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This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, flip the lights on and off to tell language it's time to call it a night.
This episode is sponsored by Blue Apron, who come up with new recipes each week, pack the responsibly sourced ingredients into a refrigerated box and drop it off outside your door, so you can serve a freshly home-cooked meal without any hassle. I’m a very competent cook, but also quite lazy, so this works for me. I was recently preparing some Blue Apron with podcasting comrade Roman Mars, who is less comfortable with cooking, but following the step-by-step recipes really took the fear out of it for him. Until he nicked his finger while chopping an onion. Don’t let that put you off. He lived to eat a very tasty meal that he cooked himself. If you’re in the contiguous United States, you can get your first three Blue Apron meals for free, plus free shipping, at blueapron.com/allusionist.
Content note: this episode contains Frank Language, pertaining to sex and associated body parts, because it is a follow-up to episode 51, Under the Covers part II, the one where we were discussing the inadequacy of the lexicon for sex and genitals - 'genitals' being one example of a problematic word' as etymologically it pertains to procreation, which is not the purpose of those body parts for all of us. And not everybody uses them for sex either. It is tricky territory. (Maybe 'tricky territory' would serve as a synonym for genitals...?) Anyway, the episode received a particularly strong response from trans and gender-non-binary listeners - you wrote to tell me about some of the ways in which you’ve contended with this vocabulary, whole dimensions of which I, as a cis woman, was utterly ignorant. So I’m very grateful to you for illuminating me, and a few of you appear in this episode, which is all about trans people’s experiences of this particular linguistic matter.
Important to specify: it’s the experiences of some trans people, it’s not meant to imply a universal trans experience. Also the vocabulary is evolving and expanding rapidly, so this is just a reflection on where it is at the moment, May 2017.
Lastly, I have to preface by saying I do not believe that gender identity is conferred by body parts.
Alright. On with the show.
LEE: Hello, my name is Lee. I'm a genderqueer trans masculine gay guy and it's time for me to talk to Helen Zaltzman about my genitals.
So there's actually a lot of different contexts in which genitals come up, and there's different language for each of them. For me as someone who was assigned female at birth and has a vagina has a uterus but mostly passes as male, there's a lot of different things that go into what I'm choosing to call my genitals.
LORELEI: I sometimes like to refer to my genitalia as “anachronistic”, which seems to fit perfectly. I have a friend who refers to my genitalia as “the factory-installed equipment.”
MATTIE: My name is Mattie and I am both transgender and asexual. And both these things influence how I relate to my body and the words I use for it. So asexuality means different things to different people. For me, it means a sexual orientation that refers to little to no sexual attraction to people of any gender. ‘Transgender’ means that my gender and the body that I was born with don't quite align; and ‘gender dysphoria’ is the discomfort I feel because of that disconnect.
MARSHALL: So I want to start off by saying that I am not an example for every single trans person; every trans person is different. Some of them are perfectly fine when it comes to labeling their junk with the clinical terms. Others like me have a problem connecting with that area so they use labels that they make up in order to help disassociate themselves from that area in order to alleviate dysphoria.
MATTIE: I find that the words used for my own genitals impact how dysphoric I feel. So I'm more uncomfortable with words that are more vulgar or euphemistic, like ‘cock’ or ‘balls’; but I'm better with, I suppose, more medical words like 'penis', maybe because those words feel a little more impersonal, since I can’t personally relate to any of the words associated with my genitals.
SEZ: I'm a non-binary person, and I didn't have the vocab to explain that. I knew I wasn't a man, and I knew I wasn't a woman, but I thought I was just crap at being a woman. But no, I was non-binary, I was gender-queer. So yeah, my boobs are non-binary boobs. Deal with it.
MARSHALL: The general vaginal area is simply ‘the front hole’. Vagina is ‘front hole’; asshole is ‘back hole’. The clit is ‘the dick’ or the ‘bio dick’. And the packers or STPs - if you don't know what a packer SDP is, just think of it as a flaccid dildo; it's just something to stick in your pants and give the illusion of a bulge - I call those my ‘peens’. P-E-E-N.
