Scrolling Headlines:

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August 9, 2016

UMass football gets back in action with start of training camp -

August 9, 2016

UMass football coach Mark Whipple announces Ross Comis as starting quarterback, transfer Andrew Ford close behind -

August 8, 2016

Amherst PD to encourage registering off-campus parties with implementation of Party Smart Registration program -

July 23, 2016

UMass Board of Trustees votes 11-2 to raise tuition and fees an average of 5.8 percent -

July 14, 2016

Mike Stone announces retirement following 2017 season -

July 13, 2016

‘Warcraft’ delivers a likeable mess -

July 5, 2016

Former UMass field hockey coach Carla Tagliente accepts job at Princeton -

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50 Activists attend meeting as UMass Board of Trustees approves motion of divestment from fossil fuel companies -

June 16, 2016

Four former Minutemen depart from UMass hockey program -

June 14, 2016

Boston Calling 2016 delivers rousing farewell to City Hall Plaza -

June 2, 2016

Sufjan Stevens unearths quirk at Boston Calling -

June 2, 2016

The Collegian live tweets Boston Calling -

May 28, 2016

UMass baseball finishes season with sweep over George Mason -

May 22, 2016

UMass women’s lacrosse falls in NCAA quarterfinal -

May 22, 2016

‘Green Room’ is a bloody blast of survival horror -

May 21, 2016

DaLuz: Boston Celtics stuck trudging in the mud -

May 18, 2016

Despite tallying double-digit hits, UMass baseball falls to Fairfield Tuesday afternoon -

May 17, 2016

The right to bare breasts

If you’ve ever been out walking on a hot summer day, you know that sometimes clothes can make you unbearably sweaty and uncomfortable. If you’re a man, you can try to cope with this problem by taking your shirt off, and no one will complain. If you’re a woman and you do the same, you’re likely to get arrested.

In most parts of the U.S., it is illegal for women to go topless in public. Women may legally do so only in six states, and specific cities and beaches. If a woman goes topless in public anywhere else in America, it is considered indecent exposure. In Massachusetts, the maximum penalty for indecent exposure is up to six months in jail and a $200 fine.

Public toplessness for men, however, is legal everywhere.

Of course, the existence of this law isn’t just arbitrary sexism. There are numerous objections that people have made (and will continue to make) to public toplessness for women.

The strongest argument for keeping women’s tops on is that women must be protected from men. According to this argument, men simply are not able to control themselves at the sight of a woman’s bare breasts and would sexually harass, assault, or even rape them. However, women are expected to cover their hair in certain cultures and religious groups. These groups believe that if a woman’s hair— a supposedly sexual part of her body – was to be seen, men would not be able to control their desires. Regardless of religious belief, though, women typically leave their hair uncovered in the U.S., since we don’t consider it to be a sexual entity. Even if a woman does have beautiful hair, men are easily able to control themselves. There is nothing inherently sexual about a woman’s hair, and similarly, there is nothing inherently sexual about a woman’s breasts. Both ideas, in fact, are mere societal constructs.

Other people will say that they aren’t comfortable with being forced to see women’s breasts in public. After all, not everybody has attractive breasts, and who wants to see ugly women go topless? Nonetheless, not everybody has a body that is widely considered attractive, and yet we are “forced” to see them every day – sometimes in shorts or a bathing suit. Finding someone, male or female, unattractive is not a viable reason for forcing them to cover up, or for arresting them if they refuse to do so.

Still others argue that there is an inherent physical difference between men’s and women’s chests, and that therefore we should treat them differently. However, the only real, physical difference between men’s and women’s chests is that women’s breasts can be used to nurse children. Yet, women who are nursing children are legally allowed to show their breasts, so why should their breasts be covered up when they are not in use? We would never cover up our hands simply because they were not in use.

