Gender + Sexuality

December 12, 2011

About Purportedly Gendered Body Parts

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Written by: Dean
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From my understanding, a central endeavor of feminist, queer, and trans activists has been to dismantle the cultural ideologies, social practices, and legal norms that say that certain body parts determine gender identity and gendered social characteristics and roles. We have fought against the idea that the presence of uteruses or ovaries or penises or testicles should be understood to determine such things as people’s intelligence, proper parental roles, proper physical appearance, proper gender identity, proper labor roles, proper sexual partners and activities, and capacity to make decisions. We have opposed medical and scientific assertions that affirm the purported health of traditional gender roles and activities and that pathologize bodies that defy those norms. We continue to work to dispel myths that body parts somehow make us who we are (and make us “less than” or “better than,” depending on which we may have).

Yet feminists and trans allies still sometimes (often inadvertently) prop up these sexist and transphobic ideas just by using language that is shaped by biological determinism.  This occurs even in spaces where people have gained some basic skills around respecting pronoun preferences, suggesting an increasing desire to support gender self-determination and to abandon certain expectations related to gender norms. I still frequently hear people who I know are committed to dismantling gender norms use terms like “female-bodied,” “male body parts,” “biologically female,” and “bio-boy.”

At the same time, I have heard many smart trans people and allies demonstrate the use of alternatives to language that is invested in the myth of biological binary gender. I share some of these alternatives below.  I would like to see them adopted not just in academic contexts but by all people who talk about bodies and role model how to talk about bodies including health practitioners, teachers and exercise instructors.

1) We can talk about uteruses, ovaries, penises, vulvas, etc. with specificity without assigning these parts a gender. Rather than saying things like “male body parts,” “female bodies” or “male bodies” we can say the thing we are probably trying to say more directly, such as “bodies with penises,” “bodies with uteruses,” “people with ovaries” and skip the assumption that those body parts correlate with a gender. Examples: “Unfortunately the anatomical drawings in this book only represent bodies with penises and testicles, but I think this picture can still help you get a sense of how the abdominal muscle is shaped.” “People with testicles may find this exercise easier with this adjustment.” “Some people may feel a sensation in the ovaries during this procedure.”

2) The term “internal reproductive organs” can be a useful way to talk generally about ovaries, uteruses, and the like without calling them “female reproductive organs.” Example: “The doctor might think it is necessary to have some ultrasounds of the internal reproductive organs to find out more about what is causing the pain.”

3) We can use “people who menstruate” or “people who are pregnant” or “people who produce sperm” or other terms like these rather than using “male,” “female” or “pregnant women” as a proxy for these statuses. In this way we get rid of the assumptions that all people who identify as a particular gender have the same kind of body or do the same things with their bodies, as well as the mistaken belief that if your body has/does that thing it is a particular gender. Examples: “This exercise is not recommended for people who are menstruating.” “People who are trying to become pregnant should not take this medication.” “People who produce sperm should be warned that this procedure could effect their fertility.”

4) When we want to talk about someone and indicate that they are not trans, we can say “not trans” or “non-trans” or “cisgender” rather than “biologically male,” or “bio boy,” or “bio girl.” When we talk about someone trans we should identify them by their current gender, and if we need to refer to their assigned gender at birth we could say they were “assigned male” or “assigned female” rather than that they are “biologically male” or “biologically female.” These “bio” terms reproduce the oppressive logic that our bodies have some purported biological gendered truth in them, separate from our social gender role. Our bodies have varying parts—it  is socialization that assigns our body parts gendered meaning.

5. If we know we are going to be talking about bodies, taking the adjectives “male” and “female” or “masculine” and “feminine” out of our vocabularies for describing body parts or systems can help us avoid alienating or offending the people we are talking to. This may help improve access to whatever we are offering people who are often alienated.

As we all know, lots of people’s bodies do not fit the rigid story about “biological sex. They include trans people, genderqueer people, people with intersex conditions, people who cannot or choose not to reproduce, non-trans women who have had hysterectomies, non-trans men who do not have testicles, and many others. Many people will benefit from our efforts to dismantle the gendered language about bodies that enforces harmful norms. Removing these gendered framings and making sure that the “gender” question is a blank space where people can write what they want rather than check a box, are also important steps for improving access. I am sure that depending on the context in which we are talking about bodies, other phrasing might be useful, but I believe that we can talk in ways that get out of compulsory gender assignment of these body parts and reflect our rejection of the notion that binary gender is “natural” or pre-political.  Listening for other examples of good use of language to move away from these assumptions is always a pleasurable part of my own project. I highly recommend it. We each tend to be most expert in the bureaucratic systems and communication norms of the institutions we deal with and work in daily. Those are ideal places for us to start spotting gender norm enforcement and dismantling it.

About the Author

Dean Spade is an assistant professor at Seattle University School of Law teaching Poverty Law, Law and Social Movements and Administrative Law. In 2002 he founded the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a collective that provides free legal help to low income people and people of color who are trans, intersex, and/or gender non-conforming and works to build trans resistance centered in racial and economic justice. His book, Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics and the Limits of Law was published in 2011 by South End Press.



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One Comment

  1. lucy

    this argument makes no sense. how can you identify as male or female if the notion of male or female is a cultural construct and therefore doesnt really exist?

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