Gender, Gender Identity, Sexual Preference, and Sexual Identity: What's the Difference?

Gender, Gender Identity, Sexual Preference, and Sexual Identity_ Whats the difference?

It’s 2018 and we are living in the middle of a gender and sexuality revolution. Conversations about gender and sexual expression are abundant on all sides of the political spectrum. It's an amazing (and sometimes a bit scary) time to be alive! As we learn more and more about gender and sexuality, it can be easy to get a bit lost in the terminology. What exactly is gender? What the heck is the difference between sexual preference and sexual identity? Why does that even matter? We totally get it! It's absolutely normal to feel a bit bogged down by all the language. Luckily, we at Harlot have created a brief overview of some basic terms to help you navigate conversations about gender and sexuality confidently.   

Ready? Let’s jump in!  

Sex, Gender, and Gender Identity

Sex and gender are often - incorrectly - used interchangeably. Sex is chromosomal and assigned to us at birth. We use “male” to refer to those with XY chromosomes and “female” to refer to those with XX chromosomes. Outside of the binary are “intersex” folks, those who have some biological factors that do not perfectly fit into either category. These labels refer only to our biology. They do not speak to our social roles, identities, or our personal expressions. 

Gender, on the other hand, refers to the socially constructed roles, attributes, and behaviors of men and women. The definitions of gender are diverse and change from generation to generation and culture to culture. Here, in the United States, we usually combine sex and gender to define someone. Male biology identities a man, and female biology identifies a woman. This practice is becoming increasingly outdated and inappropriate as we, as a culture, better understand gender as a social construct.

Gender identity can be hard to pin down with a solid definition. The Gender Spectrum Organization defines gender identity as “our deeply held, internal sense of self as male, female, a blend of both, or neither.” I define gender identity as the antithesis of who we are as people. Gender identity is incredibly personal, diverse, and varied. Sometimes, a person’s gender identity aligns with both their biologically assigned sex and socially assigned gender. We can define these folks as “cisgender.” 

Other times, a person identifies as the opposite of their assigned sex and gender. We can define these folks as “transgender.” Some people do not identify as either gender, while others define themselves as a combination of both. Gender identity is a spectrum with an infinite amount of labels and expressions, all of which are just as valid and as beautiful as the last.   

While we could dedicate an entire article to exploring dozens of gender identities (and who knows, we just might!), the best way to learn about the diverse identities is to let the communities define their identities themselves. Check out Refinery29’s ever-growing gender glossary of crowd-sourced definitions to learn more!

Sexual Preference

Sexual preference, or sexual orientation, is primarily defined by who you are attracted to/smooch/have sex with. Straight folks, for example, are attracted to the opposite gender, while gay men are attracted to other men and gay women are attracted to other women. Bisexual folks are attracted to both men and women, and pansexual/omnisexual folks are attracted to humans of all gender identities and expressions. Sexual preference can also be on a scale and may not fit into perfect labels. People that are unsure of what their sexual orientation is may refer to themselves as “questioning” or “curious.” Sexual preference can also be fluid and ever-changing, especially as we age and face new experiences. In general, sexual preference is interpersonal and based on the people you are intimate with.

Sexual Identity

Sexual identity is less about who you are sexually attracted to and more about how you perceive and express your own sexuality. It is how you see yourself as a sexual being and how you express your sexuality to the world. For some folks, this aligns perfectly with their sexual preference, but that's not always the case. I personally am pansexual, but identify as “queer.” This is both a personal decision because I like the fluidity of the term and a political decision because I want to reclaim the term from those who used it as a derogatory term for generations. 

Sexual identity is incredibly personal and is decided by you and you alone. For example, there is a growing number of men who sleep with other men, but do not identify as gay for a wide range of reasons. There is also the case of folks who have never been in non-heterosexual relationship but still identify as queer, bisexual, pansexual, and even as gay. All of these identities are 100% valid! No one but you can decide what your sexual identity is. Viva free sexual expression! Let your freak flag fly! 

NOTE: This is a very condensed overview of some pretty complicated terms! We are constantly learning more about gender and sexuality, so this overview could easily go out-of-date, and we - at some point - may be missing some information. If you would like to add more to the conversation, please let us know! 


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Kora Schultz (they/them) is a loud, genderqueer, incredibly anxious sex education nerd from the swingin' Midwest. They are passionate about LGBTQIA+ inclusive sex ed, youth outreach, women's empowerment, and sex worker advocacy. Most of their free time is spent ranting (and writing) about these topics. 

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