A colleague of mine sent me a really interesting infographic recently. It illustrates in a very clear way the differences between sex, gender, and sexual orientation. Yes, they’re different… and they’re more complex than many realize. Many people tend to confuse these things or to make untrue assumptions about them.
Sex (i.e. biological sex): Sex refers to what biology gave you in terms of genitalia (penis vs. vagina), reproductive organs (testes vs. ovaries), and chromosomes (XY vs. XX).
Gender identity: This is how you THINK of yourself in terms of gender roles.
Gender expression: This refers to how you demonstrate your gender through how you dress and behave.
Sexual orientation: Refers to who you are attracted to based on their sex/gender.
This infographic is called the Genderbread Person (as opposed to Gingerbread Man, if you didn’t see the connection right away, which I admit I didn’t!), from the social issues awareness website It’s Pronounced Metrosexual. There is another, more developed version of this infographic, a Genderbread Person 2.0, as well, but I preferred to illustrate using the more basic model.
Categorical vs. Continuous Variables
One of the most prominent aspects of this chart, other than making it clear that these four things are distinct, is that it presents sex, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation on a spectrum. Many tend to think of any of these four things as categorical – i.e. you’re simply male or female, gay or straight, etc. In reality, they are, like all human traits, “continuous” or on a spectrum ranging from one extreme to the other and everything in the middle.
For example, most of us assume people are simply straight (attracted to the other sex) or gay (attracted to the same sex). They find bisexuality confusing, assuming that it’s a phase women go through during college or a phase men go through before realizing they’re gay. But, in reality, most people fall somewhere on this spectrum, where they can be completely hetero and never attracted to the other sex, mostly hetero but entertain the occasional attraction to a same sex person, attracted to both sexes equally, or completely attracted to members of the same sex only. I’ve known each of these kinds of people.
Many of us can accept a continuous spectrum for sexual orientation, but have a harder time with gender expression. Shouldn’t men act like men and women like women? Well, how they act depends where they fall on the spectrum. Some women are very feminine in how they dress or behave, while others are less so. Some men are very “typically male,” while others are less so. Most people don’t actually fall on the ends of the spectrum when it comes to gender – we have aspects of masculine and feminine within us, each in our different ways.
It’s also easy to conflate gender expression with sexual orientation. If you see a masculine or androgynous woman, or a man in clothes that don’t fit what many men wear, it’s easy to assume they’re gay. A “lipstick lesbian” has a feminine gender expression but gay sexual orientation, while a “metrosexual” has a more middle-of-the-road gender expression (in personal style only) but a straight sexual orientation.
You’d think sex would be a straightforward categorical trait – you’re either a guy with guy parts, or a girl with girl parts. But there are people born with both sets of parts or other combinations of male and female biology that don’t fit the categorical, either-or mold we’re used to. And they vary in their gender expression and identity.
So What Does This Have To Do With Dating?
More than you might think. How many times have you heard these statements, or something similar?
“What’s up with these bisexuals? You’re either straight or gay… pick a side.”
“Women prefer alpha males, men who are super masculine and will take charge.”
“Beta males are too ‘feminine’ and won’t get the women because they don’t act like leaders.”
“If you want to attract men, you need to get rid of your masculine energy and act in a feminine way.”
Each of these statements reflects more categorical thinking about sex, gender, and sexual orientation. In dating, we try to simplify the complex and come up with a simple algorithm that will guarantee success with the other sex. But THERE IS NO SUCH THING. Hyper-masculine men will attract certain kinds of women, and repel others. More androgynous women will attract certain kinds of men, and repel others.
The alpha vs. beta male mindset is categorical thinking. The feminine vs. masculine energy woman is categorical thinking. It’s also a way to tell people how they “should” behave, how they should represent their gender more “accurately” to find a mate. This is silly. It’s better to know who you are, own in, and find someone who appreciates it.
In truth, everyone has a unique profile in terms of where they fall on the above spectra… and there are people out there who will love and appreciate who you are.
As always, comments are welcome.