LEE: In a lot of contexts I actually do end up defaulting to ‘vagina’. Some of that is my good good feminism, saying, “We call things what they are,” although many people I know object to me using ‘vagina’ instead of ‘vulva’. I can't get behind ‘vulva’.
REBECCA: This is Rebecca Kling. I am a performance artist, an educator, a writer and a trans woman.
Speaking for myself, I didn't have a problem calling my genitalia a penis or a cock or a dick before I had surgery. That said, I've heard people call it a ‘clit’ or a ‘super cli’t. I have heard people call it a ‘click’ - a combination of clit and dick. I've heard people use other language like ‘hammer’, which I thought was pretty great, or ‘fun stick’; I’ve heard ‘garden’ or ‘flower’ or ‘button’ or ‘hotspot’; and if everything else fails you can either pick names. So what name is going to make you feel good about your genitalia? Or, at the sort of most directly descriptive ‘this’, ‘that’, ‘here’, ‘there’. Grab your partner's hand: “I want you to touch me here. I don't like it when you touch me there.” And I think part of the excitement there is being able to decide what language is going to make you feel good about yourself. Similarly, now that I have had gender reassignment surgery so I do have a vagina, I like words like ‘vagina’ or ‘pussy’ or ‘cunt’, because they feel right and they feel OK to me.
OWL: My name is Owl. I'm an Icelandic trans person who now lives in the UK. I identify as a non binary trans person and I use the pronoun ‘they’.
Before I came out I didn't really speak about my genitals or my body at all in many ways because I wasn't comfortable with my body in many ways, but I feel like after I started hormones or after I had genital surgery, I became much more comfortable with my own body because I was basically hiding it away all the time anyway.
But I feel like now I don't have to hide it away. But I feel like it's not necessarily because I became this super confident person; I also feel like it's because my body was just completely objectified as I went through the medical process. And I remember being in the hospital after my genital surgery and every time the doctor came every morning, he brought about two or three different sorts of students who were studying medicine or becoming doctors, and he asked if it was okay if they took a look as well. So about 30 or 40 people at that hospital saw my pussy; and I just became a bit detached from it. And today I'm not very shy at all. I don't care as much. I can speak about my pussy, my vagina, and I'm not shy to say these words because I sort of feel like my body conforms to how I want to be. And the way it's changed is that I talk about my genitals now as before I never actually talked about them at all.
LEE: You would not believe how much you end up talking about genitals with little kids. And it's an interesting thing being a genderqueer parent and talking about how some boys have vaginas. Most boys have penises. Most girls have vaginas. But some girls have penises. Things like that: trying to divorce anatomy from identity for the next generation.
REBECCA: Language around trans bodies is difficult for a couple of reasons. First, it's because a lot of the time people who are asking trans folks about their bodies have this assumption that they're allowed to ask whatever they want: what's between your legs? Have you had the surgery? How is dating? like, how do you have sex? All of these questions that we would never ask someone that we just met or that we just learn something about their identity. On the other hand there is need to know situations. My doctor probably needs to know a lot about my medical history and my body. But the barista at a coffee shop doesn't need to know.
MARSHALL: When it comes to going to the doctor, I do refer to those areas as their clinical names. If I use my nicknames I would just confuse the doctors. But the difference is that I use ‘the’ instead of ‘my’. So an example is I just use ‘the clit’ instead of ‘my clit’, and that's to just help disassociate myself.
LEE: When it comes to sexy times, there's not a good language right now.
ANDRE: And generally I try to go for neutral words like ‘hole’, and like ‘front hole’, ‘back hole’...
LEE: There's a lot of fun creative language used in some erotica or in just talking about things, especially for guys who are really uncomfortable talking about themselves as having vaginas. ‘Front hole’, ‘cockpit’. Like a guy messaged me on Scruff the other day and asked me if I was a ‘bonus hole boy’, which was his way of trying to sexily ask me if I participated in vaginal intercourse. And that was funny; I hadn't heard that one in a while.
