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Easily confused: sex and gender

When it comes to writing about sex, sexuality and gender, there are some easily confusable terms. This is the first in short series of blog posts looking at those easily confusable terms to help writers, editors and proofreaders understand the differences.

This blog post looks at sex and gender.


As always, language is constantly evolving. This article is a simplified explanation of two easily confusable terms. As with all language relating to groups, there is much nuance and diversity in usage and that changes over time. If you spot an error in my explanations, please feel free to get in touch.


For some people, the terms “sex” and “gender” are interchangeable. However, this is not strictly true and they are not synonyms. Like a lot of human labelling, the terms have often been used to categorise, pathologise and control people. Therefore, it is incredibly important that, in writing about sex and gender, we get the two terms correct.


Sex

Sex describes physical and biological characteristics. These include chromosomes, sex organs and genitalia and hormones. People are generally assigned a sex at birth based on the outward appearance of the genitals.

Most people are assigned either “male” or “female” at birth based solely on their bodies. There are instances of DSD or intersex people (people born with duality).


Gender

This understanding that there are, in most cases, two sexes confuses some people’s understanding of gender. Because some people see sex as a binary (male or female), it is often thought that gender must be binary too.

That’s simply not the case!

Gender could be broken down into “gender identity” and “gender expression”.

Your gender identity is how you feel inside. Gender expression is how you show that identity to the world. Of course, how you identify and how you express may be different, depending on a variety of circumstances, including how safe the person feels.


Cisgender

Cisgender describes someone whose gender identity matches their assigned sex.


Transgender

Transgender describes someone whose gender identity differs from their assigned sex. (This is a very simplistic explanation!)

Trans men are men, trans women are women.


Gender nonconforming

Gender nonconforming, nonbinary and androgynous people exist outside the binary view of gender and sex.


Why does this matter

Whether you are writing, editing or proofreading, understanding the difference between gender and sex is important. For real people or for fictional characters, identity matters. It matters to readers and it matters to those being written about.

Terms such as “the opposite sex” reinforce the idea that gender is binary. It is not! Like a lot of things in life, gender is a spectrum and we all fit somewhere. Using language that accurately describes reflects how people see themselves is important.


Too long; didn’t read

  • Sex: what a doctor sees when you are born, based on biology
  • Gender: what you feel inside

Next time, we’ll look at the easily confusable terms to do with sexuality.


Nick (he/him) is an editor and proofreader, specialising in LGBTQ+ writing. He is an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and a member of PEN, the Professional Editors Network.

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