Tit-ical Mass

April 28, 2009 | By | 17 Replies More
This image is a work of the National Institutes of Health, and is in the public domain (via Wikimedia).

This image is a work of the National Institutes of Health, and is in the public domain (via Wikimedia).

As mentioned before on this blog, boobs are Kind of A Big Deal. For some reason, individuals and Facebook alike have a strong negative reaction to the public display of nipples and the fatty tissue surrounding them. An unprovoked showing of a female breast especially leaves individuals a-titter. Usually, for the protection of children and society, women are expected to keep their goods locked up.

Ah, but I live in Ohio- such an enlightened state. Ok, ok, we are actually ranked dead last for gay rights protection, but when it comes to breast exposure protection, we are totally progressive. Except that women don’t stroll around Ohio topless very much. Barring the rare drugged-out music festival where a handful of women prance about with painted breasts, one can hardly tell that Ohio law protects bare female nipples at all.

The social taboo against bare-breast-baring holds a heavy weight over those women who might otherwise  go topless, apparently. The only way to make this legal right truly exercisable is to strip female breasts of their social trappings, so to speak. This was the idea that birthed Tit-ical Mass, an impromptu breast walk that occurred in Columbus last Friday.

I was spending the night at a local cafe/bar with my gaggle of hypersensitive radical feminist friends (who inspired frustrated posts like this one), when one remarked that she wished she really could go topless. One woman with bare boobs just doesn’t feel safe, she complained, but a large enough group of women could overpower the social constraints against breast-baring. The notion was borrowed from the bicycling activism of Critical Mass, an national movement wherein a large group of bicyclists take over the streets once a month in order to protest laws and driving practices that endanger cyclists.

If we all get topless, my friend argued, then we will all feel free and not be too terribly harassed. She quickly assembled a group of women to patrol the streets that very night, sans shirts and bras.

I followed, though I did not strip. I can’t explain why I didn’t, but I think it has to do with my weird post-feminist post-gender-salience situation. I don’t think I would walk around topless even if their weren’t social mores against it, and I certainly wouldn’t do it to stand up for some gender I am only incidentally a part of. But the wannabe social scientist in me had to follow the event nonetheless.

It was about 10 or 11 pm on a Friday. The women, and several men with a sharp ironic instinct, removed their shirts. We began to walk down one of the busiest roads in Columbus, where college students hang out to drink, eat and think about sports. At first, nothing happened. No comments or honking horns or people seeming at all a-titter. I felt a huge swell of relief. It’s not a big deal. It’s not a big deal. Cool.

After a few minutes, I noticed some guys snapping camera phone pictures and smiling broadly. No direct harassment, nothing terrible. As the group neared the epicenter of college life, however, things began to heat up. Drunken frat-ish boys hollered as the walked past. Cars slowed down to snap more photos of the topless women. A man yelled, “You ladies want to get fucked tonight?!”

As we stopped to wait at an intersection, a stumbling-drunk man leaned in and put his hand on one topless woman’s shoulder, grabbing at her slightly. “I smell some no-deodorant-wearing bitches!” He yelled. One of the other women pushed the man away. “Don’t you touch her, don’t you dare touch her!” she screamed.

The drunk and his buddies scattered a bit, but they hadn’t left for good. They followed us down the street, forcing their way into the crowd of topless women, mumbling curses and insults. They had to be pushed away and harangued two times more before they left the group alone. The woman who was directly touched appeared visibly shaken and violated. She put her shirt back on.

The yelled insults and sexual insinuations that met these women truly surprised me. Of course I expected some taunting and honking, as clothed individuals meet some measure of that every day. Yet almost every man or group of men that passed either took a picture, said something suggestive or made a gesture that the women perceived as crass and unacceptable. A few I would excuse- the two young men who gave our group a hearty thumbs-up, I think, meant well.

The sheer number of catcalls bring one thought to my mind: many of these men do not regularly yell at women, even women in very skimpy clothes. Only a certain, pretty small subset of the population does that. Yet the removal of one or two extra articles of clothing suddenly makes many more men willing to scream obscene and sexual things. How bizarre that a bare breast has such a hold over people!

