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.

11 Comments:

Blogger Dan López de Sa said...

Very interesting post indeed!

Regarding the research part, I am afraid I lack relevant data as to assess whether sex-bias might have been part of the explanation of lack of research, but certainly seems a possibility. I found the Wikipedia statement concerning the UK quite odd, though, at least on a couple of counts. First, given that “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”, why would the “urino-proposal” be seen as denying the existence of female ejaculation rather than offering a (perhaps empirically implausible, on the face of some results mentioned there) view about its nature? The second part of the statement is also peculiar, on the assumption (which I just take to be true without many grounds, to be honest) that the BBFC would also ban depiction under its rules of (male) ejaculation.

As to the issue concerning ‘(male) ejaculation,’ that’s interesting too. I guess, we are familiar with situations where a general term ‘F’ is in place, and some things resembling Fs in some features associated with ‘F’ without falling under it are referred to as ‘GFs.’ Of course, in these cases we could introduce a new term ‘H’ comprising both Fs and GFs, and start calling them G’Hs and GHs if we wanted, and we could indeed use the old ‘F’ with the new meaning, giving G’sF and GFs. In most cases, however, there seems to be little point in so doing—and something against, if only to avoid confusion.

I take it that the present case will be different, however, provided that indeed the “asymmetric” way we use words is both caused by sexist bias and in turn serves to perpetuate such a sexist bias. But I wasn’t sure about whether you were considering this to be merely a possibility (which it certainly is) or something really actual. Is it the latter? How would you elaborate on it?

9:29 PM  
Blogger Esa said...

Dan, thanks for your comments on my very especulative thoughts on these matters.
Just a quick comment on the BBFC statement: As far as I am aware, nowadays the depiction of male ejaculation is not banned. For instance, the movie '9 songs' shows explicit scenes involving it.
In addition, I find the alternative explanation that you offer equally worrying: if they ban the depiction of female ejaculation because they hold an empirically implausible view about its nature, then such a banning is not properly justified (even if it could be justified in some other way).

2:56 PM  
Blogger Dan López de Sa said...

Thanks! But I am still curious about what you think concerning the bias-issue after all ;-).

The BBFC issue is interesting, I'll do some more research about it.

As to the second thing you mention now, I'm not sure about what you refer to as my 'alternative explanation,' as I did not intend to offer any explanation of anything, just was wondering what it would be to deny that female ejaculation exists vis-à-vis offering views on its nature, emprically plausible or not.

4:10 PM  
Blogger Dan López de Sa said...

Yeah, weirdly enough looks as if (male) ejaculation is allowed for R18, but not urine.

BBFC seems to interpret 'ejaculation' as potentially including female ejaculation, on one understanding of it that excludes its containing urine: hence their response quoted by Wikipedia that their medical advisors said what was depicted in the movie in question was urine and thereby not female ejaculation.

Interesting and odd study case!!

4:59 PM  
Blogger Esa said...

Have you read this article, by Feminists against Censorship?
http://www.fiawol.demon.co.uk/FAC/femejac.htm

6:41 PM  
Blogger Dan López de Sa said...

Yes I did. I am afraid I am not in a position to assess any of the empirical data, though. But I found the response by BBFC conceptually quite interesting. It confirms my suspicion that some people might regard 'ejaculation' differently from what was supposed in your original post. Let 'ejaculatory' stand for certain functionally/phenotypically described kind of event. I take it that BBFC sees 'ejaculation' as a term for a natural kind, individuated by composition/anatomical origin/etc., underlying male ejaculatory events. Hence, whether there is female ejaculation turns into whether the natural kind underlying female ejaculatory events is relevantly similar in terms of composition/anatomical origin/etc. to ejaculation, so understood, and is thus purely empirical, right?

7:53 PM  
Blogger Oscar Cabaco said...

1. The linguistic issue

I think it’s not true that “We have a generic term, 'ejaculation', that seems to refer only to male ejaculation”. We use the term 'ejaculation' to refer to 'male ejaculation' simply because few people have ever heard about 'female ejaculation'. Of course language has a lot of sexist bias; this is something I don’t deny because it’s obvious. But this case seems different

2. The scientific issue

On the other side, it really seems that the lack of investigation over this issue has something sexist in it. But I wonder how it is that all those liberal, non sexist scientists ignored this field of investigation. Is the phenomenon of female ejaculation anything especially hidden? How does a female ejaculation look like? Is that something for which you will need a camera inside the uterus? If female ejaculation is something hidden and difficult to detect that would explain both the ignorance and the polemics about this phenomenon.

12:11 AM  
Blogger Esa said...

Oscar, thanks for this. I am glad you are also sensitive to the existence of sex bias. ;-)
Concerning the phenomenon of female ejaculation, I have to say that it is not hidden and difficult to detect at all. It is quite remarkable, actually. You can read descriptions of it in the wikipedia entry quoted in the original post. Therefore, I'm afraid that that cannot explain the lack of serious scientific research on it. Perhaps "all those liberal, non sexist scientists" are not so many after all, or not very powerful, sadly enough.

3:31 PM  
Blogger Esa said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8:06 PM  
Blogger Esa said...

Dan has pointed out to me that BBFC has a response to the article by Femenists against censorship (FAC).
In this reply, they say that they cut 12 minutes of a certain movie, which claimed to show a scene involving female ejaculation, because what it actually showed was (a standard case of) urine, masquerade as female ejaculation. BBFC does not seem to have any particular views about female ejaculation. Actually, as FAC also note, there has recently been a movie that seems to contain scenes involving genuine female ejaculation (also called 'gushing').
However, I am still worried about BBFC's assertion that "the Board does not in fact take any view on whether or not female ejaculation exists. As you admit in your letter this is a controversial and much-debated area with a range of views being taken amongst medical professionals." Dan points out that a certain semantic conjecture about the word 'ejaculation' would make sense of the dispute regarding the existence of female ejaculation, making this an empirical dispute about "whether the natural kind underlying female ejaculatory events is relevantly similar in terms of composition/anatomical origin/etc. to ejaculation". I think he is right on this. In any case, I think that BBFC's claim, in the context of a reply to the previous article by FAC is a bit unfortunate. For most readers would take such claim, at least on a first reading, to dispute the very existence of what Dan calls 'female ejaculatory events', not so much as a dispute about the underlying nature of such events. To be honest, I don't really know what they mean, though I suspect they mean the former.

8:32 PM  
Blogger sexual-problems said...

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11:41 AM  

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