Has Modernity Afforded Women More Sexual Freedom? -2019

The perpetuation of historical myths surrounding female sexuality has transcended into the modern through a collective imaginary. Jasanoff suggests that often the line between real and imagined realities is blurred and “observed facts of nature are refracted through collective desires for logic and order, producing authoritative representations of how the world works- as well as how it should work” (Jasanoff, 2015, pg. 6). The collective imagination of citizens within a patriarchal society dominated by a threat of violence is inevitably going to internalise the expectations of their social role and perform their expected identity to the best of their ability. Female sexuality throughout time has been suppressed and far too often is accepted as biological fact, rather than understanding it through a cultural or social lens. Some scholars have argued that this suppression is “one of the most remarkable psychological interventions in Western cultural history” (Baumeister & Twenge, 2002, pg. 166). My main argument in this essay is that modernity has not brought sexual liberation to women, and from a Foucauldian perspective the fact that much of the sexism and suppression of sexuality is happening subtly makes it all the more hard to resist. This essay will interrogate some pivotal moments that are at the intersection of discourse, power and sex. I begin this essay with a discussion on the historical construction of the division of labour and what that meant for social gender roles at the beginning of modernity. Next I will focus on the dominance of science and the legacy that remains from a number of influences at the time. A discussion on some of Foucault’s ideas, specifically that of discourse and the use of some examples within that paradigm will be explored, which have helped shape our understandings of modern day sex work. Braidottis understanding of humanism is also referred to and discussed in regards to the silent dominance of such a problematic term. The final part of the essay will have a look at Foucault’s understanding of biopower and how that is employed in the modern context. The sexual revolution of the 60s as well as the recent #metoo movements will be discussed in regards to female subjectivity to argue my point that women are no more sexually free than pre-modernity.

In regards to sexuality, the female body has historically been imposed with external meaning stemming from a patriarchal gaze. The 18th century saw many social and cultural changes stemming from rising capitalism which shifted the importance of existing institutions such as marriage and the family. The rise of capitalism brought about structural changes in which production moved outside of the home and individuals were expected to sell their labour for a wage. Some scholars have suggested that new understandings of gendered roles during rising modernity were understood through the separation of paid and unpaid labour; women were responsible for the reproduction of labour while men were responsible for wage work and financially supporting the family unit (Tilly & Scott cited in Dempsey & Lindsay, 2014, pg. 19). Marriage as an institution was dramatically changed towards the end of the 18th century when the idea of romantic love made its debut within the wider society (Giddens, 1993, pg. 39). Romance within marriage was a modern phenomenon; previously marriages were based on economic development rather than passion and love. “The complex of ideas associated with romantic love for the first time associated love with freedom, both being seen as normatively desirable states” (Giddens, 1993, pg. 40). This connection between love and freedom was able to distract society from existing economic aspects of marriage, focusing more on the social and pushing the economic into the background. In early modernity, women would alternate between productive (paid) and reproductive (unpaid) labour, it was near impossible to do the both simultaneously (Dempsey & Lindsay, 2014, pg. 21). Simone de Beauvoir recognised this separation of paid and unpaid labour as a key site for the subordination of women, she argued that without economic autonomy from men; “she remains a vassal, imprisoned in her condition” (de Beauvoir, 1948, pg. 721). She was speaking at a time when women were entering into the labour force at rates higher than ever before, afforded more civil liberties than generations of women before her. Suppressing female sexuality was an important patriarchal tool that helped women understand their role in society as passive, secondary citizens. The way in which women came to embody themselves was dependent on the meaning given to them by patriarchy and men which has taken different forms over time. De Beauvoir also argued that the biological condition of women was not a handicap in itself; rather the negative meaning is imposed from the oppressive and hostile society externally. From her phenomenological perspective she also recognised that cultural and social changes happen over time, and that there was still a considerable amount of work to be done before women would lose the cultural marker of ‘other’.

