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Talking Bodies – COVID-19

28th May 2020

By Luna, SheDecides 25x25 Young Leader, Australia.

For as long as I can remember, I have been disturbed by the woman I see in the mirror. There has always been this disconnect from my physical body that I’ve endured with a fluctuating turbulence as this disturbance adapted to new social contexts and meanings. And then came COVID-19.

The global discourse around “bodies” has been amplified in the civil and political response to the global pandemic. Whilst this may be a novel virus, its social consequence is hardly a novel experience for many.

Over the last few months, the public sphere has been flooded with a tsunami of information and misinformation along with nuanced concerns relating to biopower and biopolitics. In short, biopolitics and biopower are concepts that relate to how we conceptualise, govern and surveillance the human species and the body – this is often institutionalised but also critically internalised through self-regulating behaviours as well. We see this time and time again with regard to trends around health and well-being and norms around gender and sexuality. During the pandemic period, we experienced that in regard to both forced isolation and/or imposed physical distancing measures and the “stay home” social media campaign that encouraged lay people to reinforce voluntary isolation measures as well as monitor each other’s activity.

The global discourse around “bodies” has been amplified in the civil and political response to the global pandemic. Whilst this may be a novel virus, its social consequence is hardly a novel experience for many.  

 

Over the last few months, the public sphere has been flooded with a tsunami of information and misinformation along with nuanced concerns relating to biopower and biopolitics. In short, biopolitics and biopower are concepts that relate to how we conceptualise, govern and surveillance the human species and the body – this is often institutionalised but also critically internalised through self-regulating behaviours as well. We see this time and time again with regard to trends around health and well-being and norms around gender and sexuality. During the pandemic period, we experienced that in regard to both forced isolation and/or imposed physical distancing measures and the “stay home” social media campaign that encouraged lay people to reinforce voluntary isolation measures as well as monitor each other’s activity.  

 

I appreciate that COVID-19 has been a catalyst for important dialogue around social surveillance, regulation of agency and social contact, and access to healthcare. However, women are no strangers to these conversations or the policies that govern, surveillance and restrict our bodily agency and the subsequent consequences of such -- most notably perhaps in regard to sexual and reproductive health rights. In turn, we are incredibly familiar with constantly being monitored, vulnerable and excluded. For many, implications of the pandemic has deepened pre-existing inequalities and exacerbated social, economic and political vulnerabilities.  

 

Incomplete and inconsistent policies in and between countries facilitate archaic gendered narratives and stifle genuine women’s rights. Hence, why women have been disproportionately but also unevenly affected by the outbreak. Existing policies, no matter how fragmented, inform the provisions we are entitled to in a crisis and because of that many already living on the social and economic margins have been excluded in the pandemic response.  

 

As someone who works in and around the sex industry in Australia, this period has made me increasingly aware of how my identity as a woman is so often reduced to policy and how women are predisposed to being existentially disturbed. I think so many women in the industry use this as a platform in which to reclaim their bodies, their sexuality, their identity, and their agency, because so much of that is dictated to us and undermined in day-to-day life. But among the narrative of empowerment, there is also the one of survival and the COVID-19 outbreak reminded all of us just how precariously we are situated. I have felt and witnessed a lack of representation and consideration in the political and public health response to Covid19. Our roles, services, and adversities are constantly either being mocked, invalidated or ignored on a global scale.  

 

Whilst sex workers have been systematically disadvantaged – whether it be in regards to difficulties accessing welfare, transitioning within the labour force or securing alternative housing because of employment history (or lack thereof), excluded from economic contingency plan frameworks, ineligible for COVID-19 testing despite industry-specific gaps in adequate contact tracing – women both in and out of the sex industry have also been condemned and discriminated against for going online. Popular online platform for contactless sex work as well as other forms of creative content and services, OnlyFans, has been a contentious topic of conversation in the public sphere. Women are being berated for “selling themselves” online, which is not only a fallacious point of view, a woman is not selling herself but in fact selling a service or visual content, something that many do not consider to be “real work”.

 

It provokes a concerning but familiar sentiment – it is as if when a woman uses her body in some way to earn an income, she is somehow perhaps cheating the system and cheapening her own “worth”. This has triggered reports of people subscribing to a woman’s online content and then leaking it to her family and/or place of “legitimate” employment in order to humiliate and punish her for doing so. Unfortunately, victims have noted that in their efforts to seek legal counsel that this does not qualify as revenge porn and therefore may go on without any consequence for the perpetrator. Other reports have since come out of OnlyFans disabling and/or deactivating sex work and body-based accounts and refunding the income generated to subscribers without notice. Again, this triggers a familiar sentiment – companies are enticed to profit from women’s bodies and labour until they are established enough and arbitrarily wish to distance themselves from the profession or connotations often at the expense of the women that built them. 

 

Following on, in many parts of the world, restrictions around accessing abortion and contraception have also been intensified and domestic violence has also risen significantly. Not only does this again raise concerns over attitudes towards women and our right to bodily agency but it also illustrates how delicate those attitudes and rights can be when a global pandemic causes such a significant backlash and backwards step in gender equity development.  

 

The pandemic has been a painful reminder of how systematically entrenched stigmatisation is in regard to our bodies and how, because of that, women are yet to be decriminalised. Instead, women’s bodies are compartmentalised into categorical and conditional rights, which are scattered across various federal and state-led policies that determine the frameworks in which we can exercise them. Until such a time that I have the right to decide what I can and cannot do with body, will my body ever really be my own?  

 

When policies governing our bodies are laden with value judgements, what are we expected to see when we look in the mirror? Where I once saw a broken woman, now all I see are broken policies.  

 

Luna is a SheDecides 25x25 Young Leader from Australia. Luna is a queer woman, an International Development graduate, empowered sex worker and woman’s rights advocate from Adelaide, South Australia. Read more about Luna.