Sex vs gender distinction

It’s that time of the year where we give our final evaluation of students and they do the same. This semester I received an interesting bit of feedback, mirroring the comment a student also made in class. At the time, in speaking about things like the Wikipedia “gender-gap” and online sexism, I thought the student objected to me implying there were only two genders. I thanked the student for the comment, agreeing that both sex and gender are more complex and varied than we often presume. I tried to share my understanding that people often make distinctions between biological sex (genetic and anatomy), assigned sex (at birth), and gender (as expressed). And that although we commonly speak of these as binaries, they are not: as we can see with both the intersexed and genderqueer. I believe this is the mainstream feminist consensus, following the famous “genderbread” model, though there are those who disagree with the gender/sex distinction and object to the genderbread model.

Hence, I took his comment as an opportunity to make this clear, but I did not subsequently make this point every time we discussed “men and women” online. In the feedback, the student wrote, “While claiming to be a feminist, he constantly refers to ‘the two genders,’ rather than the two sexes, which is quite offensive, even after being corrected.” This confuses me. In speaking of the “two genders,” I’m speaking of the performances of traditional masculine and feminine identity and behavior in our cultural context. To speak of the “two sexes” seems irrelevant as we know little to nothing of a person’s biology or particular assignment online, and accepting the (admittedly blunt) dichotomy here seems no more appropriate than with gender. Given we have these two labels, “sex” and “gender,” is the norm to use them to signify a difference of biology/social or dichotomous/non-dichotomous? I’m using it in the former sense, but perhaps the folk who object to any biological distinction have prevailed, and “sex” is simply used for dichotomous assignments?

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