There have been a number of significant influences in regards to the way we understand modern gender, sex and sexuality. It was the 19th century that saw a push towards scientific understanding to discover truths about the world, as science was coming to be accepted as the highest order of fact. Foucault suggests that it is considered a form of knowledge that is immune to different political and historical conditions, potentially considered an ahistorical platform of knowledge production. Foucault recognised this blind acceptance of ‘science’ and considered himself to be ‘anti-science’, challenging the epistemological privilege that was attached to scientific understandings within dominating discourses. While the leaders of this dominating discourse are commonly institutions such as governments, or entire industries such as the medical or legal fields, Foucault recognised that an analysis of all practices including the ordinary experiences of communication, or discourse, hold vital information to understanding sexualities over time. One of the key issues that plagued gendered understandings of early modernity was a penchant for looking back through history in an attempt at understanding the role of women, rather than looking at the possibilities afforded to women, especially in the context of new technological developments. Freud is sometimes seen as a victim of the failed recognition of historical changes, accepting the universal ‘man as default’ that society had thus far dictated. Feminist critics such as Kate Millet argued that: “the effect of Freud’s work, that of his followers, and still more of his popularizers, was to rationalize the invidious relationship between the sexes, to ratify traditional roles, and to validate temperamental differences” (Millet cited in Bullogh, 1980, pg. 68). The legacy that Freud left behind is extremely influential in the way we understand the human psyche and many of his theories were left unchallenged for much of the 20th century. Freud accepted the narrative passed down throughout history that women are “not in control of their biological processes, and this led them to be victims of penis envy” (Freud cited in Bullogh, 1980, pg. 68). The discourse surrounding the role of women for much of the newly industrialised contexts leading into the beginning of the 20th century focused on the biological lacking of women, regardless of the social context and ignorant of new technological advances. The idiom of co-production seems applicable here as a recognition for the inseparability of the way we represent and know the world and the ways in which we choose to live in it. Jasanoff argues that “knowledge and its material embodiments are at once products of social work and constitutive of forms of social life; society cannot function without knowledge any more than knowledge can exist without appropriate social supports” (Jasanoff, 2015, pg. 3). Jasanoff’s point here is that knowledge, specifically scientific knowledge, cannot be constructed as separate from the social and as a result implicates political motives, biases and basic misunderstandings within the order of knowledge. Freud’s scientific understanding of the female psyche was biased on his understandings of the role of women in society passed down through a collective imaginary. For this reason it is important to trace back through history to understand the social construction of the role of women leading into modernity. Luckily, Foucault has done that for us.

In his 3-part (unfinished) series on the history of sexuality, Foucault explores different understandings of sex and sexuality across time and in a number of contexts. Foucault himself understood the importance of context and was not afraid to change his opinions or views given new information or ideas. He recognised the lack of interrogation surrounding sexualities, specifically from a humanities perspective, and dissected different discourses to better understand the social construction of how we currently understand sexualities. Focusing on discourse, Foucault recognised that from the 17th century there were two main perspectives or ‘orders of knowledge’ surrounding sex: reproductive biology and the medicalised perspective (Foucault, 1978, pg. 54). Within the medical discourse specifically, Foucault noted that doctors began to view their patients from a medical gaze, dehumanising their patients and seeing them as a set of organs rather than a person. When looking at discourse, Foucault argues it is important to not just look at what has been said or discussed, but to look at the concepts and ideas that are silent, that exist on the margins. The continuation of particular discourses perpetuate into contemporary times as Holland et al. conducting research on adolescent girls in the 90’s discovered; “The topic of sexual activity set both the young women and the interviews limits on how they could talk about sex, since the dominant culture has no acceptable language for discussing sex in ways which are not clinical, obscene or childish” (Holland et al. 1994, pg. 24). These contrasting discourses helped to shape the understanding of monogamous, heteronormative sex as the natural and correct form of human sexuality. The basis for the push towards monogamous heterosexual sex lies in the need for reproducing labour for the capitalist system, as previously discussed. The 17th century is an important turning point in regards to sexuality as Foucault suggests the rise of regulated sexualities coincides with the rise of the capitalist system and the industrial revolution. The way in which sexuality was repressed actually made way for new sexualities and understandings of sex, and changed the dynamic of power in regards to the way that sex was talked about. Foucault proposed that the secret nature of pushing sex into the private sphere gave power to different institutions and the discourses they employed, recognising that power was not always centralised and that there were both positive and negative power dynamics. Within certain discourses, such as the legal and medical fields, a binary of acceptable and unacceptable behaviours emerged. The notion of ‘perversion’ was able to flourish outside of these discourses but owe their creation to the repression within particular institutions. The medicalisation of sex meant that the experts on sexuality were the doctors and professors who had been socialised in much the same way as Freud, and the gender bias inherent throughout history was legitimated through ‘scientific’ understandings of sex and sexuality. Another legitimating discourse that was extremely influential to our current understandings of womens labour and sexuality stems from the way in which sex trafficking was framed at the beginning of the 20th century. With more women entering into the labour force than ever before a new threat was perceived and discussed in the public sphere. In 1927 the League of Nations created a new committee in order to undertake research investigating the exploitation of women within the entertainment industry. Many girls aged 15-25 were travelling internationally for the purposes of work and the League of Nations believed that these women were at high risk of being duped or coerced into the sex industry. What the advisory committee found was that there was a direct link between the exploitative nature of women’s (licit) work and a susceptibility to the sex industry (Laite, 2017, pg. 48). Put simply, the economic inequalities between the genders was the driving factor for many women seeking a living wage turning to the sex industry (consensually) as a means of surviving. However, while the committee recognised the economic basis as the catalyst for many women turning to sex work, their report focused on the moral rather than the economic; “Though members of the Traffic Committee bemoaned the influence of women’s low wages and subsequent poverty, they emphasised the moral over the monetary” (Boris cited in Laite, 2017, pg. 48). This is one of the many examples throughout history that highlights the power that is held in discourse. As Foucault argues, we can see that the materiality of this particular discourse has been produced within a particular social order where women were not seen to hold sexual agency or autonomy of their bodies. The morality discourse surrounding female sexuality continues to persist and women today are still stigmatised for taking ownership of their bodies and sexuality. Those who hold the power within the social order are the producers of the discourse and within this discursive order they legitimate knowledge through their own definition completely discounting those who are silenced or repressed.

