Breaking Down the Differences: Sex, Gender, and Orientation

Every year we, as a culture, are becoming more aware of sex, gender, and sexuality. Famous people are coming out as gay, bisexual, and transgender. Our president formally proclaimed June to be a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender pride month. There are discussions on the news, in fiction, and all over the internet about the issues faced by different members.  Facebook released a long list of gender options for users and offered a gender neutral pronoun. The acronym for the community has lengthened past LGBTQIA+ into an alphabet soup of rainbows. 

So, for those who haven’t actively been following all of this and aren’t sure where to start, I thought I’d at least break down the very basics of what all this is about. Without getting into any of the politics, the history, or even the personal accounts of anyone in the community, it might help to just be familiar with some definitions of words. 

We like to think of this being the simple one. Sex is physical. Everyone has learned male/female, boy/girl, and man/woman by the time we’re children. However, there’s a lot more going on here than you might think. Let’s break it down into a few sections. 

  1. Anatomic Sex/Bodily Sex: The part of sex that has to do with body parts. Many sexually reproducing species have phenotypic differences between males and females. This is called “sexual dimorphism.” Within these species, most but not all members have exclusively the physical traits associated with males or females of that species. We currently have surgical options to change a person’s anatomic sex. 
  2. Hormonal Sex: The part of sex that has to do with hormones. Higher levels of androgens and testosterone are often associated with male characteristics and higher levels of estrogen and progesterone are often associated with female characteristics. There are many cases of people with hormonal sex not fitting either male or female patterns exactly, or directly conflicting with bodily sex. We currently have options of hormone-replacement-therapy to change a person’s hormonal sex. 
  3. Chromosomal Sex: The part of sex that has to do with chromosomes. We tend to think of sex chromosomes as being either XX or XY, but there are also instances of chromosomal sex being X0, XXX, XXXX, XXXXX, XXY, XXXY, XYY, and others. We currently do not have options to change a person’s chromosomal sex. 

When someone’s anatomic sex, hormonal sex, or chromosomal sex does not fit into either grouping of male or female exactly, or when their anatomic, hormonal or chromosomal sex do not match in expected ways for male or female, we consider that person “intersex.” 

(Intersex is the “I” in the rainbow acronym. LGBTQIA)

I already wrote a little on gender during my post on the word “Cisgender” but I wanted to explore it here as well. This is often a misunderstood aspect of experience because there are so many gendered concepts in our culture, only one of them being actual gender identity. 

  1. Gender Identity: This is the actual experience of a person relating to who they are in a gendered sense. It is an internal sense of who you are. The most common gender identities are male and female, but there are others. When someone is neither exclusively male or female, they are “genderqueer” and when they do not identify with any gender they are “agender.” When someone’s gender does not match their sex in an expected way, or when they are assigned and routinely treated as a different gender than they identify, they are “transgender.” (Transgender is the “T” in the rainbow acronym: LGBTQIA+) There is no way to change gender identity, though some people do experience varying degrees of gender fluidity. 
  2. Gender Expression: Though sometimes mistakenly mixed up with gender identity, expression refers to how one dresses, presents, performs, and behaves in a gendered sense. This could refer to a preference for dresses and make up or jeans and leather jackets. It might have to do with liking hunting and video games or liking shopping and movies. It could refer to posture and how one uses space. It could refer to what roles they prefer in romantic relationships. Rarely do all of these line up in clean-cut binaries, but we can think of them on a spectrum from feminine to masculine. This has no bearing on gender identity and you can absolutely be a feminine man, a masculine woman, or a person with varying elements of expression and personal interest. This also has nothing to do with a person’s orientation. You can change your gender expression whenever you like for whatever reasons you like. 
  3. Gender Roles: The “traditional” role in society expected of a person based on their gender. In our culture, we expect women to marry men and raise children and we expect men to marry women, have jobs, and earn income. Gender roles usually also expect clear feminine or masculine gender expression. However, you can perform an expected gender role while still enjoying another gender expression, and many do. For example, a man who loves being a stay at home dad but is very masculine in his hobbies, interests, and presentation would be someone who does not conform to strict gender roles but is masculine in gender expression. Gender roles are difficult to change because the change needs to happen on a culture-wide level. Feminism is largely working to make gender roles less confining. 

Orientation has to do with who we are attracted to and prefer to form relationships with. It can be divided into two main sections which are Sexual Orientation and Romantic Orientation. While sexual orientation implies romantic orientation most of the time, there are some instances when they do not match, so some people communicate this area of their life better by separating the two ideas. In the Asexual community (those who are uninterested in forming sexual relationships) some people are still interested in forming romantic relationships, so this concept is particularly useful in those cases. (Asexuality is the “A” letter of the rainbow acronym: LGBTQIA+). The same prefixes for different sexual orientations can be used for romantic orientations. For example, a woman who identifies as “heteromantic asexual” would be someone who prefers forming relationships with men but doesn’t want her relationships to be sexual. 

While I probably should break down romantic orientation in as much detail as sexual orientation, for now I’m going to move on with the assumption that the main similarities and differences are understood. 

  1. Sexual Orientation: This refers to someone’s identity relating to who they prefer to form sexual and/or romantic relationships with in a gendered sense. It usually relates to whether their gender is similar or different from their partners’. When someone identifies as “pansexual” it usually means their preferences for partners are not influenced by gender. Common sexual orientations are straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer. (The latter four are the “L,” “G,” “B,” and “Q” of the rainbow acronym, respectively: LGBTQIA+). There is no way to change sexual orientation, but some people do experience varying degrees of fluidity in this area. 
  2. Sexual Attraction: This refers to who a person is attracted to. You can be attracted to a person without wanting to form a relationship with them, and it is possible for some attractions to fall outside a person’s sexual orientation. You may be able to change your attraction in small ways, but it is incredibly complex and usually outside manipulation. 
  3. Sexual Behavior: This refers to who a person forms sexual relationships with. This does not always line up with attraction or orientation. For example, a celibate heterosexual man has sexual behavior that would more often line up with an asexual orientation, but he prefers relationships with women. You can (or should be able to) change your sexual behavior whenever you like.

It’s important to remember that any combination of these various parts of the human experience are okay. They don’t always match up in expected ways and they don’t need to. You are also under no obligation to know exactly where you fit in any of these areas or to choose labels. Our experiences as people are incredibly diverse, and the most important identity is that you’re you. 


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