Sex and gender distinction

Distinction between sex and gender differentiates sex (the anatomy of an individual's reproductive system, and secondary sex characteristics) from gender, which can refer to either social roles based on the sex of the person (gender role) or personal identification of one's own gender based on an internal awareness (gender identity).[1][2] In some circumstances, an individual's assigned sex and gender do not align, and the person may be transgender,[1] non-binary, or gender-nonconforming.

The sex and gender distinction is not universal. In ordinary speech, sex and gender are often used interchangeably.[3][4] Some dictionaries and academic disciplines give them different definitions while others do not.

Among scientists, the term sex differences (as compared to gender differences) is typically applied to sexually dimorphic traits that are hypothesized to be evolved consequences of sexual selection.[5][6]


Anisogamy, or the size differences of gametes (sex cells), is the defining feature of the two sexes. By definition, males have small, mobile gametes (sperm); females have large and generally immobile gametes (ova).[7] In humans, typical male or female sexual differentiation includes the presence or absence of a Y chromosome, the type of gonads, the sex hormones, the internal reproductive anatomy (such as the uterus in females), and the external genitalia.[8] People with mixed sex factors are intersex. People whose internal psychological experience differs from their assigned sex are transgender or transsexual.

The consensus among scientists is that all behaviors are phenotypes—complex interactions of both biology and environment—and thus nature vs. nurture is a misleading categorization.[9][10] The term sex differences is typically applied to sexually dimorphic traits that are hypothesized to be evolved consequences of sexual selection. For example, the human "sex difference" in height is a consequence of sexual selection, while the "gender difference" typically seen in head hair length (women with longer hair) is not.[5][6] Scientific research shows an individual's sex influences his or her behavior.[11][12][13][14][15]

Sex is annotated as different from gender in the Oxford English Dictionary, where it says sex "tends now to refer to biological differences".[16] The World Health Organization (WHO) similarly states that "'sex' refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women" and that "'male' and 'female' are sex categories".[17]

The American Heritage Dictionary (5th ed.), however, lists sex as both "Either of the two divisions, designated female and male, by which most organisms are classified on the basis of their reproductive organs and functions" and "One's identity as either female or male," among other definitions.[18]


From the Renaissance to the 18th century, there was a prevailing inclination among doctors towards the existence of only one biological sex.[19] In some discourses, this view persisted into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.[20][21] Even at its peak, the one-sex model was supported among highly educated Europeans but is not known to have been a popular view nor one entirely agreed upon by doctors who treated the general population.[22] Sex and gender took center stage in America in the time of wars, when women had to work and men were at war.[23]


In the Oxford English Dictionary, gender is defined as, "[i]n mod. (esp. feminist) use, a euphemism for the sex of a human being, often intended to emphasize the social and cultural, as opposed to the biological, distinctions between the sexes.", with the earliest example cited being from 1963.[24] The American Heritage Dictionary (5th ed.), in addition to defining gender the same way that it defines biological sex, also states that gender may be defined by identity as "neither entirely female nor entirely male"; its Usage Note adds:

Some people maintain that the word sex should be reserved for reference to the biological aspects of being male or female or to sexual activity, and that the word gender should be used only to refer to sociocultural roles. ... In some situations this distinction avoids ambiguity, as in gender research, which is clear in a way that sex research is not. The distinction can be problematic, however. Linguistically, there isn't any real difference between gender bias and sex bias, and it may seem contrived to insist that sex is incorrect in this instance.[18]

A working definition in use by the World Health Organization for its work is that "'[g]ender' refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women" and that "'masculine' and 'feminine' are gender categories."[17] The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) used to use gender instead of sex when referring to physiological differences between male and female organisms.[25] In 2011, they reversed their position on this and began using sex as the biological classification and gender as "a person's self representation as male or female, or how that person is responded to by social institutions based on the individual's gender presentation."[26] Gender is also now commonly used even to refer to the physiology of non-human animals, without any implication of social gender roles.[4]