The concept of humanism is also important in understanding the historical construction of suppressed female sexuality. Humanism stemmed from the enlightenment and opened a new way of living through a more secular separation from God. The Enlightenment period signalled the beginning of a new modern world highlighting a number of ideas that persist into our contemporary society. Some of these ideas include: reason and rationality (as the basis for organising knowledge); empiricism (observing and collecting information through the senses); scientific understanding of the natural and social worlds; universalism and a search for general universal laws; progression of humans (improving the human condition was possible); individualism (all knowledge comes from within); tolerance of other religions or doctrines; freedom (we are born with choices); and secularisation (in conjuncture with tolerance) (Macionis & Plummer, 2012, pg. 15). Stemming from Western Europe these hegemonic understandings of what it meant to be human privileged the (white, cis) male who embodies much of the above and is understood as ‘intrinsically moral’ (Braidotti, 2013, pg. 13). The narrative of ‘male as default’ has its roots in ancient Greek scripture but the ideology of humanism was adapted in the 20th century by Europeans who saw themselves at the forefront of modern human civilisations. As Braidotti suggests; “This Eurocentric paradigm implies the dialectics of self and other, and the binary logic of identity and otherness as respectively the motor for and the cultural logic of universal Humanism” (Braidotti, 2013, pg. 15). In this respect ‘otherness’ is represented by those who fall outside that default status; sexualised (women, non-binary etc.), racialised (non-white), and naturalised (the environment and natural) others. Given that reason and rationality are afforded to the default human, the ‘others’ are inherently seen as irrational, and inferior and are “reduced to the less than human status of disposable bodies” (Braidotti, 2013, pg. 15). The humanist paradigm has always prioritised the masculine worldview ignoring the subjectivity and agency of those that fell into the category of ‘other’ and although debates around post-humanism have been circulating since the 1960s, remnants of humanism are still present in our contemporary society. For example a recent study by the University of Pennsylvania School Of Medicine found that women were less likely than men to be resuscitated by CPR in public because women have breasts (Prasad, 2019). The way in which society has sexualised the female body as well as the use of ‘neutral’ (male) mannequins for training purposes has resulted in a 23% gendered gap in the odds of survival when needing CPR. In similar vein, Jenny Valentish’s book about substance abuse outlines the gendered bias that still persists in much academic and medical research where researchers are constantly told that (female) gender-specific research is pointless; “it [would be] a waste of time to address anything to do with women because men are in the majority and that’s where the focus should be” (Copeland cited in Valentish, 2017, pg. 271). Here we see the masculine view that only the majority is important, re-centring the idea of humanism. Valentish also discusses the fact that in many medical and physiological studies, menstruating women are seen to be an anomaly and are excluded from participating in the studies (Valentish, 2017, pg. 273). This in itself has resulted in a number of drug-related deaths in women, clarifying Braidotti’s point on disposable bodies. Humanism is so pervasive in our society, that for much of society it remains unseen, making it difficult to recognise and resist.

Women and those considered ‘other’ as disposable beings can be analysed through the tactics of suppressed sexuality. Women, and their sexualities, have been suppressed as a way of upholding patriarchal values through the threat of, or actual violence. The origins of patriarchy have been debated but for the sake of this essay I will be using the term patriarchy as defined by Christ who suggests that “patriarchy is a system of male dominance in which men dominate women through the control of female sexuality with the intent of passing property to male heirs.. [It is] rooted in the ethos of war which legitimates violence, and in which men who are heroes of war are permitted to seize land and treasures, to exploit resources, and to own or otherwise dominate conquered people” (Christ, 2016, pg. 218-220). The legitimisation of violence stems from prehistoric times when war was common and threats to power and resources held by men resulted in an assertion of violence. Sovereign power continued the legacy of legitimated violence and it wasn’t until the Enlightenment period that Sovereign power conceded to the role of State authorities. It is the shift from Sovereign repressive power to a more normalising invisible form of power that marked a new understanding of the role of self-governance and subjectivity in modernity. Foucault differentiated between the Sovereign “right to take life or let live” and the modern State power that exercises “the right to make live and to let die” (Foucault, 1978). The publicity of such harsh punishments in pre-modern times made for an awareness of the power dynamics existent in society. With modernity came a new dynamic of State power in which the prison was born and punishment moved away from the public eye. Moving into a more subtle form of power, Foucault argues this normalising power seeks to control bodies under the guise of ‘protection of life’, in direct opposition to the previous power dynamic. Foucault’s terminology for this form of power is biopower which literally means having power over another body; “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations” (Foucault, 1976, p. 140). The connection between biopower and self-governance is strong and the role of self-surveillance in modern societies is confusing understandings of gendered subjectivity, especially in the virtual world and in social media. Hidden State power makes it harder for resistance and I suggest a similar thing is happening in regards to sexism in contemporary times, in part thanks to the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s. Lewis suggests there are 3 core components of modern sexism “(1) a belief that sexism is no longer an issue in society and is a thing of the past, (2) negative attitudes towards women who fight for equity and (3) resentment toward women who advocate for affirmative action of gender conscious policies and practices” (Lewis, 2018, 383). The invisibility of contemporary sexism makes it difficult to resist, difficult but not impossible.

