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Taking power back: The desexualisation of nude photography

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Non-sexualised female nudity has been depicted for centuries, as in Botticelli's 'The Birth of Venus' from the mid-1480s (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Society has been conditioned to treat nude photography in a purely sexual context, disempowering women in the process, writes Cali Bourne.

THERE ARE NUDE PHOTOS of me on the internet. I know because I put them there. I consented to all of them, many of them I took myself. I grew up in a house where, without intention, nudity was extremely normalised — in the form of charcoal, oil, paint and canvas.

Each weekend evening, my mother would come home – usually with colour smeared on her nose – and show us the bodies she had drawn. She would ask my sister and me for our critique of her work. Many body types were represented — old, young, female and male. We would look at the works hanging in galleries and study famous paintings at school. So many of these depicted nudity and, more often than not, a non-sexual version of nudity.

Later in life, I disappeared to Melbourne to make it as a writer and discovered the lack of joy in running my life on $20 spare per week. I wrote, I worked and I struggled to make ends meet. Then, one day, I discovered an advert in a bathroom stall looking for women models for a nude website. This was my first foray into the adult industry. Later, I would become a cam model and then a stripper.

Part of these jobs involved constant advertisement of my presence in the adult industry. Sex work never stops. So, I took my own nude photo sets, worked with photographers as a model or paid for shoots to keep this up. All of these photos ended up in various online spaces — from my cam room folders to Dropboxes, Patreon accounts and my own Instagram.

In 2017, I made the decision to create a video titled ‘What’s in my stripper bag?’ for my YouTube channel. It went viral a year later and amassed over 1.5 million views. With it came a barrage of slut-shaming due to my job. Over time, I discussed more of my work in the adult industry and activism surrounding the industry. The shaming was a self-serving way for commenters to attempt to devalue who I was and present themselves as more “virtuous” because they did not have to “stoop” to being strippers or cam models. It was textbook.

Historically, shame is used to control people and create political groups. Shame forces people to stick to the status quo. It forces people to either comply, or risk being cast out — nude photos of a young woman that are publicly available turn her into an “other” and the sex-positive and sex work-positive circles in our macro society are small.

We see this policing of female bodies across social media platforms and other content-oriented sites. Remember “free the nipple”? Sex workers and Instagram accounts that discuss sex work, or show half-naked women, are regularly suspended or deleted. Yet harassment, bullying, and neo-nazis aren’t. Clearly, vaginas are much more concerning.

In the age of the internet and revenge porn, we can expect a veritable media circus to follow any young actress, politician or social media star who finds themselves facing the reality that nude photos of them have been made publicly available. Women are effectively punished by society in myriad forms if their nude photos leak. From slut-shaming to body-shaming, to current job loss or even a loss of political or later career options, people use nude photos as a way to leverage power over others.

It seems strange that in a world where the greatest religious artists of all time often painted naked women and where 40 million Americans admit to consuming pornography, female nudity, in particular, is still so shocking. The inflammatory reaction towards a woman who becomes both publicly capable and sexual – as if, upon seeing her vulva, she is suddenly not fit for her supposed “duties” – is evident of a society that still divides women into the “Madonna versus the whore” complex, pits them against one another and refuses to accept, despite decades of feminist literature, that women do, in fact, own the physical bodies they inhabit.

This is not only evident in the political sphere, but also in the case of motherhood — we saw this when Kim Kardashian posted a censored semi-nude image of herself following the birth of her first daughter, North. The public reception was unkind, dictating to her that “as a mother” she should be teaching women to value more than their appearance. Our society is one that will weaponise and use the mere visual evidence of a woman's body existing against her.

However, women who are publicly sexual and political are not a new concept. Look at Australian MP Fiona Patten: Patten is a former full-service sex worker who now leads the Reason Party in Victoria. She’s an author and vocal about sex worker rights, decriminalising marijuana and assisted deaths. She has been labelled Australia’s most effective legislator and was the first person to call for the Royal Commission into Child Sex Abuse within the Catholic church. This shouldn’t be shocking. To me, it’s not; to many of you, it also shouldn’t be. I look at someone like Patten as an example of what the future might, hopefully, look like when it comes to women in the public arena.

