[DWJ] Sex/gender

Minnow minnow at belfry.org.uk
Sat Apr 21 12:47:48 EDT 2007

I asked:

>> > Can it be that the mealy-mouthery of saying "gender" instead of "sex"
>> > applies only when distinguishing between the male and the female of
>> > the human species?

(Please note that I refered simply to the male and female.  We have to
retain *some* words for whether the person/cat/dragon in question is one of
the ones providing the ova or one of the other ones, and male/female still
seem to have that as a usual meaning.)

Otter and Ika both responded, and each expanded on what I had clumsily
tried to express, which was along the lines "is it only when they want to
establish what genitalia a *human*, as opposed to a cat or dragon, has,
that people speak of gender rather than sex?", but I feel that both didn't
see which direction I was going in, so I had better expand on that myself.

I feel that when the question is "what sex are you?" (or "is this baby?" --
can one have any idea of the probable *gender* of a new-born infant?), as
in "I am your GP and I need this information so that I know whether your
belief that you have cancer of the womb is reasonable or loony" or "I am
your bank manager and it is none of my damn business" or "this is a fairly
pointless demographic survey to establish the balance of male and female
among people who have bothered to turn out and vote" or "you are buying a
CD from our organisation and we are trying to pry into our customers' lives
in order to build up records in our database", to use "gender" instead of
"sex" (since the answer is effectively "M/F cross out one or the other") is
mealy-mouthed silliness, as well as being essentially dishonest.

If you wrote in "butch" they would be baffled.  Anything longer they would
almost certainly ignore completely.

None of these institutions is interested in gender differentiation of any
meaningful sort, they merely want for whatever reason good or bad to know
whether the person filling in the form is male or female by the generally
accepted criteria -- ie whether they have male or female genitalia.  They
want the answer to an either/or question.  The reason they use the word
"gender" is not in the least high-minded nor intellectual nor because they
are actually interested in anyone's spiritual or mental or even physical
orientation within a broad spectrum, it is simply to circumvent the twerps
who will write "yes please" or "nothing like enough" into a space marked
"sex".  (Terrible temptation to put "if none read nun" into that space.)
In other words, as far as I can tell the reason they don't use the word
"sex" is entirely because it can be deliberately misinterpreted to mean
coitus (or variations thereon).

>Here, by the way, I get personally annoyed at the claim that the term
>'gender' is a 'mealy-mouthed' substitute, or a 'euphemism' for the
>term 'sex':

(A claim I did not make for such use in anything other than particular
circumstances, which I admit I failed to make completely clear.)

>From which I gather that you share my irritation with its being used thus.
The word "gender" is a serious tool in serious discussion of particular
matters in a specialised group of fields, and to have it taken and used in
a context in which it is essentially meaningless is as much of a pest as
the hijacking of the words "complex" ("I have a real complex about
pastry"), "allergic" ("I'm allergic to being bored"), "quantum leap" ("he's
making a huge quantum leap here")

need I go on?  We all have pet examples of specialist words that are
routinely misused.

And dammit, "gender" *is* mealy-mouthery when all they want to know is what
a person's sex is, male or female as regards genitalia!  And I still think
that it would have been a great deal more amusing if they'd called it the
Sex Relations Act...


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