Effeminacy is the manifestation of traits in a boy or man that are more often associated with feminine nature, behavior, mannerism, style or gender roles rather than with masculine nature, behavior, mannerisms, style or roles. It is a term frequently applied to womanly behavior, demeanor, style, clothing and appearance displayed by a boy or man, typically used implying criticism or ridicule of this behavior (as opposed to, for example, merely describing a man 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 masculine traits and behaviors. 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 women. 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 citizens who were men) 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 accoutrements of appearance, which were often associated with trappings of nobility or aristocratic aspirations, such as 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 boys or men. In other societies, by contrast, effeminate boys or men 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, some see effeminacy to be a characteristic or trait, 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 boy or man 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.
Effeminate comes from the Latin effeminātus, from ex which is "out," and femina which means woman; it means "to be like a woman." Another Latin term is mollities, meaning "softness."
In ancient Koine Greek, the word for effeminate is κίναιδος kinaidos (cinaedus in its Latinized form), or μαλακοί malakoi: a man "whose most salient feature was a supposedly "feminine" love of being sexually penetrated by other men." κίναιδος = κινώ + αιδώς (κινώ means move & αιδώς means shame), so in the end κίναιδος is someone who makes other people feel ashamed because of his actions, mostly for sexual preferences.
"A cinaedus is a man who cross-dresses or flirts like a girl. Indeed, the word's etymology suggests an indirect sexual act emanating a promiscuous woman. This term has been borrowed from the Greek kinaidos (which may itself have come from a language of Ionian Greecs 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."
Other vernacular words for effeminacy include: "pansy", "nelly", "pretty boy", "nancy boy", "molly", "sissy", "pussy", and "girl" (when applied to a boy or, especially, adult man). Contrastingly, a masculine girl would be called a "tomboy", "butch", or "dyke". The word effete similarly means effeminacy or over-refinement, but comes from the Latin effetus, from ex- and fetus "fruitful".
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's (Aeschines') proof that a member of the prosecution against him, Timarchus, had prostituted himself to (or been "kept" by) another man 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."
Demosthenes is also implicated in passive homosexuality and the prostitution of youth: "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."
The late Greek 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", in same-gender sex was considered effeminate and unnatural. Touching the head with a finger and wearing a goatee were also considered effeminate.
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?"
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."
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," and Seneca adds, "If I must suffer illness, it will be my wish to do nothing out of control, nothing effeminately."
Emperor/philosopher Julian the Apostate, in his Against the Galileans, wrote: ''Why the Egyptians are more intelligent and more given to crafts, and the Syrians unwarlike and effeminate, but at the same time intelligent, hot-tempered, vain and quick to learn?''
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".
Emperor Marcus Aurelius evidently considered effeminacy an undesirable trait, but it is unclear as to what or who was being referred.
Malakos is listed among other vices in the New Testament book of I Corinthians 6:9. Translations use different terms to express this. The online Greek Interlinear Bible uses Strongs concordance (last corrected in 2008) translates Malakoi as "Catamites", and Arsenokoitia as "sodomites". 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".
In most cultures, effeminacy is traditionally considered a vice or a weakness indicative of other negative character traits and often involving a negative insinuation of homosexual tendencies. 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:
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.
In the United States, boys are often homosocial, and gender role performance determines social rank. 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 men, the rate of noncompliance was 25 percent. Saghir and Robins (1973, 18) found that one-third of their gay man 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 and "de-feminise".
Prior to the Stonewall riots, inconsistent gender role performance had been noticed among gay men: "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.'"
Pre-Stonewall "closet" culture accepted homosexuality as effeminate behaviour, and thus emphasized camp, drag, and swish including an interest in fashion and decorating. Masculine gay men were marginalised and formed their own communities, such as the leather subculture and Western, and/or wore clothes that were commonly associated with working-class individuals, such as sailor uniforms.
Post-Stonewall, "clone culture" became dominant and effeminacy was at the time marginalised. One indicator of this is a definite preference shown in personal ads for masculine-behaving men.
The avoidance of effeminacy by men, including gay ones, has been linked to possible impedance of personal and public health. Regarding HIV/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 HIV/AIDS than men.
David Halperin 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 effeminiphobia (sometimes effemiphobic, as used by Randy P. Conner, or femmephobia) was coined by Will Fellows to describe strong anti-effeminacy. Michael Bailey coined the similar term femiphobia to describe the ambivalence gay men and culture have about effeminate behaviour in 1955. Gay author Tim Bergling popularized the term sissyphobia in Sissyphobia: Gay Men and Effeminate Behavior, although it was used before. Transsexual writer and biologist Julia Serano has coined the similar term effemimania.