A reader named Tracy sent me a link to this Meghan Pleitcha piece that originally ran on Nerve and was then reprinted at Alternet: What Happened When I Legally Exposed My Breasts in Public. This summer, Pleitcha took advantage of a New York state law that permits “gender equity” when it comes to baring chests in certain public settings; she sunbathed topless in Central Park, and wrote about the reactions she got from men, from women, and from her inner voice. It’s a thoughtful piece, and Tracy wanted to know my thoughts on female public toplessness and how that issue connects to the “myth of male weakness” about which I have written so often.
I’ve got a whole category of posts about modesty, and the ways in which our fears about uncontrollable male sexual desire result in our shifting the responsibility for self-control from men to women. I don’t want to keep rehashing points made over and over again, so let me offer just a few links:
In this post, we looked at the word kosmios (the koine Greek term, translated as modesty in the New Testament) and how it has nothing to do with showing skin, but instead refers to refraining from lavish displays of wealth.
In this post, the “argument from testosterone” is considered and rejected.
And I posted about breasts and the notion that men can’t help but stare here.
Though some might not regard the right to bear one’s breasts in public as the single most pressing issue on the feminist agenda, I do support the expansion of the already-extant New York law mandating gender equity when it comes to the exposure of the human chest. What “must be concealed” is a societal variable which has evolved over time. As we read in the news this week, Sudan canes women for wearing pants (something for which women were arrested in this country little more than a century ago.) In some societies, women’s hair has tremendous erotic value, perhaps as much as breasts themselves; in many cultures, concealing the top of the head is mandatory. And as anyone who has watched National Geographic specials or spent time on the beaches of Europe knows, the idea that female breasts are universally arousing to men is silly — what we find arousing is almost entirely culturally conditioned, and has far less to do with our hard-wiring than the peddlers of pop-evolutionary biology would have us believe. For reasons of fairness, as well as for the reason that the male lack of self-control is a construct rather than an immutable truth, it makes good sense to change our laws to permit women to go shirtless in public.
I note one of the key, if unsurprising, points of the Pleitcha piece: she writes of her frustration at being treated far more respectfully by the men she encountered in New York than by the women. It was the women who stared more openly, and the women who were responsible for most of the whispers and chilly glances. This isn’t because women are somehow nastier to each other than are men. It’s one of the corollaries to the myth of male weakness: if we believe that men lack the capacity for self-control, then we must outsource that self-control to women. And thus if an individual woman appears to be revealing too much to men, it is the collective responsibility of other women to police the “temptress”, shaming her back into the restrictive gender norms. It’s men’s refusal to take responsibility for their own eyes and their own actions that puts the onus on women to monitor one another. There’s a benefit for men, of course: when a woman who has been “slut-shamed” by other women complains of being judged, she’ll often have little trouble finding a sympathetic ear from among her guy friends. The lack of sisterhood, itself a direct result of men’s refusal to exercise self-control, leaves many women — particularly young ones — more vulnerable to men.
The encouraging thing about the Pleitcha piece is how many men she encountered who were respectful (and this in the heart of a city not renowned for its civility). Whatever social changes have been wrought in the past few decades have had an impact, at least in some urban areas, on men’s sense of their own responsibility and their willingness to acknowledge women’s equal right to free expression. No doubt the change in the law (which in New York state, dates back to 1992) played a key role in helping to encourage a shift in the mindset of the guys Pleitcha encountered in the park.
This, then, is the key take-away point: legislation changes minds. Just as forced desegregation played a huge part in reshaping attitudes towards race, just as the fight for marriage equality is having a demonstrable impact on attitudes towards homosexuality so too attitudes towards bodies, sexual desire, and the capacity of men to exercise self-control can be shifted through legislation and progressive judicial decisions. Those who argue that this is a trivial issue compared to others are missing the point: this isn’t just about breasts, it’s about overcoming, once and for all, a fundamental lie about human beings, women’s bodies, and the capacity of men to see the latter revealed without losing their capacity to remain the former.