In most cultures, effeminacy was 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.
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 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.
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) 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.
A Greek word that approaches one modern meaning of effeminate is kinaidos (cinaedus in its Latinized form), 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). The Greek word for an effeminate man is μαλακός – malakos (literally "soft"), which is still used in modern Greek in that derogatory sense. Furthermore, a "boy" is not generally considered to be motivated by the pleasure of penetration itself, but rather 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 anti-gay slurs. The word effete similarly means effeminacy or over-refinement, but comes from the Latin effetus, from ex- + fetus (fruitful).
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.'"
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)