The normalisation of biopower has resulted in many misogynistic tendencies being accepted not just by men, but women have also unconsciously internalised many sexist ideas about the world. In a 2002 study, Baumeister and Twenge found that suppression of female sexuality was actually enforced more by other females than by men; however I propose that this suppression has been about protection rather than competition as the article suggests. They found that when women were in power they restricted sexuality more than when men were in power, who they found pushed for a more liberal sexual freedom (Baumeister & Twenge, 2002, 195-96). They argued that female suppression comes from the perspective that sex as a resource in limited supply therefore suppressing other females sexuality increases her own chances of securing the resource. My counter-argument is that the internalisation of misogyny, and the resulting suppression of female sexuality, is a result of the socialisation and conditioning of young women who see harsh consequences for their actions unlike that of the opposite gender. Constant policing of womens bodys in public spaces, (social media, breastfeeding in public, the debate around abortion etc.) have taught women that their bodies are intended to be passive, making embodiment a difficult process. Passivity as a trait of femininity stems from biological understandings as Foucault pointed out. Foucault was particular in discussing generalised sexualities and glossed over specific gender ideas, rarely speaking explicitly about female sexuality. In his essay around pleasure from the second volume of The History of Sexuality, Foucault recognised the language that has been employed in regards to what constitutes as sex: penetration. He argues that penetrative sexual relations are always a specific power dynamic in which the person who is participating in the penetration act holds the power over the submissive subject. Again this understanding stems from the humanist approach that recognises sex to involve a phallic object, therefore excluding women as active participants. Women in this paradigm are understood as biologically submissive and Foucault saw no reason to question the ‘nature’ of the role of women; “As for the woman’s passivity, it did denote an inferiority of nature and condition; but there was no reason to criticize it as a behaviour, precisely because it was in conformity with what nature intended and with what the law prescribed” (Foucault, 1984, pg. 2015). From the Foucauldian perspective suppression of female sexuality was a given due to their biological role of passive receiver. In his discussion Foucault outlines examples from the Ancient Greeks in which boys were sometimes seen as sexual objects. As a passive receiver of sexual penetration the receiver is viewed as an object; specifically an object of desire and/or pleasure, and the idea that one would enjoy the role of passive receiver contradicts the understandings of masculinity and dominance that the penetrator represents. The inferiority of the person who played the passive role was only called into question when the ‘objects’ were boys. In this example Foucault discussed the incompatibility of wanting and enjoying being the object of pleasure and the self-discovery that was necessary in order for the boy to become a man. In the context of women, this speaks to gendered understanding of subjectivity; the ideals of the feminine are in contrast to the ideals of the ‘human’, as previously discussed.

