The New York Police Department recently reminded officers that going topless is not itself a crime — probably to avoid costly lawsuits like the one topless activist Phoenix Feeley won in 2005 for her wrongful arrest. But New York is a special case, as evidenced by our Rihanna-inspired terminology, the Soho stroll. The rest of the country has some catching up to do. Feeley recently served a two-week sentence in New Jersey, reports The Atlantic, “one of about a dozen states with ambiguous laws on the matter.” Three more — Indiana, Utah, and Tennessee — have a complete ban on bare breasts, while many cities evade liberal state laws with local ordinances making toplessness punishable by misdemeanor fines, imprisonment, or, in the case of “deliberately lewd” behavior or in the presence of minors, felony charges with sex-offender registry.
Unlike Rihanna, Feeley and other activists’ battle has less to do with looking totally flawless and not giving a damn who knows it than being treated equally under the law. As it stands, the law regards women’s bodies as sexual objects that can be deployed for the purpose of arousing others in private or in strip clubs, and must otherwise be covered up. Jessica Blankenship writes:
The problem, as Reena Glazer wrote in the Duke Law Journal in 1993, is that laws like that in the 1986 case are “written solely to take into account potential viewers. The focus is on the male response to viewing topless women; there is no focus on the female actor herself.” The implication, she argued, particularly when laid next to the statute’s “exemption for topless entertainment” is that “what might arouse men can only be displayed when men want to be aroused.” By contrast, “men are free to expose their chests … with no consideration of the impact on possible viewers.”
This kind of thinking denies women the many inherent pleasures of being topless (lowering one’s body temperature, feeling the sun or breeze … I don’t know … help me out, men?) while supporting “the attitude that women are in a perpetual state of sexual engagement, whereas men are allowed to exist in a whole range of bodily states, some of them benign enough to permit the exposure of their chests without it being considered automatically indecent.” And it all feels a little absurd when you remember that women represented on underwear and perfume billboards can expose 90 percent of their breasts for the express purpose of arousing innocent bystanders, without being considered indecent. It’s really just two square inches of nipple we’re so worked up about.