Cervix Please


Last week, Andrew Marr asked Labour leader Keir Starmer about the phrase “only women have cervixes”, referring to a statement made by massive bigot Rosie Duffield MP, whom the Labour Party seems intent on indulging. Starmer responded that it was “not right” and “shouldn’t be said”.

I have to admit that this surprised me. Not because it’s a surprising thing to say, but because it’s surprising for Keir Starmer to take a stand on anything, especially on something he’s been so keen to sit on the fence about until now.

What didn’t surprise me was the subsequent outrage from TERFs, who get very upset when you do such offensive things as acknowledging that trans people exist. They took to Twitter, repeating the statement thousands upon thousands of times in a mass-scale act of outright hostility towards trans people. Twitter, of course, did nothing about it, and the following days in the media were filled with hate columnists trying to blame trans people for being attacked.

It did somewhat surprise me that Health Secretary Sajid Javid got in on the action. Not that it surprised me that a Tory would be hateful, but it did surprise me that he would outright admit that he believes trans healthcare doesn’t matter at a time when his purview is under scrutiny for its abject failures in that department.

But never mind surprise, what frustrated me about both the initial question and the subsequent outrage was the insistence on taking the statement at face-value. The sheer dismissal of any investigation of context or intent behind the statement, anything at all that might indicate why it’s such a big deal.

Very Quick Linguistics Primer

In linguistics, we can analyse an utterance on three different ‘levels’.

  • Syntactics isn’t technically exactly the same thing as grammar, but they’re similar enough that one can be a useful analogue for the other. It focuses on sentence structure. It looks at word order and morphology. Is this utterance a statement or a question? Is this word a verb or a noun? What tense is this verb?
  • Semantics focuses on the actual meaning of the words in an utterance. Sometimes ‘semantics’ is used almost interchangeably with ‘meaning’, but in this model, it’s specifically a quite surface-level meaning, as in “to what thing or concept does this word refer?”
  • Pragmatics is about other things that can’t be captured by semantics. Things like context, likely intent, any necessary real-world knowledge to interpret meaning, and so on. A good example is rhetorical questions — rhetorical questions and genuine questions are, both syntactically and semantically, identical. The only difference between them is pragmatic.

These levels can influence each other in both directions. It’s self-evident that syntax can change semantics: we know, for instance, that “pigeon blood ruby” and “ruby pigeon blood” mean greatly different things, after all, even though they use the same words. But semantics can also change syntactic analysis, as in the statement “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana“.

More importantly, the semantic and pragmatic levels can influence each other. If I, in Scotland, say “it is raining” and someone in California says “it is not raining” we can both be telling the truth, even though our respective statements are semantically contradictory. Pragmatics tells us that the statement “it is (not) raining” has a hidden qualifier of “where I am”, and that it is possible (perhaps even likely!) for the weather in Scotland and California to be different.

Intent can also make a difference. It’s fairly obvious that intent can make a difference, because indirect language is a thing. The statement “it would be good if you washed the dishes” and the command “wash the dishes” are semantically quite different, but pragmatically very similar. The former is, semantically, a mere observation, but as it is an odd thing to observe, we deduce an unspoken expectation behind it. Anecdotally, I’ve heard that non-native speakers of English sometimes have difficulty picking up this unspoken command, and I know from personal experience that autistic people sometimes do as well. The meat of the point I want to get here is: There are things communicated by a person’s choice to say a thing that are not directly communicated by the thing they say.

Cervix Semantics (Didn’t he write Don Quixote?)

Some people claim that “only women have cervixes” is wrong on a syntactic level because the plural of cervix is cervices. I don’t: I think cervixes is an acceptable pluralisation. But that’s about the extent to which the syntactic level is germane to this part of the discussion.

On a semantic level, sure, I would argue that “only women have cervixes” is wrong. It’s untrue because the quantifier ‘only’ excludes anybody who is not a woman from having a cervix, but there are trans men, AFAB non-binary people, and intersex people who are not women who do in fact have a cervix. But I’m going to say it’s nothing to get particularly outraged about on a semantic level. Most people who have cervixes are women. To say that all are is, semantically, just an overgeneralisation, and, again, on a semantic level, it’s nothing to get too upset about.

But then there’s the pragmatic level. The level that deals with context and intent. The reaction of “only women have cervixes” came in the context of response to medical practitioners trying to be inclusive of trans people, and so the intent — the point — of saying “only women have a cervix” is to signal that you refuse to call trans men ‘men’ and AFAB non-binary people ‘non-binary’; to insist that trans men are “really women”; to assert that being trans has no legitimacy; to, in short, intimidate trans people. And yes that’s transphobic. Frankly, I don’t know why I have to explain that that’s transphobic. It’s very cocking obviously transphobic!

