Real Talk: Gender and Biological Sex

Yes, there is a difference.
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Esther - Case Western Reserve University
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Yes, there is a difference.
gender-binary

Photo Credit: Elle

Last week, I covered the basics of feminism. In the comments section of that article, some readers wanted me talk about other sorts of discrimination next. But before we delve into any of that, I want to make sure that the basics are covered. 

So in today’s Real Talk, I’m going to give my best overview of gender and sex and everything in between. Of course, there's more to these issues than I could possibly cover in one blog post, but I hope you find this informative.

Is there a difference between sex and gender?

In a word, absolutely. Gender and sex are completely different categories and it's important that we understand how they differ.

Gender and Sex as Social Constructs... and the Danger of this Idea

Before we get into the differences, let me mention the thing that every social scientist loves to say about everything: gender and sex are both cultural constructs

Okay, so what does that mean? It means that everything we think we know about gender and sex comes from living in our specific culture. If we go to Asia or Africa or even France, the “facts” about gender and sex will change drastically. While there may be truth to this idea, it can also be dangerous to think this way. Many people use the phrase “social construct” to deny that things are real or dismiss the importance of gender and sex issues. The term “social construct” is often misused, so I want you to remember that just because gender and sex may be “constructs”, that doesn’t mean they're not very real, very important issues worth discussing.

The Differences Between Sex and Gender

According to biology, sex is determined by the chromosomes you have: that means two X chromosomes makes you a biological female and one Y and one X makes you a male. That probably sounds like your typical high school biology class but what we often don't hear about is intersex. While intersex originally started out as a medical term for people whose genitals were not easily identifiable (a major oversimplification), individuals and groups started embracing the term to describe physical variations from the "male" and "female" categories. It’s also important to remember that intersex is something that happens very often in nature. 

Gender, on the other hand, describes how we personally identify ourselves. It is influenced by the environments we live in and the experiences we encounter. In American culture (and much of Western culture), we see gender as a binary thing (i.e. you're either a man or a woman). In recent years, though, that line between the two has started to fade into a spectrum between the extremes. A lot of us grow up identifying with the norm: if we are biologically female, we tend to identify as girls and therefore fall into the respective gender role, and vice versa. But the gender experience is not the same for everyone…

When babies are born, depending on the physical attributes they have, we will immediately try and assign them to the “proper” gender role. And sometimes, this is not how the individual identifies. Here is a great podcast on someone as young as two years old insisting that everyone has it wrong, and that he is actually a she.

Gender often influences much of our lives, from what we put on our bodies to what jobs and interests we may pursue because of gender roles. In each culture, there are different gender roles assigned to different genders and some cultures come with many genders built into them, although not all are constructed equally.

Gender and Sex in Pop Culture

vivienne-westwood-gender

Photo Credit: Elle

These days, there's more media buzz than ever surrounding gender and gender fluidity. For example, in Orange is the New Black, Laverne Cox, a transgender woman, plays transgender woman Sophia Burset in the show. She now speaks about gender in schools and other public forums. And what about Caitlyn Jenner? Sure, her politics are quite controversial, but as a public figure, she’s done a lot to help the movement, too.

Fashion has also done a lot to help the movement — remember the androgynous trend? While it's weird to think of gender as trendy, it was used as a platform for many people who didn’t identify with either of our binaries to help other people understand their perspectives. And drag is something that many cis males have used to express themselves. We’re constantly talking about comfortable menswear, borrowing from things that are typically seen as “male”, like the boyfriend jean, structured blazers and shoulder pads, loose-fitting clothing…Fashion is probably one of the most gender-neutral/gender fluid aspects of our culture, although it can easily be turned into something that restricts us into certain roles.

Has your school recently switched the signs on your bathrooms? A lot of places have: the gender-neutral bathroom is a growing trend. These bathrooms offer a needed safe space: There are transgender people that have been violently attacked for entering the bathroom of the gender that they identify with, as opposed to the one biologically assigned at their birth. 

There are also many movements to de-gender languages. While English is no longer a gendered language, some other common ones (like Spanish, French, and Italian) are, and it's raised a lot of attention. Also, there's a lot of talk surrounding gender-neutral pronouns, with the goal being not to assume or offend anyone. What do you think about this? Facebook also revamped its "About" section to include a variety of different identities.

One popular discussion lately surrounds why some people find a sex change operation necessary to make their transition to a certain gender or sex “complete.” So if you know that you’re a girl and not a boy, why do you need to have the physical qualities if gender isn’t based solely on that? 

The consensus is that the answer may be different for everyone. Just like there is no gender that fits all, there is no "right" way for a person to transition, should they wish to. Some people would like to be perceived as a certain sex because they believe they have been assigned the wrong bodies at birth. In other cases, the social pressures of living in a dichotomized gender world probably have an effect. We live in a world where baby girls are given pink blankets and Barbies and baby boys are dressed in blue and gifted toy trucks. So far, that's the norm, although the recent rise in gender-neutral parenting tactics may change this in the future.

And so much more…

The interplay between gender and sex is something that we’re just beginning to really understand. For a long time, people were afraid to express themselves and those who did were often ostracized. The gender freedom movement is growing, and it’s probably a lot closer to home than you might think. 

I know that this article couldn't cover all aspects of these issues but I hope that it helped you to understand some of the chatter that you’ve been hearing, and that you'll be more informed on these issues in the future.

So what do you think? Do you ever feel that gender is a little restricting? Have you thought about the relationship between sex and gender? How do you think we’re doing in terms of being tolerant and accepting? Is there anything else you want to see me talk about? Let me know in a comment!