Sex Roles

, Volume 64, Issue 11–12, pp 791–803 | Cite as

Distinguishing Between Sex and Gender: History, Current Conceptualizations, and Implications

  • Charlene L. Muehlenhard
  • Zoe D. PetersonEmail author
Anniversary Paper


Many psychologists, particularly feminist psychologists, have drawn a distinction between the term sex and the term gender. The purposes of this paper were to review the history of this distinction and to illustrate the varied and inconsistent ways in which these terms are used. Historically, this distinction began with John Money and his colleagues in the 1950s (Money et al. 1955a, b, 1957); they used the term sex to refer to individuals’ physical characteristics and the term gender to refer to individuals’ psychological characteristics and behavior. Two decades later, Rhoda Unger (1979) argued that the widespread use of the term sex implies biological causes and promotes the idea that differences between women and men are natural and immutable. She proposed the use of the term gender to refer to traits that are culturally assumed to be appropriate for women and men. Her work was influential in prompting a widespread shift from the use of the term sex to the use of the term gender in psychological texts. Nevertheless, current definitions of sex and gender vary widely. Some authors use the terms interchangeably. Of those who distinguish between the terms, most construe gender as more related to cultural influences and sex as more related to biology. There are numerous inconsistencies in authors’ definitions, however. Additionally, in some cases, there appears to be a mismatch between how researchers define sex or gender and how they measure it. It seems likely that the distinction between the term sex and the term gender may become less meaningful and important over time.


