It is important to understand that sex, sexuality, and gender are:
- Not the same thing.
- Not just binary.
On this page, we’ll explain why, and suggest a list of books for a deeper dive into the subject.
They’re not the same thing…
Sex is determined by the type of gametes an organism’s body produces: One which produces a few large gametes (think: ova) is categorized as female, and one which produces many small gametes (think: sperm), is categorized as male.
Sexuality is about the way an organism experiences and expresses its sexual orientation or preferences for sexual activity. It ranges from biological activity – what type of reproductive functions the organism manifests – to erotic – what kinds of things inflame the desire for sexual activity. Some examples:
- Your dog, which is male (sex), may regularly mount (sexuality) your leg or a stuffed toy.
- Your pet rat, which is female (sex), may couple with (sexuality) other female (sex) rats.
- Your male (sex) guinea pig may attempt to copulate with (sexuality) your female (sex) pet rabbit.
- A female (sex) monkey may rub its labia (sexuality) against a stick.
- Two male (sex) bonobos may engage in mutual fellatio (sexuality).
- Female (sex) albatrosses regularly pair with (sexuality) other females (sex) to raise chicks (sexuality).
- Ronnie and Reggie, London Zoo’s famous pair of same-sex (sexuality) male (sex) Humboldt penguins, hatched and raised (sexuality) Kyton, a chick.
Gender is dictated by differences in body type, social roles, and behaviour.
Gender and sex often coincide, but this does not have to be the case! An organism can have more genders than there are sexes:
That is, although it is always possible to identify the sex of an organism by analysing its gametes, it is not always possible to identify the sex of an animal by looking at its body type (colour, size, adornments, etc.) or its social roles and behaviours (courting activity, vocalizations, territoriality, parenting activities, etc.). A certain percentage of creatures in a species will not conform to expectations – their external and visual criteria cannot be relied upon to “sex” the organism – in other words, their gender does not match their sex. As one scientist put it,
gender is “the raw material of further evolution and demonstrate[s] that there is indeed more than one way to be a male or a female.”— Ellen Ketterson
They’re not just binary…
In the most primitive organisms, there is only one sex – a mother cell, which splits into daughter cells. Or, if an exchange of genetic material is required, then any mother cell in the species could mate with any other. The risk in both methods is that lower fitness may result – that is, a mother can provide only her own DNA to her daughters; but if she mates with a neighbour, they are more likely to be one of her relatives, again reducing genetic diversity.
Scientists believe that multiple sexual types evolved to provide a way of “mixing-up” a species’ DNA. That is, it involves an organism requiring more than one type of individual to reproduce, often forcing at least one of the parties to leave the neighbourhood to find and court a mate. It is hypothesized that the resulting shuffle of genetic material results in a diverse population, which should be better able to cope with environmental changes.
That having been said, the common division of animals into male and female is biased, limited, and incorrect. For many kinds of organisms, the world does not split into two – indeed, there are an astonishing number of ways to mix and match DNA.
Isogamous species have only one sex, and since that sex bears the next generation, by definition, female. Furthermore, any sexual activity between such individuals is, again, by definition, same-sex.
Dioecious species split the world into two sexes – male and female. But that does not mean that each individual must be one or the other. Hermaphrodites combine both sexes in one organism – every individual becomes a potential partner and each one can bear young.
Then there are species with mating types, where one type can exchange genes with all other kinds, except those belonging to the same mating type (probably to ensure genetic diversity). The number of mating types identified ranges from 3 up to 30,000.
But even within organisms which we popularly imagine as being two-sexed, there is bewildering diversity:
Certain animals reproduce asexually – that is, males do not exist. Others are asexual when environmental conditions are good, but convert to sexual reproduction when their environment degrades. This gives them the advantage of diversifying the DNA of their offspring, making a few of them more likely to survive the disturbance.
Some types of salamanders reproduce parthogenetically (virgin birth), but must couple with a male salamander of a different species to initiate the process of egg division. The male cannot fertilize the female, but the faux mating causes the female’s eggs to “activate”. Many types of lizards have evolved sexual reproduction, but some have fully parthogenetic females – they reproduce entirely without males.
