Probably the only reason why many people reading this have heard about the topic of legalizing female toplessness is because of the incident that happened at a recent Berkeley City Council meeting, or it might be because of the #FreeTheNipple campaign spearheaded by celebrities like Miley Cyrus. For everyone who did not hear, on Tuesday, Sept. 12th, a Berkeley City Council item that would have equalized nudity laws in Berkeley by decriminalizing the public display of female breasts was tabled before voting on the measure could take place. One local nudity activist, Gypsy Taub, who had come to support the proposition was disappointed by the outcome and stripped naked, got up on the City Council’s dais and proceeded to make her opinions known to the Council in a vocal and enthusiastic manner.
So where do I come in? I do not consider myself a radical nudity activist, and you’ll never find me stripping naked to prove a point. Heck, I cover up and wear a one piece while many my age are donning bikinis and crop tops. In fact, though I was the one who wrote the piece of legislation that Councilmember Kriss Worthington sponsored, I am not a lawyer or an award-winning feminist speaker, just a person that knows when a law is not only pointless but actually contributes to the oppression of women.
Currently, Berkeley has a municipal code that penalizes the public showing of “any portion of the breast at or below the areola thereof of any female person” This inequity has galvanized the public’s attention, though many people, even some council members, do not take this issue seriously. Indeed, this practice of deprioritizing female bodily autonomy has been present throughout history, contributing to systemic female marginalization.
Ironically, under California state law (Penal Code 314 PC), and in almost all other states as well, non-sexual female toplessness is legal. Therefore, in any city in California that does not have a law specifically prohibiting it, it is already legal for a woman to be shirtless. In all those cities across America where it is legal for women to be topless, there has been no disproportionate outcropping of sexual abuse, no mass loss of childhood innocence, and no corruption of society or frogs falling out of the sky. So why are we still so afraid?
By far the most common argument I hear is the following: “I believe women should have the right if men have the right, but as a parent, I just don’t know if I want my kids to see bare breasts in public.” I fully understand this sentiment, and I do believe nudity laws should help to protect children; nonetheless, children see breasts anytime a woman breastfeeds in public (which is becoming increasingly common and is already legal in Berkeley!) and are not negatively affected by it, so why are we criminalizing that which kids find natural and pedestrian in the name of “protecting them”? In any case, kids are much more adversely affected by legislative gender inequality than just witnessing some breasts. This law is yet another example of unrelenting inequality of access to power and privilege between the sexes. Telling pre-pubescent little girls that they can never remove their shirt because they might attract unwanted attention is like asking a sexual assault victim what they were wearing during the attack. There is no good reason to teach little girls to be ashamed of and sexualize their own bodies, that they deserve less rights than their male counterparts, or that even though a city may be like Berkeley, a liberal-utopia, which touts itself as pro-women, pro-choice, and progressive, will still tell women that their bodily autonomy is not worth a measly vote at City Council.
Others have suggested that rather than legalizing the display of female nipples, we should criminalize male nipples. Though this might solve the law’s gender disparity, it would create a solution that would be unpopular, impossible to enforce, and even nonsensical. The fact remains that neither male nor female nipples are a sexual organ necessary during coitus and thus are not inherently sexual like penises and vaginas.
Physically, male and female breasts are very similar, sometimes even identical, but by far the most different aspect of male and female breasts is not the nipple itself but the presence of a larger quantity of breast tissue in female breasts. Yet, the law does not criminalize breast tissue. Women are free to show as much cleavage and “side-boob” as they want, only when it comes to nipples are women punished. If it is high amounts of breast tissue that makes nipples explicit, than women with little to no breast tissue should already be exempt from the law, and any man with a higher than average amount of breast tissue or “moobs” (man-boobs) should be included; yet, that is not the case.
Even in Berkeley where it is illegal for women to expose their breasts, there have been accounts of women at street festivals and other public gatherings who have exposed their nipples. For some people, this proves that getting rid of the law is unimportant. Nevertheless, since from these examples there’s proof that female toplessness is not harming anyone and the law prohibiting it is not enforced, why not just get rid of the law? If city officials pick and choose which laws they enforce, that sends the message that some city laws are merely suggestions. Yet, rectifying that lapse by enforcing the law more harshly is an even worse idea, not only for the reasons previously stated, but it would also be a colossal waste of police resources. As many have insinuated, the justice system of Berkeley is already overworked and has much bigger things to worry about in the foreseeable future than a couple of errant nipples.
Thus, in some sense, I do agree with people who say that this legislation is not a big deal. In fact, that’s the point. Legalizing female breasts should not be a big deal. Reinforcing the sexual objectification of women by keeping a sexist law that on the books for no reason other than abstract, unlogical social stigma is what is a big deal. If nothing else, this law is so blatantly misogynistic and obviously ludicrous that it can get a person like me, who isn’t a lawyer, award-winning feminist, or radical nudity activist to devote an awful lot of time trying to fight against it.