How to Talk About Sex, Gender, and Gender Roles

caitlyn jenner

{Ed. Note: This is the first in the Gender Studies 101 series by SLC Feminist Intern, Katie Christensen.}

Whether you like her or not, it’s hard to deny that the publicity surrounding Caitlin Jenner’s transition has opened up a lot of conversations about gender and sex. In a lot of situations (including some less-than-accurate articles about Jenner), news outlets used sex and gender interchangeably. Gender and sex, however, are actually two different things that often interact with each other. I’m going to cover some basic terminology in the Gender Studies canon that you can reference when chatting with hesitant friends and family members.

Sex is the biological identity you’re assigned at birth—usually “male” or “female” (in Jenner’s case, “male”). Most people view sex as a concrete, binary identity—one which is objectively true and unchangeable. That train of thought, while understandable, isn’t accurate. Culture rigorously designates and enforces the binary notion of biological sex, telling people you are either a man or woman. Yes, you are born with certain sex characteristics, but labeling those characteristics “male” or “female” is a social construct. A good general rule is to always remember that genitals don’t equal sex. Chromosomes, hormones, and genitals come in all variations.

Now that we’ve succinctly covered sex, let’s talk gender. Gender combines socialization and self-identification (gender identity). It’s talked about with words like man, woman, transgender, non-binary, etc.  Gender as a concept is tricky because it includes so many different cultural forces. The old-fashioned way of doing things starts at the hospital when doctors assign a binary sex that comes with a pre-packaged idea of gender.

Gender labels come with social expectations, expectations that are socially constructed and nearly constantly enforced by strangers. Consider Caitlyn Jenner, doctors declared “boy!” and with that came sex and gender. The expectation is one of hegemonic masculinity, a masculinity that dictated for years what she would wear, how she would express emotions, and even who she would marry. A good example of this is expectations that men don’t cry–we know this isn’t true. Baby boys cry just like baby girls, but we see the tears stop flowing after years of being told to stop the water works. This idea is a gendered expectation that comes with sex assignment.

With the label of a gender comes societal expectations called “gender roles,” or expectations of behavior based on a person’s gender. In modern Western societies the expectation is that men are aggressive, powerful, and emotionless. A man who doesn’t fit into this expectation is less a “sissy” or deviant. Women are decreed nurturing, collaborative, and docile. When women don’t behave this way, they’re viewed as “butch.” People who don’t fit into either gender role based on their actual or perceived sex are deemed deviant.

Gender roles for men are often referred to as “masculine.” This simply means anything that is “manly.” Aggression, deep voices, stoicism, facial hair, and flannel are all considered masculine. If a man is behaving in this way, he is fulfilling his gender roles. If the word “masculine” is ever used to describe a woman, it is to explain the parts of her that aren’t “womanly.” During the Olympics, Jenner fulfilled masculine expectations of competition, domination, and power. Now that she has transitioned, any sign of those traits is held up as proof that she isn’t a “real” woman.

Masculinity is in direct opposition to femininity, which is anything that is “womanly.” Being emotional, nurturing or docile are all considered “feminine,” as are floral prints, breasts, long hair and high voices. Before Caitlyn Jenner announced her transition the media was speculating about her transition simply because she was growing out her hair and dressing more feminine. Though in this case it was true that Jenner was transitioning, people displaying “feminine” traits are not always women.

All of these terms go back to sex. You are assigned a sex at birth, which comes with the assumption of a specific gender, which determines whether you are expected to obey masculine or feminine gender roles. Calling out that sex and gender aren’t the same, and that they’re both spectrums is relatively new to some folks. Just remember when you go into conversations that sex is socially constructed (if someone starts talking about genitals equal sex, ask them if a woman who has a hysterectomy is still a woman?)  Unfortunately for Caitlyn Jenner, the way our culture blends sex, gender, gender roles, and even sexual orientation, makes for some offensive and damaging news coverage. Here’s to hoping her story has helped change that in the future!

How do you talk about gender and sex with people who aren’t familiar with the terms? Tell us in the comments?