Sex and gender

Saturday, 28th January, 2017

Working definitions and some corollaries.


Sex is a biological category, part of the system of reproduction. Some creatures (animals and plants) reproduce asexually: a single individual of a species can reproduce on its own. Some creatures reproduce sexually: two individuals of distinct kinds (sexes) must come together to reproduce. The sexes are generally called male and female. Each sex plays its own distinct role in reproduction. Categorisation of the sexes depends on the logically prior category of reproduction. A sex is defined by its role in reproduction.

We could imagine a species requiring three sexes for reproduction — e.g. providing sperm, egg and incubator. I don’t know if there are there any such species, animal or plant.

What makes a particular individual a male or a female of its species will be a set of biological features, each of which will be more or less important, more or less directly related to reproduction. In a given species, the biological feature sets of the different sexes might overlap — less so in spiders, more so in rabbits.

In a given individual, the extent to which it carries the features of one or other sex will presumably vary as well. However, given natural selection, we’d expect most functional individuals of a species that reproduces sexually to be functionally one sex or the other.

As I failed to imagine or know, but as @peter4logo points out, there are species that reproduce sexually in which individuals can change sex, e.g. snails, (aka Sequential hermaphroditism), and species in which an individual can function as both sexes (e.g. giant clams). So, the above paragraphs should be generalised. Note that above kinds of species retain the separate sex categories of male and female.

So, we have the biological system of reproduction and, within that system, we have the sexes male and female, defined in relation to each other, and in relation to the system of reproduction.


Gender is an ideological category, an artefact of the oppression of women. That is, oppression on grounds of sex.

By artefact I mean both “effect” and “means”.

A gender is a set of virtues (update: i.e. of required or acceptable behaviours) historically associated with a particular (human) sex. For example, the archetypal feminine virtues in Elizabethan England were obedience, silence and chastity.

A logical/historical development of gender might follow these lines:

  1. oppression of women
  2. specification of virtues (behaviours & other traits) required of women
  3. ideological elevation of this specification: femininity
  4. naturalisation of the specification: gender, masculinity

Whereas with sex we have the system of reproduction directly entailing both male and female, with gender we have the system of oppression entailing only constraints on women’s behaviour. “Femininity” is an ideological elevation of this set of constraints. “Gender”, as a naturalisation of femininity, comes later (logically, and I would hypothesise, historically). “Maculinity” is a corollary of gender.

So “feminine” and “masculine” genders don’t make a direct ‘pair’ in the way that “male” and “female” sexes do.

Some corollaries

  • Ideologies which take gender as given are reactionary, and will to some extent be complicit in the oppression of women.
  • Feminism is opposition to the oppression of women — i.e., opposition to oppression on grounds of sex.
  • So-called “trans women” are not women.
  • The question of whether trans people are oppressed, and what to do about it, are legitimate political questions, but they have nothing to do with feminism.

5 Responses to “Sex and gender”

  1. pedroinnovo Says:

    “However, given natural selection, we’d expect most functional individuals of a species that reproduces sexually to be functionally one sex or the other.”

    I’d say, looking at kinds of trees or snails, where in one individual are expressed both sexes in a fully functionally way, that “one or other” seems not to be necessary, but of course a solution, which can often be observed. We should also mention organisms, which are able to change sex, when ecological circumstances change in some definite way (some clams of mussels – I am not sure which is the appropriate term in English).

    The point is, then, that in the perspective of “sexes” any individual has to be “involved” in a functional way, which can be by nature solved in very different ways, yet is for one species solved in a specific, definite way (which could change in the course of evolution, though species A would after a step in evolution no longer be species A anyway).


  2. pedroinnovo Says:

    Overall I like this working definition – my suggestions concerning “sex” do, as far as I can see, in no way affect the very important second part, where gender gets examined.

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