Bad Science

Sep. 1st, 2010 10:57 pm
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
[personal profile] tim
I am a man in a man's body. Whose body would I be in if not my own?

Whenever I say something like this, someone always seems to ask whether there's a particular incident that it's about. The answer right now, like usual, is no. I don't know about anybody else, but I don't generally experience oppression in the form of a specific person directly informing me that they are about to begin oppressing me, so would I please fasten my seatbelt and put my tray table upright. No, it's more like little reminders dropped in passing that I'm not welcome in a particular situation or that I'm not as much of a person as the next guy.

Like tonight. I was leaving an ostensibly trans/genderqueer/gender-variant-person-friendly
event when I noticed copies of an article sitting around about "genderqueer etiquette". I'd like to draw your attention in particular to this passage:


In the age of girls’ nights out, bachelor parties, women-only Sacred Goddess gatherings and men-only nights at the hot tubs, genderqueers are often playing the "Am I welcome?" game. It can be a difficult thing for any event organizer to figure out. If it’s a "safe space for women," will some participants consider ladies with dicks a threat? If it’s a "gay dudes only" night, will a guy packing a silicone cock ruin the mood?

Whatever you decide, be abundantly clear in your invitations. It’s okay to say that something is "for female-bodied people only." If your event is open to a broader crowd, it’s useful to say something like "This event is open to all self-identified men" so non-male-bodied men know they’re welcome.


While the author of this article IDs as genderqueer, I, as a binary-identified trans person, still feel completely confident in responding: Allies, ur doin it wrong. I'm addressing trans people and their would-be allies in what follows; if you're about to tell me that I shouldn't police your language and you'll use whatever words you want to use so don't be so nit-picky, you shouldn't bother, because I'm not talking to you. I am talking to people who are interested in speaking accurately and in making it clear, through the language they use, that they accept trans people as equals.

That said, let's deconstruct some parts of the above passage. The author assumes that it's a given that it's okay to hold events that exclude people based on... well, based on what, exactly? Before we can critique that assumption, we have to know what it really means to limit an event to "female-bodied" or to "male-bodied" people.

I would presumably be welcome at an event listed as being for "female-bodied people" (why? I'll get to that), but I suspect that any ladies attending such an event would look funny at a bearded interloper who sings in the bass section, and I wouldn't feel welcome in such a forum anyway. (For similar reasons, I don't go to events billed as being for "women and trans people", which usually means "cis women and trans men".) I'm pointing this out not to belabor the obvious, but to further complicate the meaning of a phrase like "female-bodied people".

What about an event for "male-bodied people"? There are fewer of those (why?), but if someone were to tell me I was not welcome somewhere because they believed I was "female-bodied", I wish they would do me the courtesy of telling me what they really mean by that and exactly which body part they presume I have that menaces them so. I don't know why somebody would segregate an event based on body parts that aren't visible in most social contexts -- and, depending how you interpret "male-bodied people" and "female-bodied people", possibly based on body parts that aren't visible unless you have a scalpel or a microscope -- anyway.

But I'm being deliberately coy, because in general people organizing events for "male-bodied people" or "female-bodied people" are organizing events for "female-bodied people" and wish to exclude trans women. So, again, I ask -- not just in the context of event planning, but in the context of people earnestly trying to describe what it is that makes trans men different from -- y'know -- regular men -- what does "female-bodied" mean?

When somebody is trying to differentiate a trans man from a man who was assigned male at birth (we call the latter a "cis man"), and they call the trans man "female-bodied", what do they mean?

Do they mean that he has breasts? Well, many cis men have breasts (or perhaps all of them do, depending on whether you're talking about breasts per se or just breasts of a certain size), and many trans men don't.

Do they mean that he can become pregnant and give birth? Well, clearly that ability isn't necessary in order to be "female-bodied" (did your mom become "male-bodied" when she entered menopause?). If we're saying that having that ability is sufficient for being "female-bodied", on the other hand, it's not a case for trans men being "female-bodied", since trans men who have taken testosterone for more than a few years generally aren't fertile (unless they stop taking it).

Do they mean that he has a female brain (that is, a brain that functions best with an estrogen-based hormone balance and that's wired sexually to expect a body with a clitoris, vulva and vagina)? Well, he doesn't have one, because he's a trans man. But if you're the kind of person differentiating bodies into "male" and "female", brains apparently don't count as part of the body. (Cartesian dualism lives!)

Do they mean that he has a vulva? Well, maybe he doesn't, but it's likely that most trans men do, given the inaccessibility and varying quality of genital reconstruction surgery for trans men. So if you really want to organize an "event for people with vulvas", then say that that's what you mean, rather than being coy with terms like "female-bodied".

