Sex vs gender: down the slippery linguistic slope

Monica Wilkie

02 November 2018 | Ideas@TheCentre

Public discourse is filled with euphemistic language that can make difficult topics more palatable. However, euphemisms can also create more confusion than clarity when the meanings of words become blurred. A clear example of this is in the discussion on gender and sex.

Next month, the Tasmanian parliament will debate the Justice and Related Legislation (Marriage Amendments) Bill 2018. Several media reports have stated the proposed bill will, among other things, remove gender from birth certificates. The bill began as a push to remove an old law that required transgender people to divorce before changing their gender on legal documents; but amendments by the Greens have added in the potential for gender to be removed from birth certificates.

There is just one problem — Tasmanian birth certificates do not currently record the gender of a child. They record the sex. That is, they record the biologically immutable characteristics of males and females, developed at conception from the XY chromosomal determination system.

Prior to the mid 1950s, the term ‘gender’ pertained to language — where some nouns were masculine or feminine. Then psychologist Dr John Money decided that gender applied to human beings and coined the term ‘gender identity’ —  which refers to an individual’s personal view of their sex, without regard to their biological sex.

This is where things start to become a little tricky when we use gender and sex interchangeably. If gender is completely socially or personally constructed and does not bear any relationship to biological sex, what is recorded on a birth certificate should not matter because birth certificates record a biological fact — the sex of a child.

If sex and gender are interchangeable you can argue that gender is biologically determined and sex is social constructed or vice-versa — confusing, I know.

We would all be better served if people were strict in their use of the terms sex and gender and stopped using them interchangeably. This would at least help clarify debate around these issues, which are ill-served by muddying the dialogue.

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