Understanding The Difference Between Sex and Gender

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. In order to do so, we need to clear a few things up when we talk about gender vs sex.

sex vs gender

With new conversations comes some confusion. Breaking down questions about sex and gender is one of the ways we can create a more inclusive world. 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. Using them interchangeably can actually be harmful to many people and leave them out of necessary 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 is determined by biological traits like gene expression, chromosomes, hormone levels, and sex organs or anatomy. 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. We typically think someone who is male has XY chromosomes and testicles, while a female has XX chromosomes and ovaries.

This isn’t always the case. Much like gender, biological sex is not always binary, or black and white. 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 is an umbrella term for people who have different biological traits at birth than a typical male or female. 

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

Many of these conditions are not necessarily health conditions that need management, but beautiful differences in the vast range of what it means to be a human.

These biological differences may or may not be apparent to the naked eye. Some people may not even realize that they are intersex until they try to have kids or get other sorts 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 off, biological sex does not determine gender. 

Gender refers to how someone perceives themself and the identity they share with the world. Gender is a societal construct that influences how people interact with the world. 

Unlike sex, gender is fluid and can evolve as someone learns more about themselves and their place in the world. Gender is not necessarily a fixed state, we see that in people who are non-binary, genderqueer, gender expansive, or another form of gender non-conformity. 

It’s important to note that genders outside of man and woman are nothing new. There are representations of gender diverse people throughout history across 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.

For people who are gender non-conforming, their gender expression may be fluid and shift on a regular basis. They may express this with different pronouns, by dressing a certain way, or by simply acknowledging it within themselves.

Another example of the fluidity of gender is people who are trans. Someone who is transgender has a gender that is different from the sex they were assigned at birth.

Many people tend to think that someone who is transgender strives to pass for the opposite gender they were assigned at birth. This isn’t always the case. Transgender, like any other form of gender, can also exist on a spectrum. 

Someone may be a trans woman but only undergo hormone therapy and never pursue gender confirming surgery, or someone may do both, or neither. No matter what steps someone takes to change their features and hormone levels, their gender is just as valid as the next person. 

In the same vein, a non-binary or gender non-conforming person may also choose to undergo hormone therapy and/or gender confirming surgery. Trans and non-binary are not mutually exclusive, some people are trans non-binary individuals.

Keep an Open Mind

The best way to further understand the expansive world that is gender identity is by staying open 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. But people are complex, and so are the genders we walk through the world with. Instead of thinking of gender as a set of simple clear-cut definitions, you can think of it as a wide expansive world to constantly explore and reimagine. 

One of the ways people are affirmed of their gender is through the use of pronouns like she/her, he/him, they/them, Ze/Hir, and more. 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. Just quickly correct yourself and move on.

Remember that while sex is a fixed biological status and gender is a fluid identity, they both exist on a spectrum. A spectrum that encompasses the wide possibilities of what it means to be human.