Protests, on principle, are supposed to be loud, disruptive, and eye-catching. By nature, they’re not supposed to be make people feel comfortable. Their aim is to make people look and listen, and to simply get into people’s faces. Most importantly, they’re intended to make people think. The students of the University of Texas Austin plan to do just that when they come to class with gigantic dildos hanging from their backpacks. What we can learn from those students is to not be afraid to make some people feel uncomfortable in order to have our voices heard in protest of what we feel is not right.
In Texas, it is legal to bring a concealed weapon to class, while sex toys violate the obscenity policy of the institution. By dauntlessly coming to class with dildos on their backpacks, the students will give a clear message that if guns, which can cause harm and death, are allowed in a learning environment, then harmless sex toys should be allowed as well. It is perhaps a remark about American society as a whole, in which sex is taboo, yet it seems violence is glorified. What seems like the glorification of violence is really the right to self-defend. Perhaps the students feel that if people can be given the right to defend themselves, they should also be given the right to be sexually liberated.
Provocation is often an effective means of protest because it forces people to see an issue they may not necessarily be thinking about and care about the issue at hand. It is not easy to ignore. For example, protests to “Free The Nipple” often have women out in public topless, which has good shock value, because it is definitely against societal norms. “Free the Nipple” brought awareness to the inequality in the fact that female nipples are censored, while male nipples are not. A major protest occurred in New York City on August 23rd, 2015. It is very eye-catching to see a woman walk down the street with her nipples in full view, which draws attention to their protests to “Free The Nipple”. A lot of buzz was generated by protests, both positive and negative. While some applauded the women’s efforts for gender equality, others perceived them as attention-seeking and straying from the “actual unrest in the world to protest about”.
However, such protests can also be incredibly ineffective, simply because the message is often lost as people debate the usefulness of the method being used to broadcast said message. Regarding “Free The Nipple”, the point is that some women feel that their nipples shouldn’t be censored in the name of gender equality, because male nipples aren’t censored. Yet, by protesting through blatantly being out in public with their nipples showing, it can distract people from the actual issue being protested, as the conversation would shift to focus on how provocative the protest was. Instead of discussing the idea of “female liberation and empowerment”, the public responded with discomfort at the sight of seeing nude bodies in the streets.
In the case of the Texas students, the shock value may also serve as a distraction from their well thought out point that sexual items should be allowed if violent ones are. Public reactions may focus on the obscenity of blatantly displaying sex toys. Still, I feel that a protest should not shy away from making people uncomfortable, because I believe that change often comes out of a place of discomfort. People’s lives have to be affected in some way to propel them to take action, or at least have a conversation. If not, they will continue not to care and nothing will be done.
While provocative protests can certainly draw attention to what needs to be changed, they cannot necessarily convince people that change should be made to the status quo. What is lost in such provocative protests tends to be a sort of respect, or even willingness, to see the protesters’ point of view, because of people who disagree with the method of protest and so are reluctant to engage with the protesters. For example, this summer, Black Lives Matter activists stormed a stage in which Bernie Sanders was giving a speech about his policies as a presidential candidate. They were heavily criticized for interrupting Sanders’ speech and taking over the stage, which was seen as very disrespectful. It created a negative image of the Black Lives Matter movement and drew attention away from their demands for policies that deal with racial justice and racial equality.
In the case of Black Lives Matter protesting the absence of racial inequality in presidential candidates’ platforms, a provocative protest was necessary, because serious issues, like that of race and gender, are so important that they need to be detailed in our presidential candidates’ policy proposals. It also directly confronted the person from whom they wanted to see change. By making sure their voices were heard, no matter how contentious or provocative it might have been, those Black Lives Matters made sure necessary change was enacted. Bernie Sanders now has a racial justice platform clearly detailed as part of his policies. A good protest is not limited to pure shock value.
Dildos are a good form of protest because they clearly convey a message of sexual liberation. Even though they rely on shock value, the protests also have a deeper meaning behind them on the unfairness of allowing perceived violence in schools, while banning sexual objects, which cause no harm.
Provocative protests can make very strong and effective statements if they are backed up with a powerful reason behind the protest and draw enough awareness towards an issue not often spoken about, while directly being heard by an agent of change. Theatrics aside, provocative protests are essential for broad societal change. Nothing will be changed without a lot of discomfort.
Photo courtesy of The Daily Beast