Sexual Politics of Interpersonal Behavior
article was originally written by Nancy Henley, then rewritten and augmented
by Jo Freeman. It has been published in all five editions of Women:
A Feminist Perspective, after updating by Nancy. The version here
is from the fifth edition.
WORLD OF EVERYDAY EXPERIENCE
of demeanor, like rules of deference, can be symmetrical or asymmetrical.
Between social equals, symmetrical rules of demeanor seem often to be
prescribed. Between unequals many variations can be found. For example,
at staff meetings on the psychiatric units of the hospital, medical doctors
had the privilege of swearing, changing the topic of conversation, and
sitting in undignified positions; attendants, on the other hand, had the
right to attend staff meetings and to ask questions during them . . .
but were implicitly expected to conduct themselves with greater circumspection
than was required of doctors.... Similarly, doctors had the right to saunter
into the nurses' station, lounge on the station's dispensing counter,
and engage in joking with the nurses; other ranks participated in this
informal interaction with doctors, but only after doctors had initiated
status variable that illustrates rules of symmetry and asymmetry is the
use of terms of address, widely studied by Brown and others.6
In languages that have both familiar and polite forms of the second person
singular ("you"), asymmetrical use of the two forms invariably
indicates a status difference, and it always follows the same pattern. The
person using the familiar form is always the superior to the person using
the polite form. In English, the only major European language not to have
dual forms of address, status differences are similarly indicated by the
right of first-naming (addressing a person by his or her given name rather
than surname): The status superior can first-name the inferior in situations
in which the inferior must use the superior's title and last name. An inferior
who breaks this rule by inappropriately using a superior's first name is
According to Brown, the pattern evident in the use of forms of address applies to a very wide range of interpersonal behavior and invariably has two other components: (1) whatever form is used by a superior in situations of status inequality can be used reciprocally by intimates, and whatever form is used by an inferior is the socially prescribed usage for nonintimates; (2) initiation or increase of intimacy is the right of the superior. To use the example of naming again to illustrate the first component, friends use first names with each other, whereas strangers use titles and last names (although "instant" intimacy is considered proper in some cultures, such as our own, among status equals in informal settings). As an example of the second component, status superiors, such as professors, specifically tell status inferiors, such as students, when they may use the first name, and often rebuff the inferiors if they assume such a right without invitation.
The relevance of these patterns to status differences between the sexes is readily seen. The social rules say that all moves to greater intimacy are a male prerogative: It is boys who are supposed to call girls for dates, men who are supposed to propose marriage to women, and males who are supposed to initiate sexual activity with females. Females who make "advances" are considered improper, forward, aggressive, brassy, or otherwise "unladylike." By initiating intimacy, they have stepped out of their place and usurped a status prerogative. The value of such a prerogative is that it is a form of power. In interactions between the sexes, as in other human interactions, the one who has the right to initiate greater intimacy has more control over the relationship. Superior status brings with it not only greater prestige and greater privilege but also greater power.
DEMEANOR, POSTURE, AND DRESS
The advantages of superior status are exemplified in many of the means of communicating status. Like the doctors in Goffman's research hospital, men are allowed such privileges as swearing and sitting in undignified positions, but women are denied them. Although the male privilege of swearing is curtailed in mixed company, the body movement permitted to women may be circumscribed even in all-female groups. It is considered ''unladylike" for a woman to use her body too forcefully, to sprawl, to stand with her legs widely spread, to sit with her feet up, or to cross the ankle of one leg over the knee of the other. Many of these positions are ones of strength or dominance.
has reviewed the research evidence for sex differences in nonverbal behavior,
linking it with evidence for differences due to power, status, or dominance.
She concludes that the symbols and gestures used by males tend to be those
of power and dominance, while the gestures of females tend to be those of
subordination and submission. Wex9 reached
similar conclusions through her examination of the public postures of women
and men photographed in Germany.10
The more "feminine" a woman's clothes, the more circumscribed
the use of her body. Depending on her clothes, she may be expected to sit
with her knees together, not to sit cross- legged, or not even to bend over.
Although these taboos seem to have lessened in recent years, how much so
is unknown, and there are recurring social pressures for a "return
to femininity," while etiquette arbiters assert that women must retain
feminine posture no matter what their clothing.
