Guest post: Notes from a nude photo revolutionary

This is a guest post from Saskia Vogel. Vogel has worked as an art model, an editor for an adult entertainment news magazine, a reporter on all things fruit and vegetables, and all the other gigs one takes while writing. She is now the publicist for Granta magazine and is working on a memoir exploring sex and society. She blogs at saskiavogel.com.

Last November Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, an Egyptian blogger, posted a nude photo of herself on her blog, as Islamists were securing power in Egypt. She tweeted the photo with the tag #NudePhotoRevolutionary. Elmahdy and her boyfriend were subsequently criminally charged with “violating morals, inciting indecency and insulting Islam.”

On 8 March 2012, I joined thirteen other women to stand in solidarity with Elmahdy as part of the Nude Photo Revolutionary Calendar. Each of us submitted a black and white photo of ourselves totally nude, showing our faces, with our real names and a short quotation explaining why we believe in this cause.

Maryam Namazie, the activist behind the calendar, responded to Elmhady’s action on Freethoughtblogs: “Showing her body, particularly at a time when Islamists in Egypt are securing power, is the ultimate act of rebellion. Don’t forget Islamists despise nothing more than a woman’s body. To them, women are the source of corruption and chaos and must be covered up at all times and not seen and not heard.”

Why did I join? I believe that policing nudity encourages a perverse relationship to the body, self and sexuality. Those who advocate censorship of the naked body, even in its most innocent forms such a breastfeeding or tasteful depictions of the body, should question the origin of their impulse to censor. Do they feel they have to take the world to task for urges they cannot reconcile within themselves? This impulse to censor all expressions of the naked female body speaks to an anxiety about the body, which extends to anxiety about (female) sexuality. This extends to the public discourse and how we (and policy-makers) are able to think about topics like abortion, access to contraceptives, fact-based sex education for young people… the list goes on. To create a culture that thinks sanely about sex and the body, we still need to assert the idea that a woman’s body is not a source of shame and not in need of regulation by the government.

When we think of censorship and the body, we have to consider the Miller Test, a three-pronged test to determine what is obscene, outlined as a result Miller versus California in 1973. The verdict of this trial reasserted that obscenity is not protected by the first amendment. As a result of the trial, a set of criteria were drafted that must be met for a work to be subject to state regulation:

  • whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards (not national standards, as some prior tests required), would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest;
  • whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct or excretory functions specifically defined by applicable state law; and
  • whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

Community standards. I learned in my time working as an editor at Adult Video News, where the legal reporter Mark Kernes reported on issues of obscenity, that when ‘community standards’ are asserted, the community isn’t necessarily consulted, and when they are the result can be much more open-minded than initially suggested.

My particular frustration with the notion of community standards being asserted to censor speech is directed at Facebook, a place where micro-communities are cultivated by people of all sensibilities, but all users are still subject to Facebook’s idea of community’s standards. According to their logic, as reported on from Gawker to the Guardian, images of crushed heads are OK to post images of, but exposed female nipples – even visible female nipple bulges – are in violation of their community standards.

When I was managing Coco de Mer’s daily posts on Facebook, this feminist-run, education-focused luxury brand’s posts were repeated flagged for obscenity. Not for Coco’s salacious videos and photo spreads, which I never posted on Facebook, but for sedate catalogue images of underwear models. Surely, we are sophisticated enough to tell the difference between obscene content and a representation of this season’s lingerie. The female body, the naked body, is not inherently pornographic or obscene.

Coco’s fan page was restricted to adults 18 and over. You had to ‘Like’ the page in order to access its content, and a landing page explained the brand to those who did not yet ‘Like’ the page. The closed community who had access to our content had already opted in. If they didn’t want to see these images, they could ‘Unlike’ us.
Shouldn’t we be able to cultivate our online network and regulate it as we see fit? As our lives become increasing connected by organizations whose mores govern our terms of use, we must become increasingly vigilant of our internet freedoms. This extends to so many forms of speech. The form I choose to advocate for is sexual speech. We need more refined classification criteria for obscenity and how community standards are determined and in which kinds of communities they can be asserted to regulate speech in the private and public sector

Participating in this calendar certainly does not put any of us involved at risk in the way that Elmadhy’s action did. But the battleground for women’s rights and freedom of speech is complex and shifting at home and abroad. For me, the Nude Photo Revolutionary project reaffirmed my commitment to activism and connected me with a wider, like-minded network. Together, I hope we will make a difference.

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One Comment

  1. Posted March 12, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    I don’t have much to add but I saw nobody else had commented, so I wanted to say it was very cool of you folks to try to strike a blow against body policing, censorship, and people who want to coercively hide the human body; hopefully within our lifetimes actions like yours will add up and we will see our societies accept our bodies instead of ban them!

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