The Social and Legal Arguments for Allowing Women to Go Topless in Public

September 25th, 2013 at 10:00 am by David Farrar

The Atlantic reports:

In early August, 33-year-old Phoenix Feeley began a 16-day jail sentence in New Jersey for refusing to pay fines from 2008 when she was arrested for sunbathing topless at a Spring Lake beach. She spent nine days on a hunger strike before being released early from Monmouth County Jail on August 14. 

Feeley is part of Go Topless, an organization that advocates for women’s right to go topless on the basis of gender equality. The group says its objective is not to push for a world where everyone goes sans shirt, but rather to push back against what they see as an infringement of women’s constitutional right not to be discriminated against on the basis of gender. The question is: Why should women be barred from going topless where men are not? It’s a question that quickly takes its debaters from an analysis of legality to the subtleties of how men and women are treated by the law and society.

The incident in New Jersey wasn’t Feeley’s first legal squabble over the issue of public toplessness. In 2005, the activist successfully sued the NYPD after being arrested for walking shirtless down a New York City street, where it is officially legal for women to do so. She was awarded a settlement of $29,000, in addition to bringing attention to the often vague or inconsistently enforced toplessness laws in the US.

As I understand it, NZ laws are non-specific as to what has to be worn in public. We’ve had topless women in parades, and I think the naked jogger even escaped conviction.

The idea that female toplessness is somehow different from male toplessness is clearly deeply embedded in our collective social psyche.

This argument, in fact, came up in a landmark case in 1986, when nine women were arrested in Rochester, New York, for being topless in an isolated park, at a time when the state had a law forbidding female toplessness.

Judge Herman Walz, one of the first to hear the case, which took six years before being settled finally by the New York State Court of Appeals, wrote in his decision that “the statute’s objective is to protect the public from invasions of its sensibilities, and merely reflects current community standards as to what constitutes nudity. The objective itself is not based on stereotyped notions, therefore it is not illegitimate.” He also wrote that “community standards do not deem the exposure of males’ breasts offensive, therefore the state does not have an interest in preventing exposure of the males’ breasts.”

I don’t really consider any nudity offensive (except my own!) but fair to say you tend to be more surprised if a woman is topless than a guy.

One of the curiosities of the debate, then, is that both sides argue that they are combatting objectification. Those opposed to public female toplessness say it is the exposure of breasts that will sexualize the women baring them. The question, finally, has much to do with how you think laws should relate to society: Is it more advisable to use laws to protect women (and the public) in a society that already views their bodies as sexual? Or should laws challenge preconceptions and foster an evolution in the perception of female bodies? Given that in the US, there are over 200,000 occurrences of sexual assault annually, with 9 out of 10 victims being women, both sides understandably feel that the sexualization of the female body is a high-stakes issue.

Advocates like Phoenix Feeley and Go Topless, though, would argue in favor of the more progressive second approach: using law as a tool for change. Pro-topless equality supporters claim that if state and local governments facilitate the normalizing of female bodies, people will begin to see women less as sex objects for the taking, a mental shift which could feed a decline in, among other problems, assault. They claim they are pushing for equal laws in an effort not only to gain legal fairness, but to change the overall view of women in American society. Legal thought in the U.S. seems to be shifting, slowly, in their favor. Only time will tell whether their social predictions, too, will be borne out.

I really can’t see a change of social acceptability, regardless of the legal situation.

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48 Responses to “The Social and Legal Arguments for Allowing Women to Go Topless in Public”

  1. Dennis Horne (2,403 comments) says:

    No objections to female nudity from me. I don’t need to look. Well, I try not to stare. ;)

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  2. David in Chch (519 comments) says:

    There was a case like that in Canada many years ago, and in that case, the women in question won. So there was then a Canadian comedy duo, akin to Flight of the Conchord, who recorded a piece in which they sang that in the USA, they only had the right to bear (bare) arms, but in Canada they had the right to bare breasts.

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  3. wreck1080 (3,923 comments) says:

    So, dpf, you wouldn’t care if old people wandered around shopping malls / schools etc in their birthday suits?

    I object just on the basis of ew yuck.

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  4. Dennis Horne (2,403 comments) says:

    Amazing the number of shoppers and assistants who show their cracks when they bend down. Sometimes it’s a delightful break in the monotony, other times it’s frightful. The things you see when you haven’t got a gun…

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  5. Harriet (4,979 comments) says:

    Women never make any sense where there breasts are concerned.

    Women already wear low cut tops which expose parts of their breasts in cold weather, there is then no reason for them to do so other than they want them to be seen.

