On censorship, bodies, art, & social media — and how we should be able to use them to empower ourselves
BY JOANNA C. VALENTE
How do we navigate blurry lines? How do we navigate boundaries and growth? We define growth as a positive thing, which it is, but much of growth stems from unsettling or uncomfortable situations. When I was a child, I was afraid of the dark, of heights, of spiders, of things I didn’t understand. My parents enrolled me in gymnastics, and I would cry as the instructors would try to encourage me to try the high bar.
That didn’t last too long.
At 30, I’m still afraid of heights, but enjoy rollercoasters, climbing to the tops of cathedrals and looking down (despite some anxiety attacks). I push myself. I push my own boundaries, because I want to grow. I want to experience the world, honestly, vulnerably, without a glazed film over my eyes like bad sunglasses.
This isn’t to say we should force ourselves to do what makes us deeply uncomfortable in a way that traumatizes us. But we should interrogate ourselves, and others, on why we do the things we do, act the way we do, engage with others and information.
Some days, I wake up feeling like a failure. O, those days. Monday morning was this for me. I woke up, got dressed, walked to the G to take to the 7 which wasn’t running from Court Square to Manhattan, so instead walked through swarms of people to the E, grabbed that to Port Authority to get on the 7 and walked to work from Grand Central.
At work, I made coffee. It was a typical Monday. I made more coffee and some tea, read emails. I posted a photo to my Instagram of a project I’m working on, called #Survivor, which is a photo and interview series that explores trauma in the body and landscape, finding ways to highlight how we survive despite unimaginable pain. This photo series is going to be published as a forthcoming book from Arkay Artists in 2020, and will also live as an ongoing project that exists and will develop on my website. As you can imagine, I take it pretty seriously—and it’s been a focus of my attention—and rightly so.
Humans are beautiful creatures that are capable of so much good. Everyone has a story and everyone can learn from each other. We can find beauty and love and inspiration even in our pain and survival—sometimes especially so. This is not to say we need to suffer or find beauty in suffering—but we can empower ourselves through words and vulnerability and art. This is my mission with the project.
I don’t think I get everything right all the time. I have a lot to learn, but I try to learn, and I do that largely through my art. I’ve spent my entire life questioning the status quo, wanting to fight for a better life for us all.
So, a few hours after I posted the photo, which was a photo of myself nude, as much of the project focuses on bodies, some nude and some not, it was reported. One photo was from July, a shot where I was actually wearing white underwear, but “side boob” was visible, was reported. The second photo that was reported, the latest one, was of me naked on a bench from the side, also showing visible “side boob.”
Yes, I was naked. But they are not sexual images. Photographing survival and trauma isn’t sexual; nudity isn’t and shouldn’t be inherently sexual. (And sexuality in itself, especially expressing consent and celebrating positive sexuality, shouldn’t be shameful either.)
What does it say that we report and ban nudity, and censor positive projects that help survivors of pain, such as sexual trauma? What does this say in 2019 with a president like Trump floating around like a bad dream, a monster in our closets who lurks in the dark?
Let me say this: I know what I do is a risk. I know it’s provocative. I should have censored the photos like I normally do, but I’m tired of censorship. I’m tired of us policing ourselves because social media sites, that we use as safe spaces (because they are promoted as connectors, and in many ways they are) also aren’t controlled by us—and happen to have restrictive ideas and policies.
When we use them, we are agreeing to the terms and services pages, and relinquishing control. In the case of Instagram and Facebook, they have aggressive policies regarding “sexual content.” As Artsy reported earlier this year, Instagram’s policy is gray at best, which is difficult—and limiting—for artists:
“For photographers who work with nudity, posting on Instagram can feel like playing a game of Russian roulette. The company gives no warning before removing photographs—and entire accounts—it deems in violation of the Community Guidelines, which infamously ban “some photos of female nipples,” restrict frontal nudity, and begrudgingly tolerate images of the “buttocks” if photographed from a distance. The platform makes exceptions for images of painting and sculpture; many photographers are pushing for “artistic” nudity in their medium to be allowed, too.
But Paul Mpagi Sepuya, whose photography appears in the 2019 Whitney Biennial, takes issue with this framing. “Should the tastefulness or quality of the art in question be factored into its censorship?” he asked. “It’s a ridiculous question.” And it gets at another, perhaps even more fraught debate: What makes an image art?
Recently, Instagram has made these gray areas even grayer, instituting a policy to limit the spread of “sexually suggestive” images that do not explicitly break its guidelines.”
I’m the first person, as a writer, editor, artist, and publisher, that believes we shouldn’t promote violence or hate speech—or have unsafe images around (such as images of rape, sexual violence, revenge porn, etc). Policing these things is difficult; in theory, allowing people to report, and having AI bots scan for inappropriate content, does level the playing field.
However, it also allows people to be at the whim of what other people find appropriate or not—and that can be flimsy at best, and dangerous when it comes to art or challenging the status quo. Can we trust AI bots to understand the difference between art and something else?
So, how do you combat this? With thought and care. Those are not things that are intrinsic to the quickness of social media—and the unnuanced approach much of social media takes—because when things happen fast, there isn’t a lot of time to reflect.
Context and nuance matter when it comes to art and it’s something I strongly stand by. We deserve to have platforms that support this. We deserve to have spaces and institutions that support this, and promote it. Social change happens because we challenge mainstream ideas that are outdated. We live in an age of technology, we should be able to use it for good.
The real issue is, context doesn’t matter anymore—and everything is about context. How can we understand context if we have generalized rules regarding expression? Expression is complicated at best—and deserves attention.
