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Society & Us: Sex, Gender, and Sexuality

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When people refer to someone’s sex (sometimes referred to as biological or physical sex), they’re talking about their anatomical features, that is, physical characteristics, genes and hormones. Many people think of male and female as the only sexes, but that is not true.

Some people have genetic, hormonal and physical features typical of both male and female at the same time, so their biological sex isn’t clearly male or female. They are called intersex.

Sex is typically assigned at birth (or before during ultrasound) based on the appearance of external genitalia. When the external genitalia are ambiguous other indicators such as internal genitalia, chromosomal and hormonal sex are considered to assign a sex that is most likely to be congruent with the child’s gender identity.

The term gender identity refers to a person’s deeply‐felt, inherent sense of being a boy, a man, or male; a girl, a woman, or female; or an alternative gender.

On the other hand, society expects people to look and behave a certain way depending on their biological sex. Gender refers to the attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a given culture associates with a person’s biological sex.

Behavior that is compatible with cultural expectations is referred to as gender-normative while behaviors that are viewed as incompatible with these expectations constitute gender non-conformity.

Gender identity may or may not correspond to a person’s sex assigned at birth. Although for most people, gender identity is congruent with the sex assigned at birth, there are those who experience incongruence between the gender assigned to them at birth and their gender identity. This condition is termed as gender dysphoria.

In common usage the term sexuality refers to the presumably biologically-based desire in people that finds expression through sexual activity and sexual relationships. Sexual orientation refers to the sex of those to whom one is sexually and romantically attracted.

Categories of sexual orientation typically have included attraction to members of one’s own sex (gay men or lesbians), attraction to members of the other sex (heterosexuals), and attraction to members of both sexes (bisexuals). While these categories continue to be widely used, research has suggested that sexual orientation does not always appear in such definable categories and instead occurs on a continuum. In addition, some research indicates that sexual orientation is fluid for some people, and this may be especially true for women.

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Picture Credit: factmyth.com

The distinctive sociological take on sexuality is to challenge its biological basis and to draw attention to the great cultural variety in what counts as legitimate sexual activity. For example, in some societies (ancient Greek and nomadic Arab, for example) homosexuality is commonplace whereas in others it is repressed. Again, in some societies sexual activity is regarded as a source of pleasure; in others it is treated as a dangerous and destabilizing force, to be confined to what is necessary to reproduce the society.

Author: Stuti Das, India

Click to access the other articles in the “Society & Us” series: 

Society & Us: Labeling Theory

Society & Us: McDonaldization

Society & Us: Alienation

Reference: 

  • Bruce, S., & Yearley, S. (2006). The SAGE Dictionary of Sociology. London: SAGE Publications.
  • American Psychological Association. (2015). Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming People. American Psychologist, 70(9), 832-864. doi.org/10.1037/a0039906
  • American Psychological Association. (2012). Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Clients. American Psychologist, 67(1), 10–42. doi: 10.1037/a0024659
  • American Psychological Association & National Association of School Psychologists. (2015). Resolution on gender and sexual orientation diversity in children and adolescents in schools. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/about/polic y/orientation-diversity.aspx
  • Sex, sexuality and gender explained. (n.d.). Retrieved December 12, 2016, from http://au.reachout.com/sex-sexuality-and-gender-explained
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