Bare Breasts: Objections and Replies

[I wrote this piece back in the early 90s when Gwen Jacobs did her thing (yay, Gwen!), but apparently it all still needs to be said.  A couple years ago, I was ‘spoken to’ by a neighbour for taking my shirt off on a hot summer day when I was out kayaking.  Most amusingly, I was ‘spoken to’ again when I did the same thing just last year, post-bilateral-mastectomy.  Which brings to mind Twisty’s hilarious “Cover ’em up if you have ’em and even if you don’t” comment.]

In response to the moral outrage about women going shirtless in public, I offer the following.


1.  It’s immoral.  Why?  What is it about a woman’s breasts that make it immoral for them to be uncovered?

 a. They’re sexual.

 i.  If this refers to their role as fast food outlets, well, not every woman’s breasts are – and to legislate against all because of some (and actually a very small percentage at that, at any given time) is unreasonable.

 Further, a McDonalds in Ethiopia is surely more immoral than such a breast in the park.

ii.  If ‘sexual’ is intended to mean ‘sexually attractive’, well, no they’re not.  At least, not to me.  Nor to any homosexual man I know.  Gee.  D’ya think this is a law made by and for heterosexual men?

And actually, by and for only some heterosexual men – I understand that some are ‘tits and ass men’ while others are ‘leg men’.  And since it’s not illegal for us to uncover our legs – in fact, baring our legs, wearing dresses and skirts, is encouraged (were the ‘leg men’ in on that?) – the law is inconsistent, at the very least.

Doubly inconsistent, at the very least, because I find men’s chests sexually attractive, and yet there is no law insisting they cover up.  (Well, some men’s chests.  As is the case, I expect, even with those ‘tits and ass men’ – surely they don’t find all women’s breasts sexually attractive.  And if not, then again, the law prohibits all because of a few.)

But let’s back up a step.  Who determines whether a body part is sexual at any given time or place – the owner of the body part or the other?  When I am shirtless on a hot day out on the lake, I’m not considering my breasts to be sexual.  When I’m with someone in private and in desire, I do consider my breasts to be sexual.  It’s my call.

And anyway, what if they are sexually attractive?  Well, you may answer, men are sexually aggressive; really, it’s for your own protection.  Well, I say back, if a man has so little control that I must fear assault whenever shirtless, then I say do something about the man, not my breasts.  (Surely the provocation defence is pretty much dead and buried by now.)

And in any case, that wasn’t the point; the point was it’s immoral for women to go shirtless because their breasts are sexual.  But I have yet to hear why sexual is immoral.


b.  The Bible says

i.   that it’s immoral for women to bare their breasts.  Okay, so Jewish and Christian women shouldn’t go shirtless.  They don’t have to – I’m not arguing for a law that insists women go shirtless; I’m arguing to eliminate the law that prohibits it.  So you’ll still be able to follow your religion; you’ll still get to heaven, don’t worry about it.  I, however, don’t share your religion.  So why should I have to follow it?

ii.   that it’s immoral for men to see women’s breasts.  Well, this would make it more difficult for you to follow your religion then, wouldn’t it – if women at large were to be shirtless.  I guess you’d have to spend a lot of time indoors.  But again, I don’t share your religious beliefs.  On what basis do you limit my freedom so you can follow your religion?


2.  It’s disgusting.

a.  Not according to me.  Why should your aesthetic rather than mine be legally supported?  (And while we’re invoking personal aesthetics, what I find disgusting – much to my shame, so I’m working on this – is men’s guts that look nine months pregnant; so to be consistent, there ought to be a law insisting they cover that up.)

b.  Hm.  If women’s breasts are disgusting, why is Playboy thriving?  (The articles, ah yes, I forgot.)  Let’s pursue this for a moment.  I’ll bet that the same man who ogles Candy Cane’s breasts in the centrefold would get all upset if Candy Cane did a Gwen Jacobs.  Do men have some psychological problem such that they can’t handle the real thing?  And is it as boring as the need to control, the need to be the centre of the universe?  The real thing is okay in a strip bar, it’s okay if a woman does it for a man, but if she does it merely for herself, well, we can’t have that.


