Let me ask you a question: Do you think the words gender and sex are synonyms? Can they be interchanged in the same sentence?
I asked people this question and a surprisingly large amount of people answered in the affirmative. 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.
I decided to write this blog with the objective of dispelling stereotypes, prejudices and the stigma surrounding gender identity. The very fact that people STILL think that these words mean the same thing tells us a lot about how educated we, as a society, are on this topic. We, Indian society especially, have a long way to go in our journey of accepting trans, non-binary, intersex people.
The best way to highlight the differences between these concepts would be to say that sex is a biological concept while gender is a social one. Both of these words have a history and their uses have changed over time. What do I mean by this? Let’s see.
Biologically, there are generally two sexes: male and female- that are assigned to babies at birth. Genetic factors define the sex of an individual: for an individual to be a male, they just need to be born with an XY pair of chromosomes; while females need an XX pair. In general terms, “sex” refers to the biological differences between males and females, such as the genitalia and genetic differences.
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 of 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.
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.”
The term “gender” is more difficult to define than “sex”, but broadly, 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.
Thus, one aspect of gender is gender roles. 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. These are different in different societies, as is evident when we look around us.
For example- In some societies like ours, the traditional gender roles are: women take care of the house and cook while men earn the bread for the family. Other societies might have different roles.
The other aspect is gender identity. This concept is widely misunderstood and misinterpreted and as a result, the general public is misinformed and does not have a clear idea about it.
Gender identity is the personal sense of one’s own gender. Gender identity can correlate with a person’s assigned sex at birth or can differ from it. It depends on how the individual feels comfortable labelling themselves.
To understand the concept of gender identity, we would need to understand terms like gender dysphoria first.
Gender dysphoria involves a conflict between a person’s physical or assigned gender and the gender with which he/she/they identify. People with gender dysphoria may be very uncomfortable with the gender they were assigned, sometimes described as being uncomfortable with their body (particularly developments during puberty) or being uncomfortable with the expected roles of their assigned gender. The gender conflict affects people in different ways. It can change the way a person wants to express their gender and can influence behaviour, dress and self-image. Some people may cross-dress, some may want to socially transition, others may want to medically transition with sex-change surgery and/or hormone treatment. Socially transitioning primarily involves transitioning into the affirmed gender’s pronouns and bathrooms.
Individuals who do not feel comfortable or ‘identify with’ their assigned gender may identify as non-binary [just one term used to describe individuals who may experience a gender identity that is neither exclusively male or female or is in between or beyond both genders. Non-binary individuals may identify as gender fluid, agender (without gender), third gender, or something else entirely (genderqueer)], may transition to the sex they identify with [transgender (Male to Female or Female to Male)], etc. We need to take out time and educate ourselves about these identities, labels, and what they come with. I have a few articles linked at the end of this blog that could help you out.
Gender identity, in nearly all instances, is self-identified, as a result of a combination of inherent and extrinsic or environmental factors; gender role, on the other hand, is manifested within society by observable factors such as behaviour and appearance. For example, if a person considers himself a male and is most comfortable referring to his personal gender in masculine terms, then his gender identity is male. However, his gender role is male, only if he demonstrates typically male characteristics in behaviour, dress, and/or mannerisms.
Unnatural: this adjective is widely used for commenting on everything ranging from homosexuality to trans people. People say that their very existence is not natural and goes against nature.
This issue is addressed beautifully in the book ‘Sapiens’ by Yuval Noah Harari (which I’m going to review soon so look out for that!). This is a direct quote from the book, “Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behaviour, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist, so it would need no prohibition.”
As is explained in ‘Sapiens’, we see that sex is divided between males and females (in most cases), and the qualities of this division are objective and have remained constant throughout history (XX and XY chromosomes are needed to be a female and male respectively). Gender is divided between so many categories or labels (what an individual chooses to identify with) and the so-called ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ qualities are inter-subjective and undergo constant change.
For example, ‘masculinity’ in the eighteenth century was expressed through colourful and flamboyant wigs, high heels, stockings, and makeup; contrastingly, today (in the twenty-first century), this concept is nothing like it was. Today, ‘masculinity’ is shown through sombre suits and boots.
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, which are in constant flux.
The sources for my blog are linked below. I definitely recommend giving them a read and educating oneself upon these topics.
- Sex and gender: Meanings, definition, identity, and expression
- What Is Gender Dysphoria?
- Gender Identity Terms And Examples, LGBTQ Definitions
- Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (a novel)