Although often used interchangeably, ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ have different meanings
Sex is a biological concept, based primarily on the possession of particular types of sex cells and organs. Usually (but not always) two sexes can be identified in animals: males and females. In some hermaphrodite species individuals produce both eggs and sperm.
Gender is based on traits or characteristics that may be considered either masculine (strength, courage) or feminine (nurturing, caring), and encompasses both what people imagine themselves to be (‘gender identity’) and the social context in which they find themselves (‘gender role behaviour’).
Gender traits show considerable variation, and each person is a combination of masculine and feminine traits of varying degrees.
There is a tendency to see masculinity as the definition or ‘ideal state’ of maleness, but this may be unhelpful. If males show more masculine characteristics (and females more feminine qualities), this could be reflective of biological sex differences, but equally it might reflect the impact of factors such as upbringing or pressures to conform to ‘expected’ gender roles.
There is usually little conflict between sex and gender, but this is not always so. Some people may passionately believe that the sex they feel they are is different from the body that nature has given them. This can lead them to opt for gender reassignment, which may or may not include surgery.
At least one in 1,000 children have a disorder of (or difference in) sex development (DSD), so that it is not immediately clear whether they are a boy or girl at birth. These conditions can occur due to disrupted gonad development or imbalances in hormone production or action. In other situations a young person with a DSD may not go into puberty or may not have periods. DSDs used to be called ‘intersex’ conditions. For more info, read our article ‘Beyond either/or’.Lead image:
Spiros Vathis/Flickr CC BY NC