Abridged version of the plenary paper, the full text of which is included in the publication of EWA 2004 conference papers. All rights reserved. No part of this essay may be reproduced without permission from Dr. Gudorf and EWA.

Is the body the self? What about the body and rights? Does the self have complete control of its body, or can that control be usurped in some situations? Is the body the self? Yes. But not the whole self. When we examine the lives of people who have suffered ongoing pain in the body—victims of torture, chronic illness or chronic abuse—we find that fighting the pain becomes their whole world. Pain takes over one’s life as well as one’s self. Theft of one’s body is theft of one’s self for the most part.[1]

It is critical to accept the unity of the body and the self because we know that all damage done to bodies affects the self as well, so that to love the selves of others means caring for their bodies, and to love ourselves means caring for our own bodies. But hope depends upon a recognition that the self can transcend body. This transcendence is not to be understood in terms of opposition, as in soul/body dualism. Rather, the body is the locus of the self, which the self can move beyond.


Other than sex, race has probably been the body characteristic which has most influenced self historically. One’s very body advertised one’s group identity, which until relatively recently was the largest part of self-identity. The racial body has had a strong influence on individual consciousness of self throughout human history whenever groups have come in contact with other races—a circumstance that seems to have been common throughout even ancient history.For these groups with different bodies, their very bodily differences were interpreted as evidence that the selves in these groups were different and lesser, despite the fact that the marginality of the body to Christian understandings of the soul-self should have rather led to imputing little or no significance to body differences.

Abuse of the body (both physical and sexual) affects self identity. We see similar destructive patterns in the victims, including fear, lack of trust, inability to form intimate relationships, and a generalized failure to protect oneself from future abuse because of deep-seated understandings of self as both not worthy of protection and incapable of being protected. We have become accustomed to seeing patterns of not only dysfunction but self-destruction in the lives of persons who have suffered abusive body trauma. We have also become familiar with the opposite of this victim who accepts the message of the abuser and seeks self-destruction, that is, the victim who attempts to deny his own victimization by taking on the abuser role and victimizing others. Abuse of the body by another, especially for children, wounds the self. There is clearly a strong connection between the body and the self.

No one who has ever spent time with a chronically ill person doubts that chronic physical pain has a negative affect on the self. Pain narrows our world to our own body, making us insensitive to, even uncaring of, others and their pain. Studies have shown that the sick and elderly who are touched and stroked not only have lower levels of pain, but also less depression and higher levels of verbal interaction with others.[4] The body connects us to others in a variety of very different ways, and since our sense of self is grounded in relationship to others, the experiences of the body, both positive and negative, influence our self-identity.


One may easily agree that the quality of the self may not be negatively affected by many disabilities of the body, that the body can be transcended and does not necessarily determine the self, but we must be careful how we understand transcendence, recognizing that while the body does not determine the self, it does ground the self. Most of us understand that Alzheimer’s, for example, gradually obliterates the self as it destroys the relationships and memories that constitute and maintain self-identity. Aging is another bodily experience which affects self-hood and to which individuals and societies respond very differently. To the extent that humans experience aging as limitation, the concept of transcendence over the body has increasing value for helping us sustain the energy for living a full life.

Advocates for sexual victims within the Women’s Movement agree on the value of the concept of body transcendence. For while they insist that abuse of the body negatively affects the self, they also protest any cult of victimhood. The self can not only survive victimization, it can utilize the experience to grow. In the area of race also, an aspect of body that has seemed for most of history impermeable to transcendence, there are now some limited signs of the possibility of transcendence. In nations with multi-racial populations, growing numbers of interracial and multiracial persons refuse to identify with only one part of their biological and cultural heritage.

On the other hand, religious and other cultural differences seem increasingly difficult to transcend in cooperation.


Until the 20th century, virtually everyone in the world understood that when a child was born, its genitalia indicated what we now distinguish as sex, gender and sexual orientation. In the course of the twentieth century each of these three deductions from genitalia became challenged. First gender was separated from genitalia through anthropologists’ study of other societies in which the roles assigned to males and females were very different from those assignments in our society. Second, sexual orientation was separated from genitalia. Beginning with Kinsey,[5] through the work of Hooker[6] and many others, homosexuality came to be understood not as deviance, but as an alternative orientation, which many scientists now believe is based in a genetic predisposition differentially affected by environment.

