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Anthropological Concepts: Sex & Gender

Male and female silhouettes

Anthropology studies the topic of Gender. But, what is Gender? Isn’t that just if you are a male or a female? Well, yes and no.  

First, there is a difference between the terms “sex” and “gender.” Sex is biological and has to do with genetics. Sex is the shape and functioning of our bodies. Sex refers to what kind of chromosomes you have. Are you XX? Or XY? Or something else?  

Gender is the culturally made up behaviors that people take on. Gender is the way each sex is to behave, and what roles they are allowed to play in society. This means that gender is the tasks and activities that the culture has assigned to each sex. Gender is the expectations and behaviors we attach to men and women.  


Sex may seem simple. There are men, and there are women, right? Genetically, females have 2 X chromosomes, while males have one X and one Y chromosome, right? Wrong! That is just a simplified version of what can happen—it’s not the whole truth.

There are more genetic options that can happen besides XX and XY. For example, some people are born with only one X chromosome instead of two. And, some people are only born with one Y chromosome and no X. About 1 in 20,000 men are born with two X’s, and no Y chromosome, and so they are genetically XX like most women. Some women are born with X and Y chromosomes, like most men. 

Other people are born with the XY chromosomes of a male but have something called androgen insensitivity syndrome, so they look female and have breasts and female external genitalia, but have no internal reproductive organs at all. 

Some people are born with three or more chromosomes instead of 2, so there can be XXX, or XXY, or XYY, or XXXXY, and so on. So, there is a range of what can happen with chromosomes, and it is not as simple as having two options: females, who are XX, and males, who are XY. 

Sex and Gender. Two letter X's that look like they are on fire.

You might be wondering, ok, so genetically there are more than two options for people to be but aren’t there only two kinds of internal reproductive organs and external genitals? Just like with chromosomes, this is not true. In many of the cases you just learned about where people have different chromosomes besides XX and XY, the internal reproductive organs may not match what you would expect based on the chromosomes. 

For example, you would expect a female to have ovaries inside her body. But in some cases, they don’t have ovaries and have testes instead. Sometimes, males have female reproductive organs. Sometimes, people have both male and female reproductive organs or neither. So, internal and external reproductive organs are not as simple as a set for males and a set for females. 

These people with different chromosomes, different internal reproductive organs, and/or different external genitalia are called intersexed people. Intersex means a person born with chromosomes, reproductive organs, and/or external genitalia that is not only male, or only female. At least 1% of all people in the world are intersexed in some way, which sounds like a small amount, but it is equal to 75 million people. 

Sex and Gender. Image of a purple strand of DNA and a red background.


Even though things are not as simple as male and female, men and women behave differently. Some people believe this is due to having different biology, but if that was true, all men around the world would behave the same, and all women around the world would behave the same. Anthropological research throughout the world has found out that men and women behave differently in different cultures, and the definition of male and female is different in different cultures as well. 

This means that gender is culturally constructed, meaning culture decides how men should behave and how women should behave. Ideas about gender vary across cultures. So, for example, what is considered a man’s work in one culture can be considered women’s work in another culture. And, what is considered masculine and what is considered feminine varies by culture as well.


To learn more about Sex and Gender in Anthropology, check out Anthropology 4U’s Udemy course called, Exploring Gender Through Cultural Anthropology. 

Just click on this link.

Thanks for reading!