What This Topless-In-Public Lawsuit Says About Women's Equality

Photographed by Lauren Perlstein.
It's no secret that women's bodies are regulated more than men's — which aren't really regulated at all, at least legally — and the decision on a recent lawsuit only reiterates that fact.
In a November 8 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit claimed that Chicago's public indecency law — which prohibits the exposure of all butts, all genitals, and specifically "female" breasts — is not discriminatory and does not violate women's constitutional rights.
The case was raised after one woman, Sonoko Tagami, was fined for walking around the city naked from the waist up in protest of this very law. She and other women joined Go Topless Day in 2014, some baring their breasts and carrying signs to challenge the law that says men can show their breasts and women cannot. Tagami understandably challenged the fine, and sued the city of Chicago for violating the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause as well as her First Amendment rights to free speech, Reason reports.
Yet, two of the judges on her case claimed that:
1) Baring her breasts does not count as free speech.
2) The public indecency law treats women and men equally because it forbids every person from revealing the parts of themselves society deems as sexual and therefore inappropriate to show in public.
On the topic of whether her nudity counted as free speech, at least, one judge disagreed. Judge Ilana Rovner argued that "Tagami was not sunbathing topless to even her tan lines" and she was not "streaking across a football field to appear on television, or even nursing a baby," (which is actually protected in Chicago). Instead, Tagami was engaged in a "public protest on public land in which the participants sought to change a law that, on its face, treats women differently than men." That, Rovner wrote, should count as an act of free speech.
Yet, the real issue at the heart of this case is the fact that women's bodies are treated differently from men's (the decision forgets that other genders even exist) — and not just in this one specific case.
Treating women's breasts exclusively as sexual objects is in itself sexist and objectifying, and it's high time we have laws that reflect that. David Cohen, a constitutional law professor at Drexel University who isn't involved in the case, says that "when the law sees women’s bodies as always sexual, not only is it objectifying but it’s putting them in danger."
He cites a recent study that found women are more at risk of dying from cardiac arrest simply because bystanders are too afraid to touch their chests to administer CPR.
"I think there’s a harm we do in society to sexualize body parts in unnecessary ways, and this study shows that danger," Cohen says. "The sense that people are afraid to give women CPR to save their lives because they’re afraid to touch their breasts … it’s literally killing people."
The fact that seeing women's breasts, but not men's, makes people uncomfortable or offended is exactly why Tagami and others who participated in Go Topless Day felt the need to protest. The Chicago ordinance singles out women for this form of "indecency," and furthers sexualization of women's breasts.
It's pretty clear that this law — and many others like it — is sexist and relies on dangerous culturally-held ideas that women's breasts are inherently sexual and therefore need to be hidden.
Although Rovner used sunbathing as an example that Tagami's nudity wasn't frivolous, she should be able to tan topless at the beach if she wants, without her body being unnecessarily shamed or sexualized. Yet Tagami still lost her case, proving yet again why protests like Go Topless Day are so important. Because there's clearly still a lot that needs to change about the way we think of women's bodies.
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