Sexual Identity, Gender Identity, and Sexual Orientation
Sex vs. Gender
The terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ may seem to be interchangeable, especially in western cultures, but in reality they refer to two completely different things. Sex is purely biological. It is determined by physical characteristics including sex chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, internal reproductive structures, and external genitalia. As soon as an individual is born, they are identified as either male or female. Gender is more complex. It not only includes physical attributes but also the interaction between those traits and a person’s sense of self, identification as being male or female as well as how an individual presents himself or herself to the world (Gender Spectrum, 2012).
Sexual Identity involves the level of comfort with, or range of acceptance of, an individual’s biological sex at birth (Campo-Arias, 2010). It is developed during puberty and becomes more apparent as teenagers start to feel sexual attraction. Curiosity about sex is a normal part of human development. For those teens that question his or her sexual orientation it could lead to coming out to family and friends which in turn could result in rejection, feelings of isolation, and depression (This Emotional Life, 2011).
According to Campo-Arias (2010) gender identity is “the degree of acceptance or discomfort which an adult manifests in terms of behavioral and emotional characteristics expected for a person, according to biological sex, to show within the interaction with other people” (p.g. 180, para 4).
For the majority of people his or her gender identity will be the same as his or her biologically determined sex. Through the socialization process, children are taught what is expected, and accepted, of them as a boy or girl virtually from birth. By the age of three most children display behaviors and select activities typical of his or her sex, but that is not always the case. Children are also aware by age three of what gender they identify with. For those that fit in with society’s expectations for his or her biological sex the meaning of gender probably will never be questioned. After all, they fit the mold (Gender Spectrum, 2012).
Even though gender diversity has been documented across cultures and recorded throughout history it is still not easy for those who do not fit in with what society deems as ‘normal’. Individuals who identify with a gender different from his or her own sex can decide to change their sex to match the gender they identity with either superficially with hair styles, behaviors, and clothing choices, or more permanently with hormone therapy or surgery (Gender Spectrum, 2012).
Whereas sexual identity refers to an individual’s comfort level with his or her own biological sex, sexual orientation focuses on the biological sex of the person who an individual is sexually attracted to. There are three options that fall under the classification of sexual orientation. They are heterosexual, bisexual, and homosexual. Heterosexuals are attracted to people of the opposite biological sex, homosexuals are attracted to those of the same biological sex, and bisexuals report being equally attracted to both (Campo-Arias, 2010).
According to researchers, sexual orientation is influenced by biological, genetic, or hormonal factors during critical stages of development. From a social and cultural context how an individual expresses his or her sexual orientation is associated with the type of environment he or she was raised in, which would not only take into account social and cultural features but also religious and political elements as well (Campo-Arias, 2010).
Culture shapes the ideas of what behaviors are acceptable for men and women as well as what behaviors are appropriate between men and women. Gender identity and culture share a strong connection as they affect daily life not only in the home and family but also in the workplace and community. Though there are some variances from culture to culture, most have some type of labor division that signifies what tasks or jobs are appropriate for a man vs. those that are appropriate for women. While there are differences, there are consistencies as well. For instance women tend to have less autonomy, fewer resources, and limited power concerning decision making (Schalkwyk, 2000).
There are many references to sexual orientation throughout history, but even with that being the case those are involved in same-sex relationships are not always accepted as equals by different cultures, and in many case, are discriminated against or punished. This issue is still considered controversial today even though the attitude of people from different countries around the world has improved (Vance, 2011).
One controversial aspect is whether or not same sex relationships are because of choice or a natural occurring difference. In some countries it is assumed that the lack of available women is a factor in why men engage in same sex relationships. For instance, some cultures keep young women in seclusion until they are of an age to marry. Same sex relationships are seen as a type of practice preparing men for the future role of husband. Once married, the behavior is no longer acceptable. However, among all cultures there are same-sex relationships even when there is not a shortage of opposite sex partners. This inconsistency has caused many cultures to question cultural assumptions (Vance, 2011).
Another issue pertains to the assumption of male superiority that many cultures portray. Men are expected to be more masculine and women more feminine. Men considered less masculine are seen as being less of a man, while women who seem less feminine are assumed to be trying to take over the man’s role in society. In both cases the reaction is negative (Vance, 2011).
