What’s the difference between sex and gender?
Discussions of gender have gotten more and more nuanced over the past decade or so, and there’s so much information out there on this topic that it can be difficult to know where to begin when seeking to understand it better. But one of the most basic questions in this field is: What’s the difference between sex and gender? The two terms are often used interchangeably by people who don’t know the distinction between them, but there is indeed a distinction. Let’s dive in and figure it out!
Sex (in the sense of biological sex, not in the sense of sexual activity) refers to an array of physical characteristics of a person’s body, which can affect how they are perceived and classified in the world.
These characteristics include:
Genitalia – Do they have a penis, a vulva, or (in the cases of some intersex people) genitals that cannot easily be classified as either?
Internal reproductive organs – Do they have ovaries and a uterus, testicles and a prostate, some combination thereof, or none of the above?
Chromosomes – What sex markers does their DNA contain? XX chromosomes are generally classified as female and XY as male, but other combinations and configurations are possible as well.
Hormone levels – What sex hormones (such as testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone) does their body produce, and in what proportions and quantities?
While most people’s genitalia, internal reproductive organs, chromosomes, and hormone levels all “match up” with one particular sex profile (either male or female), it is estimated that about 1.7% of the population (that’s about 1 in every 59 people) is intersex, meaning that at least one of these factors is different for them than what doctors would consider “normal” for their sex. There is nothing wrong with being intersex, but it’s a little-known identity and unfortunately intersex people often face discrimination, nonconsensual surgery, and other hardships.
Gender, on the other hand, is a social and cultural identity. Most people’s gender matches the sex they were assigned at birth based on their external genitalia, in which case they are cisgender; people whose gender does not match the sex they were assigned at birth may be trans, non-binary, and/or intersex.
A person’s gender is usually expressed through what they wear, how they style themselves, how they speak and move, what titles and pronouns they go by, and other such social cues. If you’re not sure how to refer to someone because their gender is unclear to you, it’s okay to ask them what their pronouns are (e.g. she/her, he/him, they/them).
Unless you are a doctor, it is unlikely you’ll ever have a reason for needing to know someone’s biological sex. Much like their medical history, it’s not all that relevant for the average person to know about somebody else, nor is it polite or necessary for you to inquire about it. Sex refers to a person’s body, while gender refers to their mind and their very selfhood – so, for the purposes of almost all social interactions, it’s the more relevant consideration.
Some trans and non-binary thinkers have posited that because gender is essentially a social construct, there may come a time when it doesn’t exist at all, or when it is a fully optional aspect of society. But for now, we still live in a world that predicates many of its structures and institutions on the existence of gender and the differences between sexes, so it’s important to understand what these concepts mean and how they operate in the world.