The Human Body

Sexual Development

There are two periods of marked sexual differentiation in human life. The first occurs prenatally and the second occurs at puberty. Although adult women and men may differ greatly in genital appearance and secondary sexual characteristics, they are almost identical during prenatal development. When an egg and a sperm unite during fertilization, they each bring to the new cell half the number of chromosomes (threadlike structures that contain genetic material) present in other cells. From fertilization through about the first six weeks of development, male and female embryos differ only in the pair of sex chromosomes they have in each cell—two X chromosomes (XX) in females and one X and one Y chromosome (XY) in males. At this stage, both male and female embryos have undifferentiated gonads (ovaries or testes), two sets of ducts (one set capable of developing into male internal organs and the other into female organs), and undifferentiated external genital folds and swellings. See Embryology.