On Categorization by Sex and Gender

When one thinks of the characteristics of an individual, undoubtedly one of the first details to come to mind is their gender. Although the present age is one of ever-improving equality, sex remains as a core distinguishing trait nonetheless. There is some ambiguity with the terminology, however, that we need to resolve before this essay can proceed any further. Specifically, we must decouple the concepts of biological gender and psychological gender (henceforth referred to as sex and gender, respectively) from one another.

Why do we need to separate sex from gender? At first glance, one might conclude that, since a person’s psychology should match their biology, such a division is unnecessary. This conclusion’s premise crumbles following further investigation, as the existence of transgenders – many of whom experience intense feelings of dysphoria regarding the mismatch – annuls the assumption that gender and sex always align. Acknowledging this, we shall proceed by defining these two concepts in greater detail and examining from there why they might conflict.

Defining sex is ostensibly simple enough. If a person has a phallus, then he is male, and if a person has breasts and a vagina, then she is female. This scheme applies accurately to the bulk of the population, but falls short of being foolproof. If, genetically speaking, XX is a girl and XY is a boy, then what is XXY, or XYY, or XXYY? Our naive classification approach fails to place such edge cases into a category (unless we declare that the presence of a Y chromosome defines a male, which seems to be the policy utilized by the medical community). The issue clouds further when we consider the existence of hermaphrodites. Do we only organize people with biologically normative genetics and genitals, deeming everyone else an aberration? Though that would be accurate from a strictly biological perspective, it dehumanizes and alienates those who don’t have normative physiology. How, then, do we establish a comprehensive definition of sex?

Let’s set that question aside and instead investigate gender. Presumably, a biological male would identify with the male gender and a biological female with the female gender. As we established earlier, this doesn’t match reality. Perhaps a person falls into a particular gender category based on certain personality traits – males being athletic and aggressive while females are sensitive and understanding, for instance? That also fails, as not only are such gender roles subject to the vicissitudes of society, but are in fact entirely arbitrary; they are the products of stereotyping, media portrayals, and the zeitgeist of the generations during which they reign. That is, they are fabrications, and fluid ones at that. Clearly, we need a better understanding of the different gender categories if we aim to place individuals within them.

Thus, we ask: What is female? What is male? With sex, there were concrete biological distinctions for each, but when we extrapolate this classification schema to psychology, we lose the unambiguous definitions. As we’ve established, the correlation between sex and gender is strong but not perfect, and societal gender roles are meaningless. It could be a matter of simply feeling like one gender of another, but whence do such feelings arise, and on what basis? Moreover, if one were to select two individuals who identified as the same gender, one could likely find that, outside of the aforementioned identification, they share no common traits in their psychologies, personalities, and feelings (after all, they’re two different people). With this in mind, I am forced to conclude that genders are entirely subjective and objectively undefinable. That is, female and male – along with any melange of non-binary genders – are hollow classifications that bear no meaning outside of what an individual assigns to them.

To elaborate, there are billions of people who identify as either male or female, and countless crowds of them have nothing in common with one another, not even their sexes. With that in mind, how can these dissimilar peoples fall within the same grouping as one another? Without any binding traits, they cannot, unless the grouping under scrutiny is either arbitrarily imposed or voluntarily joined (or both, as it stands). Thus, a person has no innate gender; they are merely assigned one at birth or, later, choose one that makes them feel the most comfortable. Equivalently, there are as many different genders as there are human beings, where a person’s gender is their personality.

Regarding the unanswered question about how to distinguish between sexes without stripping non-standard-sexed individuals of their human dignity, one solution would be to dispose of the terms male and female. Instead, when discussing a person’s sex, the sex chromosome set would be used as an identifier. This would eliminate the aforementioned ambiguity and simultaneously make the specification of an abnormal chromosome set feel more natural in conversation.