SC (@welcometorebirth), a blogging friend with whom I have corresponded several times over the months, wrote an article on topfreedom and asked for my input. In his article he posed some courageous questions, courageous in that they lay out his real concerns on difficult topics in clear language. I appreciated his candor and asked if I could use his questions to form my own response article. He gave his consent.
Before I start, let me say that this article isn’t meant to bash #FreeTheNipple/Top Freedom for women. I support the bare-chested movement fully. I’m not here to stand on a soap box and proclaim that women’s nipples are somehow inherently sexual, because nothing could be further from the truth. I’m not even here to pretend I’ve always been in the know. I haven’t been.
I’m new to the bare-chested movement. A few years ago when I began to accept it, it was only under the pretense that women had the right to be sexual if they wanted without shame. Therefore, toplesss women were ok. It took a while for me to realize the whole spectrum of things, including the fact that bare-chest women aren’t necessarily sexual.
One more thing before I list my struggles. For nearly five years I’ve had the desire to get into nudism/clothes free living. I feel it would be a boost to my self expression and self confidence, as well as help heal me a bit from my upbringing.
With that said, here are my “issues”. They’re not really issues. Moreso fears that I need time and help from those in the movement to overcome:
1) I am a person who finds art in nudity. I’m an artistic person myself (photographer and writer) and the human forms of all genders (male, female, trans, androgyne, non-binary) are beautiful. I’ve always been in awe of this, but sometimes I fear that my artistic appreciation will be seen as something nefarious instead. I may be wrong–bare-chested activists and allies may not even care–but I’m very concerned. I’m almost ALWAYS thinking about the feelings and concerns of others. I don’t want people to feel awkward about my actions.
2) I’m a hyper sexual person. Do I jerk off to breastfeeding? Absolutely no! But do I find breasts sexually attractive? Yes. They’re beautiful. They’re not the only body part I find attractive in a person. And it’s not just women’s breasts I find attractive. In context, I also, as I said earlier, love all body shapes sizes and colors. I feel sometimes though like I’m at a war internally because I want to be true to my ideals but I can’t deny my sexuality. I’m pansexual & polyamorous. I can’t deny that but I feel bad.
3) My own desire for a nudist/nude friendly lifestyle has always had one inhibition: the fear of the unknown. The last thing I want is to be at a nude friendly event, or a free the nipple walk and I get an awkward boner.
Forgive me if this is quite frank, but it’s something I honestly wonder about. How would I react in that sort of environment?
But I really want to be supportive, so once again there’s an inward struggle.
4) I don’t want to be labeled. As a newcomer to this movement, I don’t want people to read this or look at me and think I’m some sort of freak or oddball. I want to lend my support. I believe in the cause of top-freedom. That’s undeniable. I hope I don’t come off in the wrong way.
So these are my “issues”. I hope someone in this space can give me some advice. Are my fears irrational? Is what I’m wondering about common? I have no issue with the movement itself… Moreso how I’d react to it.
I appreciate what SC has done here. American society is rightly concerned about offending each other when it comes to conversations about gender or race. I really think if we stopped all hate language right now, it would still take us a decade to overcome the damage of two and a half centuries of inequality in the United States and really trust each other. But SC has managed to ask his questions in a sincere and neutral tone. He uses open, authentic language and is asking for help to navigate a new landscape, one in which women walk around bare-chested in public and men don’t trip over curbs.
This immediately brings to mind a man I met on the National Mall this summer. I was sitting bare-chested on a bench, watching the world go by, and he passed by several times before finally asking if he could talk to me. He was timid, and apologized as a greeting. He said he supported what I was doing, but said he had some questions and asked if I would be offended if he posed them. I shook his hand and asked why he was apologizing. He said a woman once scolded him (shamed him) for holding a door for her on a date. He said he had been raised to hold doors for women and he had meant no harm, in fact he thought he was doing the right thing, but she had labeled him as a sexist and then when he explained his motives, she criticized him for being out-of-touch and ignorant of the changing times. This had happened 20 years earlier! He was still feeling the sting.
