Is a Woman’s Body Her Own?

By: Kimya Banks Chief of Economic Development 

This year, there have been many news stories that have dealt with women and their bodies. One of the biggest has been the abortion debate. Now trending is the story about T.I. attending his 18-year-old daughter Deyjah’s hymen at her annual well women’s exam.

The underlying issue in all these stories is whether a woman has agency and bodily autonomy. Is a woman’s body her own?

Many people’s ideas on sex, gender and gender roles are based upon 19th century Western European biomedical practices and ideas, such as:

  • Sex is pre-determined in the womb;
  • Sex is defined by anatomy which in turn determines sexual identity and desire;
  • Differences are all connected to reproductive functions;
  • Identities are immutable; and that
  • Deviations from dominant ideas of male/female must be “unnatural.”

In African and colonized communities, the strict adherence to these Western European practices and ideas and firm control on women, from appearance to behavior, began as a way to combat the stereotypical, hypersexualized image held of women of color used to justify abuse at the hands of the colonizer. Continuing to the present day, these unfair and destructive stereotypical misrepresentations contribute to crimes against African and colonized women.

According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research:

  • More than four in ten Black women experience physical violence from an intimate partner during their lifetimes. White women, Latinas, and Asian/Pacific Islander women report lower rates.
  • Black women also experience significantly higher rates of psychological abuse—including humiliation, insults, name-calling, and coercive control—than do women overall.
  • Sexual violence affects Black women at high rates. More than 20 percent of Black women are raped during their lifetimes—a higher share than among women overall.
  • Black women face a particularly high risk of being killed at the hands of a man. A 2015 Violence Policy Center study finds that Black women were two and a half times more likely to be murdered by men than their White counterparts. More than nine in ten Black female victims knew their killers.

For trans and nonbinary people, according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey:

  • Nearly half (46%) of respondents were verbally harassed in the past year because of being transgender.
  • Nearly one in ten (9%) respondents were physically attacked in the past year because of being transgender.
  • Nearly half (47%) of respondents were sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime and one in ten (10%) were sexually assaulted in the past year. In communities of color, these numbers are higher: 53% of Black respondents were sexually assaulted in their lifetime and 13% were sexually assaulted in the last year.
  • 72% of respondents who have done sex work, 65% of respondents who have experienced homelessness, and 61% of respondents with disabilities reported being sexually assaulted in their lifetime.
  • More than half (54%) experienced some form of intimate partner violence, including acts involving coercive control and physical harm.

When we envision a truly liberated future, freedom cannot be for a chosen few.  It is critical that we decolonize our thinking and begin to see men, women, nonmen, nonbinary people as equal beings. All African and colonized people have the right to self-determination, self-actualization, self-agency, and bodily autonomy. This requires political education and unlearning harmful rhetoric. Gender roles and stereotypes need to be abolished. We need to rethink how we view masculine and feminine energy.

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