Saturday January 26, 08
sex versus gender
Are the terms sex and gender synonymous? No. Yet, not a day goes by that I don't see the term gender misused. The media is especially guilty of making this error.
Social scientists clearly define gender and sex as two separate things.
Sex: The biological category of male and female.
Gender: The culturally defined set of traits associated with each sex e.g. think masculine and feminine.
Simply put, we are born a sex e.g. xx female or xy male. The moment after birth, we are labeled as male or female based on the type of genitalia we have (that which is visible with the naked eye). Then we are assigned a gender. And this gender can change--and does change--according to the times we live in. Remember when it was not manly to change a diaper? Now men are free to engage in childcare. This has nothing to do with sex. Men are still men. It is the gender that has changed e.g. the set of behaviors associated with each sex.
Sex is static--unchanging.
Gender is dynamic--flexible.
One is biological and the other is behavioral.
Sex = no choice.
Gender = choice.
Here's another way of looking at it: Even though a man has a biologically male set of traits e.g. xy chromosomes, male genitalia, testicles, facial hair, etc, he may choice to dress in female clothing, work as a home health aid, and bake cookies every Friday for the nursing home staff where he works. Clearly he is a man. Yet he has adopted many female gender behaviors.
Two hundred years ago, women rarely wore slacks.
Two hundred years ago, men wore powdered wigs.
I think you get it.
So why is gender used where sex should be? Ignorance? Perhaps. Or it may have something to do with our prudish culture. The word sex puts sex on the brain. Gender doesn't have that same effect. Perhaps the reasoning goes like this: No one wants to get a woody--women get woodies too, btw--when at the DMV or while filling out an application for work or a loan etc. Seeing the word sex in print will cause us to get woodies. And this would be embarrassing for us and all those nearby. So the word gender is used to prevent this disaster from happening.
Why should we care how the terms are used? We should care because gender is not a dichotomy like sex is. It is multifaceted and nuanced. How I do my gender may not be the same as how the lady next door does hers. We do gender; we are a sex.
Next time you see a box asking for you to pick male gender or female gender, think about how limiting this is. And ask yourself, who designed this form? Do they want men and women to be forced to view themselves as complete opposites--like Yin and Yang baby?! What are the social implications of this? What are the negatives of this polarizing paradigm?
If you want to rebel, do it. Refuse to box yourself in.
Addressing this issue makes me think of the MySpace astrological categories that are displayed on each person's profile. What if I think astrology is full of shit--which I do? It doesn't matter. I am forced to be assigned one of twelve personality profiles based on junk science. Lovely. I can be nothing like a Libra, yet the world will still see me as a Libra--creative (true), loving (ah, not always), beautiful (Have they seen the rats-nest-do I'm sporting?). You get my point, eh?! Even so, I suppose having twelve variations is preferable to only two.
Why do we have to put everything into neat little boxes? Are we so feeble-minded as not to be able to understand and navigate variation?
I am not a category; I am a human being.