The Volokh Conspiracy

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The Language Wars


One of the most provocative manifestations of the culture wars around sex and gender is the battle over the operative words—what they are, what they mean, how they can and can't be used, and whether they can be said at all. I introduce this topic in the beginning of On Sex and Gender:

[i]f you're reading this book, you already know that the words we use to talk about sex and gender are contested, starting with sex and gender themselves—but also woman and female, man and male, transgender, and so on. Because language—the words we have and how we define them—affects what we can communicate and ultimately what we understand, the people who run movements understandably want to control it. The left is much more aggressive and organized about this, but the effort is made on both sides.

In this book, I try to define the words as I go and explain how I'm using them, but in general, my goal is neither to be disrespectful of nor to pander to one side or the other. Rather, it's to speak freely and honestly; to communicate not to obfuscate; and to reach people who want to learn and to engage.

The battle over the words runs throughout the book but the focused discussion is in Chapters Three and Eight.

Chapter Three is on the answer to the question "What is sex?" from progressive advocacy. It features the story around Senator Marsha Blackburn's now infamous question to then Judge Ketani Brown Jackson, "Can you please provide a definition for the word 'woman'?" In that context, I summarize the trans movement's goals and discuss its strategies, which include changing the definition of sex. I explain that,

[h]owever they're ultimately motivated, to take down the traditional biological definition of the word sex, progressive advocates working in this space have focused on two related efforts. The first is exporting the idea from academia that sex as we know it—as a complete body designed toward reproductive ends—isn't real but rather socially constructed in service of the patriarchy. The second is changing the common usage and legal definitions of the words male (and man and boy) and female (and woman and girl) so that they're consistent with this deconstruction.

I go on to detail the steps involved in these two efforts and the extraordinary success the movement has had getting major American and British institutions, including dictionaries, to adopt their project.

In Chapter Eight—on The Politics of Sex and Gender—I describe the advocacy groups' style guides, which have been widely adopted by American and other western media organizations. Here's an excerpt from that discussion:

Beyond requiring that women like me not be described as feminists or included in articles about trans issues, these typically would remove from the lexicon the words we need to talk about sex. These entries in the Transgender Association's 2023 Style Guide—especially when you put them together—are illustrative.

  • "Avoid the terms 'biological gender,' 'biological sex,' 'biological woman,' 'biological female,' 'biological man,' or 'biological male.' These terms are inaccurate and often offensive."
  • "Instead of 'born male' or 'born female,' which are inaccurate and considered offensive, use 'assigned male at birth' or 'assigned female at birth' (often abbreviated to AMAB and AFAB). You may also use 'raised as a boy' or 'raised as a girl' when appropriate."
  • "'Male-bodied' and 'female-bodied' are inaccurate terms and are often considered offensive. Male and female bodies come in all shapes and sizes with various primary and secondary sex characteristics. Instead use: assigned male/female at birth or raised as a boy/girl."
  • Trans man: "A man who is trans. 'Trans man' is two words and trans is an adjective use to describe man. Making this one word is considered disrespectful and inaccurate, as it implies a trans man is not really a man."

Then there's the call to replace "vagina" with "bonus hole" or "front hole" and "pregnant woman" with "pregnant people"—all ostensibly in support of trans men.

Following these guidelines is supportive of the anti-sex agenda of some trans rights organizations and of those trans people who see sex blindness—its softer alternative—as the best strategy to personal wellness.

At the same time, it's detrimental for women who understand that the erasure of things female is deeply regressive in ways that have important expressive and practical effects. As I note in Chapter Eight, "Using the word gender to mean sex, Caroline Criado-Perez speaks to the more general point. "If you can't mark gender in any way," she says, "you can't 'correct' the hidden bias in a language by emphasizing 'women's presence in the world'. In short: because men go without saying, it matters when women literally can't be said at all."

It also makes people mad. In June 2023, NBC News reported an uproar at Johns Hopkins over the university's use of "non-men" instead of "women" to define the word "lesbian." The headline read: "The university's online glossary of LGBTQ terms and identities defined the word 'lesbian' as a 'non-man attracted to non-men' before it was taken down." To this, Martina Navratilova, maybe the most famous lesbian of them all, tweeted:

Lesbian was literally the only word in English language that is not tied to man- as in male- feMALE, man-woMAN. And now lesbians are non men?!? Wtf?!? Unreal … another example of erasure of women. Pathetic

As Navratilova's reaction indicates, the response to this overreach—which may also involve efforts to rename breastfeeding as chestfeeding and mother as parent—is often not conciliatory. Women's groups have sprung up around the world, comprised of females from across our various political spectra, to resist the language land grab, to ensure communication, and to re-center their sex-based concerns. So trans woman, for example, becomes trans identified male. Both describe the same person—a person born male who identifies as female—but the former centers gender as identity and the latter centers sex as biology. As a political statement, they may also insist on using masculine pronouns for trans women and girls.

I get it. It's easy to be mad at advocates who insist on conflating sex and gender (just as we're finally managing to separate them) and getting everyone to prioritize trans people's concerns about sex (just as people are finally beginning to focus on ours). It's also easy to be mad at their bullies who suggest that you should be put down or out if you resist. Being told that the biology that defines your life—in ways good, bad, and neutral—isn't real, doesn't matter, or shouldn't be discussed, that you should instead be defined by the terms that matter to others, and that in general you should step aside—even in spaces that were designed for you because of that biology—can be tough to swallow.

After I bristle, though, I focus on the truth that both sex and gender (in all three of its iterations) are important, and then on the right thing to do, which is to work toward solutions that don't unnecessarily marginalize anyone. These solutions are often not neat and easy, as the following clip from my discussion of pronouns makes clear, but we should still try.

Note: The clip references the point that knowing about other people's sex is adaptive. If you're interested in learning more about that, see Chapters One, Six, and Nine.

[T]hroughout this book I've used trans people's preferred pronouns. I haven't done this to be politically correct, I've done it because in these instances, the two functions of gendered pronouns as I understand them have been served. The first is to convey information about a person's sex…. The second, newer function of pronouns is to convey a person's inner sense of themselves as gendered, i.e., here choosing a pronoun is part of one's evolving personhood and their curated gender expression….

The way I think about it is that once we have the information we need, it's usually best to be supportive of the other person. We shouldn't be made to ignore our interests in having information about sex given that it is adaptive in multiple ways. But once we've dealt with those, unless there are other reasons that might make it personally costly for us to go along, we should be kind (because trans people feel cognitive dissonance when they hear what is for them the wrong pronoun) and respectful (because that's what makes a community successful)….

I know I'm taking a chance, but always holding two thoughts at once and carefully, I'll continue to use people's preferred pronouns when I know who they are. I'll keep saying "no" to formal pronoun campaigns that have the replacement of sex with gender as their goal. And I'll always be looking for other ways to signal that I'm an ally to trans people themselves. If being a good ally—like being a good girl—requires me to be sex blind, that's not possible. But I will still see you.