that follows an action (i.e. behavior). Consequences never come before a child acts. If you yell at your child before he/she hits their sibling, then you are employing an antecedent. These are used for classical conditioning and are mostly effective for reflexes, but not for conscious or voluntary behaviors. So, I will focus on consequences for the duration of the explanation of "discipline" as a system.

Punishment: this is a consequence that results in the reduction or cessation of a behavior. If yelling at a child when they spill something leads to that child never spilling again or reducing the frequency of spilling, then you have instituted a punishment. If you remove a toy from a child when they argue with their sibling and they stop arguing, then you have used punishment.

Reinforcement: this is a consequence that results in the repetition or increased frequency of a behavior. If thanking a child for cleaning up their mess results in them cleaning up more messes, then you have used a reinforcement. If you hug a child when they are sad and they come to you more often for hugs when they are sad, then you have reinforced the behavior (not sadness, but seeking your comfort when sad).

Important Note: These consequences--punishment and reinforcement--are defined by the individual receiving the consequence, NOT by the person doling them out. For example, if you yell at your child for spilling their drink and you find them spilling liquids much more frequently, then you have actually reinforced the spilling behavior. There is something about your yelling that the child desires, hence they will continue to behave in such a way that will allow them to receive more yelling. If you give your child candy for cleaning their room and they stop cleaning their room, then you have actually punished them. Perhaps you should ask them if they like the candy.

Now, as a teacher I don't like to leave things incomplete if I can help it. However, the complete ideas of punishment and reinforcement as discovered by B.F. Skinner and other behaviorists is a little more complex. Included in this area of psychology are positive punishment (giving something to the person that they do not like so that they won't repeat the behavior), negative punishment (taking something away from the person that they like so that they won't repeat the behavior), positive reinforcement (giving something to the person that they do like so that they will repeat the behavior), and negative reinforcement (removing something from the person that they do not like so that they continue the behavior). There are also ideas of schedules of reinforcement (fixed interval, variable interval, fixed ratio, variable ratio, continuous) as well as types of reinforcers (primary, secondary, and social). Anyone who has ever taken a well-taught introductory general psychology class or a class on behaviorism or learning and conditioning will know more of these details. If you haven't, then pick up a psychology textbook and peruse the chapter on learning.

When you "discipline" your child or your employee or your student or anyone else, you are shaping behavior, not merely punishing them. Incidentally, decades of research has found that reinforcement of wanted behaviors is much more effective in shaping behavior than punishment of undesirable behaviors. And, if you do choose punishment as part of your disciplinary system, then you really need to 1) explain why that behavior is being punished so that it can be avoided in the future and 2) let the individual know an alternative, acceptable behavior that they can pursue to replace the undesirable one. Otherwise, a person ends up with a gigantic list of "don't" and has no idea what the "do" might be. Another key component to any discipline system is consistency. Without consistency people will not know what you expect from them and life will become one big dice game that is completely unpredictable.