Common Biologically Essentialist Language

Cat Harsis
Mar 14, 2018 · 10 min read

CW: Discussion of Transantagonism / Biological Essentialism

Talking about gender and bodies can be hard and confusing, even more so, if you actually care about keeping your language trans-inclusive. So have this listicle, which I sporadically update and amend.

What is Biological Essentialism?

Biological essentialism, often shortened to bio-essentialism, is one of the most common forms of transantagonistic language and it generally revolves around using some (most often entirely arbitrary) understanding of “biology” to force a categorization onto people’s identities and award or deny people the validity of their gender. It usually plays out in the form of “.. but you are ..”, so look out whenever that’s about to roll off your tongue. The gender of a person can only ever be determined by the person itself and its validity is (with some obvious exclusions like “attack helicopter” and similar) not dependent on whether you think that’s a “real” gender or not. All gender is made up and just an expression of who we are, which can never be defined, only expressed, by language. As such, one cannot “see” gender, so don’t even try.

1. Talking about “sex”.

While the trans discourse is ever ongoing and may change and loop back on itself, it is generally advisable to speak of gender, when you mean people, and not use gendered language for bodies or bodily configurations. As a rule of thumb, whatever the gender of the person is, is also the gender (or “sex”) of the body. I personally do agree with this article about it, but other trans people might fundamentally disagree (surprisingly, we’re not one monolithic entity!).

Generally, every person has the right to decide for themselves how they talk about their gender and whether or not they see their sex as “the same” as their gender or differing from it. Both gender and sex are, after all, social constructs that resonate more or less with the actual reality. Where ever your self-identification has implications for other people, though, you should thread really, really carefully. That’s why one should never gender bodies, bodily configurations, genitals or other organs independently of their owner. A male person has a male body, male genitals, etc, no matter how they look. A body all by itself doesn’t have a gender. So a penis is not a male genital, not a cis man’s genital either, unless that specific genital is attached to a person that self-determined their gender as “man”.

If it’s necessary to talk about specific bodily configurations, organs or genitals, just refer to the people owning those as people owning those, rather than gendering this inevitably diverse group of people.

Examples are using “reproductive health care” instead of “women’s healthcare”. Many people from all genders have uteri, vaginas, need birth control pills, may want to have an abortion or can bear a child. And more than enough women are not equipped with either of those and don’t have the associated issues, but others, according to their bodies, not their gender.

2. The binary, or “exorsexism”.

Talking about “men and women”, as if those were all genders there are, or “both”/”opposite” genders, or even worse “sexes”. There is an arbitrary number of genders and just because the hegemonic language only recognizes two of them, doesn’t mean the others don’t exist or are any more “made up” than those two. “Sex”, however you want to define it, is not binary either. See here:

I sadly can’t find the original source anymore, so if you want credit, please contact me.

And that binary isn’t even healthy on its own. Read more here:

3. Talking like the discovery channel.

I would generally advise to drop “male” and “female” (and accordingly “males” and “females”) as nouns from your vocabulary. The use of these adjectives as nouns for humans is inherently transantagonistic due to the bio-essentialism that conflates reproductive function and gender. It’s mostly okay to use them as adjectives (as men are male and women are female, even if they are cis, though gendering genitals, bodies or non-human objects/concepts should be frowned upon) and more or less okay to use them for animals, but only because they don’t care. In the end, though, that’s also just a projection of an arbitrary human binary sex/gender concept onto a wildly more complex natural system.
Science and medicine are only slowly coming around and you will find associated texts riddled with these terms.

4. Describing trans people as “mtf” or “ftm”.

Not only does that imply that they weren’t of their gender before, but also that gender can somehow be (medically) changed, rather than exclusively self-determined. It also plays into narratives about how trans people need to “fully” medically transition to be valid, or that the wish to medically transition in any way, shape or form was shared by all trans people.

While some trans people refer to themselves as such, the terms are widely considered outdated and only grandfathered in as self-reference, but never in reference to others or as a general concept.

This also includes calling certain kinds of surgery “sex change” operations. That’s just a big no-no, as explained on top of the list.
There’s a less bad term called “gender affirmative surgery” going round, but it still contains the problematic association between body and gender and is harmful to trans people that don’t feel like their body doesn’t reflect their gender and polynary (non-binary) people in general.

5. Using the term “transsexual”.

If you’re cis: Do. Not. Ever. Seriously. Never.
If you’re trans, this is, as stated above, to a degree open to you for self-identification and self-description, but you should never use the term for others and seriously think about whether you really need that term. Yes, I know that there’s people who want to reclaim that term, but looking at its history, the implied binarism and how it implies that gender is bound to your body and how it plays into the narratives that one needs to have body dysphoria to be “really” trans, it’s just not worth it in my eyes and causes more harm than good. It’s notably also a term mostly used by trans people that grew up during times when the discourse was much younger and less evolved and the public consciousness was nowhere to be found. But again, that’s for the trans discourse to sort out, never for cis people to decide or even ponder. If you’re cis, hands off!

6. Implying that one needs to have body dysphoria to be a “real” trans person.

As implied above, that’s also a no-go. The largest group of people with body dysphoria (meaning that you feel like your body is not configured the way it “should” be) is actually cis people. That’s literally what the whole cosmetic surgery industry is build upon.

