Decision-Making Bodies? Contesting Notions of Choice and Control in Sex and Reproduction Research

Monday, 16 July 2018: 15:45
Oral Presentation
Elsie WHITTINGTON, University Of Sussex, United Kingdom
Gillian LOVE, University of Sussex, United Kingdom
This paper brings together the work of two doctoral projects, the first on young people’s constructions and experiences of sexual consent, and the second on women’s experiences of abortion. Both studies have explored notions of choice, control and empowerment in relation to the material body. Empowerment has been defined in this ISA stream as ‘a psychological state, a feeling of competence, control, and entitlement;’ however, we have found this definition of empowerment does not map easily onto our participants’ experiences. In contrast to this individualised conception of empowerment we consider empowerment as gaining knowledge of and negotiating complex power relations.

In particular, we consider how abortion and sexual consent are framed as successful products of feminist struggle, which participants experienced as both liberating and restrictive. For example, their narratives were interspersed with feelings of responsibility and anxiety about how to manage and regulate their bodily autonomy in ‘legitimate’ ways. Gender, class, race and other intersecting axes of oppressions were significant in this process. To do this we mobilise Butler’s work on vulnerability and resistance to explore how moments of choosing make the ‘chooser’ vulnerable to stigma, a significant aspect of our participants’ discussions of sex and abortion.

Like many researchers, we have experienced a lack of adequate language to talk sociologically about embodied experiences. We consider how available discourses about the body are often either euphemistic or highly medicalised, leaving little room for the awkwardness and ambiguity our participants indicated were a significant aspect of their experiences but struggled to vocalise. We argue that considering empowerment as embodied, relational and ambiguous rather than an individual psychological state is a step towards enabling these discussions. Amplifying these experiences of ambiguity, uncertainty and embodiment in relation to empowerment facilitates a recognition of its contested nature, and better reflects our participants’ lived experiences.