The politics of breasts - know your rights

There’s no denying that women’s cleavages cause a stir in all sorts of situations, and the public bearing of breasts throughout history has compelled a heady mix of artistic celebration, legal condemnation, and a whole can of worms when it comes to feminism, equal rights and parenting.

So where do we stand with the law in this country, and when is semi-nudity considered acceptable and unacceptable?

In our article Topless or Not? we examine the rights of women all over the world to strip off in public spaces. After all, given the merest glimpse of sunshine, our male counterparts can and do take their tops off all over the country, regardless of how toned their six-pack might or might not be, or how likely their beer bellies are to put us off our sandwiches! Yes, our mammaries are undeniably sexual organs, but when bare breasts are so readily available online, on TV and in our daily newspapers, why is it considered either deeply offensive or overly titillating for us to catch some rays sans shirt?

In the UK, for example, the lines are somewhat blurred when it comes to being arrested for outraging public decency or indecent exposure, as it all boils down to whether you are causing offence to those people around you. Outraging public decency is an indictable offence whereby ‘public decency’ constitutes a level of behaviour generally accepted in public and not considered obscene or shocking for the observers – for example, it’s a common law offence to bathe uncovered in a public place, just as it is to defecate or have sex.

Obviously, if you’re lying face down on a non-nudist beach and briefly turn over before swiftly covering up, it’s highly unlikely any of your fellow sunbathers will either notice, or care to complain about your activities. However, if you decide to go streaking naked through your elderly next-door neighbour’s garden, then your neighbour is perfectly within his or her rights to call the police.

To clarify, it is considered to be indecent exposure if your nipples are free of clothing and clearly visible to at least two people – regular cleavage and ‘side boob’ is deemed increasingly acceptable as fashion continues to push the boundaries of taste and sexuality. The Sexual Offences Act 2003 outlines that it is a prosecutable offence for a person to

a) intentionally expose his genitals, or
b) intend for someone to be alarmed or distressed by his appearance

The comparison here to ‘indecently’ exposed breasts is rather nebulous, but this law covers both men and women, and has been carefully phrased to avoid taking legal action against naturists and streakers (who might still break public nuisance laws). Interestingly, it’s worth noting that the same Act classifies voyeurism as watching a person ‘in a place which, in the circumstances, would reasonably be expected to provide privacy, and the person’s genitals, buttocks or breasts are exposed or covered only with underwear’. So perhaps you’re more protected in your back garden than you thought…

In Europe, the public attitude to baring your bosom in front of others is generally very relaxed, so much so that Americans tend to refer to ‘topless sunbathing’ as ‘European sunbathing.’ To this day there are three US states in which it is considered illegal for a woman to be bare-chested, and there are similar restrictions in Canada, Mexico and the Middle East.

So where does equality fit into all this? Men have the proud ability to go topless in public in most Western countries (and not necessarily restricted to the beach), while women simply aren’t allowed. The Topfree Equal Rights Association (TERA) helps women who encounter difficulty going without tops in communal areas in Canada and America, and informs the public on this issue.

The Association explains how in most jurisdictions in North America, explicit sexual activity in public view is illegal. They then draw attention to how men go shirtless all the time yet that is not deemed as ‘sexual’. ‘If women act on this understanding by innocuously having uncovered breasts in public, they are usually criticised, ridiculed, and hassled, and may be fined or jailed,’ they point out.

‘Our basic claim is that women deserve equal rights. We do not suggest that women or men should go about with bare breasts. That is every individual’s decision. We do believe that since men may choose to do so in many situations, women must also be able to, at least in the same situations. Without penalty of any kind.’

TERA’s reasoning is sound, even for the prudish among us. They assert that women should not be discriminated against simply because they have the ability to lactate, and that by keeping a woman’s breasts under wraps causes them to be ‘objectified’ as sexual objects, which in turn leads to sexual harassment and potentially acts of violence, and may well lower the number of women comfortable to breastfeed in public. TERA are by no means the only association campaigning for top-free equality; Breasts Not Bombs is another vocal and demonstrative group, blending the unlikely pairing of topless rights with anti-war.

Back in the UK, a recent display of a breast examination on breakfast television featuring a model called Sue, sparked indignation from pressure group Mediawatch UK, which campaigns for family values in the media. Said a spokeswoman for the group regarding that episode of the Lorraine show: ‘There probably should have been a warning beforehand, as there may have been young children watching and it might have upset them a bit.’

Viewers flocked to Twitter instantly to debate the early morning exposure and, considering the segment was intended to educate women on checking for breast lumps, you could be forgiven for thinking that the nation as a whole were outraged by the unforgivable display of naked female flesh. Similarly, the public at large have supposedly been offended by mastectomy photos (which have been removed from personal Facebook sites due to ‘indecency’).

Moving on to the subject of breastfeeding, shockingly there are countless examples of nursing women being asked to leave various establishments on account of nothing more offensive than feeding their infants the natural way in front of other people. Groups of women and men called lactivists campaign against discrimination of breastfeeding mothers, whether that’s in the workplace, or while out and about.

In October 2010 the new Equality Act made it illegal for anyone to ask a breastfeeding woman to leave a public place such as a café, restaurant, shop, hotel, park, theatre, petrol station, cinema, university, leisure facilities or public transport. However, it is not illegal to stop a woman breastfeeding when there are legitimate health and safety risks to consider. The Act clearly states that it is sexual discrimination to treat a woman unfavourably because she is breastfeeding. You can read more information on lactivism and what to do if you believe you have been a victim of discrimination in our article, Breastfeeding stigma.

At the end of the day, it’s vital to use your common sense (and maybe a dash of sunblock) if you’re considering exposing your bosom in public. Be aware of where you stand legally, don’t place yourself at unnecessary risk of either arrest or threatening behaviour, and above all, be respectful of others’ feelings at all times.

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