What's the Difference Between Sex and Gender?

The IAAF has required Olympic gold medalist Caster Semenya to take medication to lower her testosterone levels—a demand she has actively fought against.
The IAAF has required Olympic gold medalist Caster Semenya to take medication to lower her testosterone levels—a demand she has actively fought against.
MARCO LONGARI/AFP via Getty Images

Though sex and gender are two words that are often used interchangeably, each one has distinct meanings and many different applications.

Biology vs. Society

In addition to the act of “having sex” (you would never say “having gender”), the word sex is used to define the biological designation given to a person at birth, based on things like visible body parts. So a baby born with a penis is labeled a male; a vulva means she is a female. Then there are cases of intersex individuals. According to NPR:

“In the area of 1 in 2000 people are born intersex. These individuals may have mixed genitalia, meaning some combination of ovaries and testes. This comes about either because ovarian and testicular tissue grow together in the same organ or because a ‘male side’ and a ‘female side’ develop in the body.

Other intersex individuals may have genetically inherited chromosomal abnormalities such as congenital adrenal hyperplasia, which may result in masculinization of the genitals in people born with XX chromosomes, or androgen insensitivity syndrome, when the body doesn't respond to testosterone and a person has XY chromosomes and feminized genitalia.”

So what makes sex and gender different? Sex is biological; gender is a social construct. Gender relates to the attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a particular society associates with being male or female.

The Case of Caster Semenya

The Greek-derived word hermaphrodite, which is defined as an organism having external male genitalia and the reproductive organs of a female, is sometimes mistakenly used to describe intersex individuals like Caster Semenya.

Semenya, the Olympic gold medal-winning track star from South Africa, was designated a female at birth and has always identified as a woman. But Semenya is thought to have a condition known as hyperandrogenism, which means that she produces exceptionally high levels of testosterone. As such, the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) has required her to take medication to lower her testosterone levels and to prove she is not a "male" competing in a "female" sport—a rule that Semenya has actively fought against.

In June 2019, Semenya achieved a legal triumph when the Swiss Federal Supreme Court temporarily ruled against the IAAF and determined that the athlete did not need to submit to the organization's medication requirements, but the celebration was short-lived. In late July 2019, a second ruling sided with the IAAF's original regulation. Semenya issued a statement at the time, saying: "I am very disappointed to be kept from defending my hard-earned title, but this will not deter me from continuing my fight for the human rights of all of the female athletes concerned." While Caster continues to appeal her decision, she is now playing football in South Africa.

The Fluidity of Gender Identity

Many track and field fans believe Semenya has been targeted by jealous rivals and overzealous members of the IAAF because of her success. In an interview with Business Insider, Yale University cultural anthropologist Katrina Karkazis expressed concern that the issue in Semenya's case goes far beyond sports and highlights problematic understandings about gender identity.

"It relies on folksy ideas about who's really a woman and what traits make you a woman," Karkazis said.

Gender identity exists on a continuum. According to The Beyond the Spectrum Campaign, a group aimed at raising awareness about the LGBTQ community and enforcing laws relating to gender identity and sexual orientation, there are many gender expressions humans will inhabit. On one end of the range is cisgender, a person whose gender identity aligns with the biological sex they were designated at birth. A bigender person, on the other hand, identifies with both genders and/or has a tendency to move between what are deemed masculine and feminine behaviors.

Gender fluid refers to someone whose gender is not fixed and fluctuates between having a gender and not having a gender or identifying with more than one gender. Gender-fluid individuals often reject gender-specific pronouns and prefer to be referred to as “they” or “them." A pangender person prefers not to be identified as one gender, as they relate to many or all gender affinities and expressions, often at the same time. Writer and musician Chaz Bono, actress and LGBTQ+ advocate Laverne Cox, author Janet Mock, and Olympian Caitlyn Jenner are all well-known transgender people. When it comes to gender, it is the individual who can best determine their true identity.

Ultimately, the best way to distinguish between sex and gender is to remember that the former is biological and the latter is more personal. With greater understanding and acceptance of various gender expressions and sexual classifications, language and societal attitudes will eventually catch up.

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Why Do We Celebrate Christmas on December 25?

