The naked protester (or, how to get the media to pay attention to women)

Nudity as a form of protest wasn’t invented by PETA. Events such as the World Naked Bike Ride uses nudity as a way to protest “oil dependency and to celebrate the power and individuality of [their] bodies,” 600 environmental activists went naked in 2007 to protest global warming and even as far back as the early 1900s, the Doukhobors, a Russian pacifist religious sect, held nude protest parades. So I wouldn’t go so far as to say that nudity was useless as a tactic in social movements.

Lately the Ukrainian protest group, Femen, has been getting a lot of attention. Why? Well, they’re beautiful, thin, young women who are mostly topless. They’re described alternately as a “women’s rights group” or a “feminist group,” as they campaign against issues such as trafficking, international marriage agencies, and sex tourism. According to their website, their goal is “to shake women in Ukraine, making them socially active, [and] to organize… a women’s revolution.” Of course feminists have been working towards revolution for decades and yet, somehow, have never been quite as popular as Femen appear to be now.

When three protesters showed up at an Occupy demonstration in Davos, yelling “poor because of you” outside the World Economic Forum, the media fell in love.

These three women were covered by pretty much every media outlet out there – mainstream and alternative alike. Particularly, many of the Occupy sites seemed enamoured. From right to left, dudes love Femen. Funny, because most of them seem pretty disinterested in feminist protests and movements otherwise.

Over at Occupy the Environment’s Facebook page they stated the obvious, commenting above the story: “That’s how you make it into the mainstream media.”

Yep. As witnessed by Slutwalk and by PETA, playing to the male gaze and going nude or almost nude is a great way to get media coverage. Particularly, as witnessed by coverage of Femen, if you’re a thin, young, conventionally attractive woman.

In fact, both PETA and Slutwalk stand by that very argument, defending problematic strategies and sexist branding on the basis that they would never have received so much media attention had they not gone with controversial marketing ploys. Whatever gets the attention of media is represented as a “good” thing and as something that somehow cancels out hypocritical messages.

Clearly nude protests are not the problem. The problem is that, within our pornified culture, women seem to only be able to find power in their sexualized bodies. Have we seen viral media coverage of nude male protestors over the past few years? Not that I can recall. PETA’s ads are certainly focused on the female body and, generally, that body is sexualized, thin, and often surgically enhanced.

When someone over at Occupy Ottawa’s Facebook page* posted an image of the women, naked from the waist up, the point was made by a couple commenters that it seemed unfair that women had to bare their breasts in order to get anyone to pay any attention to their message. This point was met with anger, confusion, and disdain. In fact, the response from the page’s admin as well as most other commenters on the page was a definitive: “stop with all the feminism, why dontcha.” This was followed by predictable commentary insinuating that those who weren’t fully supportive of Femen’s tactics and the page’s commentary were “dividing the movement” and being “counter-productive” by bringing feminism into the conversation. Interesting, because Femen is a group that is often associated with feminism. It would appear as though we only like feminists so long as they are nude.

It’s frustrating, but understandable, that the mainstream media jumps at the opportunity to splash images of young women’s breasts across screens, but it’s even more frustrating that progressive groups don’t see the problem with these tactics. And of course, we have to ask whether the media or the public are really getting the “message” they are meant to get. Are we seeing these images and thinking about systematic poverty or the exploitative nature of prostitution? Or is the message just: titties!!

Judging from the popularity and response to Femen, I’m getting the feeling that the “message” is all but lost.

*Edit – 02/01/12 – The Occupy Ottawa Facebook page referenced here is not Occupy Ottawa’s official Facebook page, but rather is described as a group which “share[s] the same goal and beliefs…Occupy Ottawa is a solidarity and support effort with the Occupy Wall St movement.”
Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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  • Krista


    I am the one of the commentators who had “the spat” with Occupy Ottawa (FB name = Lotus Blossom). Thank you for writing this article. Sometimes when you feel that you are the only one who sees something wrong with a group like Femen, you begin to wonder whether or not you are just plain overreacting. Your arguments in this article help boost my confidence that there is indeed something very disturbing about the tactics employed by these types of protests.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Hi Krista!
      Thanks for bringing it to my attention and good for you for, at very least, trying to challenge the sexism happening in some of those spaces. What a frustrating conversation to have! Good on ya.

  • Alicia

    Since no one will be taking sides with the admin of the page you are talking about in the article, here’s what I think is a good side of the story.

    I mean, the 2012 version.

    It makes me sad that someone like you has the right to open a facebook account and post comments that blocks evolutions with stupid standards that we’re boring 50 years ago.

    Because, what you’re saying is… Whenever these girls will go out to show that this world is a place filled with BULLSHIT, we’ll have to ignore them…

    They’ll understand….

