Sex and Gender
(For Parents of Children with Typical Development)
You probably already know what sex is – the classification of a person (or plant or other animal) based on whether their anatomy and chromosomes are what we identify or classify as male or female. After a baby is born, the first question everyone usually asks has to do with sex: “Is it a girl or a boy?” It’s as if that were somehow the most important thing there was to know about the baby.
It’s typically assumed that sex and gender are the same thing. They’re not.
What is Gender?
Gender isn't about biology or science. It is a human-made set of concepts and ideas about how males and females are supposed to look, act, and relate based on their sex. Gender isn’t anatomical – it’s intellectual, psychological and social; it’s about identity, roles, and status based on ideas about sex and what it means to different people and groups. As part of that set of concepts is also the idea – even though we know by now that it's flawed – that gender can only be male or female. Like sex, gender is often presented as binary – as being only one thing or the other, without any overlap or gray area in between. But when we talk about gender, we’re talking about what is considered masculine or feminine, male or female, something in between, or something that defies such simple labels.
Making sense of gender – and the roles and status based on gender – can get complicated, especially because of what a big deal gender is in our world, how it affects everyone’s relationships and personal identity, and how varied – yet pervasive – ideas about gender can be.
Say “female” or “feminine” and a given group of people are likely to define that pretty similarly in terms of appearance and behavior, just as they would if you said “male” or “masculine” – despite the fact that those things differ with incredible variance globally and individually. Very few people are at the outer edges of the spectrum of what is traditionally or currently defined as “male” and “female” genders – most of us fall somewhere in the middle, with a variety of qualities in terms of our appearance, emotions, behaviors, interests, goals, and strengths.
Gender Roles and Status
Whether we live in one area or another, go to this country or that one, live in this or that period of history, have this set of rights or that, or identify ourselves this way or that way, our chromosomes under a microscope, or our genitals and reproductive systems, will always look the same. On the other hand, what our gender roles and status are, and how we identify and perform our gender, can be radically different depending on whether we’re living in ancient Greece or the modern-day world, whether we have the right to work or get a fair trial based on our sex, and what strengths and weaknesses, privileges or punishments we or those around us may attribute and assign to our sex. Gender is someone deciding that we’re gendernormative – people's ideas about what's “normal” for what our sex is – not based on what’s between our legs, but based on how we dress, what our job is or interests are, or even based on what our favorite colors are. Ideally, someone deciding what gender we are would be based on what gender we tell them we are. But for the most part, we don't live in that world yet.
It’d be tough to find someone who hasn’t been exposed to gender roles and status. Maybe you’ve experienced how much emphasis is put on how females look or on how much money males make. You may have gotten the message that only weak males cry, only females get hysterical, or females are “natural” caretakers and males are “natural” providers or fighters. Perhaps you’ve heard snide remarks about male nurses or female construction workers. In your family, there may be certain duties assumed and assigned for members of your household based only on gender. In the media, you may notice that females are often presented and marketed to as being concerned primarily with romance, family, and appearance; males with sex, money, and sports. Those are all about gender roles.
If you’ve studied history, you probably know how females have had to fight for the exact same rights that males have. If you are aware of global issues, you know how many females worldwide are still viewed as property or are required to be submissive and/or subservient to their husbands – these things are all about gender status.
Gender and Sexual Behavior
When it comes to sexual behavior, expectations, and relationships, gender will often play a big part. Many people decide who they will date or have sex with based on gender as well as sex. Some females will not date “feminine” males – perhaps because they assume these males are gay. Some males will not date “masculine” females – perhaps because they assume these females are lesbian. “Macho” males are assumed to be heterosexual; “feminine” females are assumed to be heterosexual. None of these assumptions may be correct.
