Sex And Gender: What's The Difference?
Updated: Jan 24
By Raghav Verma
Raghav is a final-year student at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Bennett University.
Simone de Beauvoir claimed in her book Second Sex that one is not born a woman but rather becomes one (Beauvoir, 2015). What this means is that the idea of a “woman” is internalized as an identity whose conception is engineered temporally. A corollary to this understanding of “woman” is that gender like this is established via one’s physiological reality (as in from infancy to adulthood) and therefore within the engineered identity, bodily enactments and behaviours play an important role in defining one’s gendered identity. This gives us a sense of what “Gender” in general might mean. In another perspective, it almost parallels a cartesian duality involving the physical and mental (in the sense that it is seen under the purview of perceiving the sociological) wherein both are mutually symbiotic in a feedback loop and therefore giving some form to one’s “gender” at every temporal moment. This loop would need to be like an autonomous symbolic “body” by itself since gendered identity in this understanding is not constant and needs ontological support which keeps it in check throughout said identity’s dynamicity. It is important to understand that the sociological counterpart of this loop is still a result of the symbolic order of power relations we see in our current institutions. The telos of “Gender” has primarily been to categorize humans rather than let humans categorize themselves. But of course, the landscape of discourse realizes this and attempts to at the very least accept this reality. In public spheres, however, numerous attempts are made to turn this telos against its head.
Research surrounding the lexicon of “Gender” and its linguistic/phenomenological branches has evolved with time just like how “Gender” for an individual does. Traditionally speaking, Gender has been understood as something interchangeable with the idea of “Sex” with at best additional ideas of femininity and masculinity as ideas following from being “Male” or “Female”. This understanding also evaluated sexual orientation as something that is wholly contingent on this classical binary basis and nothing else. Fortunately, ever since the advent of the LGBTQ+ movement and further medical research into these ideas, this interchangeability of sex and gender has almost been eliminated. It is obvious enough now that gender and sex if not interchangeable, are at least interrelated. We have understood that there is some form of a definite relation between sex and gender but what really is “Sex”? Let’s understand.
Sex is a biological variable that embodies the physiological reality of a natural being which is often defined chromosomally and/or anatomically and can only have two values, i.e, Male and Female (Walker et al., 1998). Here “natural being” is reduced to a “body” when defining “Sex”. Here “body” not only relates to the physical reality of an individual but also to a historical idea of one’s physical reality with age. There is a conventional assumption that sex plays a very heavy role in defining one’s sexual orientation and a heavier role in gender construction and a lot of medical research does point towards this being true (O’Hanlan et al., 2018).
Orthodox research has tried to push ideas of homosexuality, transgenderism, and non-binary queerness being causated by innate sources like “Sex” for the sake of acceptance by society (Deborah et al,. 2018). But this has not been good since such a nexus of cause and effect grossly ignores the dynamicity of gendered identity, isn’t able to gain a better understanding of the ideas of sex and related concepts and therefore doesn’t explain empirical phenomena with enough coherence. This idea of innateness and religious conservatism is why “Sex” was taken more seriously (and still is in many regions) and “Gender” was rendered as a synonym for the sake of explaining “Sex” in an empirical context. The reason this innateness was given so much significance is that it was a sign of something you cannot change or choose with the added benefit of it being “stable”. People often tend to drive themselves according to something constant and the idea of innateness is very attractive that way. Of course, such innateness doesn’t deny one’s subjectivity but it is a concept that strays away from the displeasing chaos that comes with it. In some discourses, this “subjectivity” is often labelled as “Gender” but still said subjectivity doesn’t deviate from social norms.
However, such narrow perspectives on these terms make studying social and/or gender roles in our current and older societies difficult since it doesn’t provide enough nuance. Gender roles are generally interpreted in relation to general behavioural attitudes, one’s doxastic attitude towards their self in relation to the external world, fantasies, dreams and much more, which cannot be understood if we simply equate sex to gender in an interchangeable fashion (Muehlenhard et al., 2011). Therefore, abstracting gender from sex to some extent is necessary for a proper understanding of one’s identity as the locus of everything that a being does. But then what is “Gender”?
