To Slay a Dangerous Discourse

I do not remember for the life of me how this conversation started this morning, but one way or another, John and I got talking about the fairly recent marches in Maine that were set up to draw attention to the social inequality between men and women when it comes to being bare-chested in public. Constitutionally, women have the equal legal right as men to be bare-chested in public, but the pragmatic reality is that women who want to be topless in public are seen as acting in a socially unacceptable way, while men are not.


This is a tough issue to wrap my head around. As John pointed out, what women would really want to walk around topless in a society where breasts are seriously highlighted as objects of desire? As I woman, I wouldn’t.


But last night I was watching a very upsetting episode of Angel which touched on issues of domestic abuse, as the show actually does with some frequency. Quick plot summary—a human with some demon in his blood has the ability to bring out the abusive side in men, and in the course of tracking him down, one of the good guys turns against one of the girls and threatens to do her serious bodily harm because she’s too much of a temptress and a slut (which she is absolutely not). It was an ugly episode before they managed to track the bad guy down, and I think it’s ugliness was so dark because it rang true.


A common idea that you hear about coming up in rape cases, words that a victim has to learn not to believe is, “Well, she was dressed like a slut, so she was asking for it.” And you read about domestic abuse where a jealous man can’t stand the way other men look at his wife, so he beats her for dressing like a whore, regardless of how she actually dresses. While these words won’t stand up in a court of law, you read about the women who stay in bad situations because they believe them.


It occurred to me as John and I were having this discussion that the inequality in the taboo of toplessness across genders is a reflection of a culture that quietly condones abuse of women for being sexual creatures. We live in a society that in subtle ways still puts the blame on Eve for bringing death to the human race, that reads the words out of Genesis, “Your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you” or the words of Paul to the church at Ephesus, “Wives, submit to your own husbands as to the Lord,” and whispers to our subconscious minds that there’s wisdom in them, regardless of the abusive context. It may not be overt, and it’s undoubtedly not intended to do harm to innocent women, but it is there and it does do damage.


Men, let me tell you something. If you’re fit and attractive, then walking around without your shirt on does make you more an object of sexual desire. The men on the covers of romance novels are not depicted topless or with tantalizingly open shirts without reason. But men can walk around topless in public without causing much of a stir because their power as humans has not been systematically reduced to their sexual appeal for which they have then been punished. The only difference between men and women being topless in public is the social perception that women’s breasts have such a powerful sex appeal that they will drive men into a violent, uncontrollable sexual frenzy that will disturb the public peace.


No one would make that claim on a legal basis, perhaps, but that’s the subversive social discourse behind the discomfort women are made to feel for being shirtless in public. It’s a mentality that encourages both abuse and submission to abuse, and, forgive my language, but it’s a crock of shit. Men are not that weak and stupid, for one thing, and if certain individuals are, it is they who are the criminals. Not the women.


The answer to this problematic attitude could go one of two ways. It could go liberally into the territory of universal comfort with toplessness in certain situations (like the beach) or it could go to a mentality that finds male toplessness equally inappropriate. The real point is to not see female sexual appeal as more criminal than male sexual appeal. I know individuals who have this balance in their own views of the world, but I haven’t been one of them. On a knee-jerk level, I’m still not. I am far too much of a chicken to join a topless march given current social attitudes, yet I have no issue with shirtless men at the beach. It takes time to change your mind.


I guess the only point I’m trying to make is that, in trying to wrap my head around the point of these marches, I’m starting to realize that even such a seemingly innocuous social more like unequal comfort with topless men and topless women feeds into a much darker and pernicious social discourse that condones abuse of the innocent and will not be stopped unless we’re willing to face it and talk about it. For that reason, I’m grateful to the gutsy gals that bared their bosoms in Farmington and Portland in order to get us talking about the problem. And I’m grateful that we live in a democratic society where they are free to make a stir in the first place.

3 thoughts on “To Slay a Dangerous Discourse

  1. Point of Clarification
    In case this wasn’t clear above, the Constitution holds that laws have to apply equally to men and women alike. A state can make whatever laws it wants against partial public nudity, but if an unequal law is challenged, it could be ruled unconstitutional. In states where public toplessness is generally illegal, however, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that men just don’t get cited or arrested for it even if women do.


  2. Thanks for your thoughts Melissa,

    Further clarification: while I don’t know the case law, the 14th amendment says that “no state shall…deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The Supreme Court has applied various level of scrutiny to equal protection challenges. Basically, classifications based on race, ethnicity or national origin are given strict scrutiny, which always fails, unless you’re Japanese in WWII. Gender is treated more permissively, though, requiring “intermediate scrutiny.” (I know, I know, the creativity). This is usually described as requiring an important state interest that is substantially related to making the gender classification. For some of the cultural reasons that you mention, I think you’d find that statutes that say on their face that “no woman shall expose x, y, or z” will actually be upheld by SCOTUS. Ok, so that’s my take on the Con law, for what it’s worth. The laws are dumb, but I’m not sure they are unconstitutional. This is probably good, though, because we want to have things like the family medical leave act, and further protection for mothers in the workforce.

    Now for breasts: isn’t this an issue of market commodification? How else can we explain the bizarre paradox of hyper-sexuality and Puritanism in the U.S.? Culturally ‘acceptable’ uses of female bodies seem to be those that are controlled by major market players to sell products. A kind of mystical status is bestowed on breasts, so that desire can be manipulated and transferred onto goods and services (beer, cars, magazines, films, etc.) To maintain this mystical status, though, we need moral judgment to prohibit uses that are not based on market value (which is the sole American ethical standard). Therefore, breastfeeding and casual public nudity are very suspect, as are any uses not based on market control and regulation of desire.


    1. Thanks for the clarification on the law, Ryan. I was interpreting what I was reading from a number of news articles, and a “telephone” understanding of the law is always a little off. Gives me something else to chew on and stew about.
      As for breasts as an issue of market control…absolutely. That’s another front to wage the battle on, and it’s a huge problem. A market that is based largely on selling a discourse that promotes sexual violence against half of the population is a market that needs to be torn down and rebuilt on a new foundation.


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