Words express ideas. That’s why words are important. Words can be used to connect or separate us, to facilitate or obscure communication. Words are especially important when it comes to a culturally sensitive area like sexuality.
I. Editing the Giants
TV journalist Katie Couric recently “edited” her interview with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to omit RBG’s opinion about athletes kneeling during the national anthem. Couric admits she was trying to protect RBG’s legacy as a perfect liberal, and now says it was a regrettable choice. It may look like an ethical gray zone, but there’s no justification for it.
Some people are howling about this breach, while others give Couric a pass, especially those who want to protect RBG’s image.
And at the same time, we have the ACLU actually changing RBG’s words. In quoting Ginsburg’s groundbreaking 1993 testimony about abortion at her Senate confirmation hearing, the ACLU has Ginsburg discussing pregnant persons, when she actually said pregnant women. They made five changes in one paragraph:
“The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a
woman’s [person’s] life, to her [their] well-being and dignity … When the government controls that decision for a woman [people], she is [they are] being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her [their] own choices.”
Changing “pregnant woman” to “pregnant person” is a radical change in meaning–which is exactly why the ACLU changed Ginsburg’s words.
It isn’t clear if the ACLU’s motive was more to protect RBG’s reputation or to make RBG more usable in a fundraiser. Either way, it’s disgusting–it’s even worse than what Couric did, because the ACLU changed the meaning of what RBG said.
To make it worse, the ACLU disingenuously said Ginsburg would have approved their changing her language. Should we then assume that the ACLU—or Morality in Media, or you or I—could accurately divine whether Martin Luther King or Emma Goldman or Eleanor Roosevelt would approve of having their words changed?
The way to honor giants who came before us is to let their words stand on their own. Interpret them if you wish—part of what makes famous words profound is how they can be understood differently by different people—but don’t insult giants by changing their words or protecting them from criticism.
This is particularly true in the case of the ACLU, which is self-righteously claiming how important words are (person vs. woman)—and then actually changing the words of someone who was famously clear about what she meant.
Memo to all vocabulary warriors: you can’t say that words matter and then dishonor words at the same time. Choose one position, not both.
The standards of political correctness change over time. Powerfully effective feminist Gloria Steinem has been denounced as not a real feminist, just as powerfully effective gay activist Dan Savage has been famously denounced as transphobic. Both have been tremendously helpful in advancing civil rights—they just aren’t perfect regarding the changing definitions of political purity.
Demanding up-to-the-moment ideological purity from visible, accomplished activists always limits whatever movement they’re advancing.
II. Microwaves vs Slow-cookers
I heard it again in a TedX by a sex therapist last week, and I hated it as much as I always do: “sexually, men are like microwaves, women are like slow cookers.”
The idea—rooted in centuries of stereotype—is that women need a lot of warming up before becoming interested in sex, while men just need an opportunity. People who contrast these two styles are trying to make life easier for women, and more understandable for men. But they’re simply perpetuating the idea that adult men are essentially horny, greedy, aggressive teenage boys who have no emotional needs or empathy.
This is nonsense. Of course, some individual men or women fit this stereotype perfectly. But in fact, many don’t. And average male and female sexuality converge as adults go through the lifecycle.
The idea that most men have no emotional needs around sexual desire and arousal is false. It’s why so many men who get their first prescription for Viagra never get a second prescription–they discover that the drug can’t erase the emotional issues that cause so much erection and other sexual problems in the first place.
And of course there are many women who are interested in sex without forcing their partners to jump through emotional hoops.
We don’t need separate models for adult male and female desire and arousal. When humans deal with sex, they deal with emotions–including performance anxiety, the desire to be desired, the wish to feel safe, and a fear of rejection. Men and women aren’t nearly so different sexually as the stereotype suggests—and no psychologist or sex therapist should be promoting this myth.
The word transphobic is a sledgehammer that leaves no room for disagreement or subtlety. Of course there are good people who are not sufficiently educated or sensitive about trans issues. We shouldn’t tar them with the same word we use for people who hate trans people or want to deprive them of basic rights.
I have never seen a situation where calling someone “transphobic” leads them to reconsider their ideas or become more sensitive to the implications of their policy positions. Saying “I feel uncomfortable with your description,” or “Please consider how that policy would affect me,” or “Imagine how your sister would feel about that if she were trans” is a far more effective way to educate people—if that’s the goal.
I don’t think that trans people have the exclusive responsibility to train everyone in trans issues. But if you’re going to respond to what someone says by calling them transphobic, expect that they will disagree, and that they will learn nothing. You can decide whether the satisfaction of calling someone transphobic is worth that outcome.
That said, the idea that trans people shouldn’t have the responsibility of educating people about trans issues is untrue. We all have the responsibility of teaching each other about what hurts, whether it’s references to sexual identity, nose size, or one’s selection of fashion accessories. If a trans person wants their trans-ness to be acknowledged and then treated with dignity and respect, people have to be taught how to do that. It should also be acknowledged that people will respect trans dignity in their own way—which might not suit every trans person.
Someone might eat in front of a Jewish person who’s fasting on Yom Kippur, while respecting their choice to wear a yarmulke. That doesn’t make them Anti-Semitic. Someone might be against teaching Critical Race Theory in high school while supporting affirmative action for students and faculty. That doesn’t make them a racist.
If someone mostly respects the rights and life of a trans person but, say, doesn’t believe that minors should receive puberty blockers, or doesn’t like the phrases “gender affirming surgery” or “gender assigned at birth,” this doesn’t make such a person transphobic. It makes them someone with whom someone else might disagree.
Since words matter, we need to bring back phrases such as “I disagree with you,” “I don’t think you understand,” and “I hurt when I imagine people think that about me or my loved ones.”