The Baltimore Sun's Voter Guide 2016

Raw sex

In 1980, every story in The Cincinnati Enquirer’s computer system carried a six-letter slug — the one-word working title for stories moving through editing and production. SCOTUS, for example, would be a Supreme Court story. The most popular slug was RAWSEX.

About 90 percent of the time, RAWSEX turned out to be an entirely mundane effort: The city desk realized that no one on the copy desk would rush to pick up a story slugged ZONING. But the copy desk would snap at a story slugged RAWSEX like a trout after a caddisfly. And maybe one time in 10, the subject was actually racy.

You, too, dear reader, have been hornswoggled. This post is about sex and gender. A Sun reader has asked why journalists insistently write gender when we mean sex. The reader had been taught that gender refers properly to grammar, sex to biology.

What may have been a useful distinction at one time has become hopelessly blurred. Gender is in place in legal and academic language, as well as popular usage, to indicate sexual identity in social and psychological aspects, and it is unlikely to be dislodged. This makes sense if one is trying to differentiate between physical characteristics (sex) and sexual identity or sexual behavior (gender). Gender is thus a neutral, technical term,  while sex tends to mix up biology with, well, you know, s-x.

And gender has been an underutilized word in English, which, unlike Greek, Latin, the Romance languages and many others, doesn’t bother with gender for most of its nouns. Now it’s beginning to earn its pay, especially as the theorists of human sexuality coin more and more terms to describe human sexual permutations: gender role, transgender and the other related concepts that social scientists have been energetically developing for more than 30 years.

As far as general usage goes, so long as you can avoid the social-science argot, gender is fine; it’s sex that leaves some readers queasy. 

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