Primary Sex Characteristics: Definition & Explanation

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  • 0:01 Primary Sexual Characteristics
  • 1:05 Gender vs. Sex
  • 1:37 Non-Human Example
  • 2:29 Development in Humans
  • 3:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

This lesson defines and explains the primary sex characteristics of most living things on earth. In addition, special attention is given to human and, to a lesser extent, plant characteristics.

Primary Sexual Characteristics

The examination of the differences between males and females has been around for a long time. From ancient philosophers to modern sitcoms, the differences between the two genders have amused and confused people for ages. Primary sexual characteristics are the physical characteristics directly involved in reproduction, such as the sex organs. The sex organs involved can have various names depending on the living thing being discussed.

Sex organs is a broad category that includes any gland, organ, or part that is necessary for reproduction. In humans, for example, the male's scrotum, testes, epididymis, vas deferens, prostate, seminal vesicles, urethra, and penis all qualify as being part of the sex organs. In females, the ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus, cervix, vaginal canal, Bartholin's and Skenes glands, vagina, clitoris, and clitoral hood are all considered sex organs.

Gender vs. Sex

A common misuse of words is the interchange between gender and sex. Gender refers to a social construct specific to the culture it comes from, as well as the physical and psychological interaction. Gender can be better described as masculine or feminine and may vary by culture. Sex directly refers to the sexual organs one possesses. So in dealing with a primary sexual characteristic, the focus is entirely on the sexual organs and not the social aspects.

Non-Human Example

Most likely you are familiar with most animal primary sexual characteristics, so instead we will take a moment to look at a non-animal. The flowering part of any plant contains its primary sexual characteristics. The flower itself is actually a secondary characteristic. The flower can contain either both sexes, making it a true hermaphrodite, or one of the sexes, making it an 'imperfect flower.' Inside the flower is the stamen, which is the male sex organ of the plant, and it produces the pollen. When the pollen enters the pistil, or female sex organ of the plant, it interacts with the ovule. Together the ovule and pollen create what will eventually be the seed. The reproductive process is fairly similar amongst the plant and animal kingdom. There are, of course, exceptions to how things are typically done.

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