Sex, Gender, Sexuality: What’s The Difference?

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Table of Contents

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Gender Identity: A person’s own perception of themselves based on how closely they relate to the elements of masculinity and femininity.

Sex: Based on a person’s biological composition and sex phenotype (penis or vulva).

Gender Expression: How a person chooses to present and express themselves in their clothes, appearance, behaviours, hobbies and interests.

Sexual Orientation: Describes an individual’s attraction to other genders.

Sexuality: A person’s capacity for sexual feelings, which includes but is not limited to a person’s sexual orientation.

What Is Gender?

The gender identity spectrum is a depiction of gender conventions that shows gender as multiple and varying. The spectrum is non-binary which means it is not just two points and there are many different points (genders) along the spectrum. According to the spectrum, gender is fluid and self-assigned.

A spectrum of gender expression has since developed to fully separate gender identity from gender expression. By separating identity from expression, the spectrum allows individuals to express themselves as they wish while exploring and discovering their gender identity. Since identity and expression don’t rely on each other, people can express themselves however they wish without having to follow social norms or conventions. For example, boys are allowed to wear pink and girls can wear blue.

Gender identity’ was first described by Robert J. Stoller in 1964. Stoller then went on to develop the first image of the gender spectrum. The conventions, norms and expectations vary from culture to culture, which means the elements of masculinity and femininity will be slightly different based on the conventions of different cultures.

In Scottish culture, kilts are a part of the traditional clothing for men and boys (so it’s a masculine feature) but in English culture, wearing any type of skirt-type clothing is considered feminine. Different cultures around the world will have a very different idea of gender and how each gender should appear, act and think.

gender roles, gender and sex, gender identity
Pixabay

In some cultures, gender doesn’t even exist and in others, there can be as many gender identities as 3, 4, 5, or infinity.

However, most cultures still use a gender binary, which means there are only two options for a person’s identity: man or woman. The conventions for these identities do still noticeably vary but overall global culture today is intensely androcentric. This means the world is entirely centred around men, masculinity, and the male perspective.

How Many Genders Are There?

Realistically, there are actually infinite genders. This is because, on any spectrum, there are infinite points that can be placed. This doesn’t even include the gender identities that are fluid and move between multiple points on the spectrum.

There can be even more genders than that… because of the multiple variations of gender globally and the different interpretations in each culture. The image of a man in one culture will not be the same as the image of a man in another.

There are several umbrella terms that we use to broadly classify a person’s gender identity. These terms include:

  • Transgender – a person whose gender assignment at birth does not match their gender identity. For example, someone who was assigned male at birth but identifies as female.
  • Cisgender – a person whose gender assignment at birth, gender identity, and sex are all fully aligned. For example, someone who was assigned male at birth and identifies as a man.
  • Agender – those who do not identify with any gender on the gender identity spectrum.
  • Genderqueer or ‘queer’ – those who feel they are a combination of genders, between genders, or go beyond gender and simply do not conform to social norms or expectations.
sex and gender, sex vs gender, transgender, transgenderism, gender identity vs expression
Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

What does ‘Non-Binary’ Mean?

By dictionary definition ‘non-binary’ simply means ‘involving more/less than two things or comprised of more/less than two parts’. Non-binary people feel that their gender cannot be defined by the gender binary. Some non-binary people may also identify as trans and may feel safer in trans spaces, but this is not always true. A person’s gender is based on their own perception of themselves. This means gender identity (e.g., male, female, non-binary, etc) will mean different things to different people.

Non-binary people may use they/them pronouns but may also be comfortable with she/they, he/they, or neo pronouns. It’s always best to ask and not simply assume! Non-binary people typically prefer gender-neutral terms in all aspects of life. For example, they may prefer being referred to as a ‘sibling’ instead of brother/sister or ‘parent’ instead of mother/father. But again, always ask, don’t assume!

When it comes to assumptions, non-binary people do not have a “look”. It’s a common myth that a non-binary person will look androgynous (not entirely masculine nor feminine). We could say the same for all genders. Not all women look extremely feminine but there are plenty of men that do look feminine.

The separation of identity and expression allows people to express themselves in an authentic way. They can do and appear as whatever makes them entirely comfortable and satisfied with their identity. So, for non-binary people – yes, some may appear androgynous but – others may express themselves in very masculine or feminine ways. Some people may choose to appear masculine for a few days and feminine for the rest of the week. In no way does this modify or determine their gender. This is simply how they feel most comfortable in who they are.

Photo by Jakayla Toney on Unsplash

Since this is a gender identity, it also has no impact on a person’s sexual orientation, sexuality or sex itself. Being non-binary does not mean a person is intersex or has ambiguous genitalia (of course they might, because anyone can). They may have XX chromosomes and a vulva or XY chromosomes and a penis. This does not define their gender identity at all. This is their sex.

Similarly, sexuality (the capacity for sexual feelings) is also completely separate from identity. A person (regardless of whether they are male, female, non-binary or none of the above) can be as sexually active as they want. They could also be asexual, which means they may not experience any sexual feelings or might find intimacy in other activities (not explicitly sexual).

Non-binary people may also experience attraction to any or no genders. Their sexual orientation is also entirely independent of their gender identity. They may be heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, etc because this relies on their attraction to other genders – not their own gender.

How Does Gender Expression Relate to Gender Identity?

The gender socialisation process assigns a gender identity (based on an infant’s sex) without choice. This identity restricts a person’s behaviours and interests to things that are considered “normal” for their gender. We limit people’s gender expression to the norms and conventions of an identity that was forced on them at birth. The fact that these roles have to be socialized (taught) just shows that human beings are not naturally inclined to behave in this way at all.

