Friday, July 8, 2011

Sex and Gender Terminology

[The following is a handout I use in the courses I teach. Feel free to make use of it yourself--just credit me, Cary Gabriel Costello.]

In order to gain expertise in a field, you need to learn the terms that are used by people who are knowledgeable about it. The more of the terminology you know, the more sophisticated you can be in discussing the field, which is empowering. For example, if you know nothing about how a car works, and you open up the hood, you may just see a bunch of unidentifiable chunks of metal and wire, and call it all “the engine.” If your car isn’t working well, you can’t do much about it. If you learn to identify a couple of basic things—say, the dipstick so you can check your oil, and the battery so you can jump-start your car—you’ll have some minimal competence to deal with common automotive issues, but you still won’t know how a car works. But if you are taught to identify the ignition system, the engine block and valves, the cooling system, the transmission, the fuel system, and how the components interrelate, you can have intelligent conversations about cars and car maintenance that will stand you in good stead if you need to buy or repair a car.

When laypeople don’t know a lot about a field and hear people with expertise use the field’s terms of art, the laypeople may consider the terms overly precise, obfuscatory, or simply irritating. Laypeople may snort when winetasters talk about the wine having a “nose,” a “shoulder,” or a “finish.” Those unfamiliar with American football may laugh at positions like “tight end” and “nose guard.” To the cooking novice, it may seem silly to distinguish between sautéing and searing, or roasting and braising. But if you want to learn to appreciate wine, follow a football game, or cook good food from scratch, you will find that the terms of art are actually very important.

In studying sex and gender, you will come to use language that is a lot more complex and precise than that used in ordinary streetcorner conversation. At first, the terminology may strike you as confusing, or making tiny distinctions that seem unnecessary. But as you move through the course and learn more, you’ll find the terms allow you to have much more sophisticated discussions.

That said, below you’ll find a guide to the terminology that will be employed in this course.

