#FreetheNipple or #FreeMaleDesire? Has social media really been good for feminism?

Web 2.0 was meant to be a game changer for feminism. Academics and social commentators alike told us that social media platforms would be a fabulous resource for our activist practices, allowing us to work collaboratively, communicate with ease, develop ideas, and expand the reach of the movement. Some argue that social media has resulted in all this and more. Common doctrine persists that “there is no glass ceiling on Twitter.

Undoubtedly, many single-issue liberal feminist campaigns are visible, even prolific, on social media platforms. From Slutwalk to #FacesofProstitution, women are using social media to organize in the name of women’s liberation. Men are even defending their right to do so. But surely it is here that we need to start asking more questions. What kind of feminism is being facilitated by social media platforms? And what kind of feminism can really develop while men are watching?

The #FreetheNipple campaign, for example, clearly illustrates the type of feminism that is able to flourish on social media platforms. Free the Nipple claims to be “an equality movement, and a mission to empower women across the world.” It calls for a “more balanced system of censorship and legal rights for all women to breastfeed in public.” This, certainly, is a good thing. But the campaign now seems to be less about a woman’s right to breastfeed and more about a woman’s right to post a topless selfie.

By comparison, feminist activism that offers revolutionary ideas and issues a strong challenge to dominant cultural norms appears to be severely lacking on social media platforms. During the second wave, feminists deeply questioned personal life politics in order to formulate their political theory. Women made connections between issues, and remained resolute that emancipation on male terms was not enough. It was always about asking the hard questions. In the words of Catherine MacKinnon, the process of consciousness raising represents the “collective critical reconstitution” of female social reality. At this time, women were engaged in reframing patriarchal assumptions: understanding the pornography and prostitution industries as violence against women, theorizing the reproductive technology industry as facilitating male control of women’s bodies, and developing the concept of compulsory heterosexuality.

The type of feminism occurring on social media platforms today, however, often appears to be little more than what the recent book, Freedom Fallacy: the Limits of Liberal Feminism, describes as a popular brand of “fun-feminism” or “feminism-lite.” This type of feminism is palatable to a male audience, does not require women to engage in the often painful process of self-reflection integral to consciousness raising, and contains little, if any, political conceptualization of structural male dominance. Rather, the kind of social media campaigns that receive the most media attention often focus on a woman’s individual right to objectify herself.

Using the very language of the sex industry, the twitter account @freethenipple prompts a response from its viewers by asking: “How far will you go for Equality?” Increasing numbers of young women are now uploading topless photos of themselves on Twitter using the hashtag. The campaign has garnered widespread public support, and generated a large amount of publicity due to the backing of popular celebrities such as Miley Cyrus and Lena Dunham.

It is difficult to understand, however, how the Free the Nipple campaign in any way challenges male social dominance. Rather, young women are being urged to strip for the entertainment of an infinite number of men on social media sites. Insidiously, such behavior is being sold back to women as empowering, and once again the sexual objectification of women is being rebranded as feminist. Men, meanwhile, are able to share and download these images countless times for their own purposes.

When the popularity of the Free the Nipple campaign is compared to the abuse feminist campaigner Anita Sarkeesian received in response to her YouTube series, Tropes vs Women in Video Games, it becomes increasingly clear that we need to question claims that social media has deepened democracy and amplified marginalized voices. Sarkeesian’s videos look at gaming “from a systemic, big picture perspective” and argue that women in video games function as “a decorative virtual sex class who exist to serve a straight male desire.” In making this argument Sarkeesian displays an explicit awareness that involving women in the gaming industry will not be enough to alleviate its structural misogyny, as the wider problem stems from the positioning of a dominant and violent male sexuality as normal.

Subsequently, Sarkeesian has been subjected to a barrage of misogynistic abuse because she questioned the blatant sexism running rampant in the gaming industry. Most of us are familiar with the story — Sarkeesian was sent rape and death threats via social media, her personal social media pages were hacked and her private information was distributed, her Wikipedia page was amended to include sexualized images. In 2014, she also received multiple bomb threats in relation to her appearance at speaking engagements, and cancelled her appearance at Utah State University.

Sarkeesian’s experience of digital feminism clearly highlights the dangers to women who dare to challenge structural male dominance online, and perhaps goes some way towards explaining why more radical and revolutionary feminist ideas do not appear to be developing on social media platforms. If men like it, chances are it is not effectively dealing with the real issues. If they don’t like it, well, we are all aware of the fury directed at individual women, often forcing them to leave social media sites.

Given the increased opportunities social media has provided men with to promote and engage in violence against women, it is becoming increasingly necessary to consider whether the technology has been good for feminism. #FreetheNipple is a social media success story because it plays into the dominant sex industry ideology that views women as products to be consumed by men. In this sense its popularity is not so much a win for feminism, but a win for male dominance.

Jessica Megarry is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. Her research explores feminist theory, new media, social movements and violence against women. She tweets @jessicamegarry.