Another pervasive argument against women’s toplessness is that children must be protected from the sight of breasts. However, breastfed children grow up seeing their mothers’ breasts, and it doesn’t seem to affect them adversely. Moreover, European children who go to public beaches see women’s breasts, and it doesn’t traumatize them. In these situations, breasts are clearly not explicitly sexual. As children grow older, they will experience healthy sexual thoughts and feelings on their own, regardless of whether they see naked breasts on a regular basis or not.

Many people also argue that, while the current law may be unfair and sexist, society isn’t ready for a change. In answer to this, I will say that, according to many, society “wasn’t ready” for civil rights, or women’s suffrage, and still “isn’t ready” for gay marriage. In the end, social change will never arise if people continue to cling to tradition for tradition’s sake. If unjust laws are changed, society will adjust accordingly.

Finally, some will say that this simply isn’t an issue worth worrying about. If one examines the mentality behind this kind of law, however, it becomes clear that it is very important. Although people will cite many objections to toplessness for women, the main reason for its illegality is that our society hyper-sexualizes women’s bodies, and particularly their breasts. Covering them up is, at least in theory, meant to protect them from men who won’t be able to restrain themselves. But rapes, assaults, and harassment still occur. Even here on the UMass campus, a woman was assaulted this past weekend, and wearing a shirt didn’t do anything to protect her.

According to the Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine, one out of every six American women is the victim of an attempted or completed rape at some point in her lifetime. I am by no means saying that the law against women’s toplessness is the cause of this, but the fact remains that both the law and the high rate of assaults are the result of a certain societal mindset. This mindset tells us that women’s bodies are inherently sexual, and that men are unable to control their actions. However, neither of these things is true. If a woman’s body isn’t automatically seen as primarily a sexual object, a man is less likely to treat it as such without her consent. If a man isn’t taught that his desires are uncontrollable, he won’t act as if they are.

Far from preventing sexual assaults, the law against women’s toplessness is part of a way of thinking that is harmful to both men and women. If we take steps to change the law, our society’s attitudes will adjust and such a change in attitude will protect women far more effectively than a t-shirt ever could.

Sophie Kaner is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at

53 Responses to “The right to bare breasts”
  1. Clover says:

    None of the people who have posted a reason AGAINST this idea are valid.

    You could’ve also mentioned in the article that women don’t go crazy and try to have sex with a man just because he goes for a runs or walks around without a shirt.

    I mean really.

    Just going along with what you mentioned, breasts shouldn’t be seen as evil or gross or purely a sexual object. We shouldn’t even give it a second thought, but our culture makes it so.

    I just can’t believe how harsh the punishments are for something guys can do any time they want.

  2. Gr8t Pix says:

    I like to think I’m a typical guy. When I see boobs I giggle and drool a little. I never attached any special significance to it. I always thought it was cute and sexy and fun. Interesting but no BIG deal. So I find it fascinating that women seem to feel so strongly about their right to go topless. I said in a previous note that I thought it was one of those rights everybody has to have that nobody would use but it does bring to mind two questions.

    1. In states like New York and Vermont where it’s legal to go topless why don’t you? Simple question, you have the right, you don’t use it, not even on the beach. Why not?

    2. In states where it’s illegal the judge usually dismisses the case at the first hearing from the little bit of research I’ve done. The judge says the law is vague, discriminatory or finds some other excuse to throw the case out. In situations where the girl is found guilty why not appeal? Most of the women seem to be in college. I find it hard to believe one of them couldn’t interest a law professor who would make it a class project. So, why not?

    This seems to be people making a mountain out of a mole hill. Big rallies, lots of screaming and hollering, then, “Oh, we won!? OK, what’s next on the list?” It brings to mind the old saying, use it or lose it. Men have the right to go topless because they DO! Women don’t have the right to go topless because they DON’T!

  3. Stu says:

    It’s a cultural thing, isn’t it? Women’s breasts have far stronger sexual significance than men’s, so they are perceived as intimate and so we don’t consider that is proper to expose them to children or to anyone in public. Men’s chests are not perceived as intimate, so it doesn’t arise.

    Sophie Kaner – maybe it’s time that you grew up, stopped finding sexism in every cultural attitude, and focused on something a bit more important.