As the inventor of the word “cis by default” and a person who occasionally checks who’s linking to my blog, I get to see quite a lot of people using the word “cis by default.” My estimate is that about half are using it wrong.
There are two equal and opposite errors. First, many people identify as cis by default when they are in fact gender dysphoric people who don’t want to transition. I certainly understand why gender dysphoric non-transitioning people relate to “there’s no part of their brain that says “I’m a guy!”, they just look around and people are calling them “he” and they go with the flow”, since there is in fact no part of their brain saying “I’m a guy” and they are in fact going with the flow of how other people refer to them. But not having a gender identity is a quite different thing from having a gender identity and choosing to present differently from what your gender identity is. I see people write things like “I really wish I was a woman. It would make me so happy to wake up one day and everyone is calling me ‘she’. It’s so weird to look at myself in the mirror and see a man. Female bodies are just inherently softer and better and more beautiful. I don’t like sex because having a dick disgusts me. I spend hours carefully removing all my facial hair because having a beard makes me want to cry. But I’m worried about facing transphobia and that I wouldn’t be attractive if I transitioned, so I guess I’m cis by default.”
In general, if you can write an entire paragraph about all your emotions about your gender, you are probably not cis by default.
Second, many people identify as cis by default when they are in fact regular cisgender people who are bad at introspection. I suspect this is part of what’s up with the Less Wrong survey finding that half of cis people are cis by default (the other part is that rationalists are pretty genderweird in general). It makes sense that cisgender people, particularly ones with relatively weak gender identities, have a hard time noticing their gender identities: in most cases, cisgender people have a body that is aligned with their gender and are very rarely misgendered, so there’s no reason for the issue to come up.
I also think that people’s ability to notice their gender identity is affected by what community they’re in. For instance, evangelical Christian books are full of passages like this:
Sometime between the dreams of your youth and yesterday, something precious has been lost. And that treasure is your heart, your priceless feminine heart. God has set within you a femininity that is powerful and tender, fierce and alluring. No doubt it has been misunderstood. Surely it has been assaulted. But it is there, your true heart, and it is worth recovering. You are captivating.
And New-Agey books are full of passages like this:
To answer these questions, we need to understand the nature of sexual passion and spiritual openness. Sexual attraction is based on sexual polarity, which is the force of passion that arcs between masculine and feminine poles. All natural forces flow between two poles. The North and South Poles of the Earth create a force of magnetism. The positive and negative poles of your electrical outlet or car battery create an electrical flow. In the same way, masculine and feminine poles between people create the flow of sexual feeling. This is sexual polarity.
This force of attraction, which flows between the two different poles of masculine and feminine, is the dynamism that often disappears in modern relationships. If you want real passion, you need a ravisher and a ravishee; otherwise, you just have two buddies who decide to rub genitals in bed.
Each of us, man or woman, possesses both inner masculine and inner feminine qualities. Men can wear earrings, tenderly hug each other, and dance ecstatically in the woods. Women can change the oil in the car, accumulate political and financial power, and box in the ring. Men can take care of their children. Women can fight for their country. We have proven these things. Just about anyone can animate either masculine or feminine energy in any particular moment. (Although they still might have a strong preference to do one or the other, which we will get to in a moment.)
The bottom line of today’s newly emerging 50/50, or “second stage,” relationship is this: If men and women are clinging to a politically correct sameness even in moments of intimacy, then sexual attraction disappears. I don’t mean just the desire for intercourse, but the juice of the entire relationship begins to dry up. The love may still be strong, the friendship may still be strong, but the sexual polarity fades, unless in moments of intimacy one partner is willing to play the masculine pole and one partner is willing to play the feminine. You have to animate the masculine and feminine differences if you want to play in the field of sexual passion.
(After having read The Way Of The Superior Man, I never want to hear complaints about trans people’s autogenderphilia again. At least we don’t claim that sexual attraction is literally impossible unless you’re an autogenderphile.)
There are lots of reasons to object to these passages! For one thing, they assume that everyone has a gender, which is not true: my guess is that a sizeable minority of cis people are cis by default. For another thing, they assume that the way that the author happens to feel gender is the way that every other person in the whole entire world happens to feel gender. If you’re a man who feels deeply affirmed in your masculinity by cherishing and loving your romantic partner and prioritizing him over your work, The Way of the Superior Man doesn’t want to hear from you. If you’re a woman who finds that being fought over by men makes you feel awkward and uncomfortable rather than assured in your femininity, Captivating has nothing to say to you. And they erase people who understand their genders in a nonbinary or gender-non-conforming way.
But I think it’s also possible to recognize the human experience described in those passages. For the author of Captivating, feeling feminine is a real thing and very important to her– a source of pleasure, a way of connection, an aspect of herself. For the author of The Way of the Superior Man, sexuality is fundamentally connected to gender. They might not frame their experiences in the same way I do, but I think in a certain sense they’re feeling the same thing I’m feeling.
However, I think a lot of liberal communities tend to stigmatize the open expression of cisgender people’s genders. Interestingly, feminists don’t. For instance, radical feminists have a framework for gender in the form of Adrienne Rich’s thoughts about lesbianism, Janice Raymond’s work on female friendship, or Mary Daly’s… Mary Daly-ness. Queers incessantly navel-gaze about gender.
But when you venture out from the weeds of feminist theory into the way normal liberals live their day-to-day lives, I can’t help but feel that a lot of liberals feel like the open expression of cisgender people’s genders is somewhat… déclassé. Not at all what our sort of people does.
(Transgender people’s genders don’t seem to be as stigmatized, because the popular sort of feminism that filters through liberal communities tends to believe that Trans Women Are Women. Consistency is not the strong point of shallow feminist analysis. That said, I think a large number of trans-exclusive radical feminists are not really radical feminists, but instead shallow pop libfems who are clever enough to notice that trans people’s existence contradicts their ideology.)
I want to emphasize that I’m not limiting this argument to people who actively identify as feminist, or even to people who don’t identify as anti-feminist. You can identify as anti-feminist and have a framework for gender which is influenced by your culture (as everyone’s is). If you grew up in any sort of vaguely liberal community, one of the things that influences it is the feminism– often oversimplified and misunderstood– which filters down to you.
But if you don’t read theory books, and your feminist thoughts are mostly along the lines of Women Can Do Anything Men Can Do and Feminism Is The Radical Notion That Women Are People and Look At This Badass Woman Breaking Through The Glass Ceiling, it’s easy to be leery about cis people’s gender identities. If you say that you have such-and-such a trait or do such-and-such a thing because you are a woman, isn’t that sort of like saying that women have to have that trait or do that thing? That is kind of suspicious! Men and women are the same except for their genitals! You can’t just go around saying you like wearing suits because you’re a man, I literally just posted on Facebook this Buzzfeed listicle of Fourteen Hottest Women In Suits.
And if you’re in that sort of situation, and you feel like it’s sort of shameful to go around having feelings about your gender, and you’re cisgender and don’t have particularly strong feelings about your gender in the first place… it’s easy to just sort of not notice them.
Like, that’s not even on the top twenty list of the weirdest contortions people get into about their gender.
And thus you get the situation that happened on one of the links into me, where a person said they were cis-by-default and then was asked whether they would crossdress if they knew that no one would think less of them for it and said “obviously not, I’m a man.”
Unfortunately, it is somewhat difficult to police these uses of the term, particularly since there’s no such thing as an objective measurement of whether or not someone has a gender identity. But this is why I am very skeptical about getting any sort of population estimate of how many people are cis-by-default.