Saturday, 14 November 2009
But the complaints, unless there has simply been a collective decision not to publish them, seem to have stopped. This suggests that “gender” is now accepted as a synonym for “sex”, particularly in social or cultural (as opposed to biological) contexts. It may be because it is useful to be able to make this distinction. It may also be because “sex” has become so associated with the act of having sex that some people prefer “gender” as less smutty: in an article on the subject, Rutgers English professor Jack Lynch imagines the frustration of pollsters after “finding the "Sex" blank on a form filled in with "Yes, please" for the jillionth time”.
“Gender” hasn’t edged out “sex” entirely – “sexism”, despite dating back less than a hundred years in its present sense, is firmly ensconced in the language, as are phrases like “sexual politics” and “single-sex school”. But in many other phrases, particularly newer ones or ones to do with feminism, “gender” may make more sense than “sex”. “Gender diversity” is much less ambiguous than “sexual diversity”, which is now almost always used to mean “diversity of sexual orientation”. And “sex studies” would mean something entirely different from “gender studies”.
Although the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that “gender” is a “modern euphemism” for “sex”, it cites examples of the usage going back to the fourteenth century. In 1709, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (above) wrote that “of the fair sex… my only consolation for being of that gender has been the assurance it gave me of never being married to any one among them”, while an 1896 edition of the Daily News expressed the admirably enlightened opinion that “as to one's success in the work one does, surely that is not a question of gender”.