Sex & Gender 101
The basic premise of raising Zoomer in a gender-creative way relies on the fact that sex and gender are not the same thing. This article defines the foundational terms and concepts that our family and friends should know to get the most out of the site’s content and to thoroughly understand our parenting philosophy.
So without further ado… Sex and Gender 101.
Sex refers to anatomy and physiology. This includes sex chromosomes, sex hormones, sex organs, and external genitalia.
I must note - most distinctions of "biological sex" are made off of the appearance of an individual's external genitalia. External genitalia and secondary sex characteristics can most certainly be altered and there are medications that can change an individual's hormonal chemistry or suppress puberty. Additionally, no two people have identical genitalia or hormonal levels. There is not one way to be male or female or intersex. I do not subscribe to the idea that an individual's biological sex is unchangeable nor that it is their destiny. This article is meant to be a basic, foundational introduction to the differences between sex and gender, and it should be stated that everything mentioned here is much more complicated than this short article conveys.
Male, Female, and Intersex are the terms we use when referring to biological sex.
Males have XY sex chromosomes, which leads to the development of male sex hormones like testosterone, and male reproductive organs like the testes and penis. Puberty for males brings out secondary sex characteristics such as facial, pubic and body hair and a deeper voice.
Females have XX sex chromosomes, which leads to the development of female sex hormones like estrogen, and female reproductive organs like the ovaries, uterus, and vagina. Puberty for females brings out secondary sex characteristics such as breast development, pubic and body hair and wider hips.
There are several different sex chromosome variations that Intersex persons can have, including: 46, XX Intersex; 46, XY Intersex; True Gonadal Intersex; and Complex or Undetermined Intersex. Some intersex variations are apparent at birth, others become apparent at puberty, while some intersex variations may go undiscovered throughout a person’s lifetime. Intersex variations are considered to be as common as cystic fibrosis or red hair, so it's very likely you know someone who is intersex, although you may not know they are intersex.
- 46, XX Intersex means a person has female sex chromosomes and female internal reproductive organs, but has external genitals that appear male.
- 46, XY Intersex means a person has male sex chromosomes, but the genitals are incompletely formed, ambiguous, or appear female. Internally, their testes may be normal, malformed or absent.
- True Gonadal Intersex means a person has both ovarian and testicular tissue either in the same gonad (ovotestis), or the person might have one testicle and one ovary. The external genitals may be ambiguous or may appear male or female.
- Complex or Undetermined Intersex means a person may have only one sex chromosome (XO) or may have an extra sex chromosome (XXY, XYY, XXX). There may be no discrepancy between internal and external genitalia, but there may be issues with sex hormone levels and sexual development.
Generally speaking, biological sex is universal. Which means that you could travel anywhere in the world and males would all have a similar biologically developmental experience. Whether you were in Phuket, Prague or Philadelphia, a male would have XY chromosomes, a penis and testes, and would go through a predictable puberty process resulting in a new voice, a new mustache, and a new muscular build from their pre-pubescent childhood. Biological sex remains static across time periods. A male hitting puberty in 2016 will have a relatively similar puberty experience, biologically speaking, to their father, grandfather, and great-grandfather regardless of where they lived.
However, how this lineage of males behaved in social situations and how they would have groomed their facial hair to be hip to the current trends is related to gender – which is cultural and time-variant.
Biological sex is universal and static. Gender is a cultural construct that shifts between societies and across time.
Gender refers to the social and cultural roles that males and females are expected to subscribe to based on their biological sex. Gender can be broken down into three main categories: gender assignment, gender identity, and gender expression.
