Gender vs Sex: why the difference is important

Historical usage of ‘gender’ and ‘sex’

When I was a teenager the terms ‘gender’ and ‘sex’ could be used to mean pretty much the same. Even so, it was more usual for ‘gender’ to be used in the linguistic context of feminine, masculine, or neuter cases. In the widely-used Modern English Usage (1926), Fowler stated,
“Gender…is a grammatical term only. To talk of persons … meaning of the male or female sex, is either a jocularity … or a blunder”.

Deriving from the Latin ‘sexus’, the term ‘sex’ was used in this sense of division into male and female, as in section/segment. In my parents’ passport dated 1985, and in my passport of 2008 the word ‘sex’ is used along with ‘name’ and ‘date of birth’ as a marker of identity.

Shakespeare used the word ‘sex’ to refer to ‘gender’:

Helena to Hermia,
It is not friendly, ‘tis not maidenly;
Our sex, as well as I, may chide you for it,
Though I alone do feel the injury.
(from A Midsummer-Night’s Dream’ III, II)

Lady Macbeth,
Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe topful
Of direst cruelty!
(from Macbeth I, V)

Helena speaks of females generally, while Lady Macbeth wishes to be stripped of feminine weakness; either way they are referring to issues of gender.

Two centuries later Sir Walter Scott, in Ivanhoe, writes ‘especially of the fair sex’ in referring to women. Even an 1800 Medical Journal states, ‘These melancholy cases … spread a general alarm over a considerable district among the fair sex.’

When was the shift in meaning first noticeable?

Prior to the middle of the twentieth century sexual intercourse may have been referred to as ‘carnal knowledge’, ‘lying with …’, ‘having knowledge of …’, and ‘coitus’; alongside these were terms that we now euphemistically refer to as ‘four letter words’, and which would have been common in the time of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Pepys, and beyond. At this time ‘gender’ was still used solely as a grammatical descriptor, deriving from ‘genus’ – Latin for ‘kind’ or ‘variety’ (as in ‘genre’).

By the second half of the twentieth century a clear shift in meaning was evident. The use of ‘sexual’ to refer to physical acts / behaviours, as opposed to mere biological states, was enshrined in law in the 1956 The Sexual Offences Act (included mention of ‘sexual crimes’, ‘sexual intercourse’, and sexual assault between women) and the 1967 The Sexual Offences Bill (that decriminalised certain homosexual acts). There was also a change of emphasis in how same-sex relationships were referred to, moving away from essentially derogatory terms that referenced only the physical act.  ‘Homosexual’ had first been seen in print around 1870 having been coined from the Greek homos (meaning the same, as in homogeneous) and the Latin sexus. In 1886 the psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing used both homosexual and heterosexual (from Greek ‘hetero’ meaning ‘other, different’) in his book Psychopathia Sexualis in describing sexual behaviour.

Not until the 1960s – 1970s was ‘gender’ used to denote human maleness / femaleness, as in the sense of David Bowie being a Gender-Bender, or as a social construct as opposed to being an exclusively grammatical one. Early examples of gender used in biological contexts are found in words relating to procreation, e.g. gene, genesis and generate that derived from the Greek root gen- to produce.

As a biological term the word was used consistently into the 20th century.
As a social construct its use rose 1850s – 1950s then saw a sharp decline.
Consistently used in grammar until the 20th century, from the 1950s its use as a
social construct and identity marker rose significantly and remains the favoured term today.
Why has it become important to clarify the terms?

As ‘sex’ was increasingly being used as a shortened form for both ‘sexual identity’ and for ‘sexual intercourse’ I believe it created a tension as the line between sexual identity and gender identity blurred over time. Added to this, an individual’s identity could be misaligned to a sexual predilection. There needed to be a clearer distinction between a person’s biology, their identity, and their sexuality. Fast.

