06 August 2013

A Brief Introduction to Sex, Gender, Sexuality, and Romance

Note: I made a few edits regarding sex assigned at birth. I had originally intended to explain this concept rather than arbitrarily attribute sex to genitals, but I did not and the mistakes were brought to my attention.


Sex is the way people's genitals lead to social expectations that will be assigned at birth. People born with vaginas tend to be female-assigned at birth. People born with penises and testicles tend to be male-assigned at birth. People born with indeterminate or other forms of genitals tend to be assigned intersex, though many such people will actually be assigned as either female or male and raised as girls or boys.

Gender is individually and socially/culturally determined. Most people identify as men or women —  these are the binary genders — some people do not.

Gender identity is the way a person feels about their gender. It often but does not always correspond to the sex assigned at birth. Many men are male assigned at birth, and many women are female assigned at birth. These people are cisgender, or more specifically, cis men or cis women. Some people who were male assigned at birth identify as women; these people are transgender, and specifically, trans women. Some people who were female assigned at birth identify as men; these people are also transgender, and specifically, trans men. Some transgender people undergo sex-change operations so that they feel their bodies better match their gender identities. Some transgender people do not. Some men have penises and some men do not. Some women have vaginas and some women do not. Gender does not necessarily have anything to do with sex.

Other people, regardless of sex assigned at birth, identify as genders other than men or women. Anyone who does not identify as a man or a woman is said to be non-binary because they do not fall within either of the two binary genders. Another umbrella term for all such people is genderqueer. An umbrella term for all people who are not cisgender is trans* (with the asterisk). Some examples of other non-binary genders are agender, genderless, third gender, two-spirit, genderfluid, or androgynous.

Gender expression is the way a person outwardly shows their gender. This has to do with the way a person chooses to speak, dress, arrange their hair, move, or otherwise use their body. For most people, gender expression matches their gender identity. For people who may be more genderfluid, genderfuck, or androgynous, or for people for whom it is not safe or comfortable to be out about their gender identity, their gender identity may  not match their gender expression.

Sexual orientation refers to the pool of people toward whom a person might experience sexual attraction or desire. Straight (or heterosexual) people tend to be men or women; straight men might be sexually attracted to any woman, whereas straight women might be sexually attracted to any man. Gay or lesbian (or homosexual) people tend to be men or women; gay men might be sexually attracted to any man, whereas gay or lesbian women might be sexually attracted to any woman. Bisexual people might be sexually attracted to any man or woman. Pansexual people might be sexually attracted to people of any gender identity. Asexual people generally never experience sexual attraction toward other people regardless of gender. People who are not straight are sexual minorities by statistical reality. Another term that is controversial in some circles but which has been largely reclaimed to refer to anyone who isn't straight is queer.

Romantic orientation refers to the pool of people toward whom a person might experience romantic attraction or desire. Heteroromantic people tend to be men or women; heteroromantic men might be romantically attracted to any woman, whereas heteroromantic women might be romantically attracted to any man. Homoromantic people tend to be men or women; homoromantic men might be romantically attracted to any man, whereas homoromantic women might be romantically attracted to any woman. Biromantic people might be romantically attracted to any man or woman. Panromantic people might be romantically attracted to people of any gender identity. Aromantic people generally never experience romantically attraction toward other people regardless of gender.

Romantic attraction is not the same as sexual attraction. People may be romantically attracted without ever being sexually attracted, and other people may be sexually attracted without ever being romantically attracted. While romantic and sexual orientations usually align for most people, this is not always the case.

Sexual and romantic attraction are also not the same as sexual and romantic behavior. A gay man might marry and have sex with a straight woman. This does not change his sexual orientation. It only reflects his sexual behavior. An asexual person might have sex with a sexual person. This does not make the asexual suddenly not asexual. It only reflects their sexual behavior. A straight, sexual person might choose never to have sex in their entire life. This choice does not mean that the person has become asexual. The person has become celibate. Celibacy is a choice. Just as someone can attend services or participate in rituals of a religion to which they do not belong without that making the person a convert, a person can engage in sexual activities inconsistent with their orientation and that does not chanage their orientation.

Asexuality is an orientation. Asexual romantic relationships are not platonic friendships; they are asexual romantic relationships. Romantic relationships, whether the people involved are asexual or sexual, are different from platonic friendships.

Sex, gender identity, gender expression, romantic orientation, and sexual orientation are five separate attributes for each person. One does not necessarily follow the other, and there are almost infinite number of combinations of sex, gender identity, gender expression, romantic orientation, and sexual orientation that a person could have.

People can also be monoamorous, or interested and desiring only relationships involving two people (one partner), or polyamorous, or interested and desiring relationships involving more than two people (more than one partner). These designations and desires also have nothing to do with any of the other characteristics already discussed.