3.  It’s just custom, that’s all.

            ‘That’s all’ is right – appeal to tradition is not sufficient for anything, let alone a law.  (We’ve always bashed our babies’ brains out, so let’s have a law saying we must continue to do so.  It’s just our way.)


4.  It will lead to topless beaches, then nude beaches, then pretty soon everybody will be walking around buck naked.

Well, I sincerely doubt it, but – your point?  (See 1, 2, and 3 above if all you’re saying is that naked bodies are immoral, disgusting, or contrary to custom.)  (Otherwise, check out the slippery slope fallacy: X need not lead to Y.)


Let’s admit that men have breasts too: women’s are more developed and have the potential to produce milk, but both sexes have two areas of tissue density on the chest, each centered by a nipple.

Given then that the distinction seems to be based on a difference in development, pre-pubescent girls should be shirtless, by custom, as freely as boys.  The custom is, however, that girls as young as two years of age are dressed in two-piece bathing suits – what’s the point of the top piece?  Could it be the insane need to differentiate on the basis of sex?  Pink and blue, girls and boys, Ms. and Mr. – secretaries and presidents.


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    • JE on July 26, 2013 at 9:06 am

    I go with point number 3 – Taboos aren’t based on rational reasons but, rather, because things have always been that way.

  1. Yeah…but self-righteous outrage at shirtless women seems a bit out of proportion to a simple fear of change, rejection of tradition/custom…?

    • JE on July 26, 2013 at 1:30 pm

    I agree with you completely. That sort of reaction is completely out of proportion for those of us who don’t share the topless taboo. But for those who do hold that taboo, a woman who goes topless is flaunting her rejection of all that (according to them) is right and ‘decent’.

    There’s probably control issues at play also. A woman who would break that taboo is likely someone who won’t submit to other social controls.

  2. Yeah, that rings true.

    And it shows that a lot of generalization going on, doesn’t it (if flaunt this, then flaunt all that is right and decent; if break this taboo, break all taboos). Which, I suppose, is typical for people unaccustomed or unable to think through things carefully.

    It’s so depressing. I spend a good hour talking with that woman, trying to tease out her reasons, hoping that she might come to see… A complete waste of time.

    It was a little interesting though, she kept coming back to the children, to how what I was doing was bad for the children, they were the ones who would be upset…that was a surprise.

    • JE on July 26, 2013 at 2:01 pm

    The old “but what about the chillldren,” bit. Jeeze, I’ve been hearing that all my life and the kids seem to turn out all right, regardless.

    And you are right about how sticking with taboos or tradition, or whatever is a substitute for actually thinking about whether or not something is actually harmful.

    I doubt she would do this, but a visit to a nudist beach or nudist campsite might show your neighbor that there is nothing inherently sexual about nudity.

  3. Of course they do! (the kids – turn out all right)

    Well, a glance in the mirror one night when she’s putting on her nightgown would surely tell her that! 😉

    In any case, I don’t talk to her about any substantive issues any more. I don’t talk to anyone here about any substantive issues any more. There’s simply no point. I’d asked her (this was after the second time) “What if I’d had open heart surgery instead, you’re saying the kids would be upset by seeing those scars too and I should cover it up?” “Well, no, that’s different.” And then she smiled at me in that way that says ‘You know what I’m talking about, you’re just playing devil’s advocate for fun’. Infuriating.

  4. What’s also interesting is that of the three men who came close enough to realize (all three were the first summer, when I still had breasts): one specifically swam over to my dock when I was sitting there, shirtless, reading in the sun, to engage in a ‘philosophical’ discussion about it (right.); the second made no acknowledgement at all (I’d stopped at his dock to chat, as I often do on my way past – he didn’t seem uncomfortable, nor did he seem particularly interested or appalled…); the third, another kayaker, a stranger, paddled near to chat about the weather or some such (possibly also to get a good look), then paddled away with a have a nice day.

    All a far cry from the hullabaloo that gets reported in the newspaper. (That was my point. I did have one.)

    • JE on July 26, 2013 at 3:37 pm

    That is interesting that the three men reacted in neutral or approving ways, but in at least one case (or was it both cases? I’m not sure from the details given) it was another woman who tried to get you to change your behavior.

    Does that go back to the idea that (some) women ‘police’ other women?

