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By P. Rapoport

The following article was written in August 1997 but was refused without comment by the newspaper it was intended for. It was on The Body Objective website for some time. American and other non-Canadian readers may wonder about the Canadian references; but lots of Canadian readers might too. The main points come across fairly easily.

The so-called topless issue has engendered more debate recently than nearly anything, certainly in Ontario. Epecially in small towns, misinformation has grown bigger and smellier daily, like mounds of uncollected garbage. It's time to remove the garbage and freshen up the air.

The catalyst for the arguing is the December 1996 Ontario Court of Appeal decision acquitting a woman of a charge of indecency for walking in Guelph topfree. ("Topless" is loaded; "topfree" captures the freedom many women feel when doing what men have been allowed to do for decades.) This summer I've heard complaints about equal topfreedom for women that are quite revealing--about the arguers, not the issue. "My husband won't be able to control himself if he sees a topless woman." "I'm being harassed and perverted by these topless women." "I want to enjoy this country as it was originally designed." "Go rot in Hell, you sinner!"


More acceptable expressions still come from misperceptions. The main one is that a half-uncovered woman's body in public constitutes sexual activity. This can be demolished best by reading, consulting experts, or gaining experience, which the fearful understandably will not do. But both experts and experience are close to home. In 1992, this same ordeal took place in New York State, where the matter was resolved in favour of women's equality. Shortly after, bare breasts there became a non-issue.

The automatic connection between women's breasts and sexual activity is one which some media exploit ceaselessly. We can and should reject it. Both women and men may choose to be nonsexual in many topfree situations: lying on grass, swimming, strolling down a street, etc. What is worn may have no connection to the sexuality of a situation. There may indeed be more flirting in complete outfits than in topfree attire. Women who wish to enjoy the same topfreedom as men are therefore not "asking for it."

Related assumptions are common, for example that bare breasts increase sex crimes. Sociologists know that the two are unrelated. Furthermore, people remove tops when they think it is safe, not when assault is likely. Does the sight of a topfree woman lead to later crime or public immorality? The evidence for this elsewhere is nil.

Who controls women's bodies?

Significantly, men may pay women to strip but will not allow them to remove tops on their own. Now there is a real connection. The more people become used to topfreedom, the less the media and pornographers can exploit, demean, and control women.

Many people also think that bare breasts destroy children. That is a myth perpetrated by unthinking adults. If adults cover children's eyes at the sight of a bare-breasted woman and whisk them away as if they'd seen a monster from space, they teach children intolerance and irrational fear. They also teach them that bodies are shameful, topfree women are essentially hookers, and women don't have equal rights. Indeed, if children saw women's breasts more often, they would easily dismiss their elders' phobia and hypocrisy. Maybe we should also close galleries of Renaissance paintings!

A few women and men may behave illegally while bare-breasted or not. We have law enforcers for that. But we can't condemn others because a few break a law. Otherwise we not only throw out the baby with the bathwater, but blow up the bathroom as well.

The loudest "argument" is that the majority of women won't be taking their tops off. But is this a reason to remove women's equal rights? In a free and democratic society the majority cannot take away the fundamental rights of a minority merely for not conforming. The same holds for "community standards." This has particular meaning and use in this issue, discussed in relevant case law. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Article 15, forbids discrimination on the basis of sex. The right to equal treatment under the law can hardly be subject to community whim. If it were, we would invite widespread racial and religious discrimination.

Body freedom, body acceptance

People have a right to feel offended, but not the right to criminalize women in order to make themsleves feel better. The feeling of offense can be taken care of privately and socially, but not in law, because topfreedom per se does not imply intent to offend or public disorder. The ready legal solution is to ban topfree men too, a step which would destroy healthy concepts of body freedom and acceptance, as well as make Canada the laughingstock of the western world.

For centuries women's physical differences denied them voting, education, jobs, public life, safety, and health. The topfree issue is no different. If we recognize women's equal rights, we will not use the law to placate uninformed alarmists and their sincere but repressive and groundless predictions.

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