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Gender and sex are two terms that many people misunderstand because they think the words mean the same thing.
Sex is often used to talk about the difference between male and female things. Often, but not always, the things we call female produce eggs and get pregnant, while the things we call male produce sperm and don’t get pregnant.
When we are born, the midwife, doctor or nurse who delivered us will have given us a sex. They did this by looking at our genitals; if you had a penis and testicles, they would have said you were male. If you had a vulva, they would have said you were female.
But some people don’t have genitals that easily fall into either category. These people are often referred to as being intersex, which means their bodies don’t easily fit into either male or female categories. This is why you should never assume what sex someone belongs to, whether you think they’re male, female or intersex.
So what about gender? Well, this refers to the way in which a person feels and thinks about themselves, and the way they dress, speak or move. This can be different to the ‘sex’ they were given at birth. In other words, you may feel female and have a penis, you may feel male and have a vulva or may feel like a mix of the two.
What this all means, is that some people end up feeling like they belong to a different gender from the one everyone expected them to be in when they were born. These people are often referred to as being trans, transgender, or genderqueer. If you feel like you belong to the same gender as the one everyone expected you to be in when you were born, this is known as cisgender or cis.
It can feel very uncomfortable to be put in the wrong gender, because society has very strict rules about what men and women can do and wear, or where they can go.
We tend to expect men and women to behave in slightly different ways. We expect men to be ‘masculine’ and women to be ‘feminine’, but really there’s no real reason for this. Women can be masculine if they want, and men can be feminine. People can be an even mix of the two, or something completely different.
That’s because man and woman are genders. They are social ideas about how people who have vulvas and vaginas, and people who have penises and testicles should behave, but it doesn’t really work like that.
However you think about yourself, always remember that people may not belong to the gender you expect, and that’s fine.
Explore our section on gender which helps to explain more about what gender is and introduces some definitions of commonly used terms. There is also advice on coming out as trans or non-binary and transitioning.
Content reviewed by Kirstie McEwan – Lead tutor in Gender Studies, Cambridge Institute of Clinical Sexology, accredited therapist and trustee of the College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists
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