Historically, the terms “sex” and “gender” have been used interchangeably, but their uses are becoming increasingly distinct, and it is important to understand the differences between the two.
This article will look at the meaning of “sex” and the differences between the sexes. It will also look at the meaning of “gender,” and the concepts of gender roles, gender identity, and gender expression.
In general terms, “sex” refers to the biological differences between males and females, such as the genitalia and genetic differences.
“Gender” is more difficult to define, but it can refer to the role of a male or female in society, known as a gender role, or an individual’s concept of themselves, or gender identity.
Sometimes, a person’s genetically assigned sex does not line up with their gender identity. These individuals might refer to themselves as transgender, non-binary, or gender-nonconforming.
The differences between male and female sexes are anatomical and physiological. “Sex” tends to relate to biological differences.
For instance, male and female genitalia, both internal and external are different. Similarly, the levels and types of hormones present in male and female bodies are different.
Genetic factors define the sex of an individual. Women have 46 chromosomes including two Xs and men have 46 including an X and a Y. The Y chromosome is dominant and carries the signal for the embryo to begin growing testes.
The male/female split is often seen as binary, but this is not entirely true. For instance, some men are born with two or three X chromosomes, just as some women are born with a Y chromosome.
In some cases, a child is born with a mix between female and male genitalia. They are sometimes termed intersex, and the parents may decide which gender to assign to the child. Intersex individuals account for around 1 in 1,500 births.
Some people believe that sex should be considered a continuum rather than two mutually exclusive categories.
Gender tends to denote the social and cultural role of each sex within a given society. Rather than being purely assigned by genetics, as sex differences generally are, people often develop their gender roles in response to their environment, including family interactions, the media, peers, and education.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines gender as:
“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 roles in some societies are more rigid than those in others.
The degree of decision-making and financial responsibility expected of each gender and the time that women or men are expected to spend on homemaking and rearing children varies between cultures. Within the wider culture, families too have their norms.
Gender roles are not set in stone.
In many societies, men are increasingly taking on roles traditionally seen as belonging to women, and women are playing the parts previously assigned mostly to men.
Gender roles and gender stereotypes are highly fluid and can shift substantially over time.
Who wears the high heels?
For instance, high-heeled shoes, now considered feminine throughout much of the world, were initially designed for upper-class men to use when hunting on horseback.
As women began wearing high heels, male heels slowly became shorter and fatter as female heels grew taller and thinner.
Over time, the perception of the high heel gradually became seen as feminine. There is nothing intrinsically feminine about the high heel. Social norms have made it so.
Pink for a girl and blue for a boy?
In many countries, pink is seen as a suitable color for a girl to wear, while boys ar dressed in blue.
However, infants were dressed in white until colored garments for babies were introduced in the middle of the 19th century.
The following quote comes from a trade publication called Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department, published in 1918:
“The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”
Move forward 100 years and it is rare to find a baby boy dressed in pink in many countries.
Another meaning of gender is an individual’s view of themselves, or their gender identity.
GLAAD (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) describes gender identity as:
“One’s internal, personal sense of being a man or woman. For transgender people, their own internal gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth.
Most people have a gender identity of man or woman (or boy or girl). For some people, their gender identity does not fit neatly into one of those two choices.”
Similarly, GLAAD describes gender expression as follows:
“External manifestations of gender, expressed through one’s name, pronouns, clothing, haircut, behavior, voice, or body characteristics. Society identifies these cues as masculine and feminine, although what is considered masculine and feminine changes over time and varies by culture.”
To conclude, in general terms, “sex” refers to biological characteristics and “gender” refers to the individual’s and society’s perceptions of sexuality and the malleable concepts of masculinity and femininity.
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