Sex and gender: a useful distinction

I think one of the most powerful distinctions one can be armed with (for the sake of building a better society), in our present societal situation, is the distinction between sex and gender. Many people don’t understand the distinction, so it’s well worth expounding on.

SEX is a biological reality, which, for convenience’s sake, we can equate with certain physiological facts (as in, what’s between your legs). This is simplifying far too much, of course, because human biology doesn’t limit itself to two binary categories, as we sometimes assume (Google “intersex”). But for the sake of a first pass at the sex/gender distinction, we can say that one’s biological sex is either female or male.

GENDER is a social reality, which, for convenience’s sake, we can equate with a kind of performance (e.g. how do you dress? how long is your hair? etc.). Again, this is simplifying a bit. It is often useful, for instance, to distinguish between sexual identity (what one is “in one’s head”) and sexual expression (how one presents oneself to the world). But for the sake of a first pass at this important distinction, we can simply say that one’s gender is somewhere on the feminine (to androgynous) to masculine spectrum.

It goes without saying that one can be a feminine male or a masculine female. This is because, whereas SEX is mostly a ‘given’ of biology, GENDER is a performance. To call gender a performance is not to say it doesn’t have biological (e.g. hormonal) antecedents, and it is not to say that it is a self-consciously intentional performance. I don’t choose to shop on the men’s side of the store, I just do (and there are social consequences to pay if I don’t). The important point here is that, in our context, sex and gender are both subject to social policing–they are normative concepts. The policing of sex happens primarily in hospitals where (presumably well-meaning) doctors offer ‘corrective’ surgeries to intersexed babies and children (!), whereas the policing of gender happens all around us every day. We are expected to dress, act, and speak in certain ways appropriate to our gender. And if we fail to perform our (assumed) gender properly, there are social consequences to pay (scorn, obnoxious comments, and too often, violence).

For whatever cultural and cognitive reasons, many of us feel the need to police how others present themselves along gender lines. But we don’t have to!! And in fact, that policing is harmful. In a truly humanist culture, one’s gender performance is morally irrelevant. It might be aesthetically delightful, dreadful, or whatever. But the point is that it isn’t moralized. There’s nothing wrong with being a girly man. There’s nothing wrong with being a manly woman. There’s nothing wrong with wearing pants, a dress, eyeliner, no makeup, short hair, long hair, no hair, or whatever. Transgressions of what is assumed to be “normal” are harmless. They should be left alone. A guy in a dress might make you feel uncomfortable, but as long as he’s not assaulting anyone, leave him alone. You should be more morally worried about the dudebro making fun of him than about him.

We’ve come a long way. Not too long ago, what was judged “appropriate” for men and women was far more rigid than what passes as at least “good enough” today. But as long as people continue to be shamed and assaulted simply for how they choose to present themselves to the world, the world is not yet what it could and should be.

Live and let live.