Let’s start with the basics: Your ‘gender’ is not the same as your ‘sex’.
Your 'sex' is based on your biological attributes – your chromosomes (XX and XY type stuff), physical anatomy and characteristics. Sex is what's often referred to with the words male, female and intersex.
On the flip side, 'gender' is the socially learnt roles, norms, stereotypes and expectations that we consider appropriate for men and women because of their biological sex. We learn to be girls and boys who grow into men and women.
So gender is often the stuff where we say "Girls just like..." or "Boys prefer..." or "Girls just aren't good at..." or "Guys just really do better at..." This stuff isn't about the individual person, it's assumptions we make based on gender stereotypes.
The most traditional version of gender only has two options (called the gender binary):
- Male (sex) = man (gender)
- Female (sex) = woman (gender)
But this isn’t the case for everybody. Some people assigned “male” at birth don’t feel that the gender of “man” is right for them, and likewise many assigned “female” at birth don’t feel that “woman” is their gender.
Ever heard the terms trans, transgender, gender diverse, genderqueer and gender non binary? These are some terms used by people whose gender identity doesn’t ‘match’ with the ‘traditional’ gender binary. Watch Trans101’s great video for more on this.
Ok... but what’s the big deal?
Gender expectations can be really limiting and even super dangerous. This doesn't mean gender is "bad" or that it always causes problems, but there are some serious bits we need to be aware of.
It’s really important that we don’t box people into male/man or female/woman if that doesn’t work for them. It’s up to each individual to determine their gender, their interests and we’ve all gotta respect that.
Limiting our options
Society often teaches us that our roles are being the leader and sporty OR being nice and caring for children. We’re also told that to fit into society’s gender roles we should be muscly and fearless OR be pretty and caring.
Notice that without us even saying, you know which of these describes traditional ideas of men vs. women?! That’s gender (not biological sex) in action.
It doesn’t mean if you’re a guy and you do like sport that it's bad, it just means that you should be doing speckies because you like it and not only because you’re a guy.
The dangerous side
Gender stereotypes can mean we do things that we assume are ok because of the ideas we've been taught about "what boys do/think/like/want" and "what girls do/think/like/want". INSTEAD we should be asking and listening to each individual person, because we're all heaps different.
For example, lots of us are taught that guys are entitled to sex and girls exist to give it up - just think of the stud v slut stereotypes out there! But these ideas risk violating consent because they focus on assumptions about "girls" rather than teaching us to talk to each other as individuals. (And remember, sex without 100% consent is sexual assault. Read more articles on consent.)
Want another example? Guys are taught to hide their feelings and keep it all in. So when things get shitty they often don’t reach out. Sadly this is a big part of why suicide rates are really high for young guys.
A huge part of creating happy and safe relationships (of all kinds – sexy, friends, siblings, work etc.) for ALL OF US is breaking down gender stereotypes so that we get rid of these bits that are putting us all at risk.
SO, ultimately it's about respect. Respect each other for who we all are as individuals. Respect our right to determine our identities, including gender. Respect.