Mass media, social media, extreme role modelling, online shaming, bullying – it is all out there ready to attack the unwary, the naïve, the vulnerable. Everyone needs – deserves – to know who they are, how they fit into society, and to be accepted. Choice is vital to personal well-being, but it is not enough to ‘identify as …’; validation needs others to ‘identify you as …’.

Some back-story on gender issues

Getting on for twenty years ago I became friends with a fellow in-patient, a young woman with clinical depression. She was in a very loving lesbian partnership and for personal reasons had elected to have a double mastectomy. She had hoped it would add another dimension to their relationship but deeply regretted her decision.

About a month ago I read a news item about a young man who regretted undergoing gender reassignment therapy and surgery and believed that having more counselling and emotional support might have prevented his going down such a traumatic route. Then just last week was yet another news story about a young couple who had both followed the same gender pathway: ‘she’ to ‘he’ and back to ‘she’. One expressed sadness that she loved singing but hormone treatment had led to a loss of vocal range.

Medics and surgeons in the field claim that no-one regrets their gender reassignment. From the personal experiences I’ve read about and listened to I have to disagree with that viewpoint. Even if a huge majority are delighted with the outcome there still needs to be a lot more discussion and counselling to protect the few.
This is where my contention that semantics are all important comes in.

How can semantic distinction impact upon the well-being of individuals?

Society imposes constraints on how we express ourselves through the language it uses. A young girl who enjoys sporty or outdoor activities may be labelled ‘tom-boy’; a young boy who enjoys cooking or dancing would probably be dubbed something equally stereotypical. Neither is helpful and may lead to choices that those young people neither want nor need. A healthy society makes no distinction between, in fact has no reaction to clothes / activities / demeanours that are outside an accepted ‘norm’ in a binary culture.

In terms of sexual identity and gender expression people can be binary / non-binary / gender fluid / genderqueer / transgender / cisgender; bisexual / pansexual / asexual / homosexual / heterosexual / intersexual / Sappho sexual. In terms of describing one’s individuality, a person may be cisgender and pansexual, or non-binary and asexual, and use a personal pronoun of he, or she, or they. The main point here is that the spectrum is broad and I admit that my knowledge of terminology is imperfect.

Forcing gender and sexual choice into narrow binary constructs falsely limits possibilities and this is sustained by there being little or no discussion at key stages of development. Personal identity can often seem indefinable and without an inner confidence that comes from acceptance it becomes easy to succumb to finite role-models that create insecurity and a fragile self-esteem.

It is fairly common in a material, consumerist society to feel that being other than you are may be better; “the grass is always greener …” notion of ‘if I was richer, better looking, had a better job, and so on’. Perhaps a not so common, but certainly not unusual thought is that life would be better if physically, emotionally, intellectually you were different. I knew a young man with body dysmorphia, good-looking and polite, whose conversation was limited to constant questioning, “Do I look alright? Do you think there’s something wrong with …?” Any amount of time spent with him was exhausting as you knew that nothing you said would make the slightest difference.

Gender dysphoria is another very real condition; peeling back the skin to reveal another ‘you’ would bring greater possibilities for fulfilment.

More questions, and final thoughts

If society ditched the binary construct and embraced the spectrum of human feeling, identity, and experience, would non-binary attitudes be seen as expressions of individuality and not as indications of being ‘exotic / artistic / creative’ or ‘butch / man-hating / tomboyish’?

If clothes and adornment was accepted as reflections of the individual rather than of stereotyped sexual / gender orientation would it become the norm for anyone to wear what was personally comfortable and desirable?

In a world where dress and hairstyle, leisure and work choices, manner of walking and talking did not pigeonhole us could there be complete freedom to be who and what we wanted? Is that too big an ask? Would it be so difficult to assimilate?

It troubles me that in the society we’ve created it raises fewer questions when individuals radically change themselves rather than expect society to accept them for what they are. ‘Types’, for now, are easier to understand than ‘individuals’. I hope this will not always be the case.

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Thank you for reading.