Free the nipple: feminism or clickbait?

LUKE HEPPENSTALL-WEST explains the issue with Free the Nipple – in spite of its good intentions.

breasts Feminism Free the nipple nipples

Feminists and theologians alike will be aware of the otherwise lesser-known 11th Plague of Egypt, the Plague of Nipples, directed at the tribe known as the ‘Internet’ for it’s heinous double standards and inherent sexism.

The Free the Nipple campaign and I start from the same place: the fact that women cannot show their nipples (which actually have a use) in public while men can show theirs (which do not have a use) is appalling. The female papilla needs to be desexualised. See my superficial attempt to express it satirically here.

In many ways, the campaign is great. Brave people everywhere have been sending in shots of their nipples. It’s sensational. It’s challenging a taboo. It’s screaming “Look, here’s a problem and you can’t ignore it”. Great.

Unfortunately, I’m not convinced. Read the title.

I hate to say this – I sound like a reactionary old man – but I worry this move is too fast and too sensational. It does not solve the problem of the nipple; instead, it exacerbates it.  The nipple is less liberated and more transformed into clickbait.

Allow me to explain myself and my shameful position.

These last couple of weeks, the campaign has really picked up steam, with media outlets such as this very publication getting on board. Examine Exhibit A:

The Tab’s campaigning agenda.


The first thing you notice about this post is the illustrious publication’s excellently designed logo.

No wait, it’s the tits.

It goes against every feminist fibre of my being to say it, but as a heterosexual male I find this arousing. In the same way, as a heterosexual male I also find this arousing:

The Sun: renowned for its feminism.

I am inclined to click the link to expose myself to the full force of the breast. It is, in a word, clickbait. Nipples are sexy.

I don’t doubt the Tab’s intentions on this one, and not just because I write for them: the cause seems to be genuinely heartfelt, the people who send pictures do so with conviction. Look, there are even some men’s nipples. The Tab is getting satirical.

And at first glance it’s very positive: the article has 1,900 shares. That’s brilliant.

1896 people are loving this article. And its tits.

However, we can’t ignore why people are clicking on it. And if my experience is anything to go by, it’s for the wrong reasons.

I’m not sure I’m alone in my little mysogynist bubble of objectification either. A recent VICE article finds that the Free The Nipple campaign attracts an audience that is 72% male.

The problem is nipples are sexy.

More recently, The Tab published an article – ‘Some men’s reactions to our #freethenipple piece show why we had to do it’ – in which they show two things. First, sleazy messages received by women who sent their nipples in and complaints they had from their boyfriends. Second, encouragement from other women.

Exhibit B.

For me, this article has proved nothing except that the previous article would be taken the wrong way. We know people think nipples are sexy. The only people affected by this article are ones who would have agreed with it anyway: people who think nipples are sexy are not being challenged.

Because the #freethenipple articles are banned from social media outlets, people have to choose to see them: they have to click on links or use search engines. We have to ask ourselves why people are choosing to see them.

Based on the evidence, I worry they are choosing to see the articles, the Twitter trends and the celebrity shots because they are men who think nipples are sexy, a taboo. The campaign’s very success is based upon the social norm it is attempting to do away with.

Not yet, I’m afraid

The Free the Nipple campaign has come too quickly. We still think nipples are sexy.

If the campaign succeeded, nobody would click on it, because nobody would care. Nipples would be normal. And as soon as people stop caring, the campaign would sink into internet history to one day be forgotten.

The campaign is a good way of raising the issue, but it could never solve it. Posting pictures of your nipples from your room does not make it much easier for women to show theirs in public. Even a photo of someone parading their nipples down a street does little to normalise it.

No, I don’t know either


Fundamentally, Nipples Are Sexy. They need to be made unsexy, absolutely – but not like this. Changing a perception that is so deeply embedded in our society is going to take a really really long time, and take input from art, fashion, media, the whole lot.

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