Question of the Week: April 14th, 2015

What are your feelings on man/woman words? Do you use them to describe yourself? When did you start? (How) does that interact with your sexuality (or lack thereof)?

Today’s question was submitted by GreyWander, of The Trail We Blaze.  GW offers the following comments:

Something that’s long fascinated me is when people I know stop calling themselves ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ and start referring to themselves as ‘men’ and ‘women’. Lately I’ve been wondering a lot about how that shift interacts with asexuality.

For myself, I feel really uncomfortable with the word ‘woman’ being applied to me. I’m not completely sure why this is, but the wrongness isn’t gender-based. I’d say it’s more age-based (I am but a college junior – I don’t even have to feed myself), but I can’t really see it changing, even as I go into the world and function as an adult. I don’t ever see myself fitting the archetype of ‘woman’ as it exists in my head, and I think that’s at least in part because on some level I connect being a ‘woman’ with being sexual.

About Siggy

Siggy is an ace activist based in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and has a Ph.D. in physics. He has another blog where he also talks about math, philosophy, godlessness, and social criticism. His other hobbies include board games and origami.
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42 Responses to Question of the Week: April 14th, 2015

  1. Arf says:

    I’m 24 but around the age of 22 or so I started to get annoyed that people (including peers) kept referring to me as a girl because I felt like I wanted to be taken seriously. Now it REALLY makes me annoyed because I feel like I’m being treated as younger than I am.

  2. Foxnamed says:

    I’m the opposite of Arf, here. It really peeves me to physically look like and be called a woman, because womanhood has such sexual connotations. “Young woman” is even worse: it has all the condescending tone of an adult speaking to a child while still sexualizing you in a very specific, gendered way.

    Womanhood has too many soft, sexual expectations. It’s all big, soft breasts and hips to be held onto by strong hands. It’s strength through suffering, because that’s where women are meant to get their strength. Too much associated with motherhood, sexuality, softness, and family life. I feel very strongly that we need to expand this definition.

    • Sciatrix says:

      I dunno, my expectations about being a woman have to do with agency and strength. It’s owning your body and your life and your decisions. Womanhood–ha! It’s what you make it, and anyone who thinks they can hold onto my breasts or wide hips without my permission is going to get another think coming very quickly. My hips aren’t for sex; they’re a shelf I can use to steady heavy objects; they’re the wide center of gravity that helps me stay balanced when other people are tripping over their feet; they’re an extension of my hands when I need to shove a door open when my hands are full or throw my weight around to get a difficult physical task done. I have similar feelings about my breasts and the rest of my body. Sure, my body is curvy, my body isn’t all angles and bones, but goddammit it’s my body, and my body isn’t sexual unless I say it is.

      I agree that I hate “young woman,” though, and find it really condescending at 24 in a way that I didn’t at 16.

  3. I’m with Arf on this. I’m just short of 42 years old and for someone to call me a girl would come across to me as demeaning and most likely sexist (I don’t mind when other women-friends refer to us as a group as “girls” however).

    To me, “woman” indicates physical and legal maturity and does not imply anything about my sexuality. I also recognize that I am treated a certain way in the world because people read me as a woman, and I identity with others who are also taken and treated as women.

  4. Silvermoon says:

    I think… I hate referring to my female peers as girls, because they’re not. But ‘women’ also feels wrong on my tongue when I’m talking about people my age. I haven’t examined this very closely for cause in the past, but I think a large part of it is age. I find it very frustrating that there’s an intermediate word for males (‘guys’) but not for females, because I’m in that in-between area which I feel could span from 17-30.

    Also when referring to myself, yeah, I think you’re right- it feels like even the word ‘woman’ embodies curvy figures and “owning your [allo]sexuality” and all these other things which I don’t connect with at all.
    And yet ‘girl’ is so trivialising.

  5. accessdenied says:

    I agree with Laura– to me, “woman” indicates a level of maturity which may or may not include a comment on your sexuality, depending on who’s calling you a woman and their tone of voice. I always wanted to be included in the “woman” category because I have a very young-looking face and I’m often assumed to be much younger than I actually am, but I usually called myself something like “lady.” At least until I started thinking I might be agender and everything got all confusing.

  6. Sara K. says:

    Yeah, I’m down with being referred to as a ‘woman’ in most contexts. As others have said above, saying someone is a ‘woman’ is not necessarily a comment on sexuality. I’m also okay with ‘young woman’.

