Answers to questions on sex, gender, biology and identity

We answer the questions that get asked most often

Sex Matters has written a set of frequently asked questions which seeks to provide answers in everyday language about the material reality of sex, and the idea of gender identity.

The aim is to provide clear starting points for debate and discussion, for anyone trying to understand the competing claims around these issues.

The idea that people might have a concept of themselves that differs from the material reality of their sexed bodies took hold in the 1960s as doctors sought to explain patients who insisted they were “really” women, despite being male. Over time this self-concept became known as “gender identity” and spread from American university campuses to academics, clinicians and officials across North America – and then beyond – who adopted the idea that everyone has a gender identity, and that “transness” is the experience of having a gender identity that differs from your sex.

This is a belief system. In reality sex remains binary and immutable. It is not “assigned at birth” but observed. Although in many circumstances (like deciding who is the best person for a job), a person’s sex doesn’t matter, in others (like deciding who to remind to get tested for prostate cancer) it matters a lot. 

We argue that people’s feelings about gender should not be permitted to override the material reality of sex in places where sex matters, such as single-sex spaces, services and sports, and healthcare.

Reality-based language is also crucial to support an evidence-based approach by medical professionals to treating people who feel distress about their sex. It is a fundamental change in the nature of medical treatment to treat bodies as less important than identities and to use hormones and surgery to try to make people’s bodies conform to an inner sense of how they should be.

In discussions of these issues, the same questions are asked again and again, and the same wrong answers are given. One of the worst examples is the use of “differences of sexual development” (DSDs) as talking points to confuse people into thinking that sex is a spectrum not a binary. 

In writing these FAQs we have drawn on material produced by CAN-SG, the Clinical Advisory Network on Sex and Gender, which has kindly allowed us to rewrite and simplify its source material. 

We will be producing legal FAQs later this year.