So earlier today, Catherine of feministcorna asked about the differences between sex and gender and for some possible articles that discuss the two. And that got me thinking about how I take a lot of gender 101 stuff like this that’s incredibly valuable to understanding many other things for granted because I’m at a different spot in my life. So I thought I’d write about some of the basics of both sex and gender and many of the things that come with this topic, along with offer some other articles and some videos.
Marina Watanabe talked about this topic a few months ago in the really great video below, in which she talks about the difference and how both sex and gender are social categories that do depend on social context.
Sex and gender are both very complicated concepts, both with entire fields of study dedicated to understanding more about these things. But for me, I’ve always understood the difference to be one of assigned biology (sex) and then one of expression and behavior (gender). We are assigned a sex based on what doctors/health professionals/parents/family members see between our legs upon birth.
Before we can walk or talk or really understand anything, we are forced into one category or another because if there’s one thing that society loves, it’s forcing people into boxes and labels. And the important distinction is that it’s assigned to us at birth.
The Jaded Hippy wrote about this a few years ago making that distinction and said that:
- Sex is something that is assigned to us by doctors and/or our parents when we are born, usually based on a visual examination of our genitals. If we have something that looks like what these people think of as a vagina, we’re labeled “female,” if we have something that looks like what these people think of as a penis, we are labeled “male.”
- And then there are those whose “sex characteristics” do not look like either of those things.
And then there’s gender, which is often more expression, behavior, and performance. Dr. Lindsey Doe does a pretty decent job talking about humanity’s journey with gender and how we’re pretty limited as a whole in understanding and describing it all in her video called The Gender Map. Gender is how we act rather than what we are assigned at birth.
Gender is often policed and comes with expectations of how people should preform or behave. We are all expected to behave and conform to cultural policies on gender and there’s a certain amount of societal shame that goes along with any sort of gender deviation. (Like boys wearing princess dresses or other socially coded clothing.)
Many see sex and gender to be different but there are people who don’t adhere to the distinction between the two concepts. Philip N. Chohen, for example, wrote about why he doesn’t defend the sex versus gender distinction and in addition to explaining why he doesn’t, he also goes into depth about the history of sociologists talking about this issue.
There’s literally so much more that goes into this and it is a really complicated thing but for now, I’ll leave it as really simply that: sex is what we’re assigned at birth based on biological characteristics (and in some cases of intersex people: what some might be forced into one or the other) while gender is a set of expressions and behaviors.