The terms 'sex' and 'gender' often become blurred and can be confusing - in this guide we get right down to basics and define what they are.
A lot of the conversation around gender focuses on the relationship between gender and sex, so let's start with the definition of these two words.
What is sex?
Sex is a biological label given to people by doctors when they are born, based on things like their genitalia, hormones and chromosomes.
Society often considers sex to be binary with only two options: male and female. In reality, not everyone fits neatly into these two categories. For example, some people have female-typical exterior anatomy but male-typical interior anatomy, and others have female-typical genitals but male chromosomes. People with these biological variations are called intersex.
Intersex is not just a third, well defined category to be added to male and female: doctors decide whether someone’s variations qualify as intersex, and they often disagree or use different definitions from each other. This is why some people prefer not to use the term ‘biological sex’ and might instead use the phrases ‘assigned male at birth’ (AMAB) or ‘assigned female at birth’ (AFAB). It recognises the fact that when it comes to people’s sex, a doctor is often making a decision, rather than asserting a fact.
What is gender?
Gender encompasses the relationship between a person’s body, their identity and expression, and how they and society views those elements.
It’s hard to define gender because it describes feelings and concepts rather than anything scientific. In fact, people sometimes say that gender is a social construct, which means it is a notion that was invented by society: gender was originally defined through the behaviours and attributes considered appropriate by society for each sex, and this can be called gender roles. There is another way to think about gender however, as something which is an internal, personal feeling, and this is called gender identity.
Again, society often views gender as a binary with two categories: man and woman. It might seem like we have only recently started being critical about these categories, but in fact many cultures have recognised more than two genders for centuries! Muxes are a third gender in the Zapotec cultures in Mexico, and the Bugis people in Indonesia recognise five genders. Even in cultures where gender is seen as a binary, there have always been nonbinary people: individuals who don’t recognise themselves in either category. For example, in 1778 in Norway, Jens Andersson was imprisoned and interrogated after he had married a woman but was found to have a female body. Jens said that he ‘believed he could belong to both genders’.
In general, ideas of gender are still heavily linked to what society views as acceptable behaviour for people of different sexes, and this leads to very narrow definitions. When we consider all the different ways that people can feel about who they are, and how they can feel outside of the traditional definitions, it makes sense to think of gender not as something that can be divided into separate categories, but as a spectrum, where different gender identities overlap and share characteristics with each other.
Gender and sex
Sex and gender are said to align when someone’s gender identity is the same as the gender that society expects them to be based on their sex - for example, if someone is female and identifies as a woman. For more information on gender, sex, and trans identities, check out our guide Understanding gender: trans identities.