The Cost of Female Activism is Self-Censorship – But it Doesn’t Have to Be

In 2019, it is not safe to be a woman with an opinion on the internet. This is not to suggest it once was or that it might be in the not-too-distant future; it is simply an undeniable truth all women implicitly and explicitly understand. 

When euphoria around the first-wave of feminism subsided, it gave rise to the second waves’ demands for fairer working conditions and retention of the inalienable right to reproductive autonomy. During this time, women began to regain access to power that had been stripped from them.

Women inherently understand the good and necessary work involved of dismantling the oppressors’ political, economic and social structures comes at a great cost. The oppressors do not yield – they appease.

And, as Oliver Twist experienced when he demanded, ‘Please, Sir, I want some more’, all oppressed groups eventually discover what awaits them when appeasement is no longer an option.

Censorship is oft used to silence the voices of the oppressed who dare to ask for more than what the oppressors are willing to give. When oppressors enact such censorship, it can lead to the even more powerfully detrimental act of self-censorship.  Suddenly, the oppressed are doing the very work of the oppressor.

Let me illustrate how this works by way of an example.

During the sexual revolution of the 1960s, women continued to fight against the patriarchal advertising industry’s objectification of their bodies and ideals. Women’s decisions about whether or not to have body hair became a talking point, as did the appropriateness of female breasts and nipples in public spaces, such as on beaches, television, movies, newspapers and so forth.

Image Description: A person with an afro stands in the center of a stone doorway. They are wearing an orangey-brown crop top with spaghetti straps, and their nipples are clearly visible through the fabric. They are also wearing a faded jean jacket with cuffed sleeves, although shoulders hang down around their elbows. One hand is resting at their side and the other is lightly touching their afro. Their eyes are closed and head tilted slightly to the left. 

As quickly as women began to reach some sort of consensus on the matter, the oppressors began their task of telling women what was and what was not appropriate. For instance, women’s bare breasts, nipples and body hair were only appropriate under certain conditions; women’s breasts were OK if they were objects, not subjects, and body hair was fine, providing it was kept hidden. 

Now, censorship borne of the oppressors began to fragment what was once a unified feminist movement. Women who benefited greatly from the first and second waves (women like myself, whose only real experience of oppression was gendered) began to act as soldiers of the oppressors. They carried out the oppressors’ orders by determining the rules of what it meant to be a woman.

During the 1980s, the third wave of feminism saw feminists go round-for-round against other feminists. Intra-feminist disputes, primarily over the legitimacy of pornography and sex work, raged. Additionally, women began to police other women by imposing westernised ideals of beauty in mainstream media. This act further alienated women of colour, women with disabilities, and women who did not ‘fit’ into whatever version of the female form the fashion industry was glorifying at the time.

Suddenly, women did not need to fear the male oppressor, but rather other women. These women would speak to one another in hushed tones to one another, often ostracising, criticizing, and judging other women’s choices. As the desire to fit in became a main goal, self-censorship ensued. Further, the shame women felt when they did not fit in kept them quiet, because you did not want to be outed as ‘other’. 

And so, the male oppressors outwardly claimed to have provided women with the freedoms and rights previous generations had so desperately fought and died for. Yet, women’s lived experiences did not match the oppressors’ claims.

With the advent of the internet, the world drastically and rapidly changed. The technological revolution that occurred with the introduction of the internet, theoretically-speaking, eased communication between people. But the internet simply opened up the world, letting people read ‘newsworthy’ events as they unfolded in real time. In sum, the internet irrevocably changed the way people consumed media.

The internet allowed any Jane (and Joe) Blogs to create their own spaces with which to do things previously unimaginable. With the internet, people’s potential spheres of influence grew and grew. You could advertise business services to millions, not just your local community, and you could create your own personal page to share ideas and opinions. 

It appeared possible, even likely, that this democratisation of traditional modes of communication would enable the previously disenfranchised and oppressed an opportunity to share, express, emote, and engage in ways from which they were typically excluded. Many people began to feel less isolated. They could talk to somebody sitting on a computer in a far-away place who would not only listen but who understood their same pain and shame. 

