LGBTQ sexual assault is part of a structural fight for bodily autonomy


MJ Eckhouse

MJ Eckhouse

Sexual assault is a violation of an individual’s right to bodily autonomy. LGBTQ people are disproportionately likely to be victims of sexual assault. And while we must condemn sexual assault in the strongest terms possible, threats to our bodily autonomy do not begin and end with interpersonal violence.

To fully understand and contextualize sexual assault, we must recognize structural violations of bodily autonomy as well. These include restrictive laws governing abortion, drug use, sex work and the profit-driven criminal justice system that restricts people’s movements, deprives them of medical care and forces them to work without pay. All of these structures drive home the message: “You do not own your body.”

While in jail or police custody, trans people report being sexually assaulted at a rate of 15 percent. This rate increases to 32 percent when only considering African-American trans people.

Trans people’s bodily autonomy is constantly up for debate. We watch as our neighbors, colleagues and government officials argue over which bathroom our bodies are allowed to access, whether homeless shelters, drug rehabilitation centers and college dorms let us in and whether our medical care is necessary.

Due to family rejection, discrimination and poverty, trans people are more likely to be homeless. Of those who stay in shelters — which are nearly universally sex-segregated — 22 percent were sexually assaulted while staying there, according to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey.

John Locke wrote that humans’ natural rights include life, liberty and property. Those ideas are expressed in this country’s founding doctrine. But why aren’t our bodies considered our own property?

The first time my bodily autonomy was violated by sexual assault, the other boy wanted to know what I had in my pants. To find out, he grabbed me by the pussy, political connotations of the phrase intended. This assault is inextricable from the society around it, which refuses to recognize the legitimacy of trans existence.

The boy who assaulted me knew I was assigned female at birth. He saw my short hair, masculine clothes and he knew I wasn’t “supposed” to look that way. When politicians call LGBTQ people mentally ill or pass laws to keep us out of public spaces, they’re in agreement. They’re saying that our bodies, and the way we use them, are wrong and should not exist.

However, structural violations of bodily autonomy are easy to miss. They are subtler and more insidious than one person assaulting another.

When the Ohio legislature proposes a bill reducing access to safe and legal abortion, that’s a threat to bodily autonomy. Locking someone in a cage because they chose to use a drug or made financial compensation a condition of their sexual consent violates their bodily autonomy.

Same with insurance companies deciding to end coverage for medically necessary transition-related care. Same with the laws prohibiting homosexual intercourse, which weren’t overturned until 2003. Same with the neoliberal divestment from social safety nets, ensuring that when queer kids’ parents kick them out, they don’t even have a shelter to request entry into.

Bodily autonomy should be a basic right, one which includes the right to safe abortion, to sexual freedom, to transition, to a nonprofit prison system and to health care for all, regardless of income.

MJ Eckhouse is the editor of Fusion Magazine. Contact him at [email protected]