Body Autonomy: a feminist, sex-positive perspective on teaching your children body ownership

Guest post by jane murphy
Body Autonomy: a feminist, sex-positive perspective on teaching your children body ownership
Photo by Melissa – CC BY 2.0

I love my kids’ belly buttons. I often point to them and say “Do you know why this spot is special?” “Yes,” they reply. “It’s where we were attached.” — although as they get older they say it with less enthusiasm than when they first learned of the magic of that spot.

However, as they age that belly button gets more and more important to me. At one point, now years ago, our bodies were the same. They were a part of me, and I was a person who ate for two, wore a seat belt that wrapped around us both, and had clothes that were built to hold four arms and four legs. But then they were born, the cord was cut, and our anatomies separated. I had made people and now they had their own bodies.

As people, we get one body, and, as a feminist, it is damn important to me to claim total ownership of mine. If my body had been created 500 years ago, it would have been something to be traded for more wealth for my family. If it had been created 200 years ago, it would have been something that my parents could have sent off to work, but it never would have reaped the rewards. If my body had gotten married 50 years ago, my husband could have used it for sex whenever he wanted, as there was no such thing as marital rape.

Not anymore. The best thing that I can ever do for my children is to give them autonomy over themselves. I want my daughter especially — who came into a world that legally accepts her body as her own but sends messages all the time that reject that truth — to fill out her skin with a personal spirit that is impermeable.

She will need to know that having one’s own body is an incredible responsibility: having a body is hard work. You have to nourish it properly. You have to protect it from harm. You have to learn what makes it feel good and what makes it feel bad. It is hard to learn all the ways to do that, and there’s plenty of cajoling on my part.

Autonomy doesn’t automatically mean enlightenment. Responsible ownership must include education — seat belts and bike helmets must be worn, vegetables need to be eaten, hands must be held in busy parking lots, hair must be brushed. I insist that she do these things not to assert dominance over her but because, as her mother, it is my job to teach her how to care for the frame that her persona will inhabit for her entire life.

Having her own body is a privilege. I want her to discover that her body is capable of amazing things. I want her to feel the power that comes with a sense of total control over her own private and finite space in the world. The sense of satisfaction that comes with enthusiastic consent, and the feeling of self worth that comes with a firmly stated “No.” The ability to exercise that control over her anatomy is one that comes with time, but it is her birthright.

This is why, in spite of the fact that she is sometimes rude, disobedient, inclined to make poor choices, and can be downright infuriating, I will never spank my daughter. I do believe that you can spank your children without hurting them physically, and I believe that spanking can curb some very troubling behavior. Yet as a sex-positive feminist, I know it would be wrong to violate my basic belief in the power of consent. Equally important, I want her to know when her body wants to say “yes,” (to the ear piercing, to the doughnut, to sex) and I want her to feel a sense of ownership so she can say yes responsibly and enthusiastically.

I can’t unequivocally give my kids a whole lot. But after nine months of sharing mine, their bodies are their own. Every time I look at those adorable little belly buttons I am reminded of that fact. And while I often want to “eat them up, I love them so,” I know I cannot. However, I can marvel at all of the things that they can do with their spirited, gorgeous, energy-filled physiques, and relish the fact that I created amazing things that can now stand on their own two feet.

Comments on Body Autonomy: a feminist, sex-positive perspective on teaching your children body ownership

  1. I absolutely adore this. It’s something I struggle with sometimes, because I truly believe my very soulful, spirited four year old is the master and sole inhabitant of her body- and I have used the example with others who were slow to understand, that I’m okay with her saying no to me about some things today, so she can say no to other people later in life when she needs to. She needs to know she can say it, and that I will consider it, even if I can’t always respect it. For instance, coats in winter- socks when it’s chilly- hair brushing when going to school- brushing her teeth- the occasional shower. I feel twinges of remorse when I “make” her do these things when she doesn’t want to, even when I know it’s in her best interest. But I look forward to a day when she can take up the reins with these little things; she is already very good at the big ones.

