About sex and gender

The concept of gender is often used to distinguish between what is socially and culturally constructed and a person’s biological sex. Yet at the same time, our perception of what is determined by nature is also strongly influenced by arbitrary societal notions. Is it even possible to say where a person’s sex ends and their gender begins?

In Sweden, the word for gender – genus – was introduced by a historian named Yvonne Hirdman. In a report titled The Gender System: Theoretical Reflections on the Social Subordination of Women (1990, in Swedish in 1988), produced in connection with a Swedish government inquiry on power and democracy in Sweden, she proposes that the concept of genus be used to denote our increasingly complex knowledge about what’s ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, and about how what’s ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ is ‘made’.

In English, the word gender was used in American psychology research to distinguish between biological sex and gender identity already in the 1960s. Gayle Rubin, American cultural anthropologist, is one of the persons who are most strongly associated with the introduction of gender the way it is currently used, that is, in reference to social and cultural constructions of masculinities and femininities.

The word gender is used in many different contexts, and consequently, it has been assigned many different meanings. Also gender scholars may mean different things when they use the term. A good way to begin disentangling this complex concept is to distinguish between gender and biological sex. While the latter refers to the anatomical/physiological categorisation of people into women and men, the former represents the norms, preconceptions, expression and traits that a society imposes on them. To help understand the difference between gender and sex, the terms masculinity and femininity are often used. Femininity and masculinity are created socially and culturally in many different ways and in many different contexts, and also in different cultures and during different historical periods.

Social and cultural contexts affect the human body

With this distinction between sex and gender, it is easy to perceive a person’s sex as something static, as something that is immune to social and cultural change. It must be remembered, however, that a person’s sex indeed is legally and medically regulated, which means that it, too, just like gender, is socially constructed.

In Sweden and most other countries, a person can be legally defined as either a man or a woman. These are the only two legal categories available, despite the fact that some babies cannot be said to be 100% boy or girl on medical grounds. Children born with atypical sex development, which means that it cannot be determined based on their external genitals whether they should be classified as boys or girls, are routinely provided sex-corrective surgery. Common reasoning behind such procedures is that, without the surgery, the child may get bullied in school and the parents may not be able to love and nurture the child since they will not know for certain whether the child is a girl or a boy. This is just one example of how cultural norms can influence medical decisions.

At a more ordinary level, people constantly use for example clothes and gestures to define their bodies as either masculine or feminine. Gender has been shaped historically in a way that strongly link ‘being’ either a man or a woman, with being intelligible as a human being. Yet preconceptions regarding sex and gender also affect our expectations of who is supposed to do what, the value assigned to different occupations and whose voices matter. Thus, the gender order has a strong influence on the distribution of both power and material resources. It is important to understand that these norms are maintained socially, or in interaction with others, and that they are subject to change. We can challenge and change norms at the individual level, but the best way to do it is through society change, legislation and social movements.

So, it is not easy to distinguish between gender and sex. The truth is that our bodies are much more strongly affected by our social and cultural contexts than what the conventional distinction between sex and gender suggests. Is it even possible to say where your sex ends and your gender begins, when you look at yourself and your own body

Gender explains structures in society

Gender can also be used to explain structures serving to maintain the two categories women and men, and to analyse power relations between them. Researchers can apply the gender perspective to explore for example the gender-segregated labour market, rules enabling only heterosexuals to get married and the values and preconceptions that surround men’s violence. Gender researchers may observe for example that immigrant women are treated differently than immigrant men at the state unemployment office, as there is a widespread notion that these women assign less importance to paid work than to their responsibilities in the household.

Women are, and have always been, subject to a wide range of circumstances that cannot be accounted by means of just one single perspective. White heterosexual women in the middle class face vastly different cultural, social and economic conditions than non-white heterosexual women in the working class. This more multifaceted approach is referred to as applying an intersectional perspective. An intersectional perspective can help shed light on how different power structures and norm systems, such as race/ethnicity, generation, sex/gender, class, sexual orientation and functionality, interact, influence and reinforce each other. The concept is rooted in American anti-racist feminism and was developed in the late 1900s by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, among others.

Author Swedish secretariat for gender research. Published 31st of March 2016