Scrutinized words: man, woman, boy, girl

“Man”, “woman”, “boy”, and “girl” are scrutinized words on this website. You're allowed to use them, but if you do, they will be marked like this: man, woman, boy, girl, men, women, boys, girls.

I encourage you to use gender-neutral alternatives, like “adult”, “child”, or just “person”, as I do. When I'm specifying someone's gender on purpose, I do it explicitly, as in “male person”.

Womyn and wymyn1 are also included for completeness, because I've seen people use them on the Internet. I wanted to include “guy” in the list, but “guy” also means a lot of other things.


Because they lump together a lot of different concepts, and lumping those concepts together is sometimes harmful to people.

Now I'm going to take a step back and explain that. The trouble is, it's not easy to do that. So I'm going to take another five steps back and explain things from scratch.

Part one: Gender

So, there's this thing called “gender”. I wrote a little about it in my post about why I use the pronoun “ze” and scrutinize “she” and “he”. Gender is really important, but nobody knows what it is, so I'm going to skip to something that's easier to describe.

So, there's this thing called “sex”.2 In the case of humans... well, humans are diverse creatures. Some of them have vaginas, and some don't. Some have penises, and some don't. Some develop lots of facial hair when they reach puberty, some develop breasts, some have their voices deepen... and some don't. By a quirk of biology, most of these attributes are strongly correlated with each other, so we've grouped them all into two convenient little boxes. There's the box of deep voices, facial hair, and penises (and a bunch of other things), which we call the “male sex”, and the box of breasts and vaginas (and a bunch of other things), which we call the “female sex”. So if I have a human, and I ask a biologist what sex that human is, then the biologist will look at those attributes. If they all fit in the “male” box, the biologist will tell me that the human is male. If they all fit in the “female” box, the biologist will say female. If the human's attributes don't fit neatly into a box, the biologist will have to use a more sophisticated theory.3

“Sex” is a biology term. Technically, it only refers to an individual's reproductive role. The other associated traits are called “secondary sex characteristics”. In common usage, people say “sex” to refer to both, and most people don't know about any of the more sophisticated theories.

There's another thing called “assigned gender”. When a baby gets born, everybody around it usually looks at its genitals and either says “It's a boy!” and starts giving it toy trucks, or says “It's a girl!” and starts giving it dolls and frilly dresses. When they do that, they're assigning the baby a gender. The baby usually doesn't get any choice in the matter. If its genitals don't look how the people expected, then they probably do weird medical tests to decide which gender they think makes more sense for it.4 Giving people different toys because of what gender you've assigned them is a form of sexism. Because our society is so sexist, people of different assigned genders often end up experiencing the world in significantly different ways.

There's another thing called “gender identity”. For one reason or another, some people have an innate sense that they are a specific gender. Since I don't feel that way myself, I have no idea what that's like, but it seems to be really important to some people, so I generally acknowledge that it is a thing that exists and is important. There are a lot of things that exist and are important even though I don't know how they work. Since gender identity is so important to people, it also has a huge effect on how they experience the world.

When people use words like “man”, which of these things are they talking about? People hardly ever look at someone's genitals, or zir birth certificate, before using those words for them. They usually don't ask zem about zir identity, either.

Imagine this: Alex points that Brett and asks, “who's that girl over there, wearing the fuzzy hat?”. How did Alex decide to call Brett a “girl”? Ze probably looked for external cues. Ze might have looked for things related to sex, like facial hair or chest shape. Ze might also have looked for other things, like clothing and hair length.

By doing this, Alex gives Brett a gender label. But this label isn't sex, it isn't assigned gender, and it isn't gender identity. There are a few different terms for this kind of label: we might say “Alex reads Brett as female”, or “Brett passes as female (to Alex)”. If Brett made this happen on purpose, by choosing the right clothing and body stuff for zemself, then we say, “Brett is presenting as female”.5

Maybe, when Alex said “girl”, ze was only talking about how ze read Brett. But maybe ze was talking about gender identity, and ze simply assumed that Brett's presentation was meant to show that Brett had a female identity. Or maybe ze assumed that Brett was assigned female, or belonged to the female sex in some way. Maybe Alex doesn't know that there's a difference between these things. So, what did Alex really mean when ze said “girl”? The only true answer is that we don't know.

