Feminist economist Victoria Bateman was naked on our Zoom call, and so was I, while we discussed her latest book, Naked Feminism: Breaking the Cult of Female Modesty, which will be released in the United States on May 16. “When I reveal my body, I reveal much more about other people than I do of myself,” Bateman said. As a semi-retired adult entertainer, I can attest to this. Where my nudity is often for profit, though, hers is for protest. She strips down to illustrate that “all women are both body and brain.” She’s out to upend the structures in which women’s “respect depends on their bodily modesty,” which she says undergirds everything from slut shaming to honor killings.
Promoting Naked Feminism during and after its release in the United Kingdom has been a struggle, for reasons anyone who works with nude bodies—much more direct depictions of sexuality—will be familiar with. Amazon initially refused to list Bateman’s book next to other feminist works on their massive retail website, citing the cover art as the issue. Bateman said: “There’s a belly button, there’s lower cleavage. There’s no nipples on display. Amazon’s view was it was drawing too much attention to the breasts. And because of that, it was sexually suggestive. Tell that to infants breastfeeding from their mothers.” When a journalist from The Telegraph contacted Amazon to inquire about this decision, it reversed course—the uncovered belly and underboob could stay and the ads could run.
Bateman’s promotional videos have been marked 18+ on YouTube—thus requiring a login to view—despite including large black and white boxes over her breasts and genitals, which cover more than most bikinis worn by influencers on Instagram. The censorship proves one of her points: Women everywhere are still subject to greater nudity taboos than men. What the censors don’t seem to realize is that women are often objectified whether we are clothed or not—as discussed by Mona Eltahawy in Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, whose work Bateman cites in her own book. With 15 years of expertise, I say with certainty that anyone likely to wank over Bateman will be turned on by her dressed in her “smart suit” from her censored YouTube ad, as it underlines her intellectual authority—otherwise known as the librarian trope—and her status as a person who is not an adult worker, therefore not consenting to sexualization. Call it a cross between internet rules No. 34 and 43—if it exists, someone will use it as porn, and they’ll enjoy it that much more due to the transgression involved.
For our meeting, Bateman prepared a chart of the 20 most democratic countries according to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), along with their legal stances on sex work, topless sunbathing, and head and face coverings. Only New Zealand and Uruguay allow all three markers of bodily autonomy. Norway, the very most democratic in the EIU’s estimation, criminalizes or bans both commercial sex and covering one’s head.
When I asked Bateman why she chose these three categories, she said that were she to do a full survey, she would also include things like access to birth control and abortion, but that “these three particular body autonomy issues are things that seem to apply to minority interests as opposed to majority interests.” She’d wondered, “To what extent does democracy uphold the freedoms of minorities? And I think this is where democracy doesn’t do a particularly great job.” While democracy may be the best option at this time, “Democracy tends to tailor itself to the majority interests. And so as a result, bodily freedoms, minority freedoms can get trampled on by that, by the majority. And that is a big problem.”
The problem becomes exacerbated “when feminists also get into bed with those social conservatives and religious zealots…. That’s where feminists who might claim to be liberals have actually been really illiberal.” The same accusations of having been brainwashed, or unable to understand our victimhood, are leveled at sex workers and women who cover themselves for religious reasons. “European feminists argue that if there are some women who are covering their heads, then that will cause men to think badly of women in general, to see them as different, to see them as a separate species…in the same way that feminists argue that sex work will cause men to see all women as sex objects,” said Bateman.
Despite her approval of my choice to “dress” to match her preferred interview costume, Bateman is not advocating for a world where all women wander around nude. “What I’m aiming for is a world in which every woman can make decisions about her own body in terms of the degree to which she covers or not, her body, what she does with her vagina, [and] what she does with her own fertility. I want every woman to be able to decide for herself. And that means to me, the sign of a liberal society is one in which you have variety. It is one in which you have women who are sunbathing topless, but where you also have women who are able to wear burkas and where you have women who are, say, rocket scientists, but also women who are sex workers.”
As Bateman points out about herself, I have privilege—I’m white, I’m often referred to as conventionally attractive, and my disabilities are invisible. And yet, my ability to access banking and payments infrastructure is curtailed or jeopardized by the reluctance of those entities to work with people whose businesses involve sexuality. Naked Feminism helped me understand a little more of the history of why that is. It all comes down to reputation. And for Bateman, who is able to survive a few hits to her reputation, “The least I can do is to put my body out there to try and reveal that type of judgment that, as I say, is a million times worse for so many other women out there.”
Naked Feminism covers the history of modesty, the economics of honor, and the ideology underpinning sex-worker-exclusionary feminism’s refusal to acknowledge the autonomy of sex workers. Happy to have met another feminist who believes in the right of all women to choose from a variety of options regarding modesty, I put my clothes on and went to run errands—the day had already revealed plenty.