What is the difference between sex and gender?

Hannah Albone
30th April 2013
Conventry, UK.

  When examining the issues of sex and gender, a whole host of questions are raised. Simply defining these two terms can be incredibly difficult, let alone analysing the differences between them. Sex and gender have a massive impact on the way in which one behaves, and can be the most influential factors in how one is perceived, as well as viewed by others. Examination of your own sex and gender is not something most people ever undertake, and when people are often asked to consider the difference between sex and gender, they are lost for answers. However, by looking at the differences through the form of media texts, it becomes easier to locate the differences. Media texts such as The Hunger Games (Collins 2008) and Cosmopolitan (Ed. Court, 2012) helps to define the differences between sex and gender in a more concise way, as well as bringing up the similarities.

At its most basic level, sex can be defined as the biological state into which one is born. De Beauvoir spoke at length in The Second Sex (1949) on the role of sex as a factor in determining personal development. However, she places greater influence on how the female is defined as a sex, rather than looking at sex as whole. ‘Woman?… She is a womb, an ovary; she is a female…’ (De Beauvior, 1949:3). Having male and female sexes enables a species to continue – biologically, there can be nothing more important. ‘There the division of the two vital components – maintenance and creation – is realised definitively in the separation of the sexes.’ (De Beauvior 1949:21). The power of the biological urges related to the sex of an individual is often strong enough for the individual to adopt the identity given through its biology. If a person were asked ‘what are you?’ they may answer with ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘male’ or ‘female’. If asked what made them this definition, they would probably answer in terms of their biology. If one answers with one of these responses, they are accepting of their biological sex and acknowledge its role in defining them as individuals. More often than not, society uses the given sex of a person to define them, and grade them accordingly. Butler discusses this idea of sex defining the individual, in terms of their identity, gender and social role: ‘…the very laws that seek to establish causal or expressive lines of connection among biological sex, culturally constituted genders, and the “expression” or “effect” of both in the manifestation of sexual desire through sexual practice.’ (Butler 1990:17). Butler’s argument is that how one is defined in terms of biological nature allows them to be bullied into certain roles within society, even if they would wish otherwise. Her idea of using sexual desires and practices in conjunction with biological status ties back into De Beauvoir’s ideas of how the act of sex can be used as way to determine social order and dominance. ‘…he forces himself upon her, while very often she submits indifferently or even resists him…it is unquestionably the male who takes the female…’ (De Beauvoir 1949:22). This discussion highlights that the biological sex of the individual causes them to fall into a certain bracket, and so to take up particular roles. Sex, when examined alongside gender identity, is the easier of the two to define – biology allows this ease of discussion– but it is still complex and heralds many questions for individuals who are not as accepting of their role. It is here that the idea of gender becomes prominent, and truly begins to highlight the differences.

  Gender poses a far more difficult task in defining it. By its own nature, gender is fluid and changeable, and is decided by the individual. Sex is commonly discussed in terms of male and female; gender relates more to the ideas of masculinity and femininity. While more often than not an individual will decide their gender based on a combination of factors (including gender norms, upbringing, sexual preference and individual choice), typically the most prominent factor affecting an individual’s gender identity is their sex. The majority of people will choose their gender identity based on their biological sex. However, it is when people begin rejecting not only their biological sex, but also their upbringing of gender norms, that the discussion of gender becomes more convoluted. The fluidity of gender means that people go through periods in their lives where they identify more strongly as masculine or feminine, irrespective of their sex or gender. ‘Gender is culturally constructed: hence, gender is neither the causal result of sex nor as seemingly fixed as sex.’ (Butler 1990:6) Butler’s argument for gender being the decision of an individual and a cultural construct holds up well in modern society. It is socially acceptable for women to be interested in things typically associated with men – even encouraged – and it is also becoming (albeit slowly) more acceptable for men to be interested in things associated with women. The online cultural phenomenon of ‘My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic’ (Wooton and Thiessen, 2010) and the audience of the ‘Brony’ (Watercutter 2011) is a prime example of how men are breaking gender norms, while maintaining their gender identity, supporting Butler’s argument that gender can be culturally constructed by individuals.

