Your gender identity and gender role are like flip sides of the same coin. Your gender identity is how you see yourself as a man, woman, both, or neither. It is your internal mental image of what it means to be a man, woman, etc. Your gender identity is made up of your thoughts, feelings, self-talk, and mental images related to your biological sex/gender. In other words, your biological sex is your physical reality, and your gender identity is what you think and feel about it.
How Does Gender Role Differ from Gender Identity?
Your gender role is the outward portrayal of your gender identity and biological sex. It is the way you express yourself as a man, woman, both, or neither. Your gender role combines the way you look with the way you behave. It involves everything from the way you dress, do your hair and make-up, choose your friends and lovers, to the schools and training programs you attend, and the jobs and careers you are drawn to. Your gender role is the action side of the coin because it relates to how you behave in relation to your gender identity.
Your gender identity and gender role begin at birth when you are welcomed into the world by your parent(s) and others. They will address you as son, daughter, grandson, granddaughter, and boy or girl. They will also dress you in clothes that they feel are appropriate for your biological sex and treat you differently based on how they identify you. There is a long history of research that shows that biological males and females are treated differently (played with, spoken to, dressed, etc.) based on their biological sex and the assumptions people make about their gender. Some people call this assigning gender. In actuality, it is assigning gender identity. In reality, your biological gender is assigned by your genetic inheritance and chromosomes, not by how people speak to you and behave towards you.
Your gender identity and gender role continue to develop by listening to and observing the men and women in your family and culture and being exposed to peers and the media. By age 3, you develop a sense of what it means to be a boy, girl, or other. Much of this gender identity development is overt (parents and others telling you what to say and how to act), and the rest is covert (being exposed to societal institutions and the media).
These overt and covert messages are not necessarily bad if they are consistent with how you see yourself and if they mesh with your sexual values and goals. They can be a major source of sexual pain and suffering, however, when they come in conflict with how you see yourself and with your sexual values and relationship goals. This is why a big part of sexual mindfulness training focuses on understanding what your mind is telling you about your gender.
How Sexual Mindfulness Training Helps Cope with Gender Issues
Values conflicts about gender identity and gender role often occur when you compare yourself to your peers and to societal, and cultural standards that don’t mesh with your own. Many of my students and clients get stuck on gender-related issues because they compare themselves to someone else’s standards that they either cannot meet or do not want to meet. Sexual mindfulness training can teach you how to quiet your troubled mind when it engages in unhelpful comparisons of any nature, especially those related to sex and gender.
Comparing your sexuality against others’ and judging the quality of your sex life based on what others say and do is a prescription for getting stuck. In reality, the only judging that is helpful is when you judge whether or not your thoughts and feelings are helpful or unhelpful in staying true to your values, taking action, and meeting your sexual goals.
There is no one correct gender identity or gender role. The correct ones are those that mesh with what you value about being a man, woman, both, or neither, and how this factors into your relationships. Being a “traditional male” or “feminist woman” or any other type of gender identity/role is neither good nor bad, it just is. The most important thing is whether or not it works for you.
Unfortunately, many people adopt gender identities and gender roles that are inconsistent with their personal values because they try to please others or meet societal standards that do not reflect who they really are. If you do this, it will surely cause you to get stuck in relationships and sexual behaviors that are unsatisfying and do not mesh with your values and goals.
In my course, Great Sex from The Inside Out, I’ll teach you how to become more mindful of your gender-related thoughts and feelings and how to coexist with them without getting stuck. I use a variety of fun and easy to use exercises to help you be more mindful of your gender identity and gender role and how they contribute to your sexual happiness. Check it out for yourself by searching for “Great Sex From the Inside Out Course: on my website, which is linked in my bio below.
In my next article, Part 3 of the series Why Gender Matters, I’ll discuss how your sexual orientation and sexual behavior are related to your gender identity and sexual happiness.