General Question

liminal's avatar

What results from differentiating the terms sex and gender?

Asked by liminal (7766points) May 4th, 2010
21 responses
“Great Question” (2points)

I have noticed that many people use the two words interchangeably. Some students of science encourage distinguishing the two.

If I am understanding correctly the differentiation is this:

“Sex” refers to the biological and physiological components of a person.

“Gender” refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for one’s sex.

What kind of impact does making such a distinction have?

I am not looking for any particular answers here and I am being vague on purpose. I am simply hoping for full discussion. If you see an angle run with it. If you see something to add to the question, knock yourself out.

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CMaz's avatar

“What kind of impact does making such a distinction have?”
It allows individuals to separate themselves from not having to identify with a standard of norm. Biased on their own feelings towards that matter.

Want to call a tomato a banana? I don’t care, as long as when I ask for a tomato, I don’t end up with a pickle, instead of a tomato.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

It allows for a system where a person’s gender can be anything no matter what sex they were categorized into at birth. It also explains why gender norms are different in different societies even though the presense of males/females/intersex people is the same. It is a freeing disntinction, imo and one of the foundations of any feminist, queer, etc. theory.

wundayatta's avatar

This distinction allows us to believe that biology does not determine sexual identity. Socially, it gives people more freedom to exist in areas that are not strictly the poles of gender. It gives us more gradations, not either/or. This allows people who do not feel like male or female describes them to create a place where they feel comfortable. Further, it helps legitimize alternatives to a binary gender categorization system.

In science, we always prefer continuous points of measurement. We get more precise results and we can predict outcomes with greater accuracy. When we have discrete measurements (1 or 2 or 3 but nothing in between) we lose accuracy, and when we limit ourselves to an either/or position, we have the least accuracy in our results. Of course, this does not stop most scientists from seeing gender as a binary system. Or race, for that matter. But to measure the in between points, I think, is more work than most scientists want to do. For one thing, there is no generally accepted categorization scheme (either discrete or continuous) for a continuum on which either gender or race can be measured.

Anyway, if we have a more finely tuned categorization scheme, we’ll get more accurate models of human behavior. On the other hand, we’ll have to get acceptance of more accurate scales, and that will take a lot of political work—work that many scientists, I’m sure, won’t want to engage in. We should support our own @Simone_De_Beauvoir in her efforts, because they are allied with this scientific principle of greater accuracy and better model-building.

anartist's avatar


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CyanoticWasp's avatar

I see no problem at all with disambiguation and clarity in language. Those are both good things.

The problem that I have is when a person says he / she / it is, for example, “pansexual”, and when questioned as to the meaning of that word, the response is “whatever the originator wants it to mean”—and no further definition than that. Meaning that we can’t have a conversation at all, because we’re using made-up words with no meaning.

majorrich's avatar

One refers to the equipment, the other refers to behaviour and identity

liminal's avatar

@CyanoticWasp In case someone hasn’t told you yet, I am happy to oblige:—

Main Entry: pan·sex·u·al
Pronunciation: \ˌpan-ˈsek-sh(ə-)wəl, -shəl\
Function: adjective
Date: 1926
: exhibiting or implying many forms of sexual expression
— pan·sex·u·al·i·ty \ˌpan-ˌsek-shə-ˈwa-lə-tē\ noun—

Would you mind saying more about why differentiating gender and sex brings the term pansexual to your mind?

liminal's avatar

@worriedguy Would you mind saying more I am not sure I understand?

