Sex, Gender and Sexual Orientation

When I facilitate groups I am often struck by the lack of agreement or understanding around sex, gender and sexual orientation. There are even differing opinions amongst experts in these fields. My definition of these terms is based in workability and simplicity; may aim is to support people in understanding their experiences therefore my definitions need to be simple and make a difference in their lives.

When I talk about ‘Sex’ in this context, I’m referring to biological sex ie body. We live in a world that preferences the concept of ‘male – female’, two sexes; the world is mostly designed with boy/ girl clothes, toilets, toys etc and we grow up to be a man or woman. The truth is there are more than two sexes; there are more than just the xx and xy chromosomal pairings, and more than two types of genitals.

Gender, often confused as a term with ‘Sex’, is how we describe our identity in the world. As with ‘Sex’, we live in a world that preferences the concept of ‘man – woman’, two genders; most people dress as a man or woman, and behave in learned ways that identify us as masculine or feminine. The truth is that individuals are free to identify as either man or woman independent of their physical ‘Sex’. We are also free to identify as neither gender, or invent new gender types. Some even self identify as ‘gender fluid’ ie have a movable understanding of their own gender.

Sexual orientation I think of as a continuum that is dependent on the moment that I ask the individual. Only decades ago social norms struggled to accept labels beyond heterosexual. Understanding in this area has grown considerably and now terminology reflects this, including not only heterosexual, but also homosexual and bisexual (all of which are based on the binary understanding of man and woman), pansexual and asexual (to name a few). However, while these labels suggest an individual as always belonging to one group or another, the reality is quite fluid. For instance, it’s common for boys to have sexual experiences with other boys during puberty, and later enter into a marriage with a woman. They may also experiment with group sex and swinging. At any moment in their history, they may be labelled by social norms differently. Like gender, it’s an individual’s choice as to how they define their sexual orientation.

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