Secondary Sex Characteristics: Definition & Explanation

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: James Greaver

Jim has a master's degree in secondary Education and has taught English from middle school level to college.

In this lesson, we will learn about secondary sex characteristics. We will define the term and examine how these characteristics are seen in humans as well as in various animals.

Secondary Sex Characteristics in Humans

Have you ever really considered the differences between males and females in various species? If you have, you may have noticed the differences in physical traits between the two sexes. Without even realizing it, you were likely thinking about both primary and secondary characteristics.

While humans are born with very obvious primary sex characteristics (or body structures directly concerned with reproduction) that allows us to tell males from females, such as the penis in men and the vagina in women, secondary sex characteristics, on the other hand, are features which appear at puberty (though they later become equally as prominent). These secondary characteristics are features such as pubic hair, breast development in females, and beards in males. The list below shows some of these characteristic differences between human males and females. In men, these include:

  • More pronounced body hair characteristics (beard, chest, etc.) and usually more coarse
  • Heavier musculature
  • Angular features (i.e. square jaw, triangular mid region)
  • Narrow hips
  • Muscular pectorals (chest)
  • Less fat tissue overall
  • Deeper voice

In women, these include:

  • Less pronounced body hair characteristics (mostly in pubic region, hair all over is usually finer)
  • Lighter musculature
  • Rounded features (i.e. softer facial features, hourglass mid-region)
  • Wider hips (for child bearing)
  • More pronounced breasts with more fatty tissue
  • More fat tissue overall
  • Higher voice

Secondary Sex Characteristics in Animals

Now, with animals, there can be some major differences. First, many animals have primary sex characteristics that are hard to see; the sex organs of birds, monkeys, and cats, for instance, are very difficult to perceive visually. Next, unlike humans, animals develop many of their secondary sex characteristics soon after birth, or they are present to some degree and increase as they mature. For example, in some birds, the males and females may begin with the same coloration, but as they mature, their colors begin to diverge more greatly, like cardinals.

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