Something is on my mind. Genitals! (and the language we use for them). The UK Sexological Bodywork training is working hard to improve their language and inclusivity around many intersecting identities. A central one is gender diversity; the subjects of bodies, arousal, sexual attraction and anatomy are so heavily gendered. Somatic Sex Education and Sexological Bodywork should be embracing to everyone whether are trans or cis (non trans) men, women, non binary, gender non-conforming, etc.
When I did my training in 2017, I took many opportunities to point out non hetero-normative and cis-normative perspectives throughout our time together. One lunchtime I offered a workshop about how we can be inclusive to trans including non-binary clients including lots about language to talk about trans experience and bodies.
I had a lot of feedback about how valuable this was for people. But sometimes, I will sometimes face a rather strained, tired ‘Yes, but come on, MOST people simply have a penis or a vagina, don’t they?’ Professionals offering services often take the position that as long as MOST people are captured by their publicity and language then this is enough. It might seem so if you are a member of the included group, but for a gender non-conforming client or trans or intersex person looking for a safe, welcoming workshop or therapist, it will REALLY matter.
If you are a Sexological Bodyworker, you will more than likely have heard, and used, the terms ‘People with a penis’ and ‘People with a vagina/vulva’. Variations are ‘Penis owner’ and ‘Vulva owner’. These are useful terms to a point. I like that they remove the automatic link between gender and genitals. Let’s consider though, how many statements about ‘People with Penises’ contain unhelpful assumptions and narratives that actually don’t benefit any of us.
I wanted to do a quick analysis of what a ‘person with a penis’ could actually mean. I love a list. Let’s bullet point…
‘Person with a Penis’ could mean:
- A cis (non Trans) man
- A Trans man who has had phalloplasty (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phalloplasty)
- A Trans man who has had Metoidioplasty (https://www.healthline.com/health/transgender/metoidioplasty)
- An Assigned Male at Birth (AMAB) Non binary person
- An Assigned Female at Birth (AFAB) Non binary person who has had lower surgery (phalloplasty or metoidioplasty)
- A Trans woman who has not had lower surgery (vaginoplasty/clitoroplasty and labioplasty…https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sex_reassignment_surgery_(male-to-female)
- An Intersex person with longer external erectile tissue or penis shaped anatomy
- An AMAB child/young person who have not yet articulated their gender identity
- An AMAB person who is questioning their gender identity.
That is 9 distinct identities. Nine! All with very different histories, life experiences, identities, social positions, privileges and challenges.
Let’s go through the same process of list-making for the phrase ‘Person with a Vulva’ (and let’s stick with Vulva, not vagina, for accuracy)
A ‘Person with a Vulva’ could mean:
- A Cis (non Trans) woman
- A Trans woman who has had lower surgery to create a vulva
- A Trans man who has not had lower surgery (phalloplasty/metoidioplasty)
- A Trans man who has had some degree of lower surgery (phalloplasty/metoidioplasty) that has left the vagina/and or vulva present
- An Assigned Female at Birth (AFAB) non binary person
- An Assigned Male at Birth (AMAB) Non binary person who has had lower surgery to create a vulva (vaginoplasty/clitoroplasty and labioplasty)
- An Intersex person with a vulva/vagina shaped anatomy
- An AFAB child/young person who has not yet articulated their gender identity yet.
- An AFAB person questioning their gender.
Again, the term ‘Person with a vulva’ can represent 9 distinct categories of people that you could not make any sweeping generalisations about that would be meaningful.
A few more things to consider:
It is easy to take the position that you will never come across an Intersex person and that there is little need to have inclusive education, curriculums and language because these people are so rare. Actually, Intersex people are estimated to make up 1.7% of the population which is as common as having red hair (1-2%)
Here we are talking about genitals though. Not all of these people will have the specific ‘ambiguous genitalia’ (which is only one trait or variation that is deemed to be Intersex). It is estimated that 1 in 2000 (0.05%) people are born with genitals that ‘deviate’ from the ‘ideal’ male and female. It is concluded that the figure might be as high as 2% of babies born alive. Between 0.1-0.2% of the population receive surgery to ‘correct’ the genitals. *
What this means is that members of our communities who experience exactly the same needs for embodied erotic education and therapeutic work as everyone else (plus more trauma and issues by virtue of being part of this invisible minority with a terrible record of human rights) exist.
If you are a practitioner, you may have never worked with an Intersex person by pure statistical chance. Or, you are not being approached by Intersex people, because this is a group who face many barriers to engaging in this kind of work, and may not even be reflected in the language that so far our profession tends to use.
“Same jello, different mold”
Thankyou to Barbara Carrellas of Urban Tantra fame, for this endearing description of the homologous genitals (meaning similar in structure and evolutionary origin, but different in function). As embryos we all began with the same erectile tissue and nerve endings, it just formed into a wide array of different shapes and formations. So we can talk about ‘people with all genital configurations’ and know it’s actually all the same material.
