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Confused about the words ‘sex’, ‘sexuality’ and ‘gender’? We don’t blame you. Each of these terms means something completely different. They’re complicated concepts, and it can take a while to wrap your head around them. Read on to get the lowdown.

This can help if:

  • you want to know the difference between ‘sex’, ‘sexuality’ and ‘gender’
  • you’re trying to understand your sexuality
  • you’re questioning your sex or gender.
3 teens sitting on curb

It’s complicated

‘Sex’, ‘sexuality’ and ‘gender’ are words that we use to think about our identity. However, the terms are not as simple as you might think. There are billions of us on the planet, each with our own unique identity, so these three terms need to have pretty flexible meanings to account for all of us!

Sex

When people refer to someone’s sex (sometimes called biological or physical sex), they’re talking about that person’s identity based on their physical characteristics (e.g. having a penis, vagina, beard or breasts, etc.), genes and hormones.

Being male or female isn’t the whole story

Many people think of ‘male’ and ‘female’ as the only sexes, but that’s not actually true. Some people have genetic, hormonal and physical features typical of both male and female at the same time, so their biological sex isn’t clearly male or female. This is called ‘intersex’.

Gender

Society often expects people to look and behave a certain way, depending on their biological sex. Men are usually expected to act and look ‘masculine’, and women, ‘feminine’. However, we all express masculinity and femininity in different ways, and we all relate to elements of masculinity or femininity differently.

When society’s expectations about gender don’t fit

Gender is about your sense of who you are as a guy, girl or something else, as opposed to what your physical characteristics, genes and hormones indicate. We usually expect males to feel like guys, and females to feel like girls. But sometimes a male will feel like a girl, and vice versa. Some people identify as both male and female, and others don’t identify as either – and that’s okay, too.

Sexuality

Your sexuality is about who you’re attracted to sexually and romantically. People who are attracted to others of a different sex are known as ‘heterosexual’ or ‘straight’. People who are attracted to others of the same sex are known as ‘homosexual’, ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’.

Sexuality is more complicated than just being gay or straight

Some people are bisexual and like both men and women. Others see sexual attraction and gender as fluid and find labels like ‘straight’, ‘gay’ or ‘bi’ too rigid and fixed. These people prefer to self-identify as ‘queer’.

Not the whole story

Still with us? These definitions don’t cover all the bases, but they’re a good start. You can also try ReachOut NextStep, an anonymous online tool that recommends relevant support options based on your personal needs.

What can I do now?