Unfortunately, this new frontier was not as glorious as it first appeared.

Not only was access to computers and the internet limited to those who could afford it, but the internet itself became yet another battle ground. Much like the darkened streets that illicit a sense of unease for every solo woman, the internet had a set of rules that women had to play by or suffer the consequences.

The ‘internet’, which for this piece’s purposes I take to mean those companies with the power to dictate how information is shared and consumed, has cast a glaring light on the fact that women are far less free than we have been told. Of course, we have always secretly known we weren’t free, through our own experience.

Our bodies are still heavily scrutinised and controlled. For example, an image of a woman’s nipple is considered ‘offensive’ by Facebook and Instagram, who hide behind community standards that are said to reflect just that, community standards. 

Community standards should reflect community values and be fairly applied. Companies who use community standards as a benchmark for what is and what is not offensive should be transparent in how they use and apply said standards. Yet, in my own and countless other women’s experiences, complaints to companies about content where users have, in absolute terms, breached community standards by sharing obscene images of sexual violence against women are met by inaction.

Conversely, in my own and countless other women’s experiences, we share our own content, only to have it removed for breaching those same standards. Often, the company gives very little explanation as to why content is removed. But the examples I know of, including the removal of images of women breastfeeding their children and images showing menstruation blood or women’s nipples, prove it is the previously silent and invisible worlds of women that are offensive.

It is obvious to women there is no fairness in the application of these community standards.  In fact, these rules are agreed to behind closed doors and are not transparently shared. They are further supported by the army of patriarchal, keyboard, cowards intent on ensuring they are not ‘forced’ to see anything as ‘gross’ as menstrual blood or women’s nipples (outside of pornography).

While overt censorship continues to baffle women everywhere as they navigate online spaces, a more covert war leads women to self-censor as a means of self-protection.

That same invisible army of keyboard cowards are now using freedom of speech to humiliate, degrade and denigrate women. From secret reddit threads through to mainstream media comment sections, women who dare to express themselves or who are simply subjects of a piece of content, are mercilessly trolled. This type of harassment has real and profound effects on women’s emotional and mental wellbeing.  

A couple of year’s ago, Clementine Ford, a well-known feminist author and all-round badass, presented ‘Hate Male’, a show where she shared various types of hate mail she receives daily from men in both her public (as a contributor of opinion pieces to newspapers) and private (her Facebook page) online spaces. While the nature of the show was light-hearted, Clementine assured viewers she was not trying to reduce such vile comments to banter. Rather, she wanted to protect herself from internalising the hatred she receives. One way of doing that for her is through humour.
How utterly soul destroying to go to work each day and wade through rape and death threats from complete strangers for the sole reason you, a paid author, have written 1,000 words about something as urgent and important as women’s rights.

Image Description: A screen-shot of a conversation on Clementine Ford's Instagram account. The first message reads "Should men in the military and police walk around with skirs? Didn't think so - you dumb bitch." The second, from the same person, reads "Or is it just far left nutters on Brunswick street you're talking about? Oh okay - bitch." Ford's reply reads "I don't care if men in the military or the police force wear skirts. Because I'm not a deeply insecure fragile baby who is scared of clothes." 

And what is worse still is the oppressors have again manipulated the players of their game to do their work for them. We are again in an era, not of a unified feminism, but of divisive feminism, where women tear down other women by forcing anachronistic ways of being onto them.

History, so it goes, repeats itself ad infinitum due to the crushing fragility and weakness of the human condition. But the status of the internet is not set in stone, and the disrupters amongst us, those with the mettle and strength to negotiate the scary terrain that comes with being both (a) woman and (b) with something to say, must rally to support all women’s online safety.

Because our very lives are at stake. We must not be silenced any longer.

By: Rachael Thurston


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of the Sydney Feminists. Our Blogger and Tumblr serve as platforms for a diverse array of women to put forth their ideas and explore topics. To learn more about the philosophy behind TSF’s Blogger/ Tumblr, please read our statement here:


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