What are we talking about when we talk about gender?

Sex, gender, sexuality – conflating these concepts and their vocabularies is making it harder to create a more equitable society

The stories we agree to and rely on to create structure for society and make social interaction predictable have enormous power. And when they shift — quickly or slowly — it can be disruptive, frustrating, even scary. But ultimately that disruption is the product of conversation, the ongoing debate about how we want our social structures to function that is up to us to define collectively, and the language we use and how we talk about these concepts matters.

Sex is a biological concept defined by genetics. Our DNA has both genotypic (what genes are present in our DNA) and phenotypic (how those genes manifest physically) expressions both of which are biological in origin. Only 0.06% of people are born not XX or XY. Some larger, less exact percentage (because it’s hard to define “normal”) have some variety of conditions that result in variations to reproductive anatomy. This group is referred to by the generic term intersex which encompasses all phenotypic expressions that are not “normal males” or “normal females” which makes it a subjective biological category.

Gender is a social concept that differentiates characteristics that may include sex, sex-based roles people play in society, and the psychosocial concept of gender identity. The social versus biological distinction arose in 1955 in a paper by John Money and was expanded by feminist theory in the 1970s that began to challenge the social and political dominance of men that had been institutionalized in our modern concept of gender.

Sexuality is broad category of behaviors and instincts related to how humans express themselves sexually that spans biological, physical, and social factors and includes sexual orientation which refers to durable patterns of attraction to a particular sex and/or gender.

Traditionally, sex has correlated with both gender expression (which gender we embody) and gender role (which social responsibilities we embrace) and were so connected as to seem interchangeable. Particularly, in dominant American 20th century culture, sex is often assumed to correlate with sexuality. But that false interchangeability has lead to habits of using biological terms to represent social structures and vice-versa largely based on what “sounds” right to us not what is accurate and by what conforms to mainstream social expectations and are then interpreted as facts rather than norms. Our imprecision with language has led to inaccurate understanding of these concepts. This inconsistency makes it much much harder to have a specific and productive conversation about how our society is evolving relative to gender.

Why the genetics and gender studies lesson on a Monday morning? The GOP seems to have latched on to trans equality especially for kids as the new front in their political strategy and, in particular, has been leaning in at the state level to legislate “fairness” in kids sports relative to gender. Our bad habits of interchangeability contribute to our inability to debate the questions that this political strategy elevates and to confront their power to elevate such intense responses from both sides.

When we say “girl’s soccer,” do we mean mean girl or do we mean female? If we mean female (which is what I think we mean and how we want to distinguish athletic participation — but is certainly up for debate), then we are creating biological distinctions between athletes that are likely to sort people by the physical capabilities typically connected to sex rather than gender differences that have no connection besides historical correlation to physical capacities. The typical phenotypic differences in muscle composition and hormones associated with sex lead to typical differences in athletic performance. This would leave intersex individuals in complex situations that we would then have to distinguish, but it would not require us to solve where transgendered individuals compete — they would compete based on their sex which while socially complex would be physiologically more fair. Because, up to now, we have labeled sports by gender not sex, we have setup a much more complicated debate about fairness (and choice) that lends itself to conflating social disruption and discomfort with evolving social systems with biological fairness. If we want to mean gender when distinguishing sports, then we’ve got to be prepared to live with an evolving distinction amongst participants.

Switching our sports labels from gender to sex is not the solution to our political conflicts about gender or these three interrelated concepts but is an illustration about how precision in language can help focus our conversation and illuminate what we are debating. And even these distinctions are not perfect. Because they are constantly evolving, our grip on them must remain gentle, and our conversation about them demands care, kindness, and empathy.

When we talked about gender fluidity, we are not talking about sex fluidity. So far that kind of genetic alteration is not yet possible. When we talk about sex and gender, we are not necessarily talking about sexuality at all. What we are talking about are behaviors, roles, and responsibilities that have traditionally belonged to either men or women and have evolved dramatically over thousands of years and are still evolving. It is easy to see this evolution historically, but in our moment in history we often foolishly embrace the idea that we are complete — that evolution is done. But we are the next point on a line heading in a direction and are therefore subject to the same shifting disruption. Is that disruption happening faster than ever? Maybe. Has it also been disquieting and uncomfortable for some. Absolutely. Would more care and attention to the language we use help us understand what we’re talking about and wrestling with? I think so.