Reading: Sex and Gender

While the biological differences between males and females are fairly straightforward, the social and cultural aspects of being a man or woman can be complicated. (Photo courtesy of "man and woman silhouettes" by Fred Bchx is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

While the biological differences between males and females are fairly straightforward, the social and cultural aspects of being a man or woman can be complicated. [Photo courtesy of “man and woman silhouettes” by Fred Bchx is licensed under CC BY 2.0]

When filling out a document such as a job application or school registration form you are often asked to provide your name, address, phone number, birth date, and sex or gender. But have you ever been asked to provide your sex and your gender? Like most people, you may not have realized that sex and gender are not the same. However, sociologists and most other social scientists view them as conceptually distinct. Sex refers to physical or physiological differences between males and females, including both primary sex characteristics (the reproductive system) and secondary characteristics such as height and muscularity. Gender is a person’s deeply held internal perception of their behavior and attitudes based social expectations, accompanying physiological aspects of sex. As with race and ethnicity, these are both socially constructed categories. Society deems what is sex and what is gender, and what the dividing line between the categories within are.

A person’s sex, as determined by his or her biology, does not always correspond with his or her gender. Therefore, the terms sex and gender are not interchangeable. A baby boy who is born with male genitalia will be identified as male. As he grows, however, he may identify with the feminine aspects of his culture. Since the term sex refers to biological or physical distinctions, characteristics of sex will not vary significantly between different human societies. Generally, persons of the female sex, regardless of culture, will eventually menstruate and develop breasts that can lactate. Characteristics of gender, on the other hand, may vary greatly between different societies. For example, in U.S. culture, it is considered feminine (or a trait of the female gender) to wear a dress or skirt. However, in many Middle Eastern, Asian, and African cultures, dresses or skirts (often referred to as sarongs, robes, or gowns) are considered masculine. The kilt worn by a Scottish male does not make him appear feminine in his culture.

The dichotomous view of gender (the notion that someone is either male or female) is specific to certain cultures and is not universal. In some cultures gender is viewed as being fluid. In the past, some anthropologists used the term berdache to refer to individuals who occasionally or permanently dressed and lived as a different gender. The practice has been noted among certain Native American tribes (Jacobs, Thomas, and Lang 1997). The more current term used by indigenous people in the United States is “Two-Spirit” (Estrada, Gabriel S. 2011). Also, in this regard, some of these indigenous groups believe that there are at least four genders.

Samoan culture accepts what Samoans refer to as a “third gender.” Fa’afafine, which translates as “the way of the woman,” is a term used to describe individuals who are born biologically male but embody both masculine and feminine traits. Fa’afafines are considered an important part of Samoan culture. Individuals from other cultures may mislabel them as homosexuals because fa’afafines have a varied sexual life that may include men and women (Poasa 1992).

Supplemental Material

Watch this video, The Social Paradox of Gender, to learn more.

The Legalese of Sex and Gender

The terms sex and gender have not always been differentiated in the English language. It was not until the 1950s that U.S. and British psychologists and other professionals working with intersex and transsexual patients formally began distinguishing between sex and gender. Since then, psychological and physiological professionals have increasingly used the term gender (Moi 2005). By the end of the twenty-first century, expanding the proper usage of the term gender to everyday language became more challenging—particularly where legal language is concerned. In an effort to clarify usage of the terms sex and gender, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in a 1994 briefing, “The word gender has acquired the new and useful connotation of cultural or attitudinal characteristics (as opposed to physical characteristics) distinctive to the sexes. That is to say, gender is to sex as feminine is to female and masculine is to male” (J.E.B. v. Alabama, 144 S. Ct. 1436 [1994]).

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had a different take, however. Viewing the words as synonymous, she freely swapped them in her briefings so as to avoid having the word “sex” pop up too often. It is thought that her secretary supported this practice by suggestions to Ginsberg that “those nine men” (the other Supreme Court justices), “hear that word and their first association is not the way you want them to be thinking” (Case 1995). This anecdote reveals that both sex and gender are actually socially defined variables whose definitions change over time.

Think It Over

Why do sociologists find it important to differentiate between sex and gender? What importance does the differentiation have in modern society?

Practice

1. The terms “masculine” and “feminine” refer to a person’s _________.

  1. sex
  2. gender
  3. both sex and gender
  4. none of the above

2. The term ­_______ refers to society’s concept of how men and women are expected to act and how they should behave.
  1. gender role
  2. gender bias
  3. sexual orientation
  4. sexual attitudes