Rethinking the Sex-Gender Connection

Rethinking the Sex-Gender Connection June 15, 2016

The gender you’re assigned at birth might have a bigger impact on your major life outcomes than you ever suspected.

Some of you may be familiar with the sex/gender distinction: that anatomical or biological sex is the physical material onto which we layer gender as a social identity. For example, if you’re born with two X chromosomes and have a vagina, ovaries, and breasts, that makes you a member of the female sex, which is (supposedly) a biological universal. Onto that physical template, the society and religion you’re born into graft gender: the roles and norms and expressions that make you a woman.

Of course, binary gender is a fiction. But the idea that gender is a cultural construct that gets layered onto sex, which is a biologically static universal, is still really common.

Is there a way to subvert this view? I really like this quote from philosopher Christine Overall, which turns the “sex comes first, then gender” view on its head:

How do gender conventions construct sex identities? Feminists have identified three ways: first, by shaping individual bodies, through exercise, fashion and even surgery to make them conform to certain ideas of womanliness or manliness; second, by shaping entire groups of people, for example, through selective, gender-differentiated nutrition customs; and third, by identifying and recognizing certain bodily differences and configurations as significant of one’s identity or essence. (quoted in Dea, 25).

So, for all that we tend to view sex as the template onto which gender is layered, there are at least three ways (and probably more) in which gender shapes sex identities.

I loved learning that. I love the idea that bodies are materially real, but culturally constructed in ways that we’re still coming to grips with. After all, it’s comforting to believe that our bodies are concrete, stable, and essentially a part of who we are. But if the gender we’re assigned at birth can actually have a huge impact on how our bodies are molded and treated over our lifespan, how does that upset ideas about identity, and who’s entitled to which resources?

I also think it’s deeply uncomfortable to realize that gender assignation – which is pretty arbitrary while pretending not to be – can have such a lasting impact on the rest of our lives. Gender is simultaneously downplayed and stressed when it comes to identity. Hopefully by talking about it more, we can transform the conversation into one that better serves us all.



Dea, Shannon. Beyond the Binary: Thinking about Sex and Gender. Ontario: Broadview Press, 2016.

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