Modernity brought about many social and cultural changes and beginning towards the end of the 19th century was what is now considered the first wave of feminism in the West. This first wave movement was sparked by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, strong abolitionists fighting for the women’s right to vote, which was actually sparked through racism: black men were given the right to vote in 1870, offending these upper-class white women who believed they should have the right to vote before the former slaves (Grady, 2018). While suffrage was the main goal for these first wavers, they also recognised the lack of equality in areas such as education, property ownership and employment rights. Securing the right to vote in the early twentieth century seemed to end the first feminist wave, not because equality had been achieved, rather the goals of the feminist movement had been fractured and the movement failed to unite in their primary goals. But it wasn’t a simple shift in the public understanding of women’s role in society; many psychologists at the time including supporters of Freud suggested that “political feminism [is defined] as an evil which by encouraging women in their drives for economic independence and into denying the need for male protection were attempting to remove the beneficial ‘economic drives’ that were such a bulwark to marriage and family” (Bullogh, 1980, pg. 68). Given that sex was understood through the medicalised discourse during this time period the opinions of these ‘experts’ were minimally challenged until the second wave of feminism. The sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s brought about new understandings of the existing gender order. Spurred by the release of The Feminine Mystique (Betty Friedan) as well as the re-release of de Beauvoir’s iconic The Second Sex (1948) a new wave of feminist activists began (or continued) fighting towards an end to discrimination based off perceived biological differences (Macionis & Plummer, 2012, pg. 406). It was during this period that the anti-humanist sentiment began its discourse; Braidotti argues that this occurred as a response to “the many failed political experiments of the twentieth century. Fascism and the Holocaust on the one hand, Communism and the Gulag on the other” (Braidotti, 2013, pg. 17). Both these political ideologies were a stark departure from the humanism of Europe; Fascism represented a ruthless rejection of human reason while Communism was seen as the winners of the Second World War and the ideology came to be emblematic of the defeat of fascism across Europe. Criticisms against both patriarchy and capitalism were strong during this time as the public pushed against religious, legal, medical, familial and political restrictions of the past. Hekma & Giami posits that it was at this time that “the holy triangle of marriage, reproduction and heterosexuality as foundations for sex was broke, and love and pleasure became its essential reference points” (Hekma & Giami, 2014, pg. 10). New technologies, new forms of media and rising globalisation all contributed to the sexual revolution which allowed women greater autonomy over their own bodies. During this sexual revolution the notion of equality was a driving factor with women pushing for the same sexual subjectivity afforded to men. While many changes occur, my main argument here is that the sexual liberation women believed they achieved was actually a new realm for patriarchy to conquer. We can see the impact of that through the recent #metoo movement. The #metoo movement became a global talking point in 2017; however the initial origins of the movement date back to 2006. The popularity of the movement in 2017 was sparked by a tweet shared by actress Alyssa Milano that stated: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet”. The response was overwhelming and within 24 hours there were over 11,000 retweets and 30,000 responses, continuing to grow in the weeks and months that followed (Haynes, 2017). For many modern women sexual harassment is commonplace and normal, so much so that this movement was unprecedented in its global reach emphasising the universal nature of patriarchal sexism. An article in The Times suggested that the liberation movement of the 60s was understood as an open sexual availability of all women; “The only sexual rule today is ‘consent’, and men have been taught that women are potentially always sexually available because that is what ‘liberation’ means” (Quinn cited in Badham, 2018). The images produced by the media during this time underwent a dramatic change and rode the wave of sexual liberation all the way into the 21st century. The increase of sexualised media had a gendered aspect and there were more images and cultural objects being produced that had direct impacts on the public perception of women in society (Hekma & Giami, 2014, pg. 12). Since the mid 20th century, the media has played a significant role in the socialisation process. The #metoo movement was attempting to highlight the prevalence of rape culture within our society, the silent biopower controlling the way bodies operate in the social world. Social commentator Clementine Ford suggests “Rape culture doesn’t refer to a system in which sexual violence is being overtly encouraged or taught. Rather, it characterises a society in which the impact of sexual violence is not only minimised but the definition of what constitutes ‘real’ sexual assault is considered up for public debate and scrutiny” (Ford, 2018, pg. 293). There are countless examples stemming from a number of different contexts around the world that exemplify this rape culture, and the rise of social media has allowed for a conversation to occur. Resistance is coming from both sides; those who have been marginalised are standing up and speaking out, while those who continue to hold the power are not willing to give it up without a fight.


Acker, J, 2004, ‘Gender, Capitalism and Globalization’, Critical Sociology, Vol 30, No. 1, pp. 17-41)
Badham, V, 2018, ‘That’s patriarchy: how female sexual liberation led to male sexual entitlement’, The Guardian, 2 February 2018, < https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/feb/02/thats-patriarchy-how-female-sexual-liberation-led-to-male-sexual-entitlement&gt;
Baumeister, R & Twenge, J, 2002, ‘Cultural Suppression of Female Sexuality’, Review of General Psychology, Vol. 6, No. 2, pp. 166-203
Bennett, T, 2013, ‘Making Culture, Organising Freedom, Changing Society’, Making Culture, Changing Society, Routeledge, London, pp. 23-48
Braidotti, R, 2013, ‘Post-Humanism: Life beyond the Self’, in Posthuman, Polity Press, Oxford, pp. 13-54
Bullogh, V, 1980, ‘Technology and Female Sexuality and Physiology: Some Implications’, The Journal of Sex Research, Vol. 16, No. 1, pp. 59-71
Christ, C, 2016, ‘A New Definition of Patriarchy: Control of Women’s Sexuality, Private Property, and War’, Feminist Theology, Vol. 24, No. 3, pp. 214-225
De Beauvoir, S (Translated by Borde, C & Malovany-Chevallier, S), The Second Sex, Vintage, London
Dempsey, D & Lindsay, J, 2014, ‘Relationships and Families Over Time’ in Families, Relationships and Intimate Life, 2nd Edition, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne
Ford, C, 2018, Boys Will Be Boys, Allen & Unwin, Sydney
Foucault, M, 1976, The History of Sexuality Volume 1, Harmondsworth England
Foucault, M, 1988, ‘The Object of Pleasure’, in The History of Sexuality Volume 2, Pantheon Books, NY, pp. 215-225
Foucault, M, 2008, ’17 January 1979’ in The Birth of Biopolitics Lectures at the College de France, 1978-79, Basingstoke England; New York Palgrave MacMillan, pp. 27-50
Giddens, A, 1993, ‘Romantic Love and Other Attachements’, in The transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Societies’, Polity Press, pp. 37-48
Hekma, G & Giami, A, 2014, ‘Sexual Revolutions: An Introduction’, in Hekma, G & Giamia, A (eds), Sexual Revolutions, Palgrave Macmillan, UK, pp. 1-24
Holland, J, Ramazanoglu, C, Sharpe, s & Thomson, R, 1994, ‘Power and Desire: The Embodiment of Female Sexuality’, Feminist Review, No, 46, pp. 21-38
Jasanoff, S & Kim, SH, 2015, ‘Future Imperfect: Science, Technology, and the Imaginations of Modernity’, in Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power, The University of Chicago Press, pp. 1-33
Laite, J, 2017, ‘Between Scylla and Charybdis: Women’s Labour Migration and Sex Trafficking in the Early Twentieth Century’, International Review of Social History, Vol. 62, No. 1, pp. 37-65
Macionis & Plummer, 2012, Sociology, 5th Edition, Pearson Education Limited, Essex
Prasad, R, 2019, ‘Eight ways the world is not designed for women’, BBC News US & Canada, 5 June 2019, < https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-47725946&gt;
Price, M, Pound, N & Scott, I, 2014, ‘Female Economic Dependence and the Morality of Promiscuity’, Archives on Sexual Behaviour, Vol. 43, pp. 1289-1301
Valentish, J, 2017, ‘A Call to Arms: How drug and alcohol research and treatment fail women’ in Woman of Substances, Schwartz Publishing, pp.271-281

