In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sex versus Gender

  • Introduction
  • Classic Works

Sociology Sex versus Gender
Jill Conte
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0153


In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a conceptual distinction between “sex” and “gender” arose in the clinical literature on human psychosexual development. Sex came to signify the biological or bodily component of difference, that is, male and female. Gender, on the other hand, came to signify the social or cultural component of difference, that is, masculine and feminine. This sex/gender distinction, as it is often called, was heartily embraced by many feminists of the day who sought to account for differences between the sexes as well as explain and remediate women’s second-class status in society. The establishment of gender as a distinctly “social” concept appealed to feminists because it opened up an intellectual and political space—a space beyond biological determinism—for inquiry into the causes of “male domination” and “female subordination” that were not essential, universal, or fixed. In this space, social change was possible; gender relations could be reconfigured. To that end, the sex/gender distinction became, by and large, paradigmatic in feminist thought and social science, and from it grew a burgeoning body of gender theory loosely characterized as the social construction of gender. Intersectional, post-structural, postmodern, and queer schools of thought produced new insights and advanced theory in ways that posed challenges to the viability and utility of gender as a concept as well as to the sex/gender paradigm. The ensuing debates were highly productive, ushering in a new era of social theory on the body that centered corporeality and embodiment and that sought to deconstruct binary thinking. As thinking on sex/gender evolved, the conceptual split was no longer understood as a simple separation between the biological and the social. Feminist and queer scholars problematized the distinction, reformulating it as an interlocking set of relationships: the sex/gender/sexuality system. Interdisciplinary gender scholars, including prominent feminist scientists, began theorizing the complex interrelationship between sex and gender with greater sophistication in an attempt to more firmly discredit biological determinist approaches to the study of difference based on sex, gender, or sexuality. Advancing theory, research, and praxis has not only deepened understanding about a wider variety of identities, experiences, and practices around sex, gender, and sexuality but has also won greater recognition in the early 21st century for them. This multiplicity of sexes, genders, and sexualities has brought with it unique methodological concerns in the social sciences, which represent a new frontier of research and activism in gender and sexuality studies.

Classic Works

Beauvoir 1953 famously declares, “One is not born but becomes a woman” (p. 267). While this quote implies a break between the biological (“to be born”) and the social (“to become”), Beauvoir 1953 did not yet have the conceptual formulation of sex (the biological) versus gender (the social). Nevertheless, this work deeply influences major feminist thought and gender theory that would follow. The sex/gender distinction wasn’t introduced until the late 1960s, with the original publication of the clinical work Stoller 1968, written by a psychologist and pioneer of the concept of “gender identity” development. Written by renowned sexologists, Money and Ehrhardt 1972 follows with what is now an infamous clinical work that distinguishes sex from “gender identity” and “gender role.” Oakley 1972, Rubin 1975, Kessler and McKenna 1978, and Chodorow 1999 represent some of the earliest feminist works to take up the sex/gender distinction in an effort to theorize the social origin of women’s oppression, now commonly referred to as gender inequality. In these classic texts, the concept of sex remains largely undertheorized and unquestioned, except in the work Kessler and McKenna 1978.

  • Beauvoir, Simone de. 1953. The second sex. Translated and edited by Howard Madison Parshley. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

    Originally published in French in 1949 and released in America as an English translation in 1953, this work predates both the sex/gender distinction and social constructionism. Nevertheless, this highly influential work of early feminist theory argues that the category “woman” is not natural and that women are socially produced beings. Beauvoir lays the foundation for a great deal of subsequent feminist thought on sex and gender.

  • Chodorow, Nancy J. 1999. The reproduction of mothering: Psychoanalysis and the sociology of gender. 2d ed. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    Originally published in 1978, this work seeks to explain why women are primarily responsible for caring for children, and why this persists across generations. Eschewing biological explanations in favor of psychoanalytic theory, it argues that mothering by women affects children’s male and female personality development in particular gendered ways that perpetuate the existing social arrangement. Chodorow importantly connects individual psychological processes to structural gender inequality within families and society.

  • Kessler, Suzanne J., and Wendy McKenna. 1978. Gender: An ethnomethodological approach. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    An early ethnomethodological work that predates West and Zimmerman 1987 (cited under Social Construction of Gender), Kessler and McKenna take as their starting point the claim that “male” and “female” are not self-evident categories. Instead, they are social constructs produced through an interactive ascription process called “gender attribution.” In this sense, gender begets dimorphic biological classifications called “sexes,” and not the other way around.

  • Money, John, and Anke A. Ehrhardt. 1972. Man and woman, boy and girl: The differentiation and dimorphism of gender identity from conception to maturity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

    Groundbreaking in its day, this book brings together theory and research from various scientific and medical fields to outline a theory of “psychosexual” development and differentiation. It distinguishes between “gender identity” and “gender role” and discusses in detail the process of “sex assignment” for children. Like other works of its time, it takes sex and gender dimorphism as a given and pathologizes the diversity of nonbinary states.

  • Oakley, Ann. 1972. Sex, gender and society. London: Maurice Temple Smith.

    Often cited as one of the first works to distinguish sex from gender, it focuses on difference. Oakley’s starting point is the “constancy of sex” despite the “variability of gender,” arguing that sex differences (female/male) are biological while gender differences (feminine/masculine) are cultural, do not map neatly to sex differences, and can be altered. This last point allows for the possibility of gender equality despite enduring sex differences.

  • Rubin, Gayle. 1975. The traffic in women: Notes on the “political economy” of sex. In Toward an anthropology of women. Edited by Rayna R. Reiter, 157–210. New York: Monthly Review.

    Rubin coins the term “sex/gender system” in this influential essay, which draws heavily on Lévi-Strauss, Freud, and Marx to understand the social origin of women’s oppression. The sex/gender system is an array of social, political, and economic relationships that transforms females as biological beings into “domesticated women,” or social beings with exchange value. In this way, gender, in fact, produces sex differences.

  • Stoller, Robert J. 1968. Sex and gender: On the development of masculinity and femininity. New York: Science House.

    One of the earliest clinical works to premise a sex/gender distinction, this book employs the concept “gender identity” to discuss the psychological underpinnings of gender, noting that sex and gender do not neatly map onto one another. Standard for its time, it is highly normative in its approach, pathologizing transsexual and intersex status, for example, as “biological abnormalities” and prescribing therapeutic interventions.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.