The Distinction between Sex and Gender: Social and Biological Perspectives

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Gender differences are biologically constructed. We are born either as male or female. Without going any further these statements appear normal and one can take the view that this is the general assumption. What then is sex? Is there a difference between sex and gender? Distinctions between sex and gender have been made by social scientists from the feminist movement of 1970’s, when feminists argued that the traditional views of masculinity and femininity often led to the disempowerment of women.

Ann Oakley (1972) in particular, set the stage for the socialization explorations of gender identity (Abbott 2005). Since this latter part of the 19th century, the common distinction made by sociologists is that sex is derived from the biological differences between men and women - chromosome make up, internal and external genitals and reproductive organs amongst others. Gender, however, refers to the socially constructed characteristics of masculinity and femininity, characteristics that are defined by different societies and cultures in different ways.

In contrast, there are arguments proposing that gender differences are based on biological sex and result from biological factors – we naturally show characteristics of masculinity and femininity. These different views are often referred to as the nature v nurture debate (Marsh et al 2009, Lippa 2005 and Abbott 2005) Here we will look at some of the biological explanations in support of the assumption that gender differences are biologically determined before moving on to the sociological explorations of the social construction of gender, and the limitations of both views.

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We will also look at the gender differences across cultures and the influence of the mass media in shaping our society. Biological sex differences have often been used to explain the ‘natural’ differences in roles employed by men and women - men are naturally the breadwinners and the women nurture and take care of the family. The different arguments for the biological explanations of gender roles are often referred to as ‘essentialism’ and ‘biological determinism’ (Marsh et al 2009). Talcott Parsons (Parsons and Bales 1955 as cited in Marsh et al 009) argued that the natural differences between men and women suit them to specific roles within society. This is referred to as the ‘sex-role’ theory. This theory relies on the premise that there are two distinct categories of men and women throughout the world. It therefore follows that heterosexuality is viewed as the norm. This immediately excludes those persons who feel that their gender identity does not correspond with their biological sex, for example transsexuals and homosexuals.

Since the first wave of feminism in the 1970’s the focus has shifted towards the now dominant socialization explanations of gender identity, however we still see new biological theories and studies appearing. For example, biological determinists have looked to the differences in male and female brains. In their book Brain Sex (1989), Anne Moir and David Jessel talk of the ‘prenatal hormone’ theory, whereby testosterone has an influence on thought process and emotions leading to the brain being wired differently between men and women (Marsh et al 2009).

Simon Baron-Cohen also has similar views – “the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy, and the male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems”. (Simon Baron-Cohen 2003 as cited in Marsh et al 2009:220). In contrast, the various socialization explanations of gender argue that our gender identities are created by society, by interactions from early childhood with parents, siblings and peers (social learning theory) and by external influences such as the mass media, continually developing through our social interactions and experiences into adulthood.

The differences across cultures in what is considered as masculine and feminine are also studied in support of this concept. “The different social experiences of women and men are the creation of society far more than biology” (Macionis and Plummer 2005:308). The social learning theory suggests that from birth we learn what is considered as “gender-appropriate” behaviours and traits (Marsh et al 2009). “Infants are seen as blank states, waiting to be written on by their environment” (Bilton et al 2002:136). This theory suggests that through nteraction with parents, siblings and peers, children learn the characteristics of their gender role - which emotions to display, activities to take part in or avoid, toys to play with, clothing to wear, work and hobbies to pursue amongst others. It is also widely accepted that children copy what they see and try to emulate their peers etc. This is referred to by sociologists as ‘modelling’. The majority of persons will recall that some behaviours are encouraged and accepted whereas if a child emulates something that a parent views as wrong or abnormal this is discouraged. The reactions from parents etc. einforce the gender characteristics expected of the child (Marsh et al 2009). A study undertaken in North Carolina of pre school children (Robinson and Morris 1986 cited in Bilton et al 2002) proposes that the social learning theory is an incomplete explanation that we learn all ‘gender-appropriate’ behaviours. In this study, children were themselves selecting ‘gender-stereotyped’ toys for their Christmas presents. For example dolls were selected by the girls and military toys by the boys. The parents selections for the children were mostly sex-neutral – art supplies and musical instruments.

The early inclinations of the children to conform to their gender roles cannot be explained by the social learning theory (Bilton et al 2002). In 1971 Sandra Bem, a Pennsylvanian psychologist created the Bem Sex Role Inventory. This inventory lists various characteristics which are stereotyped as being masculine (dominant, athletic) or feminine (affectionate, flatterable). Individuals can assess themselves by selecting which of the characteristics they view as being desirable for a man or woman in order to determine how well you fit into your traditional gender role.

