What is the difference between sex and gender?

Sex and gender are not synonymous terms. In the next few lines we will explain the reasons. Do not stop reading.

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Elena Sanz on October 19, 2021.

Last update: October 19, 2021

For the vast majority of the seven billion people on earth, there is a parallel between sex and gender. This is such that they even use both terms synonymously. Thinking that there are only two sexes (male and female) and that these correspond to two genders (male and female) is simplistic. Let’s see how the problem is more complex through the difference between sex and gender.

For those who defend the distinction between sex and gender, the tags attached to it are insufficient and, in any case, immeasurable. It is likely that you associate this terminology with the LGTB + movement, although as we will see in the following lines, its use takes more years. Get ready to reflect on it.

When did the difference between sex and gender arise?

Although we can find previous allusions and references, the works of John Money and his colleagues (in 1955 and 1957) pose for the first time, with solid arguments, the debate between sex and gender. We can consider your ideas as the forerunners that sex and gender point in different directions.

Later, in 1979, the feminist psychologist Rhoda Unger reframed the problem, assuming that gender should be interpreted from a cultural prism, while sex from biological criteria. Since then, sex and gender have been considered, by some psychologists and activists, as two terms with different characteristics.

Nonetheless, there is no unanimity on the use of labels. Many specialists use sex and gender synonymously, while others simply do not endorse a distinction. The issue has been brought to the table through generational awakening.

In that sense, we have seen how terms such as gender identity, gender expression, sexual identity or sexual expression. All these drink from the sources that we have already exposed, so we do not hesitate to point out that the debate is not a recent issue.



What is sex

With the previous reflections as a preamble, we can now proceed to explain what the difference is between sex and gender. We will do it, how could it be otherwise, defining what is referred to when referring to them individually.

In general terms, sex is understood to be biological aspects of an individual that are determined by their anatomy, their hormones, their genes and their chromosomes. Sex is assigned at birth and is done by the medical team based on these characteristics.

It is at this point that the concept of sexual binarism. That is, the man and woman labels. For most people, their anatomy, their hormones, their genes and their chromosomes allow them to be classified as male or female. Of course, we find some exceptions.

With the label intersex reference is made to people who cannot be classified under the standards of men and women. This is because they have biological characteristics of both sexes.. It is estimated that the percentage of intersex people varies between 0.018% and 1.7%.

Sex is based on biological characteristics that are usually determined externally at birth.

What is gender?

Contrary to what happens with sex, biological criteria are not used to define gender. Instead, it uses social or psychological arguments to regulate people’s behavior, attributes, role, and activities.

Although certain groups reject its use, the truth is that labels are also used to categorize the criteria inherent to gender. These are classified under the name of gender identity and there is no consensus on how many there are or how they should be classified.

The most obvious distinction is found in parallel with sex. That is, man and woman. However, there is a broad cultural or psychological panorama that prevents some people from being classified under these standards.

Some of the most common gender identities are as follows:

  • Transgender.
  • Biggenus.
  • Gender fluid.
  • Non-binary.
  • Polygender.
  • Queer.
  • Two spirits.

These identities manifest through what is known as gender expression. This term refers to the material attitudes, behaviors and actions that are expressed in society. Gender identity does not always correspond to gender expression.

It is important to note that neither sex nor gender is directly related to sexual orientation. That is, with emotional, romantic or sexual preferences towards other people. Sexual orientations are, among others, heterosexuality, homosexuality and bisexuality.

Gender is a slightly more complex concept than sex and there is no unanimous social agreement on several of its points.


Why is the difference between sex and gender important?

As we pointed out at the beginning, society is built on the basis of two genders and two sexes. Although some progress has been made in the West in this regard, both from a social and legal point of view, in reality the understanding of the difference between sex and gender has not been fully assimilated.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), gender is a catalyst for social inequities. These can be as or even more pronounced than those produced by ethnicity, religion, geographic location, age, and sexual orientation. All of this translates into inequality and behavioral or psychological alterations.

For example, a person may be forced to hide their gender identity when it does not correspond to their sex. He will do it, among other things, to avoid social stigma, to get a job, to adapt to family rules or not to go against his religion. As expected, this will lead to depression and, in more severe cases, suicide.

Discriminatory acts towards the perception of gender violate human rights, to the point that some episodes end in violence. In short, knowing the difference between sex and gender is important to the extent that discrimination and inequity are counteracted.

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