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Effeminacy is a character trait of a male showing femininity, unmanliness, womanliness, weakness, softness and/or a delicacy, which contradicts traditional masculine/male gender roles. The term is used to describe feminine behavior, demeanor, and appearance. These judgments largely involve anti-gay stereotypes, and a positive correlation presumed between effeminacy and gay men. It is generally applied to individual men, but is sometimes used to describe entire societies, in a deliberately inflammatory generalized allegation. Further, some individuals may call something (even an object) "gay" to indicate that it is seen to be effeminate.

Traditionally effeminacy is considered a vice, indicative of other negative character traits and more recently often involving a negative insinuation of homosexual tendencies. In contrast to this, effeminacy is seen by some to be simply one characteristic or trait which might be a part of a particular male's "gender role", and in this sense would not be considered a vice or indicative of any other characteristics.

The converse of effeminacy in women is masculinity. An informal term for masculine women is "butch", which is associated with lesbianism. "Butch" is also used within the lesbian community, often without a negative connotation, but sometimes with a more specific meaning (Davis and Lapovsky Kennedy, 1989). Note, again, that the adoption of attitudes normally associated with the opposite sex is perceived as a sign of homosexuality.

Sociologist Janet Saltzman Chafetz (1974, 35-36) describes seven areas of traditional masculinity:

  • 1. Physical--virile, athletic, strong, brave. Sloppy, worry less about appearance and aging
  • 2. Functional--breadwinner, provider
  • 3. Sexual--sexually aggressive, experienced. Single status acceptable; male "caught" by spouse
  • 4. Emotional--unemotional, stoic, don't cry
  • 5. Intellectual--logical, intellectual, rational, objective, scientific, practical, mechanical, public awareness, activity, contributes to society; dogmatic
  • 6. Interpersonal--leader, dominating; disciplinarian; independent, free, individualistic; demanding
  • 7. Other Personal Characteristics--aggressive, success-orientated, ambitious; proud, egotistical, ambitious; moral, trustworthy; decisive, competitive, uninhibited, adventurous. (Levine, 1998, p.13)

Social scientists Deborah David and Robert Brannon (1976) give the following four rules for establishing masculinity:

  • 1. No Sissy Stuff: anything that even remotely hints of feminity is prohibited. A real man must avoid any behavior or characteristic associated with women
  • 2. Be a Big Wheel: masculinity is measured by success, power, and the admiration of others. One must possess wealth, fame, and status to be considered manly
  • 3. Be a Sturdy Oak: manliness requires rationality, toughness, and self-reliance. A man must remain calm in any situation, show no emotion, and admit no weakness
  • 4. Give 'em Hell: men must exude an aura of daring and aggression, and must be willing to take risks, to "go for it" even when reason and fear suggest otherwise. (Levine, 1998, p.145)

Acceptance and intolerance by society

In most cultures, effeminacy is traditionally considered, if not a vice, at least a weakness, indicative of other negative character traits and more recently often involving a negative insinuation of homosexual tendencies. However, there have been times in history when behaviors that would now be considered effeminate were considered normal behavior in certain parts of society (see for instance the demeanor and clothing of the minions of the court of Henry III of France).

In the US, boys are 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 their male homosexual subjects practiced gender-inappropriate behaviour in childhood. Among their heterosexual males, the rate of noncompliance was 25 percent. And 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-feminize" (Harry 1982, 20; Saghir and Robins 1973, 18-19). (Levine, 1998, p.15-16)

At least before the Stonewall riots, inconsistent gender role performance has 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 [sic] suddenly smile roguishly, soften their voices, and simper as they greeted homosexual [sic] 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 apologized, 'it is hard to always remember that one is a man.'" (Stearn 1962, 29) (Levine, 1998, p.21-23)

This may be explained in that pre-Stonewall closet culture accepted homosexuality as effeminacy, 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 acting gay men did exist but were marginalized (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 marginalized, with, for instance, a definite preference for masculine-behaving men shown in personal ads (Bailey et al 1997).

