A Word on Gender and Sex

In modern debates over sexuality, few terms have generated more confusion than “gender.” As distinct from “sex” (which focuses on biology), “gender” has to do with socially constructed roles and expectations. These terms are separated in order to emphasize the fact that biological differences alone do not account for all of the differences between men and women in society. For example, it is not strictly a biological fact that women bake for the family, while men grill. Other societies have different expectations on these matters, and the cultural variance shows that these are issues of “gender” rather than “sex.”

So far, so good. The distinction between “sex” and “gender,” deployed in this way, leads to some genuine insight and clarity. But this is not how the term “gender” is normally used today. It was once commonly understood that “gender” was a socially constructed extension of the deeper and more stable reality of biological sex. Nowadays, “gender” is treated as something independent of biological sex, and indeed something more fundamental and important than biological sex.

This is a problem because the concepts of “sex” and “gender” are inevitably involved in the way we order society. Because “sex” is an objective reality, it is a useful category for ordering society. In medicine, in sports, in fashion, in the military, and in many more situations, it is reasonable and beneficial to treat people differently in certain ways according to their biological sex. We have not always been fair in the way we have treated men and women differently, and we must continue to be vigilant against predatory or oppressive behavior towards weaker members of society. Still, the objective reality of biological sex makes it relatively easy to adjudicate questions of fairness.

It is much more difficult to treat people fairly in terms of their “gender.” If we are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of gender, then we may not be able to reasonably treat people differently according to their sex. We must allow biological males to compete in women’s sports, for instance. On the flip side, we may have to unreasonably treat similar people differently. For instance, if hiring a man whose gender identity is “trans woman” increases our “diversity & inclusion” metrics, it is an unwarranted disadvantage to men whose gender identity is male.

If “gender” were something objectively real, like “sex,” then we could navigate all these complexities wisely and fairly with careful thought. Because it is purely subjective, though, there is little hope for fairness, accountability, and agreement in these matters.

Calvin Goligher is the pastor of First OPC in Sunnyvale, California. He and his wife Joanne have five young children.

Related Links

"Courageous Christian Sexuality" by William Boekestein

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self by Carl Trueman

"Identifying Our Identity" by Jared Nelson

Revoiced Spirituality by Jonathan Master

Biblical Personhood & Gender Confusion, with Derek Thomas, Richard Phillips, and Rosaria Butterfield.