“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.” – John Berger, Ways of Seeing
Berger’s quote exemplifies a centuries-old double standard that femmes still deal with today. Similar to 13th century nude paintings, capitalist culture constantly sexualizes femme bodies, but when femmes express sexuality on their own autonomous terms, they are often judged and/or censored.
Manet’s 1863 painting Le déjeuner sur l’herbe is a commonly used example of how controversial it was at the time to depict a naked woman showing agency rather than submission. The piece was so divisive that the Paris Salon banned it from being displayed. The jury for the Salon had an issue with a naked woman being depicted comfortably in an everyday context, rather than as an ethereal object to be enjoyed. She is also showing her agency, by staring calmly at the viewer as if she is aware they are watching, and, god forbid, she likes it.
A similar example of biased censorship can be seen in contemporary context on platforms like Instagram, which disproportionately censor and delete sexier content from IBPOC, fat, disabled and queer bodies, while the same content from white, thin bodies often goes unnoticed. To put it bluntly, it’s not the tits and ass that our morally selective, pretentious, racist, capitalist culture has an issue with, it’s the context of the tits and ass.
Lustery, a porn site dedicated to amateur content made by real couples, published a blog post called “There Is No Such Thing as ‘Revenge Porn’” at the end of 2020.
The authors reference law professors Erika Rackley and Clare McGlyn, who argue that the phrase “image-based sexual abuse” more accurately represents the act of non-consensual image sharing. Using the term “revenge,” they explain, implies that the victim did something to incur retaliation.
Image-based sexual abusers are criminals. Why not cut them off at the source and demand society only lay shame on them, rather than the victims?
Any of my lovers (and best friends) will know I enjoy the process of taking and sending scantily clad images and videos to those I’m intimate with. I also have memories of romantically awkward cyber sex with long-distance partners. For myself, and many folks who messaged me on my @motherofgoo Instagram, taking (and sometimes sending) nudes is a practice of self-care.
Whenever I document my body and sexuality, I think of Le déjeuner sur l’herbe and how the 1863 Salon of Paris banned it. I think about how proudly documenting my body on my own terms is still a radical act. I remember that I am allowed to celebrate my sensual, sexual body and all its folds and stretchmarks and scars. No one gets to shame me.
Madeline Rae is a pleasure activist, writer and artist living on Treaty 1. Rae holds a BFA Honours in performative sculpture and is graduating with her BA in psychology in June 2021, while pursuing a career in sex therapy. She is trained in client-centred sex education and harm reduction. She can be found at motherofgoo.com.
Published in Volume 75, Number 19 of The Uniter (February 24, 2021)