    Yet if you look at their breasts you are either given filthy looks or verbally chastised for doing so.

    Women should have to cover up till they grow up! :cool:

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  6. wikiriwhis business (4,019 comments) says:

    The Swiss have just legalised public masturbation. Does that mean anyone will do it ?

    I guess white middle class students may go topless around campus

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  7. rouppe (971 comments) says:

    It is quite amusing to me that women fought tooth and nail to be freed from sexual objectivity, to have independent means, to not need a man in order to live. Now I guess this movement is an extension of that however there is no getting around the fact that female breasts are a sexualised organ.

    If a female shows them off, either through the cut of their clothing (as Harriet as said) or by being topless, then there should be no complaint from women when others look at their breasts.

    So no issue from me about women being allowed to be topless in the same environment men can be. Just don’t complain if I look at what you’ve got.

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  8. Psycho Milt (2,412 comments) says:

    Northern Europe doesn’t seem to struggle with this concept – topless is for the beach or any other place where you’re sunbathing, any other places you’ll want some kit on. One of the things I loved about Germany…

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  9. ChardonnayGuy (1,207 comments) says:

    The”indecent exposure” provision of Section 27 of the Summary Offences Act 1981 refers only to exposure of genitals, not bared breasts…

    27Indecent exposure

    (1)Every person is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 months or a fine not exceeding $2,000 who, in or within view of any public place, intentionally and obscenely exposes any part of his or her genitals.

    (2)It is a defence in a prosecution under this section if the defendant proves that he or she had reasonable grounds for believing that he or she would not be observed.

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  10. nasska (11,580 comments) says:

    ….”I really can’t see a change of social acceptability, regardless of the legal situation.”….

    Well summed up but it is not the responsibility of the state to define morals or dress. Social pressure will dictate the level of exposure the public considers tolerable in any given circumstances.

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  11. Harriet (4,979 comments) says:

    ChardonnayGuy (696) Says:
    September 25th, 2013 at 10:51 am
    The”indecent exposure” provision of Section 27 of the Summary Offences Act 1981 refers only to exposure of genitals, not bared breasts…

    Surprise surprise!

    WELL YOU WOULD KNOW……get caught in the sand dunes did ya…. again? :cool:

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  12. BeaB (2,125 comments) says:

    Having just returned from Europe I am amazed at how prudish we have always been about our bodies or, worse, how “ew yuk” as Wreck said. No wonder our teenagers, boys and girls, have body issues.

    In Spain and Greece women sunbathed and swam topless with no-one taking any notice at all. Men wore skimpy swimming briefs and looked great. Fat or thin, it didn’t matter.

    Germans naturally strip off in changing rooms, even mixed ones. Chinese women have no embarrassment stripping off in women’s changing rooms.

    No saddo stares or ogles.

    How refreshing after the contortions of Kiwis trying to change under towels in desperate fear someone might spot one of their bits. or, shock horror, a child might be scarred for life!

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  13. PaulL (5,987 comments) says:

    I think this will change. The bizzare American fascination with whether you can see their bits (cue Janet Jackson controversy) is counter-productive. It leads to things like debates whether it’s OK to breast feed in public, which have real impacts on women with young children.

    I don’t really think the law should dictate what you can or cannot wear. You probably shouldn’t be allowed to commit offensive behaviour, which I think social norms can probably dictate (and common law). In other words, if you’re masturbating or having sex in public, you’re probably in trouble. If you’re doing it in a secluded clearing where nobody’s likely to see you, and oops someone does, you’re probably not guilty of offensive behaviour.

    That doesn’t mean that everybody’s going to start going topless, any more than the right to wear skimpy tube tops with no bra and low rider jeans means that fat women go out and do that. Sure, they can if they want, and if they do they shouldn’t be surprised if people look or comment, but I doubt they will.

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  14. Harriet (4,979 comments) says:

    “…..Having just returned from Europe I am amazed at how prudish we have always been about our bodies or, worse, how “ew yuk” as Wreck said. No wonder our teenagers, boys and girls, have body issues…..”

    ‘…prudish…..’

    Use the word PRIVATE and you might learn something!

    Some people don’t want to show off their bits and pieces – especially in this day and age where they could be mistaken for being gay ect, afterall, they are in a same-sex enviroment.

    Anyway, why do people like you have such a fixation that matters of sex, nakedness ect should be public?….you a perv or something?

