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The difference between sex and gender

The difference between sex and gender is commonly misinterpreted which means societies binary expectation of our identities is determined by our body parts rather than who we are. Confusing sex and gender can be invalidating to a persons true identity and we can all make a conscious effort to learn and broaden our understanding of this topic and the human beings affected by the misconceptions. As the founder of Va Va Womb I am so liberated to be part of a community who are breaking down these barriers and supporting a kinder world by contributing to education on sex, gender and lived experiences. As a cis woman born without a womb, vagina and who has never had a period, I feel apart of the community of people with bodies that don’t meet societies expectation of our gender.

I spoke to Demi from S3x theory with Demi and they have kindly written this piece which breaks down sex and gender. Support Demi by signing up to their Patreon for amazing content and following their socials.

So what is the difference between sex and gender?

Perhaps the most fundamental lesson within RSHE (relationship, sex, health education) and one that has the most debate surrounding it is the difference between sex and gender. Sex and gender are often used interchangeably, despite having different meanings, the most notiable example of this is ‘gender reveal’ parties which in fact are genitalia (sex) reveal parties. Let’s get into the logistics of the two and why both aren’t binary!

The World Health Organisation regional office for Europe describes sex as characteristics that are biologically defined, whereas gender is based on socially constructed features - stereotypes.

Sex refers to the biological attributes in humans and animals - associated with physical and physiological features which include chromosomes, gene expression, hormones and reproductive anatomy. Sex is determined at birth, which is where the phrase AFAB and AMAB (assigned male/female at birth) comes from, by a doctor based purely on the external genitalia of the child. The sex of the infant is usually categorised as either male or female, based on whether the infant has a penis or a vulva.

However, sex isn’t binary, ‘binary’ meaning either male or female. Infants may also be born intersex. Intersex people are born with sex characteristics including genitals, gonads and chromosome patterns that do not “fit” typical binary clusters of male or female bodies. It is said that there are the same percentage of red-headed people in the world as there are intersex individuals - however, many of these individuals go about their life with no knowledge of this because doctors will typically assign a sex that fits the infant best based on their genitalia or perform “corrective” surgery. Intersex individuals account for around 1 in 1,500 births and yet, there is a huge lack of education around this percentage.

Sex isn’t binary in the same way gender isn’t binary, however, there is much more resistance to accept this fact in society due to the lack of education to correct this myth of XX and XY. For instance, some men are born with two or three X chromosomes, just as some women are born with a Y chromosome.

In 1964, Robert Stoller coined the term ‘gender identity’, referring to an individual’s personal concept about their gender and how they feel inside.

Gender cannot be determined by any physical attributes, it refers to the socially constructed roles, expressions, behaviours of girls, boys, men’s women and gender diverse* individuals. Much like sex, gender too is not binary nor static: gender identity exists on a continuum which can change over time. One person's gender identity, even if labelled the same, will exist on a slightly different point of the continuum than someone else. Two nonbinary individuals may plot themselves on the continuum between male and female on different places yet, they still identity as the same label. There are MANY gender identities and this number continues to grow each day. There are also umbrella identities that group various similar identities together for example nonbinary encompasses many gender identities that don't fit into the male-female binary - gender-diverse, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, two-spirit all exist under this umbrella term.

A great tool for explaining the difference between sex and gender and how they can coexist on very different continuums is The Genderbread Person. This tool is used by many RSHE educators to easily demonstrate gender, sex, expression and attraction to students in secondary schools. The model states that gender is found in the brain, sex is between the legs, expression (how we present ourselves to the world) is demonstrated by our outer body and attraction (sexuality) is found in the heart. This model helps to separate the various parts of our identity to show how they can all exist on different continuum’s whilst also existing in the same person.

Your gender and sex do not have to be the same and both are valid in their own separate indicators of your identity.

Similarly, your attraction and gender do not need to align or your sex and expression. There are hundreds of gender identity ‘recipes’ that you could create for your genderbread person and no two people will be exactly the same.

image via

I’d definitely recommend looking up the Genderbread Person and writing out your gender, sex, expression and attraction on a piece of paper to help you understand your identity - even if you are cisgender* give it a go - not only will it help you understand yourself, it will help you to grasp how the various parts of your identity exist separately.

I also want to add that it is completely ok for your gender and sex to be the same, however, it is crucial to open your mind to how others identify and the fact that their identity may not align as yours does.

Gender diverse - A person who identifies outside of the binary - an umbrella term.

Cisgender- A person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex.

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