Rethinking How We Talk About Sex and Gender

For someone who spends so much time thinking about sex (no, not that kind of sex!), you'd think I'd have a better idea of what it is. Sometimes defined by our relationship to our chromosomes, our genitals, or vaguely just as what a doctor writes on your birth certificate, all that seems able to be conventionally agreed upon is that there's two of them (ish) and that they're innate — that is, they're something that's unchangeable.

While often described as the physical counterpart to gender (you may have heard that gender is what's between our ears and sex is what’s between our legs), I've always struggled with this idea — not only is gender far more complicated than this, but gender can mean very different things to different people. A simple way of seeing this is that while for some people gender is static and absolute, for others it is fluid and can shift even day by day. It is made even more difficult when there are people out there who want to use some people's birth assignments as a way to delegitimize them and exclude them from spaces like public buildings and bathrooms.

Instead, let's break down what “sex” is trying to say, and how we can maybe say it a bit better.

As a way of categorizing things, sex works pretty well for animals. As far as we know, animals don't have a concept of gender, instead having often quite complex sex varieties and mating rituals. If you get the right number of animals of the right sexes in one place they, well, do it like they do on the Discovery Channel.

Humans, on the other hand, have it far more complicated than this. Not only do we have cars and the internet and memes (humans: 1, animal kingdom: 0 on that front), but we view ourselves and those around us through a whole range of conscious and unconscious processes that allowed us to become the advanced species we are today in the first place. However it came to be, gender is one of many categories that we classify ourselves and each other into. While we know that many different genders have existed — since we started writing history down, at least — society today seems to argue that not only are there are two of them,, but that the two genders are visible and intangible, with physical and social traits that have no crossover.

But we know it doesn't work like that. So what are we trying to say when we talk about someone’s “sex”? Thinking about why we do this may help us come up with better ways of framing conversations. Why is someone’s “sex” important? What is the context? Who even needs to know?

A model of “bodies” rather than “sex” creates breathing room for those of us whose bodies do shift, remain unknown or are maybe just more complicated than how society sees and reads us. Instead of saying that our bodies are male or female, we could say that our bodies have a penis or a vagina, and be able to explain which internal reproductive organs do and don't accompany them. Instead of assuming that we have a particular set of chromosomes based upon our primary and secondary sex characteristics (the body bits that other people gender us with, like breasts or penises), we can simply say that we don't know what our chromosomes are because many of us never have them tested. Instead of placing male and female and their traits as opposite, we could say that our bodies naturally produce a particular group of hormones, or don't produce hormones at all, in the case of people who've had certain surgeries or have particular medical conditions.

I understand that this sounds complex, and seems a bit ridiculous to drop into a regular conversation ("Hi, I'm Liz and I have breasts but no ovaries, can I please get the vegan cheeseburger?"), but maybe that's the point — strangers and even a lot of our friends and family don't need to know the squishy intimate details of our bodies like this. The same way that sex (yes, that sex) is a thing we can share with lovers, partners and sometimes close friends, maybe what makes up our “sex” as a category deserves to be more private too.

There are definitely situations in which our bodies are important to describe and look after, too. A doctor may need to know a man is at risk of ovarian cancer, someone who produces testosterone might need some form of hormone therapy to counteract it, or someone with a penis might prefer that her partners not touch it during sex because it makes her uncomfortable, while a high school teacher or friend at work presumably doesn’t need to know the specifics.

But wait, I hear you say, where does that leave those of us whose sex aligns with our gender, and who are happy with how we were assigned at birth? I believe this is helpful for you too! A lot of people hold onto the idea of “sex” because of the idea that it is an important category to provide us with healthcare. But even in medical situations it can be super reductive, in some cases causing us to receive sub-standard care or to have things overlooked because of the assumptions being made about us.

One of the joys of being people is that no one has the same body — like how if sex ends up being a thing we want to have, learning how another person is different to us can be really fun! Rather than lumping us all together, we can recognize and celebrate the ways our bodies are subtly and dramatically different, in the same way that we celebrate our friends when they get a new haircut or buy a cool new pair of shoes.

At its core, it's about trying to find ways of looking after each other. Gender can be a complex and personal thing, but bodies are a thing we interact with every day, and rethinking what “sex” means can be a way of supporting one another in our doctors’ offices, classrooms, workplaces, and homes.

Liz is a writer, sexual health nerd and photographer who has had articles, interviews and reviews for a range of publications. She co-hosts wholesome sex ed show @letsdoitpodcast, which carefully signposts which episodes are and aren’t 18+.

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