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What exactly is sex assignment and when is it determined?

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Jul 19, 2022

What exactly is sex assignment and when is it determined?
  • In our gender-binary-ruled world, many people confuse ‘sex assigned at birth’ and ‘gender’ as one in the same thing. However, sex and gender are two different categories, and not everyone identifies with the gender associated with their assigned sex.

    Understanding what sex assigned at birth truly is can help us understand the importance of distinguishing it from gender. 

    If you are a new or upcoming parent, understanding the relationship between gender and sex assigned at birth can help you raise your child(ren) to be healthy kids and adults.

    Keep reading to learn if sex is assigned at birth, how it’s different from gender, and what to know about gender when raising a child 🙂

    Sex vs. Gender

    Although sex and gender are often used interchangeably, they are, in fact, two different categories. Sex refers to someone’s sex assigned at birth by a medical professional based on physical characteristics.

    Gender, however, is a lot more complicated than sex. Gender has more to do with one’s social status and expectations for one’s role in society based on their assigned sex. 

    The most common gender identities are male and female, and both have unique societal expectations about how they’re supposed to act, think, dress, and more. Gender is often presumed by sex, however many people don’t identify with the gender associated with their assigned sex. For example, you may be assigned female at birth but spend your life feeling that you don’t belong to the binary genders.

    Gender identity is how someone feels about their own gender, regardless of physical characteristics or societal expectations. Someone’s gender identity could be male, female, both, or neither. An individual whose gender identity aligns with their assigned sex is called cisgender. Someone whose gender identity is the opposite of their assigned sex may identify as transgender. Someone who identifies as both or neither binary genders may identify as genderqueer, gender fluid, non-binary, or choose not to label their gender identity.  

    Overall, sex has to do with physical characteristics, and gender is a social construct designed to categorize individuals based on sex. Although they can be related, they are two different categories, and many people do not identify with the gender associated with their assigned sex.

    Is Sex Assigned at Birth?

    Yes, newborn babies are assigned a sex by medical professionals at birth. This assigned sex is based on physical characteristics like genitals, sex organs, and chromosomes. For instance, if a baby has a penis, their sex is assigned as male, and if a baby has a vulva, their sex is assigned as female. 

    Even sex isn’t binary, as 1.7 per cent of babies are born with multiple sex organs or varying chromosomes. In this instance, the baby’s sex assigned at birth is intersex. Sex is listed on a baby’s birth certificate and on other legal documents throughout their life. 

    ‘Sex assigned at birth’ and ‘assigned sex’ are more accurate terms than ‘biological sex’. Biological sex is not a fully comprehensive term to describe sex because it doesn’t account for the physical variations that can occur. Using the term ‘assigned sex’ also reminds us that this label was something assigned to us– not something we necessarily identify with ourselves. 

    Why do We Have to Assign Sex?

    There’s no clear reason as to why we have to assign sex at birth. Some may argue that assigning sex at birth is essential for children to receive proper medical care from youth into adulthood. Many people also believe it is best to choose a sex or gender at birth so their child can grow up “normally.” 

    Others argue that maybe it shouldn’t be ‘normal’ to force children into a category that dictates their lifelong role in society, often in oppressive, rigid ways. Some people are even pushing to not assign sex at birth, as it can have negative consequences if it doesn’t align with the child’s true gender identity in the future. 

    Is Gender Assigned at Birth?

    Although a gender label may be assigned at birth socially, by parents, family, or doctors, gender is personal and internal, and it can’t be determined by outside forces. Nonetheless, gender is, more often than not, societally or legally assigned based on a baby’s sex.

    Parents, however, do have the option to refrain from determining their child’s gender at birth. If a birth certificate has a gender category, some parents may indicate ‘X’ or ‘N/A’ to not officially assign them a gender. This allows children to discover their own identities as they experience the world around them and grow into themselves.   

    Should I Choose the Gender for my Child?

    Although sex is assigned by a doctor, parents don’t have to let that affect how a child identifies. Allowing your child to choose their own gender identity as they get older can be beneficial to their well-being.

    Raising a child gender-neutral doesn’t mean you can’t use she/he pronouns or let them play with gendered toys. It simply means you’re remaining open and receptive to however your child chooses to express their gender.

    Parents might be afraid that raising their children without gender influence could lead them to be outcasts, confused, insecure, etc. Children are very impressionable, and things like gender have a big influence on them, so it’s understandable for parents to be concerned about making the ‘wrong’ choice.

    However, the reality is often the opposite. Children who are raised without the limitations of how they should act/be based on gender roles are able to grow up free to be their true selves. They’re able to figure out for themselves what their identities are, rather than just what they’re supposed to be. 

    Providing this unconditional love and support to your children can help them grow into some of the healthiest, happiest adults out there. The reality is that many kids and adults do not align with the genders, gender identities, and gender roles placed upon them by society, and forcing them into these roles can be harmful.

    How Will I Know What My Child’s Gender Is?

    Your child will show you in time what their gender identity is through their self-expression. Gender is often fluid, so their gender expression may change with time as they explore the world around them. You can start to ask them what their gender is early on in their childhood. By simply asking questions like, “Are you a boy or a girl? Are you not a boy or girl?” you can start to gauge how they really feel on the inside. 

    There’s so much more to a person than their gender. Try to focus on all those other wonderful things that make them special, like their unique traits, worldviews, interests, and minds. Ultimately, the best thing you can do for your child is to give them your unconditional love and support for being exactly who they are. 

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    Katie is a writer and creative person based in Seattle who is passionate about the arts, environmental justice, and all things vintage fashion. She celebrates queerness as a natural yet radical state of being, and she strives to make the world a more inclusive place for all. You can find her taking meditative strolls in the rain forests of the Pacific Northwest channeling her inner Bella Swan, or just on IG @ktmarieeee.

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