Click here for more fun, cartoon information about this… https://www.ohjoysextoy.com/genitals/
Beyond the physical body
Neither of these lists even goes into the territory of psychic, fantasy, phantom, energy genitals, all of which are part of many people’s lived experience and sexual expression. And some people feel like they embody sex toys and prosthetics as a part and extension of their bodies.
Many of the people described above would not use the word vulva or penis to describe their genitals, or would strongly prefer not to. If they heard the term ‘people with penises’ they might assume someone else was being talked about (such as just cis men), or might stop listening because they simply do not identify with the word, or feel triggered by it. That’s why it’s a good idea to ask all clients what they would like their genitals to be called. There are some great gender neutral ideas like ‘External erectile tissue’, ‘intimate parts’, simply ‘genitals’ or ‘junk’.
It is helpful to develop a stance that can be more ‘gender neutral’ towards genitals, until you know the story from the owner. Then of course you could hear (and affirm for the client) that a trans man really likes their ‘front hole’ affirmed as a male part of him, or a trans woman likes her ‘penis’ to be touched and treated like a small clitoris. And a huge range of possibilities in between.
I like the brand of Erotic or Sexological Bodywork that approaches every new set of genitals with a ‘beginners mind’, a fresh perspective and making as few assumptions as possible. That’s why my workshops sometimes feature a ‘Genital Interview’!
Hormones affect the way these body parts behave and how they are experienced by the owner. The outside erectile tissue (otherwise known as clitoris) of a trans masculine person who has taken Testosterone will grow larger and will feel different. The outside erectile tissue of a trans feminine person (otherwise know as penis) may become smaller and may not become engorged as easily.
Do you have to be born with it?
What distinctions are we going to make about whether someone was born with a body part, or if it was surgically constructed? We need to think about who we exclude with our chosen language. Why are we differentiating and why are we choosing not to? Sometimes there are valid reasons for being clear about the history of someone’s genitals. Another list!
Why we might need to know the story of someone’s genitals?
- Firstly, whatever your role with this client… Is it necessary?
- Medical, gynaecological issues, hormone stuff.
- Safer sex, transmission of STDs and pregnancy
- Understanding menstruation and needs around that
- Conditions of related internal parts such as uterus, testicles, prostate.
- Considerations of surgical history and scarring and trauma.
- The emotional significance for the client.
- Understanding the complexities of how someone was socialised based on the genitals they had at birth.
- Working out how and what we might need to offer touch, pleasure and massage to these genitals.
- The client wants us to work with them, through talk, somatic awareness or hands on bodywork, on their genitals so we need to know their shape and story (as told by the owner of the genitals, not society, the legal system or medicine).
So, there are valid reasons for knowing and understanding the shape and history of our client’s genitals. We are still going to do this carefully, with sensitivity and consideration.
Bear in mind that if you advertise your genital massage course as for ‘People with Penises’ (anatomy based), technically it could include many of the people in the lists above. Is it really set up and inclusive to them? Is that what you mean? Can you accommodate a man at 2nd stage of phalloplasty surgery? Are trans women welcome, and have you considered that they might not use this word for their genitals.
If you advertise your genital massage workshop for ‘men’ (identity based), are you prepared that a man with a vulva might approach you with interest, or attend? What do you mean by ‘men’? Do you mean people who were Assigned Male at Birth (so therefore more likely have a penis and testes)? We need to get clear about what we mean.
What’s in a phrase?
Have these phrases replaced one binary of ‘men and women’ with another one based on a simplistic view that 50% of the world have a penis and the other 50% have a vulva? What stereotypes and assumptions arise from these categories, rather than an openness and curiosity to hear about the individual experience of the person?
We all want to feel seen, heard and recognised, particularly when embarking on such sensitive and personal work. People from non-normative and oppressed minorities are accustomed and usually prepared to do some ‘translation’ work, but the less they have to do the better. We need to get basic things right, like not mis-gendering the person, or their body, or genitals, or internal anatomy, whether it has been hormonally or surgically altered or not. This leaves the client valuable space and energy to benefit from the fantastic services the practitioner is offering and that they are paying for!
A Gender Freedom perspective
We are two weeks into this year’s UK Certified Sexological Bodywork training. I am heartened by the efforts of the training school to enhance this aspect of the teaching, and model inclusivity as a default. I believe that delivering Sex Education through a ‘gender-queered’ lens benefits everyone by unraveling some of the rigid binary, gendered scripts we are all tied up in. Hopefully the lists above illustrate my point, that sexuality professionals can, and should, go further and do better than to swap one blunt binary tool for another. We can dig deeper into the wide spectrum of diversity in gender identities, body configurations and get our everyday and professional language to start to reflect it.
If you are interested in exploring any aspect of your body, sexuality, desires from a gender-freedom perspective, you can reach me on email@example.com or through the contact page on this website.
* Statistics from research quoted here – https://www.intersexequality.com/how-common-is-intersex-in-humans/
Resources for more information about Intersex and Homologous genital structures: https://intersexroadshow.blogspot.com/2011/04/intersex-genitalia-illustrated-and.html