An Ecce Homo Guide

How to avoid sexist language

Over the course of this blog, we have tackled many times the thorny matter of gender, sexuality, and language in its various manifestations: from the very etymology and linguistic history of the term ‘queer’ and the queerness of language itself all the way to the so-called pronouns issue. One could even say that fashion is a symbolic language all by itself as one’s stylistic choices inevitably transmit public and polysemous messages regarding one’s status and identity, such as gender, sexuality, class, ethnic group, etc. As a queer non-binary and gender-neutral brand, Ecce Homo has gone to great lengths to make sure that not only our underwear designs but also the terms we use to describe them are carefully picked to avoid unnecessary gendering as much as possible. For example, in Ecce Homo’s attempt to make a difference in the worldwide undergarments market by designing genuinely queer underwear for all genders and body types beyond gender binarism, we were faced with the seemingly irresolvable dilemma between an indispensable descriptive clarity and a queer sensibility deep in our hearts. The solution we came up with after a lot of brainstorming and discussions with members of the LGBTIQA+ community led us to opt for genderless yet practical terms for identifying our clothes, such as u-body shape or v-body shape, when it comes to tops, and flat front and space in front, when it comes to underwear. 

In this blog article, we are going to tackle the issue of linguistic sexism and offer a practical guide on how to avoid the latter. Before going any further, a few remarks are much needed: first of all, the following guide is as partial and biased as any other, secondly, the tips offered here concern only the English language given its status as lingua franca, that is as the global means of communication, and thirdly, keep in mind that these tips do not exhaust the extend and the depth to which sexism permeates language, as linguistic sexism is a phenomenon that filters literally all the aspects of language use, from phonetics and semantics to pragmatics and syntax.

But what is linguistic sexism to begin with, and why should it matter to any queer feminist ally? As is usually the case, not a single definition can do justice to this multifaceted cultural and social phenomenon, but let’s give it a try! A language can be considered sexist in the following overlapping cases

  •  When it includes words, phrases, and expressions that unnecessarily differentiate between women and men or exclude, trivialize, or diminish either gender (Parks & Roberton, 1998).
  • When it reinforces and perpetuates gender stereotypes and status differences between women and men (Swim, Mallett, & Stangor, 2004). Thus, it is discriminatory by implying an unjustified sexual bias against a group or an individual, usually women, but sometimes men. However, according to Cameron (1992), it is women who are suffering from sexist structures in language.
  • When the particular use of words arbitrarily assigns roles or characteristics to people on the basis of their sex or gender (Valentine, 2004). In this case, a statement is sexist if it contributes, promotes, or exploits an unfair or irrelevant, or impertinent distinction between the sexes (Mills, 1995). 
  • When it is supposed to include all people, but, unintentionally (or not) excludes a gender, usually women by reinstating men as the universal subject, the norm of humanity.    
  • When it uses an asymmetrical method of describing female and male characters, for example by describing women by their appearance more often than men (Mills, 1995).
  • When everyday vocabulary is rife with gendered words that are based on a gender ideology that takes to be only two, antithetical and at the same time complementary, gender identities. These unexamined and taken-for-granted assumptions are really hurtful to many people who do not fall neatly into this gender binarism and its sexist presuppositions. These people might identify themselves as transgender, in transition, intersex, nonbinary, genderqueer, or gender nonconforming, among many others, and they usually opt for what is called ‘preferred or personal gender pronouns’ the violation of which is a case of sexist language. 

Linguistic sexism really matters as a form of everyday politics because it has been argued that not only characterizes or mirrors a sexist language a sexist society, but also a sexist language actively constructs a sexist social reality and misogynist ideology. In other words, an hetero-patriarchal society tends to use sexist language, while at the same time, the unchecked use of sexist language further legitimizes and solidifies heterosexist assumptions. The extent of this mutually reinforcing relationship between language and the ideology of its community of speakers is highly debated with some arguing that language determines how we perceive, interpret, and experience our life worlds, while others maintain that language is just one of the many factors that can influence the construction of social reality. 