This in passing defuses another TERF talking point that they rolled out to defend “only women have cervixes” — they insist it’s sexist because nobody ever says “people with penises” or “people with prostates”. And to a point it’s true: outside of the trans community (of course TERFs ignore what goes on within the community, of course they do) they mostly don’t. They mostly put it under the label of “men’s health”.

But for that point to hold any water, you first of all have to assume that trans women enjoy being called men, which is an obvious lie. It is weird to assume that trans women not being acknowledged is part of the Trans Agenda™, but that’s TERFs for you. Secondly, we more or less tolerate it because we understand that it is just a semantic overgeneralisation that is not being deployed with the intent of harming us, unlike “only women have cervixes”.

TERFs are conflating objection to ‘women’ instead of “people with cervixes” (which is really the mildest of objections, but on balance, inclusion is better than no inclusion) with objection to “only women have cervixes” (which is obviously stronger for the reasons I’ve just explained). In essence, they’re conflating the objection to inconvenience with the objection to outright hostility, which I think says a lot about how TERFs see the world.

In the same way, we don’t complain much about health advice for people with penises being targeted at men, but we absolutely do object when you say “only men have penises”. And there’s absolutely no way you can be a TERF and not know that we object to that, so how about you, you know, stop lying? Is it even possible for a TERF not to lie? I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it.

Adult Female Humans

This practice of saying a semantically fairly innocuous thing to signal a more extreme position via pragmatics is called dogwhistle politics. It’s a kind of coded or euphemistic language, like how “traditional family values” is a euphemism for “I hate gay people” or how “states’ rights” is a euphemism for “I hate Black people” or how “pro-life” is a euphemism for “I hate women people with uteruses”.

The point of dogwhistles is to create a patina of respectability, of plausible deniability, over a signal that is very well understood by other bigots as a message of solidarity, as well as by their targets as a threat.

And TERFs love their dogwhistles. “Adult human female”, “sex-based rights”, “I [heart] JK Rowling”, “I stand with [someone who said something transphobic]”, “women won’t wheesht”, and, yes, “only women have cervixes” are all euphemisms for “I hate trans people”.

The thing is, TERFs insist on the semantics when they talk about these terms. Particularly “adult human female”. “How could you object to that?” they say. “It’s literally the definition of ‘woman’!”

I mean, first of all, the definition of ‘woman’ is “adult female human”, not “adult human female”, because using ‘female’ as a noun to describe human women is, uhh, kinda misogynistic, but I’m sure as definitely real feminists, you already knew that.

I’m not being pedantic here: TERFs switch the word order to rely on the fact that female as a noun only really has a biological meaning, and therefore excludes trans women, whereas as an adjective its definition is somewhat broader. More specifically, the related adjective of the noun ‘female’ is the adjective ‘female’, while the related adjective of the noun ‘woman’ is… also the adjective ‘female’. This doesn’t imply that the adjective ‘female’ means the same thing when applying to both of them, but rather makes the adjective ‘female’ polysemous — it has more than one meaning — which is inconvenient to TERF ideology, with its Orwellian insistence on words having only one unambiguous meaning, so they focus on the noun instead.

In linguistic terms it is a syntactic shift that changes the meaning of the phrase, in order to privilege a definition by biology. I don’t particularly want to gloss over that TERFs continually accuse us of “trying to redefine ‘woman'” while they are doing exactly that, but let’s move on to pointing out that that definition by biology is exactly the same reason it’s misogynistic to refer to a woman as “a female”.

Which leads us to the second point. On the assumption that ‘female’ is biological, feminists (I’m talking here about actual feminists) have been arguing for decades about whether that’s a useful definition. Simone de Beauvoir argued against it in 1949. It’s more than a bit disingenuous to assert that over 70 years of robust feminist discourse over countless books and journal papers is trumped by the authority of flicking through a dictionary, even if we ignore the lying about what the dictionary actually says.

Thirdly, there’s an obvious semantic self-contradiction in insisting that women are defined by biology and then complaining about terms like “people with cervixes” that “reduce women to biology”.

But more importantly than any of that (although especially because of that), like the pragmatic difference between a genuine question and a rhetorical one, we can tell the pragmatic difference between a definition and a slogan. As a slogan, we have to take into account its context: why it’s used, how it’s used, and by whom it’s used. And it’s pretty obvious that it’s used by transphobes to intimidate trans people. Factoring that in, the question then becomes: “Oh, so I suppose you think it’s ‘transphobic’ to use a slogan that is used to intimidate trans people?” And the answer becomes: “Obviously yes.”

