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What is the difference between gender and sex? Wiktionary says that gender is The mental analog of sex but that's too high English for me.

Basically, I'm developing a web-application that stores people's profile along with a field for gender/sex. Which name would be more appropriate?

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[UPDATE]

After getting these good answers, I may figure out that,

  1. Sex - Biological characteristics
  2. Gender - Social characteristics

And, well, for my web-application, I went with the term sex, as it sounds more scientific and less political. P.S. Values for sex are clearly defined and can be easily validated (only two values AFAIK* + an optional blank value).

* plus some anomalies.

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I'd highly recommend reading xkcd's treatment of this exact issue. –  fredley Mar 10 '11 at 14:37
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"Sex is between the legs; Gender is between the ears." –  Yahel Mar 10 '11 at 16:03
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@fredley: that's another perfect example of the excessive request of political correctness which goes around these days... if everyone learned to take it easier the world would be a better place. –  nico Apr 28 '11 at 6:08
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@nico It's not about political correctness at all, it's a classification problem. Most places attempt to classify everyone as 'man' or 'woman', when it's a lot more complex than that for a significant number of people. IMO xkcd's take was perfect for the experiment they were running. –  fredley Apr 28 '11 at 9:07
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@fredley - I particularly liked this line: The role of gender in society is the most complicated thing I’ve ever spent a lot of time learning about, and I’ve spent a lot of time learning about quantum mechanics. –  T.E.D. Aug 26 '11 at 13:17

11 Answers 11

up vote 32 down vote accepted

According to APA style, "gender" refers to culture and should be used when referring to men and women as social groups, while "sex" refers to biology and should be used when biological distinctions are emphasized.

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There's a lot of foofarah coming from people in the GLBT communities trying to establish a difference of meaning between these two words that are, in ordinary usage, completely synonymous.

Wiktionary's definition is trying to reinforce that distinction by saying, essentially, that "sex" is what physical parts you have, while "gender" is what sexual category you think you should belong to; thus allowing for males who wish they were females to claim that their sex is male but their gender is female.

For your web application, you can use whichever one you feel is more appropriate. Personally I recommend "sex" because it's only 3 letters long, saving you some keystrokes if you reference the field a lot. :-)

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It is also easy to type with one hand! Hellion's advice is sound, but he has glossed over (slightly) the reality of XXY and XYY individuals which is not a social construct. Many people have no idea such individuals exist. –  horatio Mar 10 '11 at 15:07
    
@horatio I think those cases can be covered by providing appropriate choices in the form, rather than changing the label of the field. –  Agos Mar 10 '11 at 15:15
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@agos: My point was that many people who design forms don't know those choices exist, rather than trying to make any point about form design. –  horatio Mar 10 '11 at 15:19
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You may find it interesting to know that originally these two words were not synonymous; in fact, gender comes from Latin genus meaning "type/kind". It was applied to grammar to refer to grammatical gender, which often includes a sex distinction, but doesn't always (some languages having even a dozen genders). Because some widespread languages have masculine and feminine gender only, the word gender managed to become a synonym for "sex". If it's changed this much already, why not modify gender even further? –  Kosmonaut Mar 25 '11 at 18:56

In this context, I prefer to see the word gender as the label with the two choices offered as alternatives, which makes the meaning quite clear.
Although both have an equivalent meaning in this context, I find gender to be more polite as it cannot be confused with intercourse which is an alternative meaning for sex.
i.e. Two people would not have gender with each other, but they might have sex.

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But then I can’t answer “yes please”. On a more serious note, preferring “gender” to “sex” because of its connotations is even more childish than my joke. –  Konrad Rudolph Mar 10 '11 at 16:47
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@Konrad Some people take it to be vulgar, and if it appears on a web application it might well find itself in childish company. –  crowne Mar 10 '11 at 19:14
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This is why I hate discussing this question, in any forum. This answer was voted up for political reasons. It's what people of certain political positions want to hear, and they voted it up despite the fact that this answer makes a puerile and frankly nonsensical issue about people supposedly confusing the biological sense of sex for intercourse in everyday contexts, in web forms no less. I mean, really? I guess some people want the "right" answer instead of a "good" one. –  Uticensis Mar 16 '11 at 4:20
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@Billare: No, Crowne doesn't mean that people would be likely to honestly misunderstand the question, but rather that some people find certain words offensive or uncomfortable. If you had a reason to ask for ethnic background, would you include a choice of "African-American" or would you use the n-word? If you wouldn't use the latter, is that because you think people would be confused whether it referred to black people or to Irishmen? Or because some people find it offensive? "Sex" is a relatively inoffensive word, but it makes some people uncomfortable because of the double meaning. –  Jay Jan 3 '12 at 5:04

The NOAD defines gender as "the state of being male or female (typically used with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones)."

A further note in the dictionary reports that:

The word gender has been used since the 14th century primarily as a grammatical term, referring to the classes of noun in Latin, Greek, German, and other languages designated as masculine, feminine, or neuter. It has also been used since the 14th century in the sense "the state of being male or female," but this did not become a common standard use until the mid 20th century. Although the words gender and sex both have the sense "the state of being male or female," they are typically used in slightly different ways: sex tends to refer to biological differences, while gender tends to refer to cultural or social ones.