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  • The internet is not truly democratic. It avid users are disproportionately male, young, economically advantaged (they can afford their own computer and internet connection and they have enough free time to devote to internet use) and pornography obsessed (since the internet is the dominant source of such material.) It is even less democratic than university campuses, which are also dominated by young, privileged people, but at least have more women and racial minorities present.

    Furthermore the anonymity and lack of regulation present on the Internet create a breeding ground for the nastiest, most (unjustifiably) prejudiced people there are. These people then use the internet to strengthen their movements. The internet does give more of a voice to suppressed movements (e.g. revolutionary socialism, communism and anarchism), but it can also corrupt these movements, by creating a space for anti-feminist bigotry and general nastiness to be expressed within them. Of course there are other phenomenon going on such as the emergence of hard core pornography and the general sexualisation of the culture, but the internet just makes things worse. It is not that the internet is inherently evil, but it is not inherently good either. It is a tool that can be used by whoever dominates it and at the moment it is the capitalist class (including pornographers) and their allies that dominate it and use it to preach their vile views regarding women.

    • Fueri Da’qui

      Coincidentally, why are my looks, marital status or likes/dislikes of sex important, when I’m kicking some guy’s butt online in a game? Strangely(or not);none of my current male pals have been asked such questions, but one female(my avatar gave me away,apparently) pops in, and…suddenly it’s a frenzied snag-the-girl dating site. I could hear them saying; ‘Yo,its a chick’. As if I was the first female gamer ever. Uggh.

      The truth is it HAS been getting worse online. There seems to be an active ‘witch’ hunt
      (the phrase itself has a connection with female)on those who speak out against abhorrent male behavior online or offline.

      Youtube is full of vile misogynists too, and many females have been harassed or threatened with rape threats there too, just because they posted feedback comments or a video which should only have been of interest to females.

      But no, the misogynistic comments are never banned from comment sites. Even news sites like RT, seem like home for misogynists. After all, patriarchy likes to play dirty everywhere women might be, right?

  • Sabine

    If this #FreetheNipple campaign was solely about being able to breastfeed in peace in public I’d be all for it but all it seems to be about is providing men with more wank material. The fact probably 99% of men are jumping up and down with glee (dicks in hand) at the emergence of this “campaign” should pretty much determine how “feminist” it is. If men are onboard with this then it’s basically a NO. Despite what some of these women might believe they’re doing (I sadly think many are just brainwashed exhibitionists) to forward the freedom of women all they are basically doing is getting their tits out for the lads. That’s certainly how the masturbating masses are receiving it. As long as breasts are fetishized and obsessed over in absolutely every area of waking life (and dreaming life for men…) then more women posing topless, whether it’s our RIGHT (of course it is!) to or not is simply not going to change anything at all and is absolutely playing into the hands of men who cannot get enough of libfem stunts like this because they are guaranteed more boners and more access to images of women’s bodies to do with what they please. It makes me feel queasy.

  • Disillisioned

    The day breasts are no longer sexualised is the day a campaign like this would make sense.Right now it’s just a joke. Take your top off for women’s rights? Wasn’t “Slutwalk” bad enough?

    I’m so embarrassed by my own generation, third wavers are like teenagers trying to distance themselves from their mothers “old fashioned” “out of date” ideas. Hopefully one day they’ll grow up and and realise mother was right all along.

    • Molly

      I agree 100%. Especially the last part. The whole idea about nudity being “empowering” is baffling.

    • Tisha Smith

      Many of these “feminist” sites on social media are ran by men or men that declare they are women…go figure.

  • Fueri Da’qui

    As much as I or the next female might look at our breasts as two lumps of fat; to the nearest straight guy, they are very much viewed as ‘two’ MAIN focus points to wank off to. I’ve noticed(sadly) that the bustier a female is(yes, even fully clothed), the less eye contact and ‘mind’ respect she manages to get.

    Thus, I’ll never be convinced to endorse any campaign that features female nakedness as being feminist or empowering. Far from it, none of the movements involving ‘freeing nipples'(specifically female ones) has ever suceeded in increasing respect or equality for our gender’s plight so far. Many I believe have actually aided misogynists worldwide in their rants and persecutions against female equality and have hampered our progress. And I stand by my comment; as a staunch feminist.

    Noticeably; males get uncomfortable when you act like them, so, hmm…try standing next to a pervo(but not TOO close) in a sex shop; looking at exactly what he is looking at. Wanna bet he squirms? Heh,heh,heh.
    Yup. XD

    Many misogynists quote fear of female equality; they know they have exploited and abused our gender, and are afraid of the tables being turned on them. However, as much as I think part of that of that would satisfy the centuries of abused, tortured and humiliated exploited females; most of us just want to be able to live our lives in a peaceful, productive, non exploited/harassed manner; with our full ability of our free-will and self determination, to decide for OURSELVES what our lives will be. And some damn respect for our achievements would be nice too.

    Heh. Perhaps we really should encourage the patriarchists and misogynists to ship themselves permanently to their own separate colony? Radical. Oh, my.