Wednesday, September 3, 2008

"sex" and "gender" are not the same thing

I hear this virtually everyday: "sex" and "gender" used as synonyms. This is not correct.

I took a gander at, which frightened me with the following definition of gender:
The condition of being female or male; sex.
Is it my academic elitism that is bothered by such abuse of terminology, or is it my love for language and precision that is offended by the tear in verbal/conceptual efficiency? Either way, confusion between the terms impedes actual understandings of gender theory to begin with. So allow me to set the record straight.

Sex--Determined by genitals/chromosomes as either "male" or "female." In other words, what is in between one's legs (with exception of intersexed individuals, whose sex is decided not necessarily by chromosomes or genitals, but rather surgical and perceived social convenience...but that's another blog).

Gender--the enactment of "maleness" or "femaleness." That is to say, a biological female upholds a culturally sanctioned female gender through application of make up and traditional "female" garb, such as dresses, skirts, yada yada. Consequently, a biological male can enact a female gender performance, and likewise a biological female can enact a male gender performance. Clearly, there is no intrinsic connection between sex and gender; it is culturally determined and regulated.

Commentary regarding "gender discrimination" often misses the bigger issue. In an attempt to seem politically correct, the term "sex" is replaced by "gender," when in fact the speaker likely means to include the combination of both.

In other words, women are not discriminated against based on gender alone. Women face discrimination for being biologically female with a female gender performance, or for being biologically female with a male gender performance. The former may be stigmatized as giddy, less sexual, froo froo, necessarily a future mommy, whatever...and the latter is socially punished for being "butch."

If the issue was gender alone, then transgender people would not be subject to discrimination and violence. The fact of the matter is, unless a transperson can successfully pass, mainstream society does not tolerate mismatches between sex and the respective gender assigned by society.

"Equality" would exist if individuals were not discriminated against of the basis of their sex, their gender, or any combination thereof.

Note: gender identity can be fluid, and also non-determined/non-conformist (androgyny/gender queer).

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