When it comes to English, is a gendered language. The so-called grammatical gender is a system of noun classification that includes masculine and feminine categories. Whereas masculine nouns are words for men, boys, and male animals, feminine nouns are words for women, girls, and female animals. On top of this binary gender system, English does not have a gender-neutral or third-gender pronoun available, and as such, this language does not leave room for other gender identities and expressions. Accordingly, she/her/hers and he/him/his are the female/feminine and male/masculine pronouns, that is words that are used instead of a noun or a noun phrase to refer to individuals, following the abovementioned string gender binarism. That’s why it is important to be caring and care-ful speakers in order to come up with ways to use gender-neutral or gender-inclusive language without sacrificing the natural feeling of language use. For this purpose, here is a practical guide on how to avoid sexist and unnecessarily gendered language:

  • Avoid a pronoun that denotes a single gender when the information conveyed pertains equally to both sexes by changing singular nouns to plurals, using a gender-neutral pronoun, or eliminating the pronoun entirely: A passenger is responsible for his personal belongings 🖛 All passengers are responsible for their personal belongings 🖛 A passenger is responsible for their personal belongings 🖛 Personal belongings are passengers’ responsibility 
  • Use passive voice, switch to direct address, or change a pronoun to an article: This teacher loves his students 🖛 The students are loved by this teacher, Joe said she could carry all the bags 🖛 Joe said, "I can carry all the bags, A mailman must be quick at his job 🖛 A post officer must be quick at the job 
  • Avoid job titles that link the job to a single gender: Congressman 🖛 A member of the congress,  Policeman 🖛 Police officer,  Cleaning lady 🖛 House cleaner 
  • Avoid gendered modifiers: Lady boss 🖛 Boss, Male nurse 🖛 Nurse 
  • Avoid using words stereotypically associated with either gender: A hysterical/perky woman,  A rational/reliable man 
  • Avoid a single gender pronoun or eliminate the pronoun altogether in conjunction with a neutral job title, so that the implication is that the job “belongs” to a single gender: The kindergarten teacher plays with her pupils 🖛 The kindergarten teacher plays with their pupils 🖛 The kindergarten teacher and the pupils play together 
  • Avoid any use of language that unnecessarily and arbitrarily makes gender distinctions: For this construction job, more manpower is needed 🖛 For this construction job, more labour force/ personnel are needed, Mankind 🖛 Humanity,  Manmade 🖛 Artificial 
  • Avoid using “man” as a noun when you are really referring to both men and women: A man should be honest 🖛 A person should be honest,  All men are born equal 🖛 Everyone is born equal 
  • Avoid misgendering, that is, using the wrong pronouns. To this end, here are a few tips:
    • Ask for the pronouns used by the individuals themselves, which may involve using different pronouns at different times for the same individual. 
    • Do not assume the gender of another person. 
    • Use the gender-neutral pronoun (they/their/them) in situations where a person's gender is unknown.          
    • Do not insist on asking a person of which pronouns they use as this way you might end up outing this person or exposing them to queerphobic violence.
    • Call out deadnaming, the -usually malicious- act of referring to a transgender or non-binary person by a name they used prior to their transitioning, such as their birth name.
    • Add your pronouns in your email signature (usually next to your name) in order to encourage other people to do so and avoid misgendering. 
    •  Familiarize yourself with the range of intersex variations in order to avoid pathologizing terminology. 
    •  Use the gender-neutral Mx. (pronounced 'mux' or 'mix') honorific instead of the gendered ones, such as Mr., Ms., Mrs., or Miss.   


Cameron, D. 1992. Feminism & Linguistic Theory. 2nd ed. New York: Palgrave. 

Mills, S. 1995. Feminist Stylistics. London: Routledge. 

Parks, J., & Roberton, M. A. (1998). Contemporary Arguments Against Nonsexist Language: Blaubergs (1980) Revisited. Sex Roles, 39(5), 445-461. 

Swim, J., Mallett, R., & Stangor, C. (2004). Understanding Subtle Sexism: Detection and Use of Sexist Language. Sex Roles, 51(3/4), 117-128. 

Valentine, Tamara. 2004. Language and Prejudice: A Longman Topics Reader. New York: Pearson/Longman.