A person’s sex is essentially a description of their reproductive anatomy, typically male or female, while gender refers to a person’s self-image, usually as masculine or feminine; they are not necessarily connected to each other, nor to sexual orientation. Sex, gender and sexual orientation are not binary concepts; rather, each has many variations.
It can be useful to distinguish four separate issues: chromosomal sex (eg. XX, XY or other), biological sex (eg. male with testes, female with ovaries, or other), gender (eg. masculine, feminine or other), and sexual orientation (eg. heterosexual, homosexual or other).
The word “gender” is sometimes used as a euphemism for “sex”, and sometimes also to help distinguish between "sex" meaning "bodily characteristics" and "sex" meaning "sexual activity'. However, sex and gender have quite distinct meanings and are not interchangeable terms.
Sex is the term that describes whether a person has the anatomical features of a male or female, or a combination of both.
Gender, being mostly to do with psychological aspects of self-image and social behaviour, is complex and poorly understood. Accordingly, issues such as gender dysphoria and transgender, where people feel their sex and gender do not align, are outside the scope of this website.
Similarly, a person’s sexual orientation may have genetic and social components, but are not directly affected by chromosomal or biological sex.
It’s important to note that these four dimensions do not always match in any one individual. For example, it is possible to have a male who is XX and not XY, or a physically female person who identifies with masculine behaviours.
In addition, each of these four characteristics has more than two possibilities, just as there are many shades of grey between black and white. For example, it is possible for a person to be anywhere on the scale between male and female, or to have both masculine and feminine aspects to their gender identity and behaviour.
Because these four characteristics are not necessarily linked, and each has many possibilities, the result is that there are many, many possible combinations in the human population.
Last updated: 16 July 2015 PK
Edit history: Author P. Koopman 9/09; revised PK 5/11, 9/12, 5/13, 3/14