  1. Sex Spectrum: an array of physical differences, defined by:
    1. Primary sexual characteristics: those sexual differences present at birth:
      1. Genital characteristics: differentiation of the fetal phalloclitoris into penis/scrotum or clitoris/labia. The degree of differentiation varies.
      2. Gonadal characteristics: differentiation of the fetal ovotestes into testes or ovaries (which occasionally does not occur).
      3. Genotype: describing which "sex chromosomes" an individual possesses: XX, XY, XXY, XXYY, XYY, Xo, XX/XY, etc.
    1. Secondary sexual characteristics: differentiation of the body under the influence of the sex steroid hormones (testosterone, estrogen, progesterone), typically at puberty. The body normally produces both masculinizing (testosterone) and feminizing (estrogen, progesterone) hormones—the ratio of these determines the relative masculinization/feminization of the body as follows:
      1. Testosterone effects: growth of bodily hair, growth of facial hair, increase in upper body width, increased muscle mass, growth of the larynx leading the voice to lower, fat deposition in abdomen, increased size of penis/clitoris, increase in libido, production of semen/lubrication, increase in sweat and oil production, increase in size of testes and sperm production, irritability.
      2. Estrogen/Progesterone effects: growth of nipples and breast tissue, increase in pelvic width, softened skin and ligaments, increase in subcutaneous fat, fluid retention, cholesterol regulation, fat deposition in hips and thighs, proper spermatogenesis/ovulation, regulation of menstrual cycle, irritability.
  1. Sex Categories: a manner of dividing the sex spectrum into socially-recognized units. In Western societies, there are three sex categories, defined under the authority of medical science as follows:
    1. Endosex female: a person ideally possessing a vagina, labia, a clitoris of less that 0.5 cm at birth, ovaries, a uterus, XX chromosomes, and an estrogen-dominant hormone profile.
    2. Endosex male: a person ideally possessing a penis of length greater than 2 cm at birth, scrotum, testes residing in the scrotum, a prostate, XY chromosomes, and a testosterone-dominant hormone profile.
    3. Intersex: a person whose intermediate position on the sex spectrum fits neither the ideal male or female category, including:
      1. those with intermediate phalloclitoral genitalia;
      2. those with internally ambiguous gonads and/or reproductive anatomy;
      3. those with chromosomal variation (e.g., XY individuals with ovaries, vagina, clitoris; those with atypical sex chromosomes such as XXY or Xo); and
      4. those whose hormone-dominance causes their secondary sexual characteristics to contrast with their primary sexual characteristics.
  1. Social Sex Assignment: the assignment of an individual to a particular socially validated sex, usually at birth.
    1. Binary sex assignment: in Western societies, all infants must be categorized as either male or female on their birth certificates. Those classified as belonging to the intersex category must receive either a male or female assignment.
    2. Other sex assignment systems: other societies have nondaydic social sex assignment systems, such as triadic systems (male, female, other) and quadratic systems (male, female, both, neither).
  1. Gender Roles: cultural norms applied to people of different assigned sexes in a given society, including occupational roles, appearance standards (clothing, grooming, cosmetics), emotional norms, and interests. Gender roles are categorized as:
    1. Masculine: the collection of norms for male-assigned people in a given society
    2. Feminine: the collection of norms for female-assigned people in a given society
    3. Additional gender roles: neutral or additional gender roles specific to a given society
  1. Gender Identity: the subjective experience of identifying with a gender role—the internal knowledge that one is a man, a woman, or a member of an alternative gender.
    1. Cisgender identity: gender identity that matches one’s primary sex characteristics (e.g., a person born with vulva, ovaries and uterus who identifies as a woman)
    2. Ipsogender identity: gender identity that matches one's social sex assignment at birth, when this differs from one's primary sex characteristics (e.g., a person born with intermediate genitalia who is assigned to the female social sex category at birth and grows up to identify as a woman)
    3. Transgender identity: gender identity that does not match one’s social sex assignment at birth (e.g., a person born with phallus and testes who identifies as agender, genderfulid, a woman, etc.), which may lead to:
      1. Gender transition: to move from following one set of gender roles to another, changing characteristics such as clothing, grooming, cosmetics, pronoun used and gender listed on identification; sometimes accompanied by:
      2. Sex transition: to move from one social sex assignment to another through medical treatment with hormonal alteration of secondary sex characteristics, and/or surgical alteration of anatomic sex characteristics (chest, genital, gonadal, laryngeal, etc.)
  1. Gender Expression: individual self-presentation as a member of a given gender, including:
    1. Gender-conforming expression: self-presentation that is strongly in accord with the normative gender role expectations of one’s society;
    2. Androgynous expression: self-presentation which does not align strongly with polarized binary gender roles; and
    3. Gender-transgressive expression: self-presentation that defies the traditional expectations for a person of a given gender identity (e.g. feminine men, masculine women).
  1. Sexual Identity: the gender alignment of partners in sexual attraction, including:
    1. Dyadic sexual orientation frames: in which one must know the binary gender of both individuals in order to classify them as:
      1. Heterosexual: being attracted to individuals of the other binary gender
      2. Homosexual: being attracted to individuals whose binary gender is the same as one’s own (i.e., gay men and lesbian women)
      3. Bisexual: being attracted to individuals of both binary genders
        (Note: some people currently identify as bisexual while rejecting the dyadic sexual orientation frame, redefining the two things referenced in the "bi" of bisexual as "being attracted both to one's own gender, and to people of other genders.")
    2. Directional sexual orientation frames: under which one need only know the gender of the person desired to assign the desiring person as:
      1. Androphilic: being attracted to men
      2. Gynephilic: being attracted to women
      3. (Note: some trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) now claim that this term means being attracted to cis women only; this is emphatically not how the term was devised. TERFs claim that the "gyne-" in "gynephilic" is the root seen in "gynecology", and so means that a person is attracted to women born with vulvas. In fact, "gyne-" is the Greek root meaning "women", and "gynecology" literally means "the knowledge of women." Equating studying female genitalia with knowing everything about women is strange and offensive. So is equating having female genitalia with being a woman. People have genitals but are not defined by them, any more than by their livers.)
      4. Androgynephilic: being attracted to people who are androgynously gendered 
      5. Pansexual: being attracted to people independent of any particular sex or gender status or identity
      6. Note: some individuals have updated the definition of bisexual to mean "being attracted to people of one's own gender and to people of other genders," so that it can fit in the directional framework.
      7. Asexual: having limited or no interest in sexual relations, though romantic interests of any orientation may be as prominent as they are in those not asexual

Initially, the number of categories employed in sex/gender scholarship may seem overlarge to you. After all, you may reason, most people are born girls or boys, pronounced so at birth, identify as such, and generally follow their assigned gender role. In fact, however, the variance is wide, and the terms we’ll use will help us to describe varieties of different experience.