@wundayatta and et al.: If there turns out to be some energetic scientists out there (or on the way) do you imagine certain hypothesis that might emerge from “a more finely tuned categorization scheme”?

liminal's avatar

@majorrich Do you see something important about that distinction?

majorrich's avatar

I once had the opportunity to be a lone straight guy working in a department full of women and men who were also women. I got to ask a lot of questions of the gay guys, and all the girls I could handle. It seems with some of the really really gay guys that actually would sometimes dress like women, they were indeed male in that they had male equipment, but their brains and identity was that of a women. That was 1988, and that was when I started making the distinction. All were fine employees and really that was all I cared about.

wundayatta's avatar

@liminal One hopes it would help explain more of the kinds of behavior one sees in various kinds of relationships. It could also be related to genes or environmental factors in some way. I don’t know. It depends on what you are trying to explain. It’s not something I ever studied, so I don’t know what the issues are.

prolificus's avatar

I’ve been thinking about this question, within the context of the process I’m undertaking by questioning my gender identity. Anatomically, I am a woman. Yet, cognitively, I have moments of feeling ambiguous or more masculine than feminine. By this I am not referring to typical gender roles. I believe personal characteristics, interests, abilities, etc., are based upon the individual regardless of sexual or gender expression.

For me experiencing life inside my body, feeling more masculine than feminine means I have the desire to do things physiologically related to being a man. For example, sometimes I have the strong desire to shave my face even though I have thin, invisible peach fuzz. At times, without thinking, I lower my voice while speaking to someone who really knows me. Around those who expect me to act like a woman, my voice tends to be higher.

Sometimes, I have the urge to go into a men’s restroom and to use a urinal. In my mind, I have a real penis, even though I have typical female anatomy. For years, I’ve referred to my penis as my “imaginary penis.” But, I wouldn’t say it is a figment of my imagination. It feels real to me, and it is a part of me in almost everything I do – from wearing clothes to expressing sexual/sensual desires. I don’t need a packy to affirm this feeling. In fact, I feel more natural when I am as is – without any special changes in my appearance.

I am equally comfortable wearing a tie or wearing a dress, although I have not put on a dress in more than 4 years. I think men and women can wear anything they want, so I don’t limit apparel to sex or gender expression. However, I feel like I am putting on clown makeup when, in the distant past, I wore cosmetics. So, natural to me is to be sans cosmetics. Also, although I have worn my hair medium length and I have dyed it various colors, I prefer a buzz cut and my naturally grayish brown hair.

I have been casually processing the meaning of gender ambiguity and the desire to do the above mentioned typically male activities, etc. For me, in my body, I do not feel the need to go through a major transformation. I am comfortable as is. However, there are times I wonder what it would be like to physically transform my appearance to match the feelings I have inside. If I were to do this, it would be because of my sex (how I feel regarding my physiology), and not because of my gender (how I express the expectations of my sex).

Having said this, I think gender refers to how others and how the self perceives the way one should act according to one’s appearance. I think sex refers to physiological characteristics (whether observable or hidden), and how these characteristics function in terms of biological urges.

CMaz's avatar

Ok, you are a woman that has these feelings. Does not make you less of a woman.

prolificus's avatar

@ChazMaz – Not any more than it makes a man who desires to wear a dress, or to urinate while sitting, any less than a man. I don’t think biological urges define or ascribe value to one’s sex or personhood. I’m all “woman.” If it wasn’t for my anatomy, I’d be all man. Not because I’d have either a clitoris or a penis, but because I am all person in a body with sexual anatomy. So, to answer your question, having these feelings doesn’t make me any less of a woman. It does, however, make me more of a person.

CMaz's avatar

GA. :-) it makes you the person you are.

Arp's avatar

As I have had it explained to me:

“Sex is between the legs. Gender is between the ears.”

liminal's avatar

@Arp do you think there is anything significant about making this distinction? What does this sort of thinking lead to, if anything?

Arp's avatar

@liminal It means that they are two completely separate things. You can be one gender in your mind, and still be the opposite sex. It means that you should be yourself, and not care what standards society has set for people that are put in this difficult position of uncertainty, where one has to often think “What am I?”.

downtide's avatar

Interesting question. I think the most significant implication is that it allows someone to identify as a gender that is different from their biological sex.

Paxan8's avatar

This is a very interesting question. But to be honest I think gender and sex can be completely interchangeable like many words in the English language. If you really want to separate the words sex should be assigned to the anatomical sexual organs whereas gender is the social stereotypes associated to the personalities of people with said sexual organs.

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