For a long time, I have been conscious of an odd habit amongst many of those writing about law: referring to the weakening, diminution or nullification of laws and institutions as ’emasculation’. After doing some pre-tutorial reading for a cycle of Land Law tutorials on proprietary estoppel some time ago, I could contain my annoyance no longer: why are academics and lawyers so keen on this imagery of emasculation, and why they are not more frequently ‘called out’ on the implications of using a word which assumes that that which is good and useful has male genitalia, and that its goodness and usefulness are located in the aforesaid genitalia? I started collecting examples, and have updated this a number of times. It came up once again in my Land Law preparation this week (Human Rights & Land Law, What is Property?) so it felt like time to revamp and re-post.
The one which started me off was a well-known case comment entitled ‘Emasculating Estoppel’ ( Conv 210), but I soon saw that it really is pretty common, and is often used in rather odd ways. A quick database search threw up examples relating to the emasculation of:
- Fundamental human rights. These are ‘at risk of emasculation’ in Lord Neuberger’s judgment in Mayor of London (on behalf of the Greater London Authority) v Hall and others  EWCA Civ 817 at . This is the one that got to me today: something which is explicitly non-gendered being considered as a default-male body, at risk of having reproductive bits chopped off. Grim.
- various statutes and statutory sections (including a section of the Equality Act – particularly inappropriate?: The Queen on the Application of Mrs JH, Mr JH v Secretary of State for Justice  EWHC 4093 (Admin) at ; See also, e.g. Gold Nuts Limited and others v. Commissioners for Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs  UKFTT 0082 (TC) at )
- ‘all the provisions of the statute’: Hudson v Parker (1844) 1 Robertson Ecclesiastical 14; 163 E.R. 948 at 40.
- Possibly the most incongruous use of the language of emasculation in the context of legislation relates to the eventual Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919– an important Act which, however, did not go as far as an earlier version, the Women’s Emancipation Bill. As was pointed out in A. Logan, ‘Building a New and Better Order’? Women and Jury Service in England and Wales, c.1920–70’, Women’s History Review, 22 (2013), 701-16, at 702, ‘Cheryl Law claims the Act [Sex Disqualiﬁcation (Removal) Act 1919] was an ‘emasculated’ version of the Labour-sponsored Women’s Emancipation Bill’. [C. Law, Suffrage and Power: the women’s movement 1918–28 (London, 1997), 97.] Another author preferred the ‘broken reed’ metaphor for the Act’s subsequent effectiveness [M. Pugh, Women and the Women’s Movement in Britain, 2nd ed. (Basingstoke, 2000), 90.], which might just about be construed as a touch phallic, but is certainly an improvement.
- other regulations (‘Emasculating TUPE: transfers of undertakings and the concept of the “economic entity” L.T. 2002, 3, 23-28
- a tax (The Queen on the application of: Veolia ES Landfill Limited et al. EWHC 1880 (Admin) 
- the beneficial principle of proprietary estoppel: Thompson’s article, and also Thorner v Major  UKHL 18 at (Lord Neuberger combines an emasculation image with ‘fettering’ here – all a bit S & M sounding).
- the doctrine of restraint of trade (‘EC competition policy: emasculating the common law doctrine of the restraint of trade?’R.P.L. 2007, 15(3), 419-431
- the doctrine of legitimate expectation (R v IRC ex p MFK  1 WLR 1545 at 1569–70
- the option (‘Emasculating the option VAT Int. 1997, 15(1), 1380-1383).
- a regulation’s purpose (M v W  EWHC 925 (Fam): 
- a sanction (JKX Oil & Gas Plc v Eclairs Group Ltd  EWCA Civ 640  and 
- a right (Neil Pattullo v The Commissioners for Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs  UKFTT 841 (TC) .
- ‘the meaning of the deed’ (meaning to distort? Westlaw Case Analysis, Adedeji v Pathania, Chancery Division 22 April 2015).
- the concept of ordinary residence (Regina (Cornwall Council) v Secretary of State for Health and another  UKSC 46 at 
- incentives (Lloyds Bank Leasing (No 1) Limited v The Commissioners for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs  UKFTT 0401 (TC) at )
- the High Court’s role: Ghosh v GMC  1 WLR 1915 at 
- obligations in a mortgage deal (Mark Robert Alexander (as representative of the “Property118 Action Group”) v West Bromwich Mortgage Company Ltd  EWCA Civ 496 at 81).
- warranties (P &P Property Limited v Owen White & Catlin LLP, Crownvent Limited t/a Winkworth  EWHC 2276 (Ch) at )
- An act ‘emasculating’ a doctrine (the Land Registration Act 2002 and adverse possession, respectively) in: M Dixon, ‘The reform of property law and the LRA 2002: a risk assessment’ (2003) Conv. 136, at 150 and again at 151, See also Conv. 2005, Jul/Aug, 345-351; Conv. 2011 335 at 338 and (on prescription this time) Conv. 2011, 167 at 170. The use of ‘emasculation’ in relation to adverse possession has a slightly different character to many of the uses noted above, at least 2003 Conv 136, 151, the emasculation of the doctrine by the LRA scheme ‘does of course, mean the end of adverse possession as a threat to the security of registered title.’ So removal of the doctrine’s metaphorical male genitalia = removal of a threat/danger. Intriguing.
