“Euphemism, we see, renders neutral terms pejorative.” as Quine said. This is usually called the “euphemism treadmill”, though Quine does not use that term himself in his discussion of euphemisms in Quiddities. It’s a great metaphor, but this post isn’t about metaphors.
I think the terms “sex” and “gender” have both gone for a run on the euphemism treadmill, and both have stumbled. Let’s talk about “sex” first. There once was a time when one could use phrases like “the fair sex” or “alone of all her sex” and no one would be thinking of, you know, sex. The first case referred to women as a class and the second case referred to the Virgin Mary. No confusion, and it’s still that way in cases like this.
But by at least the early 20th century, “sex” had gotten on the euphemism treadmill. Long ago I read part of Nin’s Delta of Venus, not a very interesting book, and she uses “His sex” and “her sex” as euphemisms for the genitals. The phrase “have sex” started becoming popular around that time too. “Sex” became a nicer way to talk about fucking, and I do mean fucking, since only PIV counts as sex under patriarchy.
But now we have a problem. We can’t say “sex” as comfortably as we used to any more. We need a euphemism for our euphemism. What word will we use when we don’t want to say sex? Oh look! Here’s “gender”. It’s got something to do about whether one is male or female. Let’s use that! Whew, what a relief!
I think that “gender” is used in informal speech mostly to mean “male or female” in order to avoid other connotations of the word “sex”. What else could someone mean when they say a sentence like “We’ll find out the gender of the baby at the next ultrasound”? Sure, that’t not what gender means in the context of feminist discourse, but not very many people know much about that sort of thing.
I sometimes think this is where it all went wrong. Gender has long been confused with sex in popular speech. Maybe this is part of how people got the idea that there are innate gender identities, that gender is a property of individuals.
Feel free to critique this idea in the comments. Expand on it if you like.
Here’s a short video about the euphemism treadmill I found very helpful. Warning, NSFW language.
And an SFW video from TEDx. I know, I know, TED. But she’s at Australian TED, so it’s OK.