Do I Own My Body?
It is very common to hear and read expressions such as “It’s my body and I do what I want with it”, “selling/renting one’s body/womb”, “My body, my choice”. And, of course, these expressions belong mostly (but not only) to discussions about women’s rights and place in societies: abortion, prostitution, surrogacy, cosmetic surgery, exhibition, sexual freedom, female genital cutting… (My Goddess, just reading the list is exhausting…) I wonder if this rhetoric that seems to present the body as a belonging is the right one as a description of the reality of the body and/or as a tool to achieve the goals intended when it is used.
I must admit, first, that in many occasions the aim is not declaring a relationship of ownership with one’s body such as that we have with things. Possessive adjectives, despite their name, don’t only indicate possession, and rent and sell can be used metaphorically. But language tricks us often, encouraging certain thoughts and more or less unconscious associations, fostered in this case by two prevailing and interrelated basic features of our culture(s).
One is dualism, the belief that mind and body, or soul and body, are entirely separate elements, the former in both dichotomies being our essence and identity (the body’s owner).
The other is neoliberal ideology, closer to a subliminal mythology than to explicit propaganda, with its conceptualisation of most material things in terms of property and, therefore, as potential commodities. Neoliberal ideology transforms the different kinds of value anything may have (emotional, historical, aesthetic, religious, vital…) into monetary value.
In this context, mottos in defence, for example, of abortion rights can end up serving purposes undesired by some/many of those who have used them in the first place. If taken as ownership statements, they reinforce the image of the body as something potentially marketable, which would appal prostitution abolitionists and anti-surrogacy activists. My body, my choice… (Just to be clear, I’m not taking stands on these specific practices today. There’ll be time for that…) Using the mainstream imagery, then, can result in paradoxical situations.
If we asked the fascinating but sometimes f*ing difficult Judith Butler, she would say that our bodies are, from the very beginning, “given over” to others, that they enter the world vulnerable and in complete dependency on those others, whom we haven’t chosen or given permission to manipulate them. From the start, we need food, care and protection, and even when we reach maturity “the skin and the flesh expose us […] to touch and to violence.” In fact, those others who sustain (or not) our bodies aren’t only the people immediately around us. Our bodies depend on the whole network of human power relationships to preserve their health, integrity and continuity, to be protected not only from violence inflicted directly by other bodies, but by disease, bombs, etc. They are dependent, thus, on social, political, technological and economic conditions. That is why Butler states that our bodies “are not quite ever only our own.”
To face this intrinsic vulnerability, we tend to assert rights on our bodies by denying split ownership, reappropriating the rhetoric of (the sacrosanct) private property to present them as something upon only “I” can decide. A fiction, if you ask me. But, a useful one? Despite it having been decisive in articulating claims and collective movements to gain necessary rights by and for women, I think it is potentially damaging in its reinforcement of dualism and neoliberalism.
My body cannot, by definition, be considered my belonging. Private property is a convention, just like its different sorts and their particularities. Something is mine because laws, institutions, military power and/or society in general recognise it as such. And conventions can be changed. Consider revolutions and colonisations, or inheritance regulations. But, guess what? The fact that we all are rooted in/have/need/are a body, that we are “embodied beings”, isn’t a convention.
Political theorist Anne Phillips (from whom I have drawn important ideas for this post) makes clear that the body isn’t something that can be detached from “us” as material property can. Wherever it is or goes, I am and go. Whatever is done to it is done to me. Whatever I do with it, I do. Mind-body dualism, in consequence, doesn’t make sense in politics.
Interestingly, one of the situations in which our embodied nature becomes more present carries the feeling that not only we don’t own our body, but that we are owned by it. I’m talking about disabling illness and the experience that “My body is a cage that keeps me/ from dancing with the one I love.” But I don’t take these words too seriously, which would imply a reformulation of dualism. Because, what is the mind if not something rooted in/simply the very bodily nervous system? My aim here is just to highlight one manifestation of an essentiality of the body that surpasses the status of property.
Furthermore, the undetachability of the body is also the reason why speaking of its commodification doesn’t make sense. To be accurate, the right expression should be “a person’s commodification.”
But commodification of people doesn’t only happen in prostitution or surrogacy. Most people who work for others has been commodified! Even in highly intellectual jobs, we work because of our bodily characteristics and capacities. This cannot be otherwise. And we are always there, present, living in/being our bodies while doing what is demanded from us, maybe surrendering a good part of our autonomy, perhaps suffering mistreatments or pressures, necessarily going through experiences and their constitutive emotions. It’s people, not bodily services, that are rented or owned in the labour MARKET.
And even most employers are owned by the system or those who run it (The famous one percent? “The top one percent of the top one percent, the guys that play god without permission”?), becoming self-exploiting beings driven by fear of the loser status. (Neoliberal mythology is also made of the archetypes of the successful, self-owning, self-made man and the guilty/incapable shameful, undeserving loser.Beautiful way of forcing self-commodification at the service of the richest.)
I would make an exception, however, with people who love their job and work with and for others in relations of mutual respect, people who achieves autonomy through their work. These don’t seem to fit in the category of commodification, but they’re a minority.
In my view, and while we live in a neoliberal system, disagreements regarding practices such as prostitution and surrogacy shouldn’t be approached in terms of ownership/commodification of the body, but as the following two issues: First, where and why we draw the line that separates acceptable and unacceptable commodification of people. Second, if we are willing to accept altruistic services in the cases where we don’t allow the creation of a market. And why and how. (For the record, I don’t believe in ethically acceptable commodification, but one can always distinguish between different degrees of bad.)
To resolve these questions, we shouldn’t forget that many tasks that don’t seem as morally problematic, but neither freely chosen, such as professional cleaning and mining, can also cause serious short- and long-term mental and physical health problems.
In conclusion, I think that we should set aside the fiction of the body as property and claim rights for vulnerable selves, who, located in intersections of the human network that come with different bundles of opportunities and security, need and want to expand our degree of autonomy and self-fulfilment resources as much as possible, avoiding this way the reinforcement of neoliberal ideology and, hopefully, disrupting neoliberalism itself.
Time to go now, although many relevant matters haven’t been attended: How should bodily parts and products such as kidneys and eggs, detachable without implying death, be considered? And what about the possibility of uploading minds that some AI experts predict, thinking even that this will suppose AI’s birth? Would the anti-dualist argument about detachability still stand?
But, most importantly, we need to discuss in detail the ways this account opposes the neoliberal system and ideology. How could we build a society free of human commodification?
TO BE CONTINUED