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Effeminacy describes traits in a human male that are more often associated with feminine nature, behaviour, mannerisms, style or gender roles rather than masculine nature, behaviour, mannerisms, style or roles.

It is a term frequently applied to womanly behavior, demeanor, style and appearance displayed by a male, typically used implying criticism or ridicule of this behaviour (as opposed to, for example, merely describing a male as feminine, which can be non-judgmental). The term effeminate is most often used by people who subscribe to the widespread view that males should display traditional masculine traits and behaviours. Generally, the description is applied to individuals, but may be used to describe entire societies as an inflammatory allegation.

Until the modern period, "effeminacy" in the Western tradition referred to a complicated intersection of both social (or civic) and sexual identities typically associated with females.

The ancient Greeks, for example, described whole societies as effeminate (malakia) if they were characterized by a slavish, deferential, or autocratic political culture. Here, it was the form of sexual relationships, but not the fact of homosexual relations (which were not uncommon among Greek male citizens) that was critical to the sexual dimension of the term. And among early modern partisans of the republican tradition, the term might be applied to those who were preoccupied with "womanly" concerns, such as the accouterments of appearance, which were often associated with trappings of nobility or aristocratic aspirations, such ostentatious dress, decadence in consumption habits, and rigid adherence to the proprieties or manners of social hierarchy. The reach of this "civic" understanding may be best illustrated in the work of early feminist and republican thinkers such as Mary Wollstonecraft, who described as "effeminate" the behavior of women who refused to embrace a more active presence in public life.

Since the 18th century, the civic dimension of gender identity has been eclipsed by the sexual dimension of gender identity, and today effeminacy has often been considered a vice, indicative of other negative character traits and often involving a pejorative insinuation of homosexual tendencies in men. In other societies, by contrast, effeminate males may be considered a distinct human gender (third gender), and may have a special social function, as is the case of Two-Spirits in some Native American groups. Furthermore, in contemporary culture, effeminacy has come to be seen by some to be simply one characteristic or trait which might be a part of a particular person's gender role, and in this sense would not be considered a vice or indicative of any other characteristics. An effeminate male is similar to a fop or a dandy, though these tend to be archaic identities that are taken on by the individual rather than insulting labels.

Social acceptance and intolerance

In most cultures, effeminacy is traditionally considered as a vice or a weakness indicative of other negative character traits and often involving a negative insinuation of homosexual tendencies or sexual passivity.

The definition of what constitutes effeminate behavior varies greatly depending on the social and cultural context, as well as on the time period. While some effeminate behavior evokes stereotypical impressions of homosexuality in some people, others may simply view the behavior as unmanly without questioning the sexual orientation of the person in question.

Examples of behavior noncompliant with conventional masculinity have included:

  • Interest in women's fashion.
  • Effusive emotional expressions among other males.
  • Cross-dressing or use of makeup.
  • Exhibition of stereotypically feminine mannerisms.

These examples have changed over time and will always vary depending on different contextual factors. During the Enlightenment period fashion prescribed stockings, elaborate knee-length robes and long wigs for men, things that would most certainly be considered unacceptable for men (and women) in contemporary society. During the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, men idolized the Renaissance Man who was skilled in all walks of life - a "real" man of this time was to be skilled in armed combat and knowledgeable of literature and art, among other things.

Effeminacy and heterosexual men

Darryl B. Hill has suggested in "Feminine" Heterosexual Men: Subverting Heteropatriarchal Sexual Scripts? that eschewing "traditional rigid 'masculine' gender roles in favor of more stereotypically 'feminine' gender roles and characteristics" allows straight males to "subvert overly restrictive heteropatriarchal sexual scripts, freeing both traditional and nontraditional men to explore ways of being sexual with women outside a dominant-submissive dialectic."[1] He argues that many straight effeminate males experience satisfying partnerships with women because the men's "feminine qualities may promote healthy and intimate relationships."[2] He notes that these qualities include being "'appreciative, gentle, and sympathetic'" and are demonstrative of traditionally "feminine" psychological attitudes of "'caring' and 'emotionality'."[3] Robert Heasley, writing in Crossing the Borders of Gendered Sexuality: Queer Masculinites of Straight Men, describes examples of similarly "feminine" heterosexual men who want "a woman who is attracted to a man who is open to expressing his feelings and listening to those of his partner" as 'queer-straight' males.[4] During the 1970s Jack Nichols and Warren Farrell proposed that it was "the fear of being called effeminate" and "the fear of becoming effeminate" that kept many men from becoming emotionally liberated.[5][6]

