The differentiation of male and female characteristics in vertebrates and insects has long been thought to proceed via different mechanisms. Traditionally, vertebrate sexual development was thought to occur in two phases: a primary and a secondary phase, the primary phase involving the differentiation of the gonads, and the secondary phase involving the differentiation of other sexual traits via the influence of sex hormones secreted by the gonads. In contrast, insect sexual development was thought to depend exclusively on cell-autonomous expression of sex-specific genes. Recently, however, new evidence indicates that both vertebrates and insects rely on sex hormones as well as cell-autonomous mechanisms to develop sexual traits. Collectively, these new data challenge the traditional vertebrate definitions of primary and secondary sexual development, call for a redefinition of these terms, and indicate the need for research aimed at explaining the relative dependence on cell-autonomous versus hormonally guided sexual development in animals.