© D.A. Clarke
It is a blazing hot day in August, still and dusty, asphalt starting to melt in the streets…As you walk down the Mall or along the beach, as you toil up a forest path or weed your yard, shirt plastered to your back with sweat, you see men pass by in shorts—just shorts. Now and then you think, in transitory anger, “But it isn’t fair!” Now and then you long wholeheartedly to shed your wet shirt and be comfortable too. But—save in a very special, private and safe place—mostly, you don’t.
Women don’t take off their shirts in public because of two varieties of masculine terrorism: the power of the law (enforced almost entirely by male officers) and the intense harassment that comes from male civilians. There are laws dictating exactly how much of the female breast shall be seen in public—no part of it “at or below the areola” says the law here on our beaches. There are penalties for refusing to comply.
Little girls, of course, are often seen running about the sand shirtless, until some nebulous age. They are also seen, like women, used in various stages of undress to sell industrial products—for example, Coppertone tanning lotion. The Coppertone girl, in fact, appears on trash cans all over Santa Cruz beaches, thanks to a concession the corporation has with the State; on close examination, she (like so many female child models in advertising) seems to have the face and buttocks of a much older female.
On the same beaches where this ambiguous girl-woman is displayed to sell Coppertone, activist Nikki Craft was first cited, then arrested – handcuffed and taken “downtown” – for not wearing breast coverings and for refusing to don them upon order from rangers. She intends to challenge the “decency” law on grounds that it embodies obvious sexual discrimination. This scuffle raises a fair amount of political dust, if we start to examine the law; knowing that laws always protect somebody, we wonder who this law protects: why the peculiar illegality of the female breast?
Some might claim that the law protects women from rape and attempted rape by men supposedly aroused ‘beyond control’ by the mere sight of the female torso. This model of rape, however, has long since been exposed as a convenient excuse for the rapist; there is no commonality of dress or behavior between rape victims, who (from six-month old babies to eighty-year-olds) are chosen only for two characteristics: femaleness and vulnerability. Though there has been a vogue for victim-precipitated crime theories lately, by now even official apologists for the state would shrink from asserting publicly that women who are raped invite it. Taking one’s shirt off in any case does not trigger instant and overpowering hormonal imbalances in the male metabolism; nor will keeping it on protect you.
Another argument might be that the law protects the public – who is after all 53% female – from the sight of the female breast, as if it were ipso facto offensive or unaesthetic. The law might then be regarded as close kin to the kind of municipal ordinance which legislates against the maintenance of a public eyesore.
One glance through any art museum – where the public tends to be found in great quantity, by the way – will inform the viewer unequivocally that both the male and female torso have long been considered extremely pleasing in an aesthetic sense; that they in fact constitute a major theme in Western art. One will find them replicated all over the building, in statuary, bas-relief, frescoes, tapestries, and miniatures.
Even supposing, for argument’s sake, that the artist’s craft works some amazing alchemy in transforming human to image, so that real bodies are still offensive even though sculpted, sketched or painted ones are both educational and beautiful – why is not the male torso concealed in public likewise? Perhaps the issue is one of dimension, when we recall the nebulous status of prepubescent girls under the law.
But this brings us to the problem of men who have well-developed breasts – and there are many such men on our beaches, breasts being after all mostly fat. If the breast, over a certain size, shall be deemed unaesthetic per se, what size shall the official size be? Shall flat-chested women and men run about in topless comfort, while those of both sexes who are more padded about the pectorals sweat obediently in their tops? And shall we see the beach rangers running about busily with official Cal Division of Parks and Recrecation tape measures and calipers – no doubt supplied by Coppertone?
The waters are growing deeper still, for even if we admit this ludicrous scenario (and is it much more ludicrous than a woman being taken away handcuffed for removing her own shirt?) we are left with a very dangerous precedent: the legislation of human aesthetics. If all the physical standards and fetishes of upper class America were legislated as dress codes, surely fat people would find themselves required by law to wear long concealing robes (if we can outlaw fat in one area, the breast, why not all fat?); almost all people of color, “funny looking” to Middle America, might well be banned from public places of recreation on grounds of ugliness.
In light of the ridiculous and highly constitutional swamp with which we have wandered, I do not believe for a moment that anyone will claim the public is being protected from a human eyesore. A less obviously oppressive position, however, might be that the law reflects a certain civilized delicacy in keeping highly sexual, erogenous zones private.
We are back in the swamp; for the nipple is generally considered the erogenous as well as visual center of the breast, and males also have nipples, which are moreover in many cases highly sensitive and erotic to their owners, in the same fashion as those of females. To further confuse matters, many individuals derive strong erotic sensations from their hands, ears, lips, etc. That “certain civilized delicacy,” if practiced in fact, would soon reduce us to a community of gloved and ear muffed creatures in pasties and opaque bikini briefs, wandering about anonymously under bandit-style masks. With this pleasing image I shall leave the apologists for civilized delicacy.
Our law, then, is not protecting women from rape, nor the public from the breast (either as too ugly or too sensual for our delicate sensibilities). Dispensing with the ridicule for the moment (for the subject turns out not to be funny at all) let us try to work out exactly who and what is being protected here.
The men of our nation, legislator included, habitually frequent ‘topless’ bars. Individually and at bachelor parties they pay women to strip for them; they buy pictures – pinups, postcards, magazines – of naked women. In most of our states a husband has the legal right to rape his wife. Yet a woman can be arrested and taken to jail by men, for breaking the law written by men which says she may not uncover her breasts.
What is emerging is the familiar pattern of women’s body as a commodity in the male economy. Men can and do buy the nudity of women; the nakedness and the body of women can be bought and rented. Pictures of her can be bought also – but always money must change hands, from one man to the next. And to protect the trade, what can be bought and is bought must never be given away, nor (Heaven forbid!) controlled by the property itself: the woman.
The law in this light does only one thing: it provides the economic scarcity necessary to keep the trade in women profitable. It underwrites and protects male power over women, that is all – first by subsidizing this economy in which women are salable goods (thus ensuring that more money will accrue to men) secondly by placing yet another restriction upon women’s control of our own bodies (providing yet another visible reminder of masculine privilege).
In truth, if we return to our art museum, we will see that the artists (nearly all of whom are men) have performed a great alchemy: they have transformed the living human body, with all its will and individuality, into an inanimate representation which can be bought and sold, and is therefore “safe” for public viewing. The same is done in more prosaic circles. In magazines, advertising, movies, wherever we have been successfully made into a two-dimensional display and a commodity for purchase, our breasts and the exposure of them suddenly become essential to the artist’s (again, the artist is rarely a woman) freedom of speech!
But when they are our own breasts, we have no right to peaceably remove our own shirts from them, on hot days, on public beaches. For refusing to be both private and property we can be handcuffed, fined and jailed. Let us not consider this a trivial law, nor a trivial challenge, for it is only a traditionally patriarchal trivialization of our bodies and lives that can make it seem so.
What is at stake is the same as in any struggle of ours: the right to be no one’s property. Whether we are resisting the rapist, the Right-to-Lifer, the pornographer, the military, or the municipal code, misogyny and female slavery are two faces of the same currency and the fight against them is the same.
Originally published in Santa Cruz Matrix, November 1981.
© D.A. Clarke