Gender expression (how a person chooses to express their identity) is different for everyone. For some people, “be a man” might mean hiding emotions, overpowering women/other men, and being the sole wage earner in a household. However, for others, it could mean finding the strength to know how to express emotions and being secure in your identity as a man, regardless of how you express yourself. Ultimately, expression and identity are fluid and don’t rely on each other at all.

Since the gender identity spectrum has developed, the fact that there are multiple different gender identities has become mainstream. But with this, there has also arisen more gender expectations of certain groups. This includes ideas such as “transwomen must be feminine”, “non-binary people look androgynous”, “trans people have to get gender alignment surgery”, etc.

None of these statements are true. With any label there comes a need to put a perfect image to that label. What does this gender look like? How do I know if someone is a man or a woman? Well, just ask them what their pronouns are. Society is developing much more to allow people more individuality and if you want to know who someone is, just be polite and ask them.

Sex and gender, gender, gender identity, gender expression
Photo by Bret Kavanaugh on Unsplash

How Can Gender Be Fluid?

People may identify as ‘genderfluid’. This means that for some people, their gender identity doesn’t lie at one fixed point on the spectrum. It actually moves between multiple points. This can happen on a day-to-day basis or a person might spend weeks or months identifying as one gender before it shifts. So, they may spend a week identifying as a man but the next two weeks identifying as non-binary. Their pronouns may (or may not) shift accordingly. Some people use coloured bracelets or keychains to signify their identity on a given day. They do this to avoid being misgendered.

pronouns, sex and gender, sex vs gender, understanding gender, gender identity vs expression
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Gender expression can also be fluid. This is blatantly clear because no one – man, woman or otherwise – has gone to their whole life fulfilling the expectations of their gender.

For example, men. Human nature involves emotion and expression. When a person gets upset, they cry but… this is supposedly feminine. However, it’s impossible for any human being to go their entire life without crying at some point. If you’re a man reading this, have you ever cried or shown emotion to another person? If you’re a woman reading this, have you ever gotten aggressive when you were angry and frustrated?

These are just two everyday examples of things that are not traditionally expected of men and women. Some may see these things as being masculine or feminine. However, they are nothing more than natural responses to everyday situations. So, everyone’s gender expression is fluid to a certain extent. We all engage in activities/behaviors that are stereotypically masculine and others that are feminine.

Sexual orientation can also be fluid. While some people might exclusively be attracted to one gender or multiple genders, others may find that their attraction to certain genders varies day by day. So, on one day a person may be exclusively attracted to women but the next may be exclusively attracted to men. The day after that it might be 50-50.

Also, there is a lot of debate about whether a person is actually attracted to women or to femininity and whether a person is attracted to men or masculinity (or both). ‘Androsexual’ and ‘gynesexual’ are the terms used to describe these concepts.

Similarly to sexual orientation, a person may find themselves to be very sexually driven (horny) on one day but not so much on the next or perhaps not at all. People with a menstrual cycle tend to find that they get rather horny around their period and this is because of the hormone balance around this time. There are many other things that can accelerate and decelerate a person’s sex drive, such as their turn-ons and turn-offs. People’s libido is not constant, therefore it is fluid.

What Is The Difference Between Sex and Gender?

A person’s sex is based on their biological composition (their hormones and their sex phenotype). This is decided by a doctor, by whether an infant has a penis or vulva at birth. Gender is decided by the individual themself. This is based on how they perceive themself and how closely they relate to the elements of masculinity and femininity on the gender identity spectrum.

John Money, an esteemed psychologist and sexologist, is thought to be the first to have used the term ‘gender role’ to describe the social expectations of males and females. There are several reasons why using a person’s sex at birth to define their gender (identity and expression) is problematic.

sex and gender, sex vs gender, understanding gender, gender identity vs expression
Photo by Dainis Graveris on Unsplash

One reason being that a person’s sex at birth does not, in any way, reflect their own authentic identity. Some like to argue that “your gender is what’s between your legs” but as we can see very clearly by the separation of sex and gender, this has never been true. Even when a person is cisgender, their gender expression (interests, hobbies, clothes, behaviours) may not fully conform to the expectations of their gender.

So, from birth people are forced into gender roles, which limit and restrict their capacity for self-expression to whatever is expected within their culture. The claim that “your gender is what’s in between your legs” is also severely simplistic. It reduces people’s identity to nothing more than their genitals. From there, we force people to comply with divisive and exploitative gender roles that can lead to sex-based discrimination.

How Many Sexes Are There?

Fun fact: there are more than two sexes! Sex is also a spectrum and the options are not just ‘male’ or ‘female’. We often overlook intersex people in discussions about sex and gender.

‘Intersex’ is an umbrella term for people who are born with a sex that is not distinctive or exclusively male or female. There are millions of intersex people across the globe. Intersex people may have ambiguous genitalia or a chromosome variation (XXO, XXY, XO). Usually, a doctor won’t detect this at birth. Doctors will use the size/length of an infant’s genitals to define its sex.

Intersex conditions are usually harmless but there are methods of ‘treatment’ if a person’s condition is noticeable. The first method is the ‘concealment-centred model’. This involves masking the condition by using hormones, irreversible surgery and medical intervention to ‘treat’ the situation. This method is used to ‘normalise’ a person’s anatomy (to make them look like a stereotypical boy or girl).

The other method of treatment is the ‘patient-centred model’. The doctor and family will choose a gender to assign at birth with the understanding that the infant may want to change it when they get older. There are no unnecessary medical procedures involved and any treatment will be genuinely and solely concerned with the patient’s wellbeing in mind.  

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