Talking about Bodies in Gender Friendly Ways

On the one hand, I know that not everyone with a uterus identifies as female. On the other hand, when I’m talking about body parts I sometimes slip into writing as if body parts had genders, as in “female reproductive organs.”

Here’s a handy guide from Dean Spade that offers guidance and alternatives.

He writes, “I wrote up a little something about the language that we use to talk about body parts that are most strongly associated with gender norms. It might be of use, particularly, to health practitioners and others who talk about bodies a lot.”

Dean Spade is an Assistant Professor at Seattle University School of Law. He teaches Administrative Law, Poverty Law, Law and Social Movements and Critical Perspectives on Transgender Law. His website is here.

Thanks AZ.

17 thoughts on “Talking about Bodies in Gender Friendly Ways

  1. Those suggestions strike me as bizarre. Feminists have pressed for the sex / gender *distinction*, and that has been very helpful. But the suggestion seems to be that we should never talk about a person’s *sex*, only her/his *gender*, and I don’t see why this should be. Only people whose sex is female can be pregnant. What’s wrong with talking as though this is true?
    (The author seems to be motivated by considerations of transgender people. That is what I can’t understand.) (It seems to me to be a separate issue whether the existence of people who are intersex should cause us to change our language–but again, I don’t think so.)

  2. I’m worried that Cartesian dualism is simply being inverted here. Spade has no trouble speaking of “people” as men/women male/female (based on subjective self-identification, I gather), and yet anatomical and physiological ensembles (which are quite distinct from the people who live in them?) aren’t male or female.

    I understand myself as the kind of gender-queer person who has no trouble acknowledging several particular physically female aspects of myself (body being a facet of self) and a couple male aspects of my embodiment as well, but if you ask whether *I* (the whole person) am male or female, woman or man, I draw a blank — or at least, don’t feel anything like clear recognition. Parts can be gendered without the whole being gendered. I cheer for clarity, and yet driving all gendered *and* sexed concepts into an apparently non-physical domain of identity-subjectivity does not seem especially clarifying to me.

    Have I misunderstood something about Spade’s proposal?

  3. I am not sure from Dean Spade’s piece what he wants to suggest about language used to speak of animals other than human beings. Does the suggestion extend to our no longer (for example) discussing ‘the female reproductive organs’ of Tamias striatus i.e., chipmunks? Or is the idea that the language of ‘female reproductive organs’ etc., is a form of language that should be eschewed for human beings but is all right when speaking of other animals? Dean Spade’s suggestion involves a radical change in the ways we speak of human beings, but it is not clear whether it is also meant to involve a radical change in the way we speak about other animals, or a radical break between the language used for other animals and the language used for human beings. Maybe there is some third possibility that I am not seeing. His piece is meant to be helpful to people who talk about bodies (which indeed we all do, not just health practitioners); but it is formulated as if talk about bodies was talk about human bodies — but everyone who has a dog or a cat (for example) talks about the bits of their bodies. My point is not meant as criticism of the suggestion as such: it is the point that we can’t really see what exactly is being suggested if we don’t see what it comes to, for talk about animals more generally.

  4. What is the sex of a person who has XX chromosomes, was assigned female at birth, and has since then had a hysterectomy, top surgery, extensive testosterone hormone treatment, and identifies as male? Is his clitoris still a female body part? I think Spade makes two points. First, the bodies of many gender non-conforming or trans people do not fit either category. A person’s body shouldn’t be pigeon-holed into either category, just as a person’s gender shouldn’t. Second, even if, e.g., a transwoman’s body did in some sense fit the normal stereotype of a man’s body, the woman’s reproductive organs wouldn’t be reproductive organs of a man; they would be reproductive organs of a woman. By insisting on calling a person’s organs and body parts, e.g., male when the person is a woman, one is implying that they are only properly organs and body parts of a man, and that the proper role and function of those organs in the life of a person is determined, not by the person who has them, but certain other privileged people who have such organs.

  5. I’d be interested to hear someone who finds Spade’s proposal unproblematic address Cora Diamond’s remarks about animals. While human beings are different in some significant respects from other animals, we are animals (which is something that physicians and such are more conscious of than most). Unlike certain senses of “gender”, biological sex is something we have in common with other animals, and it does seem as though in theory we – and especially people engaged in facets of the biological sciences – ought to have a vocabulary of biological sex (and related things like dimorphism, binary gametes and so forth) that reflects this.

