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

Abstract

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.

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Correspondence to Zoe D. Peterson.

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Muehlenhard, C.L., Peterson, Z.D. Distinguishing Between Sex and Gender: History, Current Conceptualizations, and Implications. Sex Roles 64, 791–803 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-011-9932-5

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-011-9932-5

Keywords

  • Sex
  • Gender
  • Terminology
  • History
  • Feminism