GLAAD (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) makes a distinction between sex and gender in their most recent Media Reference Guide: Sex is "the classification of people as male or female" at birth, based on bodily characteristics such as chromosomes, hormones, internal reproductive organs, and genitalia. Gender identity is "one's internal, personal sense of being a man or woman (or a boy or a girl)".[27]

Some feminist philosophers maintain that gender is totally undetermined by sex. See, for example, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, a widely influential feminist text.[28]

The case of David Reimer who was, according to studies published by John Money, raised as a girl after a botched circumcision was described in the book As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl. Reimer was in fact not comfortable as a girl and later changed gender identity back to male when discovered the truth of his surgery. He eventually committed suicide.[29]


Gender in the sense of social and behavioral distinctions, according to archaeological evidence, arose "at least by some 30,000 years ago".[30] More evidence was found as of "26,000 years ago",[31] at least at the archeological site Dolní Věstonice I and others, in what is now the Czech Republic.[32] This is during the Upper Paleolithic time period.[33]

The historic meaning of gender, ultimately derived from Latin genus, was of "kind" or "variety". By the 20th century, this meaning was obsolete, and the only formal use of gender was in grammar.[3] This changed in the early 1970s when the work of John Money, particularly the popular college textbook Man & Woman, Boy & Girl, was embraced by feminist theory. This meaning of gender is now prevalent in the social sciences; although in many other contexts, gender includes sex or replaces it.[4]


Jemima Repo has in her doctoral thesis The biopolitics of gender (2011) criticized the use of the term gender among feminists, because it has been used to justify biopolitical projects.[34][35]

Distinction in linguistics

Since the social sciences now distinguish between biologically defined sex and socially constructed gender, the term gender is now also sometimes used by linguists to refer to social gender as well as grammatical gender. Traditionally, however, a distinction has been made by linguists between sex and gender, where sex refers primarily to the attributes of real-world entities – the relevant extralinguistic attributes being, for instance, male, female, non-personal, and indeterminate sex – and gender refers to a grammatical category, such as masculine, feminine, and neuter (often based on sex, but not exclusively so in all languages), that determines the agreement between nouns of different genders and associated words, such as articles and adjectives.[36][37]

A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, for instance, states

By GENDER is meant a grammatical classification of nouns, pronouns, or other words in the noun phrase according to certain meaning-related distinctions, especially a distinction related to the sex of the referent.[38]

Thus German, for instance, has three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Nouns referring to people and animals of known sex are generally referred to by nouns with the equivalent gender. Thus Mann (meaning man) is masculine and is associated with a masculine definite article to give der Mann, while Frau (meaning woman) is feminine and is associated with a feminine definite article to give die Frau. However the words for inanimate objects are commonly masculine (e.g. der Tisch, the table) or feminine (die Armbanduhr, the watch), and grammatical gender can diverge from biological sex; for instance the feminine noun [die] Person refers to a person of either sex, and the neuter noun [das] Mädchen means "the girl".

In modern English, there is no true grammatical gender in this sense,[36] though the differentiation, for instance, between the pronouns "he" and "she", which in English refers to a difference in sex (or social gender), is sometimes referred to as a gender distinction. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, for instance, refers to the semantically based "covert" gender (e.g. male and female, not masculine and feminine) of English nouns, as opposed to the "overt" gender of some English pronouns; this yields nine gender classes: male, female, dual, common, collective, higher male animal, higher female animal, lower animal, and inanimate, and these semantic gender classes affect the possible choices of pronoun for coreference to the real-life entity, e.g. who and he for brother but which and it or she for cow.[38]

Criticism of the "sex difference" versus "gender difference" distinction

The current distinction between the terms sex difference versus gender difference has been criticized as misleading and counterproductive. These terms suggest that the behavior of an individual can be partitioned into separate biological and cultural factors. (However, behavioral differences between individuals can be statistically partitioned, as studied by behavioral genetics). Instead, all behaviors are phenotypes—a complex interweaving of both nature and nurture.[39]

