Reasonable Doubt: Ladies (and gentlemen), put your shirts back on
Nipples are a hot topic in Vancouver after last weekend’s Go Topless Day demonstration.
Bare-chested women and a handful of men sporting bikini tops and makeshift pasties marched through downtown Vancouver, purportedly in the name of women’s equality. The demonstrators said it was profoundly unfair that the law required men, but not women, to cover their chests in public, and the purpose of the demonstration was to shed light on this issue of gender inequality. Demonstrators wearing short-shorts were led by a woman holding a megaphone while riding in a pink Buick.
No candy was thrown. Apparently it was all about respect.
Throughout these demonstrations and news reports, there has been a lot of talk about what’s “legal” throughout Canada’s cities and provinces. Criminal law, municipal bylaws, and even restaurant dress codes are being muddled together in the topless debate.
Some clarification on who makes the law might be helpful: only the Federal Government can make criminal laws. Canada’s Criminal Code is applied across the country. The City of Vancouver cannot criminally charge a woman for letting the girls loose in the name of feminism. The City of Vancouver can, however, pass bylaws about the use of public spaces, like noise bylaws limiting when your ABBA-loving neighbours can blast "Mamma Mia".
The Criminal Code has provisions for indecent acts and public nudity, but a woman will not be convicted of one of these laws just because she goes topless in public. Courts will look at the circumstances and decide if the topless woman “offended public decency”.
In a 1996 case, a woman in Ontario was arrested and charged under the indecency provision for being topless in public. The Ontario Court of Appeal found that her actions were not “indecent” and she was acquitted. This case has led people to believe that being topless is “legal” in Ontario. Arguably, different circumstances (perhaps going topless in a mosque) could lead a court to find a topless woman—or man— guilty of offending public decency.
This Ontario Court of Appeal case was not about whether the law treated women differently than men, but only about whether a woman’s bare breasts were indecent. The Court distinguished merely being topless or breastfeeding in public, and a woman taking off her top for sexual purposes.
Following this case, a Maple Ridge woman was successful in challenging a bylaw that prohibited her from being topless at a public pool. This law was struck down not on the basis of gender equality, but because the Court felt that the District was trying to pass a criminal law.
Leaving aside the issue that comparing a man’s nipples to a woman’s breasts is not exactly comparing melons to melons, topless advocates do make a good point: why is everyone so upset about seeing a pair of breasts but not a man’s nipples?
It is a flawed assumption by topless advocates that no one is shocked to see a shirtless man in public, and that it is a socially acceptable norm. Au contraire. What if it had been Kelowna mayor Walter Gray who took his shirt off and started taking notes with a feather pen during his interview with Lori Welbourne? And the “No shirt, no shoes, no service” rules in restaurants were likely put in place with male patrons in mind.
Personally, I’m not a big fan of seeing a stranger’s hairy back while I’m eating.
When the skins versus shirts debate heats up, inevitably the discussion morphs from exposed breasts to nudity in general. The demonstrators last weekend called for the public and law makers to stop sexualizing the human body.
Apparently nudity isn’t sexy anymore.
It doesn’t seem like the general public has a problem with nudity per se; rather, the crux of the issue seems to be context. People should have the right to be nude, to smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol and play music as loudly as they like, but some limit to freedom is not always a bad thing.
“You can’t wear your butt-less chaps at the playground,” says Simone Rousseau, a woman with breasts.
It doesn’t seem wrong for a city to choose to impose venue-appropriate rules for nudity, but topless advocates make a good point that these rules must be applied consistently across genders.
Nonetheless, this is more an issue of appropriate public decorum than one of gender equality. While the sentiment is appreciated, we’re unfortunately not just a few topless ladies away from proportional representation in cabinet, pay equity, and universal child care.
So ladies—and gentlemen—can we all just put our shirts back on?