Our bodies, our choice

Joni Alizah Cohen explains what the battle for ‘bodily autonomy’ is about – and why it’s so important.

March 8, 2019 · 6 min read
Photo by Grmisiti (Flickr)

This article is from Red Pepper Issue 223: Feminist Futures.

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Across the world, a battle for bodily autonomy rages. Feminists are on the frontlines, demanding that all of us should be able to determine what happens with and to our bodies – kicking back against a routine history in which women, queer and trans people are kept in a state of alienation from the basic necessities that might allow us to have a basic say over our own lives. That might mean anything from abortion, contraception and hormone therapy to economic security.

But what do we actually mean by this concept – and what gives it its power? In short, it’s the power of full and final say on the meaning of our bodies, what they do and what is done to them. This concept is hugely powerful in its ability to synthesise a wide range of gender-based struggles without erasing their specificity.

What our bodies do

People with bodies capable of conception, gestation and birth are engaged in a life-or-death struggle to have autonomy over this biological capacity. When women from Ireland to Argentina to Poland demanded access to abortion, their demand was a refusal: a refusal to let the basic capacities of our bodies be harnessed and weaponised against us – in a regime of illegality and regulation that condemns many women to extreme medical risk, and even more to a biological fate to which they did not consent.

We must always be able to withdraw consent, to safely arrest biological processes that are neither necessary, inevitable nor chosen. Gestational labour must be a labour from which we have the right to strike, and strike in safety and without punishment. Similarly, the biological capacity for reproduction is frequently taken away without consent. The struggle against forced sterilisation of trans people, intersex people, racialised people and those who are HIV positive is a central historic and ongoing struggle for bodily autonomy. We should be demanding that whatever your body, you should have a basic right to bodily autonomy.

What is done to our bodies

We must demand the right to say who touches us, where and how. It’s a right reliably stripped from us – and this process often starts before we are even able to give consent. Indeed, babies born with intersex conditions, or genital configurations that are not easily categorisable into the male/female sexual dimorphic schema, are subjected to non-consensual – often undisclosed – surgeries for the stated purpose of correcting ‘disordered sexual development’. These surgeries can have life-long detrimental effects on those they are performed on.

That children are so readily seen as gender-defective, so readily deemed deserving of extreme medical intervention, sets up a lifelong pattern: correcting, controlling and surveilling our bodies with violence, under the auspices of holding up the system of gender.

Women and other feminised people are disproportionately vulnerable to interpersonal violence and abuse, sexual or otherwise, in the home, at work or on the street. Femicide (including a disproportionate rate of transfemicide), as well as sexual assault and homophobic violence, are reaching pandemic levels in many areas of the world. Struggling against patriarchal violence, and care for survivors, must be understood as a demand of bodily autonomy. When the government strips funding from shelters, or when it tactitly assents to sexual assault at Yarl’s Wood (see page 38), this doubles down on a state of alienation. Our bodies are legally, socially and practically rendered the property of others, to be used and disposed of at will.

Returning bodily autonomy to everyone means challenging this assumption of property, this state of artificial vulnerability. Demands for bodily autonomy must infiltrate the bedroom, the boardroom, the prison yard, the doctor’s surgery, the street.

What our bodies mean

The power to determine how our bodies are perceived and interpreted is at the core of much gender-based struggle. The lives of feminised people (women, trans people of all genders, queers) are defined by a struggle for autonomy over how meaning is attached to their bodies and the way they are treated as a result. Gender assignment can be understood as a heteronomous imposition of a social meaning on certain observed bodily characteristics.

For most people, this struggle stays within the confines of the gendered categories assigned to them, attempting to gain autonomy through internal challenges to the meaning of womanhood or manhood, and how these socially determine their lives. Others, for many complex reasons, cannot live within the gendered meaning assigned to them and seek to change the signification. The process of transitioning away from an assigned gender must be understood as a similar attempt to wrest this control of how one’s body is interpreted and consumed with meaning into one’s own hands.

The demand for gender self‑determination for trans people is therefore an essential part of bodily autonomy, especially as it pertains to legal apparatus such as formal employment, citizenship status and the criminal justice system. It is the work of ensuring that biology is not destiny.

‘Bodily autonomy’ is a concept and demand that unites the often disparate and seemingly unrelated ways that feminised people are immiserated under a coherent political project. It is a call for far-reaching solidarity and a clamour for a life worth living and worth fighting for.

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