Posted by: dacalu | 12 November 2012

Sex, Gender, and Orientation

I’ve noticed that there is frequently some confusion around the topics of sex, gender, and orientation in our society.  The issue is somewhat complicated by personal feelings and societal norms, but I’m going to try to lay out the categories to the best of my knowledge.  I certainly welcome comments.  The important point to be made is that people vary in a number of ways and it’s best not to make assumptions.

There are three main categories:  sex (biology), gender (society), and orientation (affection).

Sex is biologically determined.  It starts with a genetic component; either you have the gene sry (sex-related Y) or you don’t.  Typically this gene codes for TDF (Testes Determining Factor), a signalling protein that causes germ tissue to differentiate into testes, the male sex organs.  The testes produce androgens, hormones that give males male characteristics as they develop.  So there is genetic sex:  you have sry and are male or you don’t and you’re female.  Genetic sex is binary – that is there are only two options in humans.  [Some other species have multiple mating types, but for mammals females are the mating type that produces large gametes, while males produce small gametes.

There is also phenotypic sex (expressed traits).  Not everything in the genetic instructions gets carried out in the same way.  Sometimes genes are damaged, proteins ineffective, hormones not properly received, ….  Sometimes the sry gene gets moved so that you have the male gene, but not other associated genes.  So we see a range of phenotypes.  People who have many physical traits of both sexes are called intersex.  One in 1500 to one in 2000 children are born with sufficiently atypical genitalia for doctors to notice.

Gender refers to the socially constructed expectations for how people of different sexes will act and how they will be treated.  One can distinguish between gender roles – socially constructed categories and how they are attributed to individuals – and gender identity – personal sense of which gender you belong with.  Usually, I will refer to the former as simply gender.  Gender is binary in US culture (male or female), but not in other cultures.  A third gender is common in a number of cultures – fa’afafine in Samoa for example, or “two-spirit” among Native Americans. A kilt (or lava lava) represents a clear distinction between sex and gender. A short skirt is gendered male in the Pacific Islands and Scotland, but female in the US.  Alternatively, we can think of King Hatshepsut and King Tovar, female (sex) rulers of Egypt and Georgia who were male (gender) because that was the only category available for rulers in their cultures.

People are called transgendered when their gender (socially imposed) and gender identity (personal) don’t match.  We call them transsexual when, because of this, they choose to have reconstructive surgery that matches their phenotypic sex to their gender identity.  The idea of “genderqueer” is becoming more popular for individuals who choose a gender identity that doesn’t match either socially accepted gender (male or female).  For the record transvestites, or cross-dressers, wear clothing corresponding to the gender opposite their sex.  Many transvestites have a gender identity that matches their sex more closely than their clothing.  One cannot assume that they are transgender (outside of their clothing choices) or homosexual.

(Sexual) Orientation

has to do with the direction and intensity of personal affection: physical, emotional, psychological, and possibly spiritual. Who are you attracted to?  Sometimes we speak of people being attracted to a sex (men or women), but that’s backwards.  It’s not a question of which sex (or gender) attracts you, but a question of who you’re attracted to and what sex (or gender) they tend to be.  Thus you might make a list of all the people you’ve been seriously attracted to and then see if they all come from one sex (or gender).  For most of us, it’s a list of mostly one or the other.  Remember, there are all kinds of personal affection, not only sexual.  Attraction tends to be complicated.  Heterosexuals find the list primarily includes members of the opposite sex; homosexuals, the same sex; bisexuals, a more even mix; and asexuals, neither.

Physical attraction is once again a biological concept.  Humans experience arousal, a suite of chemical reactions, which prime the body for reproduction.  This includes the reproductive system, but also hormonal shifts, increased blood flow to the skin, and pupil dilation.

Emotional/psychological effects may simply be the experienced mental states associated with physical arousal (if you are a reductionist) or a more complex set of thoughts associated with the mind or soul.  Intellectual and emotional states can direct, as well as be directed by, physical states.

If humans have a proper end for romantic relationships (as many Christians believe) and if we have souls it is possible that there are spiritual cues for which souls attract one another.  This would be a spiritual affection.

This last category begs the question of whether our souls are gendered – whether our sex is an essential character of who we are, or just an accident.  I tend to believe that souls have neither sex nor gender (Mark 12:25: “For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”  Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”) though they are found in bodies that are almost always one sex and usually one gender.  It’s a tricky question.