Please feel free to correct me in the comments if you feel I have missed something or explained something incorrectly.


  1. Thank you from a bisexual, biromantic, monoamorous cis woman! Very clear and comprehensive. I've saved it to use whenever I'm at a loss for words.

  2. I don't like the general use of cis-, but otherwise think you nailed it. Too often, people unintentionally use cis- in a way that differentiates say men from transmen, furthering difficulties such men (or women in the case of transwomen) have in being seen as simply men (or women). Many trans people don't want to be seen as trans (some do, which is also fine).

    It is less problematic for someone who wants to be seen differently then men or women to say they are trans - that is a choice people can make. But if someone is to say they are cis-, the next question is, "why does it matter to them to differentiate themselves from trans people?". I wrote about this at http://crimeagainstnature.org/2013/07/16/are-we-men-or-are-we-cismales/

    1. Actually, most of the people I see objecting to the term "cis" tend to be transphobic/cissexist cis people, and feel that the prefix is rude and oppressive to them since they feel they are "normal"/"true" men and women. I've seen next to no opposition to the "cis" and "trans/trans*" labels from the trans* (and especially the transgender) people I've heard and spoken to.

    2. The arguments against the term "cis" are problematic for the same reasons some people claim the term "neurotypical" is somehow offensive or demeaning. Neither is a term of judgment or negativity, but claiming that these terms are offensive is essentially reinforcing compulsory cissexuality or able-mindedness (depending on which term we're discussing).

    3. If you didn't read the link I provided, read that first. My argument against cis is nothing to do with thinking it's demeaning (particularly not to cis people).

      The objection is not the standard "I hate being called cis!" objection, which I also find transphobic and I find people using that argument despicable.

      The objection is: If people start identifying as "cis-" in random situations, that will serve to put trans people who don't want to be "out" into the situation of either lying (claiming to be cis-) or saying just "man" or "woman" when asked about their gender and then worrying about how people will respond to it.

      I know several trans and post-trans people that object to the use of cis- in most contexts, as it outs them (particularly post-trans people who no longer consider themselves trans - they feel their body now agrees with their gender expression, as a result of surgery, and are thus no longer trans). In addition, people who see themselves as trans but haven't yet started to express their gender publicly may not want to be in a place where people are identifying themselves as cis-, as they may not be ready to say they are trans- - and saying they are just a man or woman may out them, if everyone else is saying they are cis- or trans-. Certainly plenty of trans people don't mind cis- being used in random situations, but I still think it serves to separate trans and non-trans people when the trans person doesn't desire the separation (for trans people that do desire the separation, use of "trans" can do that).

      I've found younger trans people that are out or people just starting their transition like the cis- prefix.

      I *do* think it can be used safely in limited context. That context is when specifically talking about privilege, but not specifically in identifying one's own gender (more talking about cis vs trans comparison). Of course non-trans also works for that, and I don't see that as particularly judgmental.

      It's different than straight vs gay (which also can out) because in most contexts, people aren't asked for their orientation. But people are asked to identify their gender frequently. I will never identify as cis or trans unless there is a demonstratable reason why it is relevant. To me, asking this if you aren't actually making decisions based on this (outside of research or medical, I don't see anyplace where it is relevant) is discriminatory against the trans person.

      So my argument - informed by opinions of trans people on this - is not "I hate being called cis because it makes me sound diseased" or whatever. It's "I want to build an environment where trans people, if they choose, can participate fully without feeling that I'm drawing a distinction between them and non-trans people when it is not relevant."

    4. Joel, I appreciate how you put your argument together. In addition, or maybe as a companion to your comments, I prefer not to use cis- or trans- unless it is important in the particular conversation. It's like I rarely announce that I'm poly or queer. It usually doesn't matter to the situation or conversation.

      At the same time I'll specifically state here that I don't mind being called cis when it's significant. All it means is that I happen to identify as the same gender the doctor told my parents when I was born.

    5. One place where trans significantly differs from gay, poly, queer, etc, is in the sense of identity. Someone gay who wants to live as gay will be obviously gay, and won't be trying to say they are just like straight people. Someone who is trans on the other hand might want to live as (for example) a woman, not as a trans woman, as their authentic self. This is different than the authentic gay who wouldn't be trying to live authentically as a straight person. And that's the big problem treating trans in the same way as gay/straight/poly/etc. But, yes, when it's significant, I'll grit my teeth when I hear cis- (for two other reasons - first, it's often used in a context that confuses sex and gender, but I can live with that; second, cis- and trans- leave a third group of people out - people who have transitioned and no longer consider themselves trans and don't want to be differentiated from their gender).