So, have I made my point yet?

Part one and a half: No, I haven't!

The thing is, even though I just wrote a lot of stuff about gender and sex and stuff, that isn't even the original reason I decided to scrutinize these words. I'm not saying it's not a wonderful reason to try to use more specific language, and to avoid overused, ambiguous terms like “woman” and “boy”. But that's not the real reason that I have for avoiding those words.

After all, a person could say something like this:

So what if people use those words to mean a lot of different things? Lots of people use lots of words ambiguously every day; that doesn't necessarily mean that you should avoid the words. It means you should use them correctly. And they're useful words, too: Think about how using the terms “trans man” and “trans woman” affirms trans people's identities, in a way that language like “FtM” and “MtF” don't. Truly “unambiguous” language would say things like “trans person who identifies as female” or “non-female-assigned person who identifies as female”, which, to my ear, sound like they're raising a note of skepticism about that identity, rather than affirming it.

Well, okay, hypothetical person. I like what you're saying. People's identities are generally more important than quirks of their history or biology. So, rather than saying “male-identifying”, it's often better to say just “male”. But since you want us to keep using the word “man” in particular, I'd like to know what exactly you mean when you say “man”.

Simple: A person who identifies as male.

So if I'm eight years old, and I say I'm male, then I'm a man?

Oh. Sorry, I meant “An adult who identifies as male”.

Yes you did. But what the heck is an adult, anyway?

Part two: Age

The same way I talked about in my post about “she” and “he”, there are two problems here. One has to do with how we decide what category to put people into. The other is the fact that we use an oversimplified set of categories in the first place.

Passive exclusion

Suppose I'm addressing an audience, on the topic of feminism, and I say “Women in this country face pervasive discrimination”. There are two problems with that sentence. The first problem, of course, is that it's true. The second problem is that there are plenty of people who face the exact same kinds of discrimination I'm talking about, but whom I've left out. Discrimination doesn't magically start when you hit adulthood, so by saying “women”, I passively excluded a lot of people.6

I decided to scrutinize these words because I kept catching myself saying things like that.

On a related note, think about the hypothetical person I was talking to. Ze didn't even notice right away when ze said “people” and really meant “adults”. That's an easy mistake to make if you've internalized the notion that non-adults aren't fully people. Both this and the example from the last paragraph are examples of ageism. Ageism, as you've probably guessed, is any form of discrimination against people of a marginalized age group. In general, all people who are not yet adults (whatever an adult is) are a marginalized age group. (Ageism also includes discrimination against people who are much older, based on their high age. That's not what I'm talking about in this post, but I'd be wrong to leave it out of the definition.)

Active discrimination

Okay, now go and re-read my post about “she” and “he”, except this time, replace “she” with “child”, “he” with “adult”, and “the minority of people who don't fit in the gender binary” with “everyone who lives past the age of twelve”. Go on, I'll wait.

When does a person become an adult? What the heck is an adult, anyway? It's just like the whole gender thing: Like gender, it's really, really important in society, and like gender, nobody can agree on what it really means.

As long as “man”, “woman”, “boy” and “girl” are our primary words for talking about people with genders (or sexes, or whatever), we're going to have problems. It's not just a problem because it makes it awkward to decide what to say when you're talking about someone who's fifteen years old. It's also a problem because it creates a politics around the age categories. It makes every healthy conversation about gender into a secret nasty conversation about age, and every healthy conversation about age into a secret nasty conversation about gender. Even if you think it's okay to view specific events as coming-of-age events, we have language like “You're a woman now” and “separates the men from the boys” to make it so that you can't just be an adult... you have to be an adult in a gender-binary way! And that's not the only terrible thing it does. Let's look at another example:

There's an issue where people call adult female people “girls”, all the way up through their forties. Some people say it's bad because it reduces competent, independent adults to children.

