Sex & Gender

Contemporary social scientists approach sex, gender and orientation as three separate, yet interconnected, components (Butler 1990). This perspective emerged from social research in the 20th century which began to challenge prevailing assumptions that correlated biological sex with specific gender identities and sexual orientations. American psychoanalyst Robert Stoller was among the first to change the way the social sciences approached sex, gender and sexuality in his book, Sex and Gender (1968). In his investigation, Stoller relied on ethnographic interviews to develop a new approach that separated biological sex from gender identity formation and sexual arousal. According to Stoller, gender identity is not only influenced by biological and hormonal influences, it is also informed by sex assignment at birth as well as environmental and psychological influences. Although contemporary approaches to gender research have developed more nuanced approaches to biological sex and gender identity (see Butler below), Stoller’s research opened the door for new social and philosophical perspectives on sex, gender and orientation.

Theoretical arguments such as Stoller’s were largely informed by early anthropological research on sex and gender which had already offered evidence that challenged prevailing ideologies that sex and gender were universal categories shared cross-culturally. Margaret Mead was among the first anthropologists to identify variation in gender roles and gender ideologies. In her books, Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935) and Male and Female (1949), Mead relied on ethnographic information from three social groups in New Guinea to show cross-cultural variation in male and female roles as well as differences in ideas about femininity and masculinity. Small-scale variation among three closely related social groups called for a greater look at cross-cultural variation world-wide.  As a result, anthropological approaches to sex, gender and orientation necessitate the disaggregation of the three components.


Sex is a biological category that can be based on the arrangement of chromosomes, hormones and/or phenotypic (physical) features. Sex categories are considered universal because all humans, and even non-humans, can be organized according to the same categorical system. Yet, sex categories vary cross-culturally. Some societies may create sex categories according to chromosomal arrangements, while others may categorize sex according to physical traits such as reproductive organs. Therefore, sex is a social construct because it is an invented idea that is created according to specific criteria that is established within a social system. It is also important to note that sex is not a binary system solely based on male and female categories. Intersexuality, the state of possessing both ‘male’ and ‘female’ sex traits exists in the plant and animal kingdoms, as well as among human beings.

Hermaphroditic marijuana plant

Some flora, such as the marijuana plant above, can possess both male and female reproductive organs which are self-pollinating. They are commonly referred to as hermaphrodites.

Parrot fish change from male to female during their lifecycle.

 In addition to hermaphroditic variations, many fauna, such as the parrot fish pictured above, change their sex throughout the course of their lifetime.

Intersexuality, or sexual ambiguity, is not uncommon among people. Although male and female sex categorizations in euro-centric culture is based on XY and XX chromosome arrangements, people can also possess different arrangements such as XXX, XXY, XO, and XYY. People are also born with a wide range of hormonal and physical traits that fail to fit into either male or female categories. This is why many societies have incorporated third sex categories into the cultural construct of biological sex.  In the Dominican Republic for example, Guevadoces means ‘eggs at twelve’ and it refers to a sex categorization for people who have what Western Scientists call ‘5-alpha reductase syndrome’. Visit the research site of Imperto et al to learn more about Guevedoces . The Argentinian drama film, XXY  (2007), portrays the dilemma faced the parents of a sexually ambiguous child with XXY chromosomes and their struggle to accept their child for the way they were born and the alienation of intersexuality within a cultural system that is strictly based on a binary, male-female, sex categorization for humans.

A wide range of intersex variations exist in human biology. Visit the website for the Intersex Society of North America and review the frequently asked questions (FAQ).  For discussion, consider the implications of a binary sex-categorization system. Do you agree that intersexuality is a ‘condition’ or ‘syndrome’ or does the pathology lie in the cultural construction of binary sex categories?


Gender is a cultural representation based on socially-constructed beliefs and practices regarding the roles, responsibilities and obligations that are, in some ways, tied to the biological and reproductive experiences of ‘males’ and ‘females’. Gender Roles are culturally defined norms, behaviors and obligations that are assigned and considered appropriate for a specific gender. Gender roles are sometimes tied to biology, such as the association of childcare with women due to biological ties to pregnancy and lactation. Gender is also be associated with ideas about masculinities and femininities which are clusters of traits that society assigns to specific genders or sexes, such as aggression, hairiness, and stature. Like sex, gender varies cross-culturally. Throughout the United States, for example, many cultural groups find it acceptable for women to wear slacks in public. In places such as Sudan however, women may face corporal punishment for crossing the same gender boundary:

Different cultural groups not only differ on the social construction of the rights, duties and obligations associated with the gender roles of ‘men’ and ‘women’, but many societies also accommodate ‘third’ genders. In Southeast Asia, Hijras represent a third gender that at one time held an important role in religious and cultural rituals. British colonialism enforced a binary man-woman gender categorization that has marginalized Hijras in contemporary society.

