The right to bare breasts

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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 [email protected].