So after a summer of patient deliberation turned into an autumn of patient deliberation, we have finally filed our civil rights complaint against the Town of Ocean City’s unconstitutional ordinance banning female, but not male, bare-chestedness.
Rather than rehash the story, which is easy enough to find on this blog and through a simple Google search, I thought I would instead do an FAQ about topfreedom and what parts of this lawsuit I can speak to for the benefit of supporters and detractors checking in here as a result of the recent news coverage regarding our lawsuit.
Please understand that I cannot answer certain questions, mostly the ones that require me to make legal arguments. Lawyers are involved now… finally. Thank goodness. So with that said, welcome, or welcome back. I’m excited to have this underway.
Q: There are so many bigger concerns in the world. Why is topfreedom important and why are you putting so much effort into this?
A: At first glance, there probably do seem to be many more important struggles going on in the world than women having the right to go bare-chested in public. But in the broader sense, the topfreedom movement has arisen over decades as a response to a society that has continued to blame women for rape and assaults instead of holding their attackers wholly responsible for their crimes. Decades of using a woman’s attire against her during rape trials led to some activists removing their shirts and declaring, “Not even now.” Meaning, not even when completely unclothed does a woman bear responsibility for being assaulted or raped. The fact that this criminal responsibility has been so difficult to establish has driven and emboldened the topfreedom movement. Topfreedom now also addresses other areas such as body shaming, body positivity, bullying, forced modesty, entrenched prejudice and gender stereotypes, bias in women’s health and so on. And what that all means is that at its core, our lawsuit against Ocean City is about the single most important challenge facing American society today broadly speaking, namely… are we a society in which all people are governed by one set of rules, no asterisks, no exceptions? Is the United States a land of equality or inequality? Nothing is more important to the future of the United States. Nothing.
Q: What has taken so long? The ordinance was passed in May… it’s January.
A: Right? This blog exists primarily to help other topfreedom activists or potential activists and supporters, of all genders, by sharing information and experiences as I have them. So in that vein, here’s what took so long. First, unless everything goes exactly perfectly, the law is very, very slow. But that in itself does not account for the time between Ocean City’s ordinance and our filing this complaint now, all these months later. First, Ocean City made their ordinance in a panic over a social media frenzy they perceived to be a big deal but actually wasn’t. As a result, they drafted an amateurish, vague and short-sighted ordinance. Not wanting to panic in return, I set about drafting a thorough response and seeking a lawyer who actually believed in the case. It took me awhile to find an attorney who would take the case and in fact, the one who eventually did, Devon M. Jacob, a civil rights attorney from Pennsylvania, actually found me. I had already approached the ACLU who offered to potentially help another attorney but declined to take the case as the primary attorneys themselves. That left me navigating between what ended up being six different attorneys all giving me wisdom and advice and tangible writing and research support, none of whom for various reasons could actually take the case officially, but all of whom ended up providing research and assistance which I provided to Devon for his research and writing. Devon pitched the idea that we make a class action suit, which means a group of people objecting to the ordinance instead of just me, which I wholeheartedly agreed to. But that meant tracking down a half-dozen women not just willing but able to join, and each time one joined, it meant giving that person the time and information needed to read, understand and ask questions about the complaint she was signing her name to. We also went out bare-chested with each of them, to make sure they really believed in all this and to give them the opportunity to really know what they were getting into. Six intelligent and earnest co-plaintiffs meant a lot of drafting and redrafting. (It’s five now, one had to drop out for personal reasons.) Then Devon received the drafts back and went to work on them and around we went again. If it had just been me bringing this complaint, we would have been filed months ago. But it was important to every one of us that we show this is not just one woman raising this concern, but that other women agree and feel the same. Complicating matters was that Devon is licensed to practice in Pennsylvania, so he had to make arrangements with a local attorney to sponsor him for this one case in Maryland. It is a normal thing for civil rights attorneys to do, but it takes time. Long and short, finally, the complaint is filed. It is well-written, contains accurate and thorough legal and social arguments, and gives us our best chance at success at the federal court level.
Q: What happens if you win? Or lose?
A: This is one of the questions I can’t answer except to say we have asked for an injunction against the ordinance. Whether it is granted or not will begin their respective chains of events, which basically both hopefully end up with equality in Ocean City and Maryland. When it all washes out, I will try to make a definitive history of the thing.
Q: What about the children?
A: Exactly. Each generation that grows up with the same entrenched stereotypes as the last further deepens the divides and inequalities. Each generation of girls that grows up thinking they are inherently inferior to boys, and of boys that grows up with the belief they are inherently, legally superior to girls, deepens the divide. Every image that sexualizes the female breast adds to the stigma that discourages mothers from breastfeeding and girls from feeling confident in their bodies. Children are not upset by seeing female breasts. I’ve been doing this long enough to assert that children are upset when their parents tell them to be upset, when they see their parents react with hostility, fear or anger toward a bare-chested woman. Those children learn from their parents that men and women should be governed by different rules, laws and expectations. I think about the children every time I do this work.
Q: Why are you forcing your beliefs on me/my children/others?
A: We live in a pluralistic society, which means we live in a society of differences and compromises. Our belief systems bump into each other constantly. What I hear when someone objects to me “forcing” my opinion on them is, “Why aren’t you accepting my opinion of what your rights should or shouldn’t be without objection?” People often only believe in free speech and open expression when the ideas expressed agree with their own. When an opinion challenges or conflicts with their opinions, they feel it should be banned. The Constitutions of the United States and of the individual states within the union guarantee me rights. I am exercising them without apology. I have a right to assert my equality in this country. Women in many countries lack this right. I do not take mine for granted and I do not intend to remain silent on the topic. Treat men and women equally under the law.
