Gender and Sex: What's the Difference?

March 6, 2016


In the arena of human studies, perhaps no two words are more frequently misconstrued and confused for one another than “gender” and “sex.” And although they are two entirely different terms and concepts, to many, they are one and the same. 



" be a woman is to have become a woman."



In order to properly differentiate between sex and gender, it is crucial to define and contextualize the term “gender," which refers to social and behavioral constructs and stereotypes – for example, boys wearing blue, playing with toy trucks and girls wearing pink, playing with dolls.  According to Judith Butler:


To be female…has no meaning, but to be a woman is to have become a woman, to compel the body to conform to an historical idea of 'woman,' to induce the body to become a cultural sign, to materialize oneself in obedience to an historically delimited possibility, and to do this as a sustained and repeated corporeal project.  (Butler 522)


Quite to the contrary, “sex” refers only to the physical – one’s genitalia, mostly, but other physical characteristics such as skeletal structure and size, muscle mass, body/facial hair, breast size, voice pitch/timbre, etc., also serve to provide visual and auditory evidence of one’s sex to the public, and without forcing us all to “lift our skirts,” or “drop trou,” in order to authenticate ourselves as male or female.


To put is as succinctly as possible: gender is learned, and sex is naturally-occurring.


The confusion, then, between “gender” and “sex,” most likely resides in the fact that sex is the one, primary determinant of gender assignment. At birth, a doctor or midwife looks between our little legs and proclaims that we are either a boy or a girl. From that moment forward, for the remainder of our lives, we are taught, conditioned and expected to “be” whatever gender our doctors and genitals have chosen for us – even if it comes contrary to our inner sense of self and gender identity. 



"Why is biological sex still the method-of-choice for determining and doling out gender assignments?"



If what Butler says is true, and gender is nothing more than an historical and societal construct consisting of actions and performances, and not in any way connected to the biological, then why is biological sex still the method-of-choice for determining and doling out gender assignments to the masses? Does the existence of a penis automatically suggest that an individual’s behavior will become assertive and masculine, or a vagina suggest passivity and femininity? Of course not. It's an extremely arbitrary and, frankly, lazy way to choose a person's life path.


Logic on this level of absurdity would also argue that everybody with a gun is a soldier, or everyone with a pen is an author – generalizations that are as ridiculous as they are inaccurate. It is hardly any wonder, then, that so many people struggle with gender identity, and that our society seems to have a comparable amount of difficulty accepting or even tolerating those whose biological vessels do not fall in line with their inner sense of self and gender.


Hopefully, with time and increased awareness, our society will stop predetermining our lives based on our genitals and allow individuals to live, grow and thrive as our authentic selves, rather than caricatures of what ancient traditions and outdated ideals have limited us to.



Work Cited

Butler, Judith. "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and

            Feminist Theory." Theatre Journal, Vol. 40, No. 4. Web. 13 Jan. 2015.


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© 2019 Christi Brekke