Sure, that's bad... if you were thinking of children as “lesser” in the first place.

Think about the schoolyard insult “You hit like a girl”. It's pretty obvious how sexist that is. It's not sexist because you're telling a male child that ze's weak; it's sexist because it's built around the assumption that female children suck at hitting because they're female. (Of course, it's also an insult, and you shouldn't be insulting people for no reason anyway, so it's bascially a bad idea on both counts.)

Now think about the statement that calling an adult a “girl” is infantilizing. It's true, just like it's true that “You hit like a girl” is an insult. People call adult female people “girls” because they think of female people as lesser and also think of children as lesser. But if you call out the sexism and not the ageism, you're just like the male child who yells back “I do NOT hit like a girl!” and leaves the basic, sexist assumption intact.

Like I said in the “she”/“he” post, that's only a symptom of the underlying disease. The disease is the fact that our language pushes us to judge people based on their age whenever we mention their gender.

My solution...?

The easy way to communicate clearly is to say exactly what you mean (or as close as you can manage). This means figuring out which things are true, and which are just convenient assumptions. Let's look at an example: Suppose we're debating abortion rights. Quick, tell me! What group is directly affected by access to abortions?

If you said “women”, go find a buzzer so that you can make an annoying buzzing sound to mark your incorrect answer. The group affected is people with functioning uteruses. A lot of people with functioning uteruses aren't adults, and not all people with functioning uteruses are female-identifying. Of course, there's nothing stopping you from talking about how sexism affects legal abortion rights campaigns because of the strong correlation between functioning uteruses and female gender roles, but by saying “people with functioning uteruses”, you have neatly avoided all the passively ageist and cissexist language. It's a lot of syllables, I know, but if worst comes to worst and you have to say it over and over again, you could always shorten it to “uterus-havers” or something.

A few syllables is a small price to pay for a healthy society.

– Eli

  1. “Womyn” is an alternate spelling of “woman”. It was created by feminists in order to have a spelling that didn't contain “man”, as if “men” are normal and “women” are a special kind of “men”. I think this is generally a good step to take, but the word has become associated with a particular brand of feminism that is extremely hostile to trans female people. A key example is the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, an annual “women-only” event that has excluded trans female people and admitted trans male people. Since I am personally trying to avoid the word “woman” entirely, I do not have to decide how I want to spell it. back
  2. Actually, there are two things called sex. Here, we're talking about the one that's used to classify humans and other animals. I'll talk about the other one in a different post. back
  3. If a person is born not fitting completely into either box, the term for that is “intersex”, as in “that person is intersex”. People can also change many parts of their bodies by choice, later in life, but it's not conventional to call them “intersex” unless they were born that way. back
  4. And they often also perform unnecessary surgery to make the baby more like they think it's supposed to be. What a bunch of assholes. back
  5. People can change almost any of these “gender cues” if they want. They can dress in different clothing. They can wear wigs, binders, and breast forms. They can learn to speak in different voices. There are various ways to change the body itself, too. However, these things aren't always related to gender. They only become “gender presentation” if the person is making them be about gender on purpose. And on the other hand, they don't need to be changed – it still counts as “gender presentation” if you present as the same gender every day, as long as it is intentional in some way. back
  6. You could argue that I'm not obligated to include everyone when I make a statement – after all, I have already excluded everyone who's not female, and hence left out a lot of people who face much worse gender-based discrimination than the average cis female person. However, that discrimination might work a bit differently than what I'm talking about at the moment. (In that case, perhaps I should make an additional statement explaining how similar kinds of discrimination can affect those people as well.) However, excluding people by age has very little to do with what I'm saying, so it is not justified. This is especially important because, as an adult, I have a lot of privileges that children don't. back
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