Prior to the 1920s, women's clothes were designed to be confining and cumbersome. The dress-reform movement, which disposed of corsets and long skirts, was considered by many to have more significance for female emancipation than women's suffrage.11 Today women's clothes are often designed to be revealing of their bodies, but women are expected to restrict their body movements to avoid revealing too much. Furthermore, because women's clothes are contrived to cling and reveal women's physical features, rather than to be loose as men's are, women must resort to purses instead of pockets to carry their belongings. These "conveniences" (purses) have become, in a time of unisex clothing and hairstyles and other blurred sex distinctions, one of the surest signs of sex, and thus have developed the character of a stigma, a sign of women's shame --for example, when they are used by comics to ridicule both women and transvestites.
ACCESS TO A PERSON'S SELF AND BODY
Women in our society are expected to reveal not only more of their bodies than men but also more of their minds and souls. Whereas men are expected to be stolid and impassive and not to disclose their feelings beyond certain limits, women are expected to express their feelings fully. Indeed research evidences indicates that both sexes do act out these stereotypes: Hall's review of thirty-eight studies of females and males as nonverbal communicators showed females to be more expressive than males in almost two-thirds of the studies surveyed.12 Does this mean that women are more emotional than men? Differences in emotional expression do not necessarily mean that the actual emotions are felt differently Just as different cultures operate under different norms for the appropriateness of emotional display, so do women and men have different "display rules." For example, a study attempting to separate felt emotion from display rules found no sex differences in emotional state experienced by subject in response to emotional stimuli, but did find women to show more facial activity than men.13 Female socialization encourages generally greater expression of emotion than does male socialization (although expression of anger is more sanctioned for men than for women).
Both socialization and expectations of others (social norms) are probably implicated in the frequent research finding that females are more self- disclosing to others than males are.14 Self- disclosure involves both expression of emotion and revelation of other personal and intimate information. Not only do we expect women to be more self-disclosing than men, but we see negative implications when women are not self-disclosing, or when men are: A psychological study found that men who were very self- disclosing, and women who were not very self-disclosing, were considered by others to be more psychologically maladjusted than were nondisclosing men and disclosing women.15 Such self- disclosure gives away knowledge about oneself, putting women at an immediate disadvantage relative to men: knowledge, as is often noted, is power.
The inverse relationship between disclosure and power has been reported in Goffman's earlier cited observations in a research hospital and in other studies.16 Self-disclosure is a means of enhancing another's power. When one person has greater access to information about another person, he or she has a resource the other person does not have. Thus, not only does power give status, but also status gives power. And those possessing neither must contribute to the power and status of others continuously.
Another factor adding to women's vulnerability is that they are socialized to care more than men -- especially about personal relationships. This puts them at a disadvantage, as Ross articulated in what he called the Law of Personal Exploitation: "In any sentimental relation the one who cares less can exploit the one who cares more." The same idea was stated more broadly by Waller and Hill as the Principle of Least Interest: "That person is able to dictate the conditions of association whose interest in the continuation of the affair is least."17 In other words, women's caring, like their openness, gives them less power in a relationship.
One way to indicate acceptance of one's place and deference to those of superior status is to follow the rules of "personal space." Sommer has observed that dominant animals and human beings have a larger envelope of inviolability surrounding them -- i.e., they are approached less closely -- than those of lower status.18 Various authors have subsequently shown that this rule applies between men and women, with women both having smaller personal space than men and tending to yield space to men when the two sexes come into proximity.19 And women's time, like their space, can be invaded readily.20
is one of the closer invasions of one's personal space, and in our low-contact
culture it implies privileged access to another person. People who accidentally
touch other people generally take great pains to apologize; people forced
into close proximity, for example, in a crowded elevator, often go to extreme
lengths to avoid touching. Even the figurative meanings of the word convey
a notion of access to privileged areas -- e.g., to one's emotions (one is
touched by a sad story), or to one's purse (one is touched for ten dollars).
In addition, the act of touching can be a subtle physical threat.
Remembering the patterns that Brown found in terms of address, it is enlightening to consider the interactions between pairs of persons of different status, and to picture who would be more likely to touch the other (put an arm around the shoulder or a hand on the back, tap the chest, hold the arm, or the like): teacher and student; master and servant; police officer and accused; doctor and patient; minister and parishioner; adviser and advisee; supervisor and worker; business executive and secretary. Again, we see that the form used by the status superior -- touching -- is the form used between intimates of equal status. It is considered presumptuous for a person of low status to initiate touch, like first-naming, with a person of higher status.