Effeminacy and gay men

In the United States, boys are often homosocial (Gagnon, 1977), and gender role performance determines social rank (David and Brannon, 1976). While gay boys receive the same enculturation, they are less compliant, Martin Levine summarizes: "Harry (1982, 51-52), for example, found that 42 percent of his gay respondents were 'sissies' during childhood. Only 11 percent of his heterosexual samples were gender role nonconformists. Bell, Weinberg, and Hammersmith (1981, 188) reported that half of their male homosexual subjects practiced gender-inappropriate behaviour in childhood. Among their heterosexual males, the rate of noncompliance was 25 percent. Saghir and Robins (1973, 18) found that one-third of their gay male respondents conformed to gender role dictates. Only 3 percent of their heterosexual men deviated from the norm." Thus effeminate boys, or sissies, are physically and verbally harassed (Saghir and Robins, 1973, 17-18; Bell, Weinberg, and Hammersmith 1981, 74-84), causing them to feel worthless (Harry 1982, 20) and "de-feminise" (Harry 1982, 20; Saghir and Robins 1973, 18-19). (Levine, 1998, p. 15-16)

Prior to the Stonewall riots, inconsistent gender role performance had been noticed among gay men (Karlen, 1978; Cory and LeRoy, 1963; Newton, 1972), "They have a different face for different occasions. In conversations with each other, they often undergo a subtle change. I have seen men who appeared to be normal suddenly smile roguishly, soften their voices, and simper as they greeted homosexual friends....Many times I saw these changes occur after I had gained a homosexual's confidence and he could safely risk my disapproval. Once as I watched a luncheon companion become an effeminate caricature of himself, he apologised, 'It is hard to always remember that one is a man.'" (Stearn 1962, 29) (Levine, 1998, p. 21-23)

There is a definite prejudice towards men who use femininity as part of their palate; their emotional palate, their physical palate. Is that changing? It’s changing in ways that don’t advance the cause of femininity. I’m not talking frilly-laced pink things or Hello Kitty stuff. I’m talking about goddess energy, intuition and feelings. That is still under attack, and it has gotten worse.

RuPaul, [7]

Pre-Stonewall "closet" culture accepted homosexuality as effeminate behaviour, and thus emphasized camp, drag, and swish including an interest in fashion (Henry, 1955; West, 1977) and decorating (Fischer 1972; White 1980; Henry 1955, 304). Masculine gay men did exist but were marginalised (Warren 1972, 1974; Helmer 1963) and formed their own communities, such as leather and Western (Goldstein, 1975), and/or donned working class outfits (Fischer, 1972) such as sailor uniforms (Cory and LeRoy, 1963). (Levine, 1998, p. 21-23, 56)

Post-Stonewall, "clone culture" became dominant and effeminacy is now marginalised. One indicator of this is a definite preference shown in personal ads for masculine-behaving men (Bailey et al. 1997).

The avoidance of effeminacy by men, including gay ones, has been linked to possible impedance of personal and public health. Regarding AIDS, masculine behaviour was stereotyped as being unconcerned about safe sex practices while engaging in promiscuous sexual behaviour. Early reports from New York City indicated that more women had themselves tested for AIDS than men. (Sullivan, 1987). (Levine, 1998, p. 148)

David Halperin (2002), compares "universalising" and "minoritising" notions of gender deviance: "'Softness' either may represent the specter of potential gender failure that haunts all normative masculinity, an ever-present threat to the masculinity of every man, or it may represent the disfiguring peculiarity of a small class of deviant individuals."

The term effeminaphobia was coined to describe strong anti-effeminacy. Michael Bailey (1995) coined the similar term femiphobia to describe the ambivalence gay men and culture have about effeminate behaviour. Author Tim Bergling (September 1997) also coined the term sissyphobia.



Effeminacy comes from the Latin ex which is "out," and femina which means woman; it means "to be like a woman." The Latin term is mollities, meaning "softness."

In ancient Koine Greek, the word for effeminate is kinaidos (cinaedus in its Latinized form), or malakoi. A man "whose most salient feature was a supposedly "feminine" love of being sexually penetrated by other men." (Winkler, 1990).

