The Lancet medical journal has been accused of sexism after describing women as “bodies with vaginas” on the cover of its latest edition.

A Tweet sharing the front page has provoked a wave of criticism, with academics cancelling their subscriptions and resigning as reviewers, doctors blasting the phrase as “dehumanising” and activists suggesting the term is “unhelpful” for broader debates about inclusivity.

The cover refers to an article, titled ‘Periods on Display’ and published on September 1, which reviews an exhibition on the history of menstruation at the Vagina Museum in London. In the piece, the writer says “women” four times, but also uses the phrase “bodies with vaginas” once.

It is a quote including this latter term that the Lancet’s editors chose to use on the front page. “Historically, the anatomy and physiology of bodies with vaginas have been neglected,” it says.

'Absolutely inexcusable language'

While the language is an attempt at inclusivity, it has prompted a furious backlash – with some academics suggesting they will never work with the journal again.

“Just wrote the Lancet to tell them to take me off their list of statistical reviewers and cancel my subscription and never contact me about anything ever again,” Prof David Curtis, a retired psychiatrist and honorary professor of genetics at University College London, wrote on Twitter.

“Absolutely inexcusable language to refer to women and girls,” he said.

Dr Madeleine Ní Dhálaigh, a GP, added: “You can be inclusive without being insulting and abusive. How dare you dehumanise us with a statement like this?”

Others suggested the journal has double standards, flagging a post on September 20 which referred to the 10 million “men” living with prostate cancer and suggesting they have never seen the term “bodies with penises” used.

“Considering, as the replies highlight, that The Lancet has recently published work on prostates and refer to men, I don’t think the decision to use ‘bodies with vaginas’ is an attempt at inclusive language,” said Dr Katie Paddock, a lecturer in education psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University.

'Dehumanising and sexist'

The campaign group Women Make Glasgow added that is has logged a formal complaint “about the dehumanising and straight up sexist cover story”, while feminist Claire Heuchan called that the term is “utterly shameful and totally regressive”.

“This framing makes it sound like a coincidence that ‘bodies with vaginas’ have been neglected by medicine, as if it were not the product of a discrimination and oppression specific to the female sex,” she said on Twitter.

“Medical misogyny… exists – and refusing to acknowledge women perpetuates it. Until [the Lancet starts] writing about ‘bodies with penises’, dehumanising and neglecting research specific to men, I’m going to call this erasure out for what it is: sexism.”

There are also concerns that the language will undermine, rather than champion, inclusivity amid increasingly toxic debates.

'Well-meaning but unhelpful'

“There is absolutely a conversation to be had about trans-inclusive language… but ‘bodies with vaginas’ is not the one, and doesn’t do women, trans men or [assigned female/male at birth] non-binary people any favours,” said Sarah Graham, a freelance health journalist covering medical biases.

“[We] need to be accurate and specific about who and what we’re talking about. If we’re talking about menstruation, vaginas are NOT even the relevant feature, which you’d expect @TheLancet to know,” she wrote on Twitter.

“Honestly feel like these well-meaning but unhelpful attempts to be inclusive just add more fuel to the fire. It IS possible to be inclusive AND accurate AND acknowledge medical misogyny (& transphobia) all at once, without reducing anyone to their anatomy.”

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