I wanted to hug him, actually. I found it absolutely profound that here I was, bare-chested in this crowded place, and here he was, carrying around this burden of guilt for his perceived misdeed so many years earlier, and something in my exposed appearance prompted him to trust his injury, and curiosity, to me.
In the same way, SC has exposed his vulnerabilities and is trusting me to respect them. I appreciate the trust.
His first issue reassembles itself in my brain like this… he’s basically saying something like, but I find breasts attractive and don’t want to stop finding them attractive…but I believe in equality and want to support the cause of equality in general but also of topfreedom specifically, but I love breasts, I love looking at them, I love the way they move, how they lay and feel, and this presents a conflict. How do I support a woman’s right to go bare-chested and desexualize the breast without looking like a phony or a creeper, because I don’t see me ever not feeling breasts are sexually stimulating.
My personal answer… I get a lot of people talking to me when I am bare-chested. When someone values me as a human more than my breasts, I know it. I can feel it. I don’t care if people look at my breasts. I don’t care if people find my breasts attractive. I really don’t even care if people become aroused looking at my breasts. I like looking at breasts too, male and female. (I also like hands and hair and eyes, though.)
I DO care if people reduce me to my breasts and hold me to a different standard of behavior than men because of someone else’s inability to appropriately navigate their feelings about my breasts. I would also object if someone touched me without my consent (which has only ever happened to me when conventionally clothed, never when topfree.)
Caveat, of course. Women are not a monolith. We keep hearing that phrase, monolith, in the Black Lives Matter movement (which I strongly support.) It means, not all black people think the same way. Not all women think the same way. This is the challenge, right? Our human brains group things. It feels overwhelming if we have to consider each individual as an individual, rather than simply as a an individual example of a larger group.
I think that’s a fundamental lesson of the topfreedom movement. Bare-chestedness does not really tell you anything about the individual bare-chested woman. Her bare-chestedness is not a communicator of anything except the size and shape of her breasts. We don’t know anything else about her, just like we don’t know anything about a bare-chested man from his bared chest.
There is no real way to guess a bare-chested woman’s motivations without learning more about her. People are beginning to understand there are many reasons to go bare-chested. Sexual attention is one of them, certainly, but it should not be the one we assume a woman to have first, and it certainly should not be the one upon which we base her treatment under the law. After all, we don’t automatically assume bare-chested men have sexual motives.
So my response to your first point, yes, human bodies are absolutely art. Absolutely. They are beautiful. And isn’t it time we appreciate them as such? All different shapes, sizes and hues. And isn’t it time we learn to appreciate this artful gift each of us has been given? You worry about offending topfreedom activists. I appreciate that, actually. You are considering other people’s feelings. And that act alone will keep you out of trouble, probably. If your motives are pure, the other activists will learn to trust you. Give them time to assess your authenticity. Be patient. It will be rewarded.
So on to #2, regarding your inner conflict about aspiring to ideals of equality and respect, while also feeling the natural tug of sexual desire. I do not see equality, respect and sexuality as mutually exclusive things. In mature humans, they co-exist. I feel strongly that the topfreedom movement and other body pride movements are maturing our sexual conversation. Somewhere along the way we got this idea that sex = sin and I don’t buy that at all. I think violence = sin, and when sex is violent, either physically or emotionally, it is wrong. But the reason it is so wrong is because sex can be such a beautiful expression of humanity. To treat it otherwise is a crime.
Underlying the topfreedom conversation is the idea that women get to choose when they are sexual and when they are not. But I think often people focus on the “when they are not” part and forget that women enjoy sex, a lot. It’s just that we don’t want to feel obligated to be someone’s sexual object, all the time, just because we are women. We want to choose. But that’s a shift in power, because up to now it’s the males of the species who have decided when females are sexual. Males will naturally feel anxious about this new dynamic at first (oh God, no woman will ever choose me…)
The reality is that most women, free of shame, trauma, injury, pressure, etc, really love sex. Some don’t, and that’s absolutely fine. No one has to feel one way or the other about sex, but most women I know love sex. And we love it even more when we feel free and empowered and in the presence of a lover who values the human inside the vessel.