• Gender assignment means that a person is categorized as either a masculine gender (boy/man) or a feminine gender (girl/woman) based on their external genitalia. This typically happens at birth or in-utero. Typically, if a baby appears to be biologically female they are assigned a feminine gender. If a baby appears to be biologically male they are assigned a masculine gender. Intersex babies are often categorized based on the appearance of their external genitalia because parents may be unaware their child is intersex. In the case of apparent intersex variations, some parents still categorize a baby as either a boy or girl, and have their child’s ambiguous genitalia surgically altered to appear more ‘normal.’ There is no such thing as 'normal' genitalia, so thankfully, this practice is becoming less common because it is medically unnecessary.
Upon assigning a gender, children are then socialized according to the gender roles of the culture they were born into.
In America, boys are taught and expected to be tough, risk-taking, rowdy, athletic, strong, aggressive, rugged, handsome, not emotional, messy, loud, heterosexual studs, uninterested in domestic chores and care-taking, unromantic, interested in sports, cars, guns and climbing the corporate ladder, and apparently have an insatiable interest in superheroes and the color blue.
On the contrary, girls are taught and expected to be soft, submissive, cautious, delicate, graceful, prissy, pretty, weak, passive, emotional, tidy, quiet, heterosexual prudes, interested in domestic chores and care-taking, romantic, disinterested in sports and cars with zero career aspirations and apparently have an insatiable interest in princesses and the color pink.
I’m generalizing here and being a little hyperbolic, but you get my drift. Of course not all children are socialized in such stereotypical ways, but gender plays in to how most children are treated and how they learn what is expected of their gender and what is not, i.e. the boy who won't ask for ballet lessons because "ballet is for girls."
Gender is a cultural construct that shifts between societies and across time and affects how people are treated based on their sex. For example, girls in many developing countries are not allowed to go to school, because some cultures only view boys’ education as valuable. And although American women now earn more college degrees than men, the US hasn’t always valued women’s equal education either.
Gender identity refers to how a person thinks about themselves in regards to gender. Gender assignment and gender identity don’t always “match.” If a person feels like their gender identity is in line with their gender assignment they are considered cisgender. If a person feels like their gender identity is not in line with their gender assignment they may identify as transgender, or genderqueer, or non-binary, or gender non-conforming, for example. The gendered pronouns someone uses are an aspect of gender identity – whether someone wants to be referred to as “she,” or “he,” or uses gender-neutral pronouns like "Z" or "they, their and them."
Gender expression refers to how a person shows their gender identity. This includes clothing and other things like make-up, hairstyles, or even style of walking or dancing. It is the way we give cues to other people to show them how we perceive ourselves and how we wish to be perceived by others. Sometimes a person’s gender identity and gender expression may not "align" because of fear of how they will be perceived if they challenge traditional gender norms.
Sexual orientation refers to a person’s sexuality – or who someone is attracted to. Biological sex and gender can be interestingly intertwined in how a person sexually identifies (attitudes/preferences/behavior). Heterosexual (straight) means someone is attracted to people of the other sex or gender. Bisexual (bi) means someone is attracted to both males/men and females/women. Homosexual (gay/lesbian) means someone is attracted to people of the same sex or gender. Pansexual (pan) means someone is attracted to qualities of a person (intelligence, humor) rather than biological sex or gender. Sexuality is fluid and can change over the course of a person’s life. And sexual behavior doesn’t always align with sexual identity. For example, some men have sex with other men but identify as heterosexual (straight). This is largely due to cultural expectations that being gay is in direct conflict with masculinity.
A person’s biological sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation are not mutually exclusive. For example, just because a biological male identifies as cisgender, does not mean he will identify as heterosexual. Just like a transgender woman may also identify as lesbian. Gender expression can change over time, just as sexual orientation can fluctuate over time. Every human’s identity falls along multiple spectrums rather than in dichotomous boxes. Kind of like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure!
Now that you have the basics down, you can read your heart out on the site! Please email your questions to me so I can answer them by writing new articles for our friends and family. We've set up an e-mail address specifically for your questions firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information regarding intersex, you can visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine and AXYS and read Dr. Davis's article 5 Things I Wish You Knew About Intersex.