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Loose Cannon: Topless freedom not license to gawk

Monday, August 30, 2010

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  • U of G students Lindsay Webb and Andrea Crinklaw hosted a Topless Freedom event in downtown Guelph Saturday. The photo was edite

    U of G students Lindsay Webb and Andrea Crinklaw hosted a Topless Freedom event in downtown Guelph Saturday. The photo was edite

Written by Greg Beneteau

It’s not easy being green – especially if you’re a woman showing her breasts in downtown Guelph.

Sporting a colourfully painted sunflower design with bright green leaves on her chest, University of Guelph student Lindsay Webb had hoped to show people that the whole hubbub over hooters was overblown.

Webb, a fourth year Hotel and Food Administration student at U of G, and friend Andrea Crinklaw, a third year Nutrition student, were the organizers of a rally and folk music concert on Saturday focused on breaking some of the stigma associated with women going topless in public, which is legal in Ontario.

But if the reception the women received was any indication, society still has a long way to go before male and female breasts are viewed with equal amounts of dispassion.

Among the roughly 50 people in attendance at the event in St. George’s Square, a minority of men in attendance attempted to turn a serious debate about societal standards into the Royal City equivalent of a Playboy photo shoot.

Armed with cameras, they skulked around the perimeter of the rally, taking pictures whenever a stray nipple happened to cross their lenses. This clearly unnerved the dozen women who were brave enough to take off their shirts, and likely kept others from following suit. Others men made catcalls and gawked.

Of course, it is entirely legal to photograph people at events or areas that are open to the public. Likewise, people have the right to speak their minds, however boorishly, about whether so-and-so has nice tits.

But staying within the letter of the law doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not a creep. I found the behaviour of some of my male colleagues to be more indecent than the flesh being shown at Webb and Crinklaw’s rally.

Still, some people will undoubtedly say that the women themselves are responsible for the attention they received on Saturday. They would suggest that if the event were held in a less busy location, or quietly advertised among women only, it would not have attracted fewer gawkers.

That argument flies in the face of the ruling that paved the way for women to go topless in public, which started right here in Guelph.

In 1991 Gwen Jacobs, then a U of G student, was arrested and charged with indecency after she took off her shirt on a hot summer day and walked home from campus.

Then, as now, men gawked at her. As the original trial judge described it, “older teenagers when they learned of the young lady in their neighbourhood brought out their lawn chairs and their beer and passed their binoculars around so the others could get a good view.  Some of the older men made rude remarks.”

In 1996 the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned Jacobs’ conviction, having ruled that baring breasts in public is not an indecent act in and of itself.

Specifically, the court ruled that the “community standard of tolerance” under which indecency laws are tested can lead to institutionalized discrimination.

A more fair definition of the standard of tolerance should measure “whether conduct is unduly sexual,” the justices wrote in their judgment. No one who had spoken to Jacobs that day would have gotten the impression she was showing her breasts for sexual purposes, they added.

In short, it’s not topless women who need to change their attitudes, but those who view women’s breasts exclusively as sexual objects. Going topless is fairly well accepted in Australia and some parts of Europe, so it’s not as if the male brain is hard-wired to explode around bare boobies.

So, let us dare imagine a different scenario. Suppose that Guelph, a progressive community, adopted the view that singling out topless women and taking pictures of their breasts offended our community standards. Further, suppose it could be shown that the perpetrator was taking pictures for sexual purposes. Does that mean they could be arrested for indecency?

I wouldn’t want it to come to that, since I dislike the idea of decency being tediously mandated by governments and courts. How about instead we just show the topless ladies a bit more respect next time, okay boys?

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  1. Posted by: on Sep 7, 2010 @ 5:58pm

    Thanks so much for writing this article :) I think it really got the point of the event across. Hopefully if we do it again next year there won't be as many creepy men. I guess it might be because I've spent so much time thinking about the topic and talking to other people about top freedom but I've gotten to the point where I actually can't understand the appeal of seeing a topless woman walking down the street. It isn't like she's shaking them in your face or doing something sexual with them, they're just kind of hanging there. I hope that some day more people will view sexually appealing things not as the objects themselves but as the circumstances in which those objects are presented.

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