    People have been misreading my age since I was in my early teens. When I was in my mid teens, some people mistook me for being in my mid-twenties. Now that I’m in my mid-twenties, a lot of people mistake me for being a teenager. Apparently my looks are a bit ambiguous as far as age, and have been for a while.

    • People tend to think I’m younger than I am, partly because of my round face and partly because of my height (I’m 5’1″) so I feel you on this. One time when I was in my mid-30s, I was walking through a nearby middle school after voting and a kid asked me if I was a student there! Sometimes (especially as you get older) it can be flattering to be taken for younger, but that was a bit extreme!

  7. Norah says:

    I’ve never been comfortable with ‘woman’. I used to think it was age-based, but I’m 33 now and really ‘girl’ doesn’t fit and didn’t fit.

    Very recently I finally figured out that it’s because I’m not a woman. I feel kind of dumb now for taking this long. I used to wonder sometimes if I wasn’t a girl, but eventually I figured being autistic explained everything. It doesn’t though. So now I’m kind of wondering what, if anything, to do now.

    Anyway, neither man nor woman apply, and as far as I can tell that has little to do with my asexuality.

    • rynwin says:

      I’m in much the same boat as Norah (including my age and being autistic), but with a few differences. I’m okay being referred to as ‘girl,’ ‘lady,’ or ‘female’ but ‘woman’ makes me throw up in my mouth a little. I’m also super uncomfortable with everything puberty gave me (I straight up want my breasts gone, but the idea of surgery scares me), but I’m otherwise pretty femme. So I don’t really qualify as non-gendered or neutrois (and certainly not trans), but I’m not sure what I do qualify as.

      • Norah says:

        I’m mostly okay with ‘female’, but lady or girl are as bad as ‘woman’ for me. Like you said: it makes me a little sick to hear it. I’m somewhat miffed that my own language doesn’t have separate words for woman and female.

        I’m not exactly uncomfortable with my body as it is (it would probably be read as extremely feminine, especially if I lost weight, given the size and shape of the hips, legs and breasts), not like I would change what’s alrwady there, though I do feel like I’m lacking some stuff, like things should be added.

  8. Carmilla DeWinter says:

    I think I’ve written about this before …
    By now, I use mostly “woman”, because of my age and because, as a healthcare professional, I wish to be taken seriously. However, there’s still some kind of internal disconnect to the (German) terms. I’m no doubt a cis-female femme, though.

  9. Elizabeth says:

    Hm… I may have written about this before? But I can’t really remember. Anyway, I’m with Laura, I prefer woman (lady is also fine, obviously), and don’t see it as implying anything about sexuality. I actually get kind of offended when people assume I’m not mature just because I’m “not sexual” (although they’re also assuming some things about my sex life there, and people who know otherwise don’t really do that so much). Without giving away my actual age, I’m getting pretty close to 30, and I often feel like my problems these days are hard for friends younger than me to relate to because they’re “so adult.” And yet, I’ve always looked younger than my actual age, so people usually guess that I’m like 20ish, assume I’m still in school, etc. It mostly just annoys me, although occasionally it will veer into triggering territory (my perpetrator was slightly older than me but acted like he was several years older, and explicitly told me I was “a child”).

  10. Jo says:

    I’ve written about this before as well, here:

    I’m in the camp that feels slightly uncomfortable with woman – Obviously I’m still on the younger end of the scale, so girl doesn’t have the same issues for me yet as it might for you, Elizabeth and Laura. I feel a disconnect with woman mainly because of the rhetoric of ‘you’re a woman now’ which comes mainly with starting your period (yay, I can now produce children?) and first sexual experiences (all this becoming whole and feeling different and grown up and womanly stuff). I suspect as I get older I’ll probably move more into the not-a-girl-anymore camp, but at the moment (23) I still get read as much younger a lot, and I don’t really mind.

  11. queenieofaces says:

    I’m in the slightly uncomfortable with “woman” camp. Some of that may be weird gender feelings and some of that is that…I feel too young to be a woman? For some reason, 30 seems like the point at which you are solidly a woman, and I still have a couple more years to go. I’m more okay with being called a woman than I am with being ma’am-ed though. Ugh, I hate being ma’am-ed.

    • Coyote says:

      Interesting that you bring up being ma’amed, because I’m in the weird gender feelings camp and yet… I don’t mind gendered honorifics as much? As in, I’m pretty sure I’m not a man, but I can be okay with being called “sir.” Or “ma’am.” But man or woman, not so much.

      Gotta wonder if it’s a Southern thing.