The third gender in Thailand is referred to as Kathoey. The film, Beautiful Boxer (2007),  is based on the true story of Nong Tom, a kathoey who became an internationally recognized boxer.

Two-spirit refers to individuals in Native American cultures that performed multiple gender roles. Documented in more than 130 tribal groups, two-spirits were generally revered until European domination marginalized members outside of the binary gender paradigm. The documentary film, Two-Spirit (2010), tells the story of a two-spirit Navaho teen that was murdered in a hate-crime.

In Albania, biological females who assume the gender roles of men are referred to as Sworn Virgins.

A wide range of third gender categories have existed and continue to persist throughout the world. Yet, European colonialism and the globalization of the binary man-woman gender paradigm has resulted in the persecution of third genders in post-colonial territories throughout the world.

Gender Role Theories

In the late 20th century, Judith Butler argued that ‘gender’ and sex’ are socially and culturally constructed. In her book, Gender Trouble (1990), Butler deconstructs gender by explaining how sex, gender and sexuality appear as natural correlates because social norms regulate conformity to specific essentialisms established by society. She contributed to the social understanding of gender as performative by theorizing that people are not born with gender, they act out gender according to social and cultural norms.

There are a wide variety of approaches aiming to identify the origins of gender role formation. Evolutionary biologists present gender roles as cultural adaptations to the environment; different environments lead to gender diversity. Some psychologists point to cognitive mapping to unveil the psychological aspects of gender identity formation. From a social scientific perspective however, gender identity is considered a learned behavior that is acquired through socialization.

For people living in cultures that have access to ultra-sound technologies that allow for pre-natal sex-determination, gender socialization can begin before a child is born as parents select gender-specific names, toys, clothing and room decorations. When sex is assigned at birth, childrearing practices and the differential treatment of boys and girls contribute to the child’s understanding and internalization of gender norms and behaviors. Children are often rewarded for stereotypical behavior and punished for non-conformity to gender expectations. Children also identify and imitate the gender roles performed by their parents. A growing body of research has also shown that toys and media play a significant role in gender socialization among American children. Compare the ways that the commercial advertisement below makes use of prevailing gender ideologies. What gender norms and values are conveyed to the child viewer?

Review the children’s book, ‘I’m glad I’m a Boy, I’m glad I am a girl!’ by Whitney Darrow. Consider the ways, if any, that gender roles and ideologies have changed since this book was published in the 1970s. What type of historical events generated new circumstances that contributed to those changes?


There is a massive body of research addressing orientation, particularly in the field of Queer Studies, that we will not get into in this course. It is important, however, to continue to disaggregate orientation and sexuality from gender and sex. Orientation or sexuality is based on the sex and genders that a person is attracted to emotionally, physically, sexually and romantically. Although social and cultural norms correlate sexuality with specific sex and gender categories, sexuality is approached by the social sciences as a distinctly separate aspect of the human experience.

As you move through the course from this point, it is important to pay particular attention to your use of terms such as ‘sex’, ‘gender’ and orientation. It has recently become popular in U.S. society to use the term ‘gender’ to refer to biological sex. During a visit to the veterinarian’s office, the paperwork asked for my cat’s ‘gender’. Although my cat can be categorized as a biological male, having been born with two testicles and a penis, it is quite unlikely that he has socially-constructed beliefs and practices regarding his roles, responsibilities and obligations that are tied to his experience as a biological male. His feline mother did not socialize him to meow or behave differently than his female siblings. As his human caretaker however, I engendered him by naming him ‘Oliver’ instead of ‘Olivia’, by providing him with a blue-colored collar rather than a pink one, and by occasionally making fun of his high-pitched meow. Names, colors and mannerisms are the ways that humans make symbolic associations that lend meanings and serve to organize and interpret reality. These associations helped to situate a biological male cat within the social schema of an American household. In the next section, we will explore the ways that symbolic meanings and associations socially organize people within the context of race, and this has largely informed race relations and the lived experiences of people within racial groupings.

Readings: Lang and Kuhnle. 2008. ‘ Intersexuality and Alternative Gender Categories in Non-Western Cultures’ in Hormone Research Vol 69 (240-250)

Discussion: Consider the case studies presented in the film, ‘Me, My Sex and I‘. Use the information presented on this webpage and in the Lang and Kuhnle article to answer the following questions; Do you consider intersexuality or sexual ambiguity a pathological condition or a human right? What is your position on ‘corrective’ genital surgery for children who are born with ambiguous genitalia? If you were responsible for raising an intersex child in Gainesville,  would you choose to raise them gender-neutral or would you socialize them according to one of the two prevailing sex/gender categories?  Be sure to use terms and concepts from the lesson and respond to another student’s post.