Humans in general are one of those rare animal species with the capacity to understand and transmit language with precision and detail. Language is among the many ways we communicate with one another and convey ideas, thoughts, and emotions of all kinds. Through language, people come to understand their culture, begin to develop a sense of who they are, and come to know what is expected of them in terms of their social and cultural roles.
While an acorn will inevitably become an oak tree, humans require language and culture to realize their full potential. Cooley talks about the “looking glass self,” whereby other people are the mirrors through which we see ourselves.
Language constantly evolves and changes. Over time, new words enter the vocabulary while others silently die out through disuse. Central to comprehension of the world around us is our capacity to continually analyze how our culture uses words, to investigate and sometimes challenge the meaning of words, and to adopt terminology and definitions that are authentic to our identities and our respective communities.
Many English-language words and phrases in a United States context still in common usage today promote the many forms of oppression. I would like here to concentrate on words and phrases that encourage and maintain forms of oppression specifically based on sex, sexuality, and gender identity and expression.
Language itself often reinforces sexism. Indeed, the language we use expresses the way we experience the world around us, and the words people use in talking about the sexes reveal social attitudes that tend to maintain and advance sexist behaviors.
I define “sexism” as the overarching system of advantages bestowed on males. It is prejudice and discrimination based on sex, especially against females and intersex people, founded on a patriarchal structure of male domination through hegemonic social and cultural systems.
Gender roles (sometimes called “sex role”) include the set of socially-defined roles and behaviors forced onto people according to the sex they are assigned at birth. This can and does vary from culture to culture.
Our society recognizes basically two distinct gender roles. One is the “masculine,” having the qualities and characteristics attributed to males. The other is the “feminine,” having the qualities and characteristics attributed to females. A third gender role, rarely condoned in our society, at least for those assigned “male” at birth, is “androgyny” (sometimes called “unisex”) combining assumed male (andro) and female (gyne) qualities.
When males and females both exhibit similar outward behaviors, the sex we are assigned at birth will often determine the societal value affixed to those behaviors. For example, what may be seen as “assertive” behavior in a male may be called “pushiness” in a female. A male may be seen as being “enthusiastic” or “passionate,” whereas a female is accused of being “emotional” or “on the rag.” Where a male is viewed as “confident” or “firm,” a female, on the other hand, is considered “stubborn” or “bitchy.”
When a woman aims to step higher on the job ladder in business, moving outside the gender role assigned to her, she is sometimes accused of “trying to be like a man” and she is considered “too masculine.”
Though referring to non-human animals, names are sometimes applied to people depending on their assigned sex at birth. For example, people refer to males as “studs,” “stallions,” “bucks,” “rams,” “wolves,” and “lions,” whereas females are “foxes,” “coyotes,” “kittens,” “pussies,” “bunnies,” “birds,” “chicks,” “lambs,” “bitches,” “shrews,” “cows,” “dogs,” “nags,” “beavers,” and “sows.”
The animals used to refer to males signify bravery or sexual prowess, while most of those applied to females tend to be either negative in tone or they cast females in the role of sexually-passive vessels.
Other words, usually used as “masculine” and “feminine” nouns, have not-so-subtle differences in meaning that reflect the values placed on males over females. Masculine nouns include “brave,” “king,” “wizard,” “landlord,” “patron,” “fatherly advice,” “sir,” “master,” “bachelor,” “host,” “player,” “red-blooded American,” “the stronger sex.”
Feminine nouns include “squaw,” “queen,” “princess,” “dame,” “broad,” “witch,” “landlady,” “matron,” “old wives’ tale,” “the weaker sex,” “madam,” “ho,” “whore,” “slut,” “nymphomaniac,” “maiden,” “mistress,” “bachelorette,” “hostess,” “old maid,” “old bag,” “easy,” “frigid,” she has a “maiden name,” and is a “cock tease.”
In addition, some words seem to apply almost exclusively to females, such as “flirt,” “moody,” and “hysterical,” carrying negative connotations. In fact, the term “hysteria” from the 19th century C.E. was used to refer to females only, and was thought to be caused by a disturbance in the uterus, from the so-called “wandering” or “floating womb.”
The binary “male/female” does not reflect the vast variety of human sexed bodies and gender identities. In addition, the phrase “opposite sex” adds to the discourse of sexism. While males and females are different in a number of ways in terms of our biological and social programming, we certainly cannot be considered “opposite.” Also, opposites are not possible since humans comprise more than two sexes: male, female, intersex.
“Intersex” stands as an umbrella term used to describe individuals born outside the male/female binary with external genitalia and internal reproductive system or chromosomal patterns that do not correspond with the traditional definition of either “male” or “female” assignments at birth. The socially constructed and imposed hierarchical sex binary is a foundational element to sexism, as well as to heterosexism and cissexism.