While there has been much debate, and some confusion, about the differences between sexual identity and gender identity as well as how these concepts influence sexual orientation, identity formation is considered to be a significant part of an individual’s socialization (Browne, 2008). Cultural influences play a large part in this process as culture defines acceptable behaviors for men and women (Schalkwyk, 2000). While some cultures continue to question an individual’s right to express him or herself as he or she sees fit, others are starting to understand and accept those who fall outside what traditionally has been considered normal. Culture changes occur slowly, but they do occur, in reaction to shifts in social and economic pressures, globalization, new technologies, armed conflict, and changes in laws (Schalkwyk, 2000). At some point these changes may promote a better understanding of individual differences as well as worldwide acceptance for everyone, no matter what sex or gender they identify with or what sexual orientation category that fall into.
Browne, K. (2008). Sociology. Retrieved on November 25, 2012 from
Campo-Arias, A., (2010). Essential Aspects and Practical Implications of Sexual Identity.
Retrieved on November 26, 2012 from http://redalyc.uaemex.mx/redalyc/pdf/283/28316817011.pdf
Gender Spectrum, (2012). Understanding Gender. Retrieved on November 26, 2012 from
Schalkwyk, J., (2000). Culture, Gender Equality and Development Cooperation. Retrieved on
November 22, 2012 from http://www.oecd.org/social/genderequalityanddevelopment/1896320.pdf
This Emotional Life, (2011). Adolescence: Sexual Identity. Retrieved on
November 22, 2012 from http://www.pbs.org/thisemotionallife/topic/adolescence/gender-identity
Vance, N. (2011). Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Sexual Orientation. Retrieved on
November 22, 2012 from http://www.scribd.com/doc/52800453/5/Cross-Cultural-Perspectives-on-Sexual-Orientation#page=43
Johnd780 on July 16, 2014:
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voidist on May 17, 2014:
This article is good for describing general terms and patterns, but it leaves out a huge thing: nonbinary gender identities. There are people who don't, consistently or ever, identify with just male or female. Examples include people who are agender (genderless), genderfluid (shifting genders), or pangender (all genders at once).
This also relates to sexual orientation because there are far more than three. Pansexuality is being attached to all genders including nonbinary ones, while a nonbinary person might also be androsexual (attracted to men) or gynosexual (attracted to women), because "hetero" and "homo" don't make sense with all genders.
Another thing is asexuality, which means someone is not sexually attracted to anyone, although some asexuals still experience romantic attraction. This is often overlooked and considered to not actually exist, but it is more prevalent than people think and deserves recognition.
For a more complete understanding of gender and sexuality, it's best to consult people of the LGBTQA community, either directly or through resources like AVEN, the Asexuality Visibility and Education Network. AVEN is great because it has information about all gender identities, sexual orientations, and romantic orientations, including those I haven't been able to include here.
Once again, good article, but it's important to be comprehensive in discussing these concepts in order to promote wider acceptance of the LGBTQA community, including the lesser known minorities.
Jennifer L. Black (author) from Normal, Il on March 17, 2014:
Thank you. People have always interested me. Trying to understand different aspects of the human experience is a lifelong activity for sure.
Cecile Portilla from West Orange, New Jersey on March 17, 2014:
Very true that culture plays a significant role in people's ability to express their sexual orientation. Without cultural acceptance many would by forced to suppress the dictates of biology, hormone and genetics. Voted up!
Jennifer L. Black (author) from Normal, Il on March 17, 2014:
Thank you! I really appreciate your comments. It is something that interests me a lot as well. I will checkout the article you suggested.
mariexotoni on March 17, 2014:
Wow this article is absolutely excellent- right up my alley. I think gender identity is extremely interesting in how it affects our lives. If you're up for a read, this is an interesting article from Psychology Today:
I thin this has a lot to do with the rates of women in STEM fields- and we certainly need more diversity in these fields. Especially physics- but that's a whole other topic!
Great article, voted up. Got my brain juices flowing :)
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 17, 2014:
Understanding cultural differences is so vitally important in the world today....unless we find some way to bridge the gaps, true understanding will never occur. That is why articles like this one are so important. Well done!