‘Our Bodies, Whose Property?’ reviewed by Linda Roland Danil

Our Bodies, Whose Property?

Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2013. 216pp., $27.95 / £19.95 hb
ISBN 9780691150864

Reviewed by Linda Roland Danil

About the reviewer

Linda Roland Danil is a Doc­toral Can­did­ate, Teach­ing Assist­ant, and …


In this slender, elegant, and accessible book, Anne Phillips explores debates concerning objectification, commodification, and self-ownership with regards to the body and body parts. She does so through a feminist viewpoint and through the examination of three specific areas: rape, surrogacy, and the markets in human organs. This review will focus largely on the rape section of her book, which for this reader generated the most issues. As Phillips says in the opening paragraph of the book, there is a tension specifically in relation to the trade in body parts and services, even for those who generally advocate for the market; this tension elevates the body, as per Nir Eyal, into a realm of “body exceptionalism” (2009: 234) in which the body is regarded as sacrosanct and beyond the sphere of commercial dealings. With regards to this, Phillips makes her position clear: some things should not be for sale.

Phillips notes that to regard the body or its parts as property has no “obvious implications in terms of making it available for sale.”(2). There is no unavoidable link between adopting the property paradigm and its associated metaphors and sending the body to market. On the flip side, there is evidence that some of those engaged in body trades contest the language of property. In view of these complexities, Phillips is concerned to address two distinct, although related questions: “What, if anything, is wrong with thinking of oneself as the owner of one’s body? What, if anything, is wrong with making our bodies available for rent or sale?”(2).

Phillips’ Marxist tendencies are obvious right from the outset; her criticism of markets in bodily services and parts is immediately couched within a larger criticism of markets themselves. Indeed, Phillips herself openly admits to an “unreconstructed tendency” in the direction of Marxism. Further, as she argues: “If all activities, including the most seemingly cerebral, involves bodies, some of what is problematic about markets in bodily services or parts is going to be present in other markets too.”(6) The fact that the market itself needs further critical analysis is consequently made more explicit:

So far as the body, moreover, is concerned, the fact that we uncontroversially send our bodies to market every time we agree to work for someone else makes it harder to locate a moral meaning in ‘the body’ that could differentiate it between problematic markets in intimate bodily services and unproblematic markets in anything else […] markets in sex or reproduction occupy the outer edges of a continuum that is, in some way a feature of all labour markets.(9-10).

This leads to one of the most compelling arguments in the book, in which Phillips argues that given that all paid employment, to varying degrees, subjects the body to outside regulation and control, the embodied experience of all paid labour requires further scrutiny. This segues into Phillips making an argument that bears a strong similarity to arguments made by Judith Butler (2004) for an ethics that recognizes that we are all connected and bound by our shared vulnerability, and more precisely, to our universal vulnerability to violence. As Phillips contends, we all have bodies, and in this sense we are all equal; we are all further united by our universal bodily vulnerability (the potential for disease, being hurt, being killed, and our inevitable progressive decay and eventual death). Immediately subsequent to this, Phillips also makes an incredibly reductionist argument as to how commercial transactions function, by arguing that material inequality positions some as sellers and others as buyers. As she argues, “When one person sells and another buys, inequality is the reason.” (12). However, this is simply not always the case: for example, in many instances people sell and buy solely because of sheer greed and the desire for further accumulation, and without any necessary relation to coercing material inequalities.

Nonetheless, Phillips proceeds to provide some exceptionally persuasive arguments as to why we do not need to assert property rights in the body in order to protect bodily integrity, autonomy, and equality. The notion of property in the body is criticized regardless of whether it has explicit commercial implications, although the risks when notions of property in the body are associated with the market are also explored and critiqued. In the context of rape, the notion of property being deployed has the consequent effect not only of distorting the nature and experience of rape, but additionally and ironically, of making the body “disappear”(44). This is the case with arguments that treat rape as a violation of woman’s property in herself, or, in a similar but not identical vein, that treat rape as a theft, in which a woman’s sexuality is illegitimately appropriated from her; the framework of property in both cases has the paradoxical effect of rendering the harm involved incredibly incorporeal and abstract. As Phillips argues, “In both versions, the property connotations can make everything turn on establishing the presence or absence of consent […]” (45), and thus may not adequately, if at all, take into account its physical effects. As Phillips succinctly puts it, “When rape is described as an illicit expropriation of property, the very tameness of the analogy obscures the bodily experience.” (48) Moreover, this is not to discredit the importance of consent, but rather to draw attention to the possibility that an excessive focus on the notion of consent runs the risk of annihilating the bodily dimension of rape.

