The aim of this post is to provide a very brief introduction to the very complex topic of sex, gender and gender identity.
Sex, gender and gender identity: basic definitions
- Sex refers to the biological differences between men and women
- Gender refers to the cultural differences between – it is to do with social norms surrounding masculinity and femininity.
- Gender Identity is an individual’s own sense of their own gender. Their private sense of whether they feel masculine, feminine, both or neither, irrespective of their biological sex.
Biological differences between men and women
At first glance, there appears to be some fairly obvious biological differences between men and women – most obviously:
- Reproductive organs – women have eggs and wombs and men produce sperm which fertilizes eggs – no need to go into the joys of exactly how this is done at this stage, suffice to say that in terms of the physical reproduction of the species men have a fairly easy time of it, women are the ones who have to carry the babies inside of them, and suffer the physical trauma of childbirth.
- Women can lactate, men can’t, meaning women are the only sex who can produce food for their young offspring.
- On average men are physically stronger, and can run faster than women.
- Women typically cannot reproduce over the age of 50, while men can perform the reproductive function until much later on in their lives.
- On average, women live longer than men
- There are also hormonal differences – most obviously men have higher testosterone levels – which some scientific studies have linked to their higher levels of aggression.
Traditional Gender Roles and Norms
In the 1950s Functionalist sociologist Talcott Parsons argued that these biological differences meant there were ‘natural’ social roles that men and women should fulfill in society –
- women should perform the expressive role, or caring and nurturing role.
- men should perform the instrumental role, or the ‘breadwinner’ role – going out and earning money.
Such ideas formed part of the common sense’ way of viewing relations through much of the 20th century, with most people seeing maleness and masculinity and femaleness and femininity as a binary relationship – with men being seen as the opposite of women.
Criticisms of the male-female gender divide
Successive Feminists movements have spearheaded criticisms of traditional gender roles in society, arguing that stereotypical ideas about the roles men and women should occupy, and the norms they should subscribe to, have systematically disadvantaged women.
One of the key Feminist ideas is that gender is socially constructed, that gender roles and norms are not determined by biology, but are shaped by society, and some of the best evidence of this fact lies in the enormous variation in gender roles between different cultures – simply put, if you can find just a handful of examples of men and women occupying different roles, having different amounts of power, and acting differently in different cultures, then this disproves the theory that there is some kind of ‘natural’ link between biological sex and gender.
Feminists have effectively spearheaded campaigns for greater gender equality and diversity of gender roles, and the last century has seen a blurring of boundaries between male and female roles and norms surrounding masculinity and femininity.
And, of course, the fact that gender roles and norms have changed so much so rapidly adds further weight to the fact that gender is socially constructed rather than biologically determined.
Criticisms of the binary opposition between male/ masculine and female/ feminine
Contemporary Feminism has criticized the binary opposition between male and female, arguing that every aspect of sex and gender are in fact sliding scales rather than opposites – as illustrated by the Genderbread person:
The genderbread person was developed by Sam Killerman, who argues that gender identity incorporates not only one’s biological sex, but also one’s sexuality, one’s sense of social-identity and how one feels about one’s self – gender identity is thus fluid and complex, rather than static and binary binary, as explored further by Sam Killerman in the TED talk below.
Hegemonic masculinity and femininity in contemporary society
Of course just because we are more accepting of gender diversity in contemporary society, this doesn’t mean that the old stereotypes have disappeared – biological males are still ‘called upon’ to act in a typically masculine way, and biological females are still called upon to act in typically feminine ways, which at least in part explains why there are still clear gender inequalities in society today.