Sex refers to the physiological, biological characteristics of a person, with a focus on sexual reproductive traits, wherein males have male sexual traits (penis, testes, sperm) and females have female sexual traits (vagina, ovaries, eggs). Meanwhile, gender is a more complex concept that refers to an individual's or society's understanding of what it means to look, feel, and act feminine, masculine, androgynous, or something else altogether. Gender is made up of social constructs that affect one's personal gender identity and expression, and how that expression is perceived by others.

With the use of hormone replacement therapy or sex reassignment surgery, a person's sex can be altered considerably, though not entirely (e.g., at the chromosomal level). Gender is not so easily or clearly changed, if it can be changed at all, as it is a part of one's psychological identity within a culture. The expression of this identity — e.g., what kinds of clothes, men's or women's, a person wears, regardless of what they feel like wearing — may be altered, however. See also Transgender vs. Transsexual.

Comparison chart

Gender versus Sex comparison chart
Edit this comparison chartGenderSex
About An individual's or society's understanding of what it means to look, feel, and act feminine or masculine. Social constructs that affect one's personal gender identity and expression, and how that expression is perceived by others. The physiological, biological characteristics of a person, with a focus on sexual reproductive traits, wherein males have male sexual traits (penis, testes, sperm) and females have female sexual traits (vagina, ovaries, eggs).
What It Affects Gender identity, gender expression, and gender roles. The way someone looks, physiologically, and ability to procreate sexually. Affects chromosomes.
Types Many possible and so sometimes known as a "non-binary" concept. Most common gender is cisgender. Other genders may include trans*, genderqueer, third gender, etc. Male, female, or intersex. Sometimes called a "binary" concept because there are primarily two sex types (male or female).
Examples Gender-based constructs: Blue for boys, pink for girls. Skirts for women, pants for men. Men as leaders, women as followers. Male sex traits (penis, testes, sperm). Menstrual leave for females in parts of Asia.
Changeable? Difficult, if not impossible to change, as it is a part of someone's psychological identity. Can be expressed contrary to how one feels, though (e.g., wearing men's clothing when wanting to wear women's). To varying degrees with hormone replacement therapy and/or sex reassignment surgery.
Disorders Gender identity disorder (a.k.a., gender dysphoria). Intersex conditions, sexual dysfunction, paraphilias, sexually-transmitted diseases.

Understanding Gender vs. Sex

During prenatal care with the use of a sonogram, or at birth, newborns are assigned a sex — either male or female — according to their external genitalia. In some cases, babies present ambiguous or multiple sex characteristics. These children are categorized as intersex, or parents and/or doctors assign a sex to them, though the latter practice has fallen out of favor in recent years.

Over time, children, teens, and adults grow an internal sense of self that includes a gender identity. This psychological identity is what makes someone, regardless of sex, feel like a girl/woman or like a boy/man on the inside. This is a completely internal trait that may or may not be outwardly expressed. Most people's gender identity is congruent with their sex — as in, most males will personally identify as boys or men, and most females will personally identify as girls or women.

How someone chooses to present themselves within their culture as either masculine or feminine is gender expression. A person can either express their gender in a way that conforms with societal norms (its gender roles) or goes against those norms. How gender is expressed, and what gender roles exist as a result, varies from place to place. A woman wearing makeup and a skirt in the U.S. expresses femininity within American culture. However, a man wearing the same makeup and skirt in the U.S. is said to be cross-dressing; he is still a man, but he is expressing what is typically thought of as effeminate within American culture. Many cultures often reinforce ideas about what the majority consider to be "appropriate" gender expressions, and usually ideas about how the masculine and feminine should be seen as separate (see gender binary).

