Sex, Gender, and Social Construction

Biological Feature

Typical Females

Typical Males





Usually more estrogens (such as estradiol and estrone) as well as progesterone (at least during a phase of menstruation) than typical males.

Usually more androgens (testosterone and dihydrotestosterone) than typical females.



Testes (testicles)

External Reproductive

Structures / Genitalia

Clitoris, labia majora, labia minora (among others). Other structures in this area (known as the vulva) include the vaginal opening, and urinary opening (opening to the urethra).


Penis, scrotum (the sac containing testes), and testes.

The information in this table is derived from: Female Reproductive System, 2019; Flores, 2006, Male Reproductive System, 2016; Harrison, 2018; Hormone Health Network, 2019; Oestrogens, 2010; Oettel, 2004; Sex Chromosome Variations, 2019.

This table lists biological features usually associated with people classified as the female or male sex. Note that this chart does not include all of the biological features typically associated with these two sex categories (for example, females often have a uterus and fallopian tubes, and males have ducts for the transmission of semen from the testicles to the penis). It is also important to recognize that many people do not have these typical features.

For diagrams and further information on the male reproductive system, see the Cleveland Clinic’s Male Reproductive System page. For diagrams and further information on the female reproductive system, see the Merck Manual’s Female External Genital Organs page and the Cleveland Clinic’s Female Reproductive System page.

The Terms: Sex and Gender

Recall that when we use the term “sex,” we are referring to characteristics used to classify a person as female, male, intersex or another category, which are more biological in their scope. And when we use the term “gender,” we are referring to the less physiological aspects used to classify someone as feminine, masculine, androgynous (or another related category). Gender is more socially determined than biologically determined. For example, wearing one’s hair long or wearing a dress is (probably mostly, or perhaps entirely) socially constructed feminine behavior.

Because people may have sex characteristics that are not typically female or male, or their sex identity may not align with their biological characteristics, classifying someone as female, male, intersex, or some other sex category always involves not simply biological facts but human choice.

(See the box in Chapter 1 entitled, “Breaking the Frame: The Concepts of Sex and Gender Blur” for more on how sex and gender are used in women’s and gender studies.)


Most people have twenty-three pairs of chromosomes for a total of 46. Each chromosome contains a DNA molecule which is composed of genes (Chromosome, nd , Gene, nd). For most people, one pair of chromosomes are referred to as sex chromosomes. People typically classified as female have one pair that is XX, and people typically classified as male have one pair that is XY. However, there are other combinations of these so-called sex chromosomes. For example, some people are XXX or XXY, or have a single X sex chromosome (Sex Chromosome Variations, 2019). 


The hormones estrogen and progesterone are often referred to as female sex hormones and the hormone testosterone is often referred to as a male sex hormone, but typical females and males produce all three (Fausto-Sterling, 2008; Oettel and Mukhopadhyay, 2004). In typical females, estrogens influence female secondary sex development including enlargement of breasts at puberty (Oestrogens, 2010) and progesterone is involved in the regulation of menstruation (Oestrogens, 2010). In typical males, testosterone is responsible for penis enlargement at puberty (Testosterone, 2017).

However, Jane McCredie (2011) notes that during puberty, testosterone in both females and males “promotes bone and muscle growth … and is responsible for the emergence of pubic and underarm hair” (p. 104). The biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling (2008) states that in typical females and males, both estrogen and testosterone are important to a variety of organs and processes including “brain, blood cell formation, the circulatory system, the liver, lipid and carbohydrate metabolism, gastrointestinal function, and gall bladder, muscle, and kidney activities” (p. 179). Fausto-Sterling (2008) states that it is better to think of estrogen and testosterone as “ubiquitous and powerful growth hormones” (p. 179) rather than sex hormones.

Not only do females and males produce estrogen and testosterone but these hormones are often converted into one another. Texts often state that ovaries produce estrogen but this is an oversimplification; in fact ovaries make testosterone which is then converted to estrogen (McCredie, 2011). By contrast, testosterone usually influences brain development when it is converted into estrogen (Fausto-Sterling, 2008, p. 224). Such complexities reveal that the popular labels of “female” and “male” hormones are misleading and inappropriate. 


Gonads are organs that produce gametes (eggs or sperm in humans). Females typically have ovaries and males typically have testes -- also called testicles (Harrison, 2018). However, some people who may be classified as intersex may have an ovo-testis (or two ovo-testes) containing tissue that is typical of both ovaries and testes (Ovo-testes, 2018).