If Jesus wasn't born on December 25, does this rule still apply?
If Jesus wasn't born on December 25, does this rule still apply?
Jon Tyson, Unsplash

Each December, Christians throw a collective birthday bash to celebrate the anniversary of Jesus’s arrival on Earth. But without a birth certificate—or any other official record of his actual birthdate—in existence, December 25 seems like an arbitrary day for all our Christmas traditions. So how did early observers choose it?

When Was Jesus Really Born?

Since the Bible doesn’t name a month or even a season for Jesus’s birth, historians have relied on other context clues to estimate when it occurred. Shepherds tend sheep in the Nativity story, which people often cite as evidence that Jesus was more likely born during the spring. Others argue that Israel’s mild winter temperatures allow sheep to graze even in December. According to Slate, it’s also possible that sheep set aside for religious sacrifices may have been given free rein, frigid night or not.

The Adoration of the Shepherds by Sebastiano Conca, 1720.J. Paul Getty Museum // Public Domain

One clue pointing specifically to December 25 comes from the story of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, who approached old age without having given birth to any children. One day, her husband, a priest named Zacharias, was burning incense in the temple when the angel Gabriel appeared to him with good news: Elizabeth would bear a son. Early Christians guessed that Zacharias was probably in the temple for Yom Kippur, which they believed always took place on September 24 (it actually shifts year to year based on the Jewish lunisolar calendar). Nine months after September 24 is June 24, so they chose that as the birthdate—and feast day—of Elizabeth and Zacharias’s son, John the Baptist. When Gabriel later visited Mary to let her know that she’d bear a son, too, he mentioned that Elizabeth was in her sixth month of pregnancy. That means Jesus would’ve been conceived in late March, and born in late December—the night of December 24, to be exact, or the early hours of December 25.

Another theory suggests that Christians arrived at December 25 based on an ancient Jewish idea that prophets die on their birthday. During the 3rd century CE, theologists like Tertullian and Hippolytus dated Jesus’s crucifixion to March 25, since it happened around Passover. But to Sextus Julius Africanus, it was less about when Jesus was born and more about when he first came to Earth; in other words, he believed Jesus’s death and conception coincided on March 25, and thus his birth occurred on December 25 [PDF].

The Early History of Christmas

Even if Zacharias was in the temple on September 24, Gabriel did visit Mary exactly six months later, and Jesus was born right on his due date, it’s still possible that we celebrate Christmas on December 25 for a different reason altogether.

While 3rd-century Christians were busy worshiping the Son of God, some of their pagan counterparts were busy worshiping the Sun God. In the 270s, Roman emperor Aurelian popularized the cult of Sol Invictus, or “The Unconquered Sun,” whose feast day was celebrated on December 25. According to John Carroll University history professor Joseph F. Kelly, other Romans revered a Persian god, Mithra, whose feast day also may have fallen on December 25. There was also Saturnalia, an annual Roman festival that ran from December 17 to December 23. In short, many ancient Romans were well-accustomed to celebrating something in late December by the time Christianity entered the mainstream.

A painting of Saturnalia festivities by Antoine Callet, 1783.Themadchopper, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That happened during Constantine’s rule over Rome in the early 4th century. In 313, Constantine and his fellow ruler Licinius issued the Edict of Milan, which basically legalized Christianity and condemned the ongoing persecution of anyone who practiced it. Constantine was a devout Christian himself, and he spent the rest of his reign spreading the religion throughout the empire. The first known record of December 25 as Jesus’s official birthday is from 336, the year before Constantine died. Because it’s mentioned in a volume containing other important religious dates, some have assumed that a celebration probably occurred on that day, and 336 is often cited as the first known “Christmas.”

Whether Christians celebrated Christmas on December 25 before 336 may forever be unknown, but we do know that the custom quickly caught on (spending the holiday watching A Christmas Story marathon wouldn't come until much later). By the end of the 4th century, Christian bishops were holding Christmas Mass all over Rome, and pagan festivals soon fell out of fashion. The fact that Christmas essentially replaced those earlier December traditions could be a coincidence, but some believe it was by design: Since Romans were already primed for parties on December 25, the Church could’ve been trying to co-opt a built-in subscriber base.

In summary, the origins of Christmas are just as subject to interpretation as Jesus’s actual birthdate—so feel free to play Christmas music whenever you want.

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