The words used in a conversation, a story, an article, a TV news item carry important perceptions ad our views are heavily influenced by the actual words used to describe males and females just as a start. We need to watch our language.
Males, Men, Boys, Youths
Police stories seem to call men ‘males’ once they are over some undefined age. ‘The suspect was a 19 yo male’. This seems to de-personalise, de-characterise the person, makes them somehow not a ‘real’ person. Neither man nor boy, just ‘male’.
‘Boy’ can have many meanings. On face value, the term is used for males who are not old enough to be described as ‘men’…but at what age does a boy become a man? Is an 18yo, who can drink, drive, vote and be treated by the courts as an adult, a ‘ boy’ or a ‘man’?
Mostly, society seems to see 18 yo ‘boys’ as ‘men’, perhaps because of their physical power, prowess, energy and size, even though their mental maturity is still developing and they may be still in high school. A 20yo certainly is regarded as a ‘man’ and is rarely described as a ‘boy’, unless referring to sports teams (‘The boys did well tonight’).
But older men can also be called ‘boys’. ‘He’s one of the boys’, ‘I’m going out with the boys’ are both descriptions of adult men, reflecting long standing relationships, activities that are (or have been) specific to males (eg drinking binges, going to male sport in a group, men-only activities, groups/nights) where men can relax and be ‘men’ without worrying about offending women. ‘Boys’ in this sense also conveys a certain lack of adult responsibility for behaviour – ‘Boys will be boys’ . But these ‘boys’ are well known to be ‘men’ in real/normal life.
The term ‘youth’ is sometimes used, often in a derogatory way. Police often use this term. It describes boys exclusively (at least I’ve never heard of girls being described as ‘youths’). It usually means teenage boys engaged in mischief or undesirable behaviour, but it should really refer to someone who is a boy who has yet to emerge from being a ‘child’ to be a full-fledged ‘man’.
Females, Women, Girls
Police are more ambiguous in reporting females. They use ‘female’, ‘ girl’ and ‘woman’ in a pattern which I have been unable to decipher. A suspect or a dead person is generally a ‘ female’, but a victim could be a ‘girl’, a ‘woman’ or a ‘female’, regardless of age.
The use of the term ‘woman’ was promoted in language as a term of gender equality in the fight for equal rights in the US, as I recall. Woman is the female equivalent of man. Before this, it was often ‘men’ going out with ‘girls’, even though the girls were the same ages.
For a while, ‘women’ became the normal term. Gough Whitlam’s powerful 1972 election speech began, ‘Men and women of Australia’. It was such a change in language, a recognition of equality. Now, you don’t hear that term, but we still have a Minister for Women, reflecting the lack of equality that continues to exist.
So when does a ‘girl’ become a ‘woman’? For some men, the answer is ‘never’. They are never equal. Conceptually, it is not at all clear. Is it 18-20, like boys? An 18yo female is rarely described as a woman. A 20yo may be, but a female could be into her early 20s before she is seen and described as a ‘woman’, even by women!
Sometimes the term ‘young woman’ is used for women in their 20s. This implies that she has yet to reach full womanhood. (The term ‘young man’ is also used, but it can mean a teenage boy as much as an early 20s male and certainly not a mid-20s or older male.) Yet girls develop maturity earlier than boys, so they should be seen and described as ‘women’ at an earlier age than when boys become men.
These days, women (and also society) seem to accept that older women can also be ‘girls’, just like older men. This use seems to be related to girls being excessively feminine, doing crazy things (“Girls just wanna have fun’), letting their hair down (just like men being boys).
So the term ‘girls’ can apply to lots of females. That would OK if girls were allowed to behave as boys with the same consequences. But it is clear that boys/men can behave badly with limited consequences, whereas if girls/women behave badly, the consequences are their fault.
Why does this matter?
Women/feminists in particular argue a lot over terms used in language. The description of a person’s gender and expected responsibility and maturity are very important issues in defining acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in the society, as much of society’s problems are behaviour between people.
Describing a person as a male seems dehumanising. A male is either a boy, a youth (in a non-stereotypical meaning) or a man. We expect different things from an 18yo ‘man’ than we do from an 18yo ‘boy’ or even ‘youth’. We have no expectations of an 18yo ‘male’ – this is some kind of alien person known only to the police.
Describing a person as a female is similarly dehumanising. Describing a person as a ‘girl’ implies they are not fully mature and are somewhat vulnerable. Describing a person as a ‘woman’ implies they are, like a man, fully mature and fully responsible.
What to do? Change our language
An agreed vocabulary would treat males and females equally. First, I’d ask the police to drop the terms ‘males’ and ‘females’ and use boys, girls, men, women, like the rest of society. Similarly, since the term ‘youths’ is only applied to (bad?) boys, it should be dropped too.
Second, if we used the terms ‘boys’/’girls’ up to 12, ‘teens’ from 13-19 and ‘men’/’women’ from age 20 onwards, we would have gender equality in language at least.
Third, used properly, that language would facilitate better social behaviour. If we saw ‘women’ being attacked, not ‘girls’, we’d be seeing full people, not partial people. Girls and boys are not fully developed. They make errors and need to be treated differently. But men and women are supposed to be fully mature. We expect them to understand and be understood by society and we expect them to treat and be treated equally.
So, mind your language. Call out others when their use is inappropriate. It is in all of our interests to have an equal society, facilitated by equal language.