How To Talk About Sex, Gender, And Sexuality

Everything you need to know about three distinctly different things.

When it comes to public understanding and acceptance of various gender identities and orientations, much-needed discussions are finally being had. The future is indeed non-binary, but it’s okay if you are still learning the correct language to use to keep up with the discussion. For instance, what is biological sex, gender identity, and what’s the difference between the two? And to top it all off, what does sexual orientation have to do with any of it? Three sex and gender therapists and experts break it all down here.

How sex is defined

Nope, we’re not talking about the physical act of getting it on. “I define sex from a biological standpoint,” explains sex educator and trauma specialist Jimanekia Eborn. “It is something that doctors put on your birth certificate after you come out of the womb, based upon what your genitals look like and the particular set of chromosomes that you are given."

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Generally speaking, if you are born with a penis and XX chromosomes, your sex is labeled as “male” on your birth certificate. If you’re born with a vagina and XY chromosomes, it says “female’ on your birth certificate. As sex therapist Kelly Wise, Ph.D. points out, there are also intersex folks, or those born with a variety of conditions in which their reproductive anatomy and/or chromosomes don’t match the traditional definitions of female or male.

The difference between sex and gender

Not everyone’s gender identity matches the sex they are assigned at birth. “Gender is a socio-cultural concept of the way that people express themselves,” Dr. Wise says.If you’re cisgender, it means that the gender you identify with matches the sex assigned to you at birth. For trans folks, their gender identity does not match what was assigned at birth. Others use labels like non-binary (an umbrella term for someone who doesn’t identify on the gender binary as either male or female). Gender fluid describes someone whose gender fluctuates and may have different gender identities at different times. Basically, there are as many ways to express gender as there are people in the world.

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If you’re wondering about your own gender identity, Dr. Wise, who is trans, reminds that there is no need to hurry to put label on yourself and that it’s okay to take your time, or change the way you describe your gender over time. “There is so much space to be an individual,” he says. “[Gender] ends up being one factor about you and not your whole defining exhibit. There is no rush to figure it out and you don’t have to limit yourself.”

What sexual orientation means

One important thing to remember is that gender and sexual orientation are completely different. Gender is about your personal identity and expression, and sexual orientation simply refers to who you are attracted to. “I don’t think anyone would assume that a woman is automatically a lesbian or automatically bi," says sex therapist Liz Powell, Ph.D. "We wouldn’t assume that a cisgender man is automatically gay—we look at them and don’t think that their gender necessarily determines what their sexuality should be. The same applies to people all across the gender spectrum."

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You may have heard a trans, non-binary, or genderfluid person describe themselves as “queer,” and think, well, doesn’t that mean that you’re gay? While the term “queer” is indeed significant to the LGBTQ community, as Dr. Powell explains, queer can mean anything that isn’t one hundred percent heterosexual and one hundred percent cisgender.

TL; DR: Sex is biological. Gender is a social construct, and each of us gets to decide our gender identity based on what we know to be true for us. And orientation simply means who you’re interested in dating and is entirely separate from biological sex and gender identity.

Follow Sophie on Twitter.

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This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.

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