4.3.1 Distinction between ‘Sex’ and ‘Gender’

The terms ‘sex' and ‘gender' are closely linked, yet they are not synonyms. Robert Stoller, in the 1960s, has drawn the distinction between them. He suggested that the word ‘sex' be used to refer to the physical differences between men and women, while the term ‘gender' be used in connection to the behaviour and cultural practices of men and women. This distinction is the basis for all the definitions of ‘sex' and ‘gender' that are provided in the literature nowadays.

Definition of "Sex"
The term ‘sex' is easy to understand. It simply refers to the natural biological differences between men and women, for example, the differences in the organs related to reproduction.

Definition of "Gender"
"Gender refers to the cultural, socially-constructed differences between the two sexes. It refers to the way a society encourages and teaches the two sexes to behave in different ways through socialisation."

[Browne, 1992, p78].

In simple words, gender refers to differences in attitudes and behaviour, and these differences are perceived as a product of the socialisation process rather than of biology. Gender also includes the different expectations that society and individuals themselves hold as regard to the appropriate behaviours of men and women. We should also note that gender does not concern women only, but it relates to both sexes. Gender issues are not women issues; they are rather issues pertaining to both men and women.

Viewing gender as a socially-constructed phenomenon implies that gender, contrary to sex, is not the same over the world. It varies between and within societies and it can change over time.

Table 1.1: Distinction between Sex and Gender

 

Sex (Biological difference)
Gender (Social difference)
Difficult to change (we are born male or female) Can be changed since gender identity is
determined by society.
Throughout history and across cultures, sex differences exist. At different times in history and in different
societies, gender roles are different.
Policies respond to sex differences in areas to do with the physical body. Policies can respond to gender stereotype and traditional gender roles.

Biologically determined or socially-constructed?

So far, we have looked at the distinction between ‘sex' and ‘gender' and you may already be deciding on the answer you may give to the question set above, that is,

"Why do men and women act and think in different ways?"

Two possible explanations have been put forward, one relative to biology and the other to culture.

The scientists adopting the biological explanation usually consider the behavioural differences between men and women as being linked to hormones and brain differences. Experiments performed on rats have shown that there is a link between hormones and certain types of behaviour, such as between androgens and aggressive behaviour. Therefore, following this line of thinking, it is believed that differences in behaviours are fixed in biology. It is considered natural for men to be more assertive and aggressive than women due to their higher level of testosterone.

However, these explanations have been widely criticised and it is difficult to make any conclusive observation from animal experiments that can be applied to human beings. Moreover, researches carried out with people have also been opened to doubt.

[Giddens, 1989]

The most popular explanation among sociologists remains the cultural one. Gender roles are viewed as being learnt through socialisation. Culture is thus put forward as the key to understanding why men and women hold different attitudes and behaviours and why society actually expects them to behave in different ways and accept these differences as ‘natural'. This is why the term ‘gender' has been coined. It is asserted that men and women are not born with behavioural differences, despite their anatomical differences. They rather learn, as from an early age, that because they belong to a particular sex, they must behave in a specific way. Their gender identities and gender roles are assigned to them, not by biology, but by society's norms and values regarding the different sexes.

The debate, however, is still open. Researches are still being made to settle the question. Even though the cultural explanation seems to bear more weight, no research has as yet been able to prove that the biological aspect holds no influence on behavioural differences between men and women; on the contrary, links have been established between biology and behaviour. The controversy is thus still ongoing and we are now hearing about an interaction between biology and culture as being the answer.

[Renzetti & Curran, 1998].