      • Hollis says:

        I am also in the weird gender feelings camp (or more like “I have a lot of feelings about gender camp but they all p solidly point me to nonbinary camp”), and I feel the same. You wanna call me sir? Knock yourself out. Think ma’am might suit me better? Go right ahead*. But ugh, don’t call me a woman or a man. I’m cool with being “dude” or “girl” (like hey girl hey sort of thing) though.

        *Admittedly, I’m less cool with ma’am because a.) age reasons, like I feel like ma’am is really only reserved for women over 40 b.) because a lot of the time I am not presenting in a femme fashion AT ALL and a lot of the time “ma’am” seems to be a subtle dig at my gender/presentation and is in fact not an honorific at all.

        • Hollis says:

          Addendum to age things: I don’t feel like “sir” is reserved for older men the way ma’am is reserved for older women, probably because “Miss” is still a thing. And it’s still a thing that I get a lot because I look approximately 14-15 (unlike when I was 14 & 15 and regularly mistaken for someone in 18-20. Haircuts: they do a lot, evidently.).

        • Coyote says:

          “age reasons, like I feel like ma’am is really only reserved for women over 40”

          That’s part of what I was alluding to with the Southern thing. Where I live, there are people who will start calling you ma’am as soon as you’re old enough to stop ordering off the kid’s menu. Mostly it’s waitstaff and retail folk who use it that much, but not always.

          • Hollis says:

            I mean, I started getting “ma’am”ed at around 13ish, and after 9 years of it, it still feel like it’s reserved for 40something women. But then, I know a lot of women who have said “OH NO I’M NOT A MA’AM” but 40something women are like yep, ma’am, let’s move on with this and stop pretending that I’m still super youthful and young.

          • Sciatrix says:

            Yeah, with you here! Ma’am doesn’t bother me, but “miss” might, depending on whether I chose to take it as condescension. Ma’am’s a term of respect, like “sir” (which I also use). “Miss” is a term of endearment, and I hate people who think they can use terms of endearment with me without being invited to. That shit is condescending. Ma’am, by contrast, is comfortably impersonal to me.

      • queenieofaces says:

        I haaaaate ma’am. I don’t mind “miss” as much, and I’m fine with お姉さん (big sister) and お嬢さん (young lady) when I’m in Japan (although that probably also has to do with the way I consciously present myself when I’m there). But something about “ma’am” just sets my teeth on edge. (Actually, when I was about 7 my friends and I were playing Ship [because obviously we were Too Cool to play House and instead we crashed into icebergs and the cabin children had to sacrifice themselves heroically] and I was the captain and one of the boys started calling me “ma’am” and I demanded that he call me “sir” instead. In hindsight I kind of go, “…huh. Well, maybe…”)

        I don’t mind “woman” as much (although still weird gender feelings) but I mainly use it WITH another identifier–namely, I’ll say I’m a queer woman or a woman of color, but not that I’m a woman.

        • Sara K. says:

          In Chinese (and I presume with Japanese as well), these words are based on relative age between speakers, not absolute age. I am most often referred to as ‘mèi​mei’ (younger sister), including ‘yáng​ mèi​mei’ (non-Asian girl), but have also been referred to as jiě​jie​ (older sister) and ā​yí (aunt). I have never been referred to as pópo (grandmother), unlike Ren Yingying (Ren Yingying is a famous wuxia character who is referred to as ‘pópo’ in spite of being quite young).

          • queenieofaces says:

            It’s interesting that you bring up relative ages; I think Chinese is a lot more concerned about that than Japanese. It would be weird to refer to someone who isn’t your little sister as 妹 (little sister), and “aunt” is falling farther and farther out of use. So really in terms of familiar terms as honorifics, you can use big sister/grandmother (and big brother/grandfather), and that’s about it.

          • Sara K. says:

            Oh, yes, relative age is a big deal in Chinese conversation – when Chinese speakers meet each other ‘how old are you?’ is often one of the first questions so they know which honorifics to use.

            There are a lot of words for referring to girls/young women based on ‘mèi​mei’ in addition to ‘yáng​ mèi​mei’ (which in writing is usually shortened to ‘yáng​ mèi’). For example, a young woman who sells bento box meals is referred to as a ‘biàn​dāng​ mèi’, and the notorious women in revealing clothing who sell betel nuts (one of the most popular drugs in Taiwan) are called ‘bīng​lang​ mèi’.

  12. Writer Ace says:

    I guess I probably fit more with girl, though that’s basically just an age thing. What bothers me more is actually the comments on this thread saying that woman=curvy body=sexual because I do have that very curvy body but that makes me no less asexual. I just feel like people are falling back on the idea that what you look like somehow indicates or decides your sexual orientation, which is kind of offensive.

