« If beggars could question | Main | Hearing voices »

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. 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:41 AM | | Comments (2)


I agree it is pedantic, futile, and schoolmarmish (is that a genderist term?) to fight that popular use of "gender." (One tiny bone to pick with this post: the word "underutilized"; my plea is for the much simpler "underused." Eh?)

And yet, when as you point out "gender" is being so widely used in so many contexts, there is something refreshing about having a word -- sex -- whose meaning is pretty clear, despite the occasional skittishness.

The social scientists are not all that thrilled with the blending, either. Indiana University's alumni magazine about two years ago did a rather pointed piece in which those with some experience in the matter (and with the Kinsey Institute, IU does have some experience) decried the tendency of the media to confuse the two terms. (Unfortunately, it's not online. But I have kept a copy. And yes, the magazine took heat from the same skittish types for putting that story on the cover. Bully for the editors, who basically said it's life, it's an important discussion, get over it.)

I suppose we must sometimes edit for the 10-year-olds in the back row. Still, it seems a pity.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected