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Sex and Gender Are Not the Same Thing


The author is a homemaker and retired medical transcriptionist. She holds a Masters degree in English and loves to write.

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When I was a child I already knew that I wanted to have children of my own. When I got married, my husband and I decided we would have two children. I did not know the sex of my children until they were born. To my delight I got one boy and one girl. My son came first, my daughter came second.

At the time of my son’s birth I was treated to what is probably the best shared inside joke among obstetricians. My doctor’s first words to me were that my baby had “outside plumbing.” I am not offended by this joke. I think it is sweet. In contrast, after my daughter was born, I remembered the joke, and I thought of her as having “inside plumbing.”

I was unable to go to college after high school, but I did go to college in my 30s, after my kids were born. I majored in Literature and minored in Women’s Studies and Philosophy. My Women’s Studies classes were immensely engrossing.

First and foremost, what I learned in my classes was that “sex” and “gender” are not the same thing. Once I internalized this mantra, it made the rest of my gender studies classes easier (but still not a piece of cake).

Everything I learned about sex and gender did not cause me to change the way I treated my boy and my girl. What I came away with, instead, was an understanding of power structures and my place as a female within those structures . . . and it all starts on the day you are born.

"Sex" is defined as “biological differences in genetic composition and reproductive anatomy and function. Human infants are labeled as one sex or the other, female or male, at birth, based on the appearance of their genitals” (Crawford 25).

“Gender,” in contrast to “sex,” is what society makes out of sex. Gender is defined as “those characteristics and traits socioculturally considered appropriate to males and females, the traits that make up masculinity and femininity” (Crawford 25).

Every known society acknowledges biological difference and uses it to create social distinctions. As soon as a baby is born, she or he is immediately wrapped in a pink or blue blanket, respectively, based on inside or outside plumbing. Babies are not wrapped in just any old blanket at hand, and there is a reason for that.

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The pink and blue blankets are gender markers. They notify all people in society, who interact with the baby, how they should treat the little person; and the pink babies and blue babies are treated differently. For instance, they may be talked to differently, they may be held differently, they may be given different kinds of clothes to wear, they may be played with differently, and they may be given different toys to play with.

All gender markers are arbitrary, designed for the sole purpose of exaggerating differences between female and male.

Like the pink and blue blankets, adult gender markers indicate to others in society how they should interact with you, how you are to be treated. Adult gender markers might include the way you style your hair, whether you wear makeup or not, the kind of shoes you wear, the way you dress, your work and the activities you participate in.

Once two distinct classes of people are separated, marked, and identified, hierarchy automatically comes into play. One group is always dominant and the other group is always subordinate. Gender markers help to organize relations between females and males in a way that secures and perpetuates the distinction, which in turn secures the social power and status of the dominant group, which happens to be the male.

The degree of women's subordination varies across time and place and gender is expressed differently in different societies, but there are no known cultures where women have more social and political advantages than men.

Being at the top of the hierarchy is the reason why men are still more stigmatized for doing things deemed feminine. Since historically women are the subordinate sex, men that take on women’s roles threaten to weaken the male sex in its entirety. Thus, a collective pressure is placed on men by other men to control the group and keep them cohesive.

To take a chapter out of my own life, when I was a girl I strove to be more like my brothers, but my brothers never strove to be more like me. I know now that this was because it was better to be a male than a female. I wanted to play the boy’s games, wear blue jeans, run outside, and get dirty. In contrast, my brothers had no desire to wear dresses, play with dolls, or knit and sew.

Gender traits and roles are so pervasive, we usually are never even aware that they surround us. But, if and when a female (or male) is able to distinguish sex from gender, they can then recognize that biology is not destiny, and change their lives for the better.

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Over time gender equality has been slowly getting better in many countries, such as in the United States. Gender roles that remain are less fixed and less strict. It is becoming increasingly acceptable for women to participate in traditionally male pursuits like athletics, politics, construction work, and combat. In some parts of the country young men, like my own son, are quickly and happily taking on the additional woman's role of nurturer and care-giver of children.

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Mary Crawford. 2006. Transformations: Women, Gender, and Psychology, 2nd edition. McGraw-Hill, NY.

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