It’s best not to make assumptions.  Fa’afafine for example are male in sex but fill many female gender roles.  Most Americans are surprised when they find out that a male (gendered) Samoan may date a fa’afafine, but still be considered male.  Other cultures do not have the same gender roles we do.  Even in our country, you can find people with any combination of sex, gender, and orientation.

A last note needs to be made about behavior.  In the context of sexuality, behavior has to do with how you act.  It is possible, actually surprisingly common, to engage in sexual behavior with others for reasons other than affection.  I am not saying I think it’s a good idea, only that I have met many people who have had all levels of intimacy – from an embrace to a long term sexual relationship – for other reasons.  Curiosity, loneliness, sympathy, boredom, and dominance readily come to mind.

As attitudes around sexuality change, we need to be careful about the terminology we use.  Israelite (Old Testament) and Hellenic (New Testament) cultures probably shared our ideas about sex, but had radically different concepts of gender.  To the best of my knowledge, there are only rare discussions of orientation until the late 19th century.  Amidst all of this, there were often strong behavioral norms (but remember, they were based on different concepts of gender).

Frustratingly, as we deal with questions of homosexuality, same-sex marriage in particular, liberals will be talking about orientation, while conservatives will be talking about behavior.  I, for instance, identify as gay (male homosexual).  This is a statement about my affections.  My sexual actions are not a topic for public discussion.  Nor do I appreciate it when people try to turn the conversation in that direction.  Sadly, I only have these words (“gay” “homosexual”) to describe my orientation and many people refuse to accept that I’m not talking about my behavior.

Why talk about it at all?  First, because society benefits from open communication.  How will we learn if we are not open with one another.  Second, because gender identity and orientation are often hidden.  There is an assumption that all people have genders and orientations that match their apparent sex (“heteronormativity”).  Transgender and homosexual (and …) people have to make a concerted effort not to be invisible.  This is important both for the sake of our mental health (matching outside and inside personalities) and for the sake of others.  Many young people dealing with these issues feel terribly alone – even in the United States.  Third, because real spiritual growth happens when people deal with these issues.  My own faith was profoundly impacted by my coming out process.  I cannot share my faith journey (and as a Christian I want to share my faith journey) without speaking about my orientation.

The new usage is the liberal usage – sex, gender, orientation, behavior – and, like it or not, that’s the way we’re headed.  We can switch to that usage now, or wait for another 2 generations to die off, but we’re not going back to a language that cannot describe the complexities of modern life and understanding.  The new usage doesn’t deny traditional prohibitions against same-sex behavior, but it allows us to talk about our varieties of experience regarding expectations, identity, and affections in addition to behavior.

I hope this helps explain the current variety of experience and does something to defuse the egregious (often unintentional) abuses of language that seem to abound.  It’s a complicated and, yes, difficult question.  How do we deal with our bodies, our emotions, and our affections?  We can only have a real discussion, though, if we have terms to talk about the issues at stake.

People are called transgendered when their gender (socially imposed) and gender identity (personal) don’t match.  We call them transsexual when, because of this, they choose to have reconstructive surgery that matches their phenotypic sex to their gender identity.  The idea of “genderqueer” is becoming more popular for individuals who choose to reject both of the popular gender identities.


  1. In light of some of the more unusual kinks, I suspect that the gay/straight/bi/none taxonomy really isn’t adequate for describing orientation. For example, how do we categorize a pedophile who mostly abused boys but also abused girls when they were available? Is that pedophile gay or bi? Personally, I suspect it would be more helpful to take their pedophilia as their orientation. Similarly, for those who like getting spanked, their kink might be best described as their sexual orientation.

    • Sexuality covers the whole range of how we act out our sex, gender, and orientation. Orientation describes to whom we are attracted, not to what. There’s a pretty big difference. “Kinks” refer to a desire to behave in a certain way, rather than an affection for a certain type of person. People feel a need to put themselves in a particular situation. This often has a great deal to do with power dynamics. I suspect that most kinks can work themselves out with time – that is, people who explore their psychological needs in a safe environment with someone for whom they feel affection can discover a greater desire for intimacy than for the particular behavior. Sometimes the behavior becomes less appealing and they stop. Other times, they continue but their focus has shifted.

