Understanding The Difference Between Sex and Gender

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We’re seeing a growing awareness and conversation around gender, how it comes into play in various aspects of our lives, and the importance of inclusivity when discussing gender. We need to be clear about what gender and sex are.

sex vs gender

There is always confusion when there are new conversations. One way to create an inclusive world is to dispel the confusion surrounding sex and gender. Understanding starts with education, so let’s dig into one of the most fundamental questions 

“What’s the difference between sex and gender?”

Gender vs Sex

These two terms are often used interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing. They can be confusing for many people, and may even cause them to miss out on important conversations.

The general consensus is that gender is an identity and form of self expression while sex is bioligically predetermined, but it’s even more nuanced than that.

What Determines Someone’s Sex?

Sex Genetic traits such as gene expression, chromosomes and hormone levels, and sex organs/anatomy are all factors that determine sex. We typically think of sex as male or female, but there’s more to it than that. 

If you remember learning about X and Y chromosomes in school, that’s a good starting off point. The majority of us think that a male has XY number of chromosomes or testicles while a woman has XX number chromosomes or ovaries.

This isn’t always the case. Like gender, biological sex does not always have to be binary or in a black-and-white fashion. In reality, bioligical sex is actually a range of expressions with “typical biological male or female” at either end of the Spectrum.

We can see the nuance and in-betweens of biological sex with people who are “intersex’. Intersex can be defined as a group of people born with different biological traits than the typical male or woman. 

Some conditions that can put someone on the “intersex spectrum” include Turner Syndrome, Androgen Insensitivity SyndromeAnd Persistent Mullerian duct Syndrome. These and other intersex conditions can affect someone’s chromosomes, reproductive anatomy, hormones and endocrine system, and more.

Although many of these conditions do not require treatment, they can be beautiful manifestations of the wide range of human characteristics.

These biological differences might not be obvious to the naked eye. Some people might not realize they are intersex until trying to have children or other forms of hormonal testing. 

Some traits that we consider biological can be changed through surgery and hormone therapy, but that doesn’t change someone’s sex. 

Now that we understand biological sex, let’s see how that differs from gender.

What is gender?

First of all, biological sex doesn’t determine gender. 

Gender is how someone sees themselves and the identity they share. Gender is a social construct which influences how people interact and relate to the world. 

Like sex, gender can change and evolve over time. People who are not gender-conforming, non-binary or genderqueer can show that gender is not a fixed state. 

It’s important to note that genders outside of man and woman are nothing new. There are various representations of gender diverse people Through the ages, there have been many indigenous cultures.

Types of Gender

People who are “cis-gendered” identify as the gender they were assigned at birth based on their sex characteristics, i.e., boy or girl. 

Some people identify as “agender”, or not adhering to any gender.

People who are not gender-conforming may have fluid or shifting gender expressions. This may be expressed in a variety of ways, such as dressing differently or acknowledging it inside.

Transgender people are another example that the fluidity of gender can be seen. Transgender people have a different gender to the one they were given at birth.

People tend to believe that transgender individuals are trying to become the opposite gender they were born with. This isn’t always the case. Like any other gender, transgender can exist on a spectrum. 

One woman may be transgender but only have hormone therapy. They may not need to undergo gender-confirming surgery. No matter what the steps taken to modify their features or hormone levels their gender remains valid. 

A non-binary, gender-non-conforming person can also opt for hormone therapy and/or gender-confirming surgery. Trans and nonbinary do not have to be mutually exclusive. Some people can also be trans-binary.

Keep your mind open

To better understand gender identity, it is important to remain open-minded and curious. If you are presented with information that challenges your world view, ask yourself why, and understand that someone else’s experience does not need to change how you perceive yourself.

When understanding a new concept, it’s easy to want to be able to wrap it up in a neat little box and call it a day. People are complex and so is the world we share with them. Instead of thinking about gender as a set or clear definitions you can see it as a vast expanse of possibilities to explore and reimagine. 

People can confirm their gender identity by using pronouns such he/him/her, they/them or Ze/Hir. Respecting someone’s pronouns is one way to be a supportive ally and human. If you’re unsure what someone’s pronouns are, just ask!

Another important way to respect gender is by using gender inclusive language like “You all” instead of “You guys” or “People who menstruate” instead of “Women on their periods”. If you slip up and use the wrong language or pronouns, don’t worry, it’s part of the learning process. You can quickly correct your mistakes and move on.

While sex and gender are both a fixed biological status, each exist on a spectrum. The spectrum covers all aspects of human existence. 

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