This is an attempt to clarify a number of issues surrounding sex, gender, gender expression and sexuality. It is not intended to be a definitive guide, but is offered as a discussion document in conjunction with the "Lets talk gender" thread on the SkirtCafé forum and many threads on the NonBinary forum.
As many people have been brought up to believe that sex and gender are the same thing it may be helpful to distinguish between these characteristics. The informal 'definitions' below indicate how these terms will be used on this webpage.
SEX - What is between your legs
GENDER - What is between your ears
GENDER EXPRESSION - What you do to gain society's acceptance as a particular gender (which may or may not be your true gender).
SEXUALITY - What you are sexually attracted to.
In strict biological terms, the primary sexual characteristics are the chromosomes in the cells of the embryo. The bodily differences at birth, which we generally think of as a person's "sex", are actually secondary sexual characteristics, created in response to the chromosomes. A further set of changes occurs at puberty when the gonads produce hormones which cause different parts of the body to attain their adult form and function.
A large proportion of the human population appears to fall into one of two groups:
Male --- Masculine --- Prefer sex with women
Female --- Feminine --- Prefer sex with men
Because the majority of people have the same sex as their gender, it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that gender can always be determined from the obvious sexual characteristics of a person. This is incorrect.
Much of western society is based on a flawed binary model of sex and gender and, until recently, it has been accepted unquestioningly by many people as the only possible 'correct' state of affairs. It has been reinforced by religion and by law. However, it does not take account of the fact that not all people fit neatly into these categories. One obvious example would be someone who is born with genitals that cannot be identified as clearly male or clearly female, they may appear to contain elements of both, or they may be neither.
The binary stereotype is reinforced by society in many different ways:
This is why people can go through their entire lives denying the existence of anyone who does not fit their concept of binary gender. When confronted with someone who does not fit this cosy model, it is much easier to dismiss them with a variety of offensive adjectives than to challenge the long-established falsehood of binary gender and stand up to the people who unthinkingly support it.
Sex is fixed at birth, but the secondary sexual characteristics of an individual are sometimes altered voluntarily, by means of an operation*, to conform with society's norms; or mutilated, against the person's will, to conform with religious or medical norms.
[*The operation was previously known as "Sex change", which is inaccurate because the person's sex wasn't changed; it is now known as "Gender reassignment surgery" which is equally inaccurate because it does not change their gender. The operation alters the appearance of their secondary sexual characteristics in order to allow them to be accepted into society in their correct gender rôle. The term "Genital reassigment surgery" is a better description.23]
To represent the true nature of a person's apparent sex requires at least two axes: male-to-female and both-to-neither. [Apologies for appearing to reinforce the blue = boy and pink = girl stereotype, but this is less confusing than other possible colour choices]
This model only applies to physical appearance based on cursory examination of the genitals, which until recent times was the way the sex of a baby was determined at birth. The underlying chromosomes can now be examined and these also show a much greater range of possibilities than the simple binary classification. Despite the easy availability of chromosome tests and the knowledge we have gained from them, unquestioning belief in a simplistic binary system is still widespread.
People are not distributed evenly across all the area, there are far more at the male or female ends of the spectrum than there are in the middle
Gender is not the same thing as sex; gender is the underlying way a person feels they should relate to society. This is not to be confused with gender expression, which is the way the person actually relates to society and may be different because of external pressures. People whose sex differs considerably from their gender are referred to as "transgender".
Gender is fixed at birth or soon afterwards; by the age of five, most children have a good idea of their gender, although this may be confused by pressure from adults (and other children) who "know better".
There is usually thought to be a spectrum from fully masculine to fully feminine, which is independent of the spectrum from male to female. Not all women are feminine and not all men are masculine (and not all people are men or women, as explained above); although, until recently, there was considerable pressure on people in western society to conform to those stereotypes. This led to people feeling obliged to 'present' a false image of their gender, which kept society happy by reinforcing the binary gender stereotype but made the individual miserable, often to the point of suicide.
Just as with sex, gender is not a simple spectrum but has more than one axis:
In the gender model, the axes have different labels from the sex model, but the principle of two orthogonal axes remains the same.
According to some estimates, the proportion of the population which is neither clearly male nor clearly female could be as high as 1.7%:
Independently of this, approximately 1.3% of the population experience some sort of mismatch between the'gender' that was assigned to them at birth (based on their apparent sex, as determined from the appearance of their genitals) and their true gender.
The term "cis" is used for people whose sex and gender are matched:
The terms "trans" or "gender variant" are used for people whose sex and gender do not match:
Sometimes this is caused by mis-classification of sex because of ambiguous genitals, but it is now believed that development of inappropriate genitals caused by exposure of the ftus in the womb to abnormal hormone levels is the most common reason for the trans condition.
The term "transwoman" is used for a person with feminine gender but a male body at birth; the term "transman" is used for a person with masculine gender but a female body at birth.
If you are would like to know more about mismatch between sex and gender, contact Angels Forum, a transgender help group.
Gender expression is the way the person actually relates to society regardless of their real gender. Whilst sex and gender are fixed, gender expression is supposed to be under voluntary control. In actual practice, a significant number of people find themselves having to express their gender (or 'present') in a way which is not appropriate for their true gender. There are many possible reasons for this:
Gender dysphoria is brought about by a combination of three factors: The brain, the body and society. The gender of the brain is not matched by the appearance of the body and society will not accept this.
