What is “Sex”?

Let’s Learn

Get your mind out of the gutter! I am not talking about the physical act of sex. This post defines, in my words, what is biological sex.

“Sex” refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women.

– WHO “What do we mean by Gender & Sex

I feel that this definition is a bit too simple. Everyone knows that we can’t generalize stuff like that 😛 😀

So, here’s how I define biological sex –

Sex” refers to the biological and physiological characteristics such as anatomy, chromosomes, and hormones that defines a person as a male, an intersex person or a female.

– Color Me Gay!

If you compare the two definitions, you’ll notice the differences and similarities. I have kept the original “biological and physiological characteristics” because that is how sex determination occurs. I have also qualified those characteristics in a simple way – anatomy, chromosomes, and hormones. Some biologists further qualify those into primary and secondary sexual characteristics; but I won’t do so for the sake of simplicity.

Sex Spectrum

The second difference is that of the binary. WHO’s definition assumes a sexual binary; ie, there are only two sexes – male and female. It excludes intersex people and everyone else whose “biological and physiological” characteristics do not fall squarely into male/female. By including intersex people in my definition, I acknowledge that there are more than two sexes. I would also point out that sex, like any other identity, is a spectrum.

So, a penis (anatomy) isn’t the only thing that defines a person as a male; although, it is a pretty big indicator (pun intended). Similarly, facial hair, deep voice, etc (hormones)…also known as secondary sexual characteristics…aren’t a 100% way of pointing out a biological male. And finally, an XY 23rd chromosome set is also not a fool-proof way; although, like the penis, it is a good indicator. What I mean to say is, all three taken together are the only way to determine the biological sex of a person.

In most cases, doctors just look at one of the three characteristics and declare, “Congrats! It’s a xyz!” It just goes to show how the sexual binary and misinformation about sexes is deeply institutionalized. In cases of ambiguous genitalia, doctors even resort to sex assignment or genital mutilation. This may cause problems for the child later if their assigned sex does not align with their gender identity.

Now, of course, there is a difference between sex and gender. I will elaborate more on that in a separate post. Enough food for thought in this one post, already.