Over the past decade, a woman’s right to breastfeed in public has gained significant traction. In fact, the right to breastfeed during work is an often overlooked portion of Obamacare. The success of the breastfeeding movement has birthed another movement: women’s right to be topless in public.
Last August, Sonoko Tagami took part in the annual “Go Topless Day” protest in Chicago. The protest is organized by GoTopless, a non-profit that “advocates for the right of women to appear bare-chested in public.” To comply with city indecent exposure ordinances, Tagami had painted over her breasts with opaque body paint. Tagami had participated in the GoTopless protests since 2010, but 2014 was the first time a police officer had ticketed her for violating the indecent exposure law. The officer also seized GoTopless flyers Tagami passed to onlookers.
The city judge upheld the $150 fine. Tagami now appeals to challenge the city ordinances as a violation of free speech and equal protection. On January 22, 2015, the city filed a motion to dismiss he federal lawsuit.
Baring Breasts Should Not Be Unrestricted
Most cities in the United States restrict exposure of female breasts but allow men to walk around exposed above the waist. Cities justify this one-way restriction by claiming that female breasts are sexual while male breasts are not.
Tagami and GoTopless would point out that sexualization of women’s breasts is likely a result of nurture, not nature. Female breasts are sexualized because of culture. Many African and European countries allow women to walk about in public with their chests fully exposed and no eyebrows are raised. On the other end of the spectrum, many Muslim communities restrict the exposure of women’s faces on the theory that the mere sight of a woman is sexual for men. Sex is cultural. Breasts are primarily for breastfeeding infants. If breasts create lust, it’s because we as a society make it so.
However, just because breasts are sexualized rather than sexual doesn’t mean our laws are wrong. Tagami and GoTopless believe that cultural sexualization of breasts means that we should allow women to go topless. That doesn’t change the fact that, in the United States, breasts are sexual symbols. Our laws restrict exposure of other sexual symbols, including vaginas and penises. Although breasts also have nonsexual functions, so do actual sexual parts. Vaginas are used to give birth and penises are how urine leaves a male body. Sexual anatomy might have nonsexual functions, but that doesn’t exclude them from indecent exposure laws.
GoTopless and Free Speech
I believe most indecent exposure statutes are constitutional as written, but Tagami should not be fined in this case. Illinois law allows women to breastfeed in public and women are only prohibited from exposing their breasts in public if their intent is to arouse or satisfy sexual desire. If there’s anything wrong with Chicago’s indecent exposure laws, it’s that it doesn’t focus on the reason the breasts are open for public view.
It’s pretty clear that Tagami was exposing her breasts as a political statement. She was part of a larger protest and organization advocating a change in culture. This protest takes place on a specific day and has occurred annually. Tagami had flyers on her person so that she could explain to onlookers what she was doing. Tagami and GoTopless believe that if they can change the culture of breasts that lawmakers might also change the laws. Painting her breasts demonstrates her commitment to non-violent protests.
I don’t know if Tagami and GoTopless will succeed in changing cultural sentiments, but they have a right to try without government interference.