Reader challenge: Make an argument for banning topless women in public

Can someone offer a good, justified argument for why men can be topless in more public places than women?

For example, all can be topless at home, on nude beaches; women may be “topless” in public when breast-feeding (kind of), and so on. But I’m looking to see if there’s not a double-standard that allows men to be topless but not women in more places. If so, what are good reasons for creating laws around women being topless but not men.

I’ll offer some thoughts after, but I’d really like either links or original arguments. I can’t find any that are satisfactory (or perhaps my Googling abilities are not as high as yours).

Remember: I’m not looking for descriptive reasons (it exists because people will be offended). I’m looking for justified arguments that will make me and anyone else agree (it exists because topless women give people heart attacks).


  1. says

    I’ve never heard one either.

    I did have a friend tell me that breasts are a “secondary sex organ” but he couldn’t validate that assertion in any way, nor did he try. Nor could he make any sense of the term.

    • Schlumbumbi says

      Nana, the reference was correct. I remember learning that back in school as well.

      IIRC, the reason for considering female breasts and male/female butts as secondary sex organs was that they’re a source of direct sexual attraction for the opposite sex.

  2. thascius says

    It’s social convention, no more no less. The same sort of thing that says women wear tight form-fitting clothes while men are supposed to wear shapeless baggy clothes (though admittedly there’s no legal requirement for that one). The proof of course, is that there are societies where women do go topless and they seem to function just fine.

    • Tauriq Moosa says

      Thanks, I’m aware. As I say, I’m seeking justified argument not merely description of what it is.

  3. jamessweet says

    I can try…

    I would go with the “secondary sex characteristic” argument, and deflect Dalilama’s beard rebuttal by asserting that it would simply be impractical to ban beards — you can’t very well walk around with a face covering all day (well, niqab aside…) and many men grow stubble so quickly that shaving frequently enough to prevent any beard at all would be impractical.

    I suppose then you spoilsports would respond by pointing out that there are loads of other secondary sex characteristics, like waist/hip shape, etc., and that culturally we have women wear different styles, which publicly differentiates the genders and so kinda defeats the point of concealing secondary sex chacteristics. I might respond, I guess, by saying that you do pretty much cover the waist and hips in public, and that things like hair length are not fundamental to bodies, so therefore they are, uh, different.

    So if I go that route, I might be able to establish a consistent set of criteria for What Must Be Concealeth: If its a secondary sex characteristic determined by biology (i.e. not by cultural convention) and it is not impractical to keep it concealed in public at all times, then it must be covered. But then, why? That’s just a consistent rule, not a justification, and probably some clever people can poke holes it its consistency as well. But that’s the best I can do, I think; take it or leave it.

    Although, if we take as a given that propagating the patriarchy is an admirable goal, then I’ve got an easy one:
    Compelled concealment of breasts is a big component of keeping women from being able to breastfeed in public, denying reasonable employer accommodations to breastfeeding women who wish to pump, etc… And if all of that becomes acceptable, then that improves employment opportunities for women, and it also denies us men the chance for some woman-free time while our wives excuse themselves to go feed the babies. So there’s your rational justification right there!

  4. jamessweet says

    I’ve got another attempt: Cultural convention though it may be, female breasts have become sufficiently sexualized that it would result in increased sexual assaults [citation needed], and all sorts of other imagined bad stuff that would happen if we had a more casual attitude towards nudity in general. If the cultural convention were to change, then the law would not be necessary, but given the convention we must stick with it even though there is nothing inherent that justifies it. By the same token, there is nothing inherently better about driving on the right or the left side of the road — but nevertheless there are practical reasons why we must codify it into law!

    I think if we take as a given that public nudity (just simple nudity, as opposed to inappropriately lewd behavior) is a negative, then I could probably go somewhere with this line of argumentation. But I don’t really even believe that, so… that makes it difficult.

    (To be clear, I’m just trying to meet the Reader Challenge. I hope it’s clear that I am as baffled as the rest of you at this absurd cultural convention.)