Gender – both how we identify ourselves and how others identity us – can also play a part in the way we have sex, how we present our sexuality to others, how we feel comfortable or uncomfortable in our sexual behavior and attitudes, and the dynamics of our sexual relationships. We can see this in opposite-sex relationships, where there are so many assumed norms and roles between males and females – about who should be doing the asking out, taking sexual leadership, claiming sexual responsibility, setting sexual limits and boundaries, and even about what is the “right” way to have sex. For example, it may not be considered appropriate for a female to ask for more sexual activity – so she can have an orgasm – after her male partner has already had his orgasm. Homosexuals are not automatically immune from typical gender roles either – lesbians are often divided by appearance and behavior into masculine and feminine categories that mimic traditional male and female gender roles. Often, we hear people trying to figure out who is the male and who is the female in a homosexual relationship.
While many young adults now see themselves as being more flexible when it comes to gender than their parents or grandparents, some studies have shown that, despite what we might think, many “traditional” or stereotypical gender roles and norms still exist. A recent study on gender roles found that most teens still think asking someone out on a first date, making the first move sexually, and providing condoms is male behavior, and that saying "no" to sex, setting and enforcing sexual limits, and bringing up or providing birth control (other than condoms) are female roles. Most teens in the study agreed that it’s a good thing for a young woman to abstain from sexual activity or be a virgin, but didn’t feel the same way about young men.
But some of us have, at one time or another, experienced what is called gender dysphoria – discomfort with our sex, our gender identity, gender norms, or gender roles expected of us. You may have found that certain clothing picked out for you by your parents conflicted with your gender identity – not all girls like dresses; some boys prefer sparkly shoes to sneakers. As a young boy, you may have wanted a doll for a toy and were told that wasn’t okay. Perhaps as a young adult male, you didn’t like the idea that you had to make the first move sexually or that you couldn’t set limits too. As a girl, you may have found that your world changed drastically during puberty – you may have been told that certain activities you once enjoyed were no longer appropriate for someone clearly becoming a woman.
You may have once been comfortable with more stereotypical gender identities, but now feel a new discomfort. For example, someone who feels that traditional gender status or roles fit them fine may feel differently the first time they face job discrimination based on their sex or gender, or when sexual relationship problems crop up because of those roles, like the assumption that females need to be the only ones taking responsibility for birth control, or males being the only ones to initiate sex. You may even feel funny in being gendernormative because you have a hard time figuring out if you’re really being you, or just identifying with what you’ve been told you’re supposed to be.
Presentation and Identity
It’s not exactly accurate to say you can pick your gender roles and status. You may be able to do so in your own home or in any given relationship, but out and about in the world we don’t always get a whole lot of choice. How we appear and what our gender is thought to be dictates much of our status and our roles. Few of us can completely escape or ignore these mandates. For example, females can’t just decide they’re going to be paid more by the hour than they are currently being paid. Males can’t just decide that strict ideas about masculinity won’t be applied to them. So, it’s common for our gender identity –and how we present ourselves—to be largely or entirely gathered from, and interpreted through, overt and covert messages we’re all bombarded with from a very early age that tell us how we should appear, act, and be valued.
But you can choose a great deal of how you present your gender (how you behave, groom, dress, and carry yourself) and how you identify (what you call yourself and what that means to you).
Some people assume that certain types of gender presentation are a given – you’re born male or female so you look a certain way or act a certain way, and any appearance or behavior outside expected norms are deviations, instead of variations. That assumption can cause very real problems for many individuals and groups – from strangers mistaking your sex to the violence of crimes against homosexuals. The collective cultural notion, for example, that males are physically “stronger” than females has caused numerous social and interpersonal problems for males and females alike (as well as simply being untrue). The notion that anatomical or genetic sex must and automatically does “match” socially dictated gender identity and presentation creates a world of confusion, conflict, and imbalance for many people, and for some, big emotional and interpersonal torment.
You can also work to change the status of your gender as a whole, especially when you are of a sex or gender with greater power. For example, a male could speak out about how traditional ideas about masculinity have really made his life miserable. Or males can educate other males on how to prevent rape.