In this way, the difference between semantic readings and pragmatic readings is related to what we can think of as a distinction between intrinsic meaning and extrinsic meaning. Take the swastika. Before the 1930s (at least in the West; in the East, as I understand it, this is largely still the case), the swastika was an ancient religious symbol with a generally positive meaning. Then Adolf Hitler applied this positive meaning to the Nazis. He did not change the intrinsic meaning of the symbol, but the extrinsic meaning became negative because of who used it, how he used it, and why he used it. We can see a similar (albeit less extreme) shift in the significance of Norse runes and Celtic crosses due to Nazis’ interest in that iconography.

And there is not so great a difference between talking about symbols and talking about words — words are symbols, essentially, and especially when they are used as slogans. Staying with the Nazis, we could argue about the intrinsic meaning of Arbeit macht frei, but we mostly don’t, because we understand that what’s important about the slogan is its extrinsic meaning that comes from it being posted above the gates of concentration camps.

Aristotelian rhetoric is made up of three components: logos (reason), pathos (values and beliefs), and ethos (credibility). We can analyse appeals to logos on the basis of intrinsic meaning, but we cannot analyse appeals to pathos on the basis of intrinsic meaning, because we have to understand the extrinsic meaning of which values and beliefs are being appealed to. A common tactic of TERFs and other fascists is to present pathos and demand it be analysed as logos. I almost don’t want to call it a ‘tactic’, as that implies a conscious choice: Rather, part of the fascist mindset is the belief that one’s own values are a Primeval Truth that should be used as the basis for reason.

And that’s entirely the point of “adult human female” and, for that matter “only women have cervixes”. They express values that their speakers want to pretend are not values, because if they were values then they might be transphobic. (They are transphobic.)

But What About…

TERFs also argue that “if you say ‘people with cervixes’ then people who know they are women but don’t know they have cervixes might not know that applies to them”. This is a lie. Know how I know it’s a lie? Because I have seen multiple cases of TERFs becoming enraged about this kind of language in documents that then went on to explain who “people with cervixes” (or “people with uteruses” or “people who menstruate” etc.) includes. What they really object to is the mere acknowledgement that trans people exist. Because TERFs are a fascist hate group.

It might well be a “genuine concern” that people with English as a Second Language might not know what “people with cervixes” means. I mean, unless they also happen to speak Afrikaans, Azerbaijani, Croatian, Dutch, Esperanto, Filipino, German, Indonesian, Italian, Malay, Maltese, Portuguese, Spanish, Sudanese, Swedish, Turkish, or probably some other languages besides, all of which have a similar word like ‘serviks’ or ‘cervice’ to mean the same thing, not to mention French, which does not have the noun ‘cervix’, but does have the adjective ‘cervical(e)’. But that’s beside the point. The point is: when a solution to that concern is proposed that doesn’t involve transphobia, such as explaining who it means, TERFs aren’t interested, because to them, the transphobia is the point.

Aside from ESL, there is a genuine problem with reproductive anatomy being poorly understood, even by native speakers. But I don’t know how to explain that the solution to that is to talk about said anatomy instead of insisting that we don’t mention it and veil it under the euphemistic language of ‘women’ — it’s just one of those cases where it’s already too obvious to merit explanation. It’s therefore also pretty obvious that trans people aren’t the problem, here. TERFs have, for once, identified a real problem, but instead of looking at ways to increase awareness of reproductive anatomy, have decided that the “solution” is to perpetuate that problem and just attack trans people instead. The transphobia is the point.

This is a common theme with TERFs. It’s why they’re so bad at excluding trans people from single-sex spaces. Legally, in the UK, exclusion of a trans person must be “a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”. ‘Proportionate’ in this sense effectively means that there is no other feasible means of achieving that aim that does not involve exclusion. In order to exclude a trans person, you’re legally obliged to first consider whether other options exist: something TERFs refuse to do, because, again, the transphobia is the point.

Others have spoken more authoritatively than I can on the need to include trans men in these aspects of healthcare. As I am not a cervix-haver myself, I will defer to them. They talk of humiliation, of not being taken seriously, which TERFs dismiss with, “oh so it hurts your feelings”. Even if it were just a case of hurt feelings, that emotional toll is unnecessary and avoidable, and furthermore represents a real barrier to uptake of healthcare. TERFs think it’s acceptable because the transphobia is the point. The hurt to trans men achieves nothing, but TERFs like it when trans people get hurt. Try claiming that’s “not transphobic”!