  2. This is something I’ve really been thinking about/struggling with. I just found out that I’m pregnant with my first girl (I have a little boy at home) and I’m already worried about how to talk to her about her body. How do you teach your children these things when no one ever taught you? Sure, I learned in school that women had a right to say no, but it was in an abstinence only setting and with little emphasis on ownership of yourself. At 24, I feel like I am only just learning these things…

    • You may be only just learning, but the best part is that you’re aware and that you’re thinking about it.
      I’m fumbling through it myself. There are a lot of resources out there on all sides of the fence, but I think that one of the best things you can do for her is to model the person you’d want her to be.
      As an aside, when I found out I was having a girl, I commented to a friend that I was daunted by the enormous feminist responsibility of it all. She replied that it would be even bigger if I were having a boy. If we’re going to continue to fight for true equality, the boys have to agree with the girls on their worth.

      • “I commented to a friend that I was daunted by the enormous feminist responsibility of it all. She replied that it would be even bigger if I were having a boy.”

        THIS. I’m expecting a boy in a few months, and am feeling really inadequate to helping him navigate the world of gender identity etc. My husband is a great guy, and will be a fantastic role model. But I know there are still areas where it will be up to me to guide the little guy to healthy awareness of himself and others. I’ve traveled the female road myself, the male road is still a bit of a mystery 🙂

  3. Something I have wondered about in regards to my Future!Kids is: How do you reconcile teaching them that they have the right to control what happens to their bodies and, in particular, who touches them and how and when, with the fact that sometimes there are things that need to be done to them for their own good whether they agree or not (I am thinking mostly of medical procedures here. Exams, shots, etc.) without sending mixed messages.

    My parents’ approach of talking to me and explaining WHY the procedure needed to be done and securing my cooperation mostly worked on me, as far as I can remember. Except for one time when I flatly refused to let a nurse try to swab my throat to test for strep throat. In the end, my pediatrician came in and pried my mouth open with a tongue depressor and did the swab (very quickly an efficiently). I couldn’t decide whether to be furious or relieved to be done with it…

    On the other hand, there as the time I had to have stitches in my chin. The doctors wanted to strap me into this papoose thing to keep me still when they did the stitches and I was NOT having it. The idea of being strapped down freaked me the hell out! I promised that I would hold very, very still on my own if they didn’t strap me down. The doctors didn’t beleive me, but my parents told them that if I said I would do it I would do it. In the end, they did not put my in the papoose but my parents did sit beside me and hold my arms, which was fine with me and did help me hold still. The stitches got done and we went home. So, in that case, letting me maintain my control over my body, even in an emergency medical situation, worked out well.

    Learning to willingly sit still and endure unpleasant medical poking and prodding and jabbing for the sake of your health is an important part of learning to take care of your body, but it’s a hard lesson to learn. And how do you make clear to a small child the difference between this and tolerating abuse from someone in a position of authority over them?

    • Overheard many times in our bathroom last year during diaper changes:

      My son: NO DON’T TOUCH MY PENIS!
      Me: Sweetie, we need to clean your body. But I really appreciate that you’re telling me how you feel about being touched. I’m sorry, but I have to clean your body right now.
      My son: DON’T TOUCH IT!
      Me: I wish I didn’t need to, but we have to keep your body clean so you don’t get sick. But you should be sure to ALWAYS let someone know when you don’t want them touching your body, even if it’s a mama or a papa or someone else you know. This is your body, and I’m just helping you keep it clean until you learn how to keep it clean yourself. …AND NOW WE’RE ALL DONE!

      I have no idea if this is the best way to deal with it, but that’s how I talk to my son about the issue. I guess my theory is he should ALWAYS say what he needs, even if I’m not always able to give him what he wants.

      • Thank you so much for the example. I was sort of struggling with how one would implement the suggestions from the article, and this seems like it fits in quite nicely. I liked to tell my daughter that until she’s old enough to do these things herself, it’s my job to help her do them or do them for her. Unfortunately she was getting a lot of mixed messages about what is OK for which adults to do with her body, and it resulted in some rather unfortunate incidents at her bio-mom’s house. So it’s really important to me in the future to ensure my kids are getting consistent messages from all adults involved in their care.

