Essay:Sex, gender, and gender roles

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I know it says in the essay template that this is just an opinion, but I'd like to make it explicit: the following are not statements of fact, but expressions of opinions I have formed over my life, based on books I have read and my personal experience as a transsexual person.

The purposes of this essay are:

  • to outline what I believe should be the proper meanings of the words "sex," "gender," and "gender role"; and
  • to explain the origins of each.

The word "gender" was originally solely a linguistic term, referring to nouns in European languages which are classified, usually arbitrarily, as "masculine," "feminine," or sometimes "neuter," and which are treated differently grammatically. Eventually it came to be used as a euphemism for sex, in contexts where discussion of sex would be inappropriate. But then a distinction between sex and gender came to be observed, where sex is of the body and gender is of the mind. "Male" and "female" are terms that refer to sex, and "man" and "woman" to gender.

This is an extremely important distinction to a trans person, as we feel incongruity between our sex and our gender. (If these terms were synonymous, the previous sentence would clearly make no sense, nor would our entire existence.)

Sex is generally, and accurately, defined in reference to sex organs. Males have penises and females have vaginas.

Most of the time, we think of sex and gender as the same, and so we think of sex organs as the deciding factor for gender as well. But this is absurd; when we see someone walking down the street, we don't demand they reveal their genitals to us so that we might make a more accurate classification in our brains. We go with what they present as their gender: the way they look, the way they dress, the aspects of their body they choose to highlight or diminish. All are subconscious gender cues.

So what do these words mean, then?

  • Sex is the state of one's sex organs.
  • Gender is the alignment a person has with masculinity, femininity or neutrality.
  • Gender roles are the ways in which people express their gender within a society.

Sex is biologically determined, obviously. The two most common sexes are male and female; those who are neither are commonly called "intersex". But note that intersex people can still be men or women, as those terms are for gender, not for sex.

Gender arises in the brain, a biological organ like any other. Both the brain and gender are complex and not well understood, but among the things we do know is that men and women perceive things differently. According to author Deborah Tannen, women perceive relationships as networks, while men perceive them as hierarchies. Clearly, she isn't saying "people with penises perceive hierarchies"; so to ascribe perspective to a sex is nonsensical. Tannen is discussing gender, which exists in the mind, not the body.

Note, however, that placing gender "in the mind" is not to say that it is merely a social construct. If gender were determined solely by sex, transsexual people would not exist; and if gender were determined solely by society, children raised as the opposite gender would feel comfortable as such. This is not observed; boys raised to be girls grow up to be men, assuming they don't commit suicide first (a tragically common occurrence in these situations). So gender must be neither determined by genes nor by society, but by something in the mind.

Much feminist criticism has focused on what is socially constructed, and I believe there is merit to much of this work, but what they are describing is not gender but rather gender roles. Gender roles are constructed. The roles we take on when we interact in a society are shaped by that society, but the particular role we choose, we decide ourselves based on our gender.

Let me give an example, a hypothetical woman named Sarah. Sarah is an ordinary, feminine woman who likes children and homemaking. Suppose she also chooses to marry, have children, and be a stay-at-home mom. This is a gender role, one that society created (since societies exist without the specific concept "stay-at-home mom"), yet one that she chose because it fit naturally with her gender. If her gender were slightly different, she could choose a different role, and if it were radically different, she would likely self-identify as transgender.

In short: sex, gender, and gender roles are three different things; sex is of the body; gender is of the mind; and gender roles are of society.