  The way in which gender is seen and enforced in society can be examined through two different theories – the Male Gaze Theory (Mulvey 1975) and The Kinsey Scale (Kinsey 1948). The Kinsey Scale is particularly interesting in terms of gender as it allows people to identify their level of gender fluidity – it acknowledges that gender is unstable and it does not place any biological influence into its theory, simply using the scale of exclusively heterosexual to exclusively homosexual. This indicates that gender, while very closely linked with sexual desires and sexuality, is widely accepted as being flexible, and in the Kinsey Scale, not linked to biological sex. The Male Gaze Theory, however, takes the concept that we enforce gender roles through media texts, as media producers manipulate their audiences into viewing texts through the eyes of a heterosexual male. Male Gaze theory views gender as rigid – it cannot shift from the roles it has established, and heterosexual male is the most dominant gender, influencing all others. This is completely opposite to the Kinsey Scale, and illustrates the widespread opinions that surround the debate on sex and gender. Yet while the Kinsey Scale is still seen as a good method of helping people identify their sexuality and gender (Bullough 1998:127-131), the Male Gaze theory has been criticised for taking a narrow view on masculinity and media perceptions of women (Snow 1989). The argument surrounding the fluidity of gender and the way in which people choose to identify with their personal choice is on going, and while gender will always be intrinsically linked with sex, the two will never be the same.

  The similarities between sex and gender cannot be ignored when discussing their differences. As previously mentioned, the link between sex and gender is so strong that typically individuals will decide their gender based from their sex. Sex and gender have a symbiotic relationship. For example, you cannot claim to be genderless if, at a biological level, you are still defined as a sex. The genetics of sex are often the main barrier in preventing people from truly identifying with their chosen gender. A man cannot completely identify as a woman if at a biological level he is still male, even if in his gender choice and lifestyle he is a woman. The similarities and co-dependence of sex and gender can be explored through the women’s magazine, Cosmopolitan. Within Cosmopolitan, a text that is known for being a modern day feminist text, it strongly links the similarities of sex and gender together. It promotes the idea of taking your sexuality and sexual behaviours (intrinsically linked with your biology) and incorporating this with your gender in a recipe of female empowerment. Even their tagline ‘For Fun Fearless Females’ ties together the notion of being an individual who is completely in control of both their sex and their gender.

  In an article ‘The Hottest Bad-Girl Sex Tips we’ve ever printed’ (Knoll, Nov 2012: 198-200) the similarities between sex and gender are clearly illustrated. The article takes the idea of using your sexual desires and biology (particularly related to the ideas of sexual pleasure), and combines it with gender – relating to gender roles and the expected ways in which men and women interact with each other (although the article does take on some gender reversal, particularly with the ‘be all dominatrix-y’ tip (Knoll, Nov 2012: 199). However, the article retains a sense of how sex and gender can be combined into a single factor that dominates an individual. It uses sexual behaviour as a link between sex and gender. The article looks at the gendered norms of men and women, as well as the ways in which men and women can adopt masculine and feminine traits into their sexual behaviours, highlighting the similarities between sex and gender, both in a biological and a social sense. This idea of combining your biological sex with your chosen gender into something over which one has complete control is contradictory of Butler’s idea that sex and gender are completely different, and sex has too much fixed influence over gender, which is an object created by cultural factors. Cosmopolitan is an excellent example of how sex and gender are able to display their similarities in a single text without contradiction. It’s portrayal of the female sex and feminine gender is representative of the 21st century way of viewing both of these aspects, and with its feminist influence, it highlights the growing power of sex and gender.

