Biodestiny and All That Jazz

dog-menstruation-L-9egYD3Hard-core discussions of gender have their own lexicon, as do hard-core discussions of anything. Like other vocabularies, this one has made its way into broader discourse as the relevant issue—gender—has entered public discussion. For most of us, terms like intersex, transgender, transsexual, heteronormative, and gender identity disorder have become clearly defined only in the last quarter-century. And it took a fair amount of what seemed, at the time, like ridiculous discussion before such terms were widely accepted in the LGBT community, not to mention among everyone else. So it behooves us to pay attention to a language controversy that some might be tempted to mock, namely the question of what to call a person who experiences a menstrual cycle.

According to Elizabeth Kissling at Ms., talking about “women who menstruate” is incorrect and even offensive. Not only do not all women menstruate; not only women menstruate. That is, the category of women who fail to menstruate includes prepubescent girls, postmenopausal women, those who are pregnant, and those who are not biologically female—that is, transwomen, or persons born biologically male who identify as women. On the other side of the equation are transmen, or persons born female who identify as men but who have not had “bottom surgery.” For this last category particularly, the assumption that only women menstruate has become offensive and shaming, implying as it does that their monthly experience makes them women regardless of their inner identification or outward presentation. To rectify the situation, Kissling and others propose the term menstruator. She writes,

Calling them menstruators is just like changing other biased language. It helps us tell the truth about our lives, and challenge both gender essentialism and biological determinism. It reminds us that our bodies do not determine our identities, and that we are so much more than merely bodies. Some of us are people who happen to menstruate, some of the time. Using menstruators instead of women also helps make vital health information available to everyone who needs it—not just women.

In other words, a transman can go into Planned Parenthood, explain that he is a menstruator, and get help with a problem involving ovaries, fallopian tubes, etc., without having to identify himself as female.

OK, I get it. Furthermore, there may come a time when gender politics proposes a new term for those experiencing prostate problems, so that certain women can seek help for that situation without identifying themselves as male. And I don’t think the issue of language, in either case, is ludicrous, though I won’t be surprised if some comment to that effect.

But respondents to Kissling’s post raised a different objection. “We’re not walking wombs who are MENSTRUATORS,” one commenter wrote. “Incredibly insulting.” Another asked, “Shall ‘incubator’ be the new ‘patriarchal PC’ term for pregnant women?” Indeed, the anthimerical nouning of “menstruate” could have this effect. To slide away from biological determinism for a moment, for instance, I am typing right now, but I do not consider myself a typist and would prefer not to be designated as such.

The challenge, and possibly the solution, to fraught debates like this one may lie (again) not in the term being debated, but in the terms we use to talk about sex (biological) and gender (socially constructed). “Transmen are female,” one respondent to Kissling wrote. “Females are the class of humans [and, one might add, other mammals] that menstruate.” Perhaps, instead of worrying over whether women menstruate or some people are menstruators, we should try, once again, to set the female/male dichotomy off from the women/men dichotomy.

I suspect that menstruator will prove a nonstarter in any sort of mainstream discourse. But it will fail not because it’s a silly term invented to placate silly people with silly concerns. Nor will it fail because it’s cumbersome; “I’m a menstruator” is easier to say than “I’m a woman who menstruates.” It will fail because its effort not to offend some people causes sufficient offense to others that, on balance, the status quo (women who menstruate) will continue.

Moreover, that this blog post, and the Ms. article, and countless other discussions have been and will be devoted to finding terms that describe our lives accurately and without causing people grief or shame is a sign that we’re paying attention to the power of language, not a sign that we are wasting our time on trivial matters. You say such debates are a lot of work? Breaking rocks is a lot of work, as a friend of mine once said. This is just about talking and writing. We ought to be able to manage that.

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