  4. I wrote this piece (yay!) and agree with Ariel. I guess it’s the difference between teaching your children that they are powerless because of who they _are_ (a child, a woman, a “less than”) and teaching them that in this _situation_ they are somewhat powerless. Sucks, yes, but I think part of truly understanding autonomy is understanding that it doesn’t mean you get to do whatever you want with yourself whenever you want to. (Oddly parallel with the OBB post about hair color right now, when I write it like that).

    • Thanks for writing! Your personal position on spanking is well-put. My partner and I have been talking about our maybe someday children, and my stance on spanking is quite similar to yours. I don’t think it’s automatically wrong, yet I don’t think I want to use it as a tool; I was having trouble articulating why I felt that way until I read your wise words!

  5. I haven’t remarried or spawned yet, but I think about this issue a lot – specifically, how can I raise a child to be autonomous and proud and happy in his or her own body when I swing back and forth between merely feeling neutral about my body and outright HATING it? “Sweetie, you need to finish your dinner, but Mommy is limiting herself to rice and broth for 2 days in a row because she feels a need to punish herself for cutting someone off in traffic” won’t work, I know.

    • Sarah, just wanted to poke my head in and say don’t worry too much.. part of the process of creating a human and watching it grow involves coming to accept and love your body because of what it has done. I am elated to not only welcome my son in my life, but to say goodbye to the self-conscious woman of my 20’s that I have left behind. There are more important things for me to worry about now, and I absolutely love it.

      • Even though I am 20lbs heavier and have tons of stretch marks, I love my body more than I ever did before I had my son. How can it not be awesome when my body made him?

    • You may find that if you focus on feeding your kids well, you will start feeding yourself better as well. You make them a dish of pasta and veggies and they only ate half of it. You just had a bowl of broth. And it’s just *sitting* there. And its not really worth dirtying a tupperware, but it would be wasteful to just throw it out. So you eat it. Or you child is wants to alternate feeding you a bite of food and feeding himself. And it is cute, and loving and, if it is not too grossly covered in slobber, how can you say no?

      I eat a lot better as a mom. Because I can’t be a little light headed when carting around a 20lb package of most-important-thing-in-my-life. And its not fair to him to be temperamental because I’m hungry. And I want to raise him to eat well and he won’t if I don’t. Suddenly, you can hate yourself all you want, but eating isn’t just about feeding yourself anymore. It’s about doing what’s best for your little one, and if you don’t then you’ll just hate yourself more. So you suck it up and find time to cook those eggs, because dang it all, playing all day takes a lot of energy and you need to start off on the right foot.

      • ” Or you child is wants to alternate feeding you a bite of food and feeding himself. And it is cute, and loving and, if it is not too grossly covered in slobber, how can you say no?”

        I lol’ed, because I sort of already do this with my dog. We share bananas and “pupcakes” (they’re carrot cake!) and more than once I’ve absently reached into my pocket and chomped down on what turned out to be a duck-and-sweet-potato treat. Not very tasty, but I digress.

        What really scares me is the hyper-gendered landscape of children’s toys and clothing, combined with my own stranglehold on what I feel are appropriate clothing choices. I am a skirts-and-dresses kind of lady. My knees and cleavage are no one’s business but mine and my boyfriend’s and I can rock a headscarf like you wouldn’t believe. I’m really terrified of spawning a little girl and imposing my Taliban-lite dress code on her, because I know I only got to this place after a few decades of fear and shame and rape culture having their way with me.

        • My mom refused to let me out of the house in A) short-shorts, B) goth clothes, or C) anything too big, too small, stained, or torn. If I had cleavage, that probably would have been proscribed too. What I learned is that there are different contexts where different clothes are okay, and since I was going to school and not A) a club, B) a goth club, or C) there is no occasion for ill-fitting clothes, girl, have some self-respect, those things were not appropriate for that context.

          Also, my mom prefers turtlenecks and jeans until she’s forced out of them by the sun.

          What I’m trying to say is, you can be conservative, and even force your daughter to be somewhat conservative (how much depends on what “normal” looks like where you are), without messing her up. The things that kept me from feeling slut-shamed or controlled were 1) as long as it’s appropriate* for the venue it’s okay, and 2) once I’m an adult I can do whatever I want. Your core rules are probably different, but if you know what they are, it will probably help you both be consistent and not feel bad about it. I mean, if you end up spawning a girl.