      But, yes, I don't take it as an insult.

      I find non-trans is not problematic in the same way. But if I'm talking about the privilege of living as a person born with body parts living a life that society thinks matches those body parts, I think cis- is insufficient to describe that. For example, a butch lesbian may be cis-female but at the same time she is likely living in a way that is gender-inappropriate and "like a man" in many people's eyes - so is dealing with *exactly* the same prejudice that a trans person is, so saying she has cis- privilege is not exactly true in many circumstances (albeit there are still differences but the root of the prejudice is that she's "supposed to live like a woman" which is exactly what a transman will hear for prejudice. The only differences I can see where it may still be relevant is discussion with a doctor, but Australia figured that out and instead describes anatomy and parts (if you have a prostate, you need a prostate exam - it's nothing to do with being cis- or trans- or whatever else, and being told someone is cis or trans doesn't help you know if they have a prostate).

      I'm trying to figure out where cis- is appropriate (where it won't alienate post-trans people) and can't really think of any place where it is appropriate (that said, I can accept it for shorthand in cis vs trans in general discussion, but still feel that post-trans people should be included, as should others that face the discrimination of the same character as trans people but are labeled cis - they shouldn't be erased).

    6. (I should say I am using trans when comparing to a butch lesbian in a general way, not specifically talking about transsexuals, but rather including many trans identities, such as genderqueer or genderfuck or androgynous)

  3. I'm actually going to have to disagree with you about penis=male and vagina=female. This idea is known as the "sex binary," and it's cissexist - it excludes trans people who don't alter their genitals, but still consider themselves women or men. It also places cis people as the ideal/default, since it maintains the idea that to have a vagina is female and to have a penis is male.

    This is why many people prefer terms like "AFAB/AMAB" ("assigned female-"/"assigned male at birth")rather than "female-bodied" or "male-bodied." After all, if some women have penises, what makes a penis less "female"?

    "Male" and "female" are constructs as much as "man" and "woman"; there's no reason genitals have to be either intrinsically.

    1. I still maintain that penis is male, but has nothing to do with gender. Some men have penises and some men do not. Gender (man, woman, or any of the myriad gender identities that exist) has nothing to do with sex. Sex is simply what genitals a person has. It does not necessarily reflect the person's gender identity.

    2. Let me clarify or rephrase that again -- I agree that penis usually results in male assigned at birth, and vagina results in female assigned at birth. That is the concept I have attempted to explain. Do you think I have been unclear?

    3. This video explains the sex/gender distinction well: http://youtu.be/xXAoG8vAyzI

    4. @Lydia, I'd say a typical looking penis results in male assignment. Lack of an apparent penis results in female assignment, even without a vagina. Sex seems to be defined as "has or doesn't have penis" to most people. Lots of intersex people are assigned female because that surgery is easier, even when there is other evidence they are male. Sex assignment of babies is very penis-focused. But sex assignment is a whole other topic that is way too big for the comments section.

    5. The problem here is that the original blog post links genitalia to the concepts of "male" and "female," rather than stating, "having a vagina = AFAB." 'Assigned female at birth' and 'female/female-bodied' are not interchangeable because it is fluid and debatable what constitutes a "female" body (and the concept of designated "male" and "female" bodies is integral to the meaning of "male/female-bodied").


      There is nothing inherently "male" or "female" about body parts, so writing "people who have X are male" is not accurate and is cissexist. I understand that "male"=/="man" in this context. However, the terminology is still inaccurate and sex binarist.

  4. Wait, so there is such thing as "heterosexual-panromantic?" So I didn't make that up when I started questioning? Odd. Thanks for the resource, I'm sharing this with my school's GSA!

  5. I thought that I was bisexual... realizing that I am gay/heteroromantic is like the worst feeling I've ever had...

  6. awesome blog all around, you are an inspiration! just wanted to bring up some further issues here

    i know a good number of trans people who have major problems with the asterisk in "trans*" - short version is that it's a tumblrism that only serves to lump trans people in with drag queens and other unrelated groups. for a far stronger and more detailed argument, please read this: http://killallmensheviks.tumblr.com/post/53062494180/the-case-against-trans-the-politics-of-erasure

    perhaps even more importantly, the trans community has increasingly moved away from the whole gender/sex distinction in recent years. it's shaky from a scientific standpoint, as there is no one physical characteristic that makes someone objectively "male" or "female". and from a social standpoint, this concept has created a hierarchy where some are seen as "more man/woman" than others (e.g. female gender with SRS > female gender without SRS)

    the increasingly popular belief now is that there is no gender/sex divide, there is only gender

    hope this helps! thank you so much once again =)


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