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How do you define woman/man?

Okay, background here. Firstly, I’m not an Aristotolian. I’m fairly convinced that many, perhaps all of the words we use, do not have tightly defined meanings. Instead they’re pointers to things. Take names: like Ozy. You can tell me your name is Ozy and I can refer to you as that without having to know your full life story (unless you’re an Ent). A useful word is a brief word that picks out meaningful distinctions for the relevant context, not a comprehensive definition of every single possible real world case.

Secondly, social construction. From observation the noun-phrase “social construction” seems to have at least two different meanings. One is something that is entirely socially-constructed. Eg “Donald Trump” is President of the United States and head of state of the United States. Had a small percentage of Americans voted a different way, or the voting laws been slightly different, there could have been a totally different person as President. And voting laws can be very different, the British for example determine their Head of State via hereditary monarchy and have done for several centuries now. No one gets fussed when you claim that the Head of State is a social construction. (Obviously, just because something is entirely socially constructed doesn’t mean it’s not real.)

The other sort of social construction is about boundaries. And this is the sort of social construction claim that gets the headlines. But it’s quite different. Let’s take age. Everyone knows that there’s nothing magically special about the night when you’re 17 years and 364 days old that turns you from a child into an adult. We could move the age of adulthood around by months or even perhaps years. We can phase it in, with different ages for driving, drinking, etc. We can understand phrases like “a 30 year old with the mind of a 5 year old” (even if medical science has gotten a bit more precise) and we can define some people as not legally competent to take care of themselves no matter how old they are. “Adult” and “child” are socially constructed. But a society that makes no distinction between the decision-making responsibilities of a 3 year old and a 30 year old is going to run into problems. There’s an underlying reality there, society only has freedom at the boundaries. We can make nuanced judgments, we can think that the typical 16 year old should have more freedoms than a 6 year old, but it’s still valid to talk about adults and children. Or adults, teenagers and children.

Now let’s take sex. Every argument I have seen that sex is socially constructed is a boundary argument (see for example “Gender is not alone: the social construction of sex”.) The arguments talk about a minority of people who are intersex. Or whose chromosomes are unusual, or who exhibit androgen-insensitivity or what-not. No argument there. But, that does not mean that it’s invalid to talk about people who have small, mobile gametes and those who have large immobile gametes. Even without explicitly noting that some people don’t fit neatly into either definition.

And we do find that even people who maintain that woman and man are matters of self-identfying alone find themselves coming up with words like “female-bodied” and “male-bodied” or DFAB and DMAB. We don’t see this with things that are entirely-socially constructed, the Brits aren’t looking to replace Elizabeth I as their head of state with an orange-haired billionaire reality TV star.

So, finally getting to the question itself, I have multiple definitions of woman/man. For simplicity I will define woman and perhaps other, and leave the definition of man as an exercise for the reader.
1. a woman is an adult human who ticks the Female box on forms when it’s the choice between that or Male. Note, Statistics NZ introduced as an option in 2015.
2. a woman is an adult human who looks/sounds/etc like a woman (bearing in mind clothing, etc as well as body type). Note this is not the same as being feminine, even when I was doing my machine workshop, wearing overalls, with steel-capped boots and short hair, no one ever thought I was a man.
3. a woman is someone with external sex characteristics highly correlated with getting pregnant and having babies.

I’m not particularly attached to any of these words per se. If you prefer to use “female-bodied” in place of (3) or “uterus-bearing”, I’ll probably go along with it for the purposes of conversation with you.

I don’t think we’ll ever have a word or short noun phrase that captures the key distinctions between women and men in my sense 3, there will always be boundary cases not covered. Eg, DMAB falls apart for the Guevedoces, a condition in the Dominican Republic where some people are born appearing female but with XY chromosomes who then turn into boys at puberty when the second flood of hormones hit. They’re male-bodied as adults, but they weren’t designated-male at birth, so not DMAB. Either we go to the Ent naming solution, and we don’t have the lifespans for that, or we’re left with a word that is the verbal equivalent of a vague pointing motion that something is “over there”.

The three definitions have different pros and cons. (2) is practical for every day use. (1) has the advantage of not excluding anyone who wants to be a woman. But (3) is important too. It’s the historical definition, and often a very important one. While that definition can hurt people who don’t fit nicely into the category, and that calls for sensitivity about its use, the same is true when it comes to talking about parenthood, which can really hurt people struggling with fertility. But that doesn’t mean we should never ever talk about parenthood.

What are your opinions on the cotton ceiling?

The cotton ceiling: well if you have a large enough group of people over a long enough period of time, at some point some of that group is going to do something very stupid.

And in this social media age, this is going to be picked up on and fear-mongered about.

So the cotton ceiling in the way it was presented (breaking down barriers to people having sex with transwomen), was fairly terrible. Strong norms against shaming people for their sexual preferences are important. Sex should be about positivity and fun. People who want to increase the sexual range of other people should focus on tactics like encouraging positive representations of said range in media stories and only shame people making transphobic descriptions of other people’s relationships (eg saying that A isn’t a lesbian because she’s in a relationship with a transwoman). I get the sense that the transwomen who had the cotton ceiling workshop are not from people-focused professions.

On the other hand the claims about them from TERFs are also ridiculous. Strong norms against misrepresenting people are also important.

So my opinion is that both sides behaved badly.

Why are trans women disproportionately likely to be programmers?

I am not sure that most trans women are programmers. It is obviously easier for trans people to get together on line, and for a couple of decades there, programmers were much more likely to be online, leading to a sample selection bias.

That said, programming is an escape for kids who are subject to bullying, and kids are notorious for bullying those who aren’t neurotypical. Plus programming brings money which makes it easy to transition. So there are some social reasons for trans women to contain an excessive number of programmers.

Why do many trans women experience sexual fantasies about being or becoming a woman?

As a cis woman, my reaction to this question, is, well, why wouldn’t people have sexual fantasies about being a woman? Being a woman is fun!

Okay, when I achieve my proper position as Empress of the Universe there are going to be some firm words had with biology re the whole pregnancy thing. And menstruation will be replaced by a monthly typed letter from your body giving a plain-language update of your health.

But leaving aside those design faults, women have soft skin, no beards (well mostly), to wear swishing skirts in public, and have better curves than a scenic railway. And, I understand that the clitoris has the same number of nerve endings as the penis, just more concentrated.

And of course trans women don’t have to include periods or pregnancies in their fantasies (not to mention that people can fantasise about overcoming pain and hardships in their own right.)

So fantasizing about having a woman’s body is natural. And, logically therefore, fantasing about becoming a woman is natural.

The real question is why don’t men fantasise about being women?

Well, maybe that’s not the real question. But it’s at least as sensible a question as any other about fantasies.

When taking the poll, if you can POSSIBLY round yourself off to Blanchard-Bailey or gender identity, please do so. Please do this even if you have major disagreements with the side you are leaning towards. Only use “neither” if you really really really cannot in good conscience round yourself to either.

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