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Criminalized for being a Woman


By Peri, 2000 March 30

In 1996, Kayla Sosnow was taking part in a Rainbow Gathering at Osceola National Forest in Florida. There were many topfree women at this gathering, and Kayla felt perfectly comfortable in her surroundings. But when she and a male friend left the festivities to fill up their water jugs, she was jolted back into the reality of life here in The United States---where every person is supposedly created equal.

Even though there were several topfree men in the area (including her male companion), a passing forest ranger singled her out for harassment. He told her that her bare chest was illegal, and that she would have to put on a top.

"Really?" Kayla responded. "Do you have a local law about this?" Her question flustered the ranger, and he went back to his radio. Soon after, three Sheriff cars pulled up. The Sheriffs were not interested in discussing the situation. Kayla was told that she must cover up or go to jail. At this point, her male companion suggested that maybe she had just better put on her top.

Now, let's all pause for a moment and put ourselves in this situation. You are enjoying time with friends in a beautiful national forest. Suddenly, you find yourself facing jail time. There is only one way to escape the situation: you must agree to abide by a law that is obviously discriminating against you simply because of your sex. What would you do?

Kayla Sosnow chose to go to jail. She was handcuffed and driven to a county jail. She was to spend four days there, and because she refused to plead guilty, she ended up serving another sixteen days after conviction.

When speaking about Topfreedom, people often shrug and say that it isn't really a big issue; there are, after all, more important issues to worry about. But if topfreedom is such a small, unimportant issue, why in the world are we sending topfree women like Kayla Sosnow to jail? Taking away a person's freedom by incarceration is never a small issue. Inequality between the two halves of humanity (the male and the female) is never a small issue. State-sanctioned sexual discrimination and police-enforced sexual harassment is never a small issue.

Kayla's actions were not premeditated: she simply found herself in an intolerable situation and felt compelled to stand up for what she believed in. Kayla was not raised in an atmosphere that specifically encouraged topfreedom, but she was raised in surroundings that respected social activism.

"Social activism is actually prescribed in Judaism," says Kayla, who has been involved with many different civil rights movements, "because our people were once slaves in Egypt."

Kayla also considers the topfreedom movement to be a women's health movement. "Women are not getting screened for breast cancer because of our attitudes about breasts. Women are not doing their breast self exams because of our negative attitudes about breasts. And women are dying because of this. Also, women are not breastfeeding their babies---I can't believe that our society is still making women feel uncomfortable about such a natural process!"

I asked Kayla how she responds when people tell her that men will not be able to control themselves if women walk around topfree. "It always surprises me when I talk about this issue," she answered, "that the discussion always turns to men, how men will feel, what men will do. That is not the issue here. This is about women choosing for themselves."

Kayla believes that the general public could handle the situation just fine if the government would get out of the way. She has tested this theory by being topfree around her house. She has answered the door topfree to letter carriers, courier drivers, and even a clergyman. All of these men were able to "control themselves" just fine.

"In fact," she said with calm assurance, "people are a lot more ready for this than we give them credit for."

Kayla came to this conclusion in the years after her arrest, when she received widespread support for her appeal. She actually won this appeal last year [1999], and is now involved in a suit against the state of Florida. The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida has filed this lawsuit on behalf of Kayla and nine other females---including a nine-year-old girl. It is very encouraging to see that a reputable organization like the ACLU is offering support on this issue!

Because of her leadership in the topfreedom movement, Kayla has a unique perspective on the progress that has been made in recent years. "The more I talk about this issue, the more I hear about women who have been arrested for being topfree. This has not been organized: it is a grassroots movement! Many, many different women are starting to get fed up and are saying that they don't want to take it any more. I want women to know that they can choose to challenge these laws. We don't have to take it anymore!"

Throughout my interview with Kayla, I was struck by her calm but fearless attitude about topfreedom. Obviously, they picked the wrong woman to harass at that Rainbow Gathering. Or perhaps this was the right woman! Although we are sorry that Kayla had to go through her horrendous legal battle, we are eternally grateful that she chose to stand up and fight for all women's equal rights under the law. She will continue to inspire other women to question the unfair laws that keep women from reclaiming ownership of their own breasts.

Read on for more topfree inspiration!

Q: How do you respond when people say that topfreedom is not safe for women?

A: The evidence does not bear this out. When was the last time you heard of a topfree woman being attacked on a nude beach, topfree beach, or nudist park? Concert or festival, even? Any topfree woman anywhere? Never! I have never heard of one! And I've heard of lots of topfree women!

Not only does the evidence not bear this out, but neither does my personal experience. I have gone topfree plenty, and have never been attacked. There is an element of strength to going topfree, while at the same time exposing the world to the soft and nourishing parts of women that for too long have been devalued in favour of the tough competitive ideal of our society. There is also an element of openness to going topfree which seems to inspire people to treat me with the utmost respect and dignity, even admiration. People have thanked me for acting on behalf of equal rights.

Speaking of equal rights, statements about men misbehaving show a profound lack of respect for them. Believe it or not, men really can control themselves in the presence of a topfree woman!

Q: How do you respond when people say that topfreedom is inappropriate for children to witness?

A: Silly rabbit, breasts are for kids! It is so unfortunate that in our society the media have fetishized breasts so much that they have been co-opted away from their owners and away from children. Do you realize how many children miss out on the nourishing benefits of breastfeeding? All because of the view that this statement represents, that breasts are sex objects, meaning that they are for men, not women and children.

Q: Do you have any advice for women who might want to try being topfree in public but haven't quite got up the courage?

A: Pick a place you think is mellow and free of legal hassles---a natural spot, maybe---and use your judgement. Then, you know how you take off your shirt at night to go to bed? It's just like that. Really. Just like you've been doing since you were a kid. You just take it off. Once it's off, it's off. People can handle it, and noticing that, you'll be able to handle it too. I'll bet there'll be a surprising lack of fanfare.

Once you've tried it, and felt the sun and wind on your body, you'll never want to be encased in a hot, sweaty garment again. Why do you think men go topfree? It feels better. Let's not be denied!

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