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Gender, Sex & Sexuality 101

Picture this. You’re walking down the street and you see a person. As soon as you spotted this stranger, your brain placed them into a category; male or female. Every brain does this, even if you tell said brain not to. But what isn’t often thought of is that genital anatomy is only one way to identify an individual because actually, there are precisely three different things we should consider when discussing the identity of a person: their sex, their sexuality and their gender. The issue is that many confuse gender, sex and sexuality as synonyms when clearly this is not the case. Please feel free to refer to the oh-so-helpful “Genderbread Person” diagram at the bottom of this paragraph for help along the way. Here we go! 

The definition of a person’s sex is, “Either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and many other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions.” Although many people, myself included, will argue that more than two sexes exist, because 1 in 1,500 babies are born intersexed or with ambiguous genitalia (Dreger, 1998), my true focus is not the binary of sex. My focus is that sex is based on reproductive function or genital anatomy (Newman, 2016). Humans and all living things are born with a sex, and this sex is how they perform reproductive tasks. Sex is physiological and is determined by genetics (e.g. XX, XY).

Gender, on the other hand, is much more fluid and less rigid in design. As the World Health Organization defines it, “Gender refers to the socially constructed characteristics of women and men, such as norms, roles and relationships of and between groups of women and men. It varies from society to society and can be changed.” Gender is the way individuals identify themselves as more masculine or more feminine, and while a certain gender is often linked to a certain sex, gender and sex are not dependent on each other. This is because gender is not innate to human life and is really quite arbitrary (Mey, 2014). Gender is a process. Meaning that rather than it being something you naturally possess, it is something you do every day. For instance, I wake up and put on makeup. In that instance, I am gendering myself as a woman.

Sexuality is probably the most straightforward of the three, and it simply is defined as “a person’s sexual orientation or preference.” Sexuality is also commonly referred to as an individual’s sexual orientation. While sexuality in and of itself is not simple because there are so many different things to which a person can be attracted, it is simple in the fact that it is not commonly confused with physical sex or gender. A person’s sexuality also refers to how interested or uninterested a person is in sex, formally known as asexuality (What is sexuality?, 2016). Similarly, sexuality also encompasses how interested or uninterested a person is in romanticism. It is important to note that sometimes the word sexuality is used as a term to describe all the aspects of a person’s identity in regards to sex, like a sort of package that includes physical sex, sexual orientation, and gender all in one.

Identifying a person is so much more complex than just taking note of their physical sex; one must take into consideration their gender and their sexuality. While it is easy to fall into the mind trap that sex, sexuality and gender are indicative of one another (meaning that a certain sex should predict a certain sexuality etc.), this is really not the case. The key to being truly open minded about individual differences among people is to not make assumptions about the way a person lives purely based on your perception of their physical sex, sexuality or gender. 

 

Photos: 1, 2, 3, 4

References

Dreger, A. D. (1998). Ambiguous Sex—or Ambivalent Medicine? Ethical Issues in the Treatment of Intersexuality. Hastings Center Report, 24-35.

Mey. (2014, June 5). It’s Time For People to Stop Using the Social Construct of “Biological Sex” to Defend Their Transmisogyny. Retrieved from Auto Straddle: http://www.autostraddle.com/its-time-for-people-to-stop-using-the-social…

Newman, T. (2016, March 24). Sex & Gender: What’s The Difference? Retrieved from Medical News Today: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/232363.php

What is sexuality? (2016, March 22). Retrieved from Reach Out: http://au.reachout.com/what-is-sexuality

 

 

Isabella is a student at the University of Iowa majoring in both Psychology and Gender, Women, & Sexuality Studies with a minor in Human Relations. She is a self proclaimed cheesecake enthusiast, flower child, and feminist. Isabella is low key obsessed with Cosmo and one of her life's ambitions is to have an article published by their online magazine. If she were a Sex & The City character she would be Miranda, because not everyone can be Carrie.
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