In 1970, Charlie Saatchi (of Nigella Lawson fame) produced a powerful ad for the Family Planning Association. The power derived from the shock value of an impossible situation.
The Pregnant Man ad won many first prizes, but today it wouldn’t merit a second look. Reality outpaces not only satire but also, on this evidence, advertising. A man getting pregnant? So what? No big deal.
To date, 228 transsexual ‘men’ have given birth, which brings into focus such disciplines as physiology, biology, philosophy, sociology, jurisprudence and – most interesting to me – lexicology.
One is forced to reconsider the meaning of not only ‘man’, ‘woman’, but also of ‘transsexual’ (I don’t use ‘transgender’ on principle). Starting from the end, ‘transsexual’ used to designate a person who underwent certain surgical operations and hormonal treatments.
I’m in sympathy with the view that one’s sex is determined by a set of chromosomes only. Thus a man can’t become a woman and a woman can’t become a man, although either can become a freaky sideshow.
But leaving aside this impregnable argument, as it were, the wrong body in which the unfortunate individual was trapped could for many years be replaced with the right one by following the procedures I’ve outlined so sketchily.
That’s the general concept. But modernity can always be relied upon to come up with embellishments. Hence, according to Dr Lauren Rosewarne of the University of Melbourne, someone who is biologically female can become male even without surgery.
“They may not have necessarily had an operation, but they now identify as male,” she explained.
Let me see if I’ve got this right. A woman can keep all her primary and secondary sexual characteristics, use them the way they were designed to be used, and still be considered a man simply because she says so.
In that case, one would think that neither ‘man’ nor ‘woman’ has any definable meaning whatever, other than the perfectly arbitrary one anyone wishes to assign to it. This constitutes a trailblazing breakthrough in linguistics: words can mean whatever we want them to mean.
Thus a chap can be allowed to carry a pistol through an airport scanner because, as far as he’s concerned, it’s a pencil. A driver can beat a speeding fine because his car is to him actually a dog he was taking walkies. A man can insist there’s nothing wrong with squeezing a canary into his Bloody Mary because the bird is actually a lemon.
Some may think that such linguistic latitude makes discourse impossible, for who can guarantee that both parties agree that a canary is actually a lemon or a Ford is in reality a dachshund?
Dr Rosewarne proved to be as alert to that possibility as she was undaunted by it. When queried on the meaning of masculinity, she said: “Masculinity means different things to different people… It’s not just about what bits you have.”
For once I have to agree. For example, Jake Barnes, a character in Hemingway’s book The Sun Also Rises, lost his ‘bits’ to a war wound. That, however, didn’t turn him into a woman: he remained a man, but one without his ‘bits’ – and we must thank the Aussie academic for using such a precise medical term.
It’s also true that, like atoms with a high valence, words may have many different meanings, some of them mutually exclusive. (If you’re in the market for recondite terminology, linguists refer to the sum total of a word’s meanings as its ‘paradigm’.)
For example, ‘liberal’ used to designate an advocate of a small state incapable of infringing on personal liberties, such as freedom of speech. The way it’s used now, the word means its exact opposite: a proponent of an almighty state eager and able to silence every proponent of personal liberties, such as freedom of speech.
Therein lies the problem: when the valence is too high, words get to mean so much as to mean nothing. That’s precisely what will happen to ‘man’ and ‘woman’ if they lose their strict chromosomal definition: XY, you’re a man; XX, you’re a woman.
Being a simple chap, I like to keep things simple. A woman can call herself a man or anything else she wishes, including, say, a dachshund, a gazelle or a hummingbird. But if she gets pregnant, she’s nothing but the female of the Homo sapiens species.
If she calls herself anything else, she’s still both a female and a Homo, but she’s definitely not sapient. And neither is anyone who, like Dr Rosewarne, has set out to make the world even madder than it already is.