Today’s guest post comes from Shannon Burton (they/she) who I met through the Smutlancers community. They’re a brilliantly talented writer and I’m thrilled to be publishing them on C&K for the first time, talking about gender-neutral language and how to use it.
It’s important to note that though this article uses one specific example of problematic language as its jumping-off point, it’s not about attacking or critiquing an individual. This is stuff that virtually all cis people – including me! – could do better with. I learned a huge amount from this and I’m sure you will, too.
They’ve helpfully included some working definitions for those of you who are new to these concepts, so I’ll include those first and then we’ll dive into the article.
Cis/cisgender: when someone’s gender identity matches their assigned sex at birth
Trans/transgender: when someone’s gender identity is different than their assigned sex at birth
Genderqueer/nonbinary: when someone’s gender identity falls outside the categories of man and woman
Intersex: when someone’s sex characteristics such as chromosomes, hormones, gonads, or genitals don’t fit neatly into typical definitions of male or female sex. Being intersex does not determine a person’s gender identity.
Vulva-owner: person with a vulva (generally including the mons pubis, labia majora and minora, clitoris, and vaginal opening.) Being a vulva owner does not determine a person’s gender identity.
Penis-owner: person with a penis (generally including glans, shaft, and foreskin.) Being a penis owner does not determine a person’s gender identity.
Using Gender-Neutral Language Isn’t Enough by Shannon Burton
Sometimes, even our best intentions fall short.
Such was the situation in the very first lesson of Dr. Emily Morse’s “Sex and Communication” Masterclass.
“I want this class to include everyone,” the Sex With Emily podcast host begins promisingly. “So instead of hearing me say woman, I’m gonna say vulva-owner or vulva, and instead of man, I’m gonna say penis-owner or penis.”
This is a perfect example of trying to be inclusive of trans, genderqueer, and nonbinary people and falling short. Our bodies do not always indicate our gender. Yet, this statement still implies that women are vulva-owners and men are penis-owners. It also implies that being inclusive is just a matter of swapping out gendered words (woman, man) for neutral, body-based ones and then—hurray!—our work here is done.
But not every man has a penis, and not every woman has a vulva. While this body-centered language helps when giving sex advice and talking about bodies without assuming gender, this introduction unfortunately undoes its own intent.
Without that statement, the rest of the course is pretty gender inclusive. Dr. Morse uses body-centered language throughout the lessons (slipping up just once), so that vulva-owners and penis-owners of all genders can tune in to relevant information about themselves and/or their partners. That introduction, though, leaves viewers free to mentally substitute gendered terms when they hear the gender-neutral ones, maintaining the status quo that marginalizes trans, genderqueer, and nonbinary people.
What could Dr. Morse have done differently? What can those of us who are trying to be more inclusive in our work and day-to-day life do to be better at keeping up with and using terms correctly, especially when it feels like they’re constantly changing?
The first step is to get in our own heads about gender.
Decoupling Body from Gender
Body-centered language (like penis-owner and vulva-owner) is becoming more common in some contexts, and for good reason. In reproductive health settings, for example, it’s important to know whether someone has a uterus or testes. Asking whether someone is a woman, man, or other gender identity can’t tell you that, since there are men with uteruses, women with testes, nonbinary and genderqueer people with either, and intersex people of all gender identities.
In other contexts, however, body-centered language isn’t always necessary. For example, when discussing social issues that disproportionately affect different genders, it’s appropriate to use those gendered terms. (i.e. “Women tend to make less money than men for the same work,” “Men are more likely than women to develop a dependency on drugs or alcohol,” or “Trans people experience higher rates of sexual assault than cis women and men.”) Our socially-constructed gender identities are a major part of these social problems, so using those terms makes sense.
When it comes to talking about sex, things can get messy (no surprise there!) Sex is socially stigmatized, and people of different gender identities experience different pressures as a result. Meanwhile, sex educators and businesses aim to provide helpful advice and knowledge that often involves talking very specifically about people’s most intimate body parts.
This requires ongoing work on our part to decouple bodies from gender in our own heads, while still considering how those things interact. That’s going to look different for everyone, but one place I like to start with cisgender friends is to ask a question you may have already asked yourself, seriously or not:
What would you do if you woke up tomorrow and your body’s sex characteristics had changed?
