Against Transphobic "Moral Flounce" Behavior
In opposing the misogyny of abortion bans, we can be both inclusive and accurate in our linguistic choices
For many years, I’ve been thinking and writing about the misogyny of abortion bans and restrictions. Misogyny, as I define it, is primarily a property of social environments where women face hostile social forces that function to police and enforce patriarchal norms and expectations. These patriarchal norms and expectations intersect with other oppressive forces, such as racism, classism, ageism, ableism, fatphobia, homophobia, and transphobia.
So it seems pretty simple to me. Abortion bans target and primarily victimize women, who are seen as no longer fulfilling their rightful reproductive and social role as mothers in particular and caregivers in general, to everyone around them. We are perceived as owing our bodies, our minds, our labor, to men and “their” children within a white supremacist, cis-normative hetero-patriarchy. Hence the deliberate cruelty and, in my view, paradigmatic misogyny involved in enforcing pregnancy.
And yet abortion bans affect others too—anyone who can get pregnant, in the first instance. This includes cis girls, trans boys and men, and some non-binary and intersex people. When I talk about who is potentially affected by abortion bans, I thus talk about people who can get pregnant. Not only is this appropriately inclusive, but it’s not exclusive either of the many, many women—trans women, post-menopausal women, and women with infertility issues—who are not currently impregnable.
Want a word that refers to the class of all and only those who can currently get pregnant? I just used one: “impregnable.” Admittedly this word has two accepted meanings in English. But context will almost always suffice to distinguish them.
None of this is particularly difficult or confusing. There are targets and primary (as in, the statistical majority of) victims, on the one hand; there are those potentially affected, on the other. As is often the case, these two classes are not perfectly overlapping.
So imagine my surprise and irritation to learn, via Pamela Paul, the newly minted New York Times columnist, that my using language carefully and accurately in this way is actually the far left’s unwitting misogyny. The far right wields the law to wage war on women; the far left... wields conceptual clarity? She writes:
The far right and the far left have found the one thing they can agree on: Women don’t count.
The right’s position here is the better known, the movement having aggressively dedicated itself to stripping women of fundamental rights for decades. Thanks in part to two Supreme Court justices who have been credibly accused of abusive behavior toward women, Roe v. Wade, nearly 50 years a target, has been ruthlessly overturned.
Far more bewildering has been the fringe left jumping in with its own perhaps unintentionally but effectively misogynist agenda… Today, a number of academics, uber-progressives, transgender activists, civil liberties organizations and medical organizations are working toward an opposite end: to deny women their humanity, reducing them to a mix of body parts and gender stereotypes.
Paul’s column is a familiar mélange of myths and rumors, few of them even vaguely accurate. Supposedly, by referring precisely to the class of people who can get pregnant, we are reducing women to body parts. But that complaint only holds if you assume that the class of women is equivalent to the class of people with uteruses, which is (a) question-begging—assuming the proposition that needs to be proved here— and (b) can’t be proven, because it is inaccurate many times over. Not only do trans women not have uteruses, but neither do cis women post-hysterectomy or who were born without this body part. Paul also asserts that the word “women” is now banned in my circles. As someone who titled my last book, Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women, and encountered zero pushback from leftwing sources for that choice, this is certainly news to me.
In fact, I believe the need to think intersectionally and trans-inclusively here is important for further political reasons that feminists should be cognizant of. When it comes to policing the body, cis women and trans women are very much in this together, with cis women being tapped for our assumed reproductive capacities, and trans women being violently targeted for similarly assumed, and similarly spurious, reasons. The underlying sense of entitlement to a woman’s body—that it must have certain parts, and that these parts must be used in accordance with patriarchal logic—means that misogyny and transphobia are deeply in cahoots with each other. (As well as often directly entangled, as in transmisogyny, the type of misogyny specifically faced by trans girls and women.)
Both the anti-choice and anti-trans movements then conjure up a convenient victim to explain their moral hostility to women in both camps. Both the aborted fetus and the cis woman imagined to be victimized by trans women in restrooms are convenient parties to defend, since they are both non-existent people—the fetus being non-sentient until at least the third trimester, and the imagined cis woman victim in question being a figment of the collective conservative imagination.
And while cis girls are refused abortion care, even in the case of a ten year-old girl currently carrying her rapist’s fetus in Ohio, trans girls (among others) face potential removal from their families by the state if they receive trans-affirming care in Texas. In all of these cases, there is a common plight: a basic refusal to recognize that somebody’s body is for them and nobody else, and they should have moral jurisdiction over what it does, how it functions, and what it looks like, wherever possible.
I’ve responded to these arguments as if they are made in good faith, but often, sadly, they aren’t. This becomes evident when one is taken in a tight circle by Paul and her ilk. The linked exchanges on Twitter from yesterday are broadly representative. They ask you what you are now supposed to call women and girls. “Women and girls,” you inform them. “But what about people who can get pregnant?” “People who can get pregnant,” you reply (or “impregnable people” if you really need an adjective). “You’re reducing women to their biological function!” They complain. No, you point out, because the class of people who can get pregnant and the class of women are non-overlapping in both directions. They simply do not like this. “What should I call my wife and daughter?” They splutter. “A woman and a girl, respectively” you suggest. The argumentative circle keeps on spinning furiously.
As well as being a direct expression of transphobia, I sometimes get the sense that this argument emanates from a kind of resistance to linguistic correction. People may have had to rethink things slightly and update their current usage to better reflect the social and biological realities outlined above. Rather than manage this gracefully, some people exhibit what I’d characterize not so much as a moral panic but as “moral flounce” behavior. (As in: “Well I never!” Think of this character from The Simpsons—who, as pointed out via the links above, may be a person of any gender.) It’s a similar ill to the resistance to so-called political correctness—which should be re-conceptualized, I’ve long argued, as a resistance to political correction. These people do not want to be corrected. They do not want to have to update anything. And then heaven forbid you call their language choices retrograde—or, in impact if not necessarily intention, transphobic.
The truth is, you can be kind. You can be inclusive. You can also be accurate. You may just have to make a small but necessary moral effort. And, if you are not prepared to do that, you should be corrected when applicable and subject to due criticism. That is not cancellation, to anticipate. It is basic accountability.
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