Differentiating Sex and Gender

Sex and gender, two words that hold such weight in our identities and our society. But, what really is sex and gender? How can two closely-knitted concepts function so differently from each other? For a large portion of our population, sex and gender are synonymous within their identity. Their biological makeup reflects how they identify. But, for others, sex and gender are gray areas within a spectrum, never falling completely at one end or the other.

When people differentiate sex and gender, sex generally refers to the biological differences between males and females based on primary and secondary sex characteristics. Gender is how strongly one identifies with a certain gender role (i.e., man, woman) determined by societal and cultural conditions. Despite distinct differences, gender is often assumed based on one’s sex and vice versa. For instance, babies are instantly given a gender that “matches” their sex. While I’m not preaching for all babies to remain gender neutral until they cognitively grasp the concept of gender, there needs to be more awareness and open mindedness regarding the separation of sex and gender.

(Photo by Kirsty Lee on Unsplash)

By now, the concept of more than two sexes and two genders is becoming less stigmatized. More than two sexes, you ask? A population that does not receive enough representation is intersex individuals, those who experience a wide range of genetic variation in their sex characteristics. Intersex individuals do not fall perfectly into the box for “male” or the box for “female”, usually demonstrating sex characteristics from both. Often, the physical appearance of these individuals is unnecessarily surgically altered shortly after birth in order to be raised a little more “normal”. It is not surprising this can create psychological issues resulting from trauma down the road. Without the child’s consent, their life is forever changed with the risk of sterilization, lifelong hormone therapies, and the possibility of parents and doctors choosing the wrong sex. By representing and bringing awareness to the intersex community in a positive light, doctors and parents will face less pressure to try to “fix” their child and allow for more validation of growing up intersex.

Similar to sexual orientation, modern views on gender identity place it on a spectrum, rather than strictly ‘boy’ or ‘girl’. Society is beginning to understand the concept of gender fluidity; gender-fluid individuals express themselves in a variety of masculine and feminine ways. Some people are even agender where they lack gender. To those who have always strongly identified with their gender and never faced gender dysphoria (feeling as though one’s gender does not align with their biological sex), these ideas may be foreign and confusing. Our society does not do enough to represent these individuals, especially in mass media, where a lot of our social learning occurs.

Gender roles are so ingrained into culture that it is just how we are raised. For instance, in the US, we perform surgeries to “correct” intersex individuals; in India, intersex is highly valued as a third gender believed to hold spiritual abilities. As culture changes over time, the way we perceive those who don’t perfectly fit into our boxes of male/man and female/woman will change as well. Society has made a lot of progress with even acknowledging these individuals exist and giving them a platform to share their story. All we can do is educate ourselves and those around us in hopes of continuing to move forward.