  5. Yes, I think so. But it was the same woman. So one woman and three men out of, I don’t know, twenty each? Too small a sample. And we can’t know how representative it is.

    Also, we can’t know…maybe the men asked the woman to talk to me? Thought it better that it come from a woman? Though I sort of suspect that wasn’t the case. And even if it was, it’s still the policing you mention.

    (By the way, I am very much appreciating your conversation on this matter! You may have noticed that you’re almost the first to engage here. I would love to hear from others.)

    • JE on July 26, 2013 at 4:11 pm

    Well, thank you – I enjoy conversing with interesting bloggers.

    I saw you over at FCM and clicked through to your site here. I don’t get to say anything over at FCM because (whispering) I have a penis, but, wow, that bunch is really intense.

    I’m almost positive that you are correct in your suspicion that the men did not ask your lady neighbor to ask you to cover up. In almost all cases I’ve seen, the modesty enforcers are female.

    The only men I’ve seen on a modesty kick are religious types who claim to be unable to control their lustful thoughts and want women to not be so temptingly enticing at them.

    As if the women were dressing (or not dressing) for them in the first place. Those guys’ attitudes reek of egoism – that women should dress uncomfortably because those men have the emotional maturity of a fourteen year old boy.

  6. Glad you’re blogging here and expanding the space for those of us who don’t take a rigid definitional-but-won’t-admit-it’s-definitional approach to radical feminism. Actually I don’t mind that they do but they seem to mind that I don’t, and thus there is at least one analytically popular (and generally very well-written) rf blog where without ever telling me directly my comments no longer get posted. Oh well.

    There are bigger tents and that doesn’t scare me.

    What does scare me at least on occasion — then I have skills to shift the fear — are people who can’t see the trees for the bark, and think for example that a woman’s breasts are porn fodder, jezebel indicator or anything but nature’s idea for female primates to feed the youngest among us.

    I really find annoying that seeing even an inadvertent hint of my cleavage makes any man think I’m wanting to act out his latest pearl-necklace fantasy (or much worse). It is equally annoying that I have to wear a top at all times in public and aaarrgggh, much worse, a bra — because bras are all uncomfortable, and thus we women have to divert energy to override the ubiquity of the discomfort — to be socially acceptable for earning the money necessary in the man-made insanity of normality-economy.

    On a slight digression off topic (or is it), I saw a film clip of Robin Morgan talking about the infamous second-wave feminist gathering, plus news footage, picked up by the press meme as women burning their bras, aka feminists as bra-burners. (That didn’t last long, did it?) Actually what happened was not women taking off and burning their bras but at the Atlantic City Miss America pageant, on the boardwalk, the feminists had a huge trash can into which they threw all the feminizing Miss America-esque articles of clothing like bras, girdles, spike high heels. Maybe they later set a fire in the trash can. The clip I saw was truncated, a partial erasure by men like so much herstory hard to reconstruct so we can’t know where we’ve been and are always tasked to reinvent the same liberating ideas in every generation.

    There remain parts of the world, btw as we probably all know, where indigenous women don’t have to wear bras or cover up their breasts. The baby girl from Namibia who stole the documentary show in the Babies film from a few years ago had a mother and aunts who were entirely bare-breasted in the 21st century and I envied their lifestyle, actually, although men are probably intent on destroying it. Also in Namibia it appeared as though women largely lived together with matri-focus and their kids, having little to do with men. That sounds good to me, too.

    I’m not of the rf camp that it has always been equally bad for all women everywhere at men’s hands as some rf’s today seem to believe. (Bigger tent.) I read the field notes compiled at one time in the main LA public library from Marija Gimbutas, Ph.D., archaeologist, about Goddess cultures in Old Europe, and have more hope than some rf’s for evolutionary and sociocultural change while at the same time staying the fuck away from men whenever I can, given the present dangerous reality.

    Instead of a divided camp of rf’s, it seems to me there are such bigger concerns women face, like the ever-increasing gonzo-porn-fueled rates of male sexual violence including abductions against girls and women (not that man-stream media reports it that way with the global corporate takeover of the now unfree press).

