While the terms are often used interchangeably, a person’s sex and a person’s gender are two entirely different aspects of their identity. Someone’s sex refers to their biological characteristics, such as their reproductive organs that they are born with. Alternatively, gender encapsulates the social, behavioral, and cultural factors of someone’s sexual identity.
What Is Sex?
Sex is medically defined as the distinguishing biological features of a person that they are born with. This is also known as sex assigned at birth. In essence, the male and female sexes are differentiated by their associated internal and external bodily characteristics. One’s reproductive organs and chromosomes can play a role in how their physical features develop and are perceived by others.1,2,3
The following are the three categories of sex:
- Female: The female anatomy includes a set of XX chromosomes and a multitude of reproductive structures (uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes, etc.). A person who is born female will menstruate and produce eggs used for the development of a fetus. Their body will produce higher estrogen levels after puberty.
- Male: A male will possess an XY set of chromosomes, a different group of reproductive organs (prostate glands, testicles, etc.), and their body will produce higher testosterone levels after puberty.
- Intersex: Someone born as intersex has a combination of both male and female sexual organs, their chromosomes may vary from XX or XY, and their body may produce varied levels of hormones.
Sex vs. Sexuality
Whereas a person’s sex is determined at birth, sexuality refers to one’s sexual, physical, and emotional attraction to others. A person can be attracted to any or all of the sexes at once; someone could also experience an absence of sexual attraction towards others (asexuality). Moreover, unlike sex, a person’s sexual orientation can be fluid and change over time. In short, think of sexuality as a spectrum and sex as a certainty.
What Is Gender?
Gender is difficult to define, as it encompasses a wide array of socially and culturally constructed characteristics of sex.4 There are many elements that influence gender, including one’s gender identity and expression. A person’s gender is often interpreted by others, from the clothes they wear to their mannerisms, and other forms of expression. Like sexuality, gender can change throughout a person’s life and is based on self-perception and cultural expectations.
Gender identity is one’s personal perception of themselves as being male, female, or somewhere in-between; someone may identify with their assigned sex or they may not. A person may experience the absence of gender, as well, meaning that they neither identify as male or female. However, determining this can be difficult, as someone may experience distress from the discrepency between their designated sex and their identity, also known as gender dysphoria.
The following are common terms used to describe gender identity*:
- Cis/cisgender: A person who is cisgender identifies exclusively with their biological sex
- Gender non-conforming: This is a term that refers to those who do not view their gender as conforming to cultural or societal expectations and/or norms.
- Nonbinary/Genderqueer: Someone who is nonbinary feels that their gender can’t be categorized as only masculine or feminine. Rather, they think of themselves as a mixture of both.
- Genderfluid: Some may identify as genderfluid if they wave between genders and do not feel attached to one particular identity.
- Trans/transgender: When a person is transgender, their identity does not correspond with the sex they were assigned at birth. For example, someone who was born female will identify as a male.
*There are many terms and labels that can be used to describe gender identity and the terms listed are examples of more common terms, not an all inclusive list.
Gender expression is a term used to represent how a person demonstrates their chosen gender to the world. The way they dress, behave, and interact with others can all inform someone’s gender expression. Much of this identity may be influenced by the culture in which a person grows up and lives. For example, here in the United States, a traditional clothing item worn by women is the skirt. When we see a person wearing a skirt, we may automatically assume that they were born as or identify as a woman. However, in Scotland a biological male who identifies as such may wear a kilt as part of celebrating his cultural heritage.
Colors can play a large role in gender expression, too, as different colors have been used as a means of identifying one’s sex for years. For instance, pink has often been associated with femininity and blue with masculinity. In a Dutch study, researchers found that birth announcement cards manufactured between the years of 1940 and 2019 utilized this color stereotyping. Cards announcing the birth of a boy were predominantly composed of blue hues, as opposed to the pink schemes of those for baby girls.5 Essentially, a person may incorporate traditional representations of the sexes into their gender expression to align with their identity. Or, they may choose to completely divulge from this and embrace both sides, incorporating elements from both sexes.
Gender vs. Sex
While one’s gender is not necessarily determined by biology, their sex is. Gender is dependent upon a person’s self-perceptions and expressions. Someone may choose to utilize the culturally created elements of their designated sex, or abandon them altogether. A person’s gender can alter as they age, grow, and experience new things in life. On the other hand, sex is a term that is used primarily for the defining of a person’s physical and bodily characteristics. Sometimes, these two terms can overlap, like when describing a cisgender man or woman.
Sex and gender have repeatedly been used in tandem by society without being recognized as two very different concepts. The more we understand about sex and gender, the better we can communicate with, validate, and appreciate one another’s individuality.