Free the nipple, but not for his pleasure.

A few weeks ago, I read an opinion piece in The Age that was deeply critical of liberal Western forth-wave feminism. The writer argues that the ‘Free the Nipple’ movement, protesting against things such as the removal of pictures of nipples from Facebook, distracts from ‘real’ issues for women, such as domestic violence, and serious physical and sexual violence. For a few reasons, this article upset me. For one, it misses the point about the ‘Free the Nipple’ movement. Secondly, the author demeans other women’s experiences by arguing that just because the author enjoyed being wolf whistled, that it was not considered serious sexual intimidation for everyone and thus not worthy of the feminist movement or action. And finally, the writer depicts feminist issues in conflict, with some issues more important or worthy of recognition than others.  


The author states the removal of pictures of nipples is not unjust because it disallows women from sexualising themselves wherever they please, it is unjust because women do not have the choice of when or what parts of their bodies are sexualised. But what the author fails to recognise, is that what may be seemingly ‘small’ or ‘insignificant’ acts of discrimination, such as wolf whistling, could be hiding or lead to what they call ‘real’ acts of discrimination. Rather than viewing gender discrimination issues as a competitive space of experiences, it should be viewed as a myriad of voices and experiences.  


In the past few years, we have been plagued with the deaths of women walking alone on Melbourne’s streets. Eurydice Dixon was killed in June last year, and Aiia Maasarwe was killed in January this year; both were attacked on their walk home. On April 24, Natalina Angok’s body was found in Chinatown and on May 25, Courtney Herron was discovered dead in Parkville, further around the time of writing this, Caitlin O’Brien was killed in her home in Gardenvale. What confounds me about these murders, is that they are just a small snapshot of how many women are actually being killed in Victoria, and also that these deaths are just one part of a larger picture of gender discrimination in Australia.  


Statistics taken from both the Australian Institute of Criminology and the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that:  


One woman a week, on average, is murdered by her current or former partner.  


One in five Australian women have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15, compared to one in 22 Australian men.  


One in six Australian women have experienced physical or sexual violence from a current or former partner since the age of 15, compared to one in 19 Australian men.  


One in four Australian women have experienced emotional abuse by a current or former partner since the age of 15, compared to one in seven Australian men. 


Australian women are almost four times more likely than men to be hospitalised after being assaulted by her spouse or partner.  


Almost one in 10 Australian women have experienced violence by a stranger since the age of 15.  


Women with disabilities are more likely to experience violence. 


These figures are just the numbers that show how women are affected by domestic violence. They do not show how women have been affected mentally, prohibiting a healthy work or social life. It doesn’t show how the lives of potential children are affected, which could damage their educational and social growth. Nor does it show how everyday gender discrimination can lead to domestic violence.  


I have spent my entire life listening to stories from my mum, lessons of life passed from mother to daughter, the grisly warnings about the dangers of domestic violence. It is usually the charismatic ones, who suck you in with flattery and charm, a deceptive trap of false proclamations of love. Because it is never as black and white as some might believe. It is the ‘minor’ things, such as control over money, what clothes you wear; or labour, by convincing you to give up work to stay home with the kids, which can escalate to more control. He may use his charm for a while, to control sex, money or your time, but at some point he may believe he needs to use physical force. And that is when it can get deadly. Despite physical, sexual or emotional violence, some women stay with their abusers, for a multitude of intertwined reasons. Fear, lack of money, hope that they will change and sometimes love, even just love of who they used to be. And it is not enough for outsiders to tell women to “just get out”. What choice or control do you over your life have when you live in a society that reinforces gender hierarchy? 


Sexual and verbal harassment of women, including wolf whistling or demeaning and sexualized portrayals of women, the gender pay gap and the lack of women in leadership roles, are just a few discriminatory practices in Australian society that can lead to domestic violence. These seemingly minor acts, compared to the actual physical abuse of women, all contribute to the reinforcement of gender based stereotypes and roles. 


  • Sexual and verbal harassment, and sexualized portrayals reinforce the idea that women do not have control or consent over when or where they are sexualised, or to what men can do to their bodies.  
  • The gender pay gap reinforces the idea that women’s labour in the workforce is not as valuable as that of men, and makes it harder for women to have control of their own public and private lives if their abusive partner earns more money than them. It also leads to their partner having greater control over their entire lives, particularly if she cannot leave the abusive relationship from fear of not being able to live, or look after potential children, off a small salary. 
  • The lack of women in leadership roles, while also contributing to the gender pay gap, reinforces male dominance and control in society, both at home and in the work place.  


There are probably a few reading this who will hark cries of #notallmen, condemning me for squashing men into one big evil, gender discrimination prone group. If so, you have entirely missed the point. Telling me that ‘not all men’ are to blame for gender based discrimination does not suddenly reduce the statistics above, or help all the women who are experiencing gender based violence and discrimination. And to tell you the truth, I think we are all guilty, including other women.  


We need to start calling out our friends and family for their actions. We need to start looking out for the women in our lives. 


This could simply be pulling up your friends for using the word ‘slut’ to describe a woman who has a lot of sex, or who wears what some may believe to be revealing clothing. Because no one gets to decide for someone else how much sex is too much, or what kind of clothes mean that a woman wants sex. Call out people who complain that women only get jobs in higher paying fields traditionally dominated by men because the company need to fill a gender quota. It is demeaning, and it reinforces gender stereotypes. No company in its right mind would hire someone if they weren’t sure that the person was right for the job. If you believe that someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, or are victim of sexual harassment or violence, offer your support. Because they need to know that someone has got their back.  


As for the ‘Free the Nipple’ article in The Age; although some people may buy in to the sentiments of the author, calling out false messages of gender oppression while ‘real’ acts of gender discrimination happen, I don’t. Having grown up as a woman, and experienced gender discrimination myself, either from ex-boyfriends or potential employers, it is not as clear cut between harmless and harmful harassment or discrimination as the author suggests. I am definitely not the voice of every woman who has experienced gender based discrimination, but I am one of many. It is the small things that occur everyday that have the potential to be hiding or to create what the author believes to be the ‘real’ issues of gender discrimination. And we shouldn’t wait until they grow into something bigger, or wait until another woman dies in Melbourne before we actually do something about it. We need to squash gender discrimination at its roots.  


If you or someone you know is experiencing family violence, phone 1800 RESPECT. For counselling, advice and support for men who have anger, relationship or parenting issues, call the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491.  


More of Bridget’s work can be found on the Lot’s Wife website: 

Tags : AnalysisBridgette HackettFeminismFeministFree the nipple
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