Challenging cultural gender roles, status, and assumptions isn’t always easy (and you won’t always be successful), even when we just want to make small changes in our own personal lives, rather than changing the entire world. But often, it’s far less painful to live with the discomforts we may experience when we alter, reinvent, challenge, or defy assigned gender roles than when we try to live out roles which don’t apply to us.
You get to – and should – explore, challenge, and ultimately decide whatever gender identity suits you best, even if it’s not a good match with existing cultural gender roles, and even if the rest of the world isn’t ready for you yet.
Like most aspects of identity, as you continue to age, you’ll likely find that your personal gender identity – and your feelings about gender – will change and grow. You’ll probably discover that gender isn’t anything close to binary, but like most things, can be found stretching across a wide, diverse spectrum.
Five Practical Applications
1. Try not to assume someone’s gender identity based solely on their appearance or behavior. Call others what they want to be called, identify them as they want to be identified, and find that out by either asking or listening attentively for their own cues. When in doubt as to someone’s gender or how someone prefers to identify themselves, just ask.
2. Turn off the switch in your brain that makes you say things like “All men are jerks,” or “Women just want money,” or “She looks/acts/sounds like a boy.” There are NO sex or gender absolutes, and the less we fall for or support them, the less power they have to keep everybody down.
3. No staring and whispering. When someone looks or acts in a way which you think is incongruent with their sex or gender, stop looking at them and look within yourself instead. Think about why YOU think that way, where those ideas come from, and if it’s reasonable or positive to think that way. It’s okay to be curious or confused and to ask respectful questions. What’s not cool is making someone else feel unsafe, insulted, or demeaned because you’re uncomfortable with your own lack of knowledge or understanding (or because you’re insecure about your own gender identity).
4. Be a gender equality advocate. If there’s an activity in your school that is unfairly closed to a given sex or gender, protest. If you have a partner who is clearly holding you to a gender role or status that isn’t okay with you, or which you aren’t interested in meeting, speak up. Challenge sex and gender issues directly whenever there’s a need – write letters, post comments, engage in discussions, be visible, etc. etc. Don’t accept gender norms, roles, or status even when they work to your advantage.
5. Work on tolerance and compassion. You don’t have to agree with someone or understand who they are in order to be kind, humane, accepting, and fair.
Some aspects of gender have become less binary, less limiting, and less strictly enforced than they have been though much of history – even though we still have a long way to go. Gendernormativity is becoming more of a choice than a mandate for many. Even though, as a culture, our progress is slow, people coming of age now are often given more latitude when it comes to gender identity – and what’s expected due to assigned sex – than in generations before.
There’s still room for a lot of improvement. Even smart females are still expected to look good, and societal notions about why females are raped can be appalling at times. Males who have shrugged off or challenged their gender roles or presentation are still often met with disdain, aggression, and violence, and many males have been reared to instigate violence or aggression to uphold a gendered status quo. Many transgender, transsexual, and crossdressing people are isolated, cast out of homes and communities, abused, sexually and/or physically assaulted, and even murdered based on nothing more than their gender identity or appearance.
A lot of people would be safer, happier, and healthier if sex and gender – and the very rigid ideas about them – weren’t such big deals in the world. But for now these things still matter to a great majority of people, and a very limiting view of sex and gender is accepted, supported, and encouraged in numerous ways. So, gender identity tends to be pretty important, as does the sex we’re born with or assigned. This may present huge personal challenges for some people, but a rare few individuals will face no challenges at all.
Every individual is comprised of millions of facets – sex and gender are only two of them. Your sex and your gender get to be only as important and relevant to you, alone, as you want them to be. Even if you can’t identify and present exactly – or at all – like you’d want to, what goes on in your head is all yours, and the way YOU choose to define yourself – and the latitude you give others in defining their own gender identities – is your choice.
Adapted with permission from an article by Heather Corinna. The original article, “Genderpalooza! A Sex & Gender Primer,” can be found on www.scarleteen.com.