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US women protest for the right to bare

Changing definitions of lewdness from the top down

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American women are preparing for protests this weekend against laws which allow men to remove their shirts in public, but treat women who do the same as guilty of misdemeanour.

The action will take place on Sunday 23 August when, according to the gotopless website (PNSFW), "topless women will rally in great numbers across the USA to protest this gross inequality in the law and will demand that they be granted the fundamental right to be topless where men already enjoy that right according to the 14th amendment of the Constitution".

The event is timed to coincide with the month in which the US constitution was amended to grant women the right to vote, and while bound to cause some amusement, there are grave stories behind it.

In 2002, young mother and Peruvian immigrant Jacqueline Mercado had her children taken into care after family pictures of her bathing and breastfeeding them were flagged as "suspicious" by a photo lab technician. Police raided the family home, and Ms Mercado and her partner were investigated in respect of child porn charges.

The indictment clearly characterised breastfeeding as sexual. It charged Ms Mercado with "actual lewd exhibition of... a portion of the female breast below the top of the areola, and the said defendant did and then employ, authorize and induce Rodrigo Fernandez, a child younger than 18 years of age, to engage in said sexual conduct and sexual performance". The case was eventually dropped and the family reunited.

Evidence of this blind sexualisation - even pornification - of breasts in any context is widespread. Any public exposure (such as Janet Jackson's infamous Superbowl wardrobe malfunction) is apt to cause outrage, clamours for apology and a flurry of legal action. The Facebook ban on breastfeeding pictures, which has evoked a lengthy and at times virulent protest on its own pages, continues. According to Facebook, it does "allow mothers to... share photos of themselves breast-feeding" but not photos of a fully exposed breast - clearly this crosses a line of acceptability.

The gotopless site provides a long list of similar, lower profile stories. Most recently it wrote about Gloria Stovell, a 27-year-old Portland State University student who claims that two male Wackenhut security officers harassed her for attempting to ride the city's light railway while topless. This alleged incident occurred just a day after Portland police mostly turned a blind eye to the World Naked Bike Ride's parade of nudes of both sexes on June 13. A week later, a San Diego art festival banned nipples from display.

While the focus of the gotopless campaign is legal discrimination against women, in the smut-averse US even male nipples can occasionally come in for censure, as one Cincinnatti man discovered to his cost a few years back, when he was charged with indecency for displaying his breasts in public.

Clearly the US has issues here; but Europe, while historically more tolerant and broadminded, is also now displaying worrying tendencies to that end. There is the case of Harrow council, echoed in other council interventions across the country, deeming female nudity not fit for family viewing. Similarly, faux outrage (PNSFW) filled The Sun when model Kirsten Varley appeared nude on a Channel 4 lunchtime show Life Class, although the moral point was somewhat dimmed by the copious photographs with which the paper illustrated the piece.

It remains to be seen what, if anything, can be achieved by the US campaign, but if nothing else it indicates a growing backlash against stubborn puritanical attitudes which can cause real damage to the people they claim to be protecting. ®

Bootnote

However worthy the gotopless campaign, we are rather puzzled as to why it is underwritten by the Raelian Foundation, who appear to be acting under direct orders from "our human creators from outer space".

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