"A cinaedus is a man who cross-dresses or flirts like a girl. Indeed, the word's etymology suggests an indirect sexual act emenating a promisculous woman. This term has been borrowed from the Greek kinaidos (which may itself have come from a language of Ionian Greece of Asia Minor, primarily signifying a purely effeminate dancer who entertained his audiences with a tympanum or tambourine in his hand, and adopted a lascivious style, often suggestively wiggling his buttocks in such a way as to suggest anal intercourse....The primary meaning of cinaedus never died out; the term never became a dead metaphor." (Williams, 1999)

Other vernacular words for effeminacy include: "pansy", "nelly", "pretty boy", "sissy", "pussy", and "girl" (when applied to a boy or, especially, adult man). Contrastingly, a masculine girl would be called a "tomboy", "butch",. The word effete similarly means effeminacy or over-refinement, but comes from the Latin effetus, from ex- + fetus (fruitful).

Ancient Greece and Rome


Greek historian Plutarch recounts that Periander, the tyrant of Ambracia, asked his "boy", "Aren't you pregnant yet?" in the presence of other people, causing the boy to kill him in revenge for being treated as if effeminate or a woman (Amatorius 768F).

As part of Greek politician Aiskhines(Aeschines)' proof that a member of the prosecution against him, Timarkhos (Timarchus), had prostituted himself to (or been "kept" by) another male while young, he attributed fellow prosecutor Demosthenes' nickname Batalos ("arse") to his "unmanliness and kinaidiā and frequently commented on his "unmanly and womanish temper", even criticising his clothing: "If anyone took those dainty little coats and soft shirts off you ... and took them round for the jurors to handle, I think they'd be quite unable to say, if they hadn't been told in advance, whether they had hold of a man's clothing or a woman's." (Dover, 1989)

Demosthenes is also implicated in passive homosexuality and the prostitution of youth (Aiskhines iii 162): "There is a certain Aristion, a Plataean..., who as a youth was outstandingly good-looking and lived for a long time in Demosthenes' house. Allegations about the part he was playing [lit., 'undergoing or doing what'] there vary, and it would be most unseemly for me to talk about it." (Dover, 1989)

The late Greek (possibly c. fourth century), Erôtes ("Loves", "Forms of Desire", "Affairs of the Heart"), preserved with manuscripts by Lucian, contains a debate "between two men, Charicles and Callicratidas, over the relative merits of women and boys as vehicles of male sexual pleasure." Callicratidas, "far from being effeminised by his sexual predilection for boys...Callicratidas's inclination renders him hypervirile... Callicratidas's sexual desire for boys, then, makes him more of a man; it does not weaken or subvert his male gender identity but rather consolidates it." In contrast, "Charicles' erotic preference for women seems to have had the corresponding effect of effeminising him: when the reader first encounters him, for example, Charicles is described as exhibiting 'a skillful use of cosmetics, so as to be attractive to women.'"


Over-refinement, fine clothes and other possessions, the company of women, certain trades, and too much fondness with women were all deemed effeminate traits in Roman society. Taking an inappropriate sexual position—passive or "bottom" (kinaidos, see above)—in same-gender sex was considered effeminate and unnatural. Touching the head with a finger and wearing a goatee were also considered effeminate (Holland, 2004).

Roman consul Scipio Aemilianus questioned one of his opponents, P. Sulpicius Galus: "For the kind of man who adorns himself daily in front of a mirror, wearing perfume; whose eyebrows are shaved off; who walks around with plucked beard and thighs; who when he was a young man reclined at banquets next to his lover, wearing a long-sleeved tunic; who is fond of men as he is of wine: can anyone doubt that he has done what cinaedi are in the habit of doing?" (fr. 17 Malcovati; Aulus Gellius, 6.12.5; cited/translated by Williams 1999, p. 23)

Roman orator Quintilian described, "The plucked body, the broken walk, the female attire," as "signs of one who is soft [mollis] and not a real man." (Institutes 5.9.14, cited/translated by Richlin, 1993)

For Roman men masculinity also meant self-control, even in the face of painful emotions, illnesses, or death. Cicero says, "There exist certain precepts, even laws, that prohibit a man from being effeminate in pain," (Fin. 2.94) and Seneca adds, "If I must suffer illness, it will be my wish to do nothing out of control, nothing effeminately." (Epist. 67.4)

In his commentaries on the Gallic Wars, Julius Caesar wrote that the Belgians were the bravest of all Gauls, because "merchants least frequently resort to them, and import those things which tend to effeminate the mind". (Commentarii de Bello Gallico, I,1)

Emperor Marcus Aurelius evidently considered effeminacy an undesirable trait, but it is unclearto what or who was being referred (Meditations, Book 4).

