Is It Really Enough To Separate Our Definitions Of Sex And Gender?

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When I was a kid, I don’t remember ever questioning whether or not I was a girl. As far as I knew (had been told) there were boys who grew up to be men and girls who grew up to be women. I knew that my mother’s and my bodies were different from my brother’s and my father’s, but that’s where the train of thought stopped. Since no family member who wasn’t an infant was ever really naked in front of me, I got most of my information on the subject from my parents, books, friends and peers. I was never really presented with a reason to question any of it.

I gradually learned and heard things about people who didn’t fit into that binary, but their bodies and lives were always posed as anomalous. My anatomy and corresponding gender were consistently reinforced as the ‘correct’ way of being. There were certainly people with different body parts and behaviors, and it was okay, but only because their existence carried the footnote of being outside the norm.

When I got to college, I spent a good amount of time in my anthropology classes considering the separation of the ideas of gender and sex. I learned about the ways different cultures identify and express gender as well as how perceptions of gender and sexuality have shifted within our own culture over time. Even some of the things we think of as being obviously feminine, like the color pink and completely smooth or hairless bodies, didn’t enter into public consciousness until very recently.

The underlying lesson of those class discussions was that sex is biological and concretely defined, while gender is culturally constructed and variable. Now that I’m doing personal work to learn and understand as much about gender as possible, I’m thinking that this degree of separation of sex & gender on its own isn’t much more helpful than gender essentialism.

I thought a good, global starting point to look at how this widely accepted model plays out in real life would be to look up the way a large international organization defines sex & gender. I found the following examples of sex and gender characteristics on the World Health Organization’s website.


  • Women menstruate while men do not
  • Men have testicles while women do not
  • Women have developed breasts that are usually capable of lactating, while men have not
  • Men generally have more massive bones than women


  • In the United States (and most other countries), women earn significantly less money than men for similar work
  • In Viet Nam, many more men than women smoke, as female smoking has not traditionally been considered appropriate
  • In Saudi Arabia men are allowed to drive cars while women are not
  • In most of the world, women do more housework than men

When I read through these, I was surprised by how exclusive the examples were in terms of trans, intersex, and non-binary people. Shouldn’t such a massive and far-reaching humanitarian organization at least acknowledge that these populations exist? Even sticking to binary lens, the given examples of gender are all cultural practices restricting women’s behavior rather than anything to do with personal feelings or identities. What do these things say about which aspects of gender are important and unimportant? Would anybody who isn’t super invested in studying these ideas really gain any pertinent information from those descriptions? I doubt it.

What is the point of separating sex and gender if we’re pretty much always talking about binary gender anyway?  If sex only denotes the reproductive organs that a given individual has, do we necessarily have to connect it to gender right off the bat? It seems that doing so implies that there are certain innate behavioral qualities present for people who have certain body parts, while the variability of gender expression and the existence of trans, intersex, and non-binary people show that there are a lot of different ways for gender to come about. I honestly wonder how many cis people would identify as such if they hadn’t been bombarded by such a rigid binary concept of gender throughout childhood.

I think it is important to encourage the public, whether we’re concerned with everyday people or giant institutions, to make room in their own understandings of gender for people who aren’t cis men and cis women. I’m interested in knowing what the world would look like if we were to push past the sex vs. gender model toward one that might more accurately resemble the human population. I have a feeling it would make a lot of things better for a whole lot of people

I don’t know what this model would look like, but I’m sure that if we commit to a more inclusive outlook on gender, we’ll be working toward something really good. Maybe if we stick to “People with P’s or People with Vagee’s” when we talk about anatomy and separate that situation more completely from gender, we’ll be able to allow for room for non-binary people on a much wider scale than we have right now. I understand that genitalia is a pretty defining factor in a lot of sexual and romantic relationships, but I don’t think that needs to prevent us from adjusting the way we think about these things.  I think doing so will do a lot of good, even if it leaves people a little confused at first.

Madelaine Walker | Anthropology enthusiast, bookworm & couch potato. In search of a life I’ll be proud to recount in old age.