Monthly Archives: October 2012

Sex, Gender and Language

          One of my personal peeves is the regular substitution of the word “Gender” for “Sex” on forms and in conversation. While the choice “Sex: Male or Female” when strictly referring to biological or external morphological characteristics is not always accurate, the choice “Gender: Male or Female,”  in my opinion, marginalizes, if not pathologizes everyone outside the normative range (statistically speaking). Below I will outline the understanding of these terms that leads me to see absurdity in the way that they are frequently used.

To keep this post relatively simple, I ask that you read an earlier post that while not exhaustive elaborates in some detail various terms that will be used below, especially as it pertains to bodily sex and gender identity. The discussion below leaves out the confounds of internal morphology, which includes internal sex organs, and genetic sex or what pair of chromosomes one carries in one’s cells. These two confounds are most clearly illustrated in cases of CAIS (complete androgen insensitivity syndrome). In this condition, an individual would be classified as female by the external morphological criterion above. This individual would most likely self-identify as female and would be almost universally seen by others as female. However, this individual will not have internal female organs and will have an XY genotype. A third confound is the growing evidence for the possibility of “sexed” brain functions, which can occur independently of the sexing of external morphology during gestation. This sexing of the brain is probably responsible for one’s subjective “sense” of sex or sexual identity. The sexing of the brain may also be related to sexual orientation independently of one’s bodily sex and sexual identity. Given the imposed limitation, there are three discernible possibilities: male, female and intersex.

Gender is a more complex term and has far more social, cultural and behavioral components to it than apparent bodily sex. Gender identity probably has an underlying biological component affecting one’s sense of sexuality. Gender is often used as if it had a one-to-one correspondence with apparent bodily sex, which is clearly not the case. The most common gender terms are masculine and feminine but these are not all-or-nothing categories and include a spectrum of possibilities.

While sex can be treated as categorical without grossly distorting reality, especially if three categories are used, gender is clearly dimensional. Gender can significantly vary along a somewhat normal (or bell shaped) distribution curve describing a dimension. Clearly, there are numerous potential positions all along this continuum that aren’t being given labels. If conventional classification of someone by gender is the goal one might do better to use a numeric scale where 1 is hyper masculine, 4 is neutral and 7 is hyper feminine.

There is one further complication to gender that must be introduced to make this discussion somewhat complete. The concept of transgender is important to this discussion as well. Presentation of transgenderism can be either overt, covert or both and along both behavioral (doing) and cognitive dimensions (imagining). Overt behavioral presentations can be either public or private. Some variations of transgenderism would not be observable and would only be known through self-identification.

The use of sex and gender as interchangeable terms implies that reality conforms to the following structure:

1.                  Sex:                 Male &                    Female &

2.          Gender:                 Masculine             Feminine

A more accurate, if incomplete, structure would include three categories for sex and three anchor positions on a dimension for transgender. For each combination of sex with gender, the latter will have multiple possible permutations. Please refer to the post linked in the beginning for some of the possible permutations.

What is being illustrated by the above discussion is that sex and gender and especially gender identity is a complex topic and one that is grossly over simplified in the ordinary use of language. Add to this an individual’s sense of sexuality and sexual orientation and the complexity grows exponentially.

 In ordinary verbal or written reference to people by sex, I would favor using labels that conform to how they identify and present. Asking about bodily sex might be relevant under limited circumstances, e.g., for medical purposes. I would be opposed to asking about gender because the meaning of the term is far too complex to be easily queried and would seldom be relevant for most public purposes, including conversational use of the term. I would definitely favor disassociating the terms male and female from the concept of gender because it confuses two different concepts: bodily sex (biological) and gender identity (socio-cultural).

The equating of gender with sex in common language usage is in fact an example of how the modal majority “democratically” attempts to define a public, social reality and marginalize and at worst imply pathology in anyone not fitting the majority stereotype. As Milton Diamond founder of the Pacific Center for Sex and Society has said, “Nature loves variety. Unfortunately, society hates it.” Language is the primary tool for creating socio-cultural reality and how it is used has important implications that should not be taken lightly.