Gender, Sex and Sexuality. Explaining the Differences

Sex and Gender

Although often combined, sex and gender are not the same thing.

A person’s Sex is assigned at birth as either male, female or intersex. Sex is based on biological traits, such as reproductive systems and genitalia.

Gender on the other hand, refers to the attitudes, feelings and behaviors that are associated with each of the sexes. It is created by society, and enforced by social norms. It is not based on biological traits the way that sex is. This means that our ideas about what it looks like shift throughout time, and across different cultures.

Gender Identity and Expression

A person’s gender identity is their own sense of their gender. It may or may not match the sex assigned to them at birth. If their identity does match with their assigned sex, a person is referred to as cisgender. If their identity does not match with the sex they were assigned at birth, they are referred to as transgender. Cisgender and transgender are just adjectives that help describe someone’s identity. It is not that one represents a gender more than the other, but simply that cisgender and transgender people have had different life experiences.

Gender expression refers to a person’s expression through things such as clothing choices, physical appearance, behaviors, and communication styles. Society and culture influence gender expression so it changes over time.

Identity Expression

It is important to note that gender identity does not always equal expression! For some people, their gender expression matches what society associates with their identity. An example of this would be someone who identifies as male, dressing in a traditionally masculine way. However, this is not the case for all people. Someone who identifies as male may choose to express themselves in ways that society deems traditionally feminine. Just because someone’s gender expression does not socially align with their identity, it does not mean they are transgender. There are cisgender people who’s expression does not socially align with their identity.

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Beyond the Binary

When first learning about gender, it can be easier to think of things in a very binary way; as either male or female. However, gender is not strictly binary! There are plenty of identities beyond cisgender and transgender male and female. Although not a complete list, here are some terms for ways people define their gender identity and expression:

  • Nonbinary– Any identity which does not fit the male/female binary.
  • Genderfluid- An identity which varies over time.
  • Gender Nonconforming- An identity that does not fit neatly within the binary categories of male and female.
  • Agender- Identifying as genderless, or without gender.
  • Gender Expansive- A wider range of identity or expression that falls outside of the binary.
  • Genderqueer- An identity that lies outside of the traditional binary

Sexuality

Sexuality is separate from sex and gender. It is defined in terms of physical and emotional attraction. Someone’s physical attractions and emotional attractions are not always the same.

The Gender Unicorn

This image, from Trans Student Educational Resources, shows how these different ideas are separate, and can also intersect. This can be a great tool to explain the concepts to others.

The gender unicorn from trans student educational resources

If you are wanting to explore gender and sexuality with a mental health professional, check out our team of inclusive and affirmative therapists.