It is clear from our preliminary discussion that Gender is for the most part sociological but still contingent on some physiology and more importantly the psychical history of a being. Following up on Simone’s quote, the conception of “Gender” prevalent here assumes the natural body as “inapprehensible”. This comes from the understanding that we don’t experience phenomena and ourselves as a natural body solely (physiological experience). All our conscious experience is coloured and permeated in gender. “Sex” then just becomes a fictional starting point for all experience just for the sake of explanation just like how an axiom defines a whole system of logic. Gender, therefore, is by nature, unnatural. It, thereby, becomes a way of organizing cultural norms in a temporal form and situating ourselves in respect to these norms in their sociological manifestation and actively live accordingly (Butler, J. 1986). This act of situating oneself in one gender/”no gender”/multiple genders can therefore be seen as a creative endeavour into reimagining existing sex/gender roles (as understood in a colloquial sense) in radically deviant ways through the process of reflexing introspection combined with an awareness of the environment. However, this “choosing” in gender may be an egregious generalization for some people who don't deviate by choice be it due to situational circumstances or some prevalent neurodivergence. If said gender roles themselves are culturally constructed, then gender itself being a culturally contingent phenomenon interacts with these roles in the form of a dialectic where the role and gender may or may not be polar to each other. However, we must not discount the factor of how one understands their psychology and how their psychology actually is in psychoanalytic terms.
A trifecta of a sociological, psychological and physiological understanding of oneself is what should truly complete the entire concept of gender, at least empirically speaking. Ontologically speaking, the concept may meld with Heideggerian Being, Platonic Form or even Hegel’s Absolute Idea which ultimately strays away from the point of this article, i.e, the difference between Sex and Gender. With that said, let’s expand upon the psychological aspect. If we divide the mind into the preconscious, conscious and the unconscious in the typical freudian sense; the effect of the unconscious in relation to the conscious/preconscious is generally ambiguous and so far there are only psychoanalytic theories and no concrete facts (if we ignore correlations based on neurological research) (Evnine, S.,1989). While the conscious would certainly play an important role in contributing to the temporal progress of one’s gendered self, the role of the unconscious, while significant, is still very much unclear due to the aformentioned observation that there is a lack in empirical concreteness to the dialectical connection between the unconcsious. One can also subject Sex in a relation to this evolution of one’s psyche since neurologically speaking a lot of research at least morphologically and hormonally, has found out that “feminine” and “masculine” brains are different (Choleris et al., 2018).
Now of course, in research like this, often so “masculinity” and “femininity” is assumed to be properly dichotomous when in reality this may not be true and is also reductive. Largely speaking, one could still draw correlations between sex and one’s gendered self in relation to their biological behaviours and social behaviours but these studies still suffer from the reductionism of the true qualia experienced by these individuals employed in the studies and therefore correlation is not able to properly imply causation from sex and behavioural phenomena collectively to gender. Psychoanalytical underpinnings of Gender also suffer from the same problem but instead due to a lack of clarity currently present in the effects of the unconscious on general behaviour. But we see a clear mesh of correlations between one’s conscious perception of their conscious self, effects of their environment and bodily impulses that genders and colours themselves at the very least.
Gender, henceforth, is more complex than Sex and almost subsumes Sex in its conception but Sex is still an important part that Gender cannot completely abstract away. The conclusive difference therefore between Sex and Gender is that Sex is a concept that encompasses the physiological understanding of one’s body (here body may mean “a natural entity” or a “historical idea of an entity”) and Gender is a concept that goes beyond the concept of Sex but is still correlationally contingent at least on it and expands more of the territory of one’s “self” (conscious in this case) by attaching sociological and psychological phenomenon experienced by the subject (conscious self) and thereby, creating a tripartite circumscription of the self.
It is important that this difference between Sex and Gender is illustrated concretely and conveyed to the layman since a lot of gendered identities are denied in conservative circles due to it deviating from the general idea that only “Sex” exists and “Gender” is just some sort of phantasm arising from “mental illness”. “Gender” is deemed immoral since it is “false” or “unnatural” but if we are to understand human nature and ourselves better, understanding the significance of the concept of gender and its sociological manifestations are necessary since it interacts heavily with one’s quotidian being and history.
An appeal to nature is altogether too common in this discourse even though our “nature” is not even well understood concretely. Gender is “unnatural” only because it deviates from norms and that’s not an immoral thing by necessity. To conform to norms is pragmatically safer but no one truly or perfectly conforms to norms and that’s perfectly alright. In fact, I would argue it’s “natural” to not do it with perfection. And that’s why ideas like Gender are necessary for that very realization and, therefore, phenomena like the existence of LGBTQ+ should not be ignored and should be acknowledged as a part of our social reality. Both Gender and Sex are important concepts to understand the individual self and therefore human society concretely.
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