Mommie Dearest: Let’s Talk About The Difference Between ‘Sex’ & ‘Gender’

“So? What are you having?”

Throughout my pregnancy, that was the number one question I received, tied only with: “How are you feeling?” At first I was polite about it, telling folks that it was too early to tell, but that we weren’t finding out anyway until the birth. After I passed 20 weeks, I attempted to answer all the Nosy Nellies as diplomatically as I could. I said that we would be happy with either a boy or girl, as long as the baby was healthy. Yet as my belly expanded, my patience shrank and I found myself coming up with more creative ways to answer the increasingly frequent queries over “what” we were having. “Fingers crossed it’s not a kitten!” was one of my favorite go-to replies.

And, for those keeping track – no, we did not have a kitten, but rather a beautiful baby boy. Still, the questions kept coming. Since we didn’t know if we were having a boy or girl (and because, you know, colors are for everyone), my son wore a rainbow of onesies, which only seemed to confuse folks. Multiple times a day I would have people question why my son was wearing purple. Or pink. Or even yellow. I did not get the same stares or questions when he donned his blue, green or brown onesies. Our society, one that is heavily entrenched in traditional, stereotypical gender roles, seems to want to plug children into these boxes as quickly as possible — even before they’re born — and that can be both frustrating and confusing.

I love how enthusiastic some expecting friends can be, especially when they post ultrasound pictures to Facebook. Granted, I’m the worst at deciphering those images (they usually look like aliens to me), but I’m all for cheerfully liking them and supporting my friends. What I can’t stand, though, is when people confuse “sex” and “gender” – as in “We found out the baby’s gender!” or hosting “gender reveal parties.” It may sound nit-picky, but to someone who’s son — now six-and-a-half — is constantly told that he “looks like a girl” because he dares to step outside these traditional gender norms, it’s a pretty big deal. In fact, even the royal baby got thrown into the debate when issues of sex vs. gender popped up a couple weeks ago.

So here’s a quick and dirty primer: A person’s sex is something we can determine in utero or at birth. Sex is a biological determinant based on a variety of factors present at birth: chromosomes, type of gonads, sex hormones, internal reproductive anatomy, and external genitalia. Gender, on the other hand, is a social construct, and refers to behaviors, attributes and activities that we  as a society  use to classify men and women.

Someone’s sex doesn’t necessarily dictate their gender. A person can be assigned the female gender at birth based on their sexual organs, but be of the male gender.  That’s why when somebody gleefully posts their baby-to-be’s “gender,” I bristle a little at the assumption. Now, I’m certainly not advocating for raising up our babies as gender-less, but I don’t see what’s wrong about thinking a bit more critically about all of this. It’s worth thinking about deeply: why are we so obsessed as a culture when it comes to the sex of our babies? Will we treat them any differently based on what’s between their legs? Unfortunately, various studies have shown that we actually do. There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to know a baby’s sex. I get it. We’re a society that feels comfortable and safe when things are easily defined and labeled. However, when this need to know starts the basis of a lifetime’s worth of gender indoctrination, then we have a problem. If you think strict gender codification with babies isn’t a real thing, think again. I have no issue with allowing little girls to be girls or little boys to be boys, but when we put so much pressure on defining them based on their sex right from the start, we make it that much harder for those who stray outside those narrow boxes. Let’s give our kids the space to figure out for themselves what they want to be and love them unconditionally no matter what.

Avital Norman Nathman blogs at The Mamafesto. Follow her on Twitter.

[Image of a pregnant woman with pink and blue booties via Shutterstock]