"Wrong brain" - Until recently the accepted treatment was psychological, the brain was always considered at fault and a combination of mental and physical torture was used to try to bring it into line with the body. Although now thoroughly discredited, this method is still advocated by some psychiatric practitioners and by some pseudo-religious organisations. It is also a advocated by many ordinary people who are ignorant of the true nature of gender dysphoria. It has been responsible for many deaths through suicide.
"Wrong body" - Current practice is to attempt to bring the body into line with the brain's preferred gender, at least far enough to satisfy society and permit the person to live in their true gender rôle. This requires painful, expensive, time-consuming and potentially risky medical procedures, some of which are irreversible. For this reason, psychiatric advice is usually sought before the procedure in order to ensure that the person's dysphoria is not from some other cause. This is the most successful treatment for gender dysphoria so far.
"Wrong society" - Another way of preventing some types of gender dysphoria would be to educate society into accepting transgender people in their true gender rôles, regardless of their bodily appearance. This would be by far the cheapest and best option if it could be carried through to the point where everyone, including the transgender people themselves, accepted it. Unfortunately ,while there are still ignorant and bigoted people prepared to ridicule, oppress or even kill transgender people, this is not a viable option in western society, although it works extremely well in other types of society.
...may sometimes be specific to the sex of the wearer, but it does not have a gender. If the wearer has secondary sexual characteristics, they may use clothing to support these, or to display, hide or control them in some way. This clothing is usually inappropriate on a person who does not have those characteristics. In western society, certain types of clothing are often associated with some genders, but this is no reason to restrict the wearing of that type of clothing to one particular gender
Clothing may be chosen for its practicality in certain situatiions, such as physical activity, dirty or dangerous work and hot or cold environments. In western society it may be chosen because of fashion, so as to create a particular appearance, or for theatrical purposes or to indicate support for a particular group. A major factor in the choice of clothing is comfort. There may be good reasons for wearing clothing which appears unusual to the observer:
One man may wear a skirt in spite of it being perceived as women's clothing, but another man might wear it because it is perceived as woman's clothing.
...such as jewellery are purely a matter of fashion or taste, they have no bearing on the sex or gender of the wearer. Many fashions continually change; accoutrements which may have been restricted to only one gender a few years ago are now worn by all genders and vice-versa.
In addition to the above reasons, the wearer may associate certain types of clothing with a particular sex and wish to create an impression of that sex in their own mind or in the minds of others.
"A Transvestite needs to be seen for the woman they are not and a Transsexual needs to be recognised for the woman, or man, that they are.
These are not a good indicator of sex or gender. Some types of body movement may be slightly modified by the physical development of the person's body, which relates to their sexual development, or by the preferred clothing of their gender, but the sexual development or the clothing is usually more obvious than the subtle change in the movement. Many mannerisms, which have been mistaken for gender indicators in the past, are actually related to practical situations such as the need to brush aside long hair or cross the legs to conserve body heat when wearing a short skirt in a cool climate. Once again, the cause of the mannerism is more obvious than the mannerism itself and is no guide to the gender of the person having the long hair or wearing the short skirt.
More on gender
Legal definition of gender
Sexual attraction is conventionally classified in a binary way: 'heterosexual (opposite sex) or homosexual (same sex). This is a convenient classification for determining if the particular type of pairing is likely to produce children, but it tends to lump all non-productive pairings under one single (and totally inadequate) heading.
By using the symbols for sex from the previous page, the limitations of such a binary approach soon become apparent. What names could be given to the following attractions?
In addition, sexual attraction is not always a fixed or specific characteristic, preferences may change; they may be narrow and specific, or much wider to include a range of possibilities. Consider the following:
This is not the only complication, because sexual attraction may not be based on the sex of the couple but may be relate more strongly to their gender or their gender expression. Each partner may have their own particular preference for an unique combination of sex, gender and gender expression in the other partner.
The diagram shows that the traditional classifications are even more irrelevant when the person's gender does not align with their birth sex:
This shows a relationship between a trans woman (someone who was born with feminine gender but whose body developed male characteristics) and a cis man (someone who was born with a male body which matches their masculine gender); and a relationship between a trans man and a cis woman. The terms "heterosexual" and "homosexual" have no meaning in relationships such as these.
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender
It is important to distinguish clearly between sexual preferences "LGB" and gender, "T". Both are congenital (partly genetic and partly due to conditions in the womb) and neither of them is a lifestyle choice - but they are two independent things.
Help understanding and coping with gender variance http://www.gires.org.uk
Men who like wearing skirts for fashion, comfort or trans (but not fetish):http://www.skirtcafe.org/forums/
UK transgender adults: http://www.angelsforum.co.uk/phpforum/
UK transgender children: http://www.mermaids.org.uk
UK non-binary: http://www.nonbinary.org
USA transitioning transgender adults male-to-female: http://www.crossdressers.com/forums/forumdisplay/.php?12-Transexual-Forum
USA transitioning transgender adults female-to-male: http://www.crossdressers.com/forums/forumdisplay/.php?5-Transmasculine
USA crossdresser adults (trans and fetish): http://www.crossdressers.com/forums/forumdisplay/.php?1-Male-to-Female-Crossdressing