It’s not just male/female or man/woman. A beginner’s guide to sex and gender diversity.
There are many men who are male and women who are female. But there is a huge amount of gender and sex diversity which may well include you or your friends too.
It’s a long post, so you can skip ahead with the following headings if you want.
Sex – being male or female
People mostly think about sex as being male or female – that males have penises; females have clitorises. We are often categorised in this way when we are born. People with penises may think their sex is male and their gender is man. Or people with clitorises may think themselves female and their gender is woman. That’s how a lot of people think about themselves, which is totally chill and fine. This is how I think of myself. However, for a lot of people, their sex is more complicated
Many biologists used to think of this ‘males have penises’ and ‘females have clitorises’ idea of sex too. But not so much now. First of all, as I say in this post about genitals, there are many similarities between penises and clitorises. Often the main difference is how much it sticks out of the body.
We used to rely on chromosomes to tell us what sex we are – XX means female, XY means male. However some people can be a combination of those and different parts of the body can have different combinations. Also, how many of us really know our actual chromosome make up? I’ve never had my genes tested. I’m guessing I’m an XY but I could be a Y, or an XXY, IDK.
It’s not just chromosomes either though. Different genes and the different ways and times that hormones kick in means that during puberty and life generally our bodies can develop in ways that we might not have expected. For example in where hair does or doesn’t grow, or what shape our chest, waist or hips might take. So it might be as simple as ‘male’ or ‘female’ to you, sex is a lot more complicated for a lot of other people.
Read this about breasts and chests.
Intersex refers to when there is a natural variation in someone’s genetics, hormones or body, that aren’t what might be described as ‘male’ or ‘female’ (see above).
Sometimes people are aware they are intersex from just after birth. Someone may have different shape or size or combination of genitals. It might be about the shape and size of the penis/clitoris, or where the vagina is. Maybe where the testicles or the wee hole are. But all of this might not be obvious. Babies bodies are very different from adults bodies. Sometimes sex differences only become apparent when someone goes through puberty. Or they are discovered in adults when people go for fertility treatment. Sometimes the variances are not discovered at all.
Biologists are still finding some of this stuff out now and the more they look into it, the greater diversity they are finding. It’s thought that 0.5 – 2% of people don’t fit neatly into ‘male’ or ‘female’. This could turn out to be even higher the more we learn about it.
Some folk choose to identify themselves as intersex, others not. Some people who are intersex identify as cis, some identify as trans, or trans non-binary. It’s very much up to them, so just respect whatever gender they choose.
The problem is not ‘biology’
If there’s a ‘problem’ with this diversity when it comes to what sex we are I don’t think it’s down to genes, hormones and chromosomes but what society expects of people’s sex and gender. It used to be standard practice for babies to be operated on in order to ‘make’ them more female or male. The only reason for this was to avoid the social discomfort of not having a child who is clearly female or male. That’s not a good enough reason. Often these surgeries would actually cause a lot of harm to the child (for more, read this report from Amnesty), so nowadays best practice is to wait until someone is old enough so they can decide whether they want to have any surgery or not.
Of course the other thing that makes it harder for intersex folk is that sex education is soooooo much about penis in vagina sex, which needs to stop right now. If we have a broader definition for sexy times then we can include so many more people (here’s how to work out what sex you might like).
Many people think that people are either men or women. However many people don’t fit neatly into these categories and even if you think you do, when we break it down a bit, you might think differently too. It’s important to learn about this stuff because society is the problem and you are in society which means you can change it.
I’ll explain the different terms for different genders below. If you’re new to all this you might find it takes a while for you to get your head around. However, this is the key …
If someone has told you what gender they are, believe them. No-one should have to educate you about their gender, to explain their sex, to tell you about their genitals or to justify themselves at all.
Most people would probably consider themselves as cisgender (pronounced with an s at the beginning). Cisgender peeps have the same gender they were given when they were born – though obviously they behave in a different way when they get older. Genders are given to babies based on their sex – however a) there are lots of different variations of sex that affect thousands of people (see above) and b) gender is not the same as sex.
Cisgender means someone sticking with the same gender as the one given to them at birth.
