Free the nipple


Artwork by Monika Correa

Artwork by Monika Correa

You heard about that nipple picnic in Brisbane?  Yeah, let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about the nipples, who get way more attention than they warrant, and about the angry men, who also get way more attention than they warrant. 

Brisbane’s Zoe Buckley Lennox and Amanda Haworth decided that on Tuesday the 12th of January they would host an event where people who identified as women would be invited to join them in the park for a day of relaxation and good company, cupcakes included, tops optional. The invitation was posted on Facebook and quickly became a lightning rod for the sort of vile misogyny and hatred that repulses and terrifies even the staunchest feminist. But, as anyone with a vagina on the internet would know, this attitude isn’t rare. It’s not shocking, it’s kind of expected. 

But the level of outrage was extreme. What is it about a group of women, meeting in the park without shirts that sends the misogynists into meltdown? The universal idea that breasts are sexual is a social construct that encourages women to feel ashamed about their own bodies and sexuality and allows men to believe that breasts exist solely for their sexual entertainment. The biological purpose of breasts is breast feeding and even that sparks outrage when performed in public.  

"It’s not that breasts are being bared, it’s that they’re being bared exclusively for the enjoyment of the human who is attached to those breasts and not for the gaze or enjoyment of hetero men."

But there are a few contexts in which men are apparently fine with bare breasts in public. In a strip club or brothel, you can pay to see them; you’ll appreciate that new tool / car / motorbike more if a woman in a bikini wants to be near it; and of course, if you want some entry level pornography, breasts are available just about everywhere on the internet. But once women start exposing themselves because they want to, because they’re proud, because it’s a hot day, because they’ve got a hungry baby, because they refuse to be ashamed, suddenly it’s outside of what is the acceptable use of a breast and the gloves come off.  A nip slip, a drunken boob-flash, a peep show, cleavage, side boob, Hooters = good. Gathering of topless women in a park whose breasts aren’t serving the needs of men = a bloody outrage, apparently. The kind of primal outrage innately tied to fear and expectations. If these angry commenters were on Fear Factor, they’d be chased around a public place by a giant anthropomorphic boob. Like a breast feeding mother, this picnic had nothing to do with sexual excitement and apparently that’s just terrifying.

Much of the outrage surrounding the ‘free the nipple’ picnic seemed to come from the fact that it was a women (and people who identify as women) only event. Sorry guys, but had you been planning to go? Did you have your basket all packed and ready then WHAM no men allowed? So unfair. Cue screams of “that ain’t equality” and “men are people too”, as though women have to invite men to all their picnics when Turnbull’s cabinet only includes five women. Segregation has existed for years, both implicitly (with spheres of domesticity for women and everything else for men and lordy, never the twain shall meet) and, obviously, explicitly (women were only allowed the right to vote in Australia in 1902 and were only allowed in a public bar in 1963). 

But the idea of conscious, endorsed gender segregation has always been divisive. Historically we see that when men come together in groups on the basis of being men, it’s for the benefit of men: to rub shoulders with other men and make contacts, alliances, wagers, expend some testosterone and generally just consolidate all that lovely nepotic power. When women come together in groups on the basis of being women, it’s usually to avoid men, to avoid uncomfortable sexual advances, to avoid or recover from domestic violence or sexual assault or to just be without the performative pressure that comes with the male gaze. While men have gentlemen’s clubs (which, ridiculously, still exist – yo, Tattersall’s what’s good?) women have domestic violence shelters and women-only gyms. The gender-segregated clubs for women have very different purposes that reflect the different lived realities of being a woman. The purpose of the picnic was clear – to desexualise the nipple – and that aim is best achieved by women. If the organisers of this event had any doubts about whether it should be gender exclusive, those doubts were put to rest when threats of violence and sexual assault started casually appearing on the events page.

But the idea that women may want to come together and hang out without men around is apparently a mental bridge too far for some. That’s not equality! That’s exclusivity! Double-standard-having feminazis! If you don’t hate all men why do you want to have a single afternoon in the park without their company? When a subjugated group comes together to act for a cause they shouldn’t have to worry about the feelings of the excluded parties. They don’t have to be all Emma Watson about it and try and invite men to the picnic, they can just go to the picnic themselves and enjoy the sensation of sitting topless in a park.

Exclusive gendered participation in any context is generally motivated by social inequality. In any situation where people aren’t able to harmoniously come together and just be, there’s a stark reason for it and in this example it’s not hard to find. It’s not that breasts are being bared, it’s that they’re being bared exclusively for the enjoyment of the human who is attached to those breasts and not for the gaze or enjoyment of hetero men and their dicks. A resource that was universally thought to exist for the purpose of raising boners is being taken back and men’s exclusive rights are being withdrawn and it’s terrifying them. And it should because now we know their deepest fear: free range titties who don’t give a fuck about dick.