    Or what about just reaching more women with the idea that they deserve to put themselves first in their lives (the way men have always put themselves first)? That one changed idea would remove women who are brainwashed volunteer victims from being energy to be vampirized by men. That one changed idea in billions of women might just change the world.

  7. In defence of the intensity at FCM’s blog…given the concerted effort by MRAs and MfFs to derail and destroy, I can appreciate that she’s developed an over-the-top suspicion of new commenters (what happened to me there also seemed to happen at IBTP, and I’ve seen it happen to others–almost to WarriorWoman (?) at FCM and to someone at IBTP who said in response to rejected comments something about the online radfem community being very much a clique). And when a blog is overtly declared FAAB-only, the gate-keeping is very important.

    But the consequence is that it’s that much harder for radfems to connect with each other. Which is exactly what the MRAs and MtFs want.

    And if we can’t connect, especially inter-generationally, well, that’s why feminism has to be ‘reinvented’ every second generation. And so you get books that are thirty years old, like Dworkin’s Intercourse and Daly’s stuff, being really big news (I got as far as Nov11 in FCM’s archives and both were hot topics). Not the most efficient way to advance.

    There has to be a way around it. A closed blog with applications necessary so the host can check out somehow the commenters’ credentials? Dunno…

    • JE on July 26, 2013 at 8:47 pm

    Hey ptittle, since this is your blog space, I’d like to know what your rules are here.

    Is this a ‘no male zone’? If it is, say the word and I’m gone.

    If my commenting here is okay, then next question is if it is okay for me to question the foundational dogma and rhetoric of the more radical sort?

    Take, for example, a potential response to Ms. Archer above. I read the following paragraph above about the protest at the Miss America pageant. :Yeah, that matches what I remember seeing in various film clips – and it looks pretty much like the Wikipedia article which seems well referenced. Crazy times those 60’s, eh?

    Then I get to:

    The clip I saw was truncated, a partial erasure by men like so much herstory hard to reconstruct so we can’t know where we’ve been and are always tasked to reinvent the same liberating ideas in every generation.

    Hmmm – well, I guess the reason the clip was truncated could be because of a man-wide conspiracy to edit out parts of the historical record that showed feminist activism…on the other hand, it could be that the clip is part of a longer existing document and that for reasons of time or other production values only a small part, the truncated bit, was used.

    Kind of like when clips of FDR show the “only thing we have to fear is fear itself” and not the whole speech is not because of a conspiracy to ‘disappear’ FDR, but rather because the folks who made the video document didn’t want to show the whole speech, but just that part.


    Questions like that, ptittle…If the sort of thing I’ve written above is considered ‘mansplaining’ and forbidden by your decree, then just let me know,

  8. Hi Sally, glad you’re glad! You’ve really found it necessary to wear a bra “to be socially acceptable for earning money…”? I never did, but I was small-breasted and had relatively well-developed pecs from working out. Perhaps if it had been otherwise, I would’ve received more disapproval. Because you’re absolutely right. And it shouldn’t matter, the size.

    Yes, I’m familiar with the debunking of the bra-burner myth. The whole femininity thing…yeah…I was actually thinking of writing a book called “Fuck Femininity” with each chapter addressing one aspect–but then remembered Susan Brownmiller had already done exactly that, back in 1986. (See my previous comment. Around and around we go…)

    And yeah, the increase in pornification is really scarey. Just read somewhere–oh, over at FCM? GT?–about the guy on a plane openly perusing a porn magazine featuring young girls. I used to love So You Think You Can Dance, but I’m finding it hard to stomach these days–every dance is SO pornified. (I’ve got a post-in-progress about that.)

  9. JE, I’ve gone back and forth on that. (Thanks for asking.) First I had a no-male and no-MTF rule. Because good things happen to the conversation when men aren’t present. Read Tannen and others.

    But I’m a bit not radfem in that I think some men are/can be feminist. Just as whites can be non-racist.

    Also, if only b/c men have the (more) power, change requires ‘your’ endorsement.

    On the other hand, I’m with Sally in that I stay the fuck away from men whenever I can.

    At the moment, my policy is in the “Keep in mind” box in the sidebar.

    Hostility and insult also not allowed. You’ll notice I didn’t respond to the comment about “Short Men”. For now, I’m letting it stand, hoping someone else might respond. Someone with a penis. Who’s short.

