So when you strip physical characteristics and social roles away…what exactly is “gender”?

some musings from a private conversation I was having a while ago, about the difference between sex and gender:

In the usual usage, as I understand it: “sex” refers to more “biological” characteristics; it refers to the m/f designation assigned to someone at birth based on chromosomes/hormones/genitalia or some combination thereof. “gender” refers to a persons personal ID as male/female/nonbinary/whatever other label. “gender identity” is usually conceived as separate from “gender roles” (traits that society associates with certain genders(or sexes, depending on who you ask)), “gender presentation” – whether a person has a stereotypically “masculine” or “feminine” visual presentation, clothes, etc.

(However, the ways that “gender” is defined can vary from context – gender in trans identity conversations may differ from gender in gender-discrimination based conversations, etc. The only real constant is that gender is not supposed to be dependent on biology.)

Everything after is my own musings:

However, as to what “gender” is once biological and social attributions are removed is something I’m not clear on, as it appears to just be a word with no given connotations. My personal theory is that in practice, “gender” is an identity comprised of and/or informed by both biological and social considerations such as physical sex and cultural expectations of those sex/genders.

In particular, I think of it as something like this: there are certain physical attributes (such as genitals, hormones, secondary sex characteristics, etc; general “male” and “female” characteristics.), which map to certain gender identities(woman, man, etc.), which in turn map to certain social characteristics (such as behaviors, appearances, roles, etc); exact mappings are determined by social context. A person’s gender is a result of them mapping themselves into this based on their physical and cultural traits, and gender dysphoria can occur when an individuals personal mappings don’t match up with the generally accepted mappings.

I also think that “gender” as a concept of it’s own can’t really ever exist without being a factor of physical sex and or cultural roles; although it may not match up with all of those, without them there is nothing to give it substance. So the differences come from which factors are strongest in a given instance.

This is something I’ve been thinking about lately, and what I wonder is this: since it seems to be a commonly accepted opinion that gender identity should not be determined by either physical characteristics or social characteristics, what is left once you strip those away?

Like, if saying “I am a woman” shouldn’t entail having a typically female physiological makeup, or taking on certain social roles, or certain clothing or behaviors or anything…then what does it mean?

This is something that I’ve been sort of musing about recently with regards to my own gender issues. Because for me, when it comes down to it, the only factor really informing my choice of gender label is my physical sex characteristics. I identify as female because that is the body I have; that is how other people perceive and react to me. Other than that, I don’t have any attachment to the label – I don’t feel like a “woman” or anything. If I were to wake one day with typically male genitalia, I would probably consider my gender male.

If anything, if I were asked what my gender is without regard to social or physical aspects, I’d probably just say “gender apathetic”; although I currently label myself as a “female”, that doesn’t mean anything to me other than that that is how other people perceive me. And because of this, I’ve spent some a lot of time questioning my gender -I’ve wondered in the past if maybe that means that I am trans or nonbinary or something – because there was never any kind of innate sense of “I am a woman”. It was just an identity based on how others saw me.

But even with all that…other identities didn’t make any sense either. Sure, I sometimes have discomfort with my chest and prefer to bind, and I often feel alienated in all female spaces, but…for me that had nothing to do with gender identity. It had to do with either purely physical body image issues or with objections to social stereotypes. Calling myself by another label or changing pronouns wouldn’t make a difference in that (which is the main reason I’ve never really pursued the idea of whether I might be trans – transitioning to another gender identity wouldn’t change anything, and the physical transitions are not really worth the side effects for me, so it’s just not a useful identity. )

So I guess what I’m wondering is…for other people, in your experiences, is there some kind of innate sense of gender other than just physical characteristics and socially attributed roles? I can’t tell whether this is really an issue with the way gender/sex are defined (which is my first impression), or if i just shows that maybe there’s something weird about the way I experience gender.


About Sennkestra

I'm an aromantic asexual and a bit of an [a]sexuality nerd, recently graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in linguistics. When I'm not reading stuff on the internet I like to cook fancy food, watch anime, and make costumes and other arts and crafts projects.
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3 Responses to So when you strip physical characteristics and social roles away…what exactly is “gender”?

  1. Siggy says:

    I don’t have much of an intrinsic sense of being male. But when I’ve thought about it, I would be very uncomfortable being seen as female, or even having a feminine presentation. So I suppose in my case, my gender identity is less about feeling male, and more about feeling dysphoria with any other way.

  2. I think you are using an overly behavioristic model to consider gender. In my own life, it is neither the case that my physiology is considered unambigiously male nor the case that I identify with male gender roles. I wear the clothing I am most comfortable wearing, regardless of the section of the store from which it comes. I am still male, because that is my internal sense of myself. It is generally accepted by most trans people (and psychologists) that internal sense of self is what determines a person’s gender identity, not any outwardly observable qualities like social roles. I am a femme transmasculine person because of my internal sense of self, not anything observable about me.

  3. Yasi says:

    Wow, I never thought I would find someone with this same experience. I also identify as female mostly because it is how others perceive me, but my gender expression is really not that important to me as, say, my romantic orientation. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I really like the way you described “gender apathy.” I feel like … maybe gender is not important to my personally. It might be to others, but I don’t actually care about expressing it, mostly because I don’t know what there should be to express.

    Another things you said rang very true with me: Most of my issue with gender in our society is the stereotypes and image issues. To give you some concrete context, I spent most of my childhood in the “overweight” category. I am also from a culture in which the expectations from a female feel so far away from how I perceive myself.

    So, the (long) answer to your question is that I do not really have an internal sense of being a woman. I never have. It still baffles me when I am expected to do something that is expected of me because of my gender rather than by my actions, thoughts, or decisions.

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