We could rattle through a long list of other traits of supposedly "female-bodied" people, and generally we can point out that most traits are absent in some trans men and present in some cis men. Chromosomes? Let's talk about XX males, not that you typically know what someone else's karyotype is anyway; what kind of party requires a DNA test for entry? But rather than doing that exercise, let's try a different thought experiment. In the common parlance, is it possible for a "male-bodied" person to become "female-bodied", or vice versa?

Since "female-bodied" and "male-bodied" are so often used as synonyms for a cis woman or trans man (the first) or for a cis man or trans woman (the second), I think the answer is "no". Someone whose externally observable sex characteristics were all indistinguishable from those of a woman who was assigned female at birth would still be deemed "male-bodied" by someone who's apt to use these terms in the first place. And that's why we have to consider the possibility that "female-bodied" and "male-bodied" are terms that describe your body only indirectly (at best), and that really describe the judgment that an observer made about you when you were born.

(To the retort that once female-bodied, always female-bodied because "you can't change your chromosomes", I'd note that you can't change your blood type either; so? Such an argument is based on confusing the common (but inaccurate) logical deduction "A appears female to me, therefore A's karyotype is XX" with a nonexistent inference rule that says "If A's karyotype is XX, then A is a girl or woman." The point is that we attribute gender based on observable characteristics, and the only time non-researchers tend to bring up unobservable characteristics like genes and chromosomes is when they're looking for a post hoc justification of the decision they've already made to deny someone's gender. Saying a trans man is "female-bodied" because he has XX chromosomes -- or because you believe they do, more likely -- is essentially saying "I insist you're not a man because I'm aware that you're trans," since the chromosome test never gets applied to people whose gendered legitimacy hasn't already been questioned. It's just an attempt to clothe subjectivity in a cheap facsimile of scientific objectivity.)

So if you mean to limit your event to "people who were assigned female at birth", then say that. And in any context, when you mean to say that a person was "assigned female at birth", it's best to describe them as just that, not as "female-bodied"; it's primarily a matter of clarity and secondarily a matter of declining to participate in the reproduction of an oppressive discourse.

(Now for extra credit, dear reader, you can deconstruct "biologically male" and "biologically female".)

Going back to the original passage: Being "abundantly clear" about your intentions, as an event organizer, seems hard to argue with. But that's really not good enough, because if you're going to exclude some people, you need a reason. Events that are just for people of color, or just for women (need I remind you that by that I mean self-identified women?), or just for trans people, are justifiable because people in all of the above groups have histories of being shouted down by the majority in a group that includes both majority and minority people. Events that claim to be for women but that exclude trans women -- given that cis women are in a superior political position to trans women -- are harder to justify. "No Irish need apply" is very clear, but these days we can generally see the problem with that.

In short, why are you segregating your event in such a manner at all? Some men have vulvas, some men have penises, some women have vulvas, and some women have penises. Isn't it time -- as a culture -- to get over it?

(no subject)

Date: 2010-09-02 06:45 am (UTC)
miang: Miang Hawwa (with Opiomorph), Xenogears: May God's love be with you (and there's nothing I can do). (Default)
From: [personal profile] miang
Thank you for taking the time to make this post. I know there have been occasions when I've used some pretty fucked up language concerning gender, chromosomes, and body parts in the past, and I like to think I'm generally over that, but pointed reminders in clear language are always helpful.

I have a somewhat tangential question that I'd like to ask regarding the one instance I regularly encounter where the difference between men with vulvas and men with penises is quite important; is that cool to do here, or would you prefer I shelve that for another time and/or place?

(no subject)

Date: 2010-09-02 05:44 pm (UTC)
miang: Miang Hawwa (with Opiomorph), Xenogears: May God's love be with you (and there's nothing I can do). (luc - destiny)
From: [personal profile] miang
Oh yeah, no worries on this end re: public posting; just didn't want to create an undue distraction from the event-planning topic.

I may have broached this with you before, but I can't remember whether I have or whether I typed up a long thing about it and then deleted it for being too wordy and off-topic. :) In short, my concern is public health research, especially with respect to underserved and/or minority populations (which frequently overlap). I do a lot of survey programming, which means (a) I'm the one who gets to fight with the PIs over language use; and (b) I'm responsible for the survey logic -- I frequently need to skip questions for certain participants or redirect based on specific responses.

We have a set of questions asking about gender, because we are genuinely interested in that. (My division is not as good as it should be, but Adolescent Medicine has a whole subgroup of researchers and practitioners focused on transgender youth, so it does behoove us as an organization to know both how many trans kids/young adults we pick up in our studies and how they prefer to identify themselves.) Participants can usually choose "male," "female," "MtF transgender / femme queen" (a shit-ton of qualitative work apparently went into making sure those were equivalent and acceptable options; YMMV), "FtM transgender," and "other"; for most surveys we give participants the option to specify what they mean if they choose "other" -- so we'll occasionally pick up "ungendered" and other sundry responses. There is a question about whether these are a complete, appropriate, and/or non-offensive set of options, and I'd love some anecdata on that, but it's actually not my main question.

