I thought people may like to read my speech for a debate I participated in a few weeks ago. I was asked to speak for the proposition on “This house would free the nipple.”
Good evening, women and men. My feminist, socialist tendencies won’t stretch to addressing you as ladies and gentlemen, so I do hope you will indulge me with that.
I am proposing that we should indeed free the nipple. For those unfamiliar with the Free The Nipple campaign; it started in the US and campaigns to address indecency laws which criminalise women whose nipples are visible in public. Men’s nipples have no such law attached to them. Few US states distinguish between the legality of women stripping off and women who are breastfeeding. Also in the campaign’s sights are social media sites like Facebook and Instagram who ban photographs of women’s nipples as they breach the sites’ decency rules. This includes photographs of women breastfeeding their children.
In the UK it is not illegal for women to share their nipples with the world, and actually in many places men’s nipples are also banned from public display, for instance in seaside towns across the country, men’s (and women’s) shirts are required to be on in cafes and other premises.
So, if in the UK, the nipple is already legally free, why am I here suggesting we should free it? What should it be freed from?
As with most aspects of women’s oppression, the nipple needs to be freed from patriarchy. The sexualisation and objectification of women across society means that as women our humanity is consistently reduced to us being a three holed ornament with breeding capacity.
Breastfeeding is not indecent. It is feeding a baby. And starving a baby is far from decent. Women’s nipples are indecent only because they have been wholly sexualised.
I’m not a pro-pornography feminist, I don’t believe that the sex industry liberates any one, it increases the power and wealth of men (and gives few women even a decent or sustainable income). The sex industry dehumanises women as sexual objects to be violated and degraded (regardless of the individual choices of individual women). It also dehumanises men as they become less human in their choice to objectify and degrade other human beings.
I’m not unrealistic. Freeing the nipple on Facebook or Instragram is not going to liberate women. Yes it may give breastfeeding mothers opportunities to share photographs as they feed their babies. However, the winners will of course be pornographers and abusers. We’ve all heard about the rise of so-called “revenge porn”. I can only imagine how abusers would use the new found female nipple freedom to further abuse a current or ex-partner on social media. Facebook and Instagram would be flooded with Page 3-esque images. Freeing the nipple by simply changing decency rules and laws is not going to liberate women.
Yet freeing women’s bodies from the male gaze and being sexually objectified is a feminist imperative.
Freeing the Nipple must be a cultural strategy, it will never be a quick win.
- Raise girls to love and own their own bodies, to see their whole being as not solely sexual, yet to know that it’s okay to have a sexuality, to not be ashamed.
- Raise boys to recognise girls as empowered and fully human.
- Have proactive conversations with children and young people about pornographies and sexualisation.
- Challenge the representation of women and girls in the wallpaper of every day life, we could boycott companies like Lynx and American Apparel who sexualise women to sell products.
- Educate men and women to be active bystanders, challenging language which objectifies and degrades the opposite or same sex.
- As women, acknowledge the ways we are encouraged to compete for the small amount of power we have access to; measuring ourselves against other women. Let us celebrate other women and build the sisterhood, united we can stand.
- As men, own the privilege afforded to you, while acknowledging the wounds created by patriarchy that insist on self-sufficiency and maintaining power based relationships with other men and with women.
- Protest, campaign and live lives of integrity that seek to be a light in the darkness of patriarchy.
Freeing the nipple is not the biggest issue facing women. Being able to strip off here or breastfeed publicly without shame is not going to change the fact that 25% of women will be abused by a partner in the UK. That 72% of girls in the UK will be emotionally abused by a boyfriend and 32% will be sexually abused by a boyfriend. It doesn’t address the reality that 85,000 women will be raped in the UK this year or the global rates of female genital mutilation, child rape, breast ironing, unfair marriage laws, trafficking, female infanticide and the many other types of male violence towards women and girls that cause immeasurable suffering.
However, the nipple being free from patriarchy is like one of those starfish on the beach that the boy is famously described as throwing back into the sea. In the drip drip drip of patriarchy, every act towards women’s liberation is part of the solution.
I was a teenage mum. When I had my daughter at 18 I chose to breastfeed her. It took all of my courage to start feeding her in front of people. But I did it because I wanted the best for her. After attending a youth event in which I needed to feed her, the youth worker involved took me to one side and asked me to no longer breastfeed publicly at youth events. He explained that the parent of a teenage boy had complained. He said I could feed her in the toilet if I needed to.
As a teenage mother I experienced great stigma. To all intents and purposes I was then excluded from a gathering of my peers because someone chose to sexualise me feeding my baby.
That experience didn’t destroy my life. It is simply one story of many I could tell you about the ways patriarchy and male violence have hurt me. I propose that we should free the nipple because patriarchy must be smashed and though freeing nipples may only make a hairline fracture in the seemingly impermeable structure, it is with each blow that it becomes weaker.