Diane Halpern, in her book Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities, argued problems with sex vs. gender terminology: "I cannot argue (in this book) that nature and nurture are inseparable and then... use different terms to refer to each class of variables. The ...biological manifestations of sex are confounded with psychosocial variables.... The use of different terms to label these two types of contributions to human existence seemed inappropriate in light of the biopsychosocial position I have taken." She also stated that "Pinker (2006b, para. 2) provided a clear summary of the problems with the terms "sex and gender: "part of it is a new prissiness of many people today are squeamish about sexual dimorphism as the Victorians were about sex. The word sex refers... (both) to copulation and to sexual dimorphism..."[40] Richard Lippa writes in Gender, Nature and Nurture that "Some researchers have argued that the word sex should be used to refer to (biological differences), whereas the word gender should be used to refer to (cultural differences). However, it is not at all clear the degree to which the differences between males and females are due to biological factors versus learned and cultural factors. Furthermore, indiscriminate use of the word gender tends to obscure the distinction between two different topics: (a) differences between males and females, and (b) individual differences in maleness and femaleness that occur within each sex."[41]

It has been suggested that more useful distinctions to make would be whether a behavioral difference between the sexes is first due to an evolved adaptation, then, if so, whether the adaptation is sexually dimorphic (different) or sexually monomorphic (the same in both sexes). The term sex difference could then be re-defined as between-sex differences that are manifestations of a sexually dimorphic adaptation (which is how many scientists use the term[42][43]), while the term gender difference could be re-defined as due to differential socialization between the sexes of a monomorphic adaptation or byproduct. For example, greater male propensity toward physical aggression and risk taking would be termed a "sex difference;" the generally longer head hair length of females would be termed a "gender difference."[44]

Transgender and genderqueer

Main articles: Transgender and Genderqueer

Transgender people are people who experience a mismatch between their gender identity or gender expression, and their assigned sex.[45][46][47] Transgender people are sometimes called transsexual if they desire medical assistance to transition from one sex to another. Transgender is also an umbrella term: in addition to including people whose gender identity is the opposite of their assigned sex (trans men and trans women), it may include people who are not exclusively masculine or feminine (people who are genderqueer (also known as non-binary, e.g. bigender, pangender, genderfluid, or agender).[46][48][49] Other definitions of transgender also include people who belong to a third gender, or conceptualize transgender people as a third gender.[50][51] Infrequently, the term transgender is defined very broadly to include cross-dressers.[52]


Main article: Feminism


Many feminists consider sex to only be a matter of biology and something that is not about social or cultural construction. For example, Lynda Birke, a feminist biologist, states that "'biology' is not seen as something which might change."[53] However, the sex/gender distinction, also known as the Standard Model of Sex/Gender, is criticized by feminists who believe that there is undue emphasis placed on sex being a biological aspect, something that is fixed, natural, unchanging, and consisting of a male/female dichotomy. They believe the distinction fails to recognize anything outside the strictly male/female dichotomy and that it creates a barrier between those that fit and those that are 'abnormal'. In order to prove that sex is not only limited to two categories Anne Fausto-Sterling's Sexing the Body addresses the birth of children who are intersex. In this case, the standard model (sex/gender distinction) is seen as incorrect with regard to its notion that there are only two sexes, male and female. This is because "complete maleness and complete femaleness represent the extreme ends of a spectrum of possible body types."[54] In other words, Fausto-Sterling argues that there are multitudes of sexes in between the two extremes of male and female.

Rather than viewing sex as a biological construct, there are feminists who accept both sex and gender as a social construct. According to the Intersex Society of North America, "nature doesn't decide where the category of 'male' ends and the category of 'intersex' begins, or where the category of 'intersex' ends and the category of 'female' begins. Humans decide. Humans (today, typically doctors) decide how small a penis has to be, or how unusual a combination of parts has to be, before it counts as intersex."[55] Fausto-Sterling believes that sex is socially constructed because nature does not decide on who is seen as a male or female physically. Rather, doctors decide what seems to be a "natural" sex for the inhabitants of society. In addition, the gender, behavior, actions, and appearance of males/females is also seen as socially constructed because codes of femininity and masculinity are chosen and deemed fit by society for societal usage.

