Talking Honestly About Genitals

Cisgender folks, we need to talk about language again. I’ll be talking about genitals, so some may consider this essay not safe for work (NSFW).

The other day, I was writing a comparison between home-made face masks (low effectiveness against COVID-19) and penile condoms (high effectiveness against pregnancy and STD transfer).

What struck me is that I don’t think I’ve ever seen or heard them called “penile condoms” before. They’re usually called just plain “condoms”, or “male condoms” to distinguish them from the vaginal variety. (Linguistic research: A Google search without quotes gives 18,700,000 results, but with quotes a mere 30,900, including medical sites.)

This reminded me of the brouhaha a few months ago about makers of menstrual products seeking to remove overtly feminine aspects from their packaging. We as a culture continue to call them “feminine hygiene products”.

So here’s the reality: There are women and non-binary people who have penises (and men who don’t). There are men and non-binary people who menstruate (and women who don’t).

There was a time, not so long ago, that I was willing to make a distinction: Male/female as terms for anatomy, man/woman/non-binary as terms for identity. And I get that doctors need to know what body parts you have for certain situations.

Medical professionals, though, would be pretty much willing to go along with whatever linguistic game we wish to play. Among colleagues, they’re generally good with using appropriate medical terms. Yes, they may need to know whether or not you have a functioning uterus, or whatever. There are ways (better ways, even) to ask that than by asking gender.

So I’m not willing to make that distinction anymore.

I believe that one of the driving factors behind transphobia is our cultural reticence at referring as honestly to our “private parts” (even that term!) as we do to other parts of our body.

In 2012, for instance, a Michigan State Representative (Lisa Brown, D-West Bloomfield) was admonished for saying “vagina” on the Congressional floor. Said one White Republican man (Mike Callton, R-Nashville), “It was so offensive I don’t even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company.”

Note that Callton doesn’t seem hesitant about what he might say to other men behind closed doors: He claims to be concerned about the ears of women.

For Brown’s part, she doubled-down: “If I can’t say the word vagina, why are we legislating [on] vaginas? … We’re all adults here.”

Meanwhile, using the word “manhood” for penis is so prevalent that, even when discussing issues of masculinity and toxic attitudes, I have trouble talking about exploring one’s manhood without feeling like I’m opening myself up to snickers and giggles.

Euphemisms like “lady parts” and “manhood” allow us culturally to avoid what are medically correct terms because… why? If we can’t say the words, how can we expect ourselves to have mature conversations about them?

And this is part of the threat of accepting transgender identities: Those euphemisms don’t work anymore. A transgender man who hasn’t undergone any medical treatments and still menstruates doesn’t have “lady parts” and doesn’t need “feminine hygiene products”: He have a vulva and a vagina, and he needs menstrual products. A non-binary person with a penis and testicles doesn’t have a “manhood” (unless that’s a term they choose to use).

Aren’t we all adults here?

Another manifestation of this is the awkward conversation many cisgender people have about whether they’d ever date a transgender person. “I’m attracted to women,” the conversation may go, “but trans women just don’t do it for me.”

If you’re not attracted to a woman with a penis, then you’re not attracted to women: You’re attracted to people with vaginas.

Personally, I don’t think it makes someone shallow to be attracted to people with certain body parts. People find certain hair color attractive, or certain eye color. Breast size, body type, ethnicity, cultural background, … we each have our biases and prejudices, and when it comes to having deep relationships with someone, those biases are going to have an impact.

What I do question, though, is allowing our reliance on euphemisms to hurt other people. “I’m attracted to real women, not trans women” could well be a self-defense against accepting that you’re attracted to people with vaginas (or, more narrowly, to women with vaginas). But it overtly says that you think that trans women aren’t real women.

Say it with me.

Trans women are real women.

Trans men are real men.

If you need to be told that it’s acceptable to not be attracted to transgender people: Okay, you do you.

But it’s absolutely not acceptable to deny another person’s identity because you’re squigged out by your orientation.

And I think that’s a detail we often miss in this discussion. We accept that people who refer to attractions to “real” men/women are uncomfortable about the genital status of transgender people. How often do we acknowledge that such people are uncomfortable about thinking about genitals overall?

Speakers of English and other Indo-European languages have a status quo of putting gender front-and-center. Our pronouns and titles are gendered. Many of our words are gendered. In many other Indo-European languages, every noun has a gender and you can’t talk about that noun without knowing its gender. In English, we need to compartmentalize even total strangers into “he” or “she”.

Culturally, we seem simultaneously obsessed with knowing everyone’s gender identity and with not publicly acknowledging the existence of genitals. This is a fragile dichotomy, and so those of us who prefer honest discussion are ostracized and treated like anarchists.

Objectively, unless we’re exploring sexual relationships or discussing medical issues, there’s no particular need to mention our genitals at all. When we do mention them, though, there shouldn’t be a need for euphemism, particularly euphemisms that hurt trans people.

This reticence to avoid honesty, by the way, harms cisgender people as well. If you can’t talk comfortably about certain body parts, you’re less likely to discuss issues with our medical professionals. There are just shy of 200,000 new cases of prostate cancer a year, and more than 30,000 deaths; there are nearly 300,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer a year, and more than 42,000 deaths. So breast cancer is only about half again as much of a medical issue, but it gets far, far more discussion… because the people who are directly affected by it are more comfortable discussing it (setting aside the separate salaciousness involved in discussing breasts).

Personally, I have had several urinary tract infections. My hesitation about being honest about my symptoms caused my last infection (about twenty years ago, thankfully) to evolve from merely problematic to a medical crisis which landed me in the emergency room.

Our genitals are body parts. They ought to be as boring to discuss as any other body part. We don’t generally discuss our kidney health, but we don’t generally shy away from it, either, if it’s relevant to discuss.

They’re penile condoms, not “male condoms”; they’re menstrual products, not “feminine hygiene products”. Let’s move to a culture where honest terms are not salacious.

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