Finally, sexual orientation refers to the romantic or sexual feelings a person has toward another. Heterosexuality, or attraction to the opposite sex or gender, and homosexuality, attraction to the same sex or gender, are some of the most widely recognized forms of sexuality, though there is also bisexuality, asexuality, and pansexuality. Many studies have found human sexuality, particularly in women, is on a spectrum and may even be fluid, depending on the situation.[1][2]

It is also important to understand that sexual orientation, though interconnected with the broader concepts of sex and gender, can also be subtly different. For example, someone who is born male (sex), but identifies as a woman (gender identity) and outwardly appears feminine (gender expression), may romantically and sexually desire men or women (sexual orientation). In other words, it is possible for a transgender person to be heterosexual or homosexual.[3]

Diagrams showing the relationships between concepts of sex and gender. Image from Center for Gender Sanity.
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Diagrams showing the relationships between concepts of sex and gender. Image from Center for Gender Sanity.

How Many Genders Are There?

There are three distinct types of biological sex: male, female, and intersex. Males and females have male and female sex anatomies and characteristics, respectively. Chromosomally, males have one X chromosome and one Y chromosome, while females have two X chromosomes. Male- and female-sexed humans make up the vast majority of all humans, which is why biological sex is sometimes understood to be a "binary," either/or system.

A third, less common form of biological sex is intersex, an umbrella term used for individuals who have both male and female biological or anatomical characteristics, or ambiguous physical or developmental traits. They may have one chromosome (e.g., Turner syndrome) or even three or more chromosomes (e.g., Klinefelter syndrome).[4] There are several different intersex conditions, and the extent to which they affect a person's life varies.

Because ideas about gender are largely shaped by culture, there may be as few as two generally accepted and recognized genders in a society — or many more. On the personal level, there's truly no limit to how people may perceive gender within themselves and how it affects them. For this reason, gender is understood to be "non-binary" system.[5]

Throughout most of the world, biological sex (male/female), gender identity (man/woman), and gender expression (feminine/masculine) are used interchangeably, and for the majority of people this is true and what is known as being cisgender — that is, a person's sex is the same, as in cis, or closely corresponds to, the socially acceptable norms for his or her sex. However, cisgender is simply the most common form of gender, not the only form. In the U.S., for example, 0.5-2% of all Americans identify as transgender.[6]

Some alternative gender identities or labels include transgender or trans*, third gender, agender or genderless, genderqueer, and two-spirit. Whether these genders are accepted within a society, and therefore are at all countable, often depends on a number of political, religious, ethical, and moral factors. Norms also change frequently over time.

Sex and Gender Around the World

The differences between gender and sex are apparent not only at the local scale, but also in differences seen between national cultures. What is considered "normal" gender expression in one place is not necessarily considered "normal" in another.

Many cultures, including American culture, have historically treated children as being somewhat or entirely genderless until puberty. The picture above is of American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, wearing a dress as a child — as was the norm at the time for American boys under the age of 6 or 7. Image from Smithsonian.
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Many cultures, including American culture, have historically treated children as being somewhat or entirely genderless until puberty. The picture above is of American President Franklin D. Roosevelt, wearing a dress as a child — as was the norm at the time for American boys under the age of 6 or 7. Image from Smithsonian.

Examples of Gender

Examples of Sex

Common Conditions and Disorders

The DSM-5 and ICD-10 recognize the existence or gender dysphoria (a.k.a., gender identity disorder, or GID). GID occurs in those who are discontent with the sex of gender they have been assigned to since birth; this disorder can lead to anxiety, depression, and even suicide. As a disorder, GID can encompass both psychological and physiological symptoms.

There is a much wider array of sex conditions and disorders. Sex conditions include any negative symptoms that occur as a result of sexual anatomy or sexual desire. This includes intersex conditions, many of which leave individuals infertile; sexually-transmitted infections, like chlamydia; painful sex or male and female sexual dysfunction; and even paraphilias (e.g., pedophilia and many kinds of fetishes) and sex addiction.[21]

Defining and diagnosing the more psychological of sexual disorders and sexual preferences can be difficult, and psychologists and psychiatrists have somewhat distanced themselves from the practice in recent decades. For example, homosexuality, which is now largely considered "normal" in a number of countries around the world, was once — and sometimes still is — labeled a disorder, resulting in "treatments," such as chemical castration and conversion therapy (a.k.a., reparative therapy or ex-gay therapy).

References

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