The politics of the body, or “body politics”, is a concept, originally used by early feminists I believe, to describe government policies or laws and cultural or social practices used by society to regulate and control the human body. Feminists focus on the female body but the case can be made that society controls both the female and the male body, obviously not always in the same way. The concept is also used to describe the opposite: the struggle against the social and political powers that try to control the body and the act of reclaiming bodily self-control, or corporal self-determination. Body politics has therefore a positive and a negative meaning: it’s both subordination and emancipation.
Corporal self-determination is obviously an important value. People should, in general, be able to do with their body what they want, free from interference by the state, by individuals or by groups in society.
Here are some examples of body politics:
Whether or not you believe that abortion should be allowed, you have to accept that legal prohibition and moral dissuasion of abortion are examples of body politics. In both cases, women who want an abortion lose their power to decide autonomously what to do with their bodies; society imposes rules on what individuals are allowed to do with their bodies; and power – legal or moral – is used to enforce these rules. You may believe that these rules are necessary in order to protect an overriding value that trumps the value of self-determination, in this case probably the value of the life of the unborn infant, or perhaps even the right to self-determination of the unborn infant. But you can’t dispute that you engage in body politics.
Similarly, legislation or social taboos prohibiting the free trade of organs (see also here) impose restrictions on the things people can do with their bodies. However, the analogy with abortion isn’t perfect, because proponents of restrictions can arguably claim that the sale of organs isn’t an expression of self-determination but of the lack of it: it’s typically poor people who are driven to the extreme of organ sale as a means to stay alive, while the richer you are the easier it is to get an abortion. Organ sale is then not an expression of the freedom to do with your body what you like, without paternalistic interference, but an expression of necessity and lack of freedom. Whatever the merits of this argument, restrictions on organ trade are clearly an example of body politics.
Capital punishment, corporal punishment, imprisonment
The state uses power in order to enforce or enact criminal punishment, and this is often power directed against the body of the convicted criminal and eliminating the criminal’s corporal self-determination. There’s also the quasi-institutional practice of prison rape.
Sex trafficking and slavery, sexual violence, arranged marriages
Cultural norms regarding the acceptability of sexual violence (e.g. rape as a form of punishment and female genital mutilation), of arranged marriages (which can be labeled a form of sexual violence), of the sale of children or wives for the purpose of prostitution are also examples of body politics. The women and children in question obviously lose their corporal self-determination.
Gender discrimination, the inferior treatment of women, and the imposition of gender roles, whether legally sanctioned or not, are other examples, although with a twist. Gender discrimination can remove the power of corporal self-determination of the women who fall victim to it – e.g. in the case of gender discrimination as expressed in sexual violence or in rules restricting the freedom of movement of women. But it doesn’t have to. For example, gender discrimination in wages (the wage gap) doesn’t affect corporal self-determination.
The body politics inherent in gender discrimination is more evident in the origins of discrimination than in the results. Gender roles, which often result in gender discrimination, are based on certain convictions regarding the physical inferiority of women (e.g. their lack of physical strength), or on the belief that the female body is made for specific tasks, and is perhaps even better than the male body for these tasks.
Likewise, rules that discriminate against women and restrict the things they can do, are generally based on dubious theories regarding the nature of the female body. Women are said to promote carnal lust, and their equal participation in life would have disrupting and destructive consequences.
Similarly, legislation or social taboos against homosexual relationships remove corporal self-determination and are based on certain beliefs about the nature of the human body.
Clearly, this isn’t a complete list of all possible cases of body politics, but it can serve the purpose of illustration (other examples could include rules prohibiting interracial marriage, bestiality taboos, legislation against assisted suicide etc.). What is also clear is that every case isn’t equally detrimental for self-determination. Some cases can even be justifiable from a liberal perspective. Self-determination, after all, isn’t the only value, and neither is it a value that necessarily trumps other values.