Confused? We gotchu.
Sex and gender are often used interchangeably—incorrectly might we add! We’re here to help explain the difference.
Sex refers to a person’s biological status and is determined by several indicators, including sex chromosomes, hormones, internal and external reproductive organs. Biological sex is often categorized as male, female, or intersex.
A person with XY chromosomes and male sex and reproductive organs.
A person with XX chromosomes and female sex and reproductive organs.
A person with atypical combinations of chromosomes and ambiguous sex and reproductive organs.
Unlike a person’s sex, gender is not biologically determined. Sex really refers to one’s sexual anatomy and chromosomes. Gender, on the other hand, is a socially constructed characteristic. Boiled down, gender refers to the attitudes, feelings, and behaviors a particular culture associates with a specific biological sex. For example, the concepts of femininity and masculinity are two aspects of gender many societies often connect to the female and male sexes respectively. Gender roles are the sets of expectations and characteristics assigned to each specific gender within a society. Behaviors that are viewed as compatible with these cultural exceptions are referred to as gender-normative, while behaviors that are regarded as incompatible with these expectations are referred to as gender nonconformity/ gender variance.
The gender binary is a popular social system that classifies people into two groups based on sexual anatomy. In the gender binary model, one’s anatomical features completely determine their gender. Individuals are often discouraged from crossing or mixing gender roles. This model does not encompass those who are born with non-binary reproductive organs or do not identify on this scale (intersex people). Consequently, the gender binary has begun to be considered out-of-date by sexual health experts in favor of a more nuanced gender spectrum.
Gender identity refers to one’s sense of self in terms of gender. This can be the same or different than the sex assigned at birth. Research shows that individuals are aware of this between the ages of 18 months and 3 years. While there are many terms to express one’s gender, we will start with a few of the most common to get you started.
Identifying as the opposite gender as their birth-assigned biological sex. For example, a transgender man is a man who assigned female at birth. Conversely, a transgender woman is a woman who was assigned male at birth.
As the definition implies, this identity describes a person who is neither a man nor woman. They might fall somewhere in between, or outside of these traditionally defined genders.
Gender identity that changes over time
A lack of identification with any gender identity
Gender expression is the way in which an individual communicates gender within a given culture. Clothing, behavior, voice, and hairstyle are just some of the ways we communicate our gender identity. As we mentioned, gender and gender roles are often socially prescribed. A person’s gender expression may or may not be consistent with these set roles. Other times, an individual’s gender expression may not reflect his, her, or their gender identity. It is important to not assign someone’s gender based on any characteristics, and instead respect their preferred identity. It is also important not to conflate gender expression with sexual orientation.
For more information, please check out the Gender Spectrum.
Gender is a spectrum, and should be viewed as such. Reflect on your own gender identity and the ways in which you do and do not match with socially constructed gender roles. We’re all different, with a range of preferences, experiences, and interests. Respect everyone for who they are and how they identify, and always follow the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you)! If you don’t know someone’s preferred pronoun, just ask (respectfully, of course).