Gender, Sexuality and Body in Historic View

by Andrea Szentgyorgyi 13/10/2021

Sex, gender and roles

Sex, gender and the roles that define a body image were seemingly overlapping categories in history. We learnt how men and women should dress and behave, what they could and could not do. In most parts of the world, this idea of synonymity is still valid: genitalia decides the gender and the role within the society. Women have dressed differently from men for hundreds of years, and their body image reflected their biological sex. 

The socially constructed gender roles formed a body image that people could use as labels; moreover, it could lead to discrimination and disadvantages. 

Did sex, gender and body were the same in history?

I would argue that gender, sex and body have always been overlapping categories. Gender and sex have been varied and inconsistent terms during history—the difference between the two terms is as old as civilisation. The ancient Greeks differentiated sex from gender. Sexual orientation was not a social identifier, and sexual behaviour was not defined by gender. Instead, it was determined by the masculine and feminine roles of the participants (Cary 1949). 

We can find some examples for promoting equal rights in ancient Egypt. They differentiated sex and gender and had three sexes (female, male and Sekhet), and women held many important and influential positions and had legal and economic rights. They used social status instead of biological differences for differentiation (Khalil et al., 2017).  

Cifarelli pointed out that some Sumerian women were buried like kings because they were “naturalised” notions of gender, showing a clear distinction between sex and gender (Cifarelli 2011).

Gender fluidity and religions

When Christianity spread across the world, the notions of “men” and “women” included both sex, gender, body and roles (Wiesner-Hanks 2002). They promoted a very simple sexual ethics regarding sexuality: all sexual intimacy is to be placed within the marriage of one man and one woman, through which husband and wife (Cherry 2020).  

Not all religions used this binal separation or used sex and gender as synonyms. For example, the Yoruba are one of the largest African ethnic groups south of the Sahara Desert, and it is their mythology or religion that separates sex and gender (Bakare-Yusuf 2003). Matory argued that gender was the paradigm of all relationships among the 18th and 19th century Yoruba (Matory 1996 cited in Lyons 1996). Oyewumi argued that gender did not exist in the precolonial Oyo Empire at all, and hierarchy and socio-political power forced the roles on the colonies. Yoruba understood gender as much more fluid and complex than western, colonising cultures (Watson 2014). Yoruba men had roles identified as female in the Western world, whilst women could be hunters. Cross-dressing was common, and they often adopted genitals of the opposite sex to perform the gender corresponding to their public activities (Olajabu, O. 2004). 

Gender fluidity and Islam are often considered incompatible, and persecution of non-binary gender people is routinely carried out in the name of Islam. However, some original Islam studies had references differentiating sexual and gender diversity. For example, the Qur’an, hadith or the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and the fatwah or the rulings of religious leaders mentioned heterosexual marriage between a gender normative woman and a gender normative man (Davies 2019), which means that they understood the difference between sex and gender, but did not accept it. It also means that the cultural interpretations of religious aspects used sex and gender interchangeably.

The Jewish legal tradition did separate sex and gender and identified six distinct genders: normative male and female, androgynous (both male and female characteristics), tumtum (with unclear biology), aylonit (female at birth, but developed male characteristics later, usually at puberty), and saris (male at birth, but later more typically female). Therefore, the original Jewish understanding of gender is neither binary nor a forced grid to fit (Rabbi Meyer, 2018). 

The genderless state appears in a Buddhist meditation to Dhamma (Sirimanne 2016) or the Hindu’s to Brahman ¬Their myths are full of androgynous gods (Wikipedia). 

Although I have found traces of understanding, most of the world still uses sex, gender and body as overlapping categories. The first conscious differentiation in the modern Western world happened in the 1950s. 

The western idea of sex, gender and body

Money used the term sex to refer to physical characteristics and the term gender to refer to psychological traits and behaviour (Money 1955 cited in Repo 2013). However, Rhoda Unger (1979) argued that the widespread use of the term sex implied biological causes and promoted the idea that differences between women and men are natural and fixed. Still, she proposed to use the term gender to describe traits that are culturally assumed to be appropriate for women and men. Her work was influential and started a widespread shift of separating sex and gender in psychological texts.

