bodily autonomy

Sexual agency and bafflement

I had some weird, not-really-the-point reactions to a recent Captain Awkward letter (TL;DR is that the letter writer is in a romantic and sexual relationship with a woman who does not engage in any kind of penetrative sex, and is averse to semen generally. Their sex life involves him getting her off usually without reciprocation.) The actual advice and comments provided to the letter writer are great (she gets to have her boundaries, but you also get to leave if you’re not happy and that’s ok) and I have nothing to add.

But.

But the thing that really strikes me, hard, when reading this letter (and I have read things like this before and had a similar reaction) is how completely impossible it seems to me that anyone could ever possibly have the wherewithal to express the kinds of preferences and boundaries this person’s girlfriend has put in place. If it was me, I would have never felt like I had the right to expect these kinds of needs or preferences to be respected. I would have assumed that I was the problem and compromised the shit out of my boundaries and suffered quietly and tried to suck it up.

Because I was raised to believe that there are certain things you just have to do if you are going to date a man. Because I was raised to believe that if you dared to ask for a compromise or to slow down on those things, and if the man involved was gracious enough to grant you their patience, they were going above and beyond the call of duty, and you probably owed them one to be honest.

This is a key part of rape culture, for the record, and it is something I was very clearly and explicitly indoctrinated into.

I was fortunate, therefore, that my first sexual relationship was with a woman, because that messaging didn’t come into play for me there. I am sure that foundation is part of what prevented me from being sexually traumatized by my relationship with my first boyfriend, to be honest.

Because that, as I have written about before, was something else. With him, it was all about the explicit pressure. But to be honest, he didn’t need to work all that hard – a little hinting was all it took for me feel like I was being unfair or unreasonable or that I was over-stepping my rights to agency. So when we made out for the first time, and didn’t go an further, and he said “You can’t keep doing this to me” (the *first time* we made out!), I didn’t run away or tell him off or anything. I just let him go further than I was ready to next time.

And thus was our pattern established.

It’s been a long time since then, of course, and it’s been a *very* long time since I had a partner who had also internalized these toxic ideas about what is simply required in a sexual relationship. It is intuitively obvious to me now that people get to have and express whatever boundaries they want. And I’ve learned to set my own boundaries somewhat, though I’ve also just had partners who are caring and attentive and able to read me well enough that those things haven’t always needed to be explicit.

I do still sometimes have to fight an uphill battle against myself, and the fact that I still instinctively respond to my own awareness of my partners’ desires with an internal pressure to perform. It is sometimes difficult to pull apart my genuine drive and desire to please other people because I enjoy it a fuck of a lot from the more damaging drive to self-obliterate against other people’s desires. I have to remember to stay in tune with myself, and that is easier some days than others, but I am honestly really good at it now.

But still, reading something like this letter, from a person whose attitude is so naturally “well, is the person I’m with doesn’t want the thing, then we don’t do the thing” that it doesn’t even need to be explicitly stated, when that attitude is just the way he seems to live and breathe his approach to relating sexually to other people, it actually kind of blows my mind a little.

Because, of course, that should be obvious. But to so many people, it really, really isn’t.

Abortion *is* a personal moral choice

After putting up yesterday’s post on abortion, I wound up having some interesting discussions about it with friends. Interesting, because halfway through, I realized that despite my contestation that I didn’t really buy it, I was arguing the “abortion is a personal moral choice” line to a tee. It suddenly made perfect sense to me that the choice of what to do with any individual fetus has to be made, and can only be made, by the person who is pregnant with that fetus (and cannot be scrutinized or judged by anyone else).

In a nutshell, here’s why:

The ethical question that is abortion, when you get down to brass tacks, is about two things. One the one side, there is the fetus, a living thing with some sort of undefinable moral/ethical value (and while we can debate about that value, I hope we can agree that it exists). On the other side is the pregnant person, and their right to bodily autonomy, and the fact that in order to preserve the life of the fetus, that person will have to make some equally undefinable set of sacrifices in their life. And in any decision about abortion, these two things are weighed against each other.

The thing is, though, that while we all have approximately the same capability to parse and consider the value of fetal life, there is only one person in the world who can fully understand or know the extent of the sacrifices that are required of an individual pregnant person should they choose to carry the fetus to term, and that is the pregnant person themself.

For better or worse, when it comes right down to it, the only person who even understands the values that are being balanced in any individual decision to abort (or not) is the individual person faced with the decision. The rest of us do not, and cannot, ever know what is in the balance, and thus we cannot reasonably claim to be able to judge that decision. And that’s it.

Pregnant people are people, too

I am pro-choice. 100%. Under all circumstances, and for any reason, I believe that the decision of whether or not to continue hosting a fetus inside of their body lies with the person who’s body is being inhabited by the fetus. And mostly, I leave it at that. But I also think it can be useful to explore the actual ethical quandaries that can be wrestled with in coming to this conclusion. Because I do think that a lot of people struggle with this issue, and that’s legitimate, but I also feel like there’s not always a good space to talk about it in a debate where one side tends to shut down any discussion of morality and the definition of life, and the other simply calls abortion murder, no discussion.