In addition, deploying property notions with regards to rape could perpetuate or reinforce objectification, and regarding rape as a violation of personal territory could set up a dynamic in which others are regarded as potentially hostile intruders, rather than emphasizing our interdependence and relationships with others. Recovery may accordingly entail the reassertion and the building up of even more powerful psychic boundaries. Once again, here Phillips’s argument could be interpreted as Marxist in nature, and thus as not solely being relegated to an “ethics of care” in the manner of relational feminism, which perceives us as being fundamentally connected and interdependent (see, for example, Gilligan (1995)). Setting ourselves up as property will, as Marx argued with regards to the capitalist mode of production, alienate us from other human beings. Indeed, as Marx (1844) stressed, the capitalist mode of production not only alienates us from each other (whether we belong to the worker or the capitalist class), but from our fundamental nature as creative human beings, from the products of our labour, and from nature itself. It is here also that Phillips makes one of her most provocative suggestions, in which she conflates all sexual activity into a homogenous (and what reads as a latently heteronormative) category by presuming that a rape will somehow simulate the sexual activity the survivor previously engaged in (if the survivor engaged in sexual activity at all, something that Phillips does not acknowledge by arguing that sex is something in which one “normally play[s] an active part.” (56). Phillips argues that the effects of rape can last much longer than the effects of a physical assault (she gives the example of being knifed), because there is something about:

the way rape forces your involuntary involvement. As violations of bodily territory, being raped and being knifed look very similar. But there is nothing about being knifed that makes you even an unwilling participant; it does not simulate something in which you normally play an active part; it does not force you, against your will, to be a part of what someone else is doing. (56).

This argument is surprising given that two pages later Phillips argues that the centrality of the sexual to personal identity can be overstated, and in the final chapter, she further recognizes that the relationship people have to their sexuality is diverse. These acknowledgements at the very least go some way towards defusing her earlier position.

Phillips’ exploration of rape also leads her into making one of her most thought-provoking arguments about the way in which our embodied experience is socially and culturally mediated. Experience is something that is partially dependent upon, and mediated by the historical, cultural, and social circumstances one is imbued with. The possibility of recovery is thus expanded through a manipulation and change of the social norms that govern rape, such as that being raped, although not justified in any circumstances, is not something to be ashamed of. As Phillips puts it, “Part of the harm of rape is that it is wrongly perceived as destroying one’s worth” (59). As Phillips argues:

I have stressed that the pain and humiliation of rape is a bodily experience, and I see the physical pain as pretty much independent of social conventions or beliefs. But the ways we inhabit our bodies are clearly mediated through our understanding of social and cultural norms. […] Different discourses of rape can the mean not just different attitudes to bodily experience, but genuinely different experiences. (58).

The tension between individualistic concerns (which Phillips largely criticizes) and collectivist ones (which Phillips sides with) is made palpable in her discussion of rape. Phillips does not so much mind framing rape as a violation of bodily integrity when the consequence is that the body is then central to the analysis, although the notion of bodily integrity is also problematic insofar as it implies a set, stable unity. Indeed, Margrit Shildrick (1997), for example, has persuasively debunked that notion with her arguments that the boundaries of the body are tenuous. This follows from the general postmodern tradition of regarding the “body” as the product and site of various competing discourses, and thus as socially, culturally, and historically contingent (albeit with those social constructions having real, material effects). To return to Phillips, the problem with the violation of bodily integrity arises when that violation is understood as a transgression of personal territory, as this takes one straight back into the discourse of property and all its concomitant inequalities (not least of which is that under English law, until the Married Women’s Property Act 1870, women’s property rights were virtually non-existent in marriage, after which any property a woman owned was vested in her husband).

In the final chapter, which considers the effect of framing bodily rights as property rights on policy considerations, Phillips’ socialist leanings are made unequivocally clear. She derides the excessive individualism that property rights entail, especially when it comes to formulating public policy; making the interests of individual property owners central makes it more difficult to address the needs of society generally. Property rights, as Phillips argues, are also overly reductionist in that they focus policy considerations on the micro-level (the individual) at the expense of the macro-level (society as a whole), where the most pertinent issues arise. By focusing on the individual, policy concerns therefore cannot effectively take into account notions such as solidarity, reciprocity and altruism in the pursuit of the common good.

Ultimately, although she may not have intended it to be overtly so, Phillips’ book reads as a beautiful piece of Marxist work, and it is in this way specifically that her work is incredibly valuable in the face of the increasing commodification and marketization of practically every aspect of our existence. The resistance to the commodification of bodily parts and bodily services, and as a consequence, to resulting outcomes such as what Donna Haraway referred to as “corporeal fetishism”(1997: 142) through the reification of cells, genes, and other body parts, is informed by a larger debate of the fundamental alienation of our bodies and ourselves in capitalist wage-relations. From a Marxist point of view, there is thus no stronger argument for refuting a property paradigm for bodily parts and services, and this is something that Phillips, without ever being excessively polemical, conveys concisely and beautifully. Her book is therefore valuable not just from a feminist perspective concerned with women’s equality in the face of corporeal exploitation, but to those interested in issues of political, economic, and social justice as well.

1 December 2013


  • Butler, J. 2004 Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violenc London: Verso.
  • Eyal, N. 2009 Is the body special? Review of Cécile Fabre, whose body is it anyway? Justice and the integrity of the person Utilitas 21(2): 233-245.
  • Gilligan, C. 1995 Hearing the Difference: Theorizing Connection Hypatia 10(2): 120 – 127.
  • Haraway, D. 1997 Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan_Meets_OncoMouse: Feminism and Technoscience London: Routledge.
  • Marx, K. 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/preface.htm
  • Shildrick. M. 1997 Leaky Bodies and Boundaries: Feminism, Postmodernism, and (Bio)Ethics London: Routledge.

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