Sunday, 1 May 2016

How should men respond to #freethenipple?

The #freethenipple movement is morally correct. Nipples harm no-one; therefore, it is censorious to ban them from public view, and unjust to discriminate by gender while doing so. I frankly don’t see much room for controversy here. Nevertheless, the issue is controversial. Many Western states have laws against toplessness. New Zealand is one that doesn’t, but we do have vaguely-worded offences like “breach of peace” and “offensive behaviour” to allow the police to enforce conservative norms without having to admit that that’s what they’re doing. I believe there is legal precedent here for topless protests being protected self-expression under the Bill of Rights Act, but I’m not a lawyer and you shouldn’t rely on my vague recollections in court.

So why haven’t I said anything about it before? It’s a feminist issue, and I have a lot to say about feminist issues. And it’s a body freedom issue and I have strong views on body freedom. Why have I kept all quiet about it? Well, because of the feminist thing. I’m male, and attracted (mainly but not exclusively) to women. There is a sarcastic hashtag #malefeminists for guys who try to dominate feminist spaces, and especially for guys who are enthusiastic about liberating women from their clothes and sexual inhibitions. It is not my business in the first place to tell women how to emancipate themselves, and on the specific topic of sexual liberation I have a conflict of interest. What I can do, what men who align with feminism need to do, is try and communicate feminist values to other men.

The basic principle here is: women are human beings and deserve the respect and consideration due to human beings, regardless of what they’re wearing. I don’t see that there are any limits on this principle in either direction. A naked woman is a human being, and a woman in a burqa is a human being, and if you meet either one in the street you should treat her exactly the same as if she were wearing jogging gear, smart casual attire, or a work uniform. Male responses to topless demonstrations tend to fall short of this ideal in one of two ways, both seen in the video above. One is to perve; the other is to try and make the women cover up. Let’s go through the justificatory arguments in turn.

With perving, of course, the argument we have to deal with is generally a post hoc rationalization. “If she didn’t want to be perved at,” men say, “she wouldn’t draw attention to herself like that.” If you see a woman in a clown suit, it’s OK to laugh at her, right? That’s what the clown suit is for, isn’t it? And if you see a woman in a ballet tutu, it’s OK to watch her dance, isn’t it? In each case the costume is intended to draw that reaction. On that basis, can’t we consider toplessness to be a costume intended to draw sexual attention?

Think again. Suppose the clown or ballerina is not performing on a stage, but waiting in front of you in the queue at the convenience store. Then it’s not polite to laugh or stare – the wise presumption is that she’s grabbing a bite to eat between performances and hasn’t had time to change. It’s not the costume that counts, it’s the performance. A woman dancing topless in a burlesque show can be presumed to be presenting her body for visual appreciation; a woman relaxing topless in a public park cannot.

To be sure, the Outdoor Co-ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society are there to send a message as well as to enjoy the spring air. The shock value and clickbait appeal of breasts can draw the attention of passers-by, media, and the internet to one’s cause. If a protester lifts up her T-shirt for the news cameras to reveal the words No to the TPPA (as it might be) painted across her torso, it’s reasonable to assume that’s her intention. The obvious response – obvious unless you’re just waiting for the first excuse to ogle or grope – is to attend to the message she’s trying to convey. Especially if that message is Still Not “Asking For It”.

Such protests help falsify what’s often the first objection raised by those who want to make women cover up, namely that women are actually perfectly fine with having to cover up and #freethenipple is all a fantasy of a bunch of #malefeminists. I once overheard a woman remark very loudly to her companion (it was a windy day and they were walking right behind me) that she welcomed the prospect of a Hooters outlet in Dunedin because “then I could go topless and people wouldn’t judge me”. I have to say I doubt that that would be the outcome of having a Hooters here, but conversations I’ve seen online confirm that she was far from alone in wanting that freedom.

The next objection is that breasts are “sexual parts”. We don’t let men show off their penises in public – that’s indecent exposure – so why should women be allowed to display their breasts? Well, for a start, I don’t personally accept that any body part needs to be hidden from sight because it is “sexual”. It is morally wrong to in any sense impose one’s penis on other people, but in cultures that are not censorious about bodies the mere sight of a penis isn’t an imposition. Once again, it’s the performance that counts. But let’s set that aside and look at the other premise of the argument.

In what sense are breasts “sexual parts”? They can be both a site and an instrument of sexual touch, and incidentally they hold a primal visual appeal for most men. But all three of these things are also true of feet, and nobody proposes that women be required to wear Ugg-boots in public. (Yes, all three. Yes, most men.) Feet of course have an entirely non-sexual primary function – and so do breasts. Many people who don’t endorse #freethenipple in general are happy to make an exception for mothers feeding their babies. Disturbingly, increasingly many are not. This has become a public health issue, as women are forced to choose between nursing in unhygienic public toilets and risking suffocating their babies with a blanket.

All these arguments stem from, or converge on, the same faulty premise, which is stated (by two women) in the New York Times video:

I think it’s too seductive for the opposite sex.
They’re men and they can’t – they can’t contain themselves. They can’t avoid taking the picture.

That’s a peculiarly harmless failure of self-restraint compared to what men are usually said to be unable to avoid doing at the sight of a nipple. But since it’s all that the men in Times Square were in fact doing, I suppose it wasn’t plausible to accuse the nipples of anything more. It’s the gawkers’ and gropers’ perennial go-to excuse: “I’m a man, I have deep-seated biological urges, I couldn’t help myself.” Feminists have of course been pointing out the falsehood of this excuse for decades. Why aren’t these guys listening? How is it they can confidently count on other guys sympathizing with them and not calling them out?

The “urges” they’re referring to are real. Denying that only convinces these guys that you aren’t in a position to judge them, that you don’t do what they do solely because you don’t feel what they feel. Men like to look at chests. Male-attracted men like to look at pecs just as female-attracted men like to look at breasts – I speak as both here. (That of course is an argument against nipple-gender discrimination in itself.) In studies of men’s online porn consumption, breasts are the #1 search term worldwide. And virtually every culture in history has celebrated breasts in its art.

But as soon as you start looking at other cultures, you find huge differences in the ways they handle this biological reality. Some cover breasts up as lewd; some accept them as normal; some revere them. You don’t even have to look beyond the West, if you dip more than a century or so into the past. Prudish though the Victorians famously were, they never objected to public breast-feeding. Victorian men wrote about breasts a lot in lofty tones, quite ludicrous to modern ears, which tells you two things straight away: first, they liked breasts just as modern men do; second, they experienced it as a noble rather than a vulgar feeling. By contrast, the old bawdy songs that chortle over buttocks and genitals hardly ever mention breasts. I think I’ve said all this before.

What this all means is that this primal, deep-seated, biological urge doesn’t force you to take any course of action at all. Rather, it reports to the parts of your brain devoted to extracting meaningful information from social cues, and they come up with a plan together. “I can’t help myself” is a lie. You just have to frame the situation differently. A living human body is a living human being, not an ornament to stare at or an obscenity to cover up. Women’s bodies do not turn men into lustful monsters. We were already lustful, and we can choose not to be monsters.

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