Online Female Censorship: An Exploration of Subjectivity 2019

The rise of the internet has brought about a number of changes to our society and the way in which we interact and make meaning of ourselves and each other, however the virtual world is not a neutral equal space. With over half the world’s population having access to the internet there are a number of ways this global tool is being controlled by different entities including governments and transnational corporations (Why Do Some Countries Censor the Internet, 2019). While there are a number of authoritarian governments who censor their states internet use for political purposes this essay will be analysing the censorship of the female body and sexuality which I argue seeks to uphold the patriarchal values in which women are subordinated by men. I will begin with a brief history of censorship and Foucault’s concept of disciplinary power, then the essay will move to a focus on the social media platform Instagram and the censorship on women’s body’s and bodily functions. Linking back to Foucault and disciplinary power, Althusser’s theory on ideology and ideological (state) apparatuses will also be discussed in relation to the way in which we have come to use and understand social media. Two specific forms of censorship will be analysed throughout; female nipples and menstruation blood. The end of the essay will bring these discussions together from the perspective of de Beuvoir.

The idea of censorship is not a new or modern concept; throughout history different forms of censorship have played a crucial role in upholding social and moral codes. The term censor originates back to ancient Greek times where the ideology of good governance was promoted through censorship of the community in the name of the good of the public (Newth, 2010). Although censorship originated in Europe, different forms of censorship have been found to be employed in different parts of the world across different times highlighting the importance of context. Prior to the rise of the internet, censorship of information was a lot more concentrated, with the State holding power to regulate what is acceptable and allowable using morality for grounds of censorship. The dominance of the internet beginning at the start of the 21st century brought about a number of hurdles in regards to censoring accessible public content. Given the immaterial nature of the internet; the transcendence across national borders; and the level of accessibility to its users, censorship of the internet remains a delicate topic with the power to regulate often falling outside of State powers and more commonly in the hands of private enterprises. Although some media corporations may serve as sovereign powers, the transnational nature of them makes it difficult to enforce their rules and regulations. The shift away from this sovereign power in the 21st century is what Foucault would argue as disciplinary power;
It is a type of power which is constantly exercised by means of surveillance rather than in a discontinuous manner by means of a system of levies or obligations distributed over time. It presupposes a tightly knit grid of material coercions rather than the physical existence of a sovereign.. This non-sovereign power, which lies outside the form of sovereignty, is disciplinary power
–Foucault (cited in Boyle, 1997, pg. 177)
Foucault used the example of Bentham’s ‘Panopticon’ structure to elucidate his theory of disciplinary power. He argued that the central figure within the panopticon formation was hidden and the threat of being seen by this authoritive figure was enough for the subjects to self-regulate and abide by the rules. From this perspective we can see that the panopticon is an individualising and totalising form of power. The internet as a domain however, operates remarkably different to that of our material society, which is why many theorists towards the end of the 20th century believed that the internet would be “immune from (state) regulation” (Boyle, 1997, pg. 178), more so due to the fact that it would be extremely difficult to do, rather than an unwillingness to do so. If we view the internet, or more specifically social media, as panoptic models all users agree to participate in this Big Brother type surveillance, as you must agree to the company’s terms and conditions while creating your access profile. Once ‘inside’ the panopticon individuals self-regulate and enforce their own oppression onto themselves often conforming to the hegemony of the system in the process. Given the nature of social media, the way in which subjects are able to (re)produce themselves to the world is highly curated and the awareness of the audience is always considered. While social media company’s outline their own specific ‘community guidelines’ in regards to what is deemed appropriate, the images deemed acceptable are still dictated by social norms rather than a specific legislation or law.

