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What it means to differentiate between Sex and Gender

To understand sexual diversity and gender diversity we need to first have an understanding of sex and gender and how these terms differ and relate to each other. Often, these two terms are used as synonyms of each other, however the distinction between sex and gender can be very important.


Sex is a medical term designating a certain combination of physiological characteristics related to the human reproductive system. These include chromosomes, gonads, hormones, genitalia and secondary sex characteristics (like breast tissue or facial hair). Bodies are generally expected to be easily categorized as one of two sexes, male or female.

This involves making assumptions, including:

  1. That there are exactly two clearly differentiated versions of every sex trait which always correspond neatly with the rest.
  2. That all of these traits are unchanging over the course of a person's life.

Later in this course we'll find out whether or not these assumptions always hold true.

For the purposes of this course, sex will refer to the physical characteristics of a person.

A chart of sex characteristics and their usual associations of "female" or "male" would look something like this:











Estrogen, progrestogen



Uterus, vagina, vulva, etc. 

Penis, scrotum, etc.


breasts, "hourglass figure," shorter, higher voice, more body fat

Facial and body hair, "triangle" frame, taller, lower voice, more muscle mass


Gender is a complex system of identities, expressions, and roles that are usually assigned based on the appearance of one's genitalia at birth. How gender is represented and defined varies from culture to culture and from person to person. Gender is a word that can take on a number of more specific meanings, which we will explore later in the course.

Just like with sex categories, the separation of these gender categories involves assumptions, including:

  1. That a person's gender will be predictable based on their assigned sex at birth.
  2. That all people fall neatly into one of two gender categories.

Later in this course we'll find out whether these assumptions always hold true.

Both of the established social gender categories carry with them a set of expectations for how people within them will behave in the world; a cultural ideal of masculinity and femininity. These are known as gender roles or gender stereotypes.

For the purposes of this course, gender will refer to the non-physical characteristics of a person.

Western Gender Roles

In our modern, Western culture, gender usually involves a separation of people into the social categories of girls/women and boys/men.

Gender roles are imposed on people to varying degrees depending on how flexible their upbringing and social environments are, but a partial chart of stereotypically constructed Western gender roles might look like the following table.

 Cultural Roles



Division of Labor

Housework, cooking, childrearing

Manual labor, technical career


Fashion, romantic movies, shopping

Highly rational, stoic, insensitive, crude

Relational Power

Follower, collaborative

Leader, authoritative

Sexual Role

Submissive, receptive, chaste

Dominant, initiator, promiscuous


Long hair, dresses, make-up expressive mannerisms and speech, constricted posture

Short hair, facial hair, subdued mannerisms and speech, open postures

*See Quick Check Questions: Sex vs. Gender*

Next Module: Sexual orientation vs. romantic orientation