The results from a sample of participants show that both men and women share a range of what are considered to be stereotypical feminine and masculine traits (Marsh et al 2009). Some writers have interpreted that Bem is in effect arguing that “the development of typical gender roles and gender stereotyping are not inevitable” (Marchbank and Letherby 2007:125 as cited in Marsh et al 2009:223). In other words parents, teachers etc. can influence the gender identities of the children.

Money and Ehrhdart (1972) report the case of a 7 month old boy who after losing his penis in an accident underwent surgery to reconstruct his genitals as female. He was thereafter raised as a girl and is reported to have developed normally as such (Money and Ehrdart 1972 as cited in Bilton et al 2002). This would support the interpreted view of Bem above. The stereotypical gender projections of the mass media are also said to have an influence on our gender identities, often reinforcing gender stereotypes. “The media are forms of pedagogy that teach us how to be men and women” (Kellner 1995:5 as cited in Marsh et al 2009:231).

Some argue that the media however offers a variety of images that both challenge and support stereotypical views (Stacey 1994 as in Marsh et al 2009). Feminine stereotypes are reinforced by media representation of the fashion, beauty and diet industries, focussing on physical improvement and reinforcing the stereotype that women should always look their best and ‘primp’ and ‘preen’ themselves. Programmes such as How to Look Good Naked and Extreme Makeover are becoming increasingly popular. Masculine stereotypes are also reinforced in advertising.

For example, the beer industry relies on the masculine stereotype to appeal to its audience and alternatives such as gay men and househusbands amongst others are markedly absent from this type of advert. (Strate 2004 cited in Marsh et al 2009). The media is viewed by sociologists as a powerful tool in conveying stereotypical and idealistic views of femininity and masculinity to its audience. Other arguments and studies highlighting the social construction of gender look at the different views across different cultures upon what characteristics are considered as masculine and feminine.

Margaret Mead, an American cultural anthropologist, undertook a study of three primitive societies within New Guinea (1935), the Arapesh, the Mundugumor and the Tchambuli. Mead noted that the Arapesh men and women expressed similar attitudes and behaviours. They were peaceful, sensitive and cooperative, traits that in our culture are considered as feminine. The Mundugumor men and women again shared similar behaviours, however, in contrast to the Arapesh they displayed what we would view as masculine traits – aggressive, selfish and ‘warlike’.

The Tchambuli men and women, similar to our culture, displayed different behaviours although the women displayed masculine traits of dominance and aggression, and the men displayed feminine traits, having responsibility for domestic activities and care of the young as well as ‘primping’ and decorating themselves (Macionis and Plummer 2005, Marsh et al 2009). A further example of the cultural differences surrounding masculinity and femininity can be seen in Samoa where men can take on the role and identity of females. They are known as fa'afafine which literally means ‘like a woman’.

The biological sex is male but the gender is considered as female. They dress like women, carry out what are considered as the female tasks within the household - cooking, cleaning, and washing and have relationships with other men. It can be the choice of a boy to take on a female role or it may be that they are raised as fa’afafine by their family if they have no or few daughters needed to undertake the female role within the household. Although men have relationships with the fa'afafines they strongly feel that this is not homosexual behavior.

Fa’afafines consider themselves female and believe that the men who have relations with them also see them as female (See - National Geographic Channel ‘Taboo’ studies). We can see clearly from Mead’s study and the fa’afafines in Samoa that different cultures define masculinity and femininity in different ways. Gender identities are capable of being shaped or formed, therefore giving substantial weight to the argument that gender is socially constructed and is derived from our social and cultural traditions and views.

On balance, the arguments of the biological determinists appear very limited in their application to those outwith the ‘normal’ heterosexual categories of male and female. In contrast the socialization explanations show that we can influence gender identities and that although sex is biologically determined it does not automatically follow that we naturally inherit the stereotypical characteristics of masculinity and femininity. Mead’s study alone provides strong evidence to support this point.

To conclude, the general assumption and explanations that gender differences are biologically determined appear to have been somewhat overshadowed since the 1970’s. The majority of sociologists are in preference of the views, studies and evidence that support the sociological explanation of gender as being socially constructed with any differences being derived from society and culture. In comparison, the biological viewpoints and theories appear to struggle to correlate with today’s modern and multicultural society.

References Abbott, P. Wallace, C. and Tyler, M. (2005) An Introduction to Sociology: Feminist Perspectives. London: Routledge. Bilton, T. , Bonnett, K. , Jones, P. , Lawson, T. , Skinner, D. , Stanworth, M. and Webster, A. (2002) Introductory Sociology. Basingstoke: Macmillan. Lippa, R. A. (2005) Gender, Nature, and Nurture. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. Macionis, J. and Plummer, K. (2005) Sociology: A Global Introduction. Harlow: Pearson. Marsh, I. , Keating, M. , Punch, S. and Harden, J. (2009) Sociology: Making Sense of Society. Harlow:Pearson.

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The Distinction between Sex and Gender: Social and Biological Perspectives. (2018, Sep 12). Retrieved from

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