On Toplessness

I saw a woman walking topless in downtown Kitchener today. I was in the passenger seat of my parents’ car, my father was driving and my mother was in the back, and my mother said, “what’s that woman doing not wearing a shirt? Or a bra?” And I happened to look, and got a bit of an eyeful. If I’d actually been driving, my car might have swerved.

My reaction may only be partly because I’m a heterosexual male. It may also be because this is the first time I’ve seen a woman topless on the street in, like, ever. And I wonder if it has something to do with this protest that took place earlier in the day.

It’s strange that we seem to be having a debate on female toplessness this summer — maybe less so given that the heat and the humidity is making toplessness more of an issue. However, there have been a rash of people being told to cover up, and being told “it’s the law.

Except that it’s not. Pretty definitely not, thanks to Gwen Jacobs who, nineteen years ago, successfully overturned an indecent exposure conviction at the Ontario Court of Appeal, who ruled:

“…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…” (Furthermore), “the community standard of tolerance when all of the relevant circumstances are taken into account.”

So, we’ve had this conversation already. We shouldn’t be having it again, especially when it comes to telling eight-year-old girls to cover up at a pool. It seems we have short memories.

Yes, I said above that, had I been driving when I spotted the topless woman walking down the sidewalk, my car might have swerved, but that’s my issue, not her’s. Mostly it was the surprise of seeing something that I hadn’t expected to see. Maybe if more people did this, it would be less of a surprise to me and I’d have less of a reaction.

Maybe I should rephrase that…

Then again, my car might not have swerved, because I might have been more aware that my hands were on a steering wheel, and swerving could be very dangerous indeed. It has always offended me when men (invariably, they are men) complain about what women are wearing, suggest either implicitly or explicitly that they are bringing unwanted sexual attention onto themselves. As if I, as a man, am unable to control my reactions, and don’t have the intelligence to think about what is safe in this situation, and what is acceptable. It’s an insult to me, and it should be an insult to all men.

Yes, society sexualizes things more than I would like. The rant about gender-specific clothing for boys and girls under the age of six would take up twice this space on this blog. But the important thing to note is, on this extremely hot and humid day, there was nothing sexual about a woman choosing to walk bare chested down the street. I jerked with surprise, but I was easily able to not stare, and continue about my business. That should be the end of it, and for me it was.

We as a society need to be less stuck up. Gwen Jacobs walked past several people, including two police officers, without incident, until a mother complained that Gwen Jacobs had been seen topless by one of her children. Gwen Jacobs was not the problem. The mother’s attitude was. But like the summer silly season in the news media, hopefully this too will pass.

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