Biologists, influenced by the new openness on gender and orientation, have gradually come to concede that sex is not simple, either, and is much more open-ended than commonly believed. Some people decide sex based on the genitalia, others based on chromosomal sex, and yet others on the sex of the brain (which often influences the sexual identity that is experienced by the person). Biologists point out that even within these criteria there is no clear dimorphic pattern. For example, while the majority of humans are either XX or XY, there are many millions of humans whose chromosomal pattern is XO, XYY, XXY, XXX and even very rarely XXXX. Whether we look at hormone levels or the effect of hormones on the brain (brain sex), we see a spectrum stretching between two poles.

Thus at the same time that the human body is less and less understood as a given and more and more open to (re)construction, so the sex of the human body is independently undergoing a similar transformation from given to constructed in our social understanding. This transfer of sex from the category of biologically given to socially constructed further reduces the impact of body on sexual identity.


Late modern society, especially youth culture, is, I think, groping for a new understanding of the relationship of body to identity. But, it seems to me, the importance of body to self-identity has changed, that the body is not so much the source that influences the formation of self- identity, or even sexual identity, as it was in the past, but is now more the slate upon which one expresses one’s self of the moment.

I suspect that the shift toward experiencing the body as constructed has a great deal to do with lessening the sense of personal unity and well defined personal boundaries. If the body is plastic in the sense of being radically reconstructable and the sexual self is reversible within all the sexual categories of sex, gender and sexual orientation, then the question arises as whether the self is continuous or discontinuous. At what point does the change become so great that this is a different self? At a moral level, this possibility that the embodied person is not continuous, but a series of discontinuous selves, is uncomfortable. More to the point, what would religious conversion mean to a series of selves? Which of the selves is saved?

Perhaps the biggest challenge to both contemporary moral theology and education today is the autistics. The current model assumes ongoing lifetime moral learning based on our ability to both attend to and read the consequences of our decisions on all concerned. Autistics cannot access a great deal of the consequences of actions—specifically, they cannot access the emotional impact of their decisions and actions on others. To be good, then, does not mean to act out of one’s core self, or to respond to the needs of the specific Other, but to follow general rules aimed at the welfare of a generalized other.

We must rethink the process of the construction of human selves with more attention to the differences of bodies, more mindful that there may well be more than one model of construction—even adequate construction—at work,

Christine Gudorf is professor at the Department of Religious Studies, Florida International University. She has written articles and books on liberation theologies, feminist ethics, ethics in world religions and in cross-cultural perspectives. Among the books she wrote are: Body, Sex, and Pleasure: Reconstructing Christian Sexual Ethics for which she won the Midwest Book Achievement Award in 1995 and Ethic in World Religions: A Cross-Cultural Casebook. She obtained her Ph.D. in theology at the Columbia University/Union Theological Seminary.

[1] Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).

[2] Katie Conboy, Nadia Medina, and Sarah Stanbury, eds., Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997); Jean Arthurs and Jean Grimshaw, eds., Women’s Bodies: Discipline and Transgression (London and New York: Cassell, 1999); Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993); James B. Nelson, Body Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992); Caroline Walker Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Zone, 1992).

[3] Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, Our Bodies, Ourselves (Simon and Shuster, 1969) as well as the 1976 second edition and the 1984 The New Our Bodies, Ourselves.

[4] Christine M. Rinck et al., “Interpersonal Touch among Residents of Homes for the Elderly,” Journal of Communication 30.2 (Spring 12980): 44-47; Martin S. Remland et al., “Interpersonal Distance, Body Orientation, and Touch: Effects of Culture, Gender and Age,” Journal of Social Psychology 135.3 (June 1995): 281-297 and Beverly G. Willison and Robert L. Masson, “The Role of Touch in Therapy: An Adjunct to Communication,” Journal of Counseling and Development 64.8 (April 1996): 497-500.

[5] Alfred Kinsey, W.B. Pomeroy, and C.E. Martin, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (Philadelphia: Saunders, 1948; Alfred C. Kinsey, W. Pomeroy, C.E. Martin and P. Gebhard, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (Philadelphia: Saunders, 1953).

[6] Evelyn Hooker, “The Adjustment of the Male Overt Homosexual,” Journal of Projective Techniques 21 (1957): 18-31.

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