    Evolve. Get outta this label thing. Feminism, anarchist, racist, sexist.

    All I hear is Barriers, barriers, barriers and more barriers. You block the PURPOSE only to expose what YOU think would be best. What YOU think is not what THE MAJORITY thinks.

    Life is the way it is and well, you know the expression “boys will be boys” for owning toys and being young? Girl will be girls cause they know how to be provocative and they USE THEIR BENIFITS to spread the message. It’s pretty hard to ignore that there is CORRUPTION in DAVOS when it’s written on 3/4 of their body.

    You can fight for reasons that will prevent our evolution. The fact that SHE is showing her breasts doesnt mean that we think less of all woman in general.

    …and… we’re in 2012.

    It’s up to YOU to follow US now.

    • Meghan Murphy

      This comment is ridiculous and reeks of white male privilege, something the Occupy movement has been accused of but is, I believe, working to deal with. First all, I’d like to know: Who is this “us” you speak of?

    • ned

      “Girl will be girls cause they know how to be provocative and they USE THEIR BENIFITS to spread the message.”

      Well, other than explaining to us in a feminist space what “BENIFITS” are, you could also spell it correctly.

      “The fact that SHE is showing her breasts doesnt mean that we think less of all woman in general.”

      I highly doubt that you think much of women to begin with, given your statement about their “BENIFITS” above, but if for the sake of argument I assume that you do generally respect women as equals (nude or not), the question is: are you unaware that males in general, everywhere in the world, do not view women with your nobility of character? 😉

      “…and… we’re in 2012.

      It’s up to YOU to follow US now.”

      Actually, it’s up to YOU to start treating women like PEOPLE. And yes, we’re in 2012. Tragic, isn’t it?

  • I’m speechless…and saddened.

  • LOL who is “us” and why is this person proclaiming to be in the “know” – interesting.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Also, FYI, “Alicia” is the admin of the Occupy Ottawa page and is a dude….In case that wasn’t clear from the comment…

      • NitroGirl

        Why do men like to go under female aliases and try to disagree with feminist viewpoints so fervently?I find it really freaking creepy and another way to dismiss female voices by masquerading as one. This tactic attempts to shut women who are anti-patriarchy up because “see, SHE, A WOMAN says you, also a woman (who disagrees with patriarchal male approved things) are WRONG,so there!”. It’s disgusting, vile,even. If there aren’t any women at the moment who oppose your position (the anti male-gaze/patriarchy position) -they have to make them up by pretending to post as women. Goodness knows how many “females” have been on many a feminist site trying to cause discourse with their non-logic-mansplanatarial baloney. Too bad this one in particular wasn’t smart enough to hide his true identity well enough. Well,too bad for him. I had a good laugh.

        • Pope Guilty

          For the same reason white dudes like to attribute their racist views to black people.

  • anon

    Sometimes pornographers organize their own nude protests.

  • tom

    I would pay more attention to topless female protestors. When I am walking down the street and I see people protesting something, 9 times out of 10 I walk right on by. Either I don’t have time to stop, or I just don’t care. Most of the time I don’t even bother to find out what it is they are protesting since if it was something I was actually pasionate about, I would probably already be aware that a protest was going to be taking place.

    If I glanced over and saw naked girls protesting I would be 90% more likely to get closer and pay a bit more attention, and at the very least, walk away knowing what is getting their goat.

    The point is, whether you agree or disagree with their decision to protest topless, it works. It would get my attention, and most other guys attention since “guys just think with their dicks”.. right?

    It gets the medias attention, and therefore gets the message out to more people, which after all is the point.

    People always do things considered “outrageous” just to get attention and it never seems to bother any one.

    Nude male protestors? I don’t think so.. that would make more people look away and would hurt the cause. Also, these are topless girls, not naked girls. There were probably plenty of topless guys at any one of the “Occupy” protests.

    Sometimes I get confused, when a woman has her breastfeedings pictures taken off facebook, feminists get all up in arms because breastfeeding is natural and she should be able to show it off, and now when girls go topless and protest, they should be putting their shirts back on.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Well, Tom, I think I was quite clear about why it is problematic for women, in particular to have to go topless or nude in order to get people to “pay attention” to their cause. First, I don’t think it brings attention to the cause, I think it brings attention to women’s sexualized, objectified bodies, and second, the problem is that women should not have to turn you on in order to get your attention.

      “The message” that is getting “out there” is not about poverty or misogyny or whatever, it is that women’s bodies are things to be looked at. A seemingly oppositional message in many cases, particularly within the context of women’s rights.

    • Hari B.

      Oh wow, Tom. Is this supposed to be taken seriously?