The Bible

Malakos is listed among other vices in the New Testament book of I Corinthians 6:9. Translations use different terms to express this: "The JB (1966) chooses 'catamite,' the NAB (1970) renders arsenokoités and malakos together as 'sodomite,' others translate malakos as 'male prostitute' (NRSV 1989), and again some combine both terms and offer the modern medicalised categories of sexual, or particularly homosexual, 'perversion' (RSV 1946, TEV 1966, NEB 1970, REB 1992)." The online Greek Interlinear Bible uses Strongs concordance (last corrected in 2008) translates Malakoi as Catamites, and Arsenokoitia as sodomites. (Martin, 1996). The word malakos, #3120 in the Greek Dictionary of The New Testament of James Strong's Exhaustive Concordance to The Bible translates: "of uncertain affinity".

See also


  • On Virtues and Vices, Aristotle, trans. H. Rackham, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1992. Vol. #285
  • The Eudemian Ethics, Aristotle, trans. H. Rackham, Loeb Classical Library. Vol. #285
  • Oxford English Dictionary, 20 vol. It has 75 references in English literature of over 500 years of usage of the word 'effeminate'.
  • Davis, Madeline and Lapovsky Kennedy, Elizabeth (1989). "Oral History and the Study of Sexuality in the Lesbian Community", Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay & Lesbian Past (1990), Duberman, etc., eds. New York: Meridian, New American Library, Penguin Books. ISBN 0-452-01067-5.
  • Winkler, John J. (1990). The Constraints of Desire: The Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece. New York: Routledge.
  • Williams, Craig A. (1999). Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Martin, Dale B. (1996). "Arsenokoités and Malakos: Meanings and Consequences", Biblical Ethics & Homosexuality: Listening to Scripture, Robert L. Brawley, ed. Westminster John Knox Press. [1]
  • Holland, Tom (2004). Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic. Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-50313-X.
  • Halperin, David M. (2002). How To Do The History of Homosexuality, p. 125. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-31447-2.
  • K.J. Dover, (1989). Greek Homosexuality. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-36270-5.
  • Levine, Martin P. (1998). Gay Macho. New York: New York University Press. ISBN 0-8147-4694-2.
  • Darryl B. Hill, "Feminine" Heterosexual Men: Subverting Heteropatriarchal Sexual Scripts? (The Journal of Men's Studies, Spring 2006, Men's Studies Press; ISSN 1060-8265)
    • Gagnon, John H. (1977). Human Sexualities. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman.
    • David, Deborah S. and Brannon, Robert (1976). The Forty-Nine Percent Majority: The Male Sex Role. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.
    • Harry (1982). Gay Children Grown Up: Gender, Culture and Gender Deviance. New York: Praeger.
    • Bell, Weinberg, and Hammersmith (1981). Sexual Preference: Its Development in Men and Women. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
    • Saghir and Robins (1973).
    • Karlen, Arno (1978). "Homosexuality: The Scene and Its Student", The Sociology of Sex: An Introductory Reader, James M. Henslin and Edward Sagarin eds. New York: Schocken.
    • Cory, Donald W. and LeRoy, John P. (1963). The Homosexual and His Society: A View from Within. New York: Citadel Press.
    • Newton, Esther (1972). Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.
    • Stearn, Jess (1962). The Sixth Man. New York: MacFadden.
  • Bergling, Tim (2001). Sissyphobia: Gay Men and Effeminate Behavior. New York: Harrington Park Press. ISBN 1-56023-990-5.
    • Bailey, Michael; Kim, Peggy; Hills, Alex; and Linsenmeier, Joan (1997). "Butch, Femme, or Straight Acting? Partner Preferences of Gay Men and Lesbians.", Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(5), pp. 960–973.
    • Bergling, Tim (1997). "Sissyphobia", Genre, p. 53. September.
    • Bailey, Michael (1995). "Gender Identity", The Lives of Lesbians, Gays, and Bisexuals, p. 71-93. New York: Harcourt Brace.


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