Medically Reviewed by Dr Danae Maragouthakis
Gender and sex – they're the same thing, right? Nope! Gender is different to sex. While two people may have the same biological sex, they can have different genders. Don't believe us? Ask the World Health Organisation:
The World Health Organisation regional office for Europe describes sex as “characteristics that are biologically defined, whereas gender is based on socially constructed features. They recognise that there are variations in how people experience gender – based upon self-perception and expression, and how they behave."
Only the person themselves knows and decides their gender identity.
This article will discuss what gender identity is, how gender is on a spectrum, and why STIs don't care about your gender – only your bits.
What is Gender Identity?
There are an infinite number of genders.
This is a fact that some people find hard to accept. The reason for this is that many people have been brought up only knowing about two genders: male and female. The concept of gender identity isn't new – in fact, the term was first used in the 1960s by an American psychiatrist and psychoanalyst named Robert Stoller – but it's certainly new-ish in its growing (but still not quite wide enough) acceptance.
What makes gender so complex is that it is entirely independent of a person's genitals. In other words, just because someone has a vagina does not mean they are automatically a woman. Likewise, just because someone has a penis does not make them automatically a man.
This leads us to gender identity.
Gender identity is the personal sense of an individual's own gender. This can be different from a person's sex, which is assigned to them at birth. It's important to know the difference between sex and gender identity because they don't always match up.
The Spectrum of Gender
Most people identify with the sex they were assigned at birth: male or female – these people are sometimes termed “cisgender”. It’s unclear how many people in the UK identify as being cisgender or any other gender, however, the 2021 census introduced a new question specifically asking about gender identity, with the results due later in 2022. Gender identity is a personal feeling, and it can change, evolve or fluctuate over time. A person can identify with more than one gender, often referred to as "gender fluid."
When gender is considered on a linear spectrum, it may have people who identify as male on one end and people who identify as female on the other. Between the two are an infinite number of equally valid genders. However, gender is more complex than this and may be best understood using a Venn diagram - including those who identify as transgender, non-binary, intersex, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, agender, and more.
The most important thing to remember is that each person is the best judge of their own gender. If someone tells you that you are not the gender you identify as – they are wrong!
Gender vs. Sex
There are a few key differences between gender versus sex that you should know about. First and foremost, sex is typically determined by your biological makeup, right down to the chromosomes you have in each cell in your body. Whereas gender is determined by your social and cultural roles. Sex is determined by chromosome: males are XY and females XX. In the vast majority of people, the set of reproductive organs they have at birth corresponds with their chromosomal makeup. There are a few notable exceptions, for example, intersex people. Gender is something that you develop over time. Additionally, sex is usually binary (male or female), while gender is fluid.
For example, someone can identify as male even though they were born with anatomically female reproductive organs, or have a female chromosomal makeup. And finally, gender can be changed or expressed in a variety of ways (through clothes, hair, makeup, etc.), but chromosomal sex cannot be changed.
~Cue record scratch~
But, wait - why do they call it a "sex change" operation then? When a person makes the decision to have genital reassignment surgery, they aren't technically able to change their sex… Rather, they are going through gender reassignment surgery.
We hope that clears up any confusion.
Gender vs. Sexual Orientation
Sexual orientation, put simply, is who you find sexually attractive. Again sexual orientation can be considered on a spectrum, you can be attracted to the opposite gender or sex from yourself – termed “heterosexual”, or perhaps you’re attracted to the same gender or sex as your own – termed “homosexual”. But again, there’s so much more to it! There is a spectrum from asexual, to bisexual, to pansexual… and more! Like gender, sexual orientation can change, evolve and fluctuate over time – and again is a personal preference which can only be decided by the person themselves.
STIs Don't Care About Your Gender Identity
Now comes the difficult part of the article. The part where we tell you that STIs really don't care what your gender identity is. They only care about your bits and how much havoc they can wreak on them! Okay, that's a bit harsh. But truthfully, it really doesn't matter to an STI whether or not you are cisgender or gender fluid. STIs are, unfortunately, terrible for everyone!
Even though members of the LGBTQ+ community are disproportionately affected by STIs, they can affect anyone who is sexually active. The best way to protect yourself from an STI is to use protection every time you have sex – yes, even oral. This includes condoms, dental dams, and gloves. If you think you may have been exposed to an STI, it's important to get tested as soon as possible.
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Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of the differences between sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation. We also hope that you understand the importance of getting tested for STIs on a regular basis, regardless of your gender identity or who you’re having sex with!
We wish you a safe and happy Pride celebration, and we hope to see your flag flying high!
For more information about STIs, check out our full sexual health blog.
You can order your at-Home STI testing kit here.