West and Zimmerman's "doing gender"

Used primarily in sociology and gender studies, the term doing gender refers to the concept of gender as a socially constructed performance which takes place during routine human interactions, rather than as a set of essentialized qualities based on one's biological sex.[56] The term first appeared in Candace West and Don Zimmerman’s article “Doing Gender”, published in the peer-reviewed journal, Gender and Society.[57] Originally written in 1977 but not published until 1987,[58] Doing Gender is the most cited article published in Gender and Society.[57]

West and Zimmerman state that to understand gender as activity, it is important to differentiate between sex, sex category, and gender.[56] They say that sex refers to the socially agreed upon specifications that establish one as male or female; sex is most often based on an individual's genitalia, or even their chromosomal typing before birth.[56] They consider sex categories to be dichotomous, and that the person is placed in a sex category by exhibiting qualities exclusive to one category or the other. During most interactions, others situate a person's sex by identifying their sex category; however, they believe that a person's sex need not align with their sex category.[56] West and Zimmerman (1987) maintain that the sex category is "established and sustained by the socially required identificatory displays that proclaim one’s membership in one or the other category" (p. 127). Gender is the performance of attitudes and actions that are considered socially acceptable for one’s sex category.[56]

West and Zimmerman suggested that the interactional process of doing gender, combined with socially agreed upon gender expectations, holds individuals accountable for their gender performances.[56] They also believe that while "doing gender" appropriately strengthens and promotes social structures based on the gender dichotomy, it inappropriately does not call into question these same social structures; only the individual actor is questioned.[56] The concept of "doing gender" recognizes that gender both structures human interactions and is created through them.[56]


Some feminists go further and argue that neither sex nor gender are strictly binary concepts. Judith Lorber, for instance, has stated that many conventional indicators of sex are not sufficient to demarcate male from female. For example, not all women lactate, while some men do.[59] Similarly, Suzanne Kessler, in a 1990 survey of medical specialists in pediatric intersexuality, found out that when a child was born with XY chromosomes but ambiguous genitalia, its sex was often determined according to the size of its penis.[60] Thus, even if the sex/gender distinction holds, Lorber and Kessler suggest that the dichotomies of female/male and masculine/feminine are not themselves exhaustive. Lorber writes, "My perspective goes beyond accepted feminist views that gender is a cultural overlay that modifies physiological sex differences [...] I am arguing that bodies differ in many ways physiologically, but they are completely transformed by social practices to fit into the salient categories of a society, the most pervasive of which are 'female' and 'male' and 'women' and 'men.'"[59]

Moreover, Lorber has alleged that there exists more diversity within the individual categories of sex and gender—female/male and feminine/masculine, respectively—than between them.[59] Hence, her fundamental claim is that both sex and gender are social constructions, rather than natural kinds.

A comparable view has been advanced by Linda Zerilli, who writes regarding [Monique] Wittig, that she is "critical of the sex/gender dichotomy in much feminist theory because such a dichotomy leaves unquestioned the belief that there is a 'core of nature which resists examination, a relationship excluded from the social in the analysis—a relationship whose characteristic is ineluctability in culture, as well as in nature, and which is the heterosexual relationship.'"[61][lower-alpha 1] Judith Butler also criticizes the sex/gender distinction. Gender, according to Butler, causes sex to appear natural and politically neutral. However, she argues that "the ostensibly natural facts of sex [are] discursively produced in the service of other political and social interests." Butler concludes, "If the immutable character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called 'sex' is as culturally constructed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always already gender, with the consequence that the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all."[62]

