It’s common to make a distinguish between biological sex (which includes chromosomes, primary and secondary sexual characteristics, hormones, etc.), and gender (which refers to one’s identity, or to patterns of behavior). The thrust of the distinction is to separate social constructs from biological reality.
This distinction isn’t wrong, exactly, but I have some quibbles. Mainly, I think gender is the bigger and more important concept, the one that you should be referring to in most situations. There are several things that people think of as sex, but which are really components of gender.
Here I will develop my thoughts on the distinction between sex and gender. I’m calling it a “personal style guide” because it describes how I use the terms, but I am not trying to impose this usage on anyone else. I realize some people use the words differently, and there can be some good justifications for this.
Woman vs female
Some people say that “woman” refers to gender, while “female” refers to sex. I think this is incorrect, on both the descriptive and prescriptive level.
On a descriptive level, it’s fairly clear that people use “woman” and “female” to refer to the same thing. For example, we’re always talking about “female characters”, and it’s clear that this is the same as talking about characters who are women. The main difference between “female” and “woman” has little to do with the gender/sex distinction, and more to do with parts of speech. “Woman” sounds awkward when used as an adjective, and “female” sounds dehumanizing when used as a noun. The reason we talk about “female characters” is not because we’re particularly interested in the sexual characteristics of these characters, but because we needed an adjective rather than a noun.
One could argue that people are just using the words wrong, and they should be talking about women characters. But I think this is a really confusing rule to maintain, to the point of causing harm. When we think about “male” and “female”, so many of our associations are with gender. If we tell people that “male” and “female” are really referring to sex, we are making it really easy to associate sex with gender.
I am also under the impression that TERFs as a group are very insistent on the distinction between woman and female. The idea is that gender should be abolished so we shouldn’t talk about women, only about females. It seems the intention is to talk about systems of oppression–which is social and therefore part of gender–only they’re referring to it as sex instead of gender. It’s a way to have their cake and eat it too–they can talk about gender, but since they’re referring to it as sex, they can pretend it’s made of immutable categories.
Trapped in bodies
There are several other places where people talk about sex, when they should really be thinking of it as gender.
For example, it was once common to describe trans women as women who are trapped in men’s bodies. Nowadays, trans activists mostly reject this trope. If you’re a woman, and if your body belongs to you, then your body is a woman’s body. (A few trans women still think of themselves as having men’s bodies, which I interpret as saying their bodies are so alienating that they don’t feel like their own.)
When we talk about men’s and women’s bodies, we seem to be trying to talk about biological sex, but then we immediately bring in these words “men” and “women”, making gender associations all over the place. As long as we’re making gender associations, why not associate the bodies with the correct gender, i.e. the gender people actually identify with?
This raises the question, what if I actually want to talk about someone’s physical characteristics? It depends on the context. In many contexts, people aren’t really interested in talking about physical characteristics, but are using physical characteristics as a proxy to talk about whether they’re cis or trans, and whether they’ve transitioned or not. That is, usually we’re not really interested in sex, but rather gender and gender history.
- If I want to talk about what gender they were presumed to be as they were growing up, it’s called assigned gender. AFAB and AMAB are common abbreviations for people assigned female and male respectively.
- If I want to talk about the gender they’re currently perceived as, it’s called perceived gender.
- If I want to talk about the gender that they’re trying to be perceived as, it’s called their gender presentation.
- If I perceive someone as trans, I say I perceived them as trans. This is rather rude to actually talk about, like talking about how old someone looks.
- If I want to talk about specific physical characteristics (e.g. if it’s medically relevant), I refer to the physical characteristics by name. For example, the two most common chromosomal types are not “female” and “male” but XX and XY.
- If I want to talk about a whole cluster of physical characteristics, I talk about male-typical or female-typical characteristics.
- If I want to talk about transition, I recall that there are many stages of transition, and try to figure out which one I actually mean. The most important kinds of transition include social transition (a shift in gender presentation), HRT (hormonal replacement therapy), top surgery (on the chest), and bottom surgery (on genitals).
Another common usage of gendered terms is to make generalizations. For example, perhaps I want to talk about the gender dimension of street harassment. Usually we’d talk about harassment of women, but if you’re a stickler for details, you might instead refer to harassment of people perceived to be women.
So here’s a place where I might disagree with other activists. I think referring to “women” is adequate in most contexts. The way I see it, it’s a generalization, and it will be imprecise regardless. Some people who are perceived as women will not experience street harassment, and some people who are not perceived as women will experience it. If the imprecision bothers you, then why are you in the business of making generalizations?
Granted, there are many situations where you might really want the specificity. Using a generalization that explicitly includes trans people can signal that you’re not a TERF. I also recommend that women’s spaces explicitly say they are open to trans women.
Some people have a particular attachment to the phrases “people with vaginas” or “people with penises”. This is awkward, and as an ace blogger I can say that not everyone wishes to hear about genitals all the time. Also some gender dysphoric people would prefer not to be reminded of their genitals all the time. And most of the time, unless we’re talking about reproductive rights, it seems like the wrong kind of precision anyway. Why are we referring to an aspect of sex, when what we’re really interested in is gender? Genitals are definitely not the most important factor in how we usually perceive gender–we identify people’s genders all the time without looking down their pants.
I accept some sort of sex vs gender dichotomy. But it really seems like most of the time when people talk about sex, what they’re trying to get at is the social treatment based on physical characteristics. And that’s not sex, it’s gender. There are few cases where it actually seems appropriate to talk about sex.
Of course, this is just a short blog post, and I don’t have space to talk about all the nuances and exceptions. One obvious exception is animals–it doesn’t make much sense to talk about animals having the same genders as humans. There are also many situations where a person’s identity will depend on connotations that I haven’t noted. That is all perfectly acceptable, and I’m not pretending to have laid out a perfect set of rules here.