The following part of the essay will focus specifically on the social media site Instagram which is an image and video sharing social networking website with over 1 billion users worldwide (Carman, 2018). Instagram claims their aim is to have “a world more connected through photos” (Instagram, 2019), however many of their ‘terms of service’ contradict this and I will be focusing specifically on the gendered bias Instagram employs in order to control and mediate user’s content. Although users may post any type of image to their feed such as art, landscapes etc, the majority of images on the site are photos of people, many of which are ‘selfies’. This ‘self-imaging’ technique in which the user is posting themselves is particular to social media in that the user or artist is both subject and object, directly challenging “our conceived social order of image production” (Faust, 2017, pg. 160) within our patriarchal visual based culture. Female artists are especially challenging the order in regards to the image production veering away from the domination of the male gaze and into the hands of historically-written marginalised people.

The community guidelines of the online platform Instagram states a number of rules that their members must adhere to in order to freely use the media. The following statement is the description under the rule “Post photos and videos that are appropriate for a diverse audience”:
We know that there are times when people might want to share nude images that are artistic or creative in nature, but for a variety of reasons, we don’t allow nudity on Instagram. This includes photos, videos, and some digitally created content that show sexual intercourse, genitals, and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks. It also includes some photos of female nipples but photos of post mastectomy scarring and women actively breastfeeding are allowed. Nudity in photos of painting and sculptures are ok
-Instagram, 2019
Although the terms ‘nudity’ and ‘sexual’ appear to be self-explanatory terms, the definition of what actually constitutes as nudity and/or sexual content is highly contested in the online world. The community guidelines outlined by Instagram are representative of social and political norms within our society and upon closer inspection the sexism inherent in these guidelines becomes apparent. Both real world and online nudity are understood differently between the genders and the nipple exemplifies this perfectly. While cultural norms of what is deemed appropriate/inappropriate parts of the body to be shown in public evolve and change over time, the restriction of the female nipple has persisted till today. The notion that the nipple is too sexual to be seen is highly contradictory, especially given the fact that it is the only part of the breast that must be censored. We do not have the same censorship on the male body and even though the female nipple serves a bodily function (unlike the male nipple) the female nipple in online spaces is automatically seen as sexual and therefore prohibited. By hiding the female nipple specifically, society is telling women that their breasts are sexual and may only be seen from that perspective. The gendered bias teaches young women that they must police their bodies, in a way that men do not, and that we must hide parts of our body to ensure we do not arouse the opposite sex. The way in which women subjugate and oppress themselves; both in the real world and online, is an example of biopower in play. The purpose of biopower, according to Foucault, is “to optimize the life of the population as a whole” (Inda, 2005, pg. 5). He also suggests that the use of biopower is a positive force of power, rather than the classic understanding of punishment enforced negative power. The Panopticon concept employs this biopower and subjects are left to self-regulate on their own accord. Within a capitalist, patriarchal society where men hold all the power and economics hold privilege over everything, biopower represents the ideologies of men, and the reproduction of labour power is enforced through social norms. This includes pushing heteronormative ideologies in which women exist for the consumption of men.

Women have learnt through media, family, and educational institutions the correct way to carry and dress their bodies in order to conform to the expectations of society. According to Althusser these institutions function ‘by ideology’ rather than through physical violence enforced from above. It is the production of scientific knowledge functioning through ‘knowledge and desire’ which dictate our societal norms to which we all unconsciously agree to conform to (Pylypa, 1998, pg. 21). In line with Foucault’s concept of biopower, Althusser’s theory on Ideological State apparatuses function positively (through ideology) as opposed to the Repressive State apparatuses which function through violence. In other words, Althusser understood subjects to be confined to specific ideologies of existence, constrained and interpellated into our own existence within society. While this theory relies on the existence of the imaginary, Althusser does clarify the existence of materiality within this concept. He argues that
the ideology of ideology thus recognizes, despite its imaginary distortion, that the ‘ideas’ of a human subject exist in his actions, or ought to exist in his actions, and if that is not the case, it lends him other ideas corresponding to the action (however perverse) that he does perform” (Althusser, 1971, pg. 103)
In the context of social media, what we present online is how we ‘perform’ and our ideas are only being realised in the way in which we present ourselves to the world; it disregards all that has not been posted online.

