Sex, Gender, and Sexuality – They differ and yes it matters!

By Josien Reijer

What are the differences between sex, gender, and sexual orientation?

The short answer: sex is about your body, gender is about who you feel yourself to be, and sexual orientation is about whom you’re attracted to (sexually).

Is it really as simple as that?

No. Are things ever? So, here is the long(er) answer:

What is Sex?

Sex is the term we use to refer to a person’s sexual anatomy (his or her sexual body parts). Or to put it more bluntly:

Sex is used to describe what you are assigned at birth, based on what’s in between your legs (a penis = male, or a vagina = female).

However, this, too, is an oversimplification. Sex is defined not just by external genitalia but also by internal sex organs, chromosomes and hormones. Allowing for three sex variations:

  • Male (penis, XY chromosomes, high levels of testosterone)
  • Female (vagina, XX chromosomes, high levels of oestrogen)
  • Intersex (a person born with the sexual anatomy or chromosomes that don’t fit the traditional definition of male or female. A combination of reproductive sex organs, including internal sex organs, chromosomes and hormones). 

A person’s sex, as determined by his or her biology, does not always correspond with his or her gender. In other words: sex and gender are not interchangeable. Sex ≠ gender.

What is Gender?

Gender refers to behaviour, personality, dress, etc. that the dominant society traditionally attributes to, or associates with, biological sex. It also refers to the roles and expectations of men and women in a given society, roles that change over time, place, and life stage. It is a social rather than a biological construct.

Gender is the sociocultural division of people traditionally based on an assumed difference between the sexes. As a system, gender conveys social meaning that is typically encoded as femininity and masculinity.

Broadly speaking, there are three gender variations:

  • Cisgender is the term used when a person’s gender identity aligns with the (normative) expectations placed on the sex they were assigned at birth.
  • Transgender is the term used when a person’s gender identity doesn’t match the (normative) expectations placed on the sex they were assigned at birth.
  • Gender fluid (non-binary and gender diversity) is a term used for a person whose gender identity is not fixed and/or shifts depending on the situation.

Transgender

Some transgender people might have surgery, take hormones or change the way they look or dress to bring their body into alignment with how they identify, but not all transgender people can or want to do this. Being transgender is not dependant on your physical appearance or medical procedures. Hence, the importance of not reducing a person to their genitals (whether they have a penis or vagina).

Pronouns become important when talking about someone’s gender identity. Some may identify as ‘he’, ‘she’, or ‘they’. If someone asks you to call them by a particular pronoun, it’s important to respect their wishes.

So, what about sexuality?

Sexuality is the part of you expressed through your sexual activities and romantic/intimate relationships. It comprises your feelings, behaviours and your sexual identity. For example, a woman who has sex with men (behaviour) to whom she is sexually attracted (attraction) to, and who identifies as straight (identity) would be a heterosexual woman.

A person’s sexuality can be:

  • Heterosexual – A person attracted to people of the opposite sex.
  • Homosexual – A person attracted to people of the same sex.
  • Bisexual – The word ‘bi’, meaning ‘two’, refers to a person’s attraction to both sexes (male and female). 
  • Asexual – Asexuality is the absence of sexual attraction. For example, some asexual people are in romantic relationships where they never desire sex, and some are not in romantic relationships at all. 
  • Pansexual – ‘Pan’, meaning ‘all-inclusive’, refers to a person’s attraction to multiple genders. Some pansexual people describe their attraction as being based on chemistry rather than gender, but everyone is different. 
  • Questioning – Some people may be unsure about their sexuality and/or are exploring it, so they might identify as ‘questioning’. 
  • +  many more variations of sexuality! 

Sexual identity

Your sexual identity is how you choose to describe or label (or not label!) your sexuality. Similarly, to pronouns, it’s important to refer to a person’s sexuality by their chosen label (just ask them if you’re not sure, so you’re not assuming).

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