An article entitled 'Sex and gender distinction' on Wikipedia states :

The sex and gender distinction is not universal. In ordinary speech, sex and gender are often used interchangeably. Some dictionaries and academic disciplines give them different definitions while others do not.

In my occupation I sometimes have to identify individuals, name them, describe them to Police and document exactly what I have done.

It seems to me that in the UK at least, and possibly elsewhere, the distinction between sex and gender is blurred and the Wikipedia article agrees.

If I say a person is 'of the male sex' then I understand that I am referring, in fact, to the presence of X and Y chromosomes in the diploid cells of the body and I am making no comment otherwise.

Am I correct ?

  • 1
    Interesting but POB to some extent.
    – user 66974
    Jan 23 '18 at 16:25
  • Unless you are someone that actively supports the various theories recently popularised on gender/sex, it is generally the case that sex and gender are equivalent on general discourse. Whether the scientific definitions are different is generally irrelevant.
    – JDF
    Jan 23 '18 at 16:25
  • @user159691 POB ?
    – Nigel J
    Jan 23 '18 at 16:26
  • 2
    Let's just hope that no 100 gender believers find this post
    – CelticTree
    Jan 23 '18 at 17:01
  • 1
    Possible duplicate of What is the difference between "gender" and "sex"?
    – Tonepoet
    Jan 26 '18 at 5:15

Of course, as you mentioned, "gender" and "sex" can be synonyms.

The definition of the word "sex"

If you are describing the physical appearance of someone's body, the word "sex" is more likely to be applicable than "gender". The technical definitions of "sex" are more complicated than just chromosomes, though, so you aren't actually necessarily commenting on chromosomes when you use the word "sex".

After all, I'd assume you don't look at the chromosomes of these individuals to figure out their sex, right? Rather, humans can be "sexed" with high accuracy through observation of various anatomical features aside from their genitals because humans are a sexually dimorphic species. Of course, there are cases where people are mistaken about the sex of an individual: there's not really any way to eliminate that possibility 100% of the time.

I typed up a few more paragraphs about the biological criteria for determining the sex of an individual, but then deleted them because I doubt they're really relevant.

Knowing the definition of a word like "sex" isn't actually that useful

Legally, the definition of "sex" may be something else again, same for the definition of "gender" and any other terms. If you want to know how to CYA legally, you should talk to a law expert, not an English language expert. In the UK, the "Gender Recognition Act" seems to be one of the relevant laws when dealing with the concept of legal sex/gender.

You seem to allude in your question and comments to complications in using the words "sex" and "gender" in relation to transgender individuals: one thing that I would say you seem to be ignoring or unaware of is that a significant number (not all!) of transgender individuals don't particularly like it when other people bring up the subject of their sex. The term "gender dysphoria" refers to the distress that some individuals feel related to their sex or gender. People may be sensitive about statements that refer to their personal characteristics regardless of their accuracy. My understanding is that some transgender individuals may even feel distressed by references to sex as a binary categorization (even if the sex of those specific individuals is not referenced).

You cannot protect yourself from criticism (or legal prosecution, I imagine, although I am not a legal expert) just by making sure that everything you say is true. An example: the statement "So-and-so is Jewish" might be completely accurate, but still be criticized as anti-Semitic, depending on the context. This has nothing to do with the definition of the word "Jewish"; it's about the social implications of the statement, and how it affects people/how people react to it.


Without giving too much of my opinion, I'd say this confusion is simply the direct result of the times changing.

In recent years, claims have been made that there is actually more than two genders (male and female). Such as this article that claims there are 63 genders.

The dictionary definition of "sex" is:

either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and many other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions.

While the dictionary definition of "gender" is:

the state of being male or female (typically used with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones).

As you can see in the definition for "gender," it directly refers to the "social and cultural differences" instead of the standard "biological ones."

So, with all of this said, let's summarize the entire situation:

When you say "sex," it is inferred that you are referring to either "male" or "female" and there is no room for interpretation.

However, when you say "gender," you may be subject to criticism from those who believe there is in-fact more than two genders.

  • 1
    These were the definitions taught to me 30 years ago in anthropology. A basic lack of understanding of the difference between sex and gender led to the nearly universal use of "male" or "female" as options when asking for gender along with a squeamishness of using the word "sex".
    – Val
    Jan 23 '18 at 16:58

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