    Let’s say you’re allowed on probation? If your presence does inhibit others who would like to be here (others: please let me know), maybe I’ll ‘sacrifice’ you. Actually, I’ll just ask you to engage at my other blog (Bite-Sized Subversions); I sometimes post the same pieces there, and men are definitely allowed there since it’s more a philosophy blog than a feminist blog.

    Just please be careful not to dominate the discussion and don’t expect any of us to educate you — do your own Feminism 101. For example, how many books on the reading list (tap at the top) have you read?

    • JE on July 26, 2013 at 9:32 pm

    Hi Ptittle, is the icon linked to a specific e-mail account? That’s the problem, I’m sure. I will register an account for consistency.

    I will keep in mind the Keep In Mind.

    “Hostility and insult also not allowed. You’ll notice I didn’t respond to the comment about “Short Men”. For now, I’m letting it stand, hoping someone else might respond. Someone with a penis. Who’s short.”

    lol, yes I did notice that and I considered responding since I too am short and penised. I’ll put some thought into a gentle response.

    That is quite a reading list – I’ve read articles by Friedan and Steinem back in the day, but nothing at all recently, alas.

    I admire FCM and her intensity. And I readily concede that she raises some important issues with regard to FAAB – only gatherings.

    These issues with the MtF and finding womens-only spaces, is that mostly a problem in the Commonwealth and EU? I’ve always assumed that in the US – if you owned a space, you could have an invitation only, or otherwised screened gathering of people because of freedom of association and all that.

    • Alex on August 5, 2013 at 7:29 am

    Great article! I just wanted to point out the fact that men can produce milk and lactate their babies as well. Our breasts are not all that different.

    • Rididill on September 10, 2013 at 6:24 am

    Hi ptittle! Interesting post. I have to say the conversation has irked me a little. Trust the man in the room to try and make this an issue of women tearing other women down. Of course the men you met didn’t have a problem with your bare breasts – you are giving them what they want to see. Why on earth would they ‘police’ you? Sure they didn’t say anything because if they did, you’d probably cover up in future and they wouldn’t want that. Doesn’t matter if you are doing it for yourself, end result is they get what they want.

    There are two main types of patriarchy in the English speaking world at least – the private property model, i.e. those ones who want to keep women covered except for their one special man/owner, and the public property model – the liberal doods who want womens bodies exposed everywhere for their enjoyment.

    The former, as you say JE are the modesty brigade. But the fact that the men ptittle saw did not criticize her does not mean anything about women’s greater ‘policing’ relative to men. The woman in question is clearly indoctrinated by the private property form of patriarchy. These men are likely of the latter kind.

    Probably if you had been older, fatter and saggier the responses would have been much different, with the possible exception of the guy you already know.

    This article about sums up my view of women’s right to take their tops off as a feminist goal. I’d be interested to hear what you think ptittle.

    Also, I think the idea that change requires men’s endorsement is a dead end. The point is to increase our autonomy and power, which would simultaneously massively undermine men’s. Their system could not function without women.

    But I guess if you are familiar with FCM’s blog then you’ve already heard this argument and rejected it? Why is that?

    • Rididill on September 10, 2013 at 6:27 am

    Also I don’t really see what people mean by ‘debunking the bra burner myth’? Even if they didn’t set it on fire, the intention was to label these garments as tools of male oppression. It isn’t really a myth.

    • ptittle on September 10, 2013 at 8:26 pm

    Hi Rididill, Of course I’m all for increasing women’s autonomy and power; I guess it’s the “which would simultaneously massively undermine men’s” that I’m not sure of. As long as a man is in ‘power over’, to some extent his permission will be required, unless force is used. We didn’t get the vote until men ‘gave’ it to us. There was no way around that.

    And as for “their system could not function without women” – true, but it’s unrealistic to imagine all the men in power and all the indoctrinated women changing at once. And that’s what would have to happen.

    I’m not sure I reject the argument; I’m just not certain about how to make a revolution happen. Yeah, clearly, one woman and one man at a time isn’t working. Yeah, clearly trying to change the system from within isn’t working. Establishing a separatist FAAB-only society is impossible b/c all the land is ‘spoken for’.