      Pedophilia is not an orientation. If the interest goes away – if the affection goes away – once the subject has grown, you are not interested in the person, but the body. It’s directed at taking advantage of someone else. Pedophiles are disproportionately men (sex) whose gender identity is masculine and who report affection for women. The incidence of homosexual orientation is lower among them than in the general public. We do a grave disservice to everyone when we compare homosexuality and pedophilia. Homosexuality is an orientation (affection) that leads to physically, emotionally, and (I believe) spiritually healthy and enduring relationships. Pedophilia is a disorder, leading people to an addiction-like state where they pursue a fix that at best can only be satisfied briefly and at the expense of another.

      There is popular rhetoric in this country equating the two, which is why I’m diving into territory I would normally avoid. God help me. Sadly, it needs to be spelled out.

      I should also add that not all homosexual relationships are healthy, just as not all heterosexual relationships are healthy. Relationships are hard, and they require mutual consent and participation to work. It’s true there is a relationship between the desire for a relationship and the desire for sex. It is also true that too many of us can’t seem to tell the difference, but a difference does exist. It can be seen in loving and stable couples whose care for one another results in greater care for the world.

  2. Can kinks be cured in the manner you propose or by some other means? That sounds like an empirically testable proposition, although the incurability of pedophilia and the similarities between your proposed method and those employed by folks who claim to “cure” people of homosexuality are bad signs for the hypothesis. While we’re thinking about it, why assume that kinks are invariably indicative of some sort of mental illness? After all the same assumption was made about being gay, and we now know that was a mistake.

    While I understand why you’re so insistent that being gay and being a pedophile can’t be compared, I strongly suspect that studying a disease state (like pedophilia) can tell us a great deal about the related healthy state(s) (like being gay or straight) although that study does require comparing and contrasting the disease with the healthy example.

    What I don’t get is why we should link sexual orientation with the desire for relationship instead of the desire for sex. It seems to me like it should be the other way round even though relationship is far more important for human flourishing.

    • I never said kinks were mental illnesses or diseases or that they could be “cured.” It’s debatable whether we call psychology empirical, but let’s say that it is. In this case, it would be difficult to establish controls, but I’m all for it. I’m not buying the pedophilia/homosexuality/kink linkage, so your statements regarding their comparability don’t convince me.

      There’s a word for sex – “sex” – and a word for wanting sex – “lust.” Orientation was coined for the sake of identifying an additional dimension and I’d be saddened to find that people simply ignored that aspect.

  3. Would it help if I pointed out that you’ve dropped a crucial part of the linkage? Specifically, heterosexuality.

    As for “lust” being the final word for wanting sex, does it really strike you as plausible that a (probably) straight man, like Gen. Petraeus, would be as likely to have an affair with a man as a woman? It seems to me like lust is oriented such that if a straight man has an affair, he will almost certainly have it with a woman. Or to put it a different way, the heart wants what it wants, and, setting aside for the moment the relationship driven aspects of that wanting, the heart still seems to be more discriminating than our current orientation categories admit.

  4. Sexual orientation covers sexual desires, feelings, practices and identification. Sexual orientation can be towards people of the same or different sexes (same-sex, heterosexual or bisexual orientation). Gender identity refers to the complex relationship between sex and gender referring to a person’s experience of self expression in relation to social categories of masculinity or femininity (gender). A person’s subjectively felt gender identity may be at variance with their sex or physiological characteristics. The specific terms people use and identify with in matters of sexuality and gender identity vary widely from culture to culture. Amnesty International considers people detained or imprisoned solely because of their homosexuality – including those individuals prosecuted for having sex in circumstances which would not be criminal for heterosexuals, or for their gender identity – to be prisoners of conscience and calls for their immediate and unconditional release. The “Yogyakarta Principles on the Application of International Human Rights Law in Relation to Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity” were released in March 2007. Developed by a group of human rights experts, including several UN experts (Special Rapporteurs), members of national, regional and international human rights commissions and the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, these principles apply international human rights law to violations experienced by lesbians, gay men, bisexual and transgender people to ensure the universal reach of human rights protections.

  5. […] matching gender (social role/clothing/…) and sex (biology/anatomy). [For details of language, see here.] Occasionally – when sex obviously does not match gender – a transgender person may have […]

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