Different terms are regularly used in theories of sexuality and gender, for example sex, gender, gender identity, gender expressions, gender roles, sexual orientation. It is important to be clear about the meanings of such terms.
Sex refers to biological differences between males and females (e.g. gonads, sexual organs, chromosomes, hormones). Sex is usually assigned at birth (there are examples when it is assigned later, when sex characteristics do not clearly indicate the sex of the baby, for example in the case of ‘intersex’ people). Sex can be changed: in the case of transsexual people, who are born with the sex characteristics of one sex and gender identity of the other, sex reassignment surgeries are performed. This includes a change of sex organs and the administration of hormones.
Gender is a social, psychological and cultural construct and it is developed in the process of socialisation. Different societies and cultures may therefore have different understandings of what is ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’. Societies create norms and expectations related to gender, and these are learned in the course of people’s lives – including in the family, at school, through the media. All of these influences impose certain roles and patterns of behaviour on everyone within society. Gender norms – often limited to notions of masculinity and femininity – change over time, but are usually based on a heteronormative order which stipulates that there are two sexes (genders) and they are attracted to each other. People who do not appear to fall under this binary notion of gender often suffer from exclusion, discrimination and violence.
There are some languages which do not have a word for ‘gender’. In such cases, the word ‘sex’ is normally used, and in order to distinguish between sex and gender, different terms may be employed, for example ‘biological sex’ may be used to refer to ‘sex’, and ‘cultural and social sex’ may be used to refer to ‘gender’.
However, even when the terms exist in the language, ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are often used interchangeably.
Definitions of sex and gender
A number of definitions have been put forward by different organisations. They provide a useful starting point for discussion.
The World Health Organization summarizes the difference between sex and gender in the following way:
Sex refers to “the different biological and physiological characteristics of males and females, such as reproductive organs, chromosomes, hormones, etc.”
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 concept of gender includes five important elements: relational, hierarchical, historical, contextual and institutional. While most people are born either male or female, they are taught appropriate norms and behaviours – including how they should interact with others of the same or opposite sex within households, communities and work places. When individuals or groups do not “fit” established gender norms they often face stigma, discriminatory practices or social exclusion – all of which adversely affect health.”
|Examples of sex characteristics||Examples of gender characteristics|
|Women can menstruate while men cannot.||In most countries, women earn significantly less than men.|
|Men have testicles while women do not.||In some countries, the tobacco industry targets women by “feminising” cigarettes packaging for certain brands (small “purse” packs that resemble cosmetics and evoke slimness, the use of “feminine” colours, such as pink).|
|Women have developed breasts that are usually capable of lactating (producing milk) while men have not.||In most countries of the world, women do more housework than men.|
|Men generally have bigger bones than women.||In some countries, the law allows people to marry a partner of the same sex; in other countries this is not allowed.|
-Gender Equality Glossary, Council of Europe 2016
-Diagram of Sex and Gender. Center for Gender Sanity