It doesn’t help that I personally identify as queer and nonbinary—and seek to promote the work and experiences of other people who don’t fit into the norm. So rejecting and censoring these photos is a very rejection of my body and identity—and those like me. It’s rejecting bodies that don’t fit into easy categories. It’s rejecting empowerment through art, even if it is “uneasy” art. It’s not just about queer identity, however. Cisgender people are included in my series too—I don’t discriminate who gets to participate, just as pain and trauma don’t discriminate—and I stress strongly that all bodies and all people deserve to be shown.
However, it also feels like places such as Instagram don’t have a place for queer folx—or want to make a platform we can use to celebrate ourselves whatever our identity is, as opposed to hide and overly craft our platforms to look like vacation life fantasies. Real life isn’t always pretty. A lot of times, it isn’t.
We need artists and advocates of freedom of expression to help encourage social media policies to push boundaries. Boundaries are blurry and hard to define; what constitutes art has always been existentially complex. Is that even the right question, though? Unless something is outright hateful, or actually portraying sexual acts that isn’t body positive or promoting safe sex, shouldn’t we allow people the freedom to express themselves?
Are we in an age where we’re afraid of context? Social media is meant to function as a place to expose ideas and diverse ways of life; for artists especially, and in particular emerging artists like myself, it’s a way to promote ourselves. If we can’t promote ourselves, we are being censored. Sure, I can still make my art, the series will still be a book, but allowing these platforms to censor is a slippery slope the former high school English teacher in me is scared of. Fahrenheit 451, anyone?
If we see nudity as risqué and shameful, and become unused to seeing it as a means of art and expression, then it will become that way. As a former PEN American Center employee, an organization that fights for freedom of expression, censorship isn’t something I take lightly.
A mistake I made? Treating social media like a safe space. For me, the role of art is to challenge, and when working with subjects like sexual trauma, which I have for years, there is no way not to use the body as political, personal, and artistic. The body is art and the role of art is to explore how the body works—and in my case, through trauma, how it survives.
No one forgets trauma. We are not defined by the people who treated us badly, who hurt us, who abused us, who ignored us. Power, and empowerment, is an equalizer in that everyone wants it. We all deserve to feel ownership over ourselves, our lives, our expression.
Power, of course, can turn ugly, just as it can be used for good. It’s how we wield it. Are we giving social media platforms too much power over our bodies and our expression? I probably have. I’m guilty. I feel naive to have trusted these platforms the way I have, to treat them as safe, intimate spaces. That I could have ownership over myself and my art.
Let’s not forget they are businesses, and like all businesses, they want to make money, which includes mining our information as data. As an article at Yale Law School stated, it’s not about us, it’s about profit (which has nothing to do with giving people a platform for expression and more about studying their behavior for other uses). That is an important fact to remember when we are in the midst of various forms of censorship that lead us to censor ourselves, both publicly and invariably privately:
“Social media mining has profound legal and ethical implications, many of which are still developing. Privacy considerations are at the center of the debate on this tool. Regulation of the use of social media data is important to protect freedom of expression among users of social media.
…Furthermore, third-party companies that use social data often have their own policies about how they will use it… Cambridge Analytica’s recent data breach is a prime example. Its data mining practices were in conflict with Facebook’s policies. However, upon learning of the breach, Facebook failed to take significant legal action, leading to the current scandal.
Since the advent of social media, the mining of the data we voluntarily offer to these sites has become prevalent. Big data in this form is used to target users and control what content they see. However, this doesn’t end with the advertising of products and services. Cambridge Analytica mined over fifty million Facebook profiles. This data was not used to market products to Facebook users, but instead to market political ideologies. This has raised serious questions about the influence this practice had on both the 2016 election of Donald Trump and the 2016 Brexit vote in the UK.”
It’s discouraging, yes—but also made me realize, I can change the narrative in how I use it, for myself. I’m staying on these sites for friends and for visibility, but I’ve made the choice to use my personal website more, and use social media when I can. My ideas and sense of navigation will grow like I do, but I implore all of us to question how and why we share information, and how we’re allowed to in the first place.
If we aren’t free to be ourselves, to make the art we want, as long as it isn’t actually harming others and spewing hate (like racism or sexism), then why can’t we celebrate ourselves and our bodies? Why are we being shamed and rejected? Why are “female presenting nipples” graphic while “male presenting” ones aren’t? Why are we still thinking in a binary at all?
At first, I questioned myself. Am I harming people? Am I being too graphic, too crass? Did I have to be naked? Why can’t I just make easy, pretty art? Why can’t I just be satisfied posting selfies with pithy statements? I love selfies like the next person, but that’s not all we can do, as humans. I’m the first person to say outfit photos are empowering, but it shouldn’t be an either/or.
I questioned everything (which we all should, even when we have good intentions). But there it is: Doesn’t context matter? Instagram and Facebook’s policy makes it so that context doesn’t matter. Nuance is suddenly a thing of the past. And I just can’t accept that, not now, not ever.
Joanna C. Valente is a human who lives in Brooklyn, New York. They are the author of Sirs & Madams, The Gods Are Dead, Marys of the Sea, Sexting Ghosts, Xenos, No(body) , and is the editor of A Shadow Map: Writing by Survivors of Sexual Assault. They received their MFA in writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Joanna is the founder of Yes Poetry and the senior managing editor for Luna Luna Magazine. Some of their writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Them, Brooklyn Magazine, BUST, and elsewhere. Joanna also leads workshops at Brooklyn Poets. joannavalente.com / Twitter: @joannasaid / IG: joannacvalente / FB: joannacvalente