A similar thing occurred back in February, when The Times, among others, caught wind of the healthcare practice of describing ‘breastfeeding’ as ‘chestfeeding’ when you’re talking to trans men, and falsely decided that this actually meant you weren’t allowed to say ‘breastfeeding’ any more. It was an outright fabrication, of course: You’re still allowed to say ‘breastfeeding’ most of the time, but the guidance simply stated that trans men might be more comfortable with an alternative term. This accommodation for trans men costs absolutely nothing, but it was still considered unacceptable to Lionel Shriver, who was evidently outraged that trans people were being treated with dignity and sensitivity. The transphobia is the point.

But the toll isn’t just emotional. There are practical health service issues where trans men are not invited for cervical screenings when they should be, (and, less importantly, trans women are invited when they shouldn’t be). There are even cases where trans men’s needed appointments are cancelled on the assumption that it must be a mistake! But these are rather prosaically a records system design issue, and not a Revealed Truth about the Universe. Much like awareness of reproductive anatomy, the fact that the healthcare system doesn’t adequately account for trans people is not evidence that the healthcare system shouldn’t adequately account for trans people. There are obvious solutions to that that do not involve transphobia, like improving the design of the system, but TERFs aren’t interested in those, because… well, you get the idea.

This goes for just about every so-called “genuine concern” that TERFs try to bring up. The vast majority of them have solutions that don’t involve transphobia. Hell, a good number of them have solutions already in place that TERFs just pretend aren’t there. They aren’t interested in non-transphobic solutions for the simple reason that these aren’t “genuine concerns” so much as they are “excuses to do transphobia”.

Bodies That Matter

TERFs love to pretend that inclusive language is a misogynistic attempt to control how women talk about their bodies. But nobody is trying to tell you how to talk about your bodies. The bodies in question here are trans bodies, which are quite decidedly not yours. It’s not a terribly convincing illusion that I’m the misogynist and my opponents are the feminists when I’m the one having to explain that you do not get to claim ownership over other people’s bodies.

Likewise, saying “people with cervixes” instead of ‘women’ is not “reducing women to biology”. It is an expression of what (most) cis women and disparate other groups have in common. Objecting to it is akin to reactionaries objecting to “Happy Holidays” as a catch-all for Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, and Yule, because they hate that people who aren’t Christian are being included. But TERFs further suggest it is ‘dehumanising’ to acknowledge that other groups besides them also count, which is quite obviously hypocritical nonsense.

TERFs try to play victim by saying, “oh, so now we’re not allowed to call ourselves women”. Of course you are allowed to call yourselves women: the objection is literally to you calling other people women. Toddlers of eighteen months old understand the difference between self and other: Why don’t you? Good grief, and these people call us narcissists…

The other side of this accusation of misogyny is that TERFs keep insisting it is “men” (i.e. trans women) who are trying to control how women are talked about. Last week was littered with totally normal accusations of “cervix envy” which I’m quite sure must be a definitely real thing. A sizeable contingent of TERFs has decided that our objection to “only women have cervixes” is that it somehow means trans women aren’t women. But the thing is, “only women have cervixes”, thanks to the quantifier ‘only’, doesn’t mean “women have cervixes”; it means “people who have cervixes are women”, which doesn’t exclude trans women at all.

I’ve said this before on this blog, but trans women pretty obviously don’t object to the term ‘women’ to describe ourselves. We literally use it! The point of using “people with cervixes” or “people who menstruate” or “pregnant people” or anything of that nature is to include people who aren’t women. But, as TERFs keep complaining we say, trans women are women.

But because TERFs only hate, it doesn’t occur to them that it makes absolutely zero damn sense for trans women to object to the word ‘women’ on our own behalf. They refuse to understand that our objection is one of solidarity, not self-interest, because the reality would contradict the fantasy they’ve constructed of us in their heads.

More than that, though, the TERFs who claim this has anything to do with trans women are telling on themselves. By insisting that “only women have cervixes” means something it doesn’t, semantically, mean — that trans women aren’t women — they reveal the pragmatics, their intent. And that’s how we know it’s transphobic.

“Genuine concerns” notwithstanding (and they certainly don’t), TERF rhetoric on this matter boils down to being angry at the acknowledgement that trans people exist, and might be treated with respect. There is no way to spin that as anything other than the speech of a hate group, and it is infuriating that anybody still tries to pretend otherwise.