External reproductive structures

The appearance of external reproductive structures can be determined by genes and hormones. In the first months of fetal development typical female and male fetuses have the same internal and external reproductive structures (Fausto-Sterling, 2012; Harrison, 2018). Typical male fetuses then produce testosterone and dihydrotestosterone which causes internal and external reproductive structures to develop along the male path, whereas typical female fetuses under the influence of estrogen develop a clitoris and perhaps other external genital features (Fausto-Sterling, 2012; Intersex Disorders, 2003). Many variations from typical females and males are possible. Here are just two possibilities that often result in atypical reproductive structures (that is, external genitalia).

Androgen insensitivity - Some fetuses with XY chromosomes (typical for males) produce atypically low amounts of testosterone and/or their bodies don’t respond to the testosterone in the typical way – which in turn may result in atypically low production of dihydrotestosterone (Androgen Insensitivity, 2003; Phillips, 2007). As a result, such individuals develop external genitals that, to varying degrees, may resemble typical females’ external genitals (Androgen Insensitivity, 2003; Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, 2007; Thangaraj & Rajender, 2009). However, these individuals do not develop ovaries. These variations in sex development are the result of variations called androgen insensitivity, partial androgen insensitivity, or mild androgen insensitivity (Androgen Insensitivity, 2003; Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, 2007; Thangaraj & Rajender, 2009).

Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia - Some fetuses with XX chromosomes (typical of females) produce atypically high androgens and their external genitals may, to varying degrees, resemble typical males (including a structure that may be classified as a penis rather than a clitoris). These variations in sex development are the result of a variation known as Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia or CAH (Harper, 2007).

The Terms: Disorder, Condition, and Variation

References to the biology of the variation of sex development often include terms such as “Disorders of Sex Development” (or “DSD”), or “syndrome” (such as “Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome”). These terms imply that diversity in sex development is a mistake of nature and pathologizes these variations (that is, treats or considers these variations as diseases). While it is true that some variations can be accompanied by medical problems, intersex rights groups often object to the characterization of intersex variation or variations in sex development as inherently disordered. However, activists often recognize the need to use these medical terms in order to access medical services (Frequently Asked Questions, n.d.). Some intersex rights advocates use the term, “Differences of Sex Development” (or DSD) and/or use words and phrases like variation, intersex variation, or diversity to refer to the array of sex characteristics that are possible (see for example, Darlington Statement, 2017; Frequently Asked Questions, n.d.; Malta Declaration, 2013).


Androgen Insensitivity. (2003). In Encyclopedia of the Human Genome. Retrieved from

Chromosome. (n.d.). National Human Genome Research Institute. Retrieved from

Darlington Statement. (2017 March 10). Retrieved from

Fausto-Sterling, A. (2008). Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books. Retrieved from

Fausto-Sterling, A. (2012). Sex/Gender: Biology in a Social World. New York, NY: Routledge

Female Reproductive System. (2019 January 19). Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved from

Flores, J. O. (2006). Sex Hormones Tests. In The Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine (3rd ed., Vol. 4, pp. 3359-3361). Detroit, MI: Gale. Retrieved from

Frequently Asked Questions. (n.d.). Astraea Foundation. Retrieved from

Gene. (n.d). National Human Genome Research Institute. Retrieved from

Harper, C. (2007). Intersex. New York: Berg/Oxford International Publishers.

Intersex Disorders. (2003). In Encyclopedia of the Human Genome. Retrieved from

Male Reproductive System. (2016). Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved from

McCredie, J. (2012). Beyond X and Y: Inside the Science of Gender. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

Oestrogens. (2010). In Black's Medical Dictionary, 42nd Edition. Retrieved from

Oettel, M., & Mukhopadhyay, A. K. (2004). Progesterone: the forgotten hormone in men? Aging Male, 7(3), 236–257. Retrieved from

Ovo-testes. (2018). Intersex Society of North America. Retrieved from

Sex Chromosome Variations. (2019, September 21). Patient Library, Genetic Support Foundation. Retrieved from

Phillips, III, J. A. (2007, June 21). Androgen insensitivity syndrome; AIS. Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man. Retrieved from

Thangaraj, K. and Rajender, S. (2009). Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. In Encyclopedia of Molecular Mechanisms of Disease (pp. 81-83). F. Lang (ed.). Berlin, Germany: Springer-Verlag GmbH. Retrieved from

Testosterone. (2017 October). Hormone Health Network. Endocrine Society. P. Arora (ed.). Retrieved from