          *Mom’s standards of appropriate as long as I was in her house, which I HATED but eventually accepted as fair.

    • Last year at GeekGirlCon Nancy Holder talked a bit about the self deprecation issues she has to fight while raising her daughter, and a lot of it boiled down to practice. It’s a lot like how I have to remind myself that when I insult my body, I’m actually insulting my husband’s taste. I want my someday children to be sure that they came from a place of awesome(!), so I have to practice believing I’m awesome. I won’t go so far as to try to convince myself I’m gorgeous all the time, or healthy enough, but I can refocus my mind to see myself as awesome. The other things will come in time.

  6. “This is why, in spite of the fact that she is sometimes rude, disobedient, inclined to make poor choices, and can be downright infuriating, I will never spank my daughter. I do believe that you can spank your children without hurting them physically, and I believe that spanking can curb some very troubling behavior. Yet as a sex-positive feminist, I know it would be wrong to violate my basic belief in the power of consent.”

    This. Are there any particular parenting books or online resources from this POV that you’d recommend?

    • To be honest, I haven’t read a lot of parenting books. There’s a great website called thepervocracy which, while it’s about sex and not at all about parenting, really does a great job articulating the complexities around consent. I’ve found it’s gotten me thinking (and it does a great job mocking Cosmo, which alone is worth a read). If others know of any resources, I’d love to know about them.

  7. Very much agree and really appreciate the read and so many of your others! I would also like to add that it is not just time but also place that has given us this natural autonomy that is in fact a human right. We could have been born in any number of countries around the world which do not allow women any autonomy over their bodies. Just to name a few examples: there are many places in this world that practice female genital mutilation, condone rape, sell young women into prostitution, and do not allow life saving procedures on women without the consent of their husband. We should all thank our lucky stars we were born into a place that has laws to protect ours and our children’s bodies!

    • Now if only we also lived in a time and place where doctors and parents didn’t (often, although thankfully not always) mutilate the genitals of intersex babies.

  8. I love this piece, and yet it also reminds me of a struggle we are having now. Our son has developed a hitting problem, and it is usually when somebody invades his space. I want to encourage his desire for bodily autonomy, and yet in some of these situations, the presence of the other person is necessary. For example, he and another child at pre-school will be struggling over a toy and our son (who has a hitting problem right now) will raise his hand as though he is about the hit the other child, and a teacher will come to separate them and will bend to his level, put her hand on him, and say “stop,” and our child will feel threatened and will clock the teacher!

    Sometimes, we also have to pick our child up for safety reasons or sometimes behavioral reasons that could become safety reasons (starting to tantrum when getting out of the tub, for example — and no, he really really cannot stay there as long as he wants or it would be all night). Our child will clock us. We are now trying to warn him: if you do not calm down, we will have to pick you up and remove you from the tub for your safety. It is your choice.” But it is harder for his preschool teachers to always do this when responsible for lots of children.

    It is so frustrating, and I am just hoping he grows out of it. It only happens when he is already agitated. And I am the same way. When I am upset, I do not want to be touched. I think it is OK that he is this way. But, I know not to hit people and he doesn’t yet. His brain is still immature and he lashes out physically.

    We are trying to explain that if he doesn’t want people to get too close to his body, he needs to respect other people’s bodies too and not hit them. But he doesn’t always get it. And often he hits after the other person — whether a teacher or parent — has already violated his physical space.

    I keep trying to tell myself “This too shall pass” and we are doing mega work on helping him with impulse control and anger management, too.

    Anyway, thank you for a lovely piece!

    • Our son went through this for a few weeks, and this: “We are trying to explain that if he doesn’t want people to get too close to his body, he needs to respect other people’s bodies too and not hit them.” resonated with me so much! We said basically the same thing, and eventually he understood that hitting = hurting, and decided he didn’t want to hurt anyone.

  9. I enjoyed reading your article up until this comment. “I do believe that you can spank your children without hurting them physically, and I believe that spanking can curb some very troubling behavior.”
    I do not believe this to be true at all. If you believe a body has the right to say yes to what feels good and no to what does not, how can you say that you believe spanking is acceptable? I also disagree that if a child is spanked, they do not hurt. A child who is raised thinking that spanking is okay, is a child that learns to believe that that is what love is. And love is not conditional.