  Yet, while the similarities of sex and gender can be explored, the differences are what define them and must be discussed. When examining the two in the simplest of terms, it can be argued that sex is fixed – it is coded into your genes. Gender is fluid, easy to alter and can be affect by cultural and other external factors, including personal choice. Gender as a being of fluidity can be examined through the character of Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. Katniss is defined as a young woman who struggles with the oppression of her government, her hatred of the twisted Hunger Games, and her role in society. While Katniss is unquestionably female, she displays many masculine traits, such as being the protector of her family – she has adopted a man’s gender role in spite of her female sex. Katniss also rejects the gender norms of women – particularly her admittance to not wanting children. However, as the text progresses, and particularly as the series progresses into Catching Fire (Collins, 2009) and Mockingjay (Collins, 2010), we see Katniss become an even more complex mix of masculine and feminine. She asserts her femininity as her relationship with Peeta, her male counterpart, progresses, but at the same time she holds onto her masculine traits. Katniss defines gender fluidity, and her ease of change between masculine and feminine, while retaining a definite stance of female sex, enables her to act as an example for the differences between sex and gender. Her gender changes; it defines her characteristics and she uses it as a tool that can be manipulated according the situation. Her sex is fixed, and she seems to see it as unimportant – her gender matters most. In Katniss, it is clear that sex is merely a biological state, and gender is your personal choice, your defining aspect shaped by life and culture. Whether this statement can be applied as true to other texts and examples remains to be seen.

  Her relationship to the modern day woman (and her recent heralding as a feminist icon (Anon, 2012) indicates that the fluidity of gender dominating over the fixedness of sex is something that is widely accepted. Katniss is not the only female protagonist to be seen in this way either. Buffy, from Buffy The Vampire Slayer (Whedon, 1997-2003), was seen as a definitive feminist icon of the 1990s. However, unlike Katniss, who pushes aside her female sex in preference of relying on her gender, Buffy was always definitively female. She used her feminine gender and female sex to defy convention, as well as to create empathy and relationships – something Katniss struggles to do initially. Buffy exemplified the way in which a character can have a flexible gender but a solid, defining sex. Unlike Katniss, who ignores her sex and has a fluid gender, Buffy retains her female sex as well as her gender identity. Schaffer examines gender as being able to change and sex as a fixed state, much as Buffy indicates. ‘…it categorizes an individual as either “masculine” or “feminine”, but does not allow for sex-role flexibility. An individual is forced to choose between two alternatives…’ (Schaffer 1981:40). Schaffer takes the ideas of individuals being able to change and adopt their own roles and choices within their sex and gender, regardless of their societal norms or biological status. Much as Katniss rejects norms within her gender and sex, the differences between the two become clearer as they become more defined in terms of their respective natures.

  Sex and gender, while being tied together in many aspects, remain different in their nature. Sex, while having the ability to define gender and being a key dominating aspect of human lives and actions, remains a biological constant. Sex is an unchanging part of one’s self, and while individuals have the choice to reject their biological sex, at some level they will always be aware of it. The fixedness of sex allows it to act as one of the few aspects of life that changes very little throughout the course of living. Behaviours related to it may change (such as sexuality) but ultimately sex remains fixed, your biology written into your genes. Gender, on the other hand, is incredibly changeable. It has the ability to be influenced by external factors – particularly society. As Butler argued, gender can be a cultural construct, as well as shaped by individual choices (including whether or not you accept your sex). Gender envelopes masculinity and femininity, and allows individuals to make choices that are not dependent on fixed aspects like sex. Gender’s ability to adapt to personal choices, be it through appearance or dress, immediately separates it as the changeable aspect when compared to sex. The simple fact that gender can provide people with a means through which to change their lifestyle and social constructs means it provides so many more opportunities for freedom of expression than sex, which remain too static and fixed to provide the same wealth of changes. While gender is often based from the sex of an individual, its ability to adopt and switch between the characteristics of men and women enables it to retain its status as a fluid and changeable aspect of human lives, whereas sex remains the fixed point.


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