Thursday, December 22, 2011

Let the boobies breathe

I have always had an issue with breasts. By issue, I mean, I have never understood why it is acceptable and legal for men to be topless in public, but for women, it is a crime in many places. What is the difference? Literally, the difference is a bunch of fat and mammary glands. Making it criminal for women to be topless in public is yet another way of patriarchal governments controlling what women can do with their bodies. Maybe if we didn't have laws banning exposure of breasts in public, they wouldn't be so taboo and so sexually objectified.

One thing that bothers me about this is that I have seen countless men, especially with the growing problem of obesity in our country, topless in public who have larger breasts than myself and many other women. And really, if you took pictures of just their chests and showed them to me, I probably couldn't tell whether they belonged to a male or a female.

In the summer of 1991, female University student Gwen Jacob in Ontario was arrested for walking home with her top off in 92 degree heat. She was charged with committing an indecent act and fined 75 dollars. Jacob recalls that she took her top off after seeing some men playing sports with no shirts on. A woman saw Jacob and called the police, saying she was concerned because her young children saw Jacob topless. Jacob challenged her arrest in court, arguing that:
Women's breasts are just fat tissue, not unlike men's.
The judge ruled against her and upheld the conviction, saying that breasts should not be uncovered in public because:
A woman's breast is part of the female body that is sexually stimulating to men both by sight and touch.
 This reasoning reminds me of reasoning I've heard for why Islamic women should wear hijab: to prevent sexual harassment from men who can't control themselves when looking at the female body. In that vein, any part of the body that is sexually stimulating should be covered up, right? Well, I happen to find a nice set of pecs on a guy quite scintillating, as do many women, but men can flaunt their pecs all they want. Is the judge implying that it doesn't matter what women find sexually stimulating, only what men do? If people were concerned about exposing body parts of men that women find stimulating, there would be a stronger argument for men not being allowed to go topless than for women. Rock-hard arms, six pack abs, perfectly sculpted pecs like a Ken doll - the entire torso is like a sexual playground, really.

What about the woman who called the police? She was concerned because her young children saw Jacob topless. This is so twisted to me - that parents want to shield their children from seeing breasts, a body part that belongs to more than half of the world's population. A body part that, if her children are girls, they will grow in a few years. A body party that, if her children are boys, their nourishment as babies likely came from her own breasts. I wouldn't be surprised if that woman is more concerned with her children seeing breasts than with them playing video games.

The good news for Gwen Jacob is that in 1996, the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned her conviction, ruling that:
There was nothing degrading or dehumanizing in what the appellant did. The scope of her activity was limited  and was entirely non-commercial. No one who was offended was forced to continue to look at her.
It may be good news that her conviction was overturned, but the reasoning is a bit strange. What if the scope of her activity wasn't limited? What if she was playing sports with those topless guys? What if her toplessness was commercial, just like men's toplessness is? Would the appeal court have ruled differently? I suspect so.

Many women, even in places where toplessness is legal, still choose not to do it. A current student at the University of Toronto said she'd never go topless:
No, because of the interpretation of the behaviour. It's still deviant, right? If you are going to make something legal, that's one thing, but the culture has to change around it.
Her statement reminds me of a discussion held in Feminist Legal Theory: does law influence society or does society influence law? Her interpretation seems to suggest that while perhaps a small group of society may change the law, the law won't necessarily change society as a whole. Or, if it does, it would take a really long time. is a U.S. organization that claims women have the same constitutional right as men to be topless in public.  They host an annual, National Go Topless Day in August. This year on Go Topless Day, a pro-topless protest occurred in Asheville, North Carolina, and was met with an anti-topless protest held by former conservative elected officials who called the pro-toplessness event "child sexual abuse."

As far as which States have decriminalized toplessness for women, take a look here. notes that:
Even if a top free law is firmly in effect, the police can still arrest you under the pretense of "disorderly conduct."  
The criminalization of female toplessness is yet another form of gender inequality, misogyny, and oppression. I applaud groups like, and I only hope that the movement continues to grow.

1 comment:

Pali said...

I have had this same thought. Why is the exposure of a woman's breast criminal, and a man's socially acceptable? I have seen men with fairly large breasts, indistinguishable from women's, parading in public with no fear of prosecution or persecution. The law should be enforced unilaterally against all breasts, or not at all. It is not a woman's responsibility or problem if a man will be sexually stimulated, and if someone is offended they can look away or leave. Unfortunately, as within many other aspects of life, women are taught to feel shame about their body and sexuality while men are congratulated and celebrated for it.