  5. thascius says

    @7-along those lines, in western culture the female breast is sexualized in a way the male chest is not, so it could be presumed that a topless woman is making a sexual display in a way that a shirtless man would not be-though again that is purely a cultural convention. A hundred odd years ago a woman showing her ankles in public would be considered to be making an indecent sexual display. I’m not aware that countries with a more relaxed attitude toward nudity in general have higher sexual assault rates, or indeed that cultures which insist on veils or burkas have lower rates of women being sexually assaulted.

    • Tauriq Moosa says

      Thanks. You’re now banned for sending links that answer my question nicely and making me look silly.

      • says

        Also legal in Canada.

        Gwen Jacob was acquitted on December 9, 1996 by the Ontario Court of Appeal on the basis that the act of being topless is not in itself a sexual act or indecent. The court held that “there was nothing degrading or dehumanizing in what the appellant did. The scope of her activity was limited and was entirely non-commercial. No one who was offended was forced to continue looking at her” and that furthermore “the community standard of tolerance when all of the relevant circumstances are taken into account” was not exceeded. It is important to note that although Jacob claimed she had a constitutional right, the court did not address this.[7] The Ontario Government decided not to appeal the case to the Supreme Court of Canada, and thus it has remained the prevailing interpretation of the Criminal Code in Ontario. Since then, the court ruling has been tested and upheld several times. R. v. Jacob has been cited in similar decisions in other provinces and by the Supreme Court of Canada in R. v. Labaye, and is taught in Criminal Law courses.

        In 2000 a similar case to Jacob resulted in acquittal. Linda Meyer was a top-free activist inspired by the Gwen Jacob case, who appeared in a number of public venues topless. A bylaw in the municipality of Maple Ridge stated “females over the age of 8 years shall fully cover all portions of their nipples and aureole with opaque apparel.”. On July 1, 1997, Linda Meyer went to the swimming pool in the bottom half of her bikini. Some parents complained and she was charged, [15] but the judge in this case (Justice Holmes) voided the by law stating, inter alia: [16]

        [55] In R. v. Jacob, supra, a woman who walked bare-breasted on a city street and then reclined top-free on the front step to her home was acquitted on appeal of committing an indecent act. The Court found the baring of her breasts was not harmful to anyone. There was nothing degrading or dehumanizing in her conduct. The Court noted anyone who was offended was not forced to look.

        [57] I do not find in the evidence support for the view that the parks could not operate in orderly fashion if a female were to bare her breasts in a circumstance that did not offend criminal laws of nudity. The evidence suggests the Section 3A amendment to the Park By-Law was more a reaction to a frustration that the criminal law was not supporting the moral standards in regard to females who chose to bare their breasts in public that some Maple Ridge citizens desired.

        • says

          Thanks, Ibis3, that’s what I was going to mention. Guelph is the next town over from mine, and I actually had FOAF-contact* with Ms. Jacobs around the time of the court case. When my partner came to visit me and we went to Church St in Toronto, she got me to take a picture of her with her shirt off on the street, with police officers in the background with a grin below their sunglasses. 😀

          * Technically, Friend of a Friend of a Friend, so FOAF^2?

    • Claire says

      It’s legal in Austin, too, on the grounds that otherwise it’s gender discrimination. (Austin is just an island of damn dirty hippies in the red sea of Texas. You should do an image search of Eeyore’s Birthday celebration…)

      • prodegtion says

        I’m not going to provide any good reasons for banning toplessness because there aren’t any. I believe all public nudity should be legal. What, do you disagree with that?

        • Tauriq Moosa says

          But the post specifically requests good reasons. Commenting by saying “I’m not going to provide good reasons” doesn’t answer this.

  6. besomyka says

    I would argue that it is akin to public speech that causes a disturbance. Your individual rights of expression and speech must be balanced against the rights of others. You may have the right to sing the lyrics to your favorite song, but you might not have the right to do so at the top of your lungs, at 3 am, outside your neighbors window.

    Likewise, going topless is certainly your right, but it is also reasonable to assert that there are rational limitations to that self-expression when that expression bumps up against the rights of others. It is a reasonable expectation of civil society.

    Personally, I think being topless is *considerably* less disruptive than loud singing at 3am outside my window, and that the line drawn between the various rights of people should be to the benefit of people wearing (or not wearing) what they want. I would not concede that there is *no* line, however. There are considerations of public health, at the very least.

