Transcending Flesh: Bodily Autonomy and Rape Culture

Note: This was previously published on my Patreon.

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This essay is one in a series which focuses on writing gender in science fiction and fantasy settings that provide body modification options beyond our current level of technology. Note that you can download this collection of essays from my website here.


Transcending Flesh:
Gender and Body Diversity in Futuristic and Fantastical Settings

Essay #14: Bodily Autonomy and Rape Culture

"Bodily autonomy" refers to a person's basic human right to control what is done to their body. This right is why body alterations are a matter of consent and personal choice, whether the alteration be a tattoo, piercing, surgery, haircut, pregnancy, abortion, or insertion of a foreign object into that body. It is why medical procedures require consent, with only rare exceptions made for life-or-death situations where the patient cannot communicate their desires. We even extend bodily autonomy past the limits of human life: dead people cannot be harvested for blood, tissue, or organs unless consent was affirmatively given in life.

If someone forces a body alteration onto someone else without their consent, or if they willfully prevent someone else from getting a desired body alteration, that person is a villain. This is not a special body modification rule; this is a matter of basic rights. People who knowingly and egregiously disregard bodily autonomy are villains. Anyone in your story who tries to force a character to inhabit a body configuration they do not want is committing an act of violation and should be opposed by good and decent characters.

Let me repeat that: Forcing someone to inhabit a body or a body configuration they do not want is an act of violation. The character in question should recognize this, as should other characters who learn of the situation. If the narrative treats forcible body alteration as slapstick comedy or merely inconvenient, then the author has failed to understand the grave trespass of human rights which has occurred within the narrative.

~Rapists and Body Modification~

Do not "punish" or "teach" rapists who have a penis by changing their body to have a vagina instead.

This is an incredibly problematic trope which implies that vagina-owning people are not rapists (some are!) and that rape or the threat of rape makes effective anti-rape education (since the rapist will now have to defend his new vagina from other rapists, thus supposedly learning a hard but valuable lesson about life). Relying on rape as a punishment only further entrenches rape culture and hostility to bodily autonomy. If we can revoke human rights like bodily autonomy from rapists (by either forcibly changing or forcibly invading their bodies), then those rights can be revoked from the rest of us.

There is an additional implication in this trope that the rapist will stop being a rapist because he no longer has a penis with which to rape. This is a false and harmful view of rape which harms many victims. Rapists do not require a working penis in order to rape, and the removal of a penis from a rapist will not suddenly make them not want to rape anymore. Rape is not caused by an out-of-control penis; rape is a choice that rapists make in order to hurt, humiliate, or otherwise harm someone. Changing a rapist into a new body doesn't address his motives; he will just carry on finding new victims to harm with his new body.

~Marriage and Body Modification~

Bodily autonomy is for everyone. We all have the right to change our body, and we all have the right to not conduct sexual activity with another person. Those rights are not waived upon marriage. If Bob is married to Babs, he can and should be able to modify his body without her consent because it is his body. If she doesn't like the new body configuration he has decided to obtain, she may decide she doesn't wish to touch him with her body. That is valid! Bob owns his body and Babs owns her body.

I have seen a BodyMod magitech setting where the author worked themself up into knots at the idea that a marital partner might change their body whilst married. In an attempt to prevent this, the author went so far as to make body modification within the bounds of marriage illegal in their fictional society! Reminder: Any law which strips bodily autonomy from a person by denying them access to body modification is an unjust law which interferes with our basic human right to control our own bodies.

In the context of the fictional marriage situation above and Bob's choice to pursue body modification, it is important to remember that Babs doesn't have to like Bob's new body. Babs doesn't have to touch Bob's new body. Babs doesn't have to stay married to Bob! But Babs should respect that Bob has the same right to his body as she has to hers. Again: Bodily autonomy is for everyone.

No one should be legally allowed to stop someone from accessing body modification, and any setting which allows for this must be written with care! Many of your trans readers have encountered unsupportive families and spouses who attempted to use those relationship ties to impose ownership over their body. It is harmful to write a society in which the legal system grants ownership of trans people's bodies to their spouses unless the narrative is going to demonstrate that this law is a grievous violation of human rights.

If trans people do not have bodily autonomy in your setting, then that decision has a ripple effect on the bodily autonomy of every person. Bodily autonomy protects people from spousal rape, reproductive coercion, medical abuse, and so much more. Think carefully about how your setting and society values bodily autonomy as a whole, and understand that these things are all linked. You cannot make laws limiting the use of BodyMod magitech without those laws laying the foundation to remove bodily autonomy entirely.


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