But I think that both of those positions are reductionist. it’s completely unreasonable to say that fetuses aren’t living things; quite simply, they are. And I also think that late-term fetus may even count as people (at least, they’re as much people as newborn babies are). And I wanted to actually put in words the reasons why I can hold these views and also still be 100% pro-choice in every instance.

Because I actually don’t fully buy the “well it’s a personal moral choice” argument, and the “right to privacy” grounds on which abortion is legal in the US have never made even the slightest bit of sense to me. If, in fact, abortion were tantamount to murder, these arguments would imply that murder shouldn’t be illegal on the grounds of privacy and personal moral choices, which is ridiculous.

The thing is, I don’t think that the question of whether a fetus is a person (or when a fetus becomes a person) has any real bearing on whether abortion should be legal or not. It’s not news that every fetal “personhood” argument ever made has completely erased the personhood of the person that the fetus is living inside the body of.

Because, for me, this is the crux of the whole thing. I don’t care if the fetus is a person or not, because no person should ever have the right to live inside of another person against their will. In this model, the death that results from abortion is self-defense, (or possibly a mercy killing, since removing the fetus intact and simply letting it die would be comparably cruel) and not murder. This is not a difficult moral issue for me, but I’ll play along and try to anticipate some of the objections to this.

But the fetus can’t live outside the womb! It’s not deliberately invading your body! it just needs you to survive!

This is just completely irrelevant. Bodily violation is bodily violation regardless of intent, regardless of the whether the person (or fetus) violating someone’s body knows or understands that they are doing so. The person being violated is being violated regardless, and they have the right to stop the violation.

We are never legally required to sacrifice our bodies to save other people’s lives in any other circumstances. We aren’t even required to do so for our own children after they are born. I would be legally within my rights to deny a kidney, or even my blood, to my child, even immediately after birth. But for some reason people still insist that I should be required to carry the thing around for nine months inside my body. The inconsistency here is unfathomable. My right to bodily autonomy is not changed by the fact that I happen to be pregnant.

But you brought it on yourself! I mean, I can see a reason why abortion should be legal in cases of rape and incest, but you gave implicit consent for the fetus to take up residence in your body when you chose to have sex, (you slut)!

Um, no. That’s not how consent works – meaningful consent can be withdrawn at any time. Even if I have sex with the intent of creating a fetus in my body, if I later decide that I do not want said fetus in my body, I can kick it the fuck out.

That’s not even how natural consequences work. By the logic above, there’s a bunch of other conclusions you would have to come to that are patently ridiculous. We don’t, for instance, tell people that chlamydia is just a natural consequence of sex, and that to take antibiotics is to kill the chlamydia is wrong. (Again, even if for some reason I decided to have sex with the express purpose of getting chlamydia, I would be well within my rights to seek treatment for the consequent chlamydia.)

Or let’s look at other things relating to bodily autonomy. I’m registered on the list of bone marrow donors where I live, which means that if someone turns up requiring bone marrow that matches mine, I may be contacted to donate. Being on this list has positive consequences for me – it makes me feel good about myself. Maybe not as good as sex, but still, it’s a thing I chose to do of my own free will and for not much other reason than because it made me happy to do so.

And yet.

If I were called on to donate marrow to someone, I would not be obligated to follow through. Similarly, just because I enjoy having sex sometimes does not mean that I am morally obligated to carry a resulting fetus to term. There’s just no logic by which this could possibly follow. Just no.

This is the logic that is so often used to control women’s bodies and actions – you shouldn’t be out alone at night, or drunk, or dressing outside of certainly narrowly defined and contradictory “rules,” or rape is a direct consequence. You shouldn’t be pretty at work, or getting hit on by your boss is your fault. You shouldn’t be ugly at work, or getting fired is your fault. You shouldn’t try too hard to be conventionally attractive, or harassment is your punishment. You shouldn’t stray too far from conventional attractiveness or harassment is your punishment. You shouldn’t have sex with other women, or corrective rape is your punishment. You shouldn’t have no sex at all, or someone will have to rape you to teach you that sex is good. But you shouldn’t enjoy sex too much, or babies are your punishment.

And yes, I do fully analogize the bodily violation of rape with the bodily violation of being legally forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy. That shit wreaks havoc on your body and on your mental health. Birth is not a simple thing, it’s painful and exhausting and ugly.

Fuck. That. Noise. Consenting to sex does not imply consent to anything other than having sex in that moment.

But isn’t it the nice thing to do to let the innocent fetus use your body? And the nice thing to do is the right thing to do, after all.

Um, yeah, I guess it might be the nice thing to do. It would also be the nice thing to do to donate half of my income to charity, but most people would understand that weighing the hardship that would befall me if I did such a thing outweighs the desire to be nice. Once again, choosing to carry a fetus to term is a very big commitment, with far-ranging impacts on quality of life, ability to work, mental health, and many other things. Sure it’s nice, but it’s grand gesture nice, and not common courtesy/moral obligation nice.

…So, have I missed any of the big arguments?