      “Sometimes I get confused, when a woman has her breastfeedings pictures taken off facebook, feminists get all up in arms because breastfeeding is natural and she should be able to show it off, and now when girls go topless and protest, they should be putting their shirts back on.”

      Just in case you were serious, and really do experience confusion about the difference here, I’ll explain: A breastfeeding womyn is FEEDING HER BABY. Her breasts are bared (to some degree) for the purpose of loving and feeding her baby–not to ‘show it off’. Unlike the FEMEN womyn, whose express purpose in baring breasts was to ‘show it off’ in an explicitly sexual way, to draw male gaze as a promotional stunt.

      I hope you get this cleared up before you participate in parenting–or hang out with friends who may be breastfeeding. Because as a womyn who has breastfed 6 kids myself and known countless other breastfeeding moms, I can tell you that we find it really, really creepy when men stare at us while we feed our babies, just as if we were there for HIS GAZE, just to ‘show it off’. You probably don’t want to come off to any breastfeeding womyn (or her partner) like a pervert who doesn’t know the difference between an act of parental love/nurture, and sex.

      • Hari B

        Tom and Alicia–for further illumination, please read this other F-word post:

        I suggest you pay special attention to all of Rebecca Mott’s comments, including her responses to my comments about socialization that shed a very clear light on the matter of choice.

        You both speak with the voices of men who were taught to view womyn as sexualized objects, men privileged to oppress womyn and generally view all in sight as your proper domain. You can’t help what was done to you while you were young–none of us can change the past. And I ask you–is this the kind of men you actually *want* to be? Are the presumed ‘privileges’ of patriarchy, for men, really enough to satisfy your human longing for fully-realized personhood, and for heartfelt, heart-satisfying relationship to yourselves, to other people and especially womyn, to the world itself? I’m old enough–and white enough, even while still a womyn–to pretty fully understand the blindness to privilege in those privileged…experienced enough by now to have seen the ways privilege is grotesquely dehumanizing for the privileged even though it is far worse for the oppressed.

        Listen to Rebecca Mott, about choice. Listen to marv. And ask yourselves what kind of men you actually want to be–that is, instead of raging at those who after all only seek a world where all are fully honored, and free to be all they can be. I hope you are at least men enough to understand that–and to choose more for yourselves than the box of privileged/oppressor has to offer you.

    • kurukurushoujo

      If I glanced over and saw naked girls protesting I would be 90% more likely to get closer and pay a bit more attention, and at the very least, walk away knowing what is getting their goat.

      The point is, whether you agree or disagree with their decision to protest topless, it works. It would get my attention, and most other guys attention since “guys just think with their dicks”.. right?

      Looking at breasts = looking at slogans is a false equation. When I first looked at a Femen protest, and I am very honest about this, I noticed their breasts and kept looking at them because I find this part of a woman’s body very appealing. After a whopping 2 minutes I finally began to listen to what they said (being too involved in looking at their bodies to notice anything else, I fear) and then glanced at their slogans. However, I am a woman and a feminist and knew what Femen is. The guys you described would look at the breasts and then, dare I say it, stop looking altogether.

  • marv wheale

    Stupendous article Meghan as typical for you. To Alicia and Tom, all I can offer is my standard critique of male voyeurism: Men piss on women and the men say its raining. Next time close your zipper as hard as you can while you are doing the urinating. See if that feels refreshing.

  • “Why do men like to go under female aliases and try to disagree with feminist viewpoints so fervently”

    I have been having the same thing happening at my blog…

  • Tim

    “Why do men like to go under female aliases and try to disagree with feminist viewpoints so fervently”

    Because this blog is so man-hating that it’s the only way your comment might get approved/read?

    Because when someone with a male-sounding alias posts something here, and its disagreed with, the first, lazy, knee-jerk reaction is to accuse them of being a man in disguise, despite the fact it’s mere speculation?

    If you spent a few minutes reading some of the comments history here, it’s really not a tough question to answer, ladies.

    • Meghan Murphy

      That’s bullshit, Tim. Just as many men comment here as women do. Men are welcome to comment here so long as they are not being deceptive and are trying to have productive conversation rather than leave ridiculous, nonsensical, or offensive comments. Men who comment as women do it in order to attempt to give their opinions more credibility. It is usually very obvious when this happens and people call them out. Men who try to co-opt feminist debates are usually very bad at it. If they actually knew what they were talking about or had any credibility or integrity they wouldn’t need to disguise themselves as women in order to leave comments.