Some earlier observational and self-report studies indicated that females were touched more than males were, both as children (from six months on) and as adults. but we need more evidence than this to conclude that touching is associated with status; do other members of high-status groups touch members of low-status groups more than the reverse? In observations of incidents of touch in public urban places, higher-status persons did touch lower-status persons significantly more. In particular, men touched women more, even when all other variables were held constant.21 Not only behaviors, but also social interpretations of behavior associate power/dominance with touch; as Hall notes, "People's beliefs, anecdote, self-report, [and] observational studies of socioeconomic status and age, and one true experiment favor either the power-privilege idea or the idea that relative dominance increases as a consequence of touch initiation."22
Some studies have attempted to determine whether the effect of touch on perceptions of dominance is to increase the perceived dominance of the toucher, decrease the perceived dominance of the person touched, or both.23 Although the findings have been mixed, the preponderance of evidence seems to indicate that touching affects the perceived dominance of both the toucher and the touched. In an observational study in public places, researchers found that when mixed-sex couples walked together in public, the female was most often on the side of the male's dominant hand; that is, she was on his right if he was right-handed and on his left if he was left-handed. These researchers speculated that such "strong-arming" reflected male dominance and would allow more convenient male touching of the female.24
This touching asymmetry becomes most ambiguous and problematic in heterosexual situations when females may protest males' touch as presumptuous, only to be told they are too "uptight." Female office, restaurant, and factory workers and students are quite used to being touched by their male superordinates, but they are expected not to "misinterpret" such gestures as sexual advances. However, women who touch men may be interpreted as conveying sexual intent, as they have often found out when their intentions were quite otherwise. Such different interpretations are consistent with the status patterns found earlier. If touching indicates either power or intimacy, and women are deemed by men to be status inferiors, touching by women will be perceived as a gesture of intimacy, since power is not an acceptable interpretation.25
GAZE AND DOMINANCE
most studied nonverbal communication among humans is probably eye contact,
and here too we observe a sex difference. Researchers have found repeatedly
that women look more at another person in a dyad than men do.26
Exline, Gray, and Schuette suggest that "willingness to engage in mutual
visual interaction is more characteristic of those who are oriented towards
inclusive and affectionate interpersonal relations,"27
but Rubin concludes that while "gazing may serve as a vehicle of emotional
expression for women, [it] in addition may allow women to obtain cues from
their male partners concerning the appropriateness of their behavior."28
This interpretation is supported by the data of Efran and Broughton, which
show that male subjects too "maintain more eye contact with individuals
toward whom they have developed higher expectancies for social approval."29
Looking, then, may be indicative of some dependency and
subordination. However, looking can also be an aggressive and dominant gesture, when it becomes a stare. Dovidio and Ellyson write, "In humans as in other primates, the stare widely conveys messages of interpersonal dominance and control. Research conducted over the past 60 years suggests that, in general, staring at another person is a dominance gesture while breaking eye contact or not looking is a sign of submission."30 How can the same gesture -- looking at another -- indicate both dominance and deference? Henley suggests that women may watch men when they are not being looked at, but lower or avert their gaze when a man looks at them, as submissive animals do when a dominant animal looks their way.31
Also, as Dovidio and Ellyson point out, the meaning of gaze depends on the context, and on the patterning of looking with other behaviors, most notably with speaking. A series of experiments by Ellyson, Dovidio, and their colleagues has developed a measure of "visual dominance": the ratio of [looking at another while speaking[ to [looking at another while listening]. In peer interaction, we tend to look while listening more than we look while speaking; however, visually dominant people, both men and women, have a greater proportion of look/speak to look/listen than do nondominant people. People with higher status, expert power, or an orientation to interpersonal control all showed higher visual dominance ratios than did people without those characteristics. Gender also affects visual dominance behavior: In an experiment with mixed-sex pairs, both female and male experts showed greater visual dominance in interaction with nonexperts; when there was no differential expertise, men still showed greater visual dominance than did women.32 Like other tiny habits of which we are scarcely aware, women's "modest" eye lowering can signal submission or subordinate position even when that message is not intended.