    Spanking to curb a behavior is instilling fear in a child to behave in a way a parent would want them to — that is controlling them. Not modeling their body is sacred. Which contradicts everything you are saying. Even though you state “Yet as a sex-positive feminist, I know it would be wrong to violate my basic belief in the power of consent.” Any child who is spanked isn’t asking for it. It is because they are “behaving” in a way that is unexceptionable to the parent. I think parents need to learn the tools to communicate how their children’s behavior is making them feel, and that, is much harder to do. Parenting without spanking requires patience and self awareness. It requires communication and listening.

    Those two comments do not equal each other out. And, I can not share what i thought was going to be a beautiful article of empowerment, autonomy, and self love and respect. I just needed to share my take on this article.

    • I just want to clarify my position here. I think spanking is wrong. Period. This writing tries to explain part of why I think that spanking is wrong. I often hear spanking advocates say that spanking is okay because it never crosses into abuse. Or that spanking is okay because it’s only used in extreme situations (like touching a hot stove or running into the street). Do I think that spanking a child could stop them from touching a hot stove or running into the street? Yes, I think it could “work.” And I still think that it is wrong because of the secondary message that spanking sends. So just to clarify, I agree with you, and was just using a rhetorical model to explain why.

      I think you can be a non-spanker and not self identify as a feminist or as sex-positive. It is these labels, however, that enable me to understand and articulate exactly why I think that spanking is wrong (and also shape many of my other parenting decisions as well).

      • Hi Jane, thank you for clarifying. I think it is helpful for others to see our dialogue, as well as having more clarity on your position. I guess I just wish it wasn’t put in at all..:) Because, it does bring up a totally different subject. At least for me as the reader. Thank you for taking the time to respond. I want to write for this

    • Really quickly wanted to add to my statement about “it requires patience and self awareness” Communicating to your children and having much much dialogue on acceptable and healthy ways to express ourselves takes patience and self awareness. Just wanted to give more clarity to that statement.

    • thank you thank you thank you for this link..I have experienced the feeling of having to please many people, still do. I remember being told it was rude not kiss or hug family or friends when I was a child…when it happened to my child with my parents, i felt I got live that story all over again. Except this time, I had a voice and a say and a right, and it was very healing for me. Of course my parents disagreed…but i got to speak up and out.

  10. You are so right. Spanking IS a violation of autonomy, and children should be able to say no when they need to, and yes when they need to, within safe boundaries. I know too many parents who have such a tight grip on their children that I fear they’ll never be confident enough to make their own choices. I had a similar upbringing, and it’s been difficult as an adult to find my own autonomy. Helping my children find theirs can really give them a head start emotionally, I believe.

  11. Do you have any advice for how to handle adults that insist they have a “right” to hug, kiss, or hold children? I’m thinking of social situations-like kissing hello or goodbye-but there are times when children don’t want to give that physical affection, and yet adults will insist upon it. My daughter is only nine months old, but I want her to feel confident to say “no” if she’s uncomfortable, but I don’t know how, especially when confronted with pushy adults. Any thoughts or suggestions?

    • When i know I was going to be around pushy adults, i always wore my babies in a sling. That prevented any uncomfortable interaction. But when you have a child that doesn’t want to be in a sling, like my 3rd child at 10 months old, i would ask, do you want to give kisses or hugs right now? My child would answer with gestures. Her yes and no’s were very clear. You can’t argue that, and no one else should. If they demanded, as I shared I experienced, i would flat out say, she has a say on who touches her. I also would ask, don’t you want love from her because she wants to gift it to you, or would you rather take it from them? When adults touch my children and I know they don’t like it. I just model the conversation in front of the adult. Hey is that touch ok with you? If the child says no, then I look at the adult. Sometimes it is already honored. Other times, I will confirm that it makes them uncomfortable. If I know there will be a lot of people/family and friends whom my children aren’t familiar with, I have a talk with them to let them know I am here to support them and help be their voice. I say hello first my kids are behind me. When and if they demand the hug or kiss, I say with my hand on my child’s chest,and my hand up as a gesture to stop and say “maybe later.” The person does not come between me and my child. Energetically I am putting that out there. they can feel it. Other times, my older one will say I don’t want to be touched, if the person does not listen because of cultural reasons, I will confront that person an ask gently and nicely to please respect my child’s wishes. Now that my oldest is getting older we discuss ways to prevent an uncomfortable situation. She decides what works for her and experiments with it. ..If they insist on a hug, she has said, not right now. When they were babies, the same thing. i spoke to them and for them. You will be amazed at how much a 9 month old can comprehend. I hope that helps.

