Sex and Advertising

ADText: Advertising Curriculum

Unit 24: Sex and Advertising

1. Introduction

A consideration of sex and advertising necessitates the clarification of terminology at the outset. Sex, gender, sexism, sexuality, and so on, often lack clarity and specificity in everyday language. However, scholars and scientific researchers generally restrict the meaning and usage of such terms so as to facilitate discussion and understanding of the complex issues they involve.

In this context, sex refers to the biological (and thus innate) differences between males and females. These differences are noticeable at birth in the anatomical as well as genetic differences between human individuals. Although a relatively small number of people do not fit this generalization, the vast majority is either distinctively male or female.

By contrast, gender refers to the cultural (and thus learned) interpretation of what it means to be male or female. The operative terms here are masculine and feminine as opposed to male and female. Ever since the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead reported differences in the cultural expectations associated with masculinity and femininity in various South Pacific cultures, the age-old belief that biology is destiny began to crumble and give way to a more flexible understanding that cultures define appropriate roles, behaviors, and expectations for males and females.

These distinctions become confused in everyday discussions where the term gender often operates as a euphemism for sex. What is your gender? is a contemporary alternative to the more precise What is your sex? The intent of both is to ask whether a person is biologically male or female. However, there is no agreement in contemporary usage on the better way to elicit this information. For example, note the difference in the way the question is posed on the following forms:

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