The Difference Between Sex and Gender Discrimination

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Sex discrimination and gender discrimination are terms often used interchangeably, and they are basically the same thing. In particular, the terms sex discrimination and gender discrimination mean the same when you're speaking in terms of federal civil rights law and anti-discrimination law.

So, should you refer to discrimination against women as sex discrimination or gender discrimination? Either works. And is there such a thing as sexual discrimination? There is, but definitions become tricky here because the word "sexual" cannot be freely interchanged with the word "sex"—at least not without lines blurring and distorting the meanings of the two terms. 

Sexual Discrimination Is Not the Same as Sex Discrimination 

Less commonly used is the term sexual discrimination. This is not the correct term when it's simply used to refer to discrimination based on a person's gender. The word sexual is used, however, when you're referring to sexual harassment because sexual discrimination describes a type of offense that is sexual in nature. 

Think of sex as implying gender and sexual as relating to a sexually-oriented activity. 

Sexual harassment does not solely involve unequal pay, working conditions, or advancement opportunities based on a person's sex or gender, although these can come into play, too. Rather, harassment involves teasing, sexual advances, and unwelcome touching. It might involve jokes or taunting directed at an individual because of her gender. It can include promises of promotion or pay raises in exchange for sexual favors, although sexual harassment is not limited to interactions with the victim's employer or supervisor. Co-workers or even a company's clients or customers can be guilty of sexual harassment, and the employer's duty is to step in and stop the behavior. The victim and harasser do not have to be of the opposite sex. 

Sexual Orientation Discrimination

The term sexual is also used when referring to discrimination against someone for being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, queer (LGBTQ). In this case, the term sexual orientation discrimination would technically be correct.

The victim does not necessarily have to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered. The situation rises to the level of discrimination if the perpetrator acts based on such a belief.

No federal laws protect people in general from this type of discrimination, although those who actually work for the federal government are afforded protections. Approximately 20 states have adopted protective laws for gay and lesbian people, and some judges have ruled that behavior aimed at LGBTQ individuals is indeed sex discrimination because the victims were acted against due to the fact that they did not or could not conform to typical gender stereotypes. 

Gender Discrimination Is Against the Law

It is a violation of federal civil rights to deny someone a job, promotion, equal pay, or opportunity based on their gender. It does not matter if the individual is male or female. Sex discrimination is against the law, as are sexual orientation discrimination and sexual harassment.