  6. I thought of it particularly in the context of health care. I was recently thinking about the ways in which the gendered system of health care delivery hurts trans people who are forced to either not get good care or fit themselves into boxes that seem foreign and alien. Do transmen have to get pap tests at “women’s health centres”? And sometimes even cis men need to get mammograms. They have breast tissue too. I think we’d do well to reduce the amount of health care speak that is about “male” and “female” and instead talk directly about the body parts or hormones in question. And as a philosopher, I often prefer more concrete, direct ways of speaking, If we mean to refer to a uterus, why not just say “uterus”? “Female reproductive organs” sounds vague and coy when contrasted with the actual names of the parts in question.

  7. It is interesting to read the comments before reading Spade’s suggestions. I was expecting something really wild, but it turns out to merely be a recommendation not to attribute sexes to parts of bodies. This doesn’t seem outlandish; my own mother has been without a uterus, ovaries or a breast for decades, and has expressed more than once a desire not to hear a “uterus” referred to as a “female” part. She finds it irksome to have to point out that she is a female, that the uterus removed from her was not a “female,” and that it did not reduce her state of “femaleness” to be herself minus a uterus. She is very firm on this point in particular, that she is just as female now as she was before.

    Yes, typically the presence of a uterus supervenes on the presence of XX chromosomes, but their supervenience doesn’t require that uteri be accorded genders. They’re muscles, distinctive and typically women’s but organs all the same. I held one in my hand once, and found that a moving experience; it was only the size of a fist! (The body-donor from whom I lifted it had never had children.)

  8. Profbigk, brava to your mother, she must be a very determined one.

    I wouldn’t have thought, though, that by describing, say, a reproductive system as “the male reproductive system” we are saying that the organs themselves are “males”, are we? It’s a distinct, though of course related, sense of the term. Nor would I have thought that the use of the term intrinsically suggested that a person who had it removed was less of a male. (That would be, it seems to me, similar to saying that a human being whose legs were not present was not a biped, or that she was not an instantiation of a bipedal species, or that homo sapiens was less of a bipedal species by reason of her existence.)

    Also, I think the gender vs sex distinction is causing difficulties here.

  9. An analogous reaction to Spade’s happens to me whenever someone says (usually a child), “You’re wearing a man’s shirt.” Hm. “Do you think I am a man?”
    (no.) “Well, then, this shirt of mine can’t be a man’s shirt then, can it?”

    We lose nothing (but time d to syllables) by speaking of clothes-marketed-to-men. Yet I’m not sure there’s a good analogous general concept like “body parts associated with (?) males” even though there is considerable use for such a general concept.

    One aspect of theses issues that hasn’t been mentioned is the euphemistic appeal of phrases like “female area” and “male organs”, as well as their vagueness, which is attractive in some non-medical contexts. (“I go to the gynecologist to have the health of my female parts checked out,” a person might say, so as not to need to produce a list of organs.) People who speak this away may go so far as to say, “the parts that make you a man/woman” — and such metonymy (the penis being one’s manhood, etc.) is harmful and insulting. If the post-hysterectomy comment was about having “one’s female parts” removed, then the umbrage taken makes sense to me.

    But nothing about calling a part female implies that the part is essential to a person’s femaleness (or womanhood, etc.), any more than a person who lacks (or sheds) a particular “philosophical idea” is thereby not-a-philosopher.

    We all reject sex-monism (there’s nothing about gender that doesn’t reduce to one’s overt physical sex) they’re trying to challenge. But I remain uneasy with both the liberal-standard sex-gender distinction (bodies or their parts or processes are sexed, selves/minds/souls are gendered) and this new gender-monism (there’s nothing at the bodily level that the “sex” distinction rightly tracks). As Cora Diamond’s comment implies, it is odd to speak as though *all* there is is gender… even for gorillas and mice? Have we left animality behind, disdained?

  10. I think there may be a little bit of talking past one another. I don’t deny that either the male/female distinction or the man/woman distinction can be useful in many, many contexts. However, I think that both are destructive when they are part of a framework for regulating social practice (and healthcare is a good example). Once these distinctions form part of our social/normative background, the correllation between sex and gender takes on prescriptive as opposed to merely descriptive force. You are not a full man or woman if you do not have all the male or female parts. That’s just part of our culture, whether we would like it to be that way or not. Moreover, because most people do not make the sex/gender distinction, the impact of talking about male body parts has the same effect as the impact of talking about body parts properly associated with men.

    This is why I think that although it is in itself unproblematic to discuss the sex of animals using the male/female distinction, I think it is in itself problematic to discuss the sex of humans using the male/female distinction. The male/female and man/woman distinctions are problematic because of the role they play in the social arena, not because they aren’t useful distinctions. I actually think that the proper thing to do to facilitate scientific practice would be to introduce new words for both humans and non-human animals (maybe: XX- and XY-associated organs–XAOs and YAOs?), so that scientific discussion will not bring these norms in with them, or at least not as much. But this is a hard question, precisely because the facility of descriptive practice pulls apart from the desire to have a more egalitarian and open social environment.

