Even though we constantly use the terms gender and sexuality interchangeably, there is a huge difference between the two. While gender is something we are not born with, nor something we have but rather something we do. Sex is a biological categorization based primarily on reproductive potential, whereas gender is the social elaboration of biological sex. Of course, social norms for heterosexual coupling and care of any resulting children are closely intertwined with gender. But this is not all true. Gender builds on biological sex, but it exaggerates biological differences, and it carries biological differences into domains in which it is completely irrelevant.
What is sex?
Anatomical and physiological differences make male and female sexes. “Sex” tends to relate to biological differences. For instance, male and female genitalia, both internal and external are different. Similarly, the levels and types of hormones present in male and female bodies are different. Genetic factors lead to the definition of the sex of an individual. While women have 46 chromosomes including two Xs, men have 46 including an X and a Y. The Y chromosome is dominant and helps to carry the signal for the embryo to begin growing testes. Both men and women have testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone. However, women have higher levels of estrogen and progesterone, and men have higher levels of testosterone. The male/female split is often seen as binary, but this is not entirely correct. Moreover, 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. Some people believe that sex should be considered a continuum rather than two mutually exclusive categories.
What is Gender?
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.”
Gender denotes the social and cultural role of each sex within a given society. People often develop their gender roles in response to their environment, including family interactions, the media, peers, and education rather than being purely assigned by genetics, as sex differences. Some gender roles in a few societies are more rigid than those in others. The degree of decision-making and financial responsibility expected of each gender and the time that women or men are expected to spend on homemaking and rearing children varies between cultures. Within the wider culture, families too have their norms. But gender roles are changing unlike how people perceive. Therefore, we conclude that gender roles and gender stereotypes are highly fluid and can shift substantially over time.
What is Sexuality?
“One’s internal, personal sense of being a man or woman. For transgender people, their own internal gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth.
Most people have a gender identity of man or woman (or boy or girl). For some people, their gender identity does not fit neatly into one of those two choices.”
Gender expression is basically external manifestations of gender, expressible through one’s name, pronouns, clothing, haircut, behavior, voice, or body characteristics. Society identifies these cues as masculine and feminine, although consideration of what is masculine and feminine changes over time and varies by culture. The sexual identity of a person describes their inner state of feeling like a sexual being. Genes, brain structure, hormones, and social learning have all been implicated in the development of sexuality, but there is no clear evidence directly linking any one element causally to a particular sexual identity. In some societies, attributes of sexuality and gender have been conflated implying that heterosexual arousal and a strong sense of gender identity are linked.
The Gender Unicorn
The Trans Student Educational Resource designed this wonderful Gender Unicorn to help us understand gender, sex, and sexuality. You can see that some of the concepts have arrows next to them, and others just have dots. This is because some concepts are on a spectrum or range, while others are more fixed.
How do all these concepts overlap?
While the sex you were assigned at birth is a fixed category, your gender identity and gender expression could be a much more fluid combination of masculine/feminine and other genders. Some people, known as cisgender people, have a gender identity that matches the sex they were assigned at birth. Transgender people have a gender identity that is different from the sex they were assigned at birth. Hopefully, Gender Unicorn helps to make things a little less confusing. Just remember: no matter what your gender identity is, or who you find attractive, you are enough, as you are. You don’t have to fit a neat label. You can just be you.