My main question concerns the sexual risk section. Our studies are usually funded by NIH/NIDA HIV prevention initiatives, so we need to be able to assess and report on sexual risk behaviors. This means we need to be able to ask about a wide variety of sexual behaviors. Up to this point, and against my vociferous protests, this has been done by segregating based on gender: people who answered "male" or "MtF" to the gender questions (and were assumed to be pre-op, I guess, for no apparent reason?) get the "male-bodied" set of sex questions: who and what have you stuck your dick into lately? And people who answered "female" or "FtM" get the "female-bodied" set of sex questions: who and what has been put into which holes?

Our most recent study has illustrated quite beautifully the complete and utter failure of this approach. We wound up with participants identifying as "female" that our interviewers clearly felt were trans and failing to pass -- I don't even want to go the verbal dressing-down I had to give a couple of them for their language use on that topic, but they are right that it likely resulted in unusable sexual risk data. We wound up with a handful that did identify as trans (mostly MtF; a couple FtM) and two "others" who didn't specify what kind of other; we didn't ask about surgical status, though, so the upshot is that now we're basically only looking at the "male"-identified participants for sexual risk behavior. (And some of those might have been pre-op FtM, in which case, we get what we deserve data-wise for those guys.)

I'm already fighting an uphill battle on this ("82% were male, that's good enough for analysis, right?") but I'd like to be able to approach the powers that be with a better, more inclusive solution for the future. The obvious one would be to ask all body-parts questions of all respondents, but these surveys are long and rather exhausting -- respondent fatigue is of serious concern already, and we put a lot of emphasis on cutting unnecessary items; PIs will not go for that. We also don't want to invite confrontation between interviewers and respondents; asking "what is your gender" followed by "what genitalia do you have" is likely to create hostility or worse with some of our populations. We have one study that asks "what is your gender" and "what sex were you assigned at birth," which is maybe closer, but still doesn't adequately capture current body structure.

The best approach I've been able to think up in the few months since we finished data collection is to ask the gender question up front to get a sense for the language people want, and then, much later in the sex section (which is often self-administered anyway), a select-all-that-apply question about what parts people have and then direct them to the appropriate sexual behavior questions based on that. (I guess we'd have to specify not to count silicone/removable appendages? This gets so complicated! And what do you do if people fail to admit they have an anus?!)

This calls to mind a related question that I can't even get into right now about whether HIV and other STI risks are really the same with surgically constructed genitals compared to ones present from birth. Maybe there's a fundable study in that, but I'm not in a good place to write that grant right now myself. :)

tl;dr: survey research is hard, let's go shopping (for silicone parts). If you -- or your readers -- have any suggestions for useful alternative question structures for our surveys, lay 'em on me, because the current system does not satisfy me as an analyst in the slightest.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-09-02 07:37 pm (UTC)
miang: Miang Hawwa (with Opiomorph), Xenogears: May God's love be with you (and there's nothing I can do). (matilda knights - sepia)
From: [personal profile] miang
Trans women didn't get asked about whether they were getting fucked? Queer cis men didn't get asked about whether they were getting fucked?

I was being overly blase in my summary, as we do ask everyone about that. :) But the questions are tied to anatomy: right now cis men and trans women are getting "how many people have you had anal insertive sex with (your penis in their butt)?"; "how many people have you had anal receptive sex with (their penis in your butt)?"; and "how many people have you had vaginal sex with (your penis in their vagina)?" Trans men and cis women are getting "how many people have you had anal receptive sex with?" (and similar for vaginal), with no descriptions of what that means; they're not being asked about insertive sex of any type. (Oral sex is handled in separate questions that everyone gets, and for some reason we don't bother asking about toys or fingers or what have you.)

Anyway, it's fucked for slightly different reasons than I may have led you to believe, but I'd agree it's fucked nonetheless. I'm pleased (professionally at least) to see we're doing better than your former doctor, but I think we've got a long way to go before we're fairly or accurately describing the community risk levels, much less addressing them appropriately.

It also can never hurt to include some explanatory text like "We're aware that different people have genders that may or may not match their current genitalia or the sex they were assigned at birth. We're also aware that neither gender nor assigned sex nor genital configuration determines what kinds of sex people have, so we want to ask about all kinds of sex acts, including some that you may not feel are appropriate for your gender or choice of partners."

This is fantastic. We do include messages from time to time to defray concerns about sensitive topics, but this kind of wording would be new and really, really valuable. I can see a couple different project teams going for it. Thank you!