VERBAL CUES TO DOMINANCE
Gestures of dominance and submission can be verbal as well as nonverbal. Subtle verbal cues -- especially paralinguistic features, such as emphasis, inflection, pitch, and noncontent sounds -- are often classified with nonverbal ones in the study of interpersonal interaction, because they have similar regulating functions aside from the traditional verbal content. Other features of verbal interaction, such as frequency and length of utterance, turn-taking patterns, interrupting, and allowing interruption, also help to regulate interaction and to establish dominance.
Sheer verbalization itself can be a form of dominance, rendering someone quite literally speechless by preventing that person from "getting a word in edgewise." Contrary to popular myth, men talk more than women, in both single-sex and mixed-sex groups. Within a group, a major means of asserting dominance is to interrupt. Those who want to dominate others interrupt more; those speaking will not permit themselves to be interrupted by their inferiors, but they will give way to those they consider their superiors.33 It is not surprising, therefore, that Zimmerman and West found, in a sample of eleven natural conversations between women and men, that forty-six of the forty-eight interruptions were by males; other research on interruption consistently finds men interrupting more than women.34
verbal communication, we find a pattern of differences between the sexes
similar to that seen in nonverbal communication. It was observed earlier
in this article that men have the privilege of swearing and hence have access
to a vocabulary not customarily available to women. On the surface, this
seems to be an innocuous limitation, but it is significant because of the
psychological function of swearing: Swearing is one of the most harmless
and effective ways of expressing anger. The common alternatives are to express
one's feelings with physical violence or to suppress them and by so doing
turn the anger in on oneself. The former is prohibited to both sexes (to
different degrees), but the latter is decidedly encouraged in women.
Swearing is perhaps the most obvious sex difference in language usage. Of course, sex differences are also to be found in phonological, semantic, and grammatical aspects of language as well as in word use.35 Austin, for example, has commented that "in our culture little boys tend to be nasal . . . and little girls, oral," but that in the "final stages" of courtship the voices of both men and women are low and nasal.36 The pattern cited by Brown,37 in which the form appropriately used by status superiors is used between status equals in intimate situations, is again visible: In the intimate situation, the female adopts the vocal style of the male. In situations in which intimacy is not a possible interpretation, it is not power but abnormality that is the usual interpretation. Female voices are expected to be soft and quiet -- even when men are using loud voices. Women who do not fit this stereotype are often called loud -- a word commonly applied derogatorily to other minority groups or out-groups.38 One of the most popular derogatory terms for women is shrill, which, after all, simply means loud (applied to an out-group) and high-pitched (female).
GESTURES OF SUBMISSION
Henley and LaFrance suggest that the nonverbal asymmetry of male and female is paralleled by the asymmetry of racial/ethnic/cultural dominance.39 In any situation in which one group is seen as inferior to another, they predict, that group will be more submissive, more readable (nonverbally expressive), more sensitive (accurate in decoding another's nonverbal expressions), and more accommodating (adapting to another's nonverbal behaviors). How true this is for racially and ethnically oppressed groups remains to be shown; in this review, however, we have seen that these characteristics are among the nonverbal behaviors of females. Recent research by Snodgrass supports the contention that decoding sensitivity is associated with dominance and authority, rather than with gender per se.40
Other verbal characteristics of persons in inferior status positions are the tendencies to hesitate and apologize, often offered as submissive gestures in the face of threats or potential threats. If staring directly, pointing, and touching can be subtle nonverbal threats, the corresponding gestures of submission seem to be lowering the eyes from another's gaze, falling silent (or not beginning to speak at all) when interrupted or pointed at, and cuddling to the touch. Many of these nonverbal gestures of submission are very familiar. They are the traits our society assigns as desirable characteristics of females. Girls who have properly learned to be "feminine" have learned to lower their eyes, to remain silent, to back down, and to cuddle at the appropriate times. There is even a word for this syndrome that is applied only to females: coy.
interaction is expressed through nonverbal communication: the caress, the
gaze, coming close to each other, the warm smile, smelling the other, provocative
postures and inviting gestures; much sexual contact, unlike other forms
of human interaction, is purely nonverbal. Sexual interaction, like all
interaction, is conditioned by the social context in which it takes place.
