Free the (Female-presenting) nipple

Tumblr's NSFW ban does a disservice to its users

Collage artwork depicting the nude female body, censored by butterflies and flowers. Artwork by Ranuka Tandan

Late last year, Tumblr announced that it would be banning all posts it deemed to contain “adult content.” In the original post circulated by Tumblr staff, “female-presenting nipples” fell into this category. Both the ban and the gendered language received swift backlash from users and non-users alike.   

The sexualisation of female breasts and nipples is not a new phenomenon. Tumblr is following in the footsteps of other social media giants like Twitter and Facebook in its ban, though the wording of the sites’ respective terms of service differs. Tumblr’s ban taps into issues of oversexualising the female body and raises issues about the nature of the body more generally.

One concern raised over the ban was its consequences for queer content. Tumblr, for all its many flaws, has provided a home for content made by queer people, who have been able to self-affirm their identities by connecting with other queer people and by posting about their experiences. Singling out “female-presenting nipples” threatens the sense of safety many people might feel the website offers, because the statement assumes a certain version of femaleness.

But what makes a body female? According to academic Thomas Laqueur, there was a strand of ancient Greek thought that stated there was only one body. This body was said to be female if it was “cold” and “weak”, but male if it was “hot” and “strong.”

Since the ancient Greeks, our knowledge of the body has become more nuanced. Ideas of biological determinism suggesting men and women were just like that bowed to the idea that gendered behaviour was learned. In the 1950s, a group of academics at John Hopkins University were among the first to state that biological sex didn’t decide “gender role and orientation.” In 1962, psychoanalyst Robert Stoller published a book that described gender as “psychological” rather than “biological.” Unfortunately, Stoller’s work was focused on trying to ‘fix’ those who deviated from the gender binary and from traditional gender roles.

While the Robert Stollers of the world still exist, our knowledge (and acceptance) of diverse experiences of gender is infinitely more developed. With the internet and social media, transgender, non-binary, and intersex individuals are able to make themselves better known and heard. Discussions about what makes a body one thing or another have become more complex.

Transgender YouTuber Natalie Wynn, for example, often discusses what she terms “girldick” or “the feminine penis.” On the flipside of this, there is the idea of “the masculine clitoris.” At their core, terms like this are ways to point out that even if someone’s identity fits into the male-female binary, the way they physically present—both to the world and in more intimate settings—won’t necessarily conform to normative ideas of what visually makes someone a man or woman. For many non-binary people whose identity falls outside the gender binary, their gender is almost guaranteed to conflict with their physical presentation.

Freckle, a genderfluid character from the comedy web-series The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo, is a good example of this. In one scene, Freckle slips a dress strap off their shoulder to reveal a nipple. “Nip slip,” they say. “Is it?” asks their friend. “I don’t know,” Freckle says, “is it?”

In a Tumblr post circulated by user ‘obovoid’, which notes that a screenshot of the scene has been flagged by the sites new system, it is. And this is a problem. By banning “female-presenting nipples”, Tumblr is not only singling out a certain kind of inadvertent presentation as wrong, it’s making itself judge and jury over who or what fits the criteria of ‘female-presenting’. The policy is a reassertion of a particular kind of binary that a lot of the website’s users are trying to escape.

It might be time for me and my queer, “female-presenting nipples” to go elsewhere.

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