In this thought exercise, you’d still be you… but your body hair, chest, hips, and genitals would be different, and perhaps your voice, too. If you currently have a penis and testicles, you might now have a vagina, uterus, and ovaries, and vice versa.
When I first explored this question with friends in high school, our answers predictably ranged from “freak out” to “find someone to go down on me.” Go ahead, have fun with the thought exercise yourself. Think of all the things you’d do with a different appearance and new sex organs. Then, really sit with it. What would happen if you woke up with the new body day after day, week after week? What if you’d have it for the rest of your life?
For most cisgender people, I think this would be very distressing. They’d know, to their core, that they are a “woman trapped in a man’s body,” or vice versa. The body would not feel like their own, and they might seek to change it with hormone therapy and/or surgery, if they had access to that and could afford it. They’d resent being treated as a gender not their own in day-to-day interactions, and told their gender identity is wrong when they correct people.
This is often the trans experience: one’s body does not reflect the gender one knows deeply to be true. (Please note, however, that despite this not all trans people desire hormone therapy or surgery.)
When you begin to understand how your gender identity is separate from the body you possess, you begin to understand why saying something like “instead of women I’ll say vulva-owners” is well-intentioned but still problematic. Not everyone who knows in their heart that they are a woman has a vulva.
What Sex Educators and Businesses Can Do
How could Dr. Emily Morse have done better? An improved introduction might look like this:
“I want this class to include everyone, so instead of giving advice based on gender, I’m going to focus on the parts of the body many of us use during sex. You’ll hear body-centered language like penis-owner and vulva-owner to help indicate which information is most relevant to you and your partners.”
Sex educators and sex-related business owners can learn about and use better language by consulting with gender-aware writers and editors for their content. They can also commit to further educating themselves by seeking out trans, genderqueer, and nonbinary authors, bloggers, podcasters, and educators. They can read, watch, and listen to what these people are sharing to build a better understanding of how different people experience gender.
Most importantly, they shouldn’t stop here. I am but one nonbinary person and this post is a very limited introduction to thinking about gender and language. Check out resources like this guide for writing about transgender people, which is constantly being updated, and the Trans Journalists Association style guide.
Our understanding of gender is constantly changing. The language and ideas I’ve used in this post may be problematic without me realizing it, or may be outdated just a year or two from now—and that’s okay. I trust my fellow trans, nonbinary, and genderqueer comrades to hold me accountable and offer better alternatives, and you should, too. Be okay with making mistakes.
There are way more unanswered questions about gender out there than answered ones, so doing better at being inclusive is a life-long learning journey. Accepting that is a huge first step to being part of a safer world for people of all gender identities, and it’s worth taking.
About the Author
Shannon (they/she) is a sex coach and content writer residing in New Orleans. You can find them at SexCoachShannon.com or on Twitter @SexCoachShannon.
Remember: you can help me pay more guest bloggers (and pay guest bloggers more!) by donating via the tip jar.
3 thoughts on “[Guest Post] Using Gender-Neutral Language Isn’t Enough”
This is helpful, thank you both!
Follow up question:
Shannon’s pronouns are they/she, so how did you decide to pick “they”? I guess what I’m asking is if someone gives more than one option, which should I pick (I’m assuming it’s a context where I can’t just ask them)?
This is such a good question! In general, if someone lists two pronouns I either default to the one they list first (as I assume that’s their first preference) or just use them interchangeably. In this case, Shannon wrote their own bio and used “they” pronouns within it, so I took my cue from there 🙂
Sorry I took so long to reply – just saw this! 🙂
Amy’s advice is great: defaulting to the first is useful, as many including myself (but certainly not everyone) list their preferred one first. (In my case, “she” doesn’t offend me at all, but I hear “they” so infrequently that it makes me really happy when I do hear it!)
Other people may list two or more pronouns because they feel like different ones are appropriate at different times or in different contexts. If you’re able to ask, do! (“I like your pronouns! Is there one you prefer I use?”) If you’re unable to ask or it would create a lot of strain to do so, using the first one is most often fine in my experience.