Although sex and gender are used interchangeably in common language and the popular media, the two categories are quite distinct. Defining difference between sex and gender through examples of gendered behavior across cultures is helpful in understanding the nuances of the notion and illustrates how gender norms are culturally dependent. This essay describes the difference between sex and gender and illustrates this difference through the example of the Chambri people of Papua New Guinea and the existence of third gendered individuals in several Eastern cultures.
Sex and gender refer to two separate phenomena. Sex is determined biologically and tends to refer to biological differences between individuals. Many social groups and nations across the globe divide all human beings into two sex categories: male and female. This sex binary is defined by physical and physiological attributes, such as breasts, male and female genitalia, and sex hormones. Depending on an individual’s appearance, a person is often perceived by society as belonging to either a male or female category. Certain individuals are born with ambiguous genitalia, and they are referred to as intersex individuals. Intersex individuals are often raised as either male or female, depending on their parents’ or cultures’ preferences.
Gender, on the other hand, is a socially constructed notion and usually consists of two main categories: feminine and masculine. The idea that gender is a social construction refers to the concept of gender being heavily influenced by social and cultural factors. The behaviors, activities, and roles expected of individuals of a certain gender are dependent on society and culture in which they are raised. For example, in many societies, it is often an expectation that females exhibit more nurturing behaviors and activities than males. Males, on the other hand, are often expected to be stronger and more aggressive than females. Gendered behaviors are often taught clearly and deliberately by parents and are influenced in a broader, more structural sense through messages from peers, society, and the media.
The distinction between sex and gender is important because understanding this difference is essential for comprehending the consequences of gender expectations and creating positive change through more equitable gender roles. Gender roles in modern society are strictly policed, and individuals, who break out of their gender roles, often face punishment in the form of physical or verbal abuse. For example, when a boy decides that he likes wearing dresses, he is mocked and bullied by his peers. Likewise, when a woman decides to cut her hair short and dress in a masculine way, she is often stereotyped as a lesbian and perceived as a hating–men-person. These reactions to individuals transgressing traditional gender roles are often violent or disrespectful, and they constrain men and women in modern society from envisioning a more positive way to experience gender. In order to stem violence against gender nonconformity and create a deeper, more complex understanding of gender, it is essential to understand that sex and gender are separate, first, and that gender is not biological but instead socially constructed and culturally dependant.
An example of how gender is socially constructed comes from the Chambri people, an ethnic group of the East Sepik region in Papua New Guinea. The Chambri people have frequently been subjects of gender-related study, most famously by Margaret Mead in 1933. Contrary to many Western cultures, the women of the Chambri communities are the providers for their families, often doing the majority of fishing and food gathering. Women also trade the excess fish that they catch to gain extra resources for the home. While men retain political power and dominance, women are viewed as strong providers, instead of the image of weak and submissive creatures in many other cultures. Mead initially portrayed Chambri men as submissive to Chambri women, but later anthropologists refuted these portrayals. However, the gender roles of Chambri women remain quite different from traditional female roles encouraged by Western societies.
One cultural phenomenon that complicates the idea of sex and gender as binary systems (male and female, masculine and feminine) is the existence of transgender people across many cultures. Several cultures believe in the idea of a third sex. For example, in Thailand, a third gender, or “kathoey” is recognized officially. As a rule, kathoey involves a male-to-female gender transition; the same term is used, in Laos, to designate this gender category. The third genders are also found in Japan, Korea, and Indonesia. India has a rich history of third gendered individuals. The third gendered people in India are known as hijras. While typically hijras behave in traditional female ways, they see themselves as neither male nor female. Certain tribes of Native Americans in North America, such as the Zuni, Lakota, and Mohave, also recognize the third gender and refer to third gendered individuals as a “two spirit.” These third gendered individuals are accepted in certain sectors of their societies and marginalized in others. Their very existence calls to question the relationship between sex and gender and illustrates complexity of the notions.
In conclusion, sex and gender are distinct categories, with sex being determined biologically and physiologically and gender being shaped socially. It is important to understand that sex and gender are separate, in order to envision a society where people are able to transgress gender norms without facing violence or abuse. Allowing these transgressions and embracing new ways of being masculine and feminine will lead to a deeper understanding of the gender flexibility. In illustrating the difference between sex and gender, we have presented the example of the Chambri people of Papua New Guinea. Among the Chambri, females fish and trade in order to provide for their families. This phenomenon of women in breadwinning roles is significant because it is quite different from traditional gender roles across many societies. We have also presented examples of the third gendered populations within several cultures in order to emphasize that the relationship between sex and gender is extremely complex, and to illustrate how several societies have carved out a special niche for individuals who feel that they are neither male nor female.