Taken in tandem, these linguistic “double” standards reflect the sexism still enforced within our society. Sexist language intersects with heterosexist and cissexist discourses.
Heterosexism and Cissexism in Language
I define “Heterosexism” as the overarching system of advantages bestowed on heterosexuals. Heterosexism is the institutionalization of a heterosexual norm or standard, which establishes and perpetuates the notion that all people are or should be heterosexual, thereby privileging heterosexuals and heterosexuality, and excluding the needs, concerns, cultures, and life experiences of lesbians, gay males, bisexuals, asexuals, trans, and intersex people. Many times blatant and at times subtle, heterosexism is oppression by design and intent, and also neglect, omission, erasure, and distortion.
The Latin prefix “cis” means “on the same side (as)” or “on the side (of)” or “to/this the near side.” “Cisgender” (non-trans*) refers to individuals who match the sex assigned to them at birth with their bodies and their gender identities. Other terms include “gender normative,” “cismale,” “cisfemale,” and others.
“Cissexism” (a.k.a. “Binarism,” “Transgender Oppression,” and “Genderism”) comprises a conceptual structure of oppression directed against those who live and function external to the gender/sex binary, and/or the doctrine that they do not exist at all.
Larger coercive hegemonic battalions are bent on destroying all signs of sexuality and gender non-conformity in young and old alike, and in the maintenance of pre-determined gender scripts. Most of us function as conscious and unconscious co-directors in this drama each time we enforce sex, sexuality, and gender conformity onto others, and each time we relegate our critical consciousness by failing to rewrite or destroy the scripts in ways that operate integrally for us.
Certain words and phrases (in all their linguistic variations and dialects) related to human sexuality and gender identity and expression we need to critically analyze and to relegate to the archives of history, words that marginalize, stereotype, separate, limit, and justify oppression.
These words include “Born Out of Wedlock,” “Illegitimate Child” (no person is “illegitimate”), “Bastard,” “Artificial Insemination” (rather “Alternative Insemination”), “‘Normal’ or ‘Natural’ Sexuality & Gender Identity and Expression,” “It’s against ‘Natural Law’,” “Regular Guy,” “‘Alternative’ Sexuality & Gender Identity,” “Red Blooded American,” “Trying to ‘Pass’ as Another Sex,” “Homosexual,” “Homosexual Lifestyle,” “Alternative Lifestyle,” “Gay Agenda,” “Homosexual Choice,” “Transgender Choice,” “Chosen Lifestyle,” “Fence Sitters” (bisexuals), “Hermaphrodite” (rather “Intersex”), “Just Confused,” “Just a Stage You’re Going Through,” “You’re Too Young to Know,” “They’re Just Rebelling,” “I Don’t See You as an LGBT Person. I Just See You as a Person,” and “We Hate the Sin but Love the Sinner.”
It also includes “Old Maid,” “Maiden Name,” “Confirmed Bachelor,” “None of Those People Are Here,” “Pre-Marital Sex,” “Losing Your Virginity” (rather “Sexual Debut”), “Pre-op” & “Post-op,” “Sexual Reassignment Surgery” (rather “Gender Confirmation” or “Transition”), “Grow Some Balls,” “Man Up,” “Wimp,” “Tomboy,” “Straight Acting,” “Sexual Preference” (rather “Sexual Identity”), “Same-Sex Marriage/“Same-Gender Marriage”/“Gay Marriage” (instead: “Marriage for Same-Sex Couples”), “Act Like a Lady,” “Act Like a Gentleman,” “Speak Man to Man,” “Girly Girl,” “That’s So Gay,” “Effeminate,” “Fag,” “Faggot,” “Pansy,” “Pussy,” “Light in the Loafers,” “Butch,” “Dyke,” “Fem,” “Tomboy,” “Diesel,” and I could continue ad infinitum.
Many individuals are challenging the notion of personal gender pronouns and using terms outside the current gender binary (he, his, him / she, her, hers) by asking to be called pronouns that are gender inclusive or gender neutral such as ze/hirs/hir, per/pers, zie/zirs/zir, and others. Some people are now employing the pronouns they/their/theirs as singular pronouns to more closely align with their gender identity.
Each time we rewrite the scripts to give an honest and true performance of life, each time we work toward lifting the ban against our transcending and obliterating the sex, sexuality, and gender status quo by continually questioning and challenging standard conceptualization, only then will we begin as individuals and as a world community to lift the socially constructed hierarchical binary systems of artificiality, which operate contrary to human lived experience.
I would like to thank Dr. Diane Raymond for her invaluable input into this commentary.
Get the Daily Brief
The news you care about, reported on by the people who care about you: