“Female” and Other Words People Call People

I noticed a few articles on Buzzfeed recently that discussed reasons why we shouldn’t call people female and other words we can use in place of female when we are referring to women. I also read the comments. I don’t know why I always have to read the comments on feminist-related posts because I always always always regret it. Still, I did, and there were a lot varying opinions and some polite, passive aggressive, and volatile disputes. I’m going weigh in on the issue, but I’d rather do it here in my safe area than directly on the Buzzfeed battlefield.

I wrote a post a while ago about sex and gender, so I’m not going to go too much in-depth on that subject now. However, certain terms should be defined before I give my perspective on the issue. “Female” refers to someone’s biological makeup (sex), meaning they have two X chromosomes, a vagina, are capable of giving birth, et cetera. While this distinction is fairly clear-cut for most people, not all people fall into little male and female boxes.

“Female” is therefore not equivalent to “woman.” “Woman” describes a person’s gender, which often correlates to their sex but certainly not always. Furthermore, one is a bit more inclusive than the other. Female refers a specific sex of any organism that undergoes sexual reproduction. “Woman” refers only to humans. Animals probably have distinct genders that can be different than their sex, but we don’t really have a word for them.

Because “female” and “woman” don’t equal each other, referring to women in general as females is just wrong. Typically, when people refer to females, it seems like they actually mean to say women but they’re trying to sound scientific or politically correct (which actually results in them not being politically correct), but that’s just my interpretation. However, regardless of the speaker’s intentions, if he or she refers to women as females or females as women, he or she is wrong, and there’s really no argument there. The speaker should say female when regarding the sexual reproduction capabilities of a group of people, their chromosomal makeup, or nonhuman entities. The speaker should say women when regarding all aspects of gender unrelated to vaginas themselves.

The argument comes into play with whether or not using the word female is offensive. Before I go into whether or not it is “offensive”, let me just say that just because you don’t find something offensive or someone you know doesn’t take offense to it does not mean that it isn’t offensive. Jut because you didn’t mean it in an offensive way does not make it inoffensive. And just because you “have friends that are blank” does not make an inappropriate statement directed at said blank group okay.

For something to be “offensive,” it has to fall into one of two categories. The first deals with the speaker’s intentions and the second deals with how the listener responds to it. If the speaker means it in an attacking, aggressive, hateful, or otherwise unpleasant way, it is offensive regardless of how anyone responds to it. On the other hand, even if the speaker means it in the sweetest, most benign way, it can still be offensive if the listener interprets it as such. These aren’t my opinions. These are just going off of the dictionary definition of offensive.

Now you can probably see why determining whether or not something is “offensive” is difficult. It’s all based on intentions and interpretations. As a result, offensive becomes a relative term. In my opinion, if something causes the majority of a specific group of people to feel hurt, threatened, or angry, it is offensive. If something is said in a malicious, insensitive, attacking, aggressive, or trolling way, it is offensive regardless of whom it’s directed toward, whom it hurts or doesn’t hurt, or what the general public thinks of it. This is in general, though, so these guidelines refer to public statements, talking with strangers, or, my personal favorite, internet comments.

When you’re talking to friends or other likeminded people in which you are aware of their feelings and how they respond to certain things, it’s fine to play off of each other, and as long as no one intends things in a malicious way and no one interprets them in a way that makes then feel upset, anything goes. Again, this is my opinion.

So, is the word female offensive? It really depends on the context. When talking about animals or the reproductive aspects of people, using female is fine. Even used as a noun, it’s fine, although it does tend to dehumanize the subject being referred to, so I would just be careful with that. Talking about how you “hate it when females blah blah blah,” is just wrong, unless the rest of the sentence is “have vaginas and two X chromosomes and can bear children,” and so it doesn’t matter if it’s offensive or not because it shouldn’t be said anyway. But for the record, it is still offensive. If you’re referring to women, call them women. Or, better yet, just call them people because that’s what we really are. All of use. We’re all people. Unless you are not a person. In that case, good job for learning how to read.

Bottom line: if you know your audience, be sensitive to their emotions. If you don’t know your audience, refer to them by their accepted terminology. And always, above all else, speak with kindness and respect to everyone because we all deserve that and it will make the world a much happier place for us all to live. And yes, this includes the internet.


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2 Responses to “Female” and Other Words People Call People

  1. Love this post, especially on the breakdown of the appropriate uses of the word “female” and “woman.” We didn’t cover stuff like this when I was in college and went through sensitivity training for LGBT people. It’s really helpful.

    As for offensive words, I try to avoid using the word “offensive” to describe them because of the subjective nature you talked about in your post. I’m currently trying to speak of derogatory terms as “epithets” or “derogatory” to clearly indicate that those words do more objective, measurable levels of harm than causing offense. It also helps to keep the discussion away from someone giving the flippant reply of, “You need to stop being offended.” (I got hit with that earlier this week).

    The above paragraph is just a suggestion though. I will say it does pay dividends because it gives less wiggle room for people who want to excuse offensive language. When they claim people are too sensitive, you can tell them they just missed the entire point.


    • Iris says:

      Thanks! Yeah, I never really thought of it as a problem word other than in the sense of it being trans-phobic when used incorrectly until recently.

      I like that. While writing this, it was difficult for me to give a definite opinion on the offensiveness of the word for the exact reason you said. “You need to stop being offended,” is such a horrible thing to say to someone. It’s pretty much telling the other person how to feel, which is never okay. We’re all entitled to our own emotions, and we shouldn’t have to justify them to other people. I’m going to have to switch to using derogatory because, looking back, I think that would have been an easier argument to make with this post. I’ll have to keep that in mind for the future.

      Liked by 1 person

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