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When most of us think about feminist discussions of the (mostly female) body, we tend to focus on the sexual aspects of such objectification. For example, in advertisements, movies and magazines, women's bodies are often portrayed as objects of desire, as sexualized, and as commodities for the pleasure of others. In Our Bodies, Whose Property? Anne Phillips looks at bodies from a market standpoint by focusing on the issue of bodies as property. According to Phillips, it is detrimental to view the body as property, and to employ language that signals the body as property. At the same time, most of us claim some form of ownership over our bodies, as Phillips notes "It is not that our bodies do not "belong" to us; they certainly belong to us rather than our spouses or employers or neighbors. But just as we can say we belong to a club without seeing ourselves as either owning or being owned by it, so we can say our bodies belong to us without claiming ownership over them" (p. 135). Some of us presume that it is of little significance the type of language we employ, but Phillips believes that the language we use, and the way we view our bodies are of great significance. She explains that "Thinking of the body as property potentially minimizes its significance to our senses of who we are, and in many contexts accustoms us to thinking of it as a marketable resource" (p. 2).
When exemplifying the problems with viewing the body as property, Phillips turns first to the issue of rape. Traditionally, rape was viewed as a property crime, similar to that of theft, with the body therefore being inevitably viewed as property. But as Phillips notes, rape was not considered as "stealing" something from the woman, but rather "...as the taking from a father or husband of the potentially valuable commodity of a woman of reproductive age, and the offence was often punished by the payment of compensation to the father or the husband" (p. 42). Phillips also explains various ways in which the treatment of rape signals property claims, or how rape has been modeled after views concerning property, such as treating rape as a civil, rather than criminal offense, where payment be made to the victim, or focusing on rape as being a "mind crime" where the difference between sex and rape is solely consent. Rather than focusing on the body as property, Phillips believes that the bodily experience should be central to our understanding of rape.
Phillips then moves to a discussion concerning commercial surrogacy, where the body is basically rented out during the duration of a pregnancy. Phillips explains that there is a difference between commercial surrogacy, where payment is involved, and surrogacy as a "gift" where a female provides a service for free, as a gift to someone else. Commercial surrogacy is often condemned on the basis that it turns babies into commodities, whereas surrogacy as a gift is more commonly accepted. Phillips admits that she struggled with the chapter on surrogacy the most, mainly because her views on the matter changed. This might also be the reason why Phillips tend to focus more and venture more in depth in this chapter than in the previous ones. In terms of surrogacy, Phillips takes the stand that simply altruistic notions of surrogacy as gift giving lacks reciprocity, and should therefore be compensated. Phillips states that surrogacy is a much more time consuming and demanding activity than most others that involve the body (such as donating blood), and since only women can act as surrogates and since surrogates serve a small subgroup of people, it is directly different, which lends itself to compensation being appropriate.
In chapter four, Spare Parts and Desperate Needs, Phillips examines the huge demand for not only blood, but for human organs. As both the proponents and opponents of human organ sales employ the language of property, Phillips states that "...we may need stronger assertions of ownership in the body, not weaker" (p. 104). When it comes to the sale and market of body parts, Phillips instead states that she believes in a "...well-advertised and regulated system of presumed consent, with people actively opting out of becoming organ donors rather than opting in. But the solution may ultimately lie in scientific and medical developments that enable us to patch up our bodies without such recourse to either living or dead donors" (p. 146).
In some ways, Our Bodies, Whose Property? is a fairly difficult read, not so much because of Phillips use of words, but because of the fairly complex discussions that involve the body and the market. Many of us probably do not ponder enough about the implications of viewing our body as property, but Phillips does it for us in both complex and not so complex ways. For example, her discussions concerning property claims of the body are complicated, but her notion that we all have a body, reminding us of shared vulnerability, is easier to grasp. As such, Phillips have managed to challenge and question notions about the body that most of us do not consider, or that we tend to view in a different manner, perhaps most often in terms of ownership or property. Phillips has also shed more light on additional ways of how the body can be viewed, other than the most common feminist notion that the female body is often portrayed as a sexual object. The book would therefore be of significance in the classroom, in both studies of theory, the market, gender and feminism, as well as for the reader more interested in the connection between bodies and property.
© 2014 Hennie Weiss
Hennie Weiss has a Master's degree in Sociology from California State University, Sacramento. Her academic interests include women's studies, gender, sexuality and feminism.
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