  11. Nemo, thanks, and indeed my mother has qualities of stubbornness which I enjoy (except when I don’t). Ally’s comment #11 nicely captures what my mother would likely say, which is that whether or not the phrase “female body parts” logically necessitates according gender to organs (and she would agree that in an acontextual argument on a blog, one does not entail the other), her experiences in social practice is that actual individuals often assume or imply that you are not a full man or woman if you do not have all the parts.

    Of course we sometimes find it useful to talk about men’s or women’s reproductive systems, just as we sometimes find it useful to talk about men’s or women’s alimentary or pulmonary systems. But these are ways of talking about observed patterns of health, illness and so on, with all their attendant biases and limitations, and not ways of talking about properties of objects.

  12. Reply to Ally, who said that it is ‘just part of our culture’ that, if you do not have all the male or female parts, you are not a ‘full man or woman’. I have not had a uterus for more than thirty years, and I have never heard anyone make any sort of suggestion that this means I am less than fully a woman, nor have I even heard that there were people who would think this. Lots of people knew about the hysterectomy, so this was not hidden at all; and I have known other women who have had hysterectomies, and have never heard anyone suggest anything about their being not fully women. I have also had friends involved in the decision to have a hysterectomy or to have their medical problem handled in some other way, and the issue of ‘loss of womanhood’ was not part of the discussion of pros and cons of the different approaches. I am not denying that there are cultural tendencies which Ally is describing, but I think the idea that this is simply part of ‘our culture’, whether we like it or not, gives a somewhat false impression. Perhaps we live in a range of somewhat different cultures, on this issue.

  13. Sorry, I did not mean to imply that everyone has the same experience, or the same culture, with regard to these or any issues. I am very glad that Cora has been in such a supportive environment. But I do think that the idea that one’s sex has normative bearing on their gender is pretty deeply ingrained in much of the Western world, and that trans people face this on a daily basis. Just to illustrate, here is a map created by the National Center for Transgender Equality that tells you what the requirements are for changing the gender on your driver’s license.

    A huge number–if they have a policy at all–make it a legal requirement that you have had, or have scheduled, sex reassignment surgery. I think this illustrates how in fact the male/female distinction is used to discriminate against trans and gender-nonconforming people, who may or may not want to have sex reassignment surgery, or may or may not be able to afford it.

  14. I found Spade’s piece extremely useful. The more I think about biological sex, the more I think of male and female as mere heuristics or umbrella terms. There are a plurality of orthogonal markers of biological sex, including sex chromosomes, sex hormone production and responsiveness to sex hormones and various aspects of morphology. (In some other sexually reproducing species, sex markers can also include with whom one mates and what sort of offspring one produces. There are, for instance, three mating types of fire ants, all three of which are necessary to keep the species from going extinct. Hell, there are 20,000 mating types of wood mushrooms!) In any event, these markers don’t always match up tidily. This is true of transfolk and intersex people, but also for people with a variety of medical (and non-medical) conditions that aren’t necessarily counted as intersex. And, if you look at each of these sex markers individually, some seem to be binaristic, where some are discrete but not binary categories, and some are continuous. To overlay a simple binary category over all of these orthogonal binary and non-binary markers strikes me as nothing more than a “facon de parler” or convenience. While it’s a convenience that sometimes does us some good and sometimes at least does us no harm, it can sometimes be painful or marginalizing for those who are most clearly do not fit into the shoehorned binary categories. Given this, Spade’s guide is most welcome!

  15. I also find Spade’s piece very useful – and I don’t share the worries about whether having care in talking about human body parts commits us to talking about animal bodies in similar careful ways (though folks might be interested in Eva Hayward’s work on trans issues in invertebrates or, of course, Joan Roughgarden’s book Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People). I’ve been very interested in the work of biologists like Anne Fausto-Sterling, who have for a long time been talking about the problems with the bright line that in some way feminists believed could be laid between sex and gender. We/they did that for good reasons – to make some claims about the social mutability of gender roles and the non-determinancy of sex systems on gender – but as Fausto-Sterling and others point out that’s made it more difficult than it need be to talk precisely about bodily being, about biology. Her book Sexing the Body is pretty well known on this, but I’ve also had good luck teaching her “Bare Bones” articles, in which she does some gorgeous work on physicality, sex, and gender. A lot of her work is available on her website:

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