    • I also had a strong negative reaction to that trend. Just because there’s a cultural idea that “woman” is somehow a sexualized identity doesn’t mean I have to accept it. I reject the idea that I’m somehow not fully developed, or am immature, because I’m asexual. I define for myself what being a woman is.

    • Silvermoon says:

      Hmm yeah, with my comment, I didn’t mean to imply that looks automatically equal sexuality, but there’s an, umm, narrative? that ties those things together. So even if I inherently know it’s not true, I’m still influenced by it.
      Like, even though I’ve got that small waist and large hips/thighs thing going on I feel a weird disconnect with the idea of a woman/”physically mature” [cis] woman and my own body.

  13. Cookie says:

    I started thinking of myself more as a “woman” rather than “girl”, and referring to my peers that way as well, when I was 20, junior year of college. This was the year when I was starting to feel more serious about making career decisions and defining myself as an independent adult. I’m a software engineer, so hearing a lot about “women in tech” and identifying with that label might have been related. I want to say that sexuality wasn’t the most important factor here, but this was the same year that I really came to accept being ace and take ownership of that side of my identity as well. It’s really not clear what caused what, only that I had a general shift towards more confidence, more defining my own identity, and calling myself a “woman”. That was about two years ago, and now that I’m out of college and supporting myself I definitely wouldn’t appreciate being called a “girl” in most contexts, similar to Arf.

  14. luvtheheaven says:

    No one is weighing in on the man/boy/etc side of things, I notice.

    I felt weird recently when I was writing a story about teenagers and my proofreader suggested calling one of them a boy as a way to re-word a sentence. “Teenage boy” maybe is okay in my head, but I’m less sure about just “boy” without the word “teenage” as a descriptor. Depending on context, a 15-year-old being considered “a boy” can make me do a double-take.

    I definitely think the fact that I’m from the East Coast of the USA and these English words have their own connotations for me and my lived experiences matter, and are different in different places.

    We don’t always have enough words for all of the nuances that age and maturity can give to a person. There isn’t just a sudden shift from child to adult, or child to teenager to adult. People vary in their experience of life. One of your birthdays is not going to be THE day everything changes and you become a woman or man, and neither is your first period or anything to do with sexual experiences or anything like that. There is no “one day” everything will shift like that for you. Plus, feeling comfortable with the idea that one is an adult is often more of a gradual thing than it is sudden. So even when it has nothing to do with the possibly sexual connotations woman can have, people like me can take their time to slowly grow into calling themselves “women”. I’m 25 now and I am beginning to truly feel it. I’m an adult. I’m not just a “girl” anymore. My life is more adult. If I had not gone to college, had not lived the life I lived – if I had gotten pregnant and had a child while I was still a teenager, for instance – I could imagine myself feeling like a “woman” much earlier than what ended up happening.

    I still call myself a fangirl sometimes, but since I’ve been in fan-culture – in fandom communities – for over 8 years now, I’ve aged a lot in the process, and I don’t really feel like “fangirl” is right. It implies I’m younger than I am, in many ways, and I’m slowly growing out of using it and into more generally saying “I’m a person in fandom” – I like the gender neutral alternatives better, a lot of the time, because my gender isn’t usually what I’m trying to talk about.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Re: alternatives to fangirl/boy—I’ve always liked how in the Pokemon games there is a class of trainers called Pokéfans. It’s specific, but gender-neutral. There’s also stuff like “Oncer” for Once Upon a Time fandom that parallels that. I’m a lot more partial to such specific terms because I definitely don’t get that involved with fandom stuff except in very specific and rare circumstances, so a general “fangirl” really doesn’t apply to me—I’d be more like an ex-fangirl if anything, since I dropped out of fandoms when I was 20ish. These days, I usually don’t even say I’m a fan, just that I like [whatever] a lot. But if that was not the case, if I wanted to say I’m super into something and didn’t have a term specific to whatever I’m into… I’d probably go with something like “superfan.” It feels a lot more age-appropriate to me, and doesn’t have gender built in.

      • luvtheheaven says:

        Yeah I’m a “Gleek” (the portmanteau of “Glee” and “Geek” but meaning Glee fan) and sometimes other specific fandoms that I’m in have terms, but I’m such a multi-fannish person who is heavily involved in a variety of fandoms. I’m a vidder and fanfic writer, primarily, and recently a podficcer too, and those are gender and age neutral. I’m also a fanfic reader, fanvid watcher/viewer, and podfic listener. I tend to prefer terms like that anyway. They get more specific and to the heart of what I actually mean.

