What is more obscene, violence or a female nipple?


Before an American child turns eighteen, they see over two hundred thousand acts of violence and forty-thousand murders on TV but not one female nipple. So what is more obscene?

You would think, even hope, that the answer would be more discernible, but the truth is that it is not. Now, people are trying to answer this question with the Free the Nipple campaign. Free the Nipple is aiming to achieve equality and empower women all over the world. It all started with a film, ‘Free the Nipple’, directed by director, actress, producer, and activist Lina Esco. Inspired by true events, it follows groups of topless young women around New York City to protest censorship of women, which started this powerful dialogue that sparked a viral campaign. Now, #freethenipple is a popular hashtag amongst the social media world and is even grabbing the attention of female celebrities like Liv Tyler, Rihanna, Lena Dunham, and more. The campaign went even further this year when the IRS granted it its 501c3, charity status, allowing the donations made to GoTopless to be 100% tax deductible.

“I’m trying to start a conversation really,” says Esco in an interview with Huffpost Live. “Because it’s an equality issue. If men can be topless, women should be able to be topless. I can’t even go to the beach without a top on… that’s really where it all begins.”

But it is unclear what this campaign really represents in the minds of those retweeting, re-posting, and re-hashtagging it. Do people really understand the intention of the campaign when they come across those words or is it merely just this notion that women want to be topless for the sake of being topless?

Miley Cyrus is another of the many celebrities in support of the campaign and sharing it through social media. “It’s not about getting your titties out. It’s about equality,” Cyrus says.

Sam Rosen is a student at SF State majoring in photography. His instagram receives a few controversial discussions about his #freethenipple photos.

“In my photography, I show nude women occasionally and I’m tired of people getting offended by a little ol’ nipple,” says Rosen. “I think the Free the Nipple campaign is about the policing of women’s bodies and the standard society has set for women that says their breasts are sexual, inappropriate, and vulgar. While men are allowed to walk around in public and post photos to social media with their nipples visible without it being an issue when they are essentially the same body part. Women’s breasts aren’t sexual organs.”


Even though social media can be a platform for campaigns like Free the Nipple to be shared and go viral, in that same way, social media can be the campaign’s very challenger. While the hashtag #freethenipple is used frequently on Instagram for people to learn about the campaign, this is exactly how Instagram filters content that is against their community guidelines and takes it down with the message, “We removed your post because it doesn’t follow our Community Guidelines. Please read our Community Guidelines to learn what kind of posts are allowed and how you can help keep Instagram safe.”

In other words, to keep Instagram “safe” women need to either be fully clothed or edit the photo to cover up the areola and nipple part of their boobs.

Comedian Chelsea Handler recently fell victim to Instagram’s policy when she posted a racy photo of herself on her Instagram page mocking Russian president Vladimir Putin, who has a photo on his Russian version of Tinder dating profile riding a horse topless. Authentic to the original, Handler was also on horseback completely topless. She shows no more than Putin and no less. Days later, Instagram took the photo down and, in return gave, her their “Community Guidelines” message.

Handler responded to Instagram taking down her photo by re-posting the photo and calling out Instagram’s policy via Twitter by writing, “If Instagram takes this down again, you’re saying Vladimir Putin has more 1st amendment rights than me. Talk to your bosses.”

No surprise, the photo was taken down again.

Handler then posted a snapshot of the message that Instagram sent her when they took it down and captioned it, “If a man posts a photo of his nipples, it’s ok, but not a woman? Are we in 1825?”

While Handler received a lot of support on her Instagram page about the double standards women face when it comes to toplesness and censorship, there were also people that disagreed with her protest.

On a daily gossip blog called “What Would Tyler Durden Do,” which covers big stories of the day in entertainment, celebrity, and media culture, the site responded to Handler’s Instagram feud by saying, “Chelsea Handler is a mediocre comedian, but she’s smart enough to know the First Amendment doesn’t apply to private social media services. Instagram and Facebook can censor whatever the hell they want for whatever reason they want.”

Clearly, we are a nation divided of varying views in censorship.

Esco also mentions that part of her inspiration for the film started when Phoenix Feeley, a friend of hers, was arrested on a beach in New Jersey (a state where it is legal for women to be topless) for sunbathing without a top on. She then went on a hunger strike for nine days while in jail, protesting the reason for her arrest.

I am sure that Feeley’s story would be very confusing to Australians, since in Australia being a topless woman on the beach is not rare at all.

I mean, it wasn’t until 1936 that men in America started showing up to the beach topless. Until then, they wore a very questionable one-piece unitard. That was 80 years ago. But now, of course, it’s not only socially acceptable for a man’s bathing suit to solely be swim shorts, but even on a hot day in the city men can be found shirtless.

Fastforward 56 years to 1992 when it became legal for women to show their bare chests as well- in some states. Washington, Nevada, Arizona, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Michigan, Mississippi, Florida, South Carolina, Virginia, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Washington D.C. currently have ambiguous state laws on women being topless in public. Utah, Indiana, and Tennessee have no tolerance laws.

Although the remaining 31 states that are not mentioned have “top freedom” in effect, some cities in those states have passed unconstitutional ordinances that annul the state’s top free statute. Additionally, even in a state where being topless in public is legal, if somebody complains to the police that it’s indecent exposure, you can get arrested and fined.

Esco’s Free the Nipple film started this whole conversation. The movie was set in New York City, a state that set the precedent in 1992 making it legal for women to be topless in public. However, that does not stop cops from charging topless women anyway. The film also illustrates the cops using excessive force when the women resist being clothed.

Another inspiration for this film came from her best friend, who at 5 months old got kicked out of church with her mother, because her mother was breastfeeding her.

This issue sparks even more dialogue because it is a criminal act for a woman to be topless while breastfeeding in five of those intolerant top freedom states. That is where we are in 2014 – women have to fight for the right to feed their baby in public.

Bare skin through the ages has been a constant struggle for acceptable interpretation. If history is any indication, our country has a long tradition of correcting draconian laws to better fit our modern times.

That is what this campaign is really shooting to accomplish: influencing legislation that will abolish these unequal societal standards.

Another theme that the film addresses is the hypocritical contradictions of our media-dominated society. It questions censorship by the Federal Communications Committee and the Motion Picture Association of America, which regulates all television shows and movies in the United States, and their decisions in what is acceptable versus what is not. Esco asks the FCC to explain the ethical and legal decisions for why it is okay for a child to watch violence on cable television, but when Janet Jackson’s nipple accidentally slips out during her Super Bowl performance, the FCC fines CBS for $550,000.

Esco also aims to understand why when the campaign started, Facebook and Instagram banned the photos of topless women quicker than people could start liking them. But when public beheadings from Saudi Arabia are posted, they remain. What exactly is the rationale here?

Free the Nipple is not about wanting to expose bare chests because women are sexual beings who want to be naked. In fact, it is the exact opposite. It is aiming to give females a basic right – the right to be topless on a beach and the right to breastfeed their baby in public. This is a basic right that American women never really had. The female body is not to be criminalized or sexualized, nor should it be dictated by legislation drafted by males.

It is time to start questioning the policies of censorship. Women should feel empowered by their bodies, not ashamed. Like Chelsea Handler said in her photo, “Anything a man can do, a woman has the right to do better.”