On sex and gender identity

Exploring the difference between the two

There appears to be a lot of confusion around the topic of sex, gender and gender identity. The terms get interchanged when they shouldn’t be which hinders a clear understanding of each term. Let’s lay it out starkly first and then delve into how these differ in one’s own experience.

Gender identity is not the same thing as sex. Sex is to do with biology whereas gender identity is to do with the internal felt sense of a type of being. When someone says to a male “be a man” or “don’t be a girl” they’re clearly not referring to their biology but rather are talking about traits or characteristics.

How masculine or feminine do you feel right now? You know, you’ve seen other people who, through their mannerisms and behaviour, you get the sense are feeling sometimes more or sometimes less masculine or feminine. And if you were to reflect carefully, I’m confident you can remember times where you yourself felt less or more of the gender you usually identify with.

How do we determine this? There are certain traits that are associated with masculinity and likewise with femininity (which are socially constructed to be sure). Things like assertiveness, competitive, protective, independent are considered masculine traits, and things like collaborative, nurturing, intuitive, interdependent are considered feminine traits (in western society at least). Here’s an example chart:

Now, consider a mother with a newborn child and how protective she can be. In that moment she’s feeling masculine to some degree! And for someone to look after a small child requires an amount of nurturing – a feminine trait regardless of the person’s biological sex.

It’s normal for this variation in the felt sense of who we are (our gender identity)  to occur. And it has been proposed that the more we develop the more integrated masculinity and femininity become in an individual – i.e. the more we grow the less gender biased in our identity we become.

So this felt sense of gender is a lot more  fluid than our biology. It’s something that changes from moment to moment and where an individual normally sits on this continuum is how they identify gender-wise. Thus a person may feel strongly traits that are typically from both gender categories and therefore have a gender identity that’s “both”. Another person may not feel any of these traits strongly enough to feel identified with them and as a result feel gender neutral or gender none.

To put it another way, the genetics that produced a person’s biological sex only play a small part in how a person feels on the inside as being a part of their self. The environment, including social pressures (i.e. gender norms) and the level of a person’s self sense have a significant impact.

Up until recently traditional social norms exerted a huge pressure to conform to an acceptable binary gender scheme (i.e. male or female, nothing else!), not knowing how to accommodate those whose inner felt sense didn’t conform to that black and white view of the world, and was also not even able to accommodate those whose biology didn’t fit nicely into the binary view either (those who are intersex). The biological non-conformists typically being hidden away in the freak side shows and the gender non-conformists left feeling as if they don’t really fit anywhere either.

But that is changing. The traditional approach is finding that reality usually can’t be forced into black and white pigeon holes. And so those who have been suppressed or ostracised are now finding some freedom to be recognised and seen. Yet the traditional viewpoint isn’t giving up easily, there are still plenty of people whose worldview is being challenged by this more comprehensive way of looking at the issue of sex and gender identity, and are even feeling threatened by it.

If that is you – if you find yourself getting worked up when faced with the notions of intersex, gender fluidity and the like, try this…

  1. Take a deep breath, or whatever works for you to become calm and relaxed.
  2. Look at the list of gender traits/characteristics.
  3. Go inside and see which of these you’re feeling now, which you’ve felt in the past, and which you’re capable of feeling.
  4. Notice how your self can be all of those things, how your capacity and potential in this inner realm of felt sense goes way beyond mere biology.
  5. See if you can feel some compassion for others whose natural felt self sense doesn’t neatly fit into traditional (and limiting) categories.


Dictionary definitions (as used here):


  1. either the male or female division of a species, especially as differentiated with reference to the reproductive functions.
  2. the sum of the structural and functional differences by which the male and female are distinguished, or the phenomena or behaviour dependent on these differences.


  1. either the male or female division of a species, especially as differentiated by social and cultural roles and behavior.
  2. a similar category of human beings that is outside the male/female binary classification and is based on the individual’s personal awareness or identity.

For those familiar with or interested in the Integral approach, sex resides in the upper right quadrant (individual exterior), and gender identity resides in the upper left quadrant (individual interior).

A more comprehensive look at this topic can be found in the book Integral Psychotherapy by R. Elliott Ingersoll and David M. Zeitler.

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