Q: What gives you the right to go naked in public?
A: This is a one of those comments with multiple elements to unpack. First of all, a bare-chested woman is no more or less “naked” than a bare-chested man. But more than that, what I hear when someone asks me “what gives you the right to do” whatever, is that they are not making a legal query, but a moral one. In other words, in places like New York and Washington D.C., what literally gives me the right to walk around bare-chested is the law. But that’s not what they really mean. They mean something more troubling. They mean what gives me the agency, the power, the decision-making ability to make this act without considering the objector’s feelings? But we never, ever ask this question of a bare-chested man jogging, mowing the lawn, hanging out at the pool. Ever. Men can make these decisions for themselves without being asked to consider the feelings of others. It is not the same for a bare-chested woman. It implies an expectation of modesty for women that does not exist for men. And modesty can, among other things, keep a person from voicing other opinions too, like objections to harassment, assault, inequality and discrimination. There’s a reason modesty is used against women. And there’s a reason people fear immodest women.
Q: Don’t you see that by going bare-chested you are asking to be raped?
A: I’m not. In fact, I’m not asking for anything. I’m demanding that I not be raped, and that if I am, that my attacker is punished to the fullest extent of the law, as supported by a society that affirms gender equality in practice and principle. I’m asserting that a woman’s attire, or lack thereof, shall not be used against her to explain why someone chose to attack her.
Q: How are you paying for this lawsuit?
A: Our attorney, Devon M. Jacob, is representing us on a contingency. If we win, he will petition the court for legal fees, to be determined by a judge and paid by the defendant. If we lose, he doesn’t make any money. He believes in the cause, in our chances, in our legal standing, and stepped up and volunteered to take the case.
Q: Admit it. You’re just seeking attention.
A: Yes and no. The attention-seeking that I am doing is represented by this blog, not in my walking bare-chested. Ideally, I wait for a world in which anyone of any gender can be bare-chested without drawing attention. There are places in the world like this now. But yes, I made the conscious decision when I started the blog to seek attention for the cause. I knew it would mean scrutiny and criticism, but I think that scrutiny is important to transitioning toward actual gender equality. Each time a person sits with the idea of equality it becomes a little less shocking to the system. My goal is to make my blog unnecessary.
Q: What if Ocean City becomes a topless mecca?
A: This is a humorous question to me, and is often uttered by officials in whatever city is trying to make female bare-chestedness illegal. I understand what they are doing. They are trying to incite panic by invoking this image of topless crowds to mobilize people to voice their objections. But if you really sit with the sentiment, what it really means if all of a sudden a place is crowded with bare-chested women is that a lot of women wanted this freedom, and Ocean City or whatever place was denying all those women equality all this time. The reality is that the social transition will be very gradual. But the effort to paint a picture of this sudden tidal change is really quite disturbing to me because it means that if women actually want this freedom in large numbers, that makes it even more scary! I find that hard to swallow.
Q: If Ocean City becomes topless, what is to stop women from going topless at the Little League park or school functions?
A: Whatever stops men from doing it.
Q: Why won’t you admit men and women are fundamentally different?
A: I will. Some men can’t lift heavy things and get emotional when they are upset. Some women can lift cars and are stoic as stones. Every individual on the planet has a unique skillset, regardless of gender. Drawing the lines at gender feels arbitrary to me. It’s just uncomfortable for some people to feel that line is not as sharp as they psychologically need it to be. Men are men and women are women, they say. Only, they aren’t. I don’t deny that men and women can be different, but women and women are different, and men and men are different. I don’t see where we should treat any of these differences, individually or generally, unequally under the law. One set of rules for all. Then we don’t have to worry about where we draw the line.
Q: Why won’t you admit that men are just hardwired to view the female breast as sexual?
A: It’s not the attraction I object to. I think breasts are pretty too. It’s the next part… namely that because men are “hardwired,” they aren’t responsible for their behavior. They are. The vast majority of men control themselves every day. The ones who don’t should be held accountable. It should not be a woman’s job to control a man’s behavior and she should not bear the responsibility when he can’t.
Q: How can I help with legal fees?
A: I’ve had a lot of people offer to help with legal fees. Right now, we don’t have any. If that changes, and if they become untenable, I will consider reaching out. But it is important to me that people understand we are not suing for money, only to stop the ordinance and others like it, and that we are not using this as an opportunity to raise money. With that said, our heartfelt thanks to those who have offered.
Q: How can I help?
A: It has been very helpful having readers forward me news updates. I can’t possibly keep track of it all, and having the collective eyes and ears of the blog’s readership helping me has been huge. Words of encouragement have been wonderful, of course. It is especially helpful to hear from women, no matter how able or willing that woman is to go bare-chested. But I have to say I love hearing from women who have gone bare-chested or would like to. Also, we have had a lot of very intelligent people offer opinions, thoughts and research through my email firstname.lastname@example.org. Please feel welcome to share your thoughts with me. This is a pretty new area of law for our geographical area, and there are so many cases and precedents and arguments and perspectives that affect the final outcome, and they are changing all the time, that having an army of people pondering how to succeed can only help. I can’t always make a meaningful response (though I do try to acknowledge at least) but please know I read carefully every email I receive.