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Medicine LibreTexts

5.7: Sex and Gender

  • Page ID
    11716
  • “Sex” refers to physiological differences found among male, female, and various intersex bodies. Sex includes both primary sex characteristics (those related to the reproductive system) and secondary sex characteristics (those that are not directly related to the reproductive system, such as breasts and facial hair). In humans, the biological sex of a child is determined at birth based on several factors, including chromosomes, gonads, hormones, internal reproductive anatomy, and genitalia. Biological sex has traditionally been conceptualized as a binary in Western medicine, typically divided into male and female. However, anywhere from 1.0 to 1.7% of children are born intersex, having a variation in sex characteristics (including chromosomes, gonads, or genitals) that do not allow them to be distinctly identified as male or female. Due to the existence of multiple forms of intersex conditions (which are more prevalent than researchers once thought), many view sex as existing along a spectrum, rather than simply two mutually exclusive categories.

    Sex Symbols.PNG

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) Female and Male Sex Symbols

    Male, Female, and the spectrum of sex

    In humans, sex is typically divided into male, female, or intersex (i.e., having some combination of male and female sex characteristics). The symbols (to the left) represent female on the left and male on the right.

    Gender

    A person’s sex, as determined by his or her biology, does not always correspond with their gender; therefore, the terms “sex” and “gender” are not interchangeable. “Gender” is a term that refers to social or cultural distinctions associated with being male, female, or intersex. Typically, babies born with male sex characteristics (sex) are assigned as boys (gender); babies born with female sex characteristics (sex) are assigned as girls (gender). Because our society operates in a binary system when it comes to gender (in other words, seeing gender as only having two options), many children who are born intersex are forcibly assigned as either a boy or a girl and even surgically “corrected” to fit a particular gender. Scholars generally regard gender as a social construct—meaning that it does not exist naturally, but is instead a concept that is created by cultural and societal norms.

    Gender identity is a person’s sense of self as a member of a particular gender. Individuals who identify with a role that corresponds to the sex assigned to them at birth (for example, they were born with male sex characteristics, were assigned as a boy, and identify today as a boy or man) are cisgender. Those who identify with a role that is different from their biological sex (for example, they were born with male sex characteristics, were assigned as a boy, but identify today as a girl, woman, or some other gender altogether) are often referred to as transgender. The term “transgender” encompasses a wide range of possible identities, including agender, genderfluid, genderqueer, two-spirit (for many indigenous people), androgynous, and many others.

    The continuum of sex and gender

    Those who identify with a gender that is different from their biological sex are referred to as transgender.

    Transgender Sex Symbol.PNG

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\) The Transgender Sex Symbol

    Modern scholars such as Anne Fausto-Sterling and Bonnie Spanier criticize the standard binaries of sex and gender, arguing that sex and gender are both fluid concepts that exist along a spectrum, rather than as binaries.

    Cultural Variations of Gender

    Since the term “sex” refers to biological or physical distinctions, characteristics of sex will not vary significantly between different human societies. For example, persons of the female sex, in general, regardless of culture, will eventually menstruate and develop breasts that can lactate. Characteristics of gender, on the other hand, may vary greatly between different societies. For example, in American culture, it is considered feminine (or a trait of the female gender) to wear a dress or skirt. However, in many Middle Eastern, Asian, and African cultures, dresses or skirts (often referred to as sarongs, robes, or gowns) can be considered masculine. Similarly, the kilt worn by a Scottish male does not make him appear feminine in his culture.