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7.4: Sex

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  • The difference between sex and gender is a great example of biocultural synthesis, but the terms can get confusing, so I've included a glossary below. Although language changes and there are gray areas, it's better to get the commonly used definition down first, and then go into to the controversies.


    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) - Intersex Butterflies IFLS 2014


    Sex in biological anthropology refers to whether or not when you peek inside the nucleus of each of your cells at the 23rd pair of chromosomes you see a stumpy Y chromosome or a second X chromosome (XX or XY). The 23rd chromosome codes mostly for genitals and secondary sexual characteristics like robusticity, pelvic shape, hair patterns, mammary gland function, fat distribution, and a bunch of others we're still figuring out, including maybe the structure of the brain. You can ask a forensic anthropologists what their plans for the weekend are, and with straight face, they might say, "I'm going to sex that bone on the table." We often use the terms male and female to refer to sex.

    Things get confusing because cultural anthropology often borrows the other popular definition of sex, which should probably be more specifically referred to as love, affection, eroticism, coitus, genital rubbing, mounting, penetration, fertilization, insemination, or whatever is specifically being described, but our Puritan heritage tends to get in the way, and we usually blush and use a general euphemism to avoid embarrassment.


    Humans tend to take biological phenomena and shroud them in all kinds of very complicated cultural trappings. Gender refers to the cultural patterns associated with sex. The fact that girls wear pink and boys wear blue is not genetically hardwired on our 23rd chromosomes, it's a cultural rule that we are taught from the first moment we're born and wrapped in a blanket that codes our respective gender, and we're taught the scripts that go along with that gender. We often use the terms man and woman to refer to gender. There is a statistical tendency for most males to be men (XY & wears blue), and most females to be women (XX & wears pink), but this is not a rule; there are also male women (XY & wears pink), and female men (XX & wears blue), and all kinds of variations between those extreme examples.


    How you think of yourself.


    How you express yourself to other people.


    Humans like to think in twos; perhaps because 2 almost the first whole number you get to when counting, perhaps because of our bilateral symmetry that we share with all vertebrates, perhaps because of dualistic cosmologies popular around the world, such as Manichaeism. Because of the duality inherent in meiosis, your sex is mostly determined by whether your father contributed an X or a Y 23rd chromosome.


    A continuum, the opposite of binary. Polygenic traits are expressed as clines, like the way a meteorologist doesn't just tell you it's cold here and it's hot there, but they show a map with concentric smooth polygons with temperatures. Even though your biological sex is mostly binary, it is also on a continuum.

    Sexual Dimorphism

    "Sexual" refers to male or female. "di" means two. "morph" means shape. The term refers to the biological differences between males and females of the same species.

    Sexual Orientation

    "Sexual" refers to eroticism. Whom your body feels attracted to.

    Sexual Preference

    "Sexual" refers to eroticism. Whom you prefer to be erotic with. "Orientation" implies more biological determinism than "preference", and since most people don't have conscious control over whom they're attracted to, "orientation" is usually more accurate.

    Sexual Selection

    "Sexual" refers to eroticism and male or female. This is Charles Darwin's term for the kind of natural selection that was more about reproduction (which implies fertilization)


    "Homo" means same, like our genus name, which refers to how these hominids are the same as us. The "sexual" part is very ambiguous, and includes both definitions of sex mentioned above and often gender. A more accurate term might be "homosex(gender)sexuality" but please don't start using it. "Hetero" means different. "Bi" means both. This term is being phased out because of its use in portraying sexuality as mental illness.


    A man or male who is erotic with men or males, can be broadened to someone who is erotic with the same sex/gender (also, someone who is happy)


    A woman or female who is erotic with women or females (also, someone from the Greek island of Lesbos)


    A general term for males who adopt women's culture, and females who adopt men's culture.


    Men or males who wear women's clothes; women or females who wear men's clothes, without any implications of eroticism. Crossdressers are often heterosexual.


    "Trans" means across, "vest" means clothing. An older term with the same word roots as crossdresser but has more of an erotic connotation.


    "Sexual" here refers to male or female. Someone who is in the wrong body, and may take hormone supplements and have sexual reassignment surgery to change sexual characteristics of their body. The term is being phased out because it sounds too clinical. "Cissexual" is the opposite, people who feel they were born in the right body.


    A catch-all term for gender variation


    "Sex" here refers to male or female, "inter" means in between. Non-disjunction of the 23rd chromosome, crossing over of the SRY gene, genes that interfere with sex determining hormones, and other factors can effect the genetic coding and expression of genitals and secondary sexual characteristics, so that many individuals are born not fitting neatly into the extreme biological stereotypes of male and female. The old term for this was “hermaphrodite” (from a Greek myth about the child of Hermes and Aphrodite).


    A once derogatory term that has been reclaimed as a catch-all for variations of the terms above. (>also, someone who is strange)


    "fear of [...]"

    You might expect something like sex and eroticism to be wrapped-up with fear and anxiety. Many anthropologists such as Margaret Mead have argued that the fear of sex is culturally determined and is not universally present in all societies and we can find many variations of sexual and gender roles, such as the Twin Spirits, Hijra, Etoro and Sambia warriors, etc. This suggests that our own culture's transphobias, homophobias, and genderphobias are not biologically determined, and can be easily changed through education and political action.

    The glossary was adapted from the National Center for Transgender Equality and Gay Alliance

    It's important to remember that most of these terms are adjectives that make small qualifications to the main identity of the subject; most of these terms should be followed by the most important word, "person", and we need to remember how small (if any) a genetic variation we are talking about; we may make a big deal about this part of someone's social identity, but on the genetic level it represents an insignificant difference between people.


    5 part video series by Desmond Morris “The Human Sexes” 1997

    Blog post on sex as a social construct

    Watch Alpha male, non human primates and humans

    The Mask You Live In, America's narrow definition of masculinity

    Sex differences in how cold to set the air conditioner

    Article on atrazine and chemical castration

    An article about South African athlete Caster Semenya and how sports struggles with the grey areas between and within, sex and gender.

    The International Association of Athletics Federations releases new rules for "female classification" based mostly on hormone levels

    Museum of Menstruation and Women's Health

    Guevedoces: girls who become boys during puberty

    Article on variable expression of the SRY gene

    Theories for why men have descended testicles.

    Correlation between testes size and child nurturing: "Evolutionary Life History Theory posits that evolution optimizes the allocation of resources toward either mating or parenting so as to maximize fitness."

    Why men have nipples

    Neurosexism: Male and female brains

    Article on gay genes

    Imagination Questions

    • Does thinking about the biology of humans affect your views on gender identity and sexual orientation?
    • Read the article describing how stem cell advances may allow gay and lesbian couples to have biological children.


    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\) - Reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature David Cyranoski, August 21, copyright 2013

    Why would gay men be able to have sons and daughters, but lesbian women only be able to have daughters?

    How much of what it means to be a man or a woman is based on biology, and how much is culture?