Morgan Shandro/the Gauntlet

Topfreedom: the right of women to bare breasts

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There have been many advances in feminism and equality for women in the 21st century. However, the battle is far from over. Despite the popular idea that rights for women are far more advanced than they were one or two generations ago, women still experience both legal and social inequalities and double standards. One double standard that is still prominent is the inability of women to go topless in public.

Female toplessness in Canada was considered a criminal offence of public indecency until 1991 because, according to the Criminal Code, breasts were “part of the female body that is sexually stimulating to men both by sight and touch” and were therefore considered indecent to display in public. This law was challenged by Gwen Jacob, a student at Guelph University who was charged with public indecency when she took her shirt off during a sweltering July day in 1991. She challenged the charges and was eventually acquitted in 1996 on the basis that being topless, in itself, is not a public sexual act.

This case has since set the precedent for similar cases in Ontario and the rest of Canada. In the last 22 years, views about women’s topfreedom have barely progressed past the antiquated idea that it is not appropriate for women to display their breasts to anyone but their husbands or sexual partners. Although it is no longer likely that a woman will be charged for indecency if she chooses to go topless in public, it is certain that she will experience harassment, ridicule or other unwanted attention that men rarely experience when they take their shirts off. 

Even in cases when a woman should have a reasonable expectation of privacy, like when photos were taken of a topless Kate Middleton on her own property, it is not seen as a horrible breach of privacy. Instead, she was shamed for having the audacity to step outside without a top on. It is deeply disturbing that almost nobody so much as bats an eyelash when things like this happen and these women-shaming opinions are expressed.

The idea that the female body needs to be hidden stems from patriarchal ideals — that a woman’s body belongs to her husband. Women’s breasts, which exist to breastfeed infants, have been turned into sexual objects by this patriarchal view, and are blamed for causing male arousal and aggression, rather than holding men responsible for their own behaviour. This prevalent view is used as a tactic of shaming women in order for them to internalize the view that breasts are shameful. To this day, it is common to see women enforcing the dominant view of the indecency of exposing one’s breasts. We have even gone so far as shaming women when they breastfeed their children in public.

It is disgraceful that we have let this cycle of shame perpetuate for so long. The double standard that women do not have the same right as men to be topless in public is ridiculous and outdated. The idea that a woman should hide her body due to the effect it may have on men is offensive and demeaning. It also suggests that women’s rights to their own bodies come second to male comfort and convenience. This opinion is not only detrimental to women, it is just as harmful to men. By suggesting that men are powerless to urges at the sight of breasts, we insinuate that they are irrational animals incapable of controlling their own actions with little intelligence past their primal desires.

Ask yourself if you really want to live in a culture that promotes these kinds of ideas. The stigma against women going topless in the same public situations as men is a disservice to both sexes. A breast is simply a mammary gland that is only different from a man’s because it has extra fatty tissue and the ability to provide nourishment to an infant. Seeing breasts in situations where casual states of undress are appropriate for either sex, such as outdoors on a hot day, causes no harm. In fact, if our culture stopped placing such a taboo on female toplessness, it is possible that breasts would stop being viewed as sexual objects and start being seen as what they are: just another body part that is natural, and not worthy of the attention currently being paid to them.