Many types of sea animals are hermaphrodites, including molluscs, shell-fish, and certain types of bass. Some fishes have permanent sexes, others change sex once, and some can change their sex multiple times. In clownfish (think Nemo), the family consists of a large female, a breeding male who is smaller, and a group of nonbreeders, who are even smaller. If the female dies, the male changes sex and takes her place, while the largest nonbreeder becomes the breeding male.
Some animals are sequential hermaphrodites – they start life as one sex, reproduce, then switch sexes, and reproduce again. In mammals, including us, hermaphroditism, although rare, does occur. For unknown reasons, hermaphroditism in humans happens more frequently in the Middle East and Africa.
Males do not have to be larger, less-nurturing, or territorial. In many species, the roles are reversed, with the female being larger, more aggressive, and highly territorial … and sometimes, as in for example, sea horses, she leaves the care of the young to him. In other species, the male is a mere appendage of the female – or her dinner. In the angler-fish, the tiny male finds a much larger female, latches-on; then his body disintegrates, leaving only his testis. He becomes, in effect, nothing more than a reproductive organ which is fed and cared for by the female. In many species of arthropods, a male loses his life along with his virginity.
In other animals, males come in two sizes. A larger one which guards a mate, and a smaller male which sneaks-in, often disguised as a female, and tries to copulate with the female. He may even couple with the larger male to get past his guard.
There is a species of bacteria, called Wolbachia, whose genes are spread by a female insect through its eggs. If it ends-up in a male, it is unable to pass on its DNA – so, it eliminates the male of the species, forcing the females to reproduce parthogenetically. If these insects are treated with antibiotics in a lab, males can reappear, and the population return to sexual reproduction – at least until it is reinfected. There are many such types of male-killing bacteria in the insect kingdom.
In social insects such as ants and bees, there is one breeding female, the mother-queen, with the rest of the females being celibate and caring for their mother’s offspring. Males are few in number, do not participate in the social activities of the colony, and are short-lived, generally dying once the mating-season ends. Certain mammals come close to social insects in their behaviour: The dwarf mongoose of the Serengeti has a dominant female and male who mate and produce the young. Other females, including unrelated ones, will care for and feed the babies of the dominant female. In the naked mole-rat, there is one reproductive female, several breeding males, and a caste of tunneling workers.
Bonobos – our closest animal relative – have two sexes and a rich range of sexual behaviour – heterosexual, homosexual, orgies, and d.i.y.
Indeed, in animals, sexuality expresses itself in countless ways:
Every sexual activity found in the literature of pornography may be found in Nature – celibacy (as in the worker caste in social insects), monogamy, polygyny, polyandry, promiscuity, same-sex attraction, bestiality (sex between species), masturbation, fetishism, fellatio, necrophilia, etc.
But sexuality also reflects the various ways in which courtship, pair-bonding, affection, and parenting may occur among organisms – between different sexes, between the same sex, and between organisms which are of a different species. In humans, it can encompass emotional, social, and spiritual behaviours – bonds between individuals that range from voluntary caring for each other to those imposed by society to spiritual connections with others.
Sex in humans is generally assigned at birth, based on one, simple, external physical characteristic – the visual shape of the child’s genitalia.
Once that happens, most newborns are immediately forced into a pre-packaged, rigid, and binary set of characteristics and behaviours – a feminine or masculine gender role.
Expectations about conduct, interests, thought-processes, status, abilities, and one’s often unquestionable and God-ordained place in the universe, start with the birthing blanket – pink for a girl; blue for a boy.
