Femen activists have made a habit of reaching the front pages of national news. While their members are often front and center in media coverage of their various protests, their platform and results are less publicized.

Bringing the question: what does Femen’s sextremism stand for and has it shown results?

Sextremism’s roots

Born in Ukraine in 2008, the movement claims to uphold a new feminism: denouncing the exploitation of women and, more broadly, any form of inequality in social relations.

Linking feminism and Marxism, Femen aim for the advent of a social order free from division and inequality to be brought by a women-led revolution. The obverse of this claim being that patriarchy – a social order governed by and for men – is intrinsically linked to hierarchical social structures.

To contest the establishment, Femen wish to turn the perception of women on its head: topless protesters, far from conforming to the hyper-sexualized cliché of femininity, adopt an active and confrontational stance. By reclaiming female nudity as an instrument of revolt, rather than an object of desire, Femen hope to topple the phallocratic system which is responsible for the subjection of one gender by another.

The three pillars of the edifice which they identify in their manifesto and target in their protests are:

  • dictatorship,
  • the sex industry,
  • and religion.

A tryptich which betrays its eastern European origins and undermines its effectiveness in the West.

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Eastern European successes

Although Femen’s actions in Ukraine – its country of origin – did not yield major advances for the cause of women, it was successful in highlighting their plight by capturing the media’s attention.

Indeed, in the Eastern European context from which Femen was borne, its tactics were tremendously effective. The violence which its protests unleashed on a purely symbolic level being were met by blunt physical violence, revealing the profoundly repressive nature of the troïka against which Femen crusaded.

The ripples of the images coming out of such “sextremist happenings” were particularly strong in the West and made the condition of women in Eastern Europe an undeniable reality for many fellow citizens of the European Union. Societies which had claimed to secure basic human rights to its citizens were thus revealed as living in negation of these principles which are on of the strongest foundations of the European Union.

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Western European debacle

Claiming that the structures it had identified in its original struggle were identical worldwide, Femen started its internationalization in 2012. One of its crucial mistakes in this propagation was to leave its theoretical foundation unrevised and act in the Western context as it had in the East.

While the feminist battle is not complete in Western Europe, the pillars Femen had identified in Ukraine are a far cry from the realities of most Western women. In place of fighting dictatorship, the battle is for greater access to positions in the top rungs of national governance. In lieu of the sex industry, women are fighting for equality in the workplace and against the sexualization of women by the media. And, instead of fighting religion itself, western societies are crafting a role for women in a largely post-religious society.

The fact that the battle Femen were fighting seemed for the most part to have already been won made their sextremist tactics sound hollow. The media relayed the happenings even more swiftly than they had in the East, but the demands seemed to not resonate with their new surroundings. Moreover, without armed police brutally removing the protesters, it appears as though the message is not amplified the way it had been in the East.

In France, Femen’s new headquarters, the groups demands are so well recognized by the government that the national postal service went as far as to place founding member Inna Shevchenko’s face on the standard issue French stamp.

The high level of awareness and institutionalism associated with their demands completely took the wind out of Femen’s radical message: in the Western context its manifesto reads as somewhat of an anachronism.

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Conclusion: Femen’s ideological drifting

Femen’s failure to come to grips with the specificities of the battlefield for Feminist issues in the West made its message sound hollow. Worse: from a vanguard group in Eastern Europe the organisation’s tactics came to be perceived as seeking the media’s attention to deliver stale punchlines.

Femen has since drifted from its original position. Rather than joining the Feminist lines of combat in the West – and thus dropping its topless arsenal – it has latched on to minority causes where it felt its tactics might still be relevant. With mitigated success: its topless jihad instigated to denounce Islamist regimes was already preaching to the choir, much like its stance for gay rights.

It seems as though the group is in an impasse. To exit they will either have to harden their ideological position to rejoin the vanguard or surrender their preferred mode of expression for one more in accord with democratic practice.