So please don’t feel guilty about enjoying sex and having sexual thoughts. Guilt is shame, and shame is violence. The key is to view the object of our desire as a human first, with feelings, and to prioritize that person’s need to feel safe and secure over our own quest to satisfy our sexual desires. There’s nothing wrong with having sexual thoughts about someone, in my opinion. There is something wrong with being selfish in that desire. Honor the feelings of the person inside the object and you should be fine.
Regarding # 3, I have been to plenty of nudie spots, but my blog is not about nudist etiquette. I urge you to check out the wonderful blogs, Clothes Free Life , or Young Naturists of America to learn more about what to do with erections and the like in social nudism.
With that said, to the broader point of what to do with an awkward boner, literally and figuratively, this is where the idea of the normalization and desexualization of the female breast comes in, or the entire body for that matter. It doesn’t mean we expect the breast to become completely non-sexual. It means we are working to make the breast no more or less sexual than hands or lips or eyes. Naturists say all the time, the sight of naked bodies loses its sexual effect pretty quickly, within minutes, and those powerful sexual feelings pass, the erections fall (alas), and everything normalizes. That’s one of the things naturists love. People are then free to just interact as people.
It’s the same with topfreedom. At first, yes, to someone who has strong sexual feelings about breasts, the sight of bare breasts will of course bring sexual reactions. They pass, quickly. I see this every time I walk. Especially if I walk through a place twice, like an out and back on a beach, the second time through, people barely notice me. I’m already boring. And that’s awesome.
Erections can be hard to interpret. If a man stands there with his hands on his hips gawking at a woman on a beach, pointing his erection at her, it’s going to feel threatening to her. I think if the naturist community can eliminate that single behavior from nude beaches, the female presence in naturist society would explode. Well, that and voyeur photos. But a man walking on the beach with an erection, at no one in particular, I personally don’t find that offensive or threatening. I like erections. I like the way they look. I just don’t want one pointed at me like a gun. I think that’s fair.
Basically, most people in the topfreedom movement are realistic about sexual reactions. We just ask that everyone navigate those sexual feelings by prioritizing and respecting a woman’s right to feel free and safe and to be treated equally under the law.
So on to #4, you don’t want to be labeled. No one wants to be labeled, and the fact that you have voiced this is a huge win. This is the entire point of topfreedom. Women don’t want to be labeled sluts, whores, bitches, possessions, or any of the other labels people apply to women to shame and control us. The thing is, we can only control what we do, not what other people do. If you treat a bare-chested woman with respect, if you sincerely support the causes of topfreedom and equality (gender and race) and she or someone else labels you a freak or an oddball for doing so, that’s a fault in that person, not in you.
Shame is a tool people use to control other people. If you immunize yourself against shame, there’s not much people can do to weaken you. That’s what makes the simple act of walking bare-chested so threatening to some people. Women have been shamed for inciting sexual desire in men for so long that we have internalized this self hate. How often do we hear the same thing from women describing what it feels like to go bare-chested? … it was liberating…I felt free.
The weight of shame is what they feel free from.
I know females don’t hold the patent on feeling shame. I know males have been force fed shame too. Shame is a tool of the fearful, and fear exists in all people. Power is what makes that fear dangerous to the disempowered.
Wouldn’t it be beautiful if we could use this point as our common ground? So many of us have felt shame. Imagine if we could just stop perpetuating it, in numbers so large that it actually changed the conversation, that people who use shameful words started standing out in sheer contrast to the respect passing among those around them?
It’s idealistic, I know, but I think it’s possible. At any rate, we aren’t getting anywhere if we don’t each do our part.
So here’s a deal.
I don’t call you an oddball. You don’t call me a whore.
If you do call me a whore, I still don’t call you an oddball.
Disrespect reflects more on the one doing the disrespecting than the one being disrespected.
If we each hold to this, shame dies in a generation.