Friday, 11 November 2011 00:00

Gender and Sex Are Not Interchangeable Terms

Written by 


Dear Sappho,

How many sexes or genders are there anyway, and how are they defined? I suspect there are at least 4 and possibly 8. It seems like we not living in a black and white dualistic world any more that is limited to just males & females. There are many shades of grey that make the world seem much more complicated. 




Dear Shades of Gray,


We now know there are more than two genders, most societies identify three genders; male, female and neuter. Grammar is one way we differentiate and classify genders. The number of genders used in grammar in different languages varies from 2 to more than 20; often the classification correlates in part with sex or the life of the subject. Gender classifications come with restrictions, privileges, and human expectations. How we define and unlearn strict gender classifications is evolving, partly due to science.

Some people incorrectly use the terms sex and gender interchangeably. The World Health Organization says gender is used to “describe those characteristics of women and men, which are socially constructed, while sex refers to those which are biologically determined.” Sex is biological and gender itself varies across cultures and time. “Gender is determined socially; it is the societal meaning assigned to male and female. Each society emphasizes particular roles that each sex should play, although there is wide latitude in acceptable behaviors for each gender” (Hesse-Biber, S. and Carger, G. L., 2000, p. 91). 

There is a range of chromosome, hormone balances and phenotypic variations that determine sexual classification. The X and Y chromosome determine a person’s sex. The Y chromosome is specific to males and the X to females. Humans are born with 46 chromosomes in 23 pairs. Most women are 46XX and most men are 46XY. There are variations and abnormalities; a few births per thousand are born with a single sex chromosome 45X or 45Y and some with three or more chromosomes 47XXX, 47XYY, or 47XXY. 

Transgender is the state of gender identity not matching one’s “assigned” sex. Wikipedia states "Transgender" does not imply any specific form of sexual orientation; transgender people may identify as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, polysexual, or asexual; some may consider conventional sexual orientation labels inadequate or inapplicable to them.”

The first insight that sex chromosomes were different from other chromosomes came in 1891 from a German scientist Hermann Henking. He was studying wasps and noted that some wasp sperm cells had 12 chromosomes while others had 11. He called the extra chromosome X. Within 10 years a zoologist C. E. McClung determined that the X element must have something to do with determining sex. 

In humans sex is determined by the absence or presence of the Y chromosome, which encodes the SRY gene needed to develop testis. The Y chromosome is small and mostly devoid of genes while the X chromosome contains several thousand genes. Graves (1995), BioessaysApr;17(4):311-20.

Our scientific understanding of sex chromosomes has changed radically and rapidly evolved in the last 120 years. Who knows what future genetic discoveries might bring that will change our fixed notions on gender and sex identifications? We may even go from shades of gray to every color in the rainbow. 

Many people self identify with one gender over another. A lesbian may be male identified or consider herself to be female identified or non gender specific. Do you identify with the hero or the damsel in distress? It gets complicated with all the mixed messages we get from society, and the media. Does your gender identification limit you or prevent you from being your true self? Gender may not be as limited or as specific as we now know it to be. Thankfully we are going beyond the restrictions placed on women in previous centuries, and hopefully we can also break through the limitations placed on men and all blossom as the multifaceted human beings we really are.

Blessed Be, 


Share on Thumblr

Leave a comment

Make sure you enter the (*) required information where indicated. HTML code is not allowed.