We are taught about how to do gender from so many different sources and from a very young age. Because they all say the same thing this is pretty powerful stuff. We are taught that there are only men and women and that they are very different (even opposites). Men and women are then given very strict rules about how they are expected to behave. Men are taught things like ‘be tough, in control and active.’ Women are taught things like ‘be gentle, caring and passive.’ However, men and women aren’t always like this. We’re contradictory and complex because a) we’re, you know, humans and b) we have other identities too.
Spend a couple minutes writing down what is expected men and of women – write two lists. What do you notice about the lists you made? Are they very different? Think about what qualities are important in being a good person or a friend or a partner, how do they compare? Do you fit neatly into one list or the other? Does this change depending on who you are with? If you want to think some more about this visit my What’s Your Gender page.
Trans people have a different gender to the one they were given when they were born. In fact many trans people feel that they were never that gender in the first place. In this brilliant personal piece written by a trans man for BISH, the writer explains how he only started feeling okay about himself when he realised he was a young man.
People might say they are trans men or trans women. Usually trans men like to be called ‘he’ and trans women ‘she.’
Some people identify as trans but live as cis. Others want to live as a their trans self sometimes and their cis self at other times. Often people want to ‘transition’ to live as their trans self. Some trans people decide to go for gender realignment, which is where they decide to have various hormone treatments, cosmetic treatments and sometimes surgery to help them to feel more like themselves. This is available on the NHS (as it should be) but there are long waiting times because of massive under-funding by the government. For more about that visit the NHS page on trans.
People may also want to change their name and their legal identity: such as their name at school/work and the name on their bank cards. If they want to have their gender legally recognised, trans folk can apply for a Gender Recognition Certificate. This involves living for two years as their gender, which is can be difficult because of transphobia, and providing evidence of their gender to a panel of people they don’t know. This is unnecessarily difficult for trans folks and I hope that this is changed soon. More about this from Stonewall here.
Try the Teach Yourself Sex Ed course, it’s free and it will make you
cool an expert at this stuff.
Some people are non-binary, this means that they don’t fit the gender binary of being ‘man’ or ‘woman’. Genderqueer is a frequently used label for this which may include people having no gender or 2 or more genders or being really fluid about their gender. Instead of saying ‘him’ or ‘her’ their pronoun may be ‘they’ (yes grammar pedants, they is a singular word too) or ‘ze.’ Here’s a great interview with CN Lester about being genderqueer.
The terminology for this is quite new, but a lot of people feel this way about their gender. This study suggests around a third of people feel like they are both a man and a woman at times, or neither. Although some of the language is new, non-binary gender is not a new thing at all. The men are men, women are women idea of gender is a very white and western idea which we forced much of the world to adopt when we colonised the world, as this very interesting article points out. In some areas of the world, where this colonisation was resisted, there are very different ideas about gender and certainly more than just two gender identities: ‘two-spirit’, and ‘hijra’ are just two.
People who are trans are discriminated against because of who they are. This might include name calling, or violence, or discrimination, or harassment, or bullying, or a denial of their human rights. Very sadly, many trans people every year are killed just because they fit outside the standard ‘man/woman’ thing. You can see some of the grim statistics for what it’s like for trans folk in the UK in this Stonewall report here.
There’s also a lot of transphobia in the UK media at the moment too. As the excellent Paris Lees says:
It’s just like sexism, racism, disablism, homophobia or religious intolerance. That’s why there is the Transgender Day of Remembrance on November 20th every year.
Born this way?
We don’t choose our genders but they come into being in ways that feel really powerful. It’s a complex mix of our experiences, what society tells us, and what we feel happening in our bodies. It’s important to remember that how we feel about our gender is going to changing and evolving all the time. It’s interesting to think about and you might like to think about it some more. Either What’s Your Gender, or the Gender module of the Teach Yourself Sex Ed course.
Links and support
For more on how to respect a trans gender person go here
Gendered Intelligence who are practitioners educating and supporting young people around gender.
Mermaids offer great support for parents and trans kids.
Stonewall offer support to young LGBTQI folk
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© Justin Hancock, 2022
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Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. He’s a member of the World Association for Sexual Health.