Until last year I did not know there was a difference between the terms sex and gender. I feel foolish to say so now, but I’m wondering how many others were just as shocked to learn the two words were not synonyms? I was in a class on how to write history and we dipped our toes into gender and feminist criticisms of historical practices. At the time I was angered by the entire interlude of feminist criticism. Why would I want to learn about feminism? What could feminism teach me about being a woman that I didn’t already know just from being alive? In my mind at the time, women were not oppressed.
When my teacher asked us to define gender and sex I was amazed at how many people were able to contribute to two very distinct definitions. I was even more amazed that two definitions was nothing like I had been taught. Gender as a performance of cultural norms and sex as biology was a new concept. I was raised with such a strong aversion to the word sex that until that moment, it had no other meaning than procreation. Gender was the neutral word my family could say and use comfortably. We never referred to sex to refer to sex organs.
I can’t be the only one who was raised this way. Although I know that it is up the parents to decide when and how they will teach their children sex education, why is there such an aversion to the word sex? If it is more accurate to describe one’s sex then why do we substitute gender?
I wonder if my education on sexuality would have been different had I known that sex was not procreation. If I had known and had been less afraid to explore what sex and gender were, I might not have grown up wondering why I didn’t like men, but that I didn’t like women either. I might not have struggled to find a word to identify myself. I might not have waited until tenth grade to become a comic book fan and buy shirts from the boys’ section. My gender and my sexuality would have been mine to explore earlier in life.
When gender and sex have the same meaning dialogue between parents and their children can never be exact and the crucial stage of questioning sexuality becomes more difficult to reach.
I do not pretend I would have been comfortable if my mom or my brother had used sex as a term for biology, but I would have learned to accept it. I would have grown accustomed to adult language and adult ideas. I would have grown up around feminist ideas whether anyone in the house knew so or not. There is no greater gift to identity than the right words to use and a no-fear attitude toward approaching sexual differences.