September 19, 2010

Distinguishing Sex From Gender: Step 3

Understanding the distinction between sex and gender can be confusing. A closer look at the history of the two words can help clear things up.

Print More

In Part 3 of my series we’re going to continue exploring the complexities of language by trying to understand the relationship between sex and gender. I know we’ve already talked about the challenge of defining sex. As you may remember, we’ve already established that what one person defines as sex is different than how another person defines it. That’s great if we’re talking about sexual ‘behavior’, but what about that whole biological perspective of sex? The sex of a baby? The gender of a baby? Are these the same things? My answer…. It’s kind of complicated.

The Sex/Gender Distinction: A brief (I hope!) history

I wish the answer was an easy one. As we’ve seen in a previous blog post about the confusion over a South African’s biological sex,  the confusion between sex and gender is real and complicated. I said in my last blog post that I like history. This is a situation where I think history will help us not only begin to understand the distinctions between sex and gender but also help us understand why it’s so freaking complicated!


Etymology is the study of the history of words and seems as good as place as any to start. Sex comes from the Latin word secare which means to cut or divide. Gender also comes from a Latin word, genus which means race or kind. Until the second half of the 20th century Sex belonged solely to biology. Sex dealt with genitals and biological designation between male or female. Gender, on the other hand, belonged to grammar. Gender is how we classified our nouns, pronouns, and adjectives as to being either masculine, feminine, or neuter (Any one who has studied a foreign language has probably been exposed to gender in grammar).

So what happened?

John Money

In short: John Money happened. I know… I know… some of you are asking: Who is John Money? Those of you who know who he is may have your eyebrows raised, defenses on edge, and curious to see in what light I’ll paint him. To be fair, John Money deserves his own blog post (it’ll come out soon). He’s a bit of a lightening rod figure in the field as he certainly has his controversies. Regardless of how you feel about him (if anything at all), the man did invent and coin the term Gender Role.

Picture This…

It was the early 1950s and a young John Money was in graduate studies at a Harvard psychological clinic. It was here that he was first introduced to, what the language of the time diagnosed as, Hermaphroditism (Today the preferred term seems to be intersexed). For the first time in his life, Money was being exposed to individuals who had biological traits of both males and females. His interest grew and eventually lead to a Ph.D. dissertation on the topic.

Before I get bogged down in the details, controversies, and complexities of Money’s research let me get to my point. In 1955, John Money wrote a paper on Hermaphroditism and introduced for the first time the idea of Gender not as a grammatical concept but as a human characteristic. Because there was a birth defect with the genitals in his patients that made it unable for doctors to positively identify them as male or female, he used gender to define the experiences of masculinity and femininity the individuals were experiencing.

For the first time we start to label a distinction between the biological and the social/cultural definitions of what makes someone a man or woman.

Gender Roles and Gender Identity

The idea of gender quickly lead to the idea of gender roles. If gender described the experiences an individual was having in regards to feeling masculine or feminine then it made sense that a gender role would be all of the things an individual says or does to actively portray being a man or woman.

It’s important to keep in mind that this was in 1955! As a context, Disneyland in California opened that year and the Mickey Mouse club just went on the air (the original one, not the one with Brittany Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Christina Aguilera). I mean, this was a time when there was some pretty strict ideas of what it meant to be a man and what it meant to be a woman. Since I’m using Disney as a reference point this was also the year Lady and the Tramp premiered in Chicago. I bring this up because again, this is a history, and it is important to keep in mind that language and cultural norms are always changing!

By the 1960s the notion of Gender Identity has emerged. Gender Role becomes representative of the cultural stereotypes of masculinity and femininity. In essence, it encompasses all of the things that fall under “Boys should act one way and Girls should act another way”. Gender Identity comes to represent what goes on inside the head. It becomes the psychological side of things “Do I feel like a boy? Do I feel like a girl?”.

Academically and clinically, Sex and Gender were being split. Sex stayed in the realm of biology and Gender went the way of culture.

Today’s Conclusion

By no means is this an exhaustive history. My intent was simply to give you an introductory crash course as to where the confusion started. In future posts I plan to go even further into understanding the distinction between sex and gender. If we return to my last blog on the division of our academic perspectives you can start the see the complexities and interrelatedness of the biological and social approaches in researching sexuality.

So returning to my earlier question about the sex of the baby? The gender of the baby? As you can now imagine it has the potential to be a little more complicated than it first seemed. Of course we haven’t even gotten into discussions about who gets to make those decisions? Why them and not someone else? For that matter, why stop with babies? What about animals? If sex and gender differ from each other, do animals have gender? The questions go on and on.