  7. says

    But in none of the arguments proffered is there any reason why the limitation should apply to women and not to men. It is men who are showing their secondary sexual characteristics by going topless now. There isn’t anything that is inherently more disruptive about a woman topless than a man topless (e.g. why is a woman with a flat chest classed as “disruptive” while a man with a fatty chest classed as “nothing disruptive here” –even if you say it’s about sexual attraction, you’re going to have to make an argument why the law shouldn’t be about beautiful people of any sex being covered up while ugly people are allowed to walk around topless). Any argument that says otherwise is saying it is right to legally discriminate against women.

    • thascius says

      I don’t think any of the posters here really do believe there’s a reason why the law should treat them differently. Society says a woman’s breasts are sexual in a way a man’s chest is not, but that’s a purely arbitrary convention (probably decided by heterosexual men).

  8. says

    Well, I suppose the reasoning is about what is seen as sexually provocative in our society. It’s not a good reason though. I’m pretty sure that if everyone were exposed then the sexually charged nature of their bodies would disappear. For example, Muslim women need to be covered because it’s too sexual but that’s not the case here. It’s cultural but with no good reason.

    So I’ve tried thinking about it a few times but I haven’t been able to come up with a single good reason for why any nudity should be banned at all. There’s no reason to favour nudity over Western values or over Muslim values or vice versa. Either way you’re imposing one person’s idea of what is moral on someone else in a case where no harm is caused by letting them dress as they want.

  9. kiwirob says

    Firstly it is not a priori self-evident that the standards for men and women should be the same in this case because men and women are different in the chest area. So it seems at least possible that a “double standard” is appropriate. Perhaps the onus should rather be on those who wish to claim that the standard should be the same, given that men and women are not the same here. I don’t know if there is a principle of reasoning applicable in this case, but seeking to apply the same standard to different things sounds like a fallacy of some kind!
    Sexuality is deeper than culture: it is biological. Apparently, for most if not all heterosexual men (and some women) breasts are objects of sexual desire. Therefore breasts bared in public would be a sexually arousing experience for many. (Men’s chests considerably less so for anyone, although there are lots of public situations when toplessness would be frowned upon for men as well.) There is nothing wrong with sexuality, or feeling sexual pleasure, but there are good reasons for keeping sexuality as a private affair, and keeping it out of public spaces. (I could try to make the case for this in another comment if anyone wants to challenge it.) Therefore bared breasts in public, as a public sexual experience, might be unsuitable on those grounds.
    As a side note, Jason says “I’m pretty sure that if everyone were exposed then the sexually charged nature of their bodies would disappear.” This may be right but do we really want that to happen? That sexual charge is kinda nice…

    • says

      By that logic, women should be able to walk around pantless while men have to keep their bottoms covered. After all, they are the ones that have something ‘sexually desirable’ hanging right out there.

      I love me a nice male chest, and the back of the shoulders of a well-built guy is definitely something ‘sexually desirable’.

      • dickspringer says

        That seems to be the law here in Maine. In two court cases that I am aware of (there probably are others) it has been ruled that women may be fully nude in public because their genitals are internal and therefore usually not exposed even when nude. Nude men can still be prosecuted.

  10. kiwirob says

    The underlying syllogism behind that rather long comment:
    Premise 1: Sexual things should be private and not public.
    Premise 2: Women’s bare breasts are sexual.
    Conclusion: Women’s bare breasts should be private and not public.
    I think this is valid, but is it sound?

    • says

      Both premises require justification.

      Premise 1: Why should sexual things be private and not public? That is mostly tradition and culture. There are many species where sex happens out in the open. What objective reason is there to say it must be private? And, even granting premise 1, “sexual things” is incredibly vague. Is a kiss a sexual thing? A mouth has a non-sexual function but it can also be a “sexual thing.”

      Premise 2: Why are women’s breasts sexual but not men’s? Women’s breasts are not at all involved in sexual reproduction, they are for feeding babies. Is it enough that they are an object of desire to call them sexual? Shouldn’t feet then be considered sexual and hidden by virtue that some people have a foot fetish?

