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What is the difference between sex and gender?

The difference between sex and gender is that sex is a biological concept based on biological characteristics, whereas gender deals with personal, societal and cultural perceptions of sexuality.

There has been a lot of talk in recent months and years about gender and sex, particularly with the modern, progressive world in which we now live, where flexible ideas of gender and identity are beginning to flourish around the world. Human beings are no longer bound by such binary concepts as male-female, masculine-feminine, or man-woman. Centuries and millennia of social tradition and scientific belief are now being challenged by these ideas, which makes it all the more important to understand the difference.

For a very long time, the words “gender” and “sex” were used interchangeably, but that is not only no longer the case, but also nowhere close to the truth. So… for those who want to progress with the times and embrace the full spectrum of human identity, a common question arises: what is the difference between sex and gender? 

The term sex refers to biological characteristics, namely chromosomes, internal and external sex organs, and the hormonal activities within the body. Essentially, when we use the term sex, what we are really commenting on is “male” vs. “female”, scientifically speaking. The sex of an individual is based on genetics, making it much more difficult to change.

chromosome X

For those who need a quick recap on human genetics, men and women both possess 46 chromosomes, as well as two sex chromosomes. Women have two X chromosomes, whereas men possess 1 X chromosome and 1 Y chromosome. It is this Y chromosome in men that causes the testes to form (as the Y chromosome is dominant). This difference in chromosomes also causes the variation in hormones that are found within the body. Women, for example, have much higher levels of estrogen and progesterone, which stimulate the body to develop primary and secondary sex characteristics (breasts, menstruation, etc.). Men, on the other hand, have much higher levels of testosterone than women. These genetically controlled factors result in the physiological and biological differences between the sexes, but that isn’t where the story ends.

Although many people look at sex as “natural” and a fundamental difference between men and women, there is actually quite a bit of gray area in between, making this issue far from a dichotomy between “male and female”. Due to the endlessly unpredictable nature of life, some women are born with a Y chromosome, and men can have 2 or even 3 X chromosomes. Intersex humans have sexual characteristics of both men and women, and this includes a number of more specific conditions, including hermaphroditism. While this portion of the population has often been excluded or alienated in the past, that is thankfully beginning to change in certain parts of the world. Experts believe that approximately 0.1% of the population is actually born as an intersex individual, equivalent to roughly 7.5 million people around the world.

Clearly, “sex” is not as clear as we once thought it was, but that’s nothing compared to gender…

So what does gender mean?

Unlike “sex”, gender does not have a basis in science, although it is affected by the biological and physiological characteristics we display as “males” and “females”. Instead, gender is based on the societal constructions and belief systems put in place that deal with masculinity and femininity. The gender identity that most people adhere to is usually unconscious or forced upon us at an early age. We see the concepts of gender in the colors assigned to children (blue for boys, pink for girls), the common length of our hair (men-short, women-long), the toys we play with, the jobs we aspire to, and the behaviors and interests we are “supposed” to embrace. Throughout history, gender roles have been put in place based on social constructs, and the strength of these traditions is shocking at times. Even today, in the modern world, shifting gender roles and identity is met with great opposition. Some countries still firmly adhere to ancient gender assignations, such as women being subservient to men, unequal rights between the sexes, and the illegality of those who wish to embrace alternative gender identities.

However, if we look back at history, we can easily identify how certain gender identification markers have shifted or even completely reversed, which is evidence that gender is completely fluid, and should remain so in order to highlight individuality and personal choice. A short list of these includes high heels, makeup, wigs, and the color pink – all of which were originally or primarily associated with masculinity and the “male” gender, while now they are largely embraced by the “female” gender.

Around the world, an incredibly diverse range of gender “norms” and societal influences change this idea, so proposing that gender is a rigid or permanent classification for a dynamic individual, nation or species is foolish.

The idea of being a “real man” creates a cult of masculinity, which is not a healthy standard to force upon those who feel or believe differently. Similarly, being a “good woman” (particularly in the past) is associated with rules of femininity, and have resulted in practical and psychological oppression for millennia. Many people do not firmly fit within one gender, and instead, embrace the concept of gender fluidity.

To summarize, many people believe that “Sex” is determined by nature, whereas “Gender” is determined by nurture, but even that is too binary a classification. Sex does impact gender, but neither of these qualities in a person is a definition. These concepts help us understand who a person is, not what they are, which allows the opportunity for personal choice and change.

Neither of these words is a definition, but rather a description, and should be treated accordingly.

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