Current definitions of sex and gender vary, and some authors use the terms interchangeably. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that “sex” refers to the biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women and describes “men” and “women” as sex categories. “Gender refers to the characteristics of women, men, girls and boys that are socially constructed. This includes norms, behaviours and roles associated with being a woman, man, girl or boy, and relationships. As a social construct, gender varies from society to society and can change over time” (WHO, 2021).

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, gender is defined as a euphemism for the sex of a human being, often intended to emphasise the social and cultural, as opposed to the biological, distinctions between the sexes”.

The questions of sex and gender took a central stage during the wars, when women’s capabilities, abilities, skills, knowledge, and roles were questioned and embraced by feminists. Their work led to the current distinction of sex, gender and sexuality. Thus, sex refers to biological origin, gender refers to social and cultural roles, and sexuality refers to the expression and orientation of desire connected with both sex and gender (Penner 2010).

Many places in the world are still seeing sex and gender as one biological attitude; however, in the Western world, we have started to acknowledge the difference between sex, gender and sexual orientation; the body does not define gender, roles and images.


Bakare-Yusuf, B. (2003). Yoruba`s don`t do gender. A Critical review of Oyeronke Oyewumi’s The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses. Accessed 3/6/2021 Available from:

Cary, M. 1949. Homosexuality. Oxford Classical Dictionary. Pp. 720.

Cherry, M. 2020. Christian Bioethics: Sex and/or Gender?Christian Bioethics, 26(3), 205–220

Cifarelli, M., 2011. Gender Through Time in the Ancient Near East. Edited by Diane Bolger. Gender and Archaeology 17. Lanham: Altamira Press, 2008. Pp. xviii + 373. Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 70(2), pp.348-351.

Davies, S., 2019. Sexuality, Gender Identity, and Islam. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics

Khalil, R., Moustafa, A., Moftah, M. and Karim, A., 2017. How Knowledge of Ancient Egyptian Women Can Influence Today’s Gender Role: Does History Matter in Gender Psychology?. Frontiers in Psychology, 07.

Olajabu, O. 2004.  Seeing through a Woman’s Eye: Yoruba Religious Tradition and Gender Relations. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion.Vol. 20, No. 1 (Spring, 2004), pp. 41-60

Oxford English dictionary. 2007. Vol. 2. 6th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Oyewumi, O.,1997. The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses.  University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis and London

Penner, T., 2010. Women, Gender, and Sexuality in the New Testament and Early Christianity. Biblical Studies

Rabbi Meyer, 2018. What the Torah Teaches Us About Gender Fluidity and Transgender Justice. [online] Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Available at: <> [Accessed 3 June 2021].

Lyons, A., 1996.Journal of the History of Sexuality. 6 (3). pp. 470-73. Accessed June 3, 2021. Available from

Repo, J. 2013. The Biopolitical Birth of Gender: Social Control, Hermaphroditism, and the New Sexual Apparatus. Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, 38(3), 228-244.

Sirimanne, R. 2016. Buddhism and Women-The Dhamma Has No Gender.

Journal of International Women’s Studies. 18(1), pp. 273-292.

Unger, R., 1979. Toward a redefinition of sex and gender. American Psychologist, 34(11), pp.1085-1094.

Watson, C., 2014. Witches, Female Priests and Sacred Manoeuvres: (De)Stabilising Gender and Sexuality in a Cuban Religion of African Origin. Sex, Gender and the Sacred, pp.29-50.

Who. int. 2021. Gender and health. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 3 June 2021]

Wiesner-Hanks, M., 2002. Women, Gender, and Church History. Church History, 71(3), pp.600-620.

Wikipedia, 2021. God and gender in Hinduism – Wikipedia. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 3 June 2021].

3 thoughts on “Gender, Sexuality and Body in Historic View

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