Sex Versus Gender: What's The Difference?

We hear the terms sex and gender tossed around all the time these days, sometimes interchangeably and often inconsistently. From identity to intercourse to body parts, it can be hard to know what's what. Is biology as simple as having a gender reveal party for your baby and setting it in stone? Scientists say it's more complex than that.

Sex can be defined as the biological differences between people, which include body parts but also chromosomes and hormones, according to the Office of Research on Women's Health. Gender, on the other hand, is less scientific and more socially constructed, referring to roles, behaviors, and expectations that evolve over time. The two constantly interact with each other and impact our health but are distinct in many ways. The complexities of sex and gender are enormous, and many people are unaware of just how fluid they both can be. That's right — both sex and gender can be fluid, according to a 2013 review published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Is sex more straightforward than gender?

Because there can be variations in chromosomes, hormone levels, and reproductive organs, there are more than just male and female sexes. An example is intersex, which means being born with several sex characteristics that make it difficult to be placed in a binary sex category (via American Journal of Public Health).

An example of the fluidity of sex is Caster Semenya, an Olympic track athlete from South Africa (via Mental Floss). While she was designated female at birth, she has a condition called hyperandrogenism that causes incredibly high levels of testosterone. When the International Association of Athletics Federation insisted she take medication to lower her testosterone levels and prove she is not a "male" participating in a "female" sport, she fought back, and the Swiss Federal Supreme Court ruled in her favor. This provokes thought about what makes one a female or male, who decides, and how easily one's place on that spectrum could shift.

Gender is a social construct

Gender may also exist on a spectrum, and messaging about gender usually begins in early childhood (via Harvard Health). Depending on our family, culture, and society we live in, gender identity will develop differently. But it's just that — a construct defined by our environment. We might be told that girls need to "act like girls" and boys need to "act like boys," or we might be allowed to break the norms and behave in ways that go against the status quo. Some people identify as male or female, but some identify as gender-fluid (expressing their gender in different ways throughout their lives), nonbinary (not identifying with strict categories of male or female), or transgender (identifying with something different than what is listed on their birth certificate).

It's important to remember that those in the LGBTQIA community whose sex and gender exist on a spectrum are more at risk for prejudice and discrimination, which contributes to negative health outcomes such as depression, anxiety, self-harming behavior, and suicidal thoughts and behavior (via Harvard Health). Educating ourselves is a great first step to breaking the cycle.