Changing Cissexist Language About Bodies

This is something of a polishing-up of a response to an ask post on my tumblr from months ago. Nonetheless, it merited being brought here.

The question was about how to talk about biological/anatomical differences that are sex/gender-correlated without being cissexist in talking about them. The answer to that delves back into the idea of Saying What You Mean. With that, I’ll just present my old writing here, with commentary:

Let’s start at the beginning. We don’t have categories of “male” and “female” that we’re trying to make less cissexist; instead we’re going to look at where these categories come from. For background, read these two Less Wrong articles:Disguised Queries and Neural Categories. Maybe take the next one in the series, too. I’ll wait here while you do.

Ok. Done? So, let’s wipe away the categories of male and female. Instead we have people with a wide range of traits. Many of these traits are on a one-dimensional spectrum (for that trait alone), and have a bimodal distribution where the ends are favored greatly over the middle. This is actually just like the example in Disguised Queries, except that we aren’t trying to sort people, people can be hurt, and oppressive structures exist for people, but not presumably for the things in Disguised Queries.

Again, I want to emphasize that although the distribution is bimodal, there are still people who are part of neither peak in the distribution. Sometimes lots of people, and sometimes in several distinct groups (there is not always a single “the middle”). Sex and gender are not a line, or even a plane. They’re an n-space, and “male” and “female” aren’t the only important points to it.

Moving forward an article to Neural Categories: Cissexism sets up a network of the second type (with many input/output nodes all connected to a central node); sex or gender is put in the center, while other traits (facial hair, face shape, body shape, voice pitch, height, and less obviously visible traits like genital configuration, gamete type, chromosomes etc.) are placed around the edges.

Often people put a connection between genital configuration (or even original genital configuration if they’re really cissexist) and sex strong enough to drown out all the others.

Being anti-cissexist would mean using a network of the first type (nodes being connected, with no central hub). Sex and gender are open to self-definitions, and those self-definitions are input nodes, which, like everything else, have correlations and connections. But, also, remember that these correlations aren’t 100% even for cis people, and that trans people may have body parts that don’t match the textbook model even before beginning to physically transition.

It needs to be emphasized that the person’s actual sex and gender identities are the most important ones, socially. They are the ones that tell you what pronouns and what gender words to use for the person. They are not minor facets; they color every aspect of the person’s existence. A mostly-closeted trans woman, and a cis man, for instance, are going to have dramatically different experiences and relations to even the same aspects of society, even the same treatment. Likewise for nonbinary people (and nonbinariness is not a monolith. Two nonbinary people of different genders may relate to the gendered aspects of the same situation in as different ways as a cis person and a closeted trans person of the same assignment)

Also, it’s important to note that psychological traits and behaviors are a part of this too. Gender identity is itself psychological. Behaviors, like feminine/masculine mannerisms, a preference for “women’s”/”men’s” clothes, hairstyle, and so on, culturally contingent as they are (they might be better taken as tendencies to recognize oneself in and learn behavior from men or women), are also a part of this. Excluding mental/psychological things from your definition of sex is Cartesian bullshit (not to say that anything about actual mental ability that people claim is correlated with sex, whether to empathize or to do math, isn’t fraught with sexism and evopsych).

Again: Statements about mental ability, statements about ability to empathize, or ability to do math, or whatever, that hinge on gender are more connected to sexist stereotypes and socialization than accurate neurological and psychological correlations.

So, the best way to talk about it is to figure out what specifically you mean, and say that. “A/n sperm/ovum-producing reproductive system” might be a better term for that part of the appropriate genitalia (or better yet, a small/large gamete-producing reproductive system), instead of referring to a male (or female) reproductive system. “A body with typical response to high testosterone levels” is better than “a male body” when talking about, say, body hair.

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