Could This Women's Movement Be Counterproductive?

In response to an Aug. 7 Free the Nipple protest in Springfield, Missouri, City Council members have suggested revising the law that made the protest technically legal. "I would like to see a revision made to Springfield's Indecent Exposure ordinance to align it with state law," Councilman Justin Burnett wrote to fellow council members when plans for the rally were made public, the Springfield News-Leader reported. Burnett later called the protest "obviously unacceptable," citing complaints he claims he received from "moms, dads, and grandparents." Some of Burnett's fellow council members agreed with the idea of rewriting city ordinances, although Councilwoman Jan Fisk pointed out that the process should always involve careful deliberation. Public toplessness is only explicitly illegal for women in three of 50 U.S. states, but protests in Springfield have inspired local officials to seek to change this. So, could Free the Nipple actually be counterproductive?

In order to answer the question, we would have to decipher what exactly Free the Nipple protesters are trying to accomplish. It's inaccurate to say the movement's ultimate goal is to make public toplessness legal for women because protesters are aware that in the majority of states, women already have the legal right to be topless in public. But censorship in the media, gender biased laws, and double standards in society have stripped them of their social right.

The movement's ultimate goal is to change cultural attitudes, such as the reactions of Burnett and other council members. Burnett's perception of female nipples as indecent exposure, as magnets for sexual predators, as threats to the safety of children, is problematic to say the least. His perception, shared by some vocal church members in his community, is rooted in misogyny, and the infantilization and objectification of women.

"There were children present, families, and I would call the event obviously unacceptable to me," Burnett stated, according to the Springfield News-Leader. He went on to claim there were "known sexual predators recognized at the event," despite police reports put forward by City Manager Greg Burris that there had been no "spotting of pedophiles or really any problems with the event at all." According to Burnett's logic, being the inherently pornographic body parts they are (only on women, of course), nipples naturally attracted sexual predators, and the burden should fall on women to fix the community's alleged problem with sex offenders, who would presumably disappear like magic once shirts are put on.

Despite forcing women to assume responsibility for their body parts' obstruction of the peace and cover up, Burnett and outraged Springfield pastors, reverends, and Christian youth leaders reduced adult women to children by asserting that as men, they knew what was best and safest for women. Robert Tony Pawlak, a local Sunday school teacher, wrote to the Springfield City Council to express his outrage with the fact there is no age restriction on public toplessness for girls. "My wife and I ... are nauseated by the very idea that this would be legal for any of the young girls in our church," Pawlak said, according to the News-Leader.

On paper, giving only adult women the right to public toplessness seems like a safe decision. However, doing so really only magnifies the inequality at hand by raising teenagers to think that boys can peacefully roam the streets shirtless and girls can't. The idea that freeing the female nipple is inherently detrimental to the safety of youths and family values is certainly popular among the movement's opponents. According to Sea Coast Online, after Free the Nipple protesters staged a rally at Hampton Beach in New Hampshire in July, John Kane, Hampton Beach Village District's marketing director, told the news source he was "absolutely against it," stating:

Hampton Beach is a family resort, and we try our best to keep it that way. I don’t want to have a mother having to block her 4-year-old son’s eyes from [topless Free the Nipple supporters] trying to make a point that doesn’t matter.

Kane's statement is obviously shortsighted, starting with how he considers a female nipple as something to "block" a 4-year-old's eyes from. He also states that the protest "doesn't matter," arguing the protests will somehow corrupt or deeply scar young children. However, if anything, these protests are beneficial to children, who could otherwise be conditioned to view the female body as inherently shameful.

I can't imagine how exposure to female nipples could be more destructive to children than rape culture, which the movement also aims to eliminate. One of Free the Nipple's pillars argues predators often justify harassing and violating women based on how they're dressed. If the female nipple becomes just another body part, like an arm or leg, then it dismantles these sexual offenders' claims of being seduced by the female body as it is in front of them. These protests also offer families the opportunity to reevaluate the way they discuss female sexuality with youths. As a society, exposure to these protests give us a clearer idea of what distinguishes sexual empowerment — a woman making her own decisions about her body — from sexual objectification — a woman having decisions about her body made for her.

In Springfield, Free the Nipple might have run into a slight legal setback for its protest earlier this month. But in terms of its ultimate goal of eliminating misogynistic cultural values and gender-based double standards, Free the Nipple protests have definitely been making progress. With the support of feminist celebrities from Miley Cyrus and Chrissy Teigen to Matt McGorry and a particularly vocal Caitlin Stasey, Free the Nipple protests have gained enough momentum among ordinary people to take place from California to New Hampshire, from the University of California, San Diego to a park in Springfield.

The Free the Nipple campaign, which started to catch fire at the end of last year, has definitely changed my perception of the female nipple. If you'd asked my opinion a year ago, I would have answered that women's right to public toplessness was irrelevant to feminism. But by consistently attracting media attention to the issue through its protests, Free the Nipple forced me to sincerely think about why I felt this way — and changed my mind.

I'll admit I'm not yet entirely comfortable with seeing female nipples in public, but frankly, I think it's a shame I was conditioned by society to feel this way. I truly believe that if I were exposed to the movement growing up, I would have benefited from a healthier and more respectful view of the female body. The fault doesn't lie with female nipples, but with the way we as a society look at and portray them.

Springfield City Council is considering revisions to its ordinances because of its outrage with female nipples. This raises a probing question: What would happen if society took all the energy it wastes being outraged by the female nipple and focused it on a discussion about the systemic misogyny this outrage is rooted in? Ultimately, this is the answer Free the Nipple protests are searching for, and you can't say that isn't a productive way to spend their time.

Images: Volkan Olmez/Unsplash