Sexuality 101: Navigating Gender, Sex, and Sexual Orientation

Don't know the difference between "sex" and "gender"? Heard of the word "pansexual" but have no idea what it means?

Terms related to a person's sexuality can get quite confusing.

This is because a lot of people often use these terms incorrectly - for instance, people often use the terms "gender" and "sex" interchangeably. This article clears up a few misunderstandings about these terms; after reading this, you'll be one step closer to being an informed and socially-aware individual!

1. What is "sex"?

Someone's sex is determined by their biological characteristics. Most determine sex by their genitals (whether they have a penis or a vagina). However, you can also determine someone's sex by their chromosomal makeup (XX or XY) or their gonads (ovaries or testes). Most of the time, a human "female" has two X chromosomes, ovaries, and a vagina; a "male" has an X chromosome and a Y chromosome, testes, and a penis.

However, there ARE circumstances when an individual can have any combination of these biological aspects, and this may make determining someone's sex a little tricky. It's also important to note that there are genetic conditions where a person has neither an XX pair nor an XY pair. For example, Klinefelter's Syndrome is a condition in which a male has an extra X chromosome (XXY).

Hint: It may be useful to think of sex as "what's between your legs"!

 

2. What is "gender"?

Someone's gender is determined solely by how they feel - an individual can "feel" more like a woman or more like a man. Or they can feel like both, neither, or any range in between. It's important to realize that gender isn't binary. That is, there are more genders that exist outside of the two (man or woman) that our society constructs.

So, what do the terms "transgender" and "cis-gender" mean?

The term "transgender" is used when someone's sex is not the same as their gender identity.  For example, a person can be biologically male and identify as a woman; likewise, a biological female can identify as a man. The term "cis-gender" is used when someone’s biologically-assigned sex parallels their gender identity (the prefix "cis-" means same!). For example, a woman is "cis-gender" if she is biologically female and identifies as a woman.

Some people are "gender fluid" - that is, their feeling of woman-ness and man-ness varies and they prefer not to identify as a fixed gender.

Basically, gender has to do with how the person feels they are and how they would identify as.

Hint: It may useful to think of gender as "what's between your ears"!

 

3. What is "sexual orientation"?

Sexual orientation refers to whom someone is attracted. For instance, if you identify as a woman and are attracted to other women, you are considered homosexual; if you identify as a man and are attracted to both men and women, you are considered bisexual.

There are lots of other sexual orientations such as asexual (not sexually attracted to anyone) and pansexual (sexually attracted to any sex or gender, including non-conforming genders). It's also important to note that many people distinguish sexual attraction from romantic attraction.

I haven't covered all the terms that are related to sexuality, but I hope this article gave you a good starting point. Remember: human sexuality is complex. To appreciate its complexity, the first step is to learn more about it!

Author’s note: If you’re still confused, check out The Genderbread Person!

*None of the images used belong to Her Campus or the author.