  15. epochryphal says:

    I’d still like an equivalent to enby, but more for completionist reasons than discomfort most of the time (although in some contexts enby does feel too young).

    Also, folks brought up honorifics / titles, and forreal “ma’am” or “ladies” (or “young lady”) will make me stomp you. Which is hard because I want to recognize service industry regulations and requirements of politeness (and jobs that literally say “you must use sir/ma’am always”).

    Then again “young man” or “young [gender word]” or even maybe “young” anything, is so patronizing / pressuring to grow up / asserting an age power dynamic. I do agree that age is very key, and I think it ties into different gender roles / expectations / permissiveness around different things; they emphasize certain scripts /
    social cues.

    (Fangirl/fanboy, I forget what the alternatives were darnit. Fansquee as verb, but what was the noun..?)

    Sidenote, I would like for OP to be a lil more non-binary (and even trans) inclusive/inviting; I’m glad to see folks jumping in, but when I first read the topic I was very skeptical of what a discussion about gender words that didn’t upfront acknowledge trans/nb identities would be like.

    • luvtheheaven says:

      I was first called “Ma’am” at age 16 by a stranger in a grocery store. I think it all depends on context and it’s not usually someone calling you old, it’s just… the only way to address someone formally/respectfully/politely if you don’t know their name. I’d never be okay with “miss” the way “ma’am” is fine. I wish we were more accomodating of non-binary people with our honorifics though and that differentiating based on binary genders was no longer a thing, anyway. Besides, I think the TV show Castle has a point when Captain Gates, the woman in charge of the precinct, tells her subordinates not to call her ‘ma’am’ but rather ‘sir’ and that really, the two words do have different connotations because of sexism. Throughout the show they call her “sir” like it’s not weird, and the point is yeah she’s a woman, and she should be respected as much as a man in her position, and the word “ma’am” truly doesn’t have the same ring to it.

    • Hollis says:

      YES TO NONBINARY HONORIFICS. They need to be a thing. Because I hate when I’m at my one job and I need to use honorifics to not risk getting yelled at for being disrespectful by our patrons (because that’s happened), and I’d like an alternative because it’s forcing me to assume others’ genders and also erasing people like me and I’m not cool with that.

  16. BlackFeathers_GrayScales says:

    I’m with Jo and Foxnamed. It always seemed to me that “woman” is associated with sexual and reproductive functions, often with heteronormative assumptions, and my attachment to it was always weak. I’m pushing 30, so I may feel it more than younger women here, but there’s very strong cultural pressure for women my age to get married and have children. People tend to sentimentalize the role of bride/wife and mother as though it’s the ultimate achievement for a woman.
    Even political “women’s issues” in the US at least usually involve access to birth control and abortion and balancing work and motherhood. I’m not saying these aren’t important, but as a repulsed ace-spectrum woman, how am I supposed to feel like a “woman” when “women’s issues” don’t apply to me?

  17. Andrea says:

    For me age is definitely a factor in feeling comfortable with applying the word woman to myself. I’m in my early twenties and so it just doesn’t feel right yet, I still think of my older mentors etc. when I here that. I also remember the first time someone called me ma’am and it was very disconcerting.
    Simultaneously being treated like I was childish/immature has been a problem for me for a very long time partially due to my appearance (very round face, rosy cheeks, blond curly hair) and partially due to my lack of sexual interest (although that was more of a problem in high school).
    I too wish there was a feminine equivalent to guy, that fit this in between time. I find myself using the word lady more and more, but that has some weird connotations with it as well and so isn’t ideal. I imagine its even worse for people who are nb/trans identifying.

    Another thing for me is that one of the most common places I here people use man/woman language is in the context of a romantic relationship. partially because a lot of my friends/acquaintances are in serious relationships and getting engaged but there is a lot of “I am so blessed to have such a wonderful woman in my life” and “I can’t believe I get to spend the rest of my life with this amazing man” accompanied by romantic couples photos on facebook, and that also means that those words just don’t sit right with me right now

  18. Sciatrix says:

    I like “woman,” but I freely admit that this is irritable pushback towards people who call me a “girl.” It’s about kneejerk claiming my right to be recognized as an adult. This is an issue for me as someone who is short and round-faced and looks much younger than I actually am, so it’s something I get pretty stubborn about when the topic comes up.

  19. Isaac says:

    I don’t like being called a man, but I can’t recognize the cause. I’m glad the word ‘guy’ exists.

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