  11. says

    I fail to see the distinction between #7, #8, #11 and #4, or why the latter two are better arguments. Both hinge entirely on the idea that any violation of the social norms mentioned in #4 is intrinsically so shocking that people must be protected from it/can’t control their reactions to it, which is patently absurd.

  12. says

    I assume you already consulted Wikipedia’s articles (this and this and especially this and this, and more broadly this; plus also useful data here, in particular these). But in case not, there you go. The SF case will be particularly fruitful as the city council debates recently saw pretty much every conceivable argument pro and con.

  13. kiwirob says

    All good questions! Premises always require justification.
    Premise 1. The argument as to why sexual things should be private as opposed to public. Regarding your objections, I don’t know if it is true that it is mostly tradition and culture. I mean I really don’t know. (And I think other species are not relevant to our case. Or at least I would like to hear your reasoning as to why. Other species don’t wear clothes at all.) Even if it is true, though, are you saying tradition and culture have no value? That because it is (mostly) tradition and culture, it follows that it can be (should be?) dismissed?
    Your second point, the calling for “objective” reasons, sounds a little like the hyper-skepticism I have been hearing about. Is this objective like from the result of a lab experiment? Or objective like in a logical proof? If so, I can’t meet those standards.
    Finally, I think your last point is one about the ambiguity at the edges of concepts (like wedge arguments). Sure there is no clear boundary between what is sexual and what is not. But some things are more sexual and others less. The point about beards was brought up above. But, just because there is a spectrum, it doesn’t necessary follow that no line should be drawn anywhere.
    What is the argument that sexuality should be private rather than public? Well perhaps Stephen Fry in the debate with the Catholics expressed it well when he said about sex “we like it, it’s fun, it’s jolly, because it’s a primary impulse it can be dangerous and dark and difficult”. So if we accept that dangerous things should be kept out of public spaces that would be an argument for keeping sexuality private. Sex is also very idiosyncratic, individual, people feel about it and react to it in different ways, and public spaces, by definition, are spaces where everyone has to be together. So perhaps there is an argument there for sex being one of those things that is best understood as private. Perhaps public spaces should be confined to those things that everyone is comfortable with – or at least most people most of the time. A similar argument works against prayer in schools. I realize in the US that is an argument about the Constitution, but more generally Christian prayers are uncomfortable for people who are not Christians so the argument is that they should not be in public spaces.
    Premise 2: It is uncontroversial that breasts are not involved in sexual reproduction. It is also – I would have thought – uncontroversial that women’s breasts are different from men’s chests. So even if we conclude that men’s chests are not sexual I don’t think necessarily anything follows about women’s breasts from that. My argument that breasts are sexual is indeed – as you say – an argument that they are an object of desire. I think they are more an object of desire to people who desire women than men’s chests are to people who desire men. That is indeed what I meant by “sexual.” Your last point about feet is as far as I can tell a good one. I can’t think of any objection to that. But I gave it my best shot! In similar vein, Dalillama, Schmott Guy’s comment seems fair as well.

      • says

        Don’t you know?

        Sex drives are something only men have. Remember, when it comes to sex, men are the takers and women are the givers. It’s all about the dudes and the male gaze.

        Pffft… next you are going to be telling me that there are women who put out after marriage for reasons other than they want jewelry. Or that there are women out there with higher sex drives than their male companions.

        Or even that women can have sex without the involvement of a man at all.

  14. kiwirob says

    I actually wrote that before I saw your comment “Your premise assumes that bare female chests are more sexual than bare male chests. I can assure you that for a large proportion of the population (~50%, in fact), that is untrue.”, which I accepted, and since your comment kind of overrides what I said there, I meant to concede that point. Just didn’t go back and edit that part. It actually took me hours to post my answer, it wouldn’t load for some reason. I added on my response to your comment at the end, but given that I saw your point, should have removed my own point. If you follow me.

  15. says

    Oh, just to add my Devil’s Advocacy:

    (1) One Must Blame the Victim (“It causes rape!”)

    (2) Won’t Someone Think of the Children (“It is porn, and showing porn to children is tantamount to sexually abusing them” / “parents should be able to decide whether their children see porn” / [insert any argument against public display of porn])

    (3) That Which Causes Traffic Accidents Ought to Be Regulated (“Men will oogle and crash their cars…maybe even into children!” / car crashing can be expanded as an analogy for all manner of safety hazards, e.g. “construction workers will fall off buildings…maybe even onto children”)

    That’s all I got.