    • ptittle on September 10, 2013 at 8:33 pm

    Okay, just went to the feministcurrent link.

    Okay, first I object to ‘topless’ – that smacks of stripper bars. I prefer shirtless.

    Second, I object to a Go Topless Day; I also object to Women’s Day. They increase the marginalization of women’s issues.

    Third, I’d probably agree that it’s near the bottom of the list, but it is on the list b/c the requirement that we wear shirts endorses the sexualization of our chests. What she said.

    I would never have chanted “Free your breasts, free your mind.”

    And the idea of doing the march? As stupid as the SlutWalk thing.

    • Rididill on September 26, 2013 at 4:23 pm

    Well, since patriarchy is based on exploitation, which means that men gain materially off our backs, at our expense, that means that the moment we are no longer exploited, they lose a resource which they were previously benefiting from. That is the sense in which it undermines their power. Refusing to contribute in any way to men’s benefit as far as possible is a way to do this without force.

    I’m not sure why you’re mentioning the vote in this context, as that is a pretty liberal goal not a radical one. The whole idea that we need men to grant us power out of their pre-made structures (which have patriarchal values built in to them, so cannot be liberating) is a liberal idea (which i really don’t think achieved that massive a change). I don’t think this will ever work. Women need to build their own autonomous power, not rely on persuading men. And I don’t think it will have to happen all at once. Build parallel structures, build an underground. Build it slowly. But ultimately unless a large number of women decide to liberate themselves, there will be no substantial change, regardless of what concessions you may get from the male dominated power structure. A small number of feminist women fighting on behalf of a large number of women who still embrace their own oppression is never going to create radical change.

    re: the go topless thing. I was actually trying to point out the arguments as to why simply taking your shirt/top off (fair enough it sounds stripperish, but I don’t wear shirts, I wear tops so…) within a patriachal context is not going to achieve any kind of liberation at all. Yes the requirement that we wear shirts endorses the sexualisation of our chests. Taking the shirts off does not solve that, it just gives guys more opportunity to ogle us. It’s unfortunate, but there it is.

    • ptittle on September 26, 2013 at 7:53 pm

    “But ultimately … radical change.” Yeah. Absolutely yeah. And what I find most distressing is that the likelihood of women changing is much less today than it was thirty years ago. 2013 is not at all what I would have predicted it to be, women-wise.

    Have you read Alanya to Alanya? I’m just starting it – first in the series. Looks to be fantastic.

    Achieve liberation? Hm. Perhaps not, but it is liberating in that it certainly snubs the patriarchy. It’s my body and I’ll uncover it if i want to…i is a gesture of the autonomy you speak of. Gives guys more opportunity to ogle? I think it depends a great deal on the context. On a sparsely populated lake on a hot summer day, not many oglers. And men individually can’t get into that group ogling thing; frankly, if anything I think I made individual men uncomfortable, I’m not completely convinced they were ogling. Especially the second time when I had no breasts. What could they ogle??

    • Rididill on September 27, 2013 at 11:33 am

    much less than 30 years ago… that seems to be true, I guess you are older than I thought? Sorry for making assumptions! Unless you basing this on historical evidence rather than experience?

    But yeah I can’t say it looks very likely. Damn depressing. I haven’t read that and hadn’t heard of it but it looks really cool! I’ll check it out.

    Yeah that is interesting re: individual vs. collective ogling. Definitely I would never want to do that in a busy space with lots of men, but in nature it’s a totally different deal. It does seem like ogling is more a performance for other men in some ways, like street harassment. Then again, you have that whole ‘spying on the woman while she’s secretly bathing’ trope, which is usually individual. but I guess, again the common feature is that she is trying to hide so it’s the violation they get off on. If you’re just there acting normal, they don’t know how to deal with it. It seems. Not that I know this from experience.

    Did this woman have a problem with it the second time around also?

    • ptittle on September 27, 2013 at 7:50 pm

    nope, based on experience, so yeah, guess i’m older than you thought.

    ‘this woman’ is me – and see the prefatory comment to the post and my jul26 comment.

    • Rididill on September 28, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    by ‘this woman’ I meant the neighbour who criticised it.

    There seem to be some things I did not read properly the first time around. Ooops, sorry!!

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