Sex Gender Terminology History Feminism 


  1. American Psychological Association. (2010). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.Google Scholar
  2. Basow, S. A. (2010). Changes in psychology of women and psychology of gender textbooks (1975–2010). Sex Roles, 62, 151–152. doi: 10.1007/s11199-010-9744-z.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bem, S. L. (1974). The measurement of psychological androgyny. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 42, 155–162. doi: 10.1037/h0036215.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  5. Chrisler, J. C. (2007). II. The subtleties of meaning: Still arguing after all these years. Feminism & Psychology, 17, 442–446. doi: 10.1177/0959353507084323.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Chrisler, J. C. (2010). In honor of Sex Roles: Reflections on the history and development of the Journal. Sex Roles, 63, 299–310. doi: 10.1007/s11199-010-9826-y.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Colapinto, J. (2000). As nature made him: The boy who was raised as a girl. New York: HarperCollins.Google Scholar
  8. Crawford, M. (2006). Transformations: Women, gender, and psychology. Boston: McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
  9. Deaux, K. (1993). Sorry, wrong number—A reply to Gentile’s call. Psychological Science, 4, 125–126. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.1993.tb00474.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Denmark, F. L., Rabinowitz, V. C., & Sechzer, J. A. (2005). Engendering psychology: Women and gender revisited (2nd ed.). Boston: Pearson / Allyn & Bacon.Google Scholar
  11. Diamond, M. (1982). Sexual identity, monozygotic twins reared in discordant sex roles and a BBC follow-up. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 11, 181–186. doi: 10.1007/BF01541983.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Diamond, M., & Sigmundson, H. K. (1997). Sex reassignment at birth: A long term review and clinical implications. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 151, 298–304.Google Scholar
  13. Donelson, F. E. (1999). Women’s experiences: A psychological perspective. Mountain View: Mayfield Publishing Company.Google Scholar
  14. Ehrhardt, A. A. (2007). John Money, Ph.D. Journal of Sex Research, 44, 223–224.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Etaugh, C. A., & Bridges, J. S. (2010). Women’s lives: A psychological exploration (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.Google Scholar
  16. Fausto-Sterling, A. (2000). Sexing the body: Gender politics and the construction of sexuality. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  17. Fowler, O. S. (1875). Creative and sexual science, or, manhood, womanhood and their mutual inter-relations: Love, its laws, power, etc.... as taught by phrenology. New York: Fowler & Wells, Publishers.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Garcia-Falgueras, A., & Swaab, D. F. (2008). A sex difference in the hypothalamic uncinate nucleus: Relationship to gender identity. Brain: A Journal of Neurology, 131, 3132–3146. doi: 10.1093/brain/awn276.Google Scholar
  19. Gentile, D. A. (1993). Just what are sex and gender, anyway? A call for a new terminological standard. Psychological Science, 4, 120–122. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.1993.tb00472.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Glasser, H. M., & Smith, J. P., III. (2008). On the vague meaning of “gender” in education research: The problem, its sources, and recommendations for practice. Educational Researcher, 37, 343–350. doi: 10.3102/0013189X08323718.
  21. Goldberg, W. A. (Ed.). (2010). Current directions in gender psychology. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.Google Scholar
  22. Golden, C. (2008). The intersexed and the transgendered. In J. C. Chrisler, C. Golden, & P. D. Rozee (Eds.), Lectures on the psychology of women (4th ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.Google Scholar
  23. Haig, D. (2004). The inexorable rise of gender and the decline of sex: Social change in academic titles, 1945–2001. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 33, 87–96. doi: 10.1023/B:ASEB.0000014323.56281.0d.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Helgeson, V. S. (2005). Psychology of gender (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River: Pearson.Google Scholar
  25. Holmes, M. (2007). What is gender? Sociological approaches. Los Angeles: Sage.Google Scholar
  26. Hubbard, R. (1990). The political nature of “human nature.” In D. L. Rhode (Ed.), Theoretical perspectives on sexual difference (pp. 63–73). New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Hyde, J. S. (2007). Half the human experience: The psychology of women (7th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.Google Scholar
  28. Hyde, J. S. (2010). New directions in the study of gender similarities and differences. In W. A. Goldberg (Ed.), Current directions in gender psychology (pp. 180–187). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.Google Scholar
  29. Kames, H. H. (1774). Sketches of the history of man [electronic resource]. Vol. I. Edinburgh: W Creech.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Kantor, J. R. (1936). An objective psychology of grammar. Bloomington: Indiana University Publications.Google Scholar
  31. Kruijver, F. P. M., Zhou, J., Pool, C. W., Hofman, M. A., Gooren, L. J. G., & Swaab, D. F. (2000). Male-to-female transsexuals have female neuron numbers in a limbic nucleus. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 85, 2034–2041. doi: 10.1210/jc.85.5.2034.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Leuba, J. H. (1900). The personifying passion in youth, with remarks upon the sex and gender problem. Monist, 10, 536–548.Google Scholar
  33. Lips, H. (2008). Sex and gender: An introduction (6th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
  34. Lorber, J., & Moore, L. J. (2007). Gendered bodies: Feminist perspectives. Los Angeles: Roxbury.Google Scholar
  35. Matlin, M. W. (2008). The psychology of women (6th ed.). Belmont: Thomson.Google Scholar
  36. McHugh, M. C., Koeske, R. D., & Frieze, I. H. (1986). Issues to consider in conducting nonsexist psychological research: A guide for researchers. American Psychologist, 41, 879–890. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.41.8.879.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Money, J., & Ehrhardt, A. A. (1972). Man & woman, boy & girl: The differentiation and dimorphism of gender identity from conception to maturity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University.Google Scholar
  38. Money, J., Hampson, J. G., & Hampson, J. L. (1955a). An examination of some basic sexual concepts: The evidence of human hermaphroditism. Johns Hopkins Hospital Bulletin, 97, 301–319.Google Scholar
  39. Money, J., Hampson, J. G., & Hampson, J. L. (1955b). Hermaphroditism: Recommendations concerning assignment of sex, change of sex, and psychologic management. Johns Hopkins Hospital Bulletin, 97, 284–300.Google Scholar
  40. Money, J., Hampson, J. G., & Hampson, J. L. (1957). Imprinting and the establishment of gender role. Archives of Neurology & Psychiatry, 77, 333–336.Google Scholar
  41. Pressey, L. W. (1918). Sex differences shown by 2, 544 school children on a group scale of intelligence, with special reference to variability. Journal of Applied Psychology, 2, 323–340.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Pryzgoda, J., & Chrisler, J. C. (2000). Definitions of gender and sex: The subtleties of meaning. Sex Roles, 43, 553–569. doi: 10.1023/A:1007123617636.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Rider, E. A. (2005). Our voices: Psychology of women (2nd ed.). Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.Google Scholar
  44. Rosenblum, K. E., & Travis, T.-M. C. (2003). Framework essay. In K. E. Rosenblum & T.-M. C. Travis (Eds.), The meaning of difference: American constructions of race, sex and gender, social class, and sexual orientation (3rd ed., pp. 2–37). Boston: McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
  45. Rothenberg, P. S. (2004). Race, class, and gender in the United States: An integrated study (6th ed.). New York: Worth.Google Scholar
  46. Rubin, G. (1975). The traffic in women: Notes on the “political economy” of sex. In R. R. Reiter (Ed.), Toward an anthropology of women (pp. 157–210). New York: Monthly Review Press.Google Scholar
  47. Smith, B. (2007). The psychology of sex and gender. Boston: Pearson / Allyn & Bacon.Google Scholar
  48. Stewart, D. (1828). The philosophy of the active and moral powers of man (Vol. 1). Boston: Wells and Lilly.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Sumner, F. B. (1898). A statistical study of belief. Psychological Review, 5, 616–631. doi: 10.1037/h0073257.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Sympson, S. C. (1999). Validation of the domain specific hope scale: Exploring hope in life domains (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Lawrence: University of Kansas.Google Scholar
  51. Topp, S. S. (2010). Rhetorical interactions of social movement organizations in a movement: A study of the intersex rights advocacy movement (Unpublished dissertation. Lawrence: University of Kansas.Google Scholar
  52. Tylor, E. B. (1871). Primitive culture: Researches into the development of mythology, philosophy, religion, language, art and custom (Vol. 1). New York: Brentano’s.Google Scholar
  53. Unger, R. K. (1979). Toward a redefinition of sex and gender. American Psychologist, 34, 1085–1094. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.34.11.1085.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Unger, R. K., & Crawford, M. (1993). Sex and gender—The troubled relationship between terms and concepts. Psychological Science, 4, 122–124. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.1993.tb00473.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. West, C., & Zimmerman, D. H. (1987). Doing gender. Gender and Society, 1, 125–151.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Wood, J. T. (1999). Gendered lives: Communication, gender, and culture (3rd ed.). Belmont: Wadsworth.Google Scholar
  57. Yoder, J. D. (2003). Women and gender: Transforming psychology (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River: Pearson / Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
  58. Zhou, J.-N., Hofman, M. A., Gooren, L. J. G., & Swaab, D. F. (1995). A sex difference in the human brain and its relation to transsexuality. Nature, 378, 68–70. doi: 10.1038/378068a0.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Psychology and Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality StudiesUniversity of KansasLawrenceUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyUniversity of Missouri–Saint LouisSt. LouisUSA

Personalised recommendations