Sex vs. gender: Is there a difference?

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When Simone de Beauvoir’s landmark book, “The Second Sex” landed on shelves in 1949, sex differences were clearly defined: people born male were men, and people born female were women.

De Beauvoir’s book challenged this assumption, writing, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

In the introduction to her book, Beauvoir asked, “What is a woman? ‘Tota mulier in utero’, says one, ‘woman is a womb.’ But in speaking of certain women, connoisseurs declare that they are not women, although they are equipped with a uterus like the rest … we are exhorted to be women, remain women, become women. It would appear, then, that every female human being is not necessarily a woman …”

To de Beauvoir, being a woman meant taking on the culturally prescribed behaviors of womanhood; simply having been born female did not a woman make.

De Beauvoir was, in essence, defining the difference between sex and what we now call “gender.”

In 1949, the term “gender,” as applied to people, had not yet entered the common lexicon. “Gender” was used only to refer to feminine and masculine words such as la and le in de Beauvoir’s native French.

It would take more than a decade after the book’s publication before “gender” as a description of people would begin its long journey into common parlance. But de Beavoir hit upon a distinction that today shapes much of our discourse. So what is the difference between “sex” and “gender”?

Merriam-Webster defines “sex” as “either of the two major forms of individuals that occur in many species and that are distinguished respectively as female or male especially on the basis of their reproductive organs and structures.” Sex, in other words, is biological; a person is male or female based on his or her chromosomes.

Gender,” on the other hand, refers to “the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex” – what sociologists used to refer to as “sex roles.”

Sex is what nature determines; gender refers to how a person is nurtured to behave and think.

Is this distinction too simplistic?

Writing in the 1970s, Gayle Rubin suggested that identity is constructed by a sex/gender system in which the raw material of sex provides the form from which gender hangs. Later scholars refer to this as the “coat-rack view” of gender, in which bodies that have a predetermined sex (or sexed bodies) act as coat racks and provide the location for constructing gender.

In a 2011 article in Psychology Today, Dr. Michael Mills cautioned that “behavior is never either nature or nurture. It is always a very complex interweaving of both.”

From this perspective, the sex/gender debate is about the relationship between nature and nurture in shaping personal identity.

But the debate does not lie solely in the academic realms of psychology and philosophy. Indeed, activists from a variety of political perspectives see important cultural significance in the choice of term because of the potential implications for law, politics, and society at large.

Ten years ago, the Independent Women’s Forum, a bi-partisan group of conservative-leaning feminists, handed out buttons emblazoned with the slogan, “Sex is better than Gender.” The catchy, irreverent phrase was intended to frame the controversy and stake out the IWF’s position in the modern war of words.

The IWF’s view? “Sex” is the preferable term because many male/female differences are biological and these differences can fairly impact public policy.

Progressives, on the other hand, prefer the term “gender” to imply that male/female differences are socially constructed and, therefore, irrelevant. According to this school of thought, sex differences should not be taken into consideration in crafting policy.

And yet, today, most people use the terms “sex” and “gender” interchangeably. Even many newspapers and textbooks use both terms to mean the same thing:  the two sexes, male and female, within the context of society.

This “mainstreaming” of the concept of “gender” has significant policy implications on issues ranging from health insurance to transgender rights, many of which the NewBostonPost plans to explore during the month of February.

What do you think?  When describing maleness vs. femaleness, do you use the word “sex” or “gender”? Or do you use them interchangeably?