    • NitroGirl

      Tim,this is a feminist space. If you can put your male-entitlement aside and stop making or wishing feminist discussions to center around you and your feelings then I’m quite sure the author will be willing to publish it.Your voices are heard outside of blogs,in real life, and your views on how the world should be are taken seriously as men.In every medium,you.are.heard. Men who are allowed to be published in feminist or woman-oriented spaces is a privilege,not a right.I’ve read the comments section.Just because I lurk more than post doesn’t mean I’m ignorant of this community.I think Meghan handles certain men this way because they are clearly trolling,looking to derail,and looking to make themselves the center focus of the discussion.There have been on many sites people who are fighting for equality,posers on websites willing to derail and post hateful and hurtful comments.I find that women,whenever they speak out online about female-specific issues,are met with disdain,harassment,even threats.But if you and some other dudes who comment(ed) here actually gained to listen to these women’s experiences (instead of shouting over their opinions) you would understand that. Also,what Meghan said.

    • ned

      “Because this blog is so man-hating that it’s the only way your comment might get approved/read?”

      What’s more likely, Tim, is that you don’t know how to read, and to separate normative statements (such as: sex markets are exploitative, men should check their privilege, etc.) from blanket condemnations of entire groups. Occasionally some people leave somewhat separatist (which isn’t really the same thing as misandrist) comments here (usually people will argue with them), but Meghan and the other bloggers here (and their male allies who comment here) are consistently anti-essentialist.

  • ned

    The only thing I will concede to Tim above is that as a general policy though, it might be a good idea for people here to not jump to conclusions about whether a commenter is male or female though. If there’s any confusion, one could just directly ask the commenter if they are presenting their sex correctly. I know when someone is leaving a douchey comment we tend to think it indicates all sorts of privilege issues (and I don’t deny that that can be the case), but given that anti-feminist women themselves leave comments that are similar, it’s starting to feel a bit pointless to focus on whether the commenter is male or female.

  • ned

    I think it’s also worth noting that nobody here is, most likely, in any way opposed to nudity per se. I have no issues with it. If we lived in a parallel universe where patriarchy didn’t exist and men didn’t objectify women’s bodies and body parts, the notion of a “nude protest”, especially by topless women, would lose its shock value and its titillation value, because it would be as normal and non-objectifying for women to bare their chests in public as it is for men to bare their chests in public. As a matter of fact, this is already the case in certain pre-industrial societies in the world even in our current world today — women walk around bare-chested and the men are not in a constant state of sexual excitement because of it, because it’s the norm.

    The issue is the context. Theoretically, I would have no issues with being topless myself in certain contexts, i.e. if the men around me were sufficiently well-socialized (or perhaps socialized in a way that is dramatically different from what the norm is) to not take any special notice of my breasts or to ogle and objectify me for displaying them. The problem is that, except for in the rare cultures I’ve mentioned above, such men are rarely encountered. Which is what makes this sort of topless female protest so problematic, because it panders to that particular male mindset.

  • Some Dude

    Thanks for shining a light on the group FEMEN. I am so sick of people saying, “Look, they’re getting ATTENTION!” Yes, their breasts are getting attention, the causes they fight for are not getting attention. Let me be blunt; the opinion of Ukraine in many nations around the world can be summed up with words like “mail-order brides” at best and “whores” at worst. Most of the men(and women) who hold this opinion of Ukrainian women never consider the economic and social conditions which led to this explosion of human trafficking and prostitution. They assume it has something to do with Ukrainian girls or Ukrainian culture. Sex tourism sites, among other sources, actually tell men that Ukrainian women are perpetually horny and happy to serve any foreigner, and being drooling morons, the customers believe it and spread the word.

    Now you’ve got these Ukrainian girls stripping for free in public and most foreign observers just think “Typical.” Even the people who claim they are attracting attention to the cause don’t get the point; the message being sent, assuming observers even notice it, is that Ukrainian women get what they want by using their bodies, the same misogynistic idea that became widespread after the fall of the USSR.

    Not to mention that not all FEMEN’s protests are geared at women’s issues. They seem to take a not-too-overt position in favor of the EU, NATO, and “European integration”. This would mean more economic disaster, austerity, and more women trafficking and prostitution(particularly if NATO bases are allowed on Ukrainian soil).

    If they want to get attention, have a revolution, AND really succeed, they need to put their shirts back on and get some guns. People really pay attention to those.

  • Steven

    Nothing new about advertising here – sexuality sells. Regardless of the message nude & barechested (not topless) women are regularly exploited. If these actions are wrong then much commercial advertising is wrong.

    • Meghan Murphy


    • Hari B.

      Steven–just want to offer a small correction. On the whole, it is womyn’s sexuality that sells. Not that advertisers don’t also capitalize to a degree on men’s sexuality–just not nearly to the degree as the way womyn’s sexuality is exlpoited to sell. Yeah–I do think “much commercial advertising in wrong”. With Meghan, I offer the same “yep…?” The question being–what is your point here?

  • steven

    My point is that the cause being touted does not make the salaciousness acceptable.

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