An Introduction to Dismantling Speciesist/Sexist Language: 5 Terms To Avoid

“Language is not a perfect reflection of reality. It is not a phenomenon of the universe: We produce language, we give it meaning, and we maintain and change language.” – Lisa Kemmerer.

Language helps us to create and shape our understanding of the world. Our world constantly changes, and language changes with it. As a result of active campaigning and growing awareness, there are many terms we now understand as oppressive to marginalized groups. Toxic words are no longer tolerated. As activists challenging oppressive hierarchies, it is incredibly important that our language reflects our politics.

Speciesist terms are so deeply ingrained within language that they have become normalised. Well-known negative phrases like ‘sly as a fox’ or ‘grumpy cow’ applies human qualities to animals through the language that humans have created. As animals are already perceived by society as less-than human, using animals to express these human qualities designates the traits as separate, other, different. Thus, describing a human with speciesist terms or phrases reduces their autonomy and agency because animals have no freedom.

Terminology that is both speciesist and sexist highlights the connected oppressions of womxn and animals by reinforcing their otherness to men – ‘viewed through speciesism, a nonhuman animal acquires a negative image. When metaphor then imposes that image on women, they share its negativity.’ – Joan Dunayer.

 Five Terms to Avoid (and why):  

  1. It

The pronoun ‘it’ is used to refer to things. And objects. Animals are living beings, so calling an animal ‘it’ implies they are unable to experience pain and emotions. Objectifying animals in this way perpetuates the status of animals as less-than human. The default is often calling animals ‘he/him’ when unsure of their sex and gender, which is generally reflective of our patriarchal cisnormative society as a whole. To disrupt this, we choose alternative terms such as who/they/them.

  1. Pet

Pet implies ownership. People living with animals are often called ‘pet owners’. Anti-speciesists recognize that animals are not property (no matter how much society/the law tells otherwise). We should be distancing ourselves from outdated language– ‘companion’ is more compassionate.

  1. Bitch

Bitch is exclusively applied to womxn and female gender identity stereotypes. A bitch is literally a female dog, yet when used against womxn, ‘bitch’ becomes spiteful, rude or bossy. When used to describe men, ‘bitch’ means feminine and weak. While some feminists have reclaimed the word bitch to destabilize the traditional associations of womxn with femininity, the problem remains. Bitch is a term that has been appropriated from animals and promotes and maintains a system of othering – other than womxn, other than man, other than human.

  1. Chick/bird

Calling womxn ‘birds’ or ‘chicks’ sexualizes and objectifies womxn and animals. Society places value on the bodies of chickens as objects to be exploited or used. Chickens are commodified, killed, and used as products for the benefit of humans. Depicting womxn as ‘chicks’ expresses that it is acceptable to reproduce this system of oppression on the bodies of womxn.

  1. Fur hag

The animal liberation movement itself is not free of sexist language. Most notably, the term ‘fur hag’ is specifically used as attack on womxn who wear fur. Hag, meaning an old woman or witch, becomes ageist and sexist in this context as it is used to purposely diminish and subdue womxn by deeming them uncompassionate and ignorant. There is no similar term to describe men who wear fur, though there are many men in the fashion industry who do. Fur farming is horrifically cruel and violent, yet campaigning against the industry by attacking and blaming womxn ignores the oppressive system that encourages womxn to wear fur as a status/power symbol.

It is crucial that we continue to liberate our language. Speciesist/sexist language hurts animals and women by highlighting their difference from those who western society equates with power (white cis hetero men). Ultimately, being perceived as less-than enables the objectification, exploitation and oppression of marginalized individuals. We will not be part of a system that uses speciesist/sexist language to support this.

~ elecia

Further reading:

Dunayer, Joan. ‘Sexist Words, Speciesist Roots’.

Kemmerer, Lisa. ‘Verbal Activism: Anymal’.

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