Been There/ Done That

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Sexist Bias in Language?

Today I have been talking with some friends about a possible sexist bias having to do with the term 'female ejaculation'. On the one hand, some facts concerning the research on the phenomenon of female ejaculation seem to involve sexist bias. For instance, the wikipedia entry on female ejaculation notices that "Up until the 1980s female ejaculation was largely ignored by the medical community...While many in the medical and scientific communities are now acknowledging the existence of female ejaculation, there remains a large void when it comes to solid scientific data explaining the process of ejaculation in females or the source of the fluid itself." It seems clear that this lack of serious research until quite recently, can be explained in terms of sexist bias, concerning what sort of phenomena are taken to be scientifically interesting and what phenomena aren't. In addition, I was shocked to hear that "In the United Kingdom, the British Board of Film Classification denies the existence of the phenomenon of female ejaculation, regarding it instead as urination during sex, thus banning its depiction under its rules."
In any case, I am more interested in another type of bias which might be involved here, having to do not with research on the phenomenon, nor with misunderstandings concerning its nature, but rather with the very terms that are used to refer to it and to its male counterpart, 'ejaculation'. We have a generic term, 'ejaculation', that seems to refer only to male ejaculation, whereas a more specific term is used to refer to the corresponding female phenomenon, namely, 'female ejaculation'. I was wondering whether this linguistic fact could be a case of sexist bias. Why not having a generic term, 'ejaculation', that refers to both processes, and two more specific terms to refer to each of them? Does it matter how we use language in these cases? That is, does it matter for the purposes of eliminating discrimination with regards to sex?
These are all difficult questions, I think. One possibility would be to say that such asymmetry concerning the terms we use to refer to male and female ejaculation could be seen as just a symptom of sexist bias. It could also be argued that such asymmetry contributes to perpetuate certain wrong beliefs concerning the nature of female ejaculation, and female sexuality in general. It seems more controversial to claim that such asymmetry not only shows or causes, but also, and crucially, constitutes, sexist bias. In any case, maybe we do not need this stronger claim to motivate a change in the way the words are used. Perhaps the defense of the weaker claim that the way we use words is both caused by sexist bias and in turn serves to perpetuate such a sexist bias can suffice to motivate an alternative way of using the words.