One particularly compelling aspect of that social context is that males
have more power, prestige, and status than do females, a fact that cannot
but affect heterosexual interaction. If even casual relationships between
females and males are caught up in the social system in which males wield
power over females, how much more does this power system affect the sexual
relationship, which we consider the ultimate intimacy? In addition, in both
heterosexual and homosexual interactions, relationships are affected by
other power and status dimensions, such as work status, wealth, race, age,
and interpersonal dominance. This power too is often expressed nonverbally.
Unfortunately, little has been written on nonverbal behavior, power, and sexuality examined simultaneously. However, the research and ideas presented earlier in this article may be applied to the sexual sphere. First, much can be said about a sexual relationship after observing the mutuality or nonmutuality of various gestures. For example, we may already believe that the person who is more dominant in the relationship is the one who takes a superior position in intercourse, the one around whose pleasure sexual activity is structured, and the one upon whose climax it is terminated. Beyond that, when gestures are not mutual (or not balanced over time), one person may dominate by initiating touching, hand-holding, and kissing; maintaining gaze; putting an arm around the other's back when sitting; initiating moves to greater intimacy in the course of a relationship or a single encounter; exerting more influence over the couple's spacing, postures, and walking pace; getting to hold hands with the preferred or dominant hand; having the hand in front when walking holding hands; and terminating as well as initiating hand-holding and kissing. Subordination may be expressed by the person who shows more emotional expressivity, shows more facial and kinesic activity, is more self-disclosing, accommodates timing and action to the other, and exhibits the reciprocal behaviors of those described as dominant.
These questions of who touches, who initiates, and who terminates apply, of course, to both heterosexual and homosexual relationships. However, in the heterosexual relationship, we often have a good idea of what the answers will be; in fact, heterosexual custom has prescribed male leadership and dominance. But these are changing times, and many think that few aspects of our society are changing faster than are sexual relationships and female-male interactions. Many people today do not wish to have unequal sexual relationships or to express sexual inequality unconsciously. However, since we generally take body language for granted and do not attend to it much, it may be hard to change: nonverbal expressions may lag behind changes in attitudes, values, and ideas. Slowness in changing this communication may keep us trapped in old modes of expression and old modes of relationship. No matter how egalitarian we may believe our relationships or sexual interactions to be, they will have an edge of inequality and imbalance until we bring our nonverbal expressions into line with our verbal ones.
DIFFERING INTERPRETATIONS OF THE SAME BEHAVIOR
Status differences between the sexes mean that many of the same traits and actions are interpreted differently when displayed by each sex. A man's behavior toward a woman might be interpreted as an expression of either power or intimacy, depending on the situation. When the same behavior is engaged in by a woman and directed toward a man, it is more likely to be interpreted as a gesture of intimacy -- and intimacy between the sexes is typically seen as sexual in nature. Recent research confirms that, when women display dominance gestures to men, they are rated higher on sexuality and lower in dominance than men are rated when making the same gestures to women.41 Because our society's values say that women should not have power over men, women's nonverbal communication is rarely interpreted as an expression of power. If the situation precludes a sexual interpretation, women's assumption of the male prerogative may be dismissed as deviant (castrating, domineering, unfeminine, or the like). Women in supervisory positions thus often have a difficult time asserting their power nonverbally -- gestures that are socially recognized as expressions of power when used by male supervisors may be denied or misinterpreted when used by women.
of the significance of nonverbal communication can help us to understand
not only others' gestures but also our own, giving us a basis for social
and personal change. However, just because certain gestures associated with
males are responded to as powerful, women need not automatically adopt them.
Rather than accepting "masculine" values without question, individual
women will want to consider what they wish to express and how, and they
will determine whether to adopt particular gestures or to insist that their
own be responded to appropriately. There has been growing pressure on women
to alter their verbal and nonverbal behavior42
to the words and movements of "power" -- i.e., to those associated
with men -- often with little thought of the implications. It would be mistaken
to assume that such gestures are automatically better and that it is only
women who should change. Revealing emotions rather than remaining wooden-faced
and unexpressive, for example, may be seen as weak when only one person
in an interaction is doing it; but, in the long run, openness and expressivity
-- by all people -- may be better for the individual, the interpersonal
relationship, and the society. Women who wish to change their nonverbal
behavior can monitor it in various situations to determine when it contradicts
their intention or is otherwise a disservice, and only then change. They
will wish to keep those behaviors that give them strength, whether those
behaviors are traditionally associated with women or with men.
(c) 1995 by Nancy Henley and Jo Freeman