    • John Morales says

      I dunno about causing rape, but it sure would be distracting for some of us so long as it were the exception and not the rule.

      (Drivers should watch the road!)

    • says

      The infamous “Hello Boys” wonderbra advert in the UK was attributed to a number of accidents … No idea if that is apocryphal though. Those weren’t even uncovered, although I guess an argument could be made that the right kind of covering can be more distracting than bare.

  16. Mirar says

    I can make an attempt.

    If something displayed is banned from public display, it’s becuase it’s (I suppose):
    1. disturbing the peace (minority hatred like certain greetings, maybe t-shirts?)
    2. or obscene (for instance public sex)
    3. or encouraging criminal behaviour (very rare to ban just a display like a t-shirt though)

    I don’t think I can make a case for 1 or 3, so it must be obscene.

    Things are obscene because they make other people feel upset and/or disgusted. So, breasts must make people feel upset and/or disgusted.

    The argument I’ve heard for this is that breasts are a sexual organ.

    It’s hard to argue against (!) because so much sexual stigma rotates around the boobs. A lot of people (boys and girls) get a tingling sexual feeling from looking at female breasts, so there must be something sexual about them. I haven’t heard anyone proclaim the same thing about male breasts (or nipples).

    In this context it might make sense to force a cover of female nipples.

    However, I can’t say I like this argument myself:

    1. Escalation. Whatever is a feminine part will get a sexual stigma. If something is covered, it’s the next thing, be it long hair, butts, ankles, hands, eyes. Continuing this train of thought only leads to forcing all females to wear space suits with mirror glass, eventually. (Burka, anyone?)

    1a. Doing the opposite, making it common to show your breasts, will desexualize them. They will stop having a sexual stigma, because they are so common. (It will also help girls with their body image if they can see that most people don’t have magazine- or movie-perfect breasts.)

    2. Upset or disgusted, was it? Noone I heard ever feel bad about looking at female breasts. You might feel envious (or jealous). But noone minds breasts. Most people like them. So it doesn’t make sense forcing anyone to hide them. Noone even cares about old ladies breasts. More people then care about male boobs. Maybe female breasts should be allowed, but not male?

    There is also the argument that girls shouldn’t wear sexy clothes or show their nipples, because that encourages males to rape them. I really can’t argue for that – seriously, if that is the case all males needs to be locked up, right now. (I’m male.)

    And last: No laws, *ever*, should be gender specific. That’s my opinion. No pension ages, no nudity laws, no child care laws, no marriage or divorce laws. Everything would work so much better if we didn’t care about gender. (I’m also for not separating changing rooms, spas or bathrooms. Especially in a LGBT context that separation no longer makes sense. But that might be too extreme.)

    • says


      I haven’t heard anyone proclaim the same thing about male breasts (or nipples).

      I refer you to comments 14.1, 15.2, 18.1.1 in this thread, and a vast, vast body of erotica aimed at androphiles.

  17. corwyn says

    Otherwise, people wouldn’t be able to point out our hypocrisy when we complain about the hijab et al.

  18. voidhawk says

    Maybe from a public health aspect? Some women can have real back problems from insufficiently supported breasts therefore we shouldn’t be encouraging girls to go around without adequate support? A little like laws concerning seatbelt use.

    In all seriousness, I have no idea why it’s illegal in some places…

  19. badgersdaughter says

    [childish mode]

    Because people have stinky underarms and you can’t make them cover their stinky underarms without also making them cover their tops. Men think that the pheromones of other men are no big whoop, but the pheromones of women drive them crazy. And it’s the men who make the rules, so what they say goes.

    [/childish mode]

    Actually I once made a case that we should all cover our mouths if the best reason for covering body parts was that they were outlets for secretions and a potential public health hazard.

  20. Thumper: Token Breeder says

    Because breasts are associated with sex, so displaying them will cause heterosexual men (The Only People Who Matter™) to become aroused; and as we all know women are responsible for men’s arousal at all times. Therefore they must keep them covered at all times.

    Do I need to add a snark tag?