East Carolina University
Department of Psychology


Sex/Gender/Whatever


Until relatively recently, the word "gender" referred to a grammatical distinction between feminine, masculine, and neuter words.  Now it may be used to refer to a dimension on which people may differ and which may or may not be identical or closely related to "sex."  Who was it that started such use of the word "gender?"  The person who is most often mentioned as having popularized the use of the word "gender" when referring to persons is Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  As the story goes, she was complaining about the way her male colleagues snickered whenever she used the word "sex," and an associate recommended that she use the grammatical term "gender" instead.  Some have suggested that Ginsburg avoided saying "sex" simply because of a speech impediment (a lisp -- see http://www.takeourword.com/Issue031.html and http://www.takeourword.com/TOW112/page4.html).  In any case, she was involved in a lot of litigation on matters of sexual discrimination, and her use of the word "gender" did popularize it.

Bryon Strong posted the following on Women's Studies List <WMST-L@UMDD.BITNET> back in July of 1993:  Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who originated the term "gender discrimination," described the origin of the term in her July 21 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.  I thought list members might find it interesting:  In the 1970s, when I was at Columbia and writing briefs about distinctions based on sex, and writing articles and speeches, I had a secretary, and she said, "I've been typing this word sex, sex, sex, and let me tell you, the audience you are addressing--the men that you are addressing"--and they were all men in the appellate courts in those days--"the first association of that word is not what you're talking about.  So I suggest that you use a grammar book term; use the word `gender.'  It will ward off distracting associations." .... Millicent, if you're somewhere watching this, I owe it all to you (NY Times, July 22, 1993: A14).

So, is there a difference between "sex" and "gender?"  Well, that depends on whom you ask.  Anymore I often don't know which one to use.  I've had editors tell me to replace every occurrence of the word "sex" with the word "gender" in my manuscripts, but I have also been told my colleagues that the two words refer to quite different things.

The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (2.12) has this to say about it: Gender is cultural and is the term to use when referring to men and women as social groups.  Sex is biological; use it when the biological distinction is predominant.  Note that the word sex can be confused with sexual behaviorGender helps keep the meaning unambiguous, ….”

Once I prepared a manuscript for consideration for publication in a journal which follows the style of the American Psychological Association.  The questionnaire employed in this research had asked the participants to indicate their “sex,” but I was careful to use the word “gender” instead of “sex” in my manuscript.  I had earlier often been told by editors of journals to replace every occurrence of the word “sex” with “gender.”  This time the executive editor told me to replace every occurrence of the word “gender” with the word “sex.”  When the galley proofs arrived, the copy editor asked me to replace every occurrence of the word “sex” with “gender.”  I did, but the executive editor learned of this and insisted that every occurrence of the word “gender” be changed back to “sex.”

One of my colleagues, whose research subjects are rodents, was told to change every occurrence of "sex" to "gender."  How does one know the gender of a rodent?  My colleague was also told to describe his subjects as "participants," not as "subjects."

Consider the following quote from the article "Sex and Gender, Same or Different," by Milton Diamond (Feminism & Psychology, 2000, 10 (1): 46-54 -- see http://www.hawaii.edu/PCSS/online_artcls/intersex/sex_gender.html

Supreme Court Justice Antony Scalia, in an attempt to clarify usage of the terms has written (J.E.B., 1994) "The word gender has acquired the new and useful connotation of cultural or attitudinal characteristics (as opposed to physical characteristics) distinctive to the sexes. That is to say, gender is to sex as feminine is to female and masculine is to male," According to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, however, the words are interchangeable. She relates that she used them in composing her legal briefs about sex/gender related matters so the word sex would not appear on every page. Supposedly her secretary encouraged this saying: "Don't you know those nine men [on the Supreme Court, when ] they hear that word and their first association is not the way you want them to be thinking." (Case, 1995)


So, should I ask my research participants what their sex is or what their gender is?  Maybe I should ask both questions.  Maybe I should ask these questions:

What is your gender identity, female or male?

Do you have a penis?

Do you have testicles?

Do you have a vagina?

Do you have a clitoris?

Do you have ovaries?

What is the circulating level of androgens in your blood?

The questions on testicles and ovaries are those most clearly associated with the proper definition of biological sex -- in sexually reproducing species the morph that produces many small gametes (sperm) is labeled “male” and that which produces few large gametes is labeled “female.”

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This page most recently revised on the 9th of February, 2015.