Sex versus gender

This semester I’m teaching a course in the Psychology of Human Sexuality. I’ve discovered that very few of my students know anything about the basics and biology of sex. So, we start with a comprehensive course in sex education. From the very beginning, I point out that there is a difference between sex and gender, and follow that by saying that this is a huge issue because so many people, even experts in the field, conflate the two terms. Conflate means to treat two ideas as the same when they are not – with sex and gender probably conflated more than another other two ideas.

image of brain drawing at top, with finger pointing to it saying gender is here, finger pointing down below it, saying not here

As a noun, sex refers to biology, basically your genes. The 23rd pair of chromosomes determine your sex, which is generally either XX (female) or XY (male). To make life complicated, sex is not dichotomous, meaning that there are individuals who do not fit the standard patterns for genes. There are individuals with Turner’s Syndrome who have only one X chromosome, usually written as XO. These women are often short and have other physical characteristics unique to their condition. There are individuals with female trisomy whose chromosomes are generally written as XXX. They may be taller than might be expected from their family history and possibly have some learning issues, but generally, unless someone does a chromosomal test, you can’t tell that a woman has an extra female chromosome. Klinefelter Syndrome are males who have an extra X so their pattern is written as XXY. They are males who are a bit taller than might be expected, and have some other physical characteristics which are not generally easy to identify. And lastly, there are males with an extra Y chromosome, so their pattern is written as XYY. These individuals can only be detected with a chromosomal test.

Complicating this are individuals with normal-appearing male chromosomes, XY, but who present as female. They have a condition called Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome in which their body seems to be unreceptive to the testosterone they produce, or their testosterone is in some way incorrectly made. In any case, because everyone has a little estrogen, these individuals present as female and are probably the best known of those who are classed as intersex. The point is that sex is determined by genetics and there is nothing you can do about it. An article on The Scientist from 2015, “Sex Differences in the Brain,” discusses sex differences very well.

Gender started as a grammar term, but has come to mean several different approaches in how we express our sex. I recommend that you find A Guide to Gender by Sam Killermann for a more expansive explanation of gender. In his book, Killermann discusses two parts to gender: identity and expression. These are not the same. And they are not sex.

Gender identity is what a person thinks they are: woman, man, or gender fluid. Non-binary is another term used to describe identity when you do not feel totally male or female. This has nothing to do with sex, this is how you feel you are inside. I ask my students how they know they are male or female. Some people are not certain and we don’t know why some people feel that way.  Gender expression is how a person communicates their gender identity. We do this through our dress, our behavior, and our gestures. This is what is probably learned. A boy who grows up in the US might think that men who wear skirts are not masculine, but a boy from Scotland sees a member of the Black Watch in his dress uniform, which includes a kilt, as being an extremely masculine person.

The point is that some of gender is learned, sex is not. More importantly, we may not know what our sex is. Remember that some of the non-standard expressions of sex chromosomes are not easy to identify. We do know what our gender is because that is how we feel. Yes, it may be learned, but it is based on our sex. It is the combination of the two that makes it very difficult to figure out why some of us feel certain about our gender, and some find themselves feeling like they are a bit of both.

What this means is that sex is biology. Gender is applied biology. No matter how much people want to believe that gender is totally learned, it isn’t. It starts with your sex, and how you react to the world. The point is that we all don’t react the same way and that is why some people express themselves in ways that are not stereotypical. No one seems to think it odd that some people like popcorn flavored jellybeans and others do not. That has something to do with what you have learned is tasty and how your taste buds react to various flavors. That applies to gender as well which is a combination of how our sexual selves react to how the world reacts to us.

Next month, we’ll discuss gender in more depth.