This past week I was talking with a group of students, and toward the end one raised her hand asked if I would stop using the phrases “female bodied people” and “male bodied people” and instead say “people with vaginas” and “people with penises.” The student said that phrases like “male bodied people” unnecessarily impose a gender on people with those bodies.
We talked about it for a while and I’m pretty sure I accidentally pissed her off, since she and her friend sat on the floor texting each other furiously immediately after, right in front of me, which is pretty awkward if you’ve never experienced it.
The reason I say “male and female bodied people,” I tried to explain, is that I’ve found it’s the language least likely to trigger people when you’re in a room of people whose gender identities etc you don’t know. Well, more precisely: I’ve had just as many student say that calling those body parts “penises” and “vaginas” (and PS – I think they probably mean vulvas) unnecessarily “genders” them as I’ve heard say that about “male and female bodied people.”
“Male and female bodied people” is a more accurate description of what I mean, while hurting approximately the same number of people. Since there is no perfect language, I choose this as my best available compromise; I recognize that it will fall short with some groups, as it did in this case, and I apologized to the student that my language choice had hurt her.
She, it appeared, did not forgive me or even feel that I had made a reasonable, informed decision. Which sucks, but I get it.
This is a conversation I have periodically with students now. Someone – I think it might be Judith Butler? – is teaching these students that words like “male” and “vagina” are GENDERED WORDS.
These are students who raise their hands and say, “That’s not true,” when I say something like, “Humans are a sexually reproducing species of great apes, with males and females.”
The first time that happened, I laughed, because I thought the student was making fun of how social constructivists say everything is a social construction and nothing actually exists.
The student was not joking.
I’ve gone on to talk about the difference between describing a population versus describing individuals within the population – e.g, just because, on average, male bodied people are 5’10”, doesn’t mean any particular male bodied person you meet will be 5’10” – so to say that we’re a species with males and females doesn’t imply that any individual in the population will necessarily be either male or female.
And they respond that you can’t generalize.
I say, “I’m not generalizing about individuals. I’m describing a population. It’s an entirely different level of analysis.”
But apparently whoever – I think it might be Judith Butler – is teaching them that “vagina” has a gender is not also teaching them how to think across different levels of analysis.
And that’s a shame. Because these are very, very smart people with the capacity to understand very complex ideas and work toward actual, real-life cultural change, but instead we’re having conversations about how oppressive it is to use anatomically, biologically accurate names for our sexual bodies.
We all continue to grow and learn and I am interested in having my feet held to the fire, in being accountable for my words and actions.
But am I wrong to feel that, if I’m going to be held accountable, my account should include the stuff I’m doing that’s creating actual change?
Just with the book, just around the issue of sex and gender identity, I did these three things, all of which were RADICAL in the context of a Big 5 publisher:
- I included a section on intersex genitals and how they’re just as normal as every other set of genitals.
- I included an explicit caveat in the Introduction that the science is nearly all about cisgender people and so the book was, perforce, a book about cisgender sexuality and that sucked but I think that will change over the next ten years.
- I pushed my publisher hard, through three rounds of copy edits, and finally got them to agree not to change all my singular “they” pronouns to “he or she.”
This is how actual change happens.
And having students roll their eyes because I say “female bodied people” instead of “people with vaginas” – when, in a different room and on a different day, students roll their eyes because I say “people with vaginas” instead of “female bodied people” – is not how actual change happens.
I don’t know what the conclusion is. I work very hard to be inclusive; I know that I will and do fall short sometimes. Apparently when that happens I’m a failure and worthy of contempt.
Which makes me want to give up.