Sex, Gender, and Sexuality image

Sex, Gender, and Sexuality

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Depending on your situation in life, the meanings which you attach to the terms 'sex', 'gender' and 'sexuality' might differ greatly to the next person's. For example, you might - like many people - think 'sex' and 'gender' describe the same thing. A cursory search of the usage of the term 'gender' in all published books between 1900 and 2008 shows that it has only really been in use for the last few decades, so most people up to 1980 would agree with you. But the fact that it has come into use must mean that many people are trying to describe something different when they say 'gender' to when they say 'sex'. This was borne out at the popular level recently when Facebook decided that rather than just offering users the traditional 'Male' and 'Female' gender options they would introduce 50 different options, then 71 and add a free-text field in case you weren't on the list. Because all three terms (sex, gender and sexuality) intimately describe personal identity, perceived misuses of them can make for potentially confusing and even offensive conversations, especially when people feel their personal identity to be much invested in a particular understanding.

The issue is further complicated by the fact that the meanings of these terms have evolved rather rapidly in recent years, to the point that two people could actually be using two different authoritatively established definitions of the same word in one conversation. Here are working definitions of the three terms as currently understood at a university level by anthropological disciplines:

Sex’ - Biological traits that society associates with being male or female
Gender’ - Cultural meanings attached to being masculine & feminine, which influence personal identities e.g. Man, Woman, Transgender, Intersex, Gender Queer, among others
Sexuality’ - Sexual attraction, practices & identity which may or may not align with sex and gender e.g. Heterosexual, Homosexual (Gay or Lesbian), Bisexual, Queer, among others

Let’s take the term ‘sex’ as defined above and compare it to a current definition from the World Health Organisation. Seeking to differentiate ‘sex’ from ‘gender’ the WHO’s definition says “Gender is used to describe the characteristics of women and men that are socially constructed, while sex refers to those that are biologically determined”. Now, whilst there is almost direct agreement on the definition of ‘gender’ as the constructed and performed aspect of one’s identity, the WHO (taking a more traditional line) define ‘sex’ as directly equivalent to biological reality whereas our first definition says ‘biological traits that society associates with being male or female’: A subtle but significant difference.

So what is going on there? I certainly didn’t pick that set of definitions to challenge current academic orthodoxy: In fact, they come from a presentation recently supplied to a teacher friend of mine by his school for a PSHE lesson on transgenderism. The definition of ‘sex’ therein is reflective of the move made by the philosopher Judith Butler way back in 1990 in her influential book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, where she asserts that it is not only ‘gender’ which is socially constructed but that ‘sex’ itself is not merely biological but constructed by human interpretation. This refusal to accept the ‘givenness’ of biological maleness or femaleness is rooted in a desire to understand the related terms of ‘sexuality’ and ‘gender’ as not referring to adherence-to or deviation-from a fixed personal biological reality - the innately ‘sexed’ body.

Though perhaps confusing at first glance, it makes sense that someone arguing for the legitimacy of diverse sexual and gender identities would want to dispense with ‘dogmatic’ understandings of male / female at the biological level. Of course, the argument works in reverse too; if sex is actually a biological reality - a genuine given and not merely a human interpretation or construction - then gender and sexuality (whilst still ‘performative’ - i.e. culturally and personally constructed) actually orbit around something innate about the human being.

As a Christian, I understand human beings to bear the image of the Living God, marking them as uniquely valuable amongst God’s creation. I also believe that it is incumbent upon followers of Jesus to be simultaneously conversant with contemporary understandings of what it means to be human and with God’s revelation on the matter. People of all stripes are seeking to make sense of who they are and what their life might mean. Therefore, Christian attempts to bring Christ’s good news to askers of such questions should be neither trite and simplistic nor dogmatic and ill-considered. Having set out this theoretical ground, I hope to explore further theological engagement with these subjects in future posts.

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