As far as silicone/removable parts goes, maybe it would be best to leave those questions in, even if you don't use the answers, in order to make it clear that the designers don't mean to imply that sex with a silicone cock isn't sex?

I and one coworker (who's been doing field work for years and years) have been advocating for inclusion of more sex acts -- we don't even ask about rimming, for god's sake -- and our survey's treatment of lesbians is just woefully dim. So there's room for improvement, and I'll keep pushing for it; frankly, I think we have horribly shitty estimates of activities that do carry risk for STIs other than HIV, particularly where use of toys is concerned.

If you happen to think up a good reference, please do let me know -- I have to argue with TPTB about content, but I have quite a bit of leeway in specific language choices, and most arguments fall very quickly when someone can point to any previously published work, peer-reviewed or otherwise, as a guide. Your tax dollars at work, &c.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-09-02 06:47 am (UTC)
ajnabi: cartoonic photomanip of my face (with some body) against a colourful patterned background (Default)
From: [personal profile] ajnabi
hi! i came over here via latest things on dreamwidth.

thanks for writing this post. i'm working on changing a lot of the presumptuous language i use in my privilege as a cis person, including "malebodied" and "femalebodied". making a poster like that is really fucked up. :(

(no subject)

Date: 2010-09-02 11:43 pm (UTC)
ajnabi: cartoonic photomanip of my face (with some body) against a colourful patterned background (Default)
From: [personal profile] ajnabi
yeah, undoubtedly the privileged "difficulty" in changing such language is nothing compared to people for whom it is a matter of life and death, like you said in response to one of the comments below mine.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-09-02 11:46 pm (UTC)
winterkoninkje: Shadowcrane (Default)
From: [personal profile] winterkoninkje
You could always try starting a new movement to use "lame" in an anti-pejorative sense, sort of like what happened to "sick" a while back (or "dude" for that matter).

...Or maybe that only works in '80s flicks.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-09-02 06:17 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] emp42ress.livejournal.com
I see why the sort of exclusion you are discussing is problematic. However, the changing and unclear boundaries around what language is and is not acceptable make it really hard to have meaningful conversations about gender perception and gender identity.

If I am discussing (as in the conversation from which this was linked to) my perception of an individual who is wearing a dress but, at a fast glance, appears to possess male secondary-sex characteristics, it is very difficult to discuss this person without either using "male-bodied" or automatically assuming that this individual is trans (which is the perception difficulty under discussion, and not necessarily the case). Do you have alternative wording suggestions for conducting such discussions?

(no subject)

Date: 2010-09-02 06:39 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] emp42ress.livejournal.com
It's a question of gender pronouns. I know a fair number of people who dress in ways that are not mainstream congruent with their gender identity. I was discussing the fact that it is frequently difficult to know what pronoun someone would prefer. The fact that the individual is wearing feminine clothing does not necessarily mean that the person prefers feminine pronouns: in fact most of the people I know who appear to present male secondary sex characteristics (sorry, looking for a way to say "look male"?), but wear feminine clothing still identify as male. I don't care, I just want NOT to bother people by using inappropriate pronouns

I need some way to talk about it in order to have this discussion. I'd be happy to use any terms, but I'm not willing to be told "don't discuss this." It's extremely relevant to my social interactions and, in fact, to NOT pissing people off

(no subject)

Date: 2010-09-02 06:47 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] emp42ress.livejournal.com
That's fair, and, in the other thread, I was actually saying that I tend to just avoid gendered pronouns for all people who peg as "blurry" in some way. My main point is that this is a useful and important concept to discuss, and that I really dislike the discouragement of discussion.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-09-02 06:54 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] emp42ress.livejournal.com
Oh, I understand that issue, and with the exception of "how do I describe the neat individual I'm talking about so as to distinguish them from other individuals" I'm not talking about discussion of individuals. However, if we can't agree on ANY terms to discuss these questions, how are we supposed to have the meta-discussion either?

(no subject)

Date: 2010-09-02 09:42 pm (UTC)
eriktrips: Coffee: you can sleep when you're dead! (coffeeSleepwhenDead)
From: [personal profile] eriktrips
My attention span is too short to get through all the comments, but I made it through the post and hope that you don't mind if I link to it, like, in a few places. You don't, do you?

(no subject)

Date: 2010-09-02 11:41 pm (UTC)
ajnabi: cartoonic photomanip of my face (with some body) against a colourful patterned background (Default)
From: [personal profile] ajnabi
would it be alright if i linked, too?

(no subject)

Date: 2010-09-02 11:44 pm (UTC)
ajnabi: cartoonic photomanip of my face (with some body) against a colourful patterned background (Default)
From: [personal profile] ajnabi
okay, thank you :)

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