Considering the Topless Protest

Media Religion


Recently three Femen activists were arrested in Tunis for a topless protest. Holding banners reading "Fuck Your Morals" above their bare chests painted with the slogan "Breasts Feed Revolution," the non-violent actions were in support of the nineteen year-old Tunisian Femen activist Amina Tyler who, on February 27, posted a topless photo of herself on Facebook with the phrase “my body is my own” scrawled across her torso. After receiving death threats, including calls by leading clerics for her to be stoned to death, Tyler went into hiding. She has since been arrested and awaits trial.


The Femen activists arrested demonstrating for Tyler’s cause—two citizens of France - Marguerite Stern (23), Pauline Hillier (27) - and one German citizen, Josephine Markmann (19)—went on trial on June 12. They were sentenced for four months in jail.  


Bare female breasts shouldn’t be a big deal, but they are. While breasts are not sexual organs, they are sexual and they are sexualized (mostly by heterosexual men). And because many heterosexual men cannot control their libidos, being topless in public is a freedom most women don’t get to enjoy.


In most cultures, especially in the West and the East, the bare breasts of a woman have been taboo for thousands of years. Women in ancient Greece, for example, are nearly always depicted in flowing robes that cover their breasts. The “Medici Venus” sculpture, which dates to the first century B.C.E., depicts the goddess modestly covering her genitals and her breasts.


The bare-breasts taboo, however, does not have a clear definition in history, society, or culture. Breasts are “good,” for example, when they are shown to be nurturing an infant. They are “bad” when they are used in crass marketing schemes. “The sacred and sexual aspects represent two different tugs at the breast,” says Marilyn Yalom, author of A History of the Breast (Ballantine, 1998).


Underlying the discussion of the taboo is the provocative question of “who owns the breast?” The woman? The suckling child? The artist? A moral authority? A doctor? The law? The answers, says Yalom, “suggest some of the various efforts men and institutions have made throughout history to appropriate women’s breasts.”


To remove the shirt (and bra) and bare the chest is, for a woman, to literally and figuratively remove the strictures of physical and moral control over the female body demanded by a patriarchal society. To bare breasts, then, is for women a defiant and liberating act. Breasts become political. So can this vehicle be used to deliver overt political change?


Because toplessness is taboo, it makes news. Femen isn’t the first organization to use female sexuality to sell a cause. PETA, for example, uses the strategy often: their “Skins” series features naked beautiful people—mostly women—as a way to draw attention to an anti-fur clothing campaign. The implied message is that vegan people are gorgeous, so to become beautiful you should adopt PETA’s lifestyle.


If sex sells, what is wrong with it being used to sell an idea?


The thing is … sex doesn’t really sell. A study by MediaAnalyzer reveals the eyebrow-raising results of sex in advertising:


While almost half of the men said that they liked sexual ads, less than 10% of those that were exposed to the sexual ads could recall the brand that was advertised (compared to 19.8% for non-sexual ads). MediaAnalyzer calls that the “vampire effect”—with the sexual object sucking up all the attention.


On the women’s side, 28% of them said there were too many sexual ads, and while they tend to avoid the sexual imagery when looking at sexual ads, their brand recall with sexual ads was less than half that of non-sexual ads (10.8% vs. 22.3%).


The study hypothesizes that this might be attributable to a general numbing effect that sexual stimuli has on the brain. (source here; study here)


We must also consider that (some of) what is considered sexy is a collective creation, a societal definition. Most of us live in a patriarchal society, so it is plausible that the sex we find so attractive is a product of cultural imagination. Were we to live in a matriarchal sphere our notions of what is sexual/sexy may very well be different.


Nevertheless, right now the topless female body is sexual, and it makes news, but is the attention effective in convincing the audience of the cause? Or, to ask it another way, is the media coverage worth the effort? When news of the Femen Tunis protest broke the story became a top link on Reddit, the so-called “front page of the Internet.” No doubt the high hits on Reddit, whose audience is largely heterosexual and male, were a result of an attention-grabbing headline and not necessarily a politically motivated reading (though many Redditors are politically savvy). But let’s face it—most men will click the link initially for the chance to see boobs. How many stick around for the argument?


If we extend the same results of the MediaAnalyzer study to "sexualized protests," then it would follow that less than ten percent of news readers will recall that Femen (the "brand") was behind the action in Tunis. Now, Femen is not necessarily protesting to advertise itself (though that is part of it), but rather in the Tunisia case the point is to raise awareness of the plight of fellow activist Amina Tyler (and the larger cause is that of gender equality). Yet what perecentage of people who saw the images and read the accompanying story will recall Tyler's name, her situation, or the gender politics of Tunisia? Perhaps less than ten percent.


Perhaps that is enough.


The effectiveness of a single protest or a single protest strategy is very difficult to measure. On the societal level, a single sit-in does not end racism; a single strike does not end wage discrimination; a single march does not prevent a war. Just as much, a series of similar actions—sit-ins, strikes, or marches—do not change the status quo. Other factors and actions must act in concert with protest strategies to foment any real change. Dynamic political leaders, economic turbulence, violent and non-violent interventions, media blitzes, mass boycotts, propaganda-making, non-cooperation, speeches, teach-ins, etc. are other factors that can come into play. A fundamental, societal change does not depend on a single political action, but revolutionary movements do depend on a multiplicity of actions coming together.


In Tunisia, the political atmosphere has—in recent history—never been riper for change. Already an autocratic government has been tossed out. Activists, journalists, academics, and political leaders are making sincere efforts to forming a more just and democratic society, but they face the same obstacles bright-eyed idealists have faced for centuries: conservative religious tendencies, an economic system balanced in favor of the ruling class, threats of violence from a globalized war machine, and an entrenched patriarchal cultural mindset, to name just a very few powerful phenomena.


The topless protest alone will achieve very little. In concert with myriad imaginative political activities, however, the action may be a significant variable. At the very least, baring breasts is a powerful action an individual woman can take to claim (or reclaim) her own body.


Women should not have to continue to burden an undeserved shame. In places where the naked female body is seen as immoral (which is pretty much everywhere), the topless protest is a bold move that declares there is nothing inherently sinful about a woman’s body. 



Follow Shaun on Twitter @shaunrandol



Activism, Consumerism, Feminism, Sex, Tunisia