Skip to main content

All Bodies, No Selves

In the popular press, “survivors” don’t have thoughts or politics. They have bodies.
(Photo: 127614255@N08/Flickr)

(Photo: 127614255@N08/Flickr)

People won’t usually come right out and sayall they’re interested in is your body.

Here’s what I was told when I presented my body in the form of a series of radio and newspaper interviews in Germany. I had a book about the politics of sex work translated for publication there, which was why I had to talk about it with members of the media sent to cover what I thought was my work.Across the desk, they remarked to me, you don’t look like a prostitute.

This isn’t a position I write much from: I don’t publish personal essays, memoir, or even say much casually on social media about the condition of my body, its desires and movements. For months, though, once the tour was done, I still heard these appraisals when I sat down to work. An English magazine writer: After that, how can you have a boyfriend? A French newspaper woman: Have you been raped?

If your work concerns sexuality, you will be made a body. You will be reminded — by the media, even if you are part of it, and by the people who make laws for you — that your body constitutes the limits of your contributions.

If you have something political to say about gender or sexuality, you will be expected to voice it through what your body is and what it has done, what has been done to it.

“Hey, you’re best known for enduring the worst experiences of your life,” as college anti-sexual assault activist Wagatwe Wanjuki described her internal monologue. She was reflecting on everything that led her to that spot on stage at the Academy Awards with Lady Gaga earlier this year, about how doing the work of fighting to stop rape often means being seen only through other people’s projections of her own experience. “Am I only ‘extraordinary,’” she wrote, “because I felt like I had nothing to lose by admitting I’ve been raped?”

These projections and narratives are not the fault of victims and survivors. There is a whole social change strategy devoted to using storytelling for justice. Often in activism or in speaking to the media, it’s what’s demanded. It is your currency: the way you win favor, the solo stage you’re supposed to be able to launch a movement from. But producing a compelling story is sometimes all that is expected.

When the politics of gender or sex or sexuality are part of the story, your body and what it has experienced (endured, enjoyed) become the story. There aresome boring or obvious reasons for why that is. Our bodies are where we’ve been taught that gender and sexuality live. (In truth, they don’t live only there. It’s complicated.) If you have something political to say about gender or sexuality, you will be expected to voice it through what your body is and what it has done, what has been done to it.

Abortion remains shorthanded as “what women want to do with their bodies.” (Of course, it’s not just women.) Prostitution is (according, mostly, to people who have never done it) “selling women’s bodies.” Rape is (so we are told) the worst thing to happen to your body. If that is going to happen (who makes it happen?) it would be better not to have a body.

Embodied politics matter, especially in a politics of sex that take seriously identity, community, and liberation. But these are the few political events where our bodies are required to show up if we’re going to be heard at all. What’s being requested here is not a considered engagement with how our bodies teach us, carry our experience, how our bodies and what passes between them shape public life. How could you survive that? When did you first know? Why did it take you so long to say? All too often all that’s being demanded is a peep show.

Who does it serve, to insist it’s so simple: that bodies can’t have political and intellectual demands, just displays and disclosures.

If you haven’t gone inside a peep show, or think you know what it’s like after watching Madonna’s “Open Your Heart” (not too far off), here’s what that means. Successive revelation is how one generates value. The narrative goes in one direction: disclosure after disclosure. The more you show in the prescribed order, the more you can make the person watching you feel like you’re telling a vital story about yourself. Each thing disclosed is supposed to be about revealing some bigger truth, but it’s a truth measured mostly by how well you’re drawing the audience in.

Is this what reactionary types who think all social change work today is about some glorious perpetual “victimhood” are going on about? Do they sense at least part of what’s going on in this public unveiling, these demands to produce yet more original and abject proofs of suffering? Be a good poster girl. Get vulnerable enough for someone to step in with the right story, the perfect #hashtag, the slightly more powerful person to carry your cause for you. (You’re just a body. You can’t be trusted.) This is how people working for justice, people frequently shorthanded by friendly policymakers and funders as “those who are most impacted” by oppression, are transformed by their allies into useful tokens.

“We already have an expert,” Alexandra Brodsky, a campus anti-rape activist, recalled a National Public Radio producer telling her once, trying to book her onto a show about sexual assault. “We need a survivor.”

There’s value in these accounts of the body, of the political story. But sometimes it feels impossible to refuse to engage in this storytelling. When we don’t provide a story, one will likely just be produced for us. What were you wearing?How do you even have sex?

This peep show is one thing, and it’s easy to get wrapped up in. But what I want to know is, who really benefits? Who does it serve to insist it’s so simple: that bodies can’t have political and intellectual demands, just displays and disclosures. We can respond to a rape story, an abortion story, a sex work story, a transition story, a coming out story and take from it a gush of feeling, and then move on. We’ve consumed. Now that we’re done with it, we can put the body back in its place.