See also


  1. Monique Wittig, feminist theorist and author of Les Guérillères, a lesbian feminist novel


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  41. Lippa, R. (2005). Gender, Nature and Nurture. NJ: LEA, p 3-4.
  42. Standards of evidence for designed sex differences
  43. Bourke CH; Harrell CS; Neigh GN (August 2012). "Stress-induced sex differences: adaptations mediated by the glucocorticoid receptor". Hormones and Behavior. 62 (3): 210–8. doi:10.1016/j.yhbeh.2012.02.024. PMC 3384757Freely accessible. PMID 22426413.
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  45. Terry Altilio, Shirley Otis-Green (2011). Oxford Textbook of Palliative Social Work. Oxford University Press. p. 380. ISBN 0199838275. Retrieved April 12, 2016. Transgender is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation [GLAAD], 2007).
  46. 1 2 Craig J. Forsyth, Heith Copes (2014). Encyclopedia of Social Deviance. Sage Publications. p. 740. ISBN 1483364690. Retrieved April 12, 2016. Transgender is an umbrella term for people whose gender identities, gender expressions, and/or behaviors are different from those culturally associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth.
  47. Marla Berg-Weger (2016). Social Work and Social Welfare: An Invitation. Routledge. p. 229. ISBN 1317592026. Retrieved April 12, 2016. Transgender: An umbrella term that describes people whose gender identity or gender expression differs from expectations associated with the sex assigned to them at birth.
  48. Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. "GLAAD Media Reference Guide – Transgender glossary of terms", "GLAAD", USA, May 2010. Retrieved on 2011-02-24. "An umbrella term for people whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth."
  49. B Bilodeau, Beyond the gender binary: A case study of two transgender students at a Midwestern research university, in the Journal of Gay & Lesbian Issues in Education (2005): "Yet Jordan and Nick represent a segment of transgender communities that have largely been overlooked in transgender and student development research – individuals who express a non-binary construction of gender[.]"
  50. Susan Stryker, Stephen Whittle, The Transgender Studies Reader (ISBN 1-135-39884-4), page 666: "The authors note that, increasingly, in social science literature, the term “third gender” is being replaced by or conflated with the newer term “transgender.”
  51. Joan C. Chrisler, Donald R. McCreary, Handbook of Gender Research in Psychology, volume 1 (2010, ISBN 1-4419-1465-X), page 486: "Transgender is a broad term characterized by a challenge of traditional gender roles and gender identity[. …] For example, some cultures classify transgender individuals as a third gender, thereby treating this phenomenon as normative."
  52. Sari L. Reisner, Kerith Conron, Matthew J. Mimiaga, Sebastien Haneuse, et al, Comparing in-person and online survey respondents in the US National Transgender Discrimination Survey: implications for transgender health research, in LGBT Health, June 2014, 1(2): 98-106. doi:10.1089/lgbt.2013.0018: "Transgender was defined broadly to cover those who transition from one gender to another as well as those who may not choose to socially, medically, or legally fully transition, including cross-dressers, people who consider themselves to be genderqueer, androgynous, and ..."
  53. Birke, Lynda (2001). "In Pursuit of Difference: Scientific Studies of Women and Men," Muriel Lederman and Ingrid Bartsch eds., The Gender and Science Reader, New York: Routledge. p. 320.
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  55. ISNA."Frequently Asked Questions." Intersex Society of North America 1993-2008.
  56. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 West, C.; Zimmerman, D. (1987). "Doing Gender". Gender and Society. 1 (2): 125–151. doi:10.1177/0891243287001002002. JSTOR 189945.
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  59. 1 2 3 Lorber, Judith (1993). "Believing is Seeing: Biology as Ideology". Retrieved on 8 May 2013.
  60. Kessler, Suzanne (1990). "The Medical Construction of Gender: Case Management of Intersexed Infants". Signs, Vol. 16, No. 1: 3-26.
  61. Zerilli, Linda M. G., The Trojan Horse of Universalism: Language As a 'War Machine' in the Writings of Monique Wittig, in Robbins, Bruce, ed., The Phantom Public Sphere (Minneapolis, Minn.: Univ. of Minn. Press, 1993 (ISBN 0-8166-2124-1)), pp. 153–154 (n. 35 (citing Wittig, Monique, The Straight Mind, in Feminist Issues, vol. 1, no. 1, Summer, 1980, p. 107) omitted) (author asst. prof., poli. sci. dep't, Rutgers Univ., & ed. teaches, Eng. dep't, Rutgers Univ., & coeditor, Social Text) (em-dash surrounded by half-spaces in original).
  62. Butler, Judith (1999). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge. pp. 9–11.
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