Mythbustin’ Monday: If We Know That Sex Does Not Equal Gender, Why Are We Cissexist?

Sex and Gender are not the same, a lesson taught in any Introduction to Women’s Studies course and most basic social sciences classrooms. It’s almost so basic that it seems pretty obvious to an advanced readership. The myth was busted before I even arrived on the scene, is there any more to even flesh out here? Maybe. A series of conversations with a friend and the recent attacks on reproductive rights, often framed as “The War on Women’s Bodies,” has had me thinking about two things: How we frame the conversation about reproductive rights, which is based on biological organs (ergo sex) and is this labeling of “women’s bodies” intrinsically cissexist because it equates “women’s bodies” with the “female body?”

A hard question to answer! I will try, in my own way, to work through it and maybe, even if a correct, clean and simple “jargon we should use, one-size fits all” answer cannot be reached, it could open up an avenue of conversations that shows how deeply enmeshed we are in a cissexist worldview. Don’t know what cis-gender or cissexist means? Want to learn? Come on board and let’s stumble through this together!

The wild world of academic jargon is a terrifying one, so I will try to keep it as simple as possible. But, if we truly value pluralism and the idea that there are probably as many identities on this planet as there are people and every single one is equal,  its really worth ironing out what exactly cis-gender and cis-sexist means, but first, as a refresher:


Courtesy of this lovely website

“Sex” refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women.

“Gender” refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women.

To put it another way:

“Male” and “female” are sex categories, while “masculine” and “feminine” are gender categories.

That’s it at its most basic (not including intersex or really defining what “physiological characteristics” define men and women– when is gender being placed on the body is important to consider) BUT for the purposes of this post I’m going to argue that one’s reproductive organs (again, this IS tricky because of intersexuality) can be tentatively defined as male or female, in a very biological this-is-how-babies-are-made way.

So Female = uterus, cervix, ovaries, ovum…etc.

Male = testicles, vas deferens, prostate…etc.

Since I imagine we are all groovy and don’t believe in biological determinism (for example, having a uterus can make one more prone to weeping, except in America’s current political climate that weeping would be entirely justified) then I imagine we can be just as groovy and understand that identifying as a man or woman is not contingent on one’s reproductive parts.

And if that sounds absolutely mind-blowing, well, welcome to what cis-gender and cissexist means:

According to wikipedia, Cisgender is:

a class of gender identities where there is a match between an individual’s gender identity and the behavior or role considered appropriate for one’s sex.[1] There are a number of derivatives of the term in use, including cis male for a male with a masculine gender identity, cis female for a female with a feminine gender identity, and cissexual.

Cissexism, logically, would be a worldview that assumed that everyone’s gender identities “match” with their reproductive parts (I use scare quotes on the word match because, well, they should be there) and that privileges cisgendred individuals and their interests over those who are not within that category, those that largely fall under the Trans-umbrella in the LGBTQIQ community, although I suppose it also excludes Intersex and Queer individuals as well.

So Sex: Male, Female, Intersex.

Gender: Man, Woman, Transgendered, Bigendred and a slew of other identities (because it is a social construct, after all. BUT SO IS HOW WE   LABEL AND IDENTIFY SEX ORGANS. DO YOU SEE THE DIFFICULTLY NOW?) My the-binary-is-flipping-me-out digression aside, let’s look at that popular phrase again:

“The War On Women’s Bodies.”

After learning about cisgender and cisexism, we should look least utter a contemplative and waxing “Huh” after seeing it again, right?

Imagine, for a second, an ardent feminist who identifies as a woman but is not cisgender and what she must think about her identity when she sees that phrase in regards to reproductive rights. She is certainly aware there is a war being waged against her person, but its not one that deals with access to contraception and abortion. Similarly, a person who identifies as a man but is not cisgender may need access to both of those. So, I suggest:

The War Against The Female Body.

Is that a quick-fix? Not so much. I’m sure that there are a dozen problems in that phrasing that someone much smarter than me could unravel and point out the problems in it. Take for example, a sentence I wrote a few days ago: “Arizona has also passed a bill that allows doctors to not inform pregnant women of pre-natal health because this information may lead to an abortion.” If, in this instance we change “pregnant women” to “pregnant females” it sounds clinical and dehumanizing, so the switch of female and woman is not an absolute suggestion and I’m not even sure about it myself. My confusion surrounding how to even write about what a friend showed to me as a concern and a flaw in how we talk about identity and body politics as feminists, I think, is very emblematic of how even our very  language  can limit and constrain identity politics.

What I do know is this: since sexism and the” War Against The Female Body” is rooted in misogyny and biological determinism (male is “superior” to female because of biology) and the hierarchy of social difference seeks to maintain male supremacy, then it is ESSENTIAL that we recognize that cissexism is rooted in a desire to maintain that hierarchy of difference (nothing would dismantle it faster than if we all collectively realized that sex and gender are not hard and fast rules or absolutes.) What we can do, before having some revamp-the-jargon-fest is very important conversations about cissexism and cisgender privilege, when we have it and what we gain from it, and how it excludes just as much as the other isms. Cissexism is just as tied into sexism as is heterosexism, and we cannot combat one without checking and identifying the others. What we can do is what I know feminists can do best and that is constant revisionism. It is time that we begin widening our lens again.

5 thoughts on “Mythbustin’ Monday: If We Know That Sex Does Not Equal Gender, Why Are We Cissexist?

  1. This is a GREAT post making a great point. Cissexism in feminism and the prochoice movement is inherently harmful to their ideologies of equality and overturning systems of oppression. I try to police my language around discussions of reproductive justice a lot so that I don’t use exclusionary language, but I know that I can do a better job. Also, I usually say things like “people with uteruses” or, like in your earlier example of how “pregnant females” sounds bad, I would just say “pregnant people.” I find that you can talk about the “war on the female body” from a broader scope, discarding a cissexist lens, with this kind of language instead. I also think that this really is an area where these movements fail and where we HAVE to do better, because it’s so harmful and privileged to think that these laws just harm people who society defines as women based on cissexist roles and assumptions.


  2. This post was very educational! I didn’t know what cissexism was at first, but you did a great job in clarifying before you carried through with your argument. I remember there was a post about the misleading terms/definitions that the pro-life movement uses by FemOnFire which could really link back to your post.

    I also agree with Katie in that while I try to police my language, I could probably do a better job. Language does play a great part in the feminist movement and I think we need to better define certain terms so that it is very clear what we mean. I read in a textbook about how whenever an intersex person is born, the doctors’ fallback sex is female because they apparently have more in common with the female body. So I think the “war on the female body” is a good way of putting it.


    1. Thank you for sharing! I think you articulated it much better than I did and the angle that organs should not be gendered is much better than the argument that I made. I’ll definitely include your link in our next link round-up.


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