    • My family is large, loud and very touchy feely. Two of my cousins were quite uncomfortable with this when they were little and so my uncle taught them that when someone asked for a hug or kiss and they didn’t want to, they could offer a high five instead. Generally, this was cute enough for them to get away with it without offending anyone or getting into long explanations. It’s kind of avoiding the issue but it helped avoid awkward situations with people who would really not understand.

    • I was always made to kiss adults that my parents knew well but who were not part of my inner-circle. I now have two boys, 7 and 9 years. The older one is very affectionate and will happily hug people he likes. The younger one is much more conscious of maintaining his own space and is only really affectionate with close family. We have always respected both and although some adults are slightly non-plussed when the 7 year old won’t hug them (and so much more put out when he was the cutest baby you ever saw!) we have always been very matter of fact about not cajoling him to over-ride his own needs. Good manners are non-negotiable but physical contact is always their choice.

  12. Thank you for sharing. I am a pediatric nurse, and I was just worrying yesterday about the message I was sending to a 4 year old girl during a treatment. She very clearly said “No” but of course it was necessary for us to treat her (nasal suctioning- totally not fun!). I like the ideas here about explaining what is necessary and why and also at the same time encouraging kids to voice their feelings and their needs. It’s really difficult to help patients, especially children, maintain their autonomy over their bodies in a hospital setting. I sure don’t want the side effect of a prolonged hospitalization to be that a little girl learns that adults don’t listen when she says no. Side note- I tried the choice option (Do you want the blood pressure cuff on your arm or your leg?) and she just said “No.” So that was kind of a fail because she was too smart for that. I told her that I had to pick for her then. I would love to hear more suggestions from parents about what works when it is necessary to overrule a child’s wishes about their bodies.

    • You are really in a tough position. I think as parents we can make choices about whether or not to spank, but you don’t have a choice about what you do to kids (which sounds harsher than I mean it). I think that an important part here is the opportunity to process. After the procedure is over, giving her some time to both be mad about it and to really explain why you had to do what you had to do. I think that sometimes a huge part of what drives kids “nos!” is fear. Once the situation isn’t so scary, they can understand why it had to be done. And obviously not to minimize their own feelings about it. For example, if a kid is insisting that a shot really really really hurt, saying “it wasn’t that bad” isn’t going to help, and just sounds like you know better than they do about what’s going on with their own body. Saying, “I’m really sorry, I really didn’t want to hurt you. It’s my job to keep you healthy,” explains why you did what you did while also acknowledging the child’s feelings.

      I think also, depending on the context, you could give them some secondary autonomy. For example, after you do the nasal suctioning, you could say “do you want me to help you wipe your nose, or do you want to do it yourself?” (if that’s an option). If she says no to both, so what? She’s got a little snot on her face.

      A lot of times we send mixed messages to kids. I know that my daughter feels mercilessly bossed around even though I try very hard to let her make independent choices around her own body. I think that, at the end of the day, if we give kids space to feel _heard_ about being bossed around, sometimes that will have to do.

      • I’ve struggled with a needle phobia for most of my life, and I definitely agree that saying things like “it’s not that bad” is the complete opposite of helpful (be it to a child or a phobic adult). Honesty and honoring of people’s feelings goes a long way.

    • My husband and I often give our toddler son choices. “Do you want your blue or red coat.” He often responds similar to your patient.”No!” We respond by telling him that if he doesn’t choose, then mommy or daddy need to choose for him, then we pose the options again. That has tremendously helped us.

Join the Conversation