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  15. Harriet (4,979 comments) says:

    “….In other words, if you’re masturbating or having sex in public, you’re probably in trouble. If you’re doing it in a secluded clearing where nobody’s likely to see you, and oops someone does, you’re probably not guilty of offensive behaviour…”

    FFS!

    Now we have someone suggesting that it’s o.k to behave like primates! :cool:

    Most Liberalism is actually just regressive behaviour – why on earth you would think that is progressive is fucken beyond me!

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  16. Kea (12,841 comments) says:

    Anybody who is “OFFENDED !!! by the sight of a fellow human naked has serious issues and they are more of a threat to society than some girl sunbathing her tits on the beach.

    Grown men who claim they are “offended” by the sight of a womans breasts are perverted by any reasonable measure.

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  17. Dennis Horne (2,403 comments) says:

    @Kea. Don’t you have feathers on your breast? :)

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  18. Liberty (267 comments) says:

    In the end there is very little difference between heartland America an fundamentalist Muslims. They are both intolerant to the rights of the individual.

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  19. Jaffa (94 comments) says:

    Women spend a lot of time and money getting their breasts made bigger with surgery, push up bras, bras displaying a nipple, squeezed together to make a cleavage etc, etc.

    Then, low cut dresses to really display them.

    But if you look at them you are a pervert??

    You can admire their hair, skin, weight loss, but not their tits??

    Hard to ignore them, with the efforts they make to get them noticed!

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  20. Ryan Sproull (7,205 comments) says:

    Has anyone considered the reduced tax revenue from strip clubs if naked women’s breasts become commonplace?

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  21. Harriet (4,979 comments) says:

    What would you know about those places Ryan…….changed your behaviour have we? :cool:

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  22. Ryan Sproull (7,205 comments) says:

    What would you know about those places Ryan…….changed your behaviour have we?

    From…?

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  23. PaulL (5,987 comments) says:

    @Harriet: I’m pretty sure that having sex is still going on, even if we’re now above being primates. :-) All I’m saying is that offensive does change with the times. And that if we make it illegal to have a bit of nookie in the great outdoors (providing you take reasonable precautions that nobody can see you) then we’re really removing some of the fun from life.

    And when we’re at a point where declaring that seeing a women’s naked breast is going to somehow…..I dunno – I’m not sure what it’s going to cause…. then we’ve really got a problem. Because half the population has them, so couldn’t be too surprised what they look like, and the other half the population spend a goodly proportion of their time trying to see some, so they’re hardly going to complain if they can see them for free. I’m just not clear who is negatively impacted by seeing breasts.

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  24. Viking2 (11,488 comments) says:

    One only has to look at the Walmart customer pictures to find that the attitude and laws are irrelevant.

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  25. Dennis Horne (2,403 comments) says:

    On average, everyone’s got one tit…

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  26. Tom Jackson (2,553 comments) says:

    In Spain and Greece women sunbathed and swam topless with no-one taking any notice at all

    Except you. haha.

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  27. Ashley Schaeffer (488 comments) says:

    Get them out I say. More power to ya.

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  28. redeye (629 comments) says:

    The problem is that those women that want to go topless are generally the ones who’s tits you don’t want to see. At least the men that consistently parade themselves shirtless are generally not the hairy beer bellied DFP’s of the world.

    But I would suggest, in the name of equality we ban toplessness for everyone. Sunbaking is dangerous anyway, apparently.

    Then when you get to see a great rack it’ll do the trick and wont be something you’ve seen so much of that you’d rather watch the cricket.

    Men could start wearing the proverbial manzier when necessary.

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  29. PaulL (5,987 comments) says:

    @Redeye. I’ve yet to find a breast I didn’t want to see. I wasn’t aware there was such a thing. I’m happy to look at them all, big, small, saggy, firm. Actually, now I think about it, man boobs I don’t want to see, so my ideal law would require wearing of a shirt if you had man boobs, but otherwise topless would be good.

    Let’s be honest. Not that many women would suddenly start going topless. The question isn’t whether they have to be topless, the question is whether they can be if they feel like it. I don’t see any compelling reason for the govt to outlaw it, and making it illegal just gives protesters something to protest about. Get rid of the law.

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  30. RichardX (326 comments) says:

    Harriet, Humans are primates

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  31. RRM (9,933 comments) says:

    YOU CAN’T DO THAT HERE.

    IT’S THE LAW.

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  32. Fletch (6,408 comments) says:

    The thing is that women’s breasts are sexual. They just are. At least in our Western culture.

    Men are turned on by them, whether people like it or not. There’s a reason why magazines with topless women on the cover are wrapped in plastic and kept on the high shelf away from children. It has nothing to do with prudishness.

