Last month, Teen Vogue published a how-to article on anal sex that defined males and females as “prostate owners” and “non-prostate owners,” respectively. The magazine may have thought that these terms were more appropriate for an audience that includes people who identify as transgender or non-binary, and who therefore don’t feel the terms “male” and “female” apply.
However, in their efforts to be inclusive, the magazine tacitly perpetuated a sexist, patriarchal perspective as old as Aristotle: that women are a type of “non-man” rather than a distinct type of human.
Aristotle was an Ancient Greek natural philosopher who lived from 384-322 B.C and was renowned for his logic. But when it came to deducing why men and women were different, his assumptions were informed by a deeply sexist society that saw educated Greek males as the perfect humans and females as deformed derivatives.
In his text, “On the Generation of Animals,” Aristotle describes the female body as “a mutilated male,” arguing that “the catamenia [menses] are semen, only not pure; for there is only one thing they have not in them, the principle of soul.”
Aristotle thought that women’s “mutilation” was due to her cooler and wetter nature — a theory influenced by earlier writings by Hippocrates, an Ancient Greek physician considered the father of modern medicine. It’s this nature, Aristotle argues, that prevents women from having enough vital heat to develop into a fully formed human — that is, a man.
Women’s underdeveloped nature supposedly made them smaller, weaker, and passive, which explained why they needed to be ruled over by men. Their “wetness” explained why they menstruated each month. Periods stopped during pregnancy because, Aristotle thought, menstrual blood built the fetus. The semen’s “principle of soul,” mentioned in the quote above, is what was responsible for bringing the fetus to life. Women just provided the supplies.
Aristotle’s logic made sense in a society where women were viewed as subhuman. It provided a mechanism for the sexist Ancient Greek hierarchy that placed women between men and animals. His writing proved influential long after his death, and shaped the theories of Galen of Pergamum, a Greek physician born almost 200 years after Aristotle died. Galen’s prolific writings formed the core of Western medical education for centuries, from the Middle Ages to about the mid-17th century.
Like Aristotle, Galen thought women were underdeveloped non-men. He reasoned that male organs initially formed internally, and that when the body reached the right temperature, a vital heat literally pushed the penis and testicles outside the body like a pop-up turkey timer. The internal location of women’s reproductive organs meant that they weren’t as fully formed as men’s. He saw them akin to the “imperfect” eyes of moles. (Side note: the miniscule eyes of moles are perfectly suited for a life spent underground.)
In his text, “Galen on the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body,” Galen writes:
“In fact, just as the mole has imperfect eyes, though certainly not so imperfect as they are in those animals that do not have any trace of them at all, so too the woman is less perfect than the man in respect of the generative parts…”
“… though making the animal itself that was being formed less perfect than one that is complete in all respects, provided no small advantage for the race; for there needs to be a female. Indeed, you ought not to think that our creator would purposefully make half the whole race imperfect and, as it were, mutilated, unless there were some great advantage in it.”
To Galen, one of the most influential figures in medical history, the mutilated female body constituted a necessary imperfection, required for human reproduction. The perception of the male form as the pinnacle of creation meant that the female form wasn’t simply different, it was inherently inferior. They were worse off non-men — not even dignified enough to grow beards!
From the vantage point of the 21st century, the theories of Galen and Aristotle may seem outdated, silly, or irrelevant, but when we have magazines labeling female anatomy as that of a “non-prostate owner,” I see a modern reincarnation of the sexist logic that classified women as a sub-standard variety of men for centuries.
With the voices and experiences of transgender people gaining greater prominence in society, more and more organizations are deferring to language that erases women in an attempt to be inclusive. Last year, Planned Parenthood used the word “menstruators” in a tweet about sanitary products. And in a Facebook post, the Green Party literally called anyone who wasn’t a man a “non-man,” allowing men to be the standard that all other groups of people are judged from.
That sounds more like sexism à la Ancient Greece than inclusiveness to me.
I think that most organizations mean well when they choose terms meant to encompass all types of people and bodies. A more inclusive way to do that would be to ditch the broader terms and instead get specific: If the term “woman” seems too limiting when discussing anatomy, refer to trans-identified men and women as well. Dividing the world into men and “non-men” dehumanizes and insults women, who are fighting a history wherein they have long been viewed as substandard “non-men” rather than people in their own right.
Monica Kortsha is a science writer, and an editor at the zine Vector. She earned her bachelor’s in biology and her bachelor’s in journalism from The University of Texas at Austin.Follow her on Twitter @m_kortsha.