Trans people may have body dysphoria, not all do, but pretty much all have gender/social dysphoria, for the obvious reason that society by and large does not accept them for who they are unless they, conform one way or another, to hegemonic binary expectations. There’s reason to believe that a good portion of trans people with body dysphoria have it as a result of them not being accepted with their true gender by society, but that’s a topic of its own and body dysphoria in trans people is to be treated as valid, no matter the actual reasons. While body dysphoria in cis people is largely accepted (again, look at that huuuge cosmetic surgery industry), it is pathologized in trans people for no good reason.

So don’t ask trans people about body dysphoria, don’t assume they have it, don’t mention whether or not you think they adhere to whatever social expectations there might be for people of their gender and never ever think, imply or even say outright that it is necessary for them to be “really” trans. Also never ask about surgery. NEVER. Especially not children.

7. Invoking “genetics”.

There’s nothing genetic about being male or female. Your bodily configuration as far as “sex characteristics” are concerned is *not* governed by genetics, but by hormones. You could have any combination of “sex chromosomes” (a designation which is in itself not quite correct, as only small portions of those chromosomes are even concerned with making the production of associated hormones more likely, they do not guarantee it in any way) and still turn out in any way, due to what hormones your body produces in what quantity at what specific point in your development.

Whatever kind of genitals you have, whether your body develops more based on androgens or estrogens, is not set by your genetics. How these hormones shape you in detail (size, shape, color, etc of your primary and secondary “sex characterstics”) is determined not by “sex chromosomes”, but by genes scattered across your whole genome. So if you look down on your body, be aware that whatever kind of genital you’re looking at is not simply determined by “genetics” and your body might have developed quite differently on the same set of genes, just because more or less of this or that hormone got produced at the right time.

And even more so, be fully aware that both penis and vagina, and everything in-between or outside of that, develops from the same basic organs. Look up “gonads” for more information on that. But fun facts:
# Testicles developed from gonads, just as ovaries did, one moved down, one moved up.
# The scrotum is just fused labia (and you can see a faint line where they merged, too) and a penis is just a really huge clitoris (yepp, even the corpus cavernosum is the same, just differing in size).
# Many people with a penis and no vaginal opening do experience a “phantom vagina”, that is they can feel where it would be and even how it would extend up into their bodies, even though it’s not physically there.

8. Referring to “scientific language”.

There is this notion that whatever terms and concepts are used in a “scientific” context, by “scientists”, medical personnel, etc were neutral or objective in contrast to everyday language. This is decidedly not true. A huge factor there is scientism, the belief that science overall spells the truth and is not affected by social constructs and normative projections.

And the effect is especially noticeable in cis people, as they’re used to scientific or medical terms for their bodies, genitals and gender being distinct from their everyday language (which is all too often riddled with taboos in the first place) and as such perceived as neutral, technical, objective, not socially constructed, but purely based on “biological facts”.

But science and scientists that deal with gender, bodies, “biology”, medicine, etc, are not removed from social constructs or contexts and it’s people — and overwhelmingly cis people at that — that coined that language and introduced all their own biases, misconceptions, social constructs and projections. But it’s that claim to objectivity that is perpetuated by and associated with terms like “science”, “biology”, “medicine”, etc that masks this fact, although each of those have a long history of not only sheepishly playing along to oppressive and normative notions and social constructs, but also actively trying to prove them right.

Point in case is the several hundred year history of scientists and medical researches trying to finally prove that there’s a “biological” reason for the supposed inferiority of women, that there’s a male and female brain or attempting and often establishing practices of pathologizing — among countless other things — homosexuality, clitoral stimulation, and of course being trans. So “scientific language” is by no means exempt from being transantagonistic or bio-essentialist and in using that language scientific findings are often distorted or misappropriated to begin with.

9. Equating being trans with being “gender non-conforming”.

Not conforming to your gender doesn’t make you trans and it’s actually a terf narrative to ditch one’s cis privilege or even deny that one is cis, while at the same time invalidating actual trans people. There’s also no way for non-binary people to conform or not conform to their gender, as only the binary genders even have arbitrary societal norms to conform to.

10. Porno Jargon

I had hoped that I didn’t have to include this on the list as more or less obvious, but after hearing about too many people trying to defend their use of heavily transantagonistic slurs as “okay, because it’s just how you call it in pornos”. …. *deepsigh*

So.. porno jargon comes from a (sub)culture around the pornographic industry, an industry famous for it’s sexist and racist exploitation and almost exclusively focused on mostly penetrative sexual interactions between cis people. And that means that any imaginable form of cissexism and transantagonism is essentially part of it’s very fabric. Not of the fabric of pornography, but of the culture surrounding it, driven by the industry and the norms and outlandish views on trans people and sexuality of their preferred (and best paying) customer: White cis men. And the industry caters to them by degrading everything and everyone else into the mere inferior objects of toxic power fantasies. It’s cleary topic on its own, but those are the people that coin such terms, so there’s nothing neutral, nothing valid about it.

Take-Away

To round things up, let me offer you some phrases if you need to talk about bodies but don’t want to invoke bio-essentialist language.
The easiest way to do this is to speak of “people with <whatever organ or genital or (dis)ability you want to talk about>”. If you want to speak of bodies that conform to what is commonly understood as a “male/female” body, there’s the terms androtypical and estrotypical to describe bodies that formed under the primary influence of either androgens or estrogens.

Cat Harsis

Written by

Just a polynary person (they/them) trying to make sense of the world and share their insights. @purecatharsis on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

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