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Breaking Down The Binary: Key Differences Between Sex & Gender

Breaking Down The Binary: Key Differences Between Sex & Gender

Breaking Down the Binary: The Truth About Sex and Gender

Subtle or huge, these have a major impact on individuality.


Subtle or huge, these have a major affect on individuality.

Breaking Down the Binary: The Truth About Sex and Gender


When it comes to people's sexual identities and orientations, there are a lot of different factors that come into the mix. Many terms and ideas get confused, but arguably one of the most common sources of confusion revolves around the differences between sex and gender.

If you think the terms are interchangeable, you'd be wrong, especially regarding science. It might not seem like much, but understanding the difference between the two is actually crucial to understanding health overall.

Here are some key differences between sex and gender, as well as how it affects our identity.

What is sex?

man and woman on wood


​Sex actually refers to biology, wherein the "sex" of the animal or human is associated with the physical and physiological features of the body. These could include things like hormone levels and chromosomes and usually categorizes the differences between female and male. Together, the constructs that make up sex are sometimes referred to as "sex traits."

What is gender?

gender differences


Gender, on the other hand, is completely constructed by society and where many issues actually exist. In regard to human identity, gender refers to an individual's self-representation as male or female, but most gender roles and expressions are defined and set by society. A person's gender identity belongs to them alone, whether as a man, woman, transgender, or nonbinary individual, regardless of what society inflicts or prohibits.

What does intersex mean?

intersex flag


​Another term you may hear but not be totally sure about is intersex. Intersex is usually an umbrella term that encompasses sex outside of the strict male/female binary. In general, this means that individuals are born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn't fit into a standard "male" or "female" box. There are a number of genital mutilation stories chronicling doctors choosing the assigned legal sex and performing surgeries to remove other body parts. However, that does not have a direct effect on how that individual may express their gender identity later on.

What is the difference between gender and gender identity?

pronoun sign


For the most part, society views gender in a binary sense that tailors specifically to the anatomy of being either a male or female. Those who identify with the same gender that aligns with their physical bodies are known as "cisgender," which is oftentimes shortened to just "cis." When it comes to the idea of gender identity, this encapsulates how someone feels internally. This could mean the individual identifies as either transgender or nonbinary because their gender identity does not align with the physical sex of their body. There is also gender fluidity, which means someone could identify as male one day, then female the next, then have no attachment to either the following day.

What is the difference between gender identity and gender expressions?

illuminated male and female signs


​Where gender identity deals with how someone feels internally, gender expression has to deal with their outward projection into the world. This can also deal with people who are closeted. For example, a male-bodied person who projects masculinity to the outer world can actually internally align more with femininity. Outside of clothing and physical appearance, the most common means of gender expression these days revolve around pronouns. Someone who looks and dresses like a female may want to be referred to as "he/him," but more commonly, nonbinary individuals attach to "they/them" type of pronouns, though there is a growing list to choose from.

Can you choose your sex and gender?

male and female dice


While you cannot choose the sex you were physically born with, you can choose to undergo gender reassignment surgery so your physical body aligns with the gender of your choosing. Since gender is more of a societal construct than anything, it should go to say that you should be able to choose your own gender, as well. With all of this in mind, it's also just important to remember that not everybody has a problem with the sex or gender they were assigned at birth. Again, this just means they're "cisgendered." On the flip side, we should also work to be more respectful and understanding of other people's expressions of themselves that may differ from our own, especially if they transcend society.

How does this affect health research?



​Understanding the differences and similarities between sex and gender is vital to health research. A person's gender identity affects their physical and mental health, and gender inequalities usually limit the access girls and women can have to the resources they need. Additionally, since gender roles are often assigned societally, this means researchers need to keep all of this in mind as they explore the idea of sex and gender.

What are different characteristics in each sex?

sex and gender


​When it comes to the physical body, there are always major differences between the male and female binary. The most obvious deals with female's menstruation cycles, as well as their ability to give birth. The inverse of that is men's testicles and the production of sperm. Additionally, women's breasts can lactate, while men's can not. Also, there's the difference in the production of testosterone and estrogen, although that can fluctuate regardless of your assigned or chosen sex.

What are different gender charcteristics?

male an female on a scale


The use of gender is usually meant as a tool of separation and segregation between men and women. For example, women earn significantly less than men in the overall workforce. Women are also taught to "stay at home" and do all of the cooking, cleaning, and raising of the children. Men are taught to be the money makers and providers of the family. Even more than the difference between men's and women's roles, one of the most argued-about topics comes down to marriage. Some countries allow same-sex marriage, but there are other countries where gay love is still a crime punishable by death.

I'm confused about my sex or gender identity

discovering gender identtity


If you're feeling a little lost or confused about your sex or gender identity, first of all, good for you for allowing yourself to be in touch with yourself enough to do something about it. Second of all, you are not alone. There are an overwhelming amount of options out there with people you can talk to, among which is the 100% confidential and free Trevor Project. Reach out, get the information you need, and go out there to live your best life.

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Andrew J. Stillman

Contributing Writer for

Andrew J. Stillman is a freelance writer and yoga instructor exploring the world. Check him out at or follow him @andrewjstillman on all the things.

Andrew J. Stillman is a freelance writer and yoga instructor exploring the world. Check him out at or follow him @andrewjstillman on all the things.