Gender and sex interchangeability on Facebook

I heard that Facebook’s ‘sex’ field once said ‘gender’, instead.  This somewhat disturbing interchangeability of two very different words, I feel, helpfully highlights the disconnect between Facebook and the complex individuals it attempts to categorise.  Understanding the difficulties involved in gathering historical information on closed software interfaces, I nevertheless looked for evidence to support the claim that the field name had changed from ‘gender’ to ‘sex’.

‘Sex’ influences gendered pronouns on Facebook.  This is clearly visible on profiles, and just about anywhere users are referred to in some way.  This imposed one-to-one relation is also apparent from the language used in ‘He/She/They: Grammar and Facebook‘, a June 2008 post from The Facebook Blog.  It is claimed that some languages have difficulty with non-gendered pronouns.  “For this reason”, they write,

we’ve decided to request that all Facebook users fill out this information on their profile. If you haven’t yet selected a sex, you will probably see a prompt to choose whether you want to be referred to as “him” or “her” in the coming weeks.

The post goes on to say,

We’ve received pushback in the past from groups that find the male/female distinction too limiting. We have a lot of respect for these communities, which is why it will still be possible to remove gender entirely from your account […].

(Of note is the fact that it is currently impossible to remove gender from your account, like it supposedly was in June 2008.  Hiding your sex status from everyone does not stop Facebook from referring to you using gendered terms (or using a gendered default picture, if you have no profile photos visible) that relate to your declared sex.)

According a a Facebook user (quoted in Emily Rutherford’s June 2009 article ‘Choose One‘) “this is the only peep ever heard from Facebook regarding this issue”.  Two years later, there are still no other mentions of these options in The Facebook Blog.  Google encountered similar issues with non-gendered language translation in Google+, but managed to get around it because they felt user privacy was more important than the discomfort felt by those few who are uncomfortable reading ‘their’ or ‘they’.  (Also of note, Google are not guilty of instituting a culture of sex/gender interchangeability.)

Looking further I found a few interesting conversations and projects people worked on in response to concerns over this limitation.  Sadly, it appears any and all petitions calling for a revision are ignored.  However, I did come across one highly intriguing comment in the Expand Gender Options on Facebook Petition page that claimed setting your language from ‘English (US)’ to ‘English (UK)’ changes references of ‘sex’ to ‘gender’.  That couldn’t be right, I thought, and had to test it out immediately.  But lo and behold, changing the language on your profile options page or the welcome screen, for example, changes the field title.

I have absolutely no idea why this is the case.  Is the gender/sex difference actually considered to be a ‘language difference’ by the Facebook team?  Are different people in charge of the UK translation who happen to have different views on the appropriateness of this field — and hold the power to implement different terminology?

I’m still yet to find any evidence of when — or if — Facebook changed the terminology for all users, but this discovery reveals a situation whereby Facebook is using different terminology to relate to the same field, depending on what settings are used.  I played around with it and confirmed that this difference extends further than self-expression within your own profile — open up the profile page of a user that displays their sex or gender to you and switch your language settings between UK and US English and see what I mean.

This language setting, then, represents a sort of cultural lens through which we understand other users.  What it also represents, however, is a systematic disregard of users’ sex and gender performance.  If I wish to declare my sex in a particular way but others read it as my gender identity (or vice versa), I am being misrepresented.  Some may feel comfortable declaring male or female using one language rather than the other, but the recognition of misrepresentation may destroy any sense of freedom experienced through this act of expression.

In my previous post on sex legitimisation on Facebook I wrote

In the case of Facebook, many of us have lost the power of accurately expressing our identity because we have complied with a system whose context disagrees with our own understanding of sex categorisation.

Now I know there are two systems operating simultaneously I realise it’s actually worse than this.  No one can express their sex or gender identity accurately on Facebook unless they believe, just as Facebook has asserted, gender and sex are exactly the same thing.

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