    I wouldn’t be surprised that if women were allowed to go topless anywhere they wanted that there would be an increase in the incidence of rape.

    Men don’t have breasts (unless you count “man-boobs”). They have nipples. So they can go without a shirt and no one cares.
    Little girl toddlers who have not developed breasts also go topless at the beach and no one cares.
    When they develop breasts, however, it is another story. Adolescence changes them.

    In other cultures such as Africa, etc, it may be different, but not in Western culture.

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  33. Kea (12,841 comments) says:

    I wouldn’t be surprised that if women were allowed to go topless without the Burqa anywhere they wanted that there would be an increase in the incidence of rape.

    More enlightment from the Christians

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  34. Fletch (6,408 comments) says:

    Kea, so you’re equating seeing a woman’s face with seeing a woman’s breasts? Really?
    I don’t believe that is a valid comparison.

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  35. Chthoniid (2,047 comments) says:

    Breasts are simply a secondary sexual characteristic. Beards are also, as are the Adams apple, the broader shoulders and (generally) thicker muscles of men. It’s hard to conceive of why one is treated as different legally to another.

    I’ve managed to work in Papua New Guinea where topless women are common. It’s not done in a sexual way or interpreted as titillation. And it’s sensible and comfortable in that environment. That our problem with it seems to be cultural gives a poor basis to make it illegal.

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  36. Redbaiter (9,098 comments) says:

    “I’ve managed to work in Papua New Guinea where topless women are common.”

    That is utter crap. They are not “common”.

    In extremely isolated native villages it might be so but in most places woman’s breasts in towns or villages are usually covered for the same reason of modesty as in the west.

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  37. kowtow (8,524 comments) says:

    kea is such a prat.

    Always complaining about Muzzies under the gun and there she goes bringing fucking burkas into this and having a go at Christians.

    Leave it out you tiresome troll!

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  38. PaulL (5,987 comments) says:

    Actually kowtow, it’s pretty much equivalent. The burqa is worn because apparently if men saw a woman’s hair, in fact anything other than their face, they would be likely to lose control and rape that women right then and there. Kind of like the logic that Fletch provided that seeing a woman’s breasts would make us more likely to rape her. I don’t subscribe to that, I think it’s frankly crap. But the two arguments are directly comparable.

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  39. Redbaiter (9,098 comments) says:

    Wrong. The issue with the burka (as Muslims see it) is not men failing temptation but women inviting sexual attention.

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  40. Odakyu-sen (677 comments) says:

    “Wrong. The issue with the burka (as Muslims see it) is not men failing temptation but women inviting sexual attention.”

    Therefore, it’s not the man’s fault. Case closed. (So there!)

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  41. gump (1,650 comments) says:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gymnophobia

    “Gymnophobia (from Greek γυμνός – gumnos, “naked”and φόβος – phobos, “fear”) is a fear (phobia) of nudity. Gymnophobics experience anxiety from nudity, even if they realize their fear is irrational. They may worry about seeing others naked or being seen naked, or both. Their fear may stem from a general anxiety about sexuality, from a fear that they are physically inferior, or from a fear that their nakedness leaves them exposed and unprotected.”

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  42. muggins (3,787 comments) says:

    I remember an older woman at a nudist camp being interviewed on TV a while back.
    The woman had her arms crossed in front of her and her breasts were hanging out underneath.
    Not a pretty sight.
    Maybe there should be a rule.
    Women may expose their breasts in public providing they don’t hang below their waist when they are standing upright.

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  43. RRM (9,933 comments) says:

    No tits, please – we’re conservatives.

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  44. Kea (12,841 comments) says:

    Time for a Poll.

    Do you think women should be forced by law to cover their bodies ?

    kea-No

    Fletch-Yes the filthy godless whores

    kowtow-Yes women disgust me.!

    Dennis Horne-No I am normal.

    …???

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  45. RRM (9,933 comments) says:

    Yes the conservative state needs to preserve its power over people’s lives.

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  46. PaulL (5,987 comments) says:

    @Kea: I see only two valid options:
    1. Women can do what they like
    2. All women must submit themselves to evaluation by PaulL, who will determine who may and who may not expose their breasts

    Anything other than those two options is blatantly stupid.

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  47. kowtow (8,524 comments) says:

    Time for a Poll?

    No , time for a troll.

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  48. Johnboy (16,651 comments) says:

    And here was me thinking it was a wonderful thing looking at my shorn ewe’s and thinking of the cheque.

    I never realised I was a pervert till now! :)

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