Sex and Gender in Society: Differences, Preferences & Characteristics

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  • 0:01 Defining Sex vs. Gender
  • 2:21 Non-Traditional Genders
  • 4:43 Sexual Orientation
  • 7:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Wind Goodfriend

Wind has her PhD in Social Psychology and Master's in Social Psychology from Purdue University.

You might think you know everything about the differences between boys and girls, but this lesson covers less commonly understood topics. After defining sex vs. gender, it covers less common sexual identities, such as intersexed and transgender individuals. In addition, theories on sexual orientation are covered, including both categorical and continuum perspectives of sexual interest.

Defining Sex vs. Gender

Have you ever gone shopping for toys and noticed that in most stores, toys are separated into sections for girls or boys? The girls' section is probably bright pink with sparkly ponies and princesses everywhere. In contrast, the boys' section is usually blue and brown with toys like plastic guns, soldiers and cars. Our society teaches little girls and boys our stereotypical expectations very early on. This lesson focuses on the concepts of sex and gender, then discusses non-traditional forms of gender, such as transgenders. Finally, we'll cover the idea of sexual orientation and how different orientations might be viewed in society.

First, we should define the difference between the terms 'sex' and 'gender.' In most social sciences, sex refers to biological differences between males and females. Biological differences are usually split up into two categories. The first category is called primary sex characteristics, which include internal and external genitals. Put simply, men have a penis and testes, while women have a clitoris and ovaries.

The second category that is used to differentiate between men and women is called secondary sex characteristics, which includes non-genital differences. For instance, there are hormonal differences: Men produce more testosterone, while women produce more estrogen. Men are usually taller and physically stronger than women, have more facial hair and they more often tend to go bald.

In contrast to the biological concept of sex, gender is how masculine or feminine a person feels and how he or she expresses those traits to others. Some scientists state that gender is where you fit on the gender spectrum. Modern gender studies try to avoid defining gender based on gender stereotypes. For example, we used to have stereotypes about men being better at math, enjoying sports and being more stinky and messy than the average woman. And we used to have stereotypes about women enjoying being around children, baking and wearing pink frilly dresses. When you think about your own preferences and behaviors, are you pretty masculine or are you more feminine? This psychological experience of being male or female is gender.

Non-Traditional Genders

Now that we've defined sex and gender, you might not have realized that so far, we've only talked about the concepts in terms of male versus female. Many people do not consider the fact that many people who study these topics acknowledge that there are, in fact, more than two categories of sex or gender. There are two concepts that are important for you to know.

The first concept is that of people who are called intersexed. Intersexed people have an unusual biological makeup that doesn't match either a traditional male or female. For example, traditional men have a chromosome pair we call 'XY,' and traditional women have a chromosome pair we call 'XX.' Did you know that there are lots of other possible combinations? There are people who have three chromosomes, such as 'XYY' or 'XXX.' These people often have genitals that are some kind of mixture, such as a small penis or an enlarged clitoris.

There are other types of intersexed people who have one of the traditional pairs of chromosomes, but their hormones are unusual, such as getting extra doses of testosterone or estrogen when they were fetuses. This results in other types of bodies, such as a body that might have both a penis and breasts. Scientists now acknowledge that because of intersexed conditions, there are really more sexes than just male and female. If you count all the different possible intersex conditions, you might say that there could be 20 different possible sexes, or more.

Another way that people might not match how we traditionally view sex and gender is if they are transgender. Transgender people feel that they are a different sex than the one based on their physical body. So a transgender person might be biologically male, but feel inside that they are really a female. This person might prefer to wear women's clothes, go by a woman's name and date men. It could be the other way around, as well; a biological female might feel inside that a male assignment is more fitting.

Transgender people sometimes take hormones or have surgery to change their bodies to be more in alignment with how they feel on the inside. A similar term you might have heard is transvestite, which refers to people who are comfortable with their biological sex but prefer to wear opposite-sex clothing. Being a transvestite does not necessarily mean that you are also a transgender; they are two different things.

Sexual Orientation

The last topic we'll cover in this lesson on sex and gender is the idea of sexual orientation. Sexual orientation refers to whether you are sexually attracted to men, women or both. Most of the time, sexual orientation is divided into three possible categories.

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