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.
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.
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.
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). 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.
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.
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.
Examples of Gender
- There is nothing innately effeminate about the color pink, and yet in the U.S. and many other nations, pink is considered "delicate" and "feminine," while the color blue is considered "strong" and "masculine." This has led to a deep color-coding of children's toys and the "pinkwashing" of women's products and even causes for predominantly female health concerns, such as breast cancer. However, despite how entrenched this construct is within some societies, it is a fairly recent idea, having only come into existence in the early 1900s, when neutral-colored clothing became less common.
- Some languages are partly or wholly gender-neutral. They may not have gender-specific pronouns, like English does (e.g., she/he), grammatical gender, gender-specific titles (e.g., Ms./Miss/Mrs. and Mr.), or have gender-identifying words (e.g., congressman/congresswoman). Because of how gender-specific pronouns can exclude gender(s), the word they has sometimes come to be used as a singular pronoun in English-speaking regions. See also Their vs. There.
- Traditional gender roles are often enforced by the law in Saudi Arabia, where women are restricted from driving. Defying this law has resulted in months of jail time. Similar cultural norms there restrict women from doing a number of other tasks without a male "guardian."
- Prior to the effects of colonization, Native American tribes had a wide variety of ideas on gender. While some were roughly similar to European concepts, many others were not (and sometimes still are not).
- In places that have very restrictive gender roles, such as in Afghanistan and the aforementioned Saudi Arabia, subtle subversion of cultural norms is relatively common. In the book The Underground Girls of Kabul, journalist Jenny Nordberg uncovers a half-accepted, half-hidden practice of sonless Afghan families, wherein a daughter is "turned into" a bacha posh — meaning "dressed up like a boy" — until puberty to restore "honor" to the sonless family.
- Fashion is a powerful form of gender expression in most all cultures. Historically, cross-dressing and gender-neutral clothing have been a common means by which women have entered spaces traditionally thought of as being for men. (The reverse has been less common.) As such, laws and cultural rules often reinforce what is considered normal for men's and women's dress. It wasn't until the 1990s, for example, that women in the U.S. Senate were allowed to wear pants (trousers) in the Capitol building — but only if they also wore a blazer.
- Gender frequently affects human interaction. Parents are more likely to touch and console crying girls than they are crying boys. Likewise, in adulthood, women are often expected to cry, while men may be discouraged from crying at all.
- In Thailand, effeminate gay men are often thought of as a third gender: kathoey, which roughly translates to "ladyboy."
- As discussions about gender issues have become more acceptable in American society, some services, such as Tumblr, Facebook, and Google, have taken to allowing users to select a third gender or from a large list of possible genders.
Examples of Sex
- Due to gender-based biases, one sex may be preferred over another when it comes to childbearing. This is easily seen in countries that have an abnormal male-to-female sex ratio due to sex-selective abortion or, in the case of China, the one-child policy.
- In some Asian countries, a set number of days, known as menstrual leave, is given to menstruating females in the workplace. Menstrual leave is a controversial, sex-based standard. While some feel it recognizes the different needs of females compared to males, others feel it is unnecessary and encourages the notion that women, as a gender, are weak or inefficient in a way that regular sick leave does not since it does not draw attention to any type of illness.
- Modern technology (e.g., in vitro fertilization) is changing how sexual reproduction and sex-selection can work. In the UK, three-parent IVF — that is, the combined genes of three different people to form one child, usually with the intention of eliminating disease — is currently being debated.
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.
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).