The avoidance of effeminacy by most men, including gay ones, may impede personal and public health. Regarding AIDS, masculine behaviour includes being unconcerned, especially unworried, about ones health, and promiscuous sexual behaviour, and 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 "universalizing" and "minoritizing" 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) coined the term sissyphobia.


  • Etymology

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

A Greek word that approaches one modern meaning of effeminate is kinaidos (or cinaedus), a man "whose most salient feature was a supposedly "feminine" love of being sexually penetrated by other men." (Winkler, 1990) However, "cinaedus is not actually anchored in that specific sexual practice....It refers instead to a man who has an identity as gender deviant." (Williams, 1999) Kinaidos is malakos, but malakos is more general effeminacy (Martin, 1996). Furthermore, a "boy" is not necessarily generally considered motived by taking pleasure in penetration, but rather is gratifying (charizesthai) the normative masculine desire of an older male (Halperin, 2002).

"A cinaedus is a man who fails to live up to traditional standards of masculine comportment. Indeed, the word's etymology suggests no direct connection to any sexual practice. Rather, borrowed from Greek kinaidos (which may itself have been a borrowing from a language of Asia Minor), it primarily signifies an 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 contemporary words for effeminacy include: "pansy", "nelly", "pussy", and "girl" (when applied to a boy or, especially, adult man). Contrastingly, a masculine girl would be called a "tomboy" or, less commonly, anti-gay slurs. The word effete similarly means effeminacy or over-refinement but comes from the Latin effetus, from ex- + fetus (fruitful).

Ancient Greece and Rome

Among Ancient Mediterranean masculinity was considered a difficult accomplishment. For more and/or different information see: Classical definition of effeminacy.


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' proof that a member of the prosecution against him, Timarkhos, had prostituted himself to (or been "kept" by) another male while young, 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 early 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 relatives merits of women and boys as vehicles of male sexual pleasure." Callicratidus, "far from being effeminized 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 effeminizing 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 possession, the company of women, certain trades, and too much coitus with women were all deemed effeminizing. Taking an inappropriate sexual position, that is passive or "bottom" (kinaidos, see above), in same-gender sex was considered effeminate and unnatural in much the same way that taking any position in same-gender sex is disparaged today. 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) Note the word play on men and wine, vinosus/virosus.

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)

The Bible Malakos is listed among other vices 1 Cor. 6:9. "The JB (1966) chooses 'catamite,' the NAB (1970) renders arsenokoités and malakos together as 'sodomite,' others translate malakos as 'male prostitute' (NIV 1973, NRSV 1989), and again some combine both terms and offer the modem medicalized categories of sexual, or particularly homosexual, 'perversion' (RSV 1946, TEV 1966, NEB 1970, REB 1992)." (Martin, 1996)

United States

  • To strengthen the argument of the "mechanics", Thomas Jefferson said something similar to Xenophon (see above):
  • "The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body. I consider the class of artificers as the panderers of vice, and the instruments by which the liberties of a country are generally overturned." (8)
  • Being friends with women, having limp or loose wrists, a high and/or lispy voice, a swaying walk, occupations including waiting tables and hairdressing, and hobbies and interests such as theater, musicals, or "domestic" activities such as design, sewing, or cleaning, are all often considered effeminate.


  • On Virtues and Vices, Aristotle, trans. H. Rackham, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, l992. 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 0452010675.
  • 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] (http://www.clgs.org/5/5_4_3.html)
  • Holland, Tom (2004). Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic. Doubleday. ISBN 038550313X.
  • Halperin, David M. (2002). How To Do The History of Homosexuality, p.125. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226314472.
  • K.J. Dover, (1989). Greek Homosexuality. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674362705.
  • Levine, Martin P. (1998). Gay Macho. New York: New York University Press. ISBN 0814746942.
    • 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: University of Indiana 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 1560239905.
    • 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.

*Some information provided in whole or in part by http://en.wikipedia.org/