The Moral Communities Project

Society, Morality and Psychology

No Nips Allowed: Censorship and Gender Inequality

Blurred image of woman

Facebook’s censorship policy has long been the subject of controversy. The social networking site was in the headlines late last year after they initially allowed a video of a beheading to remain on the site. Despite the approval of graphic violence, Facebook still maintains a strict policy on nudity, which was recently challenged by breast cancer patient Sorchy Barrington. Barrington, along with many other breast cancer awareness advocates, was angered by Facebook’s removal of pictures of cancer survivors on the SCAR project page, and started a petition through Change.org to stop Facebook from censoring mastectomy photos. In response to the petition, Facebook made a clarification:

The vast majority of [mastectomy] photos are compliant with our policies. However, photos with fully exposed breasts, particularly unaffected by surgery, do violate Facebook’s terms. These policies are based on the same standards which apply to television and print media.

While Barrington’s photos were allowed to stay on Facebook, (so too were Beth Whaanga’s, presumably because both had double mastectomies) Facebook’s new and improved nudity terms still alienate and censor women with a remaining breast. It turns out, however, that the policy has nothing to do with how many breasts a woman has, but rather has to do with the nipple, and whether or not its visible in a picture.

Addressing this issue, director Lina Esco’s documentary Free the Nipple poses the question, “What is more obscene: violence or a nipple?” The documentary tackles current censorship laws in the media and the glaring gender inequalities that it produces. The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) and MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) have traditionally been forcefully strict on nudity and sex but allow for gratuitous levels of violence in films, TV shows, and video games. The documentary also illuminates the way in which nudity and sex are policed differently between the genders, perpetuating a culture of inequality. For example, a movie which shows topless women with their nipples exposed, or one in which a woman is shown receiving sexual pleasure, is often granted an NC-17 rating. This rating, although different from the X rating used to denote pornography, is still often associated with porn and many cinemas refuse to screen NC-17 movies. This is in contrast to men in movies who routinely dawn their naked chests and can be shown receiving sexual pleasure without it garnering the unpopular NC-17 rating.

In the early 1900’s, nipples of all sorts, both men and women’s, were branded as “immoral” and “evil” by preachers and clergy, leading to the creation of legislation which banned all human areola in public places. It wasn’t until 1936, after years of protest and outrage, that New York lifted the male topless ban, which essentially normalized a man’s nipples, transitioning the body part from “obscene” to commonplace and natural.  While only Indiana, Utah, and Tennessee have a complete ban on women’s toplessness, many cities, although located within more liberal states, still make the baring of female breasts punishable by fines or imprisonment. While New York is not one of these states, as the “female nipple” was decriminalized in New York’s supreme court in 1992, the NYPD continues to arrest women regardless.

The idea that male and female toplessness is inherently different has become deeply rooted in our collective social psyche. It has become a cultural taboo to see a woman’s breasts, and some argue that it is because they have been hidden away that breasts have become so over-sexualized. As Carolyn Latteier points out in her book, Breasts: The Women’s Perspective on American Obsession, there are other cultures where women routinely go around with their chests uncovered, and breasts aren’t seen as sexual. She reasons that our “national breast fetish” is a culturally constructed obsession, influenced by a myriad of things such as beauty standards, breastfeeding practices, and sexuality. Mirroring her sentiments, Free the Nipple activist Casey LaBow explains, “Natural, normal sensuality is not really shown to us throughout our lives. We’re very shielded from it, and because of that, our curiosity of it so peaked.”

The Topfreedom movement advocates that being top free is a right everyone should have, and in the name of equality, any situation where a man is legally allowed to be topless, a woman should be too. Some opponents argue revealing the female nipple in public is “lewd” and women should exhibit a certain amount of decency in public. However, as Reena Glazer wrote in the Duke Law Journal in 1993, much of the law making in terms of public lewdness, indecent exposure, or disorderly conduct is written to take into account potential viewers. “The focus is on the male response to viewing topless women; there is no focus on the female actor herself,” Glazer asserts. Implied in the discourse, then, is the idea that the female body is inherently seen as a sexualized object, and the only view that matters is a man’s view of a woman’s body.

What a culture chooses to censor says a lot about its values. Female nudity has been constructed as a threat to our values and to our morality, and we have strict rules and regulations which validate this construction. Topfreedom supporters look to deconstruct this social norm. They argue that their objective is not to push for a shirtless world, but rather to call attention to what they view as women being discriminated against on the basis of gender, which acts as an infringement on their constitutional right. “It’s not about baring your breasts,” said Ramona Santorelli, the plaintiff of the 1992 New York Supreme Court case. “But the true meaning is to normalize women’s bodies.” Perhaps Facebook needs to take another look at their nudity policy, not only for the sake of breast cancer survivors, but for all women, and for the message that censorship sends about women’s bodies.

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Undergraduate research assistant and blogger for the Moral Communities Project **The opinions and views expressed are my own and do not reflect the official positions of The Moral Communities Project or its funders.

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