Nude self-portraits can come in many forms. From a shower selfie sent to a partner or hook-up, or a weight loss progress shot, or an artistic shot you or someone else takes of you to help you see your own beauty. Not all nudity is inherently sexual. So often, we are told that it’s okay to “sexualise” ourselves if we choose to and that is true.

Conversely, we see those who disagree with nudity saying that any and all nude photographs of women are “degrading” or that the women themselves are “bad role models”. Then again, we see nude photos of women in relaxed poses, showing rolls or stretch marks, being called “fat” or “disgusting”. It’s almost as if these commentators are telling us we should be teaching younger generations to cloak their bodies in shame and disgust.

I have found that most of my commentators are women who want to tell me how to act, look and dress. They tell me what body parts need “work”, that I can’t wear bright blue eyeshadow and what other surgeries and opinions I should carve into my person in an effort to be more “beautiful” or “acceptable” according to the patriarchal definitions we live under.

An argument that I want to see more of, a question that I want to see asked more often, is “who decides why this nude photo exists?” Also, who decides why it was posted? And who decides if it is sexual? I believe that a woman's body is only sexual when she is sexually aroused and when it is her intention to be sexually consumable, not when those looking at her are. Your sexuality is not up to others to decide.

I have personally found huge confidence boosts in my own nude self-photography. The photos aren’t the problem and telling people that they should never take a nude photo is a similar mentality to the victim-blaming we see directed at women who survive rape culture and incidents of sexual assault. “Oh, she shouldn’t have been wearing that, it’s provocative.”

The political language created when we form into groups “for” or “against” shapes a sense of belonging and an understanding of the world; the flip side of this is that through those beliefs, we often form a prejudice toward anything that doesn’t fit into the imagined world we live in. Both nudity and a non-sexual type of nudity represent a threat — this has been documented through decades of naked protests, of women using their exposed bodies as tools for disruption and defiance.

Nude photographs in any context can alter someone's self-perspective in a positive manner, as can nude paintings, drawings and video. The groups of Helen Lovejoys who scream “think of the children” appear to be causing more damage than good, as they perpetuate a future where using others bodies against them and shaming people for their sexual activity or naked body is still acceptable.

We shouldn’t want that future. We should be teaching younger generations to stand up for women when others attempt to shame them for their bodies, we should teach those generations to help women who have had their reputations tarnished — particularly when it comes to a sexualised brand of vilification.

There is a huge difference between exercising control over your own image, versus having it controlled by others and having others determine what is acceptable for you to show or allow. The reality of authority figures exercising control over women's bodies, whether blatantly, or through the use of systemic shaming, should be a more controversial topic.

The conflation of women owning their own nakedness with the allowable violence that stems from exterior objectification should be viewed as an abhorrent argument, not the lazy first narrative floundered upon by those not willing to listen to the research of experts and activists in the field.

Our social canon describes the imagery of naked women's bodies as symbolic only of sexual acts. Authority figures, from school teachers to prime ministers, tend to shame women for their bodies and sexualise their nakedness, dress sense, or first physical expressions of puberty. As a result, we become a part of that cultural norm before we even have the chance to sexualise ourselves on our own terms.

From the moment we identify as women, we have control over our bodies and how they are seen in the public arena ripped from us. The gatekeepers of our society mock the efforts we make to take them back; they strip us of our autonomy in the form of abortion rights, rights to contraceptive efforts, rights to work in the sex industry should we choose and the right to leave the sex industry after “coming out” by refusing us jobs.

Having the ability to control our narratives allows us some freedom, in the way Patten has demonstrated. However, there’s still a long way to go before the current treatment of what society views as “fallen women” is perceived as abominable.

Cali Bourne is a writer, artist and online sex educator. You can follow Cali on youtube.com/calibourne, Twitter @calibournelive and Instagram.

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