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Sex and gender are two words used interchangeably. Sex refers to the the biological distinction between females and males, which is closely related to reproduction, while gender refers to the social attributes and opportunity associated with being female and male.

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Male and female are sexes, while masculine and feminine are genders. Sexes are nouns -- "I am a male, my wife is a female". Genders are adjectives -- "She has a masculine voice".

You can, of course, say "She has a male voice", but it means something subtly different. "She has a masculine voice" means her voice shares some of the characteristics we associate with being a man. "She has a male voice" means that her voice is in fact a man's voice. (Though it would certainly be interpreted metaphorically.)

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Gender can be masculine, feminine, neuter, or common. –  user64964 Feb 6 at 14:17

Sex refers to the physical sexual organ parts that a human being has. Gender on the other hand refers to the sexuality that a person identifies themselves with.

The choice of term used probably would not matter to a majority of the users, but it is a big deal for certain people. For instance, deviantART used to offer three choices on their user profile field - male, female, and 'unspecified'. They removed the last option in 2010 and it caused widespread outrage among a subset of users, with vocal calls for boycotting deviantART too.

Since listing a range of choices under 'gender' itself can be topic of contention (e.g., what if you 'miss out' a certain gender identity in the list?), one way some web application developers get out of this is by offering an "I do not prefer to say" or "Unspecified" option under a sex field.

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Some sites (eg. Metafilter) just have a free-text field for gender/sex. –  Blorgbeard Mar 10 '11 at 11:23
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Free text runs the risk of people writing "Yes please" because their simple minds think it's funny. –  Omar Kooheji Mar 10 '11 at 11:50
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@omar, isn't it? –  the JinX Mar 10 '11 at 14:08
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I've seen one site that had checkboxes (not radio buttons) for Male and Female. –  Dan Mar 10 '11 at 14:29
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@Omar hah - that's probably why Metafilter calls it "gender" –  Blorgbeard Mar 11 '11 at 10:42

As mentioned before, sex is for the genitals and gender refer to the sexual identity. But I think that you must add a third option to male and female, other since many people doesn't fill associated to this dual characterization. Also, a fourth option I do not prefer to say may be welcomed for political correctness reasons as mentioned by @Ankur.

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Well, if your app is going to be used worldwide, then the choice that you make could potentially have a huge impact. Have you heard of the third gender? Some countries such as Pakistan have officially recognised a third gender amogst their people. The idea may sound bizarre to some western ears, but that's the world for you.

If you are interested in recording biological characteristics, use "sex". If you are interested in social ones, use "gender". Everything else is silly political correctness or plain misinformation.

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Isn't "gender" referring to two separate ideas: 1. the biological one (=sex) 2. the technical term in sociology, so you can of course use it synonymously with sex?

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There are lots of answers, but I'd like to add mine in here, because I strongly disagree with most of the others. The current usage for the younger generations is precisely the reverse of that of our grandparents. @yc01 sums it up well, by putting it exactly backwards to how it used to be just a little while ago. It used to be (and I would go still with this) that sex is a social term, and way of referring to people, whereas gender is the scientific word, the sort of thing used to describe lab rats or people you're dissecting, or a taxonomy on some government paperwork. I avoid referring to someone's gender; it can be a slightly horrid, impersonal word.

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Considering every other answer here disagrees with you haven't provided a reference other than your experiences with "younger generations", I have to give you a -1. No one else I have ever talked to uses it the way you just did. This could be a location specific thing; I can understand a different region ending up with different usage. –  MrHen May 23 '11 at 19:51
    
Point. I've checked it out in the OED then. There aren't many old sources for 'gender' in this use; it's a post-60s new meaning for the word. Gender (3a&b) as used to distinguish between various classes of object or ever profession was common, but the common connotation now of referring to people's sex is indeed new within living memory. In contrast, sex (OED 1-4) is a old meaning. Gender is one of those words like vagina that was originally used a clinical (or in the case of gender sometimes bureaucratic) avoidance but became common. I feel sex is still a somewhat more personal word. –  Nicholas Wilson May 23 '11 at 20:08
    
What is a 'chip mine'? I've never heard that expression before. I agree that 'gender' can sound more clinical/impersonal/technical than 'sex', but it is unclear how OED corresponds. Can you add to your answer something explicit from the OED (I don't have online access to it) –  Mitch May 23 '11 at 21:40
    
Sorry. OED gives “Gender. … 3b In mod. (esp. feminist) use, a euphemism for the sex of a human being, often intended to emphasize the social and cultural, as opposed to the biological, distinctions between the sexes. Freq. attrib.” The full OED, as well as giving defs, lists a pile of quotations for each one to record earliest usage and development. Of the seven given for 3b, the earliest is 1963. –  Nicholas Wilson May 23 '11 at 23:40
    
I would guess our modern use of gender stems from feminism (as suggested), the unwanted connotations of the word sex from that time, and political/bureaucratic correctness using what was a medical word for something they wanted to be coy about. This is turning into more of a rant and debate than I wanted; I'm sorry if just seem to be defending to my point. I just wanted to give an opposing view to the debate. I am realistic about current usage, but the word 'sex' has plenty of historical and cultural sense, so I don't feel too bad for suggesting it. –  Nicholas Wilson May 23 '11 at 23:43

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