Advice from the Trenches: Free the Nipple

Dear C and Dr. B;
I read your post on “Free the Nipple,” the movement that says that for true gender equality, wherever its appropriate for a man to be topless, it should be for a woman too. I looked it up, and found that there are between 10 and 33 states that allow for toplessness in women depending on how you read the caveats.
What worries me is the underlying philosophy behind some of these qualifiers. For instance: it is ok for a woman to bare her breasts so long as it is not sexual in nature. But who gets to interpret if it is of sexual nature? The authorities at the time? If a policeman sees a topless woman and he gets excited can he arrest her because her breasts give him an erection? Isn’t this similar to religious philosophies that blame the woman for men’s sexual thoughts? Muslim women must cover up in a burka to prevent men from having sexual thoughts, and Judaism separates men and women in a service so that the men aren’t distracted by sexual thoughts. My own daughter was told she could not wear a thin strapped halter top at her middle school!
OK, so men are attracted to breasts — but do they need to be protected from them in non-sexual situations? This implies that the responsibility is on the woman to cover up instead of for the man to not act on his animalistic impulses. How is it equality if men get to blame woman for their sexual thoughts?
-Ary Ola
Dear Ary,
You make some good points. Here’s another confusing qualifier which most states allowing toplessness have as well — they do not allow it in the presence of a minor. This of course is ridiculous; what about breastfeeding? And is it illegal for a woman to be naked in her own home? What about a public beach where families may come? It’s such a confusing issue that one site on the net suggests that you consult a lawyer before going topless in any state.
Humans are sexual creatures. Studies have shown that men think about sex every 30 seconds and woman are more or less similar. But it is silly to blame the opposite sex for one’s own thoughts. It is also silly not to take responsibility for oneself and one’s own self-control. However, we live in a patriarchal culture and no matter how much things have advanced, it is far from equal. There is still a glass ceiling and male privilege, and there are a zillion negative words for any woman who flaunts her sexuality: slut, whore, bitch, etc…and there are really no male equivalents. Giglio, Casanova, Don Juan and such are not seen as insults. Woman have always been to blame in religion, culture and literature, and there are few male equivalent stories.
There is a movement to create pro-female mythology and literature to replace the shaming and blaming ones. But this runs into a politically correct quagmire. There are no easy answers to these issues.
Dr. Brilliant Cliché
C says: exactly how many places is it appropriate for men to go topless? You can’t even walk into a Seven Eleven without a shirt on. Quite honestly, in a state like Alaska or North Dokota, I can’t imagine why anyone would even want to expose themselves to the elements.
But as far as the whole “blaming men’s impure thoughts on women” thing, I’d say that is a separate issue. If you remove the question of blame, a simple fact still remains: Both men and women think about sex constantly. You aren’t going to change that, no matter who you blame it on. And unless exposed breasts or naked male torsos are a constant due to an oppressively warm climate, they are very distracting, and neither one is appropriate in modern society where business is conducted or education is the aim at hand. I completely understand why your daughter’s middle school would frown upon skimpy attire. Their students are walking hormone bombs, just waiting to go off. If you want them to learn, why wave a proverbial red flag in front of their faces all day long? In some places, Taiwan for instance, all kids wear uniforms at school until they graduate and go to college. I believe it is no small coincidence that over 90% of Taiwanese kids DO go on to graduate from college.
It is absolutely true that everyone should take responsibility for their own feelings and reactions, and that the tradition of blaming women for male sexuality is bogus. But in terms of true gender equality, I’d say a far more relevant issue is that of equal pay and respect both in the workplace and in society at large. I don’t really give a crap if I can walk around with my boobs hanging out in public. I do care whether I am given the same opportunities and pay that a man gets. I don’t think that having the legal right to go topless is going to help much there.

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