These characteristics and behaviours are not constant, and are entirely dictated by the society one lives in. For example, in Western culture, non-heterosexual gender identification has historically been seen as a sin; by contrast, in Indigenous cultures, “two-spirit” people, who are of an “other” gender, are seen as spiritually blessed. In the Balkans, women can choose to live as men (“burnesha”), gaining all the rights and privileges of a male, provided they adopt a masculine look, act, and dress. One photographer who studied them states,
“Burnesha are well respected within their communities. They possess an indescribable amount of strength and pride, and value their family honor above all else. Their absolute transition is wholly accepted, posited and taken without question by the people among whom they live. But most surprising, is they have very few regrets for the great deal they have sacrificed.”— Sworn Virgins: Balkan women who spend their lives living as men
As demonstrated by the burnesha, there is also a personal element in how gender is defined – in other words, you must distinguish between externally imposed gender norms (how society perceives you and expects you to behave) as versus your internal gender identity (how you perceive yourself) and gender relations (how you interact with others).
Yes, gender and sex are often related – females tend to exhibit the essentially “feminine” behaviours of their species/culture; while males generally incline towards the “masculine” ones.
But not always!
Science is beginning to realize (1) that an organism’s sex does not define its gender and (2) that gender traits are not binary – instead, they exist on a spectrum of behaviors and roles.
The Bem Sex-Role Inventory
The Stanford Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI) asks a person a series of questions which results in a measure of gender on a scale of 1 to 100. Higher scorers exhibit the more traditionally feminine traits; lower scorers the more conventionally masculine ones.
In other words, the BSRI assigns a person a gender on a continuum.
You can learn more about this measure of masculinity and Femininity and it’s application in gender roles on Wikipedia.
Click here if you’d like to take your personality test measuring gendered personality traits.
Regardless of your spiritual beliefs, it should be obvious to anyone paying attention that Nature / God adore diversity – not one colour, but a rainbow; not one sound, but a spectrum; not one species, but an exuberant, bewildering, and delightful explosion of life, in so many forms, with a huge variety of ways of existing and reproducing – even within a single species.
Indeed, diversity seems to be one of the highest values in creation.
If you close your eyes and listen, you will hear the Universe / Your Creator whisper to you the most sacred of mantras, “Be magnificently different … sing-forth the creativity in your heart, in your soul, in your existence … live – live your true, authentic self!”
Books For Further Reading
If you’d like a deeper dive, here are a list of books on gender myths, biology, sexuality, diversity, and the spectrum:
Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity
Drawing upon a rich body of zoological research spanning more than two centuries, Bruce Bagemihl shows that animals engage in all types of nonreproductive sexual behavior. Sexual and gender expression in the animal world displays exuberant variety, including same-sex courtship, pair-bonding, sex, and co-parenting–even instances of lifelong homosexual bonding in species that do not have lifelong heterosexual bonding.
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Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People
In this innovative celebration of diversity and affirmation of individuality in animals and humans, Joan Roughgarden challenges accepted wisdom about gender identity and sexual orientation. A distinguished evolutionary biologist, Roughgarden takes on the medical establishment, the Bible, social science―and even Darwin himself. She leads the reader through a fascinating discussion of diversity in gender and sexuality among fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals, including primates.
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Myths of Gender
By carefully examining the biological, genetic, evolutionary, and psychological evidence, a noted biologist finds a shocking lack of substance behind ideas about biologically based sex differences. Features a new chapter and afterward on recent biological breakthroughs.
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Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality
In this brilliant and provocative book, the acclaimed author of Myths of Gender argues that even the most fundamental knowledge about sex is shaped by the culture in which scientific knowledge is produced.
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Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference
Drawing on the latest research in neuroscience and psychology, Cordelia Fine debunks the myth of hardwired differences between men’s and women’s brains, unraveling the evidence behind such claims as men’s brains aren’t wired for empathy and women’s brains aren’t made to fix cars.
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The Gendered Society 6th Edition
Kimmel makes three bold and persuasive statements about gender. First, he demonstrates that gender differences are often extremely exaggerated; in fact, he argues that men and women have much more in common than we think they do. Kimmel also challenges the pop psychologists who suggest that gender difference is the cause of inequality between the sexes; instead, he reveals that the reverse is true-gender inequality itself is the cause of the differences between men and women. Finally, he illustrates that gender is not merely an element of individual identity, but a socially constructed institutional phenomenon.
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