In some animal species, one can hardly tell the difference between females and males. Their size, coloring, and behavior may be so similar that even experts cannot readily tell the difference until they are ready to reproduce. In contrast, human females and males differ not only in secondary sexual characteristics (like breasts and beards), but they also generally exhibit differences in height, weight, and ratio of muscle to fat. Given the reproductive differences as well as differences in appearance between males and females, it is hardly surprising that most if not all societies conceive of females and males as important social categories. These reproductive and biological facts by themselves cannot explain the enormous variability in the way societies treat persons of the different biological sexes. The most sexually egalitarian societies may hardly treat males and females differently. But there are no societies that clearly give more overall advantages to females than to males, and those that advantage males vary considerably from mild to extreme inequality.

Cultural expectations have profound effects on how males and females grow up in a society, so much so that many researchers prefer to use the terms gender differences or gender roles to reflect the large impact of culture on differences between the sexes. The terms sex differences and sex roles now usually refer to differences that are thought to derive primarily from biological differences. The advantage of the term gender is that it also allows us to deal with situations where societies conceptualize more than two genders or who have individuals who change gender role in the course of their lifetimes. The problem for social science is that we often do not know whether a particular difference is due to biology or culture, or both. Biological and cultural influences are not always clearly separable because in most societies parents start treating boy and girl babies differently from the moment of birth.

The central aim of this encyclopedia is to give the reader a comparative perspective on issues involving conceptions of gender, gender differences, gender roles, relationships between the genders, and sexuality. We do this in two ways. First, we have invited scholars to write comparative overviews about what may be universal, what is variable, and to discuss theory and research that might explain those patterns. Second, each of 82 specific cultural articles provides a "portrait" of what it is like for boys and girls to grow up and become men and women in that society. Some societies have other gender classes and where these occur, or where boys and girls can cross into other roles, these are discussed. Our portraits also discuss important male-female relationships and a culture's sexual attitudes and practices. We deliberately chose to include cultures from the widest possible spectrums—from egalitarian to stratified, from foragers to intensive agriculturalists, from those with kin groups structured around males to those structured around females, from those where the status of women and men is relatively equal to those where status is mostly unequal. We also have cultures from every major geographical region. The combination of topical overviews and varying cultural portraits is what makes this encyclopedia unique.

The topical overviews are divided into four sections. The first deals with cultural conceptions of gender (Cultural Constructions of Gender, and Gender Stereotypes). The second explores observed differences between males and females in behavior and personality and asks what biological and/or social factors may explain those differences (Biological Bases of Gender Differences, Socialization of Boys and Girls in Natural Contexts, Adolescence, and Personality and Emotion). The third section deals with more institutionalized aspects of gender—gender roles, life-cycle transitions, status, and social institutions that relate to gender (Courtship and Marriage, Parental Roles, Economic Activities and Gender Roles, Leadership, Power, and Gender, War and Gender, Religion, Religiosity, and Gender, Gender-Based Social Groups, Relative Status of Men and Women, Economic Development and Gender, Language and Gender, Transitions in the Life-Course of Women). The fourth section deals with sexuality and male-female interaction (Sexual Attitudes and Practices, Modesty and Sexual Restraint, Husband-Wife Interaction and Aloofness, Homosexuality, Transgender and Transsexuality, and Rape and Other Sexual Aggression). Some of the articles in a section deal with topics that overlap other sections.

To facilitate comparison across cultures, the cultural portraits follow a standard set of topics so that readers may readily compare across cultures. Most of the authors are anthropologists or other social scientists who have lived with the people they write about and are able to give a vivid portrait of life in that society.

The term "gender" in a title or subtitle of a work often suggests today that the work is primarily about women. We have deliberately included the words "men" and "women" in our subtitle to convey that this reference work deals with the roles and status of women and men in many cultures and with how they relate to each other. This is another quality that makes this encyclopedia unique.

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