In 2015, Canadian poet and artist Rupi Kaur posted an image of a fully clothed woman laying in bed on Instagram. In the image the woman is laying on her side with menstruation blood both on her pants and the bed. The image was quickly removed due breaching the ‘community guidelines’ even though there was no nudity or sexual connotations present in the image. But instead of accepting the removal, Rupi and her (thousands of) followers fought back, making a public statement directed at Instagram:
I will not apologise for not feeding the ego and pride of misogynist society that will have my body in an underwear but not be ok with a small leak when your pages are filled with countless photos/accounts where women (so many who are underage) are objectified, pornified, and treated less than human” (Kaur cited in Sanghani, 2015)
Instagram eventually restored then deleted, and once again restored the image to Rupi’s account and asserted that the removal was ‘an accident’ (Livingstone-Lang, 2016, pg. 17). This particular incident sparked a global discussion around menstruation and made it very apparent that menstruation blood still induces disgust in many people with some comments going as far as “being a woman is honestly disgusting.. I would do anything to kms [kill myself]” (cited in Livingstone-Lang, 2016, pg. 17). While this comment was quite extreme, many people were outraged and disgusted at the sight of a normal (yet unseen) bodily fluid in a normal bodily process. The notion of disgust is linked to abjection; “the human reaction (horror, vomit) to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object or between self and other” (Kristeva cited in Smith, 2017). As well as this breakdown of understanding, the abject is something that disrespects borders, rules and positions. Menstrual blood on social media provoking this sort of outrage is hardly surprising when we still treat the act of monthly bleeding as a taboo topic. Douglas suggests that taboos are important in regards to social control, much like Foucault’s ideas about disciplinary power; taboos seek to control the behaviour of the population by socially out-casting those who do not conform, rather than punishment coming from a sovereign power (Douglas, 1984). The continuation of menstruation as taboo is hardly going to be changing when the leading photo-sharing platform is censoring these sorts of images.

In the 1940’s Simone de Beauvoir wrote an influential book called The Second Sex. In it she outlines how throughout history patriarchal rule has resulted in man having been deemed the default of humans, sidelining women as ‘the other’. She discusses how this patriarchal notion has shaped gender roles and understanding of what it means to be ‘man’ or ‘woman’. Given that man is the default, de Beauvoir argues that due to this dynamic, women can only ever position themselves in opposition to the Subject (man), and the way in which she produces her femininity is key to being accepted by society. Although de Beauvoir was writing in the 1940’s, unfortunately not much has changed. Women are still seen from the male gaze, and are expected to conform to a certain level of femininity, which includes the understanding that their bodies are sexual and are for the consumption of men. In 2019, this is very much still the case. Women are expected to be sexual beings and must conform to that should they wish to avoid being socially outcast or denied access to participate in particular online spaces such as Instagram. Both the female nipple and menstruation blood highlight the extra scrutiny women face in today’s society, especially in regards to the way in which they present their bodies, both in the real world and online spaces.

Within the social media realm, especially Instagram, the gender bias that exists is so pervasive of our current society, people often are not even aware of the sexism we all agree to participate in when clicking ‘I agree’ to the terms and conditions of the site. It is interesting to note that violence within society these days is generally accepted and normalised more so than sexuality and nudity. While Instagram is explicit in outlining that sexual content will not be tolerated, which as I have argued is extremely sexist, the presence of violence on the platform is generally allowed. The community guidelines do state: “Because so many different people and age groups use Instagram, we may remove videos of intense, graphic violence to make sure Instagram stays appropriate for everyone” (Instagram, 2019). I fail to recognise how a female nipple in a non-sexualised context, or some blood on the pants of a girl laying in bed could be more offensive than the glorification of weapons and violence, but that just highlights how much further we have to go before we are rid of gendered understandings of the role that men and women play in society.


Althusser, L, 1971, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)’, From Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, London and New York, Monthly Review Press, pp. 127-186

Boyle, J, 1997, ‘Foucault in Cyberspace: Surveillance, Sovereignty, and Hardwired Censors’, University of Cincinnati Law Review, pp. 177-205

Carman, A, 2018, ‘Instagram now has 1 billion users worldwide’, The Verge, 20 June 2018, viewed online 14 June 2019, < https://www.theverge.com/2018/6/20/17484420/instagram-users-one-billion-count&gt;

Douglas, M, 1984, Purity and Danger, Routeledge, UK
Foucault, M, 2008, ‘”Panopticism” from discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison’, Race/Ethnicity, Vol. 2, No. 1

Instagram, 2019, Instagram Help Centre, Instagram, viewed 14 June 2019, < https://help.instagram.com/&gt;

Livingstone-Lang, R, 2016, ‘Our Bloody Bodies, Ourselves: The Shocking and Playful Resurgence of Menstrual Art’, Broken Pencil, Fall 2016

Newth, M, 2010, ‘The Long History of Censorship’, Beacon for Freedom of Expression, viewed 13 June 2019, < http://www.beaconforfreedom.org/liste.html?tid=415&art_id=475&gt;

Pylypa, J, 1998, ‘Power and Bodiloy Practice: Applying the Work of Foucault to an Anthropology of the Body’, Arizona Anthropology, No. 13, pp. 21-36

Sanghani, R, 2015, ‘Instagram deletes woman’s period photos- but her response is amazing’, The Telegraph UK, 30 March 2015, viewed 14 June 2019 < https://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/life/instagram-deletes-womans-period-photos-but-her-response-is-amazing/&gt;

Smith, S, 2017, Julia Kristeva’s “Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection”, 10 November 2017, viewed 14 June 2019, < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rpoqr6TZR3o&t=47s&gt;

‘Why Do Some Countries Censor the Internet’, 2019, Open Access Government, Febuary 5 2019, viewed 13 June 2019 < https://www.openaccessgovernment.org/countries-censor-the-internet/58366/&gt;