Today a friend told me a story about a writer he knew. The writer had written a novel that was accepted for publication at a trade house and was told all was well except for one element. The story included a trans character and the publisher wanted to send the book to “a sensitivity reader.” The author, who was not a trans person, did not like the idea of being vetted in this way and took the book to a different house. I wondered about other ways books could be vetted for “sensitivity.” Did the publisher send books about women written by men to female “sensitivity” readers? What about books about men written by women? Were there “sensitivity readers” for books about race, religion, nationality, forms of trauma the author had not experienced? What possible good could any of this do for writing, publishing, the issue itself of calming the frizz of bias and phobia?
Yesterday I posted on Facebook about the phrase “pussy whipped.” A friend used the term in a post, and I registered my reaction in a separate post. I asked a series of rthetorical questions some people mistook for real questions and began to “splain” some meanings the term had for men. I “splained” back, in the comment thread, that regardless of how men understand the phrase and used it jokingly among themselves and others, the term “pussy whipped” stings and stigmatizes people who actually have pussies. I wanted to say, simply, I feel a current of rage go through my body each time I hear or read the term “pussy whipped” as well as the equation of the words douche, douchebag, pussy (for weakling) wuss (variant of puss), and cunt with any vile piece of shit. I said: “The world is full of things viler than female genitalia and things that wash female genitalia. Such as the myriad hairy paws, coated with dried semen and redolent of rotting oysters, squeezing the balls of our society.”
I did not ask anyone to stop using these terms, not because I want to keep hearing them but because I don’t think social change happens through censorship and “sensitivity harassment.” I think it happens this way, in social use and reactions to social use. Every time I feel a surge of rage go through my body when I hear language that insults me and my body parts, I will call attention to the sliming and I will create a counter example that puts into relief the double standard. The double standard is where I have consciousness of sexism and misogyny because I have to, and you do not have consciosuness of these things because you do not have to and you risk little in life for not having it.
Every time I feel a surge of rage, I have been harmed a little. Disagreement is not trauma (especially if you grew up in my family or are simply a Jew), but the free flow of sexist and misogynist language tears at the safety and freedom of all women in the world all the time. It does do harm. The remedy is not resticting langauge and the crazy and at times poetically weird and unexpected meanings language can stir.
Back to the book publisher. If someone wanted to vet a book or even an article or story of mine through a “sensitivity reader,” I would pull it. In fact this happened to me in 2016 at the Columbia University radio station WKCR. (This story is well chronicled elsewhere if you want to read details.) How does a society designate a term hate speech? It’s weird and hard and mostly I’m against these determinations. Are the underpinnings almost always economic? Meaning, is the impulse to censor or moderate language stirred by fear of an economic backash by consumers? Is that what the book publisher feared, a backlash of disapproval about a nontrans person depicting a trans character?
Everyone wants to speak for themselves. I want the freedom to explain as often as I can how it feels to be stigmatized and demeaned by assumptions everywhere in the culture that the bodies of female humans and the lives lived in those bodies are viciously undervalued. I also don’t want anything to police or restrict your freedom to say the shit that pisses me off.