MARSHALL: If you're dating a trans-person and you plan on having sex with them, it's best to just talk to them and see what what labels they prefer to use. And I've been in relationships where right in the middle of things they refer to as my front hole as my ‘pussy’ or my ‘vagina’. And that did not go well. I had a full on dysphoria attack right in the bed, and that was not good. So it is best to sit down with your partner and talk with them. Communication is key.
REBECCA: There's this misconception that asking has to be really awkward and dry. “Excuse me, what language are you using for the genitalia that's between your legs, and what language would I appropriately use to discuss that genitals?” No - what language feels sexy? What language feels good? ”Can I touch you here?” “What word do you use? What do you call this?” There are ways to make talking about sex and talking about the language of sex and bodies fun and part of the experience, and not have to pull out a whiteboard and dry erase markers to start diagramming things out.
ANDRE: I mean I make them fill out a form! No, just kidding.
My name is Andre Perez. I am a community organizer, filmmaker. Mixed Race Puerto Rican trans masculine person who's kind of genderqueer and also very queer.
I love the word ‘cock’. My phone incidentally does not like the word ‘cock’. It always autocorrects to ‘couch’. My phone just thinks I have a lot of really intense conversations about purchasing couches on the weekends. Like, let me see your couch. How big is your couch? Is it hard? Does it feel good?
LEE: There's a fair amount of just referring to things as ‘it’. You know, “Suck it. Fuck it. Lick it.” That sort of nonspecificness that works for any sort of part that someone is near, whether it's genitals or not.
ANDRE: I'm pretty good at like redirecting people like, “Oh God, I don't really like that word; I'd really prefer if you use this word.” I often will find that men will not be very familiar with trans folks. And so they will be kind of tentative and actually I think that's maybe something that I like look for that's like appealing; I'm like, oh if you don't know everything to do, that's fine.
LEE: It's an evolving language thing and it's made more complicated by how little language even cis-gendered people with vaginas have for their vaginas that aren't like puerile or offensive or combative or medical.
So, yeah: we all need to do better.
LORELEI: My name is Lorelei Erisis. I'm a newspaper columnist for the Rainbow Times, I write the column Ask a Transwoman and I’m the original Miss Trans New England.
Language is a living thing. You know, it's not static it responds, it shapes our world and it allows us to shape our world in turn. So the words I use to refer to my genitalia are really very genuinely going to shape the reality of that genitalia to a certain extent. It's really exciting. It’s a very cutting edge sort of word nursery in the trans community.
The ways we use for ourselves are changing constantly. And that’s changing our ideas about what gender even is, and our ideas about what gender is is changing the language and the words we use to describe gender; and given people’s genitalia is so tied into our ideas of gender generally and specifically personally, that means the words we use to describe our genitalia are in a constant state of flux.
Rebecca Kling: One of the most important lessons from the trans movement I want to spread to the world: we get to decide what our bodies mean, and we get to decide how our bodies should be used and interact with the world. And what I mean by that is: if certain language doesn’t feel right about your body, don’t use that language. And for trans folks in particular, there are parts of our bodies - whether it's breasts or vaginas or penises or whatever - that those words carry a lot of weight. The weight of being told “You have a vagina” or being told “You have a penis” and that means something that's gendered, and that means something that's sexualized about what you're supposed to do with that part. Because words are all tied up in how we think about our bodies and how we think about our bodies is all tied up in the language we use to describe our bodies.
HZ: Thanks so much to everyone who contributed - in alphabetical order, Andre, Lee, Lorelei, Marshall, Mattie, Owl, Rebecca and Sez.
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This episode was produced by Sarah Geis, and me, Helen Zaltzman, with Wintersong Tashlin, Dave Nadelberg of Mortified, and Julie Shapiro, the executive producer and guiding light of Radiotopia from PRX, of which the Allusionist is a proud member.
We had a really wonderful time last week on our first Radiotopia Live tour, along the west coast of the USA - if you joined us, thanks so much for coming to see the show and for giving us such a warm welcome. We’re also very grateful to Blue Microphones and Angel City Brewery who supported the tour, and our presenting sponsors, Adobe and Spotify. By the way, you can hear this show and other Radiotopia podcasts on Spotify. We hope to do more Radiotopian live events soon - keep an eye on radiotopia.fm to find out about those.
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