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Gender and Sex: Why we need to start using the right words to describe both

Illustration by John Miller
Illustration by John Miller
Illustration by John Miller

Do you ever get sex and gender confused? Anyone who has ever looked at the true definition of “gender” and “sex” can tell you that they don’t mean the same thing. But too often does one hear them used interchangeably by people who should know better.

Whether you think that someone’s gender is naturally identical to their sex or not, the same exact mistake is made by people from both schools of thought. That mistake is trying to make words mean what they don’t.

And this mistake usually stems from the proximity these words seem to share in meaning. How many times have you filled out an application that asked you to put down your gender and you knew that what they were really asking about was your sex?

Master of Science in Management at Wake Forest

This is because many people think that to ask for one is to also ask for the other. But we would do well to remember that sex refers to what is biological while gender is social.

Thinking they are the same makes one run into certain problems, like when an individual’s gender is not identical to their sex. In this case, the distinction of the two terms is key in identifying what that individual is, and this is also where the difficulty starts because individuals who identify their genders apart from their sexes sometimes also confuse these terms.

To be clear, self-identification has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with gender. And this is where I run the risk of offending someone because I have always taken biological sex to be indicated by chromosomes, which do not change under any circumstances, even after sexual reassignment surgery.

That is not to say the term ‘transsexual’ is inaccurate, but it must be understood that the only parts of the individual’s sex that are being changed are the secondary sex characteristics, not the sex itself.

And this is why gender is a useful term. Gender becomes everything that identifies an individual within a spectrum of what is perceived as masculinity and femininity, including the shapes of their bodies. Just as foreign languages gender their definite articles (le, la, les) without it pertaining to the underlying biological sex of whatever person, place or thing the accompanying noun refers to, humans can as well.

In conclusion, debates about identity politics should always stick within the realm of fact with an emphasis on honesty and precise definition of terms. A discourse within language becomes pointless if the words within the language lose their meaning. Being honest about what gender and sex mean does not threaten the legitimacy of any identity but rather strengthens terms that everyone may use to express themselves.

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