- An ‘emasculation’ in an account of alterations in the role/power of juries: J. Getzler, ‘The Fate of the Civil Jury in Late Victorian England: Malicious Prosecution as a Test Case’, in J.W. Cairns and G. McLeod, The Dearest Birth Right of the People of England : The Jury in the History of the Common Law (Hart: Oxford and Portland Oregon, 2002), c.11, p. 218: ‘The emasculation or diminution of the civil jury was then followed in the second stage by its elimination.’ So – emasculation is more or less synonymous with diminution (and a preliminary to elimination. Nice imagery. What are the implications for the study of early women jurors, I wonder: was their inclusion actually all about some long-drawn- out phobia of jury male genitalia?
- The risk of ‘the emasculation of fiduciary duties’ (Mrs Justice Cockerill, para. 72 of Recovery Partners v Rukhadze  EWHC 2918 (Comm) [because trust and trustworthiness are male-genital related, and there’s no particular reason that women should know better …]
- The danger of ‘the total emasculation of the civil law’ (HHJ Saffman, para. 9 of Durham County Council v James Bradwell 2018 WL 05823332 [because private law is characterised by its possession of male privates …]
- The worry that a previous case will be ‘emasculated’ (with diminution of particular rights) if this case goes a certain way (counsel in Goddard-Watts v Goddard-Watts  EWHC 3000 (Fam), mentioned at para 73 [because more male = more expansive, better etc …]And one which jumped out in my sifting of articles for ‘Blended Learning’ preparation for undergraduate Legal History … W. Swain, ‘The classical model of contract’ Legal Studies 30 (2010) 513-32, 532 the emasculated law of restitution.’ Always did find restitution a bit of a macho thing …A competition lawyer talks about a conclusion being ‘emasculated’, and couples it with an image of a snake eating its own tail – The Competition and Markets Authority, Flynn Pharma Limited, Flynn Pharma (Holdings) Limited (“Flynn”) v Pfizer Inc., Pfizer Limited (“Pfizer”) v The Commission of the European Union  EWCA Civ 339, 2017 WL 11508568, at 232. One for the Freudians, I think. The protective nature of male genitalia: men’s bits must be understood as somehow protective, since we have a nice reference to ‘emasculating’ protection in Mr Lee Walsh v CP Hart & Sons Ltd  EWHC 37 (QB), 2020 WL 00137207, at 53.The concern that a proposed solution is based on the ‘emasculation’ of a statute section (Blackwood v Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust  EWCA Civ 607, para. 56) [because there is no special inappropriateness in using male-genitalia based imagery in a SEX DISCRIMINATION CASE …]
- Regina v “RL”  EWCA Crim 1215 in which a barrister is said to have indicated (at ) that ‘the combined effect of the judge’s rulings was so to emasculate his cross-examination of boys A and B that he was in effect reduced to putting a bald proposition and having to accept the answer given by the boy concerned without further elaboration.’ Hard to know what to say to that – just – really? Best choice of words?
- Counsel general of Wales, Jeremy Miles on Tory plans to ‘emasculate’ the devolution settlement.https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/jul/12/boris-johnson-accused-of-plan-emasculate-uk-devolutionMust we? Must we read about weird metaphorical portrayals of good legislation as having male genitalia, weakened legislation as lacking them? Grim. Sexist. Nonsense. Also in the context of ‘union’, (and indeed Boris Johnson) getting into genital metaphor mode brings up all sorts of unpleasant images and consequences. Best not. The level of distraction (from an entirely plausible and righteous objection) is not helped by the additional corporeal metaphor of Brexit, or the UK government, bringing a big fist down on devolution – fist or men’s bits, make your mind up. Or is the ‘emasculation’ being done (somehow) with a ‘big fist’?
- Those academics, lawyers and judges who care about such things might consider the many alternatives to ‘emasculating’ language – why not try ‘evisceration’ (we all have, and need, viscera) or nullification (because – big news – it isn’t actually necessary to use a violent physical metaphor at all!). For a more traditional and picturesque feel, at least in relation to legislation, why not go back to the old favourite ‘driving a coach and horses through [insert name of Act]’? Daft but at least not sexist-daft. And you may be able to style it out as knowing and retro.
In a previous iteration, I had noted the odd rays of hope suggesting that people are beginning to see that this language might be best avoided, and tipped my hat to the appearance of a set of scare quotes around the word in Miss S C Hall v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police 2015 WL 5202319, before Mrs Justice Elisabeth Laing DBE, at  in her judgment. Perhaps other judges, academic commentators, barristers, might try out ‘undermine’, ‘weaken’, ‘render useless’ or some such non-violent and not unnecessarily gendered phrase? Surely it wouldn’t ’emasculate’ their arguments? But no, ’emasculation’ remains a metaphor of first resort for many people. A cursory look suggests that there’s most waving of ‘emasculation’ in commercial cases these days, but it’s not only the more traditional, hide-bound areas in which it crops up – e.g. we see a sneaky ‘emasculation of the State’s health and safety enforcement agency’ in K.D. Ewing and John Hendy, ‘Covid 19 and the failure of labour law Part I’, Industrial Law Journal 2020, 49(4), 497-538, note 105. Depressing.
Until ‘the penny drops’, I will be watching out for more, and would specially like to find the casual sexism bingo row of ‘emasculation’ plus a ‘mistress’, plus a cricketing metaphor in the same case or article.
(various times, updated 11/3/2021)
(Image- a tasteful picture of medieval underwear: File:Braies 14th century.jpg – Wikimedia Commons It was difficult to find an appropriate, but not too rude, picture for this. I have gone with ‘pants’, which has a certain connection with the subject at hand, and also has the benefit of bringing to mind a slangy metaphorical usage of its own, used as it is – in the UK at least – to denote something which is not very good at all … Take that as you will.)