I will illustrate using myself as a guinea pig. One of the reasons I developed an academic interest in sex and gender is that I am among those with quite variant experience. I was born intersex, with atypical anatomy; since that anatomy included an ovotestis I am medically classified as "True Gonadal Intersex.” So, my sex category is intersex, but our American society practices dyadic sex assignment, and I was given a female sex assignment at birth. My gender identity, however, did not develop to match that sex assignment. Although I had a trans gender identity, I continued to live within my assigned sex for decades before I began to gender transition, and later sex transition. My gender expression was androgynously feminine when I lived in my assigned female sex, and is androgynously masculine now that I have transitioned to legal male status. As an intersex person, my sexual identity cannot be understood through the dyadic sexual orientation frame (how can a person who is of neither the male nor the female sex be either straight or gay?). Under the directional sexual orientation frame, I am classified as pansexual. My spouse is an intersex trans woman.

Practice using this system of terms now by considering where your body falls on the sex spectrum, listing your sex category, sex assignment, and gender identity, considering social sex roles and characterizing your gender expression as conforming, transgressive or androgynous (along what dimensions of gender norm expectations do you conform or transgress?), and listing your sexual identity.

A Note on Pronouns

Formal English instruction teaches that there are three gender pronouns: “he,” “she” and “it.”  Note that English-speaking society grants personhood through dyadic gender: people are called “he” or “she,” and only objects called “it.”  To call a person “it” is often considered insulting.  

Many other world languages do not use gendered pronouns (including Polynesian languages, Farsi, Turkic languages, Bengali, Armenian, and many others). Speakers of these languages do not face the difficulty of having to specify a person's gender in order to speak of that person.  

Historically, when a person's gender was not known, English speakers often used "they" as a singular pronoun to refer to the unknown person. But in the 18th century, codifiers of formal English grammar declared that the "proper" English rule was to call the unknown person "he." This patriarchal rule was challenged by feminists for many years. By the end of the 20th century, formal English writing came to use “s/he” instead: “A child must be given the opportunity to tie his or her shoes by him- or herself so that s/he can learn.”  This formal solution is quite awkward. In practical speech, Americans often use the gender-neutral plural pronoun “they” as a singular pronoun instead: “A kid needs the chance to tie their shoes if they're going to learn.” This simple informal solution often continues to be framed as ungrammatical and frowned upon in formal writing, though it has remained a practice since Shakespeare's day. Grammar is always in flux, and the use of the singular “they” should be respected, not just in informal spoken English, but also in formal English contexts. Each time a newspaper article author writes "he or she," seeking to appear inclusive, they actually enact the exclusion of people with nonbinary gender identities. 

Many people with nonbinary gender identities use the singular “they" as their personal pronoun. As an alternative, gender-neutral neopronouns have been introduced in English (and in other languages). There are several alternatives now in use, such as ze/zir/zim instead of he/his/him or she/hers/her. I will use ze/zir/zim at times in this course: “A child must be allowed to tie zir own shoes so that ze can learn.”

I encourage you to try using ze/zir/zim in your course writing when you speak of a person of unknown gender, to gain experience using alternative pronouns, and to practice using them on me. I use ze/zir/zim or he/his/him as my pronouns. 


  1. Just ignore assertions that singular 'they' is ungrammatical, and then it won't be. Language is partly what we make it.

    -- David-Sarah Hopwood (since the logins to LiveJournal, WordPress or Google seem to be broken for me)

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  3. The whole thing is unnecessary complication just to keep academics employed and attack agricultural societies in cultural imperialism.

  4. Gonadal characteristics: differentiation of the fetal ovotestes into testes or ovaries (which occasionally does not occur).

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