I think words matter. When someone calls sex trafficking “forced prostitution” or worse a survivor of sex trafficking a “child prostitute” I comment on their article like nobodies business. It is important to use the right words because, legally in the United States, people engaged in prostitution (or “sex work” to use to word folks in that industry use to describe themselves) are voluntarily engaged in a mostly criminal activity while survivors of sex trafficking are not. They are in the sex industry because of force, fraud, coercion, or while being minors, meaning they cannot consent to paid or unpaid sex.
I can get kind of wonky when it comes to cause-specific jargon for issues about which I care deeply. But I have trouble when it comes to other people’s terms, as I mentioned Tuesday when I said the term “kyriarchy” made me feel itchy. Kyriarchy is word, like patriarchy, which describes a system of oppression, except in this case the term means a system where oppressed people go on to oppress other people.
It makes me itchy because it places all of the actors, even the conscious crafters of oppressive systems, into the passive voice. The kyriachy does things, people don’t do things. On the up-side, it is from feminist theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza. One way to unconsciously support kyriachy is to use the language of oppression for one group.
Slurs are one kind of oppressive language. When someone calls me a bitch, that person is not just being insulting, but shoving me into a social stereotype designed to minimize powerful women. But when Randy Newman uses the N-word in “Red Necks” or sings “Short people got no reason / To live”:
He is being satirical. His songs always remind me that words’ power comes from their context and that any word is fair game as long as the writer can justify its use to themselves.
Inappropriate labeling is another form of oppressive language, even when the labels are non-problematic. In the last post, on abortion policy, I made a conscious choice to use the phrase “pregnant people” rather than my preferred phrase “pregnant women.” This is because I read this and, while feeling irritable, decided to give the author’s approach to more inclusive language a try.
Why “pregnant people”? Because that term includes people who were born female, transitioned to male gender identities while keeping their functioning female reproductive parts. (Anyone stuck on sex vs gender? WHO’s got you covered). Therefore a male-identified person could become pregnant. This person is “transgender” and a non-cis person.
What is a “cis person” or “non-cis person”? “Cis” describes someone who presents the plumbing they came with. I am a cis person because I have lady parts and identify as a lady. Someone else might have gentleman parts and identify as a lady, or identify as none of your damn business.
I hated using “Pregnant people” because it was jolting for me to read, so general as to feel like bad writing, and a specialist term for a specialist audience. When I meet a trans person, I always and only refer to her or him by gender they perform, just like I call people by the name they introduce themselves by. That’s basic courtesy. But when I write a blog post about escorting for Planned Parenthood I talk about “women” because that is how us escort describe ourselves, that is how Planned Parenthood describes its clients who receive abortions, and that is how to clients I know describe themselves.
When I talk to an audience of Computer Scientists about sex trafficking, I don’t give them a lecture about the fine-grain distinctions between the terms “sex workers” and “prostituted people,” and how those terms telegraph a political and moral stance. I use the terms my audience comes in with, including ones I wouldn’t use myself, like “hooker” or “prostitute,” “pimp” or “gigolo.”
Sometimes, as a writer and an activist, I eschew perfect language to be clear. I don’t use the word “womyn,” the non-gendered 3rd person singular pronouns “ey” or “ze,” and I don’t say “cis woman” rather than “woman” because those interventions break up my flow. When the words I use inhibit my readers’ ability to follow the current of my arguments, when their eyes run into them and snag as a schooner would on a reef, I have failed.
I believe my ideas rather than my word choice should be what catches my audience’s attention.
There are some cases where I break my flow to make a point. I had a professor my Freshmen year who insisted on only using the male pronoun in every example, every homework problem, every lecture slide. So every assignment I turned in, question I answered, presentation I made, I used the female pronoun. I was being a pest, and I knew it, and I wanted him to know it too.
Though I may be supporting the kyriachy by using the language of the majority, I will continue to do so when I am speaking to a general audience because my arguments are more important to me than perfectly inclusive language.
“Homophobia: the fear that men will treat you the way you treat women.”–@newshoundalex HT to Anthea for the quote.