A federal court in Colorado has just ruled that a Fort Collins law banning women from showing their breasts in public is unconstitutional.
Oops, there goes civilization right down the drain. Forget about global warming or North Korean nukes, it’s uncontrolled ladies’ boobs that are about to do us all in.
The now-overturned law did have an exception for breast-feeding. On the one hand, that’s enlightened—allowing breast-feeding in public, and not deriding the activity as indecent. On the other hand, it exposes an age-old, developmentally retarded attitude: breasts are acceptable as long as they’re for mothering and nourishment, but not if they’re perceived as sexual.
Well, that’s not OK. Sexuality doesn’t render certain otherwise-wholesome body parts worse or more dangerous. Sexuality isn’t some evil, transformative energy.
As for men’s nipples being somehow “different” than women’s, yes, they’re different—for the sole reason that most of us relate to them differently. That’s not the fault of the nipples, nor of the women attached to them.
Of course, in some ways this is a trivial issue. Female toplessness is legal in Denver, and you rarely see a topless woman on a Denver street (especially in February). But this case is a reminder that it’s often sexuality that is the flashpoint of conflict about critical issues of constitutional rights.
The Supreme Court (in Cohen v California) had to rule in 1971 that a man had the right to wear a T-shirt saying “Fuck the Draft” in a public building. When the U.S. Justice Department (remember Attorney General Ed Meese?) tried to put adult video retailers out of business with extraordinarily expensive simultaneous prosecutions in multiple states, a federal court finally outlawed this practice. The Supreme Court (in Miller v California) had to rule that the government couldn’t arbitrarily decide what was obscene and therefore liable to punishment. And the Supreme Court (in Lawrence v Texas) had to decide that a state couldn’t criminalize private behavior simply to assert the community’s alleged moral standards.
In each of these cases, someone can argue that the rights being denied and pursued were more or less trivial: the right to wear a t-shirt, to sell adult videos, to read dirty books, to have anal or oral sex.
But in a non-sexual context—to wear clothes with anti-government messages, to read or watch whatever we want, to have whatever kind of consenting sex we want—these same rights are far from trivial. For centuries—literally—it’s been conflict over sexual expression that has ultimately protected many of our most cherished rights.
So it’s the anti-discrimination aspect of the Colorado case—the government’s insistence that the law treat male and female nipples equally—that will be cited in future gender discrimination cases of major consequence, say in employment or education.
Once again, Americans should thank sexual outlaws for protecting and expanding their rights of privacy, expression, commerce, and confidentiality.
By the way, you know what they call a topless beach in Europe?