This strange fact actually gives me hope. A woman in a tiny miniskirt would have been insulted and disrespected even a few decades ago. A woman in normal, reserved western street clothes is sometimes harassed in the Muslim world where burkas are common.

This suggests that some of the reaction is conditioned and relative- it is not all some terrible and ingrained piggish instinct. With exposure to breasts in normal situations, they will lose much of their erotic tug on people. This is not to say boobs will ever be stripped of their significance- I bet we will always look at them with a bit of extra interest. But we can escape nipple phobia.

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Category: American Culture, Censorship, Human animals, ignorance, Sex

About the Author ()

Erika is a PhD student in Social Psychology living in Chicago. Here on DI she most often writes about current events, psychology, skepticism, media and internet culture.

Comments (17)

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  1. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I will be the first to confess that the sight of feminine breasts have an almost hypnotic effect on me. But that is largely from an admiration for something I don't see often in public.

    So forgive me if I am caught staring.

    I was channel-surfing last weekend when I happened on a documentary where a presentation was being made by several women in a tribal culture with a British interpreter. The interesting thing is that many of the presenters were topless, and no one was offended or shocked in anyway. Actually those attending (mostly Europeans and Americans) behaved very professionally and the lack of attire was simply a non-issue.

  2. Tony Coyle says:

    Firstly – congratulations to your friends – but I'm sorry there are so many 'men' in a college town in Ohio with such poor impulse control.

    Your post reminds me of a neighbor in PA – he had just returned from a trip to France, courtesy of his company (a sales deal thing). When asked about the trip, all he could talk about were the topless women on all the beaches, and how horny it made him. I have a feeling this is an American thing.

    When I was living in Switzerland, warm summer days would often be occasioned by people heading to the park or lake on their lunch break — some would go for a swim, others would simply sunbathe. Both activities required complete or partial nudity (there being no 'changing rooms').

    This was perfectly normal behavior. No one thought that naked breasts (or bushes or willies) were a reason to assail or comment or ogle. They simply were part of the scenery. (These places were also full of families and kids during lunchtime, too)

    I often thought of my PA neighbor when I walked to that park to have a dip in the lake at lunchtime (yes – getting naked by the shore, changing into swimshorts, having a dip, then drying and changing back into clothes) — I can only imagine he would have a *hard* time getting naked in that environment. I didn't indulge often – the lake was a little cold for me, even in the height of summer!

    Once again – it's not bodies that are 'dirty' or 'salacious' – it's the minds behind the eyes viewing those bodies. I get the impression that the US prohibition on 'body' has made it exclusively sexual.

    IMHO the average woman's body is a lot more aesthetic that that of the average man's. I'd be tempted to think that was a personal bias, but my wife agrees with me! But that doesn't mean I get a boner every time I see a breast!

  3. Mindy Carney says:

    First, Erica, I went back and read all the posts you reference, and I love your writing. This is a fascinating piece, and, of course, goes right back to the old adage about forbidden fruit tasting sweetest. Were we to wander around topless all the time, I imagine that while breasts might not lose their appeal entirely, the mystique would certainly disappear. And that might not be a good thing, really. I'm not a nudist at heart, though, so I'm all for some things being saved for private viewing only. 🙂

  4. Tony Coyle says:

    Mindy – re Nudism.

    My wife tells me that I'm the only one comfortable with my skin – "it's not a pleasant sight for anyone else,. so please cover up!"

    Of course, I obey her!

  5. Dan Klarmann says:

    Context is everything. Unfortunately, in a repressed culture, incidentally topless coeds are seen as lascivious Topless Co-eds, as promoted in seedier parts of towns, and all over the web. Hormone and alcohol impaired men are unlikely to perceive the distinction.

    I first met the minister who married me, and his pretty wife, in a hot tub. Nude, of course. Clothes in a hot tub are an invitation to bacteria. This was winter in Indiana. Snow was lightly falling on us as we cooked and talked. Body parts didn't seem important in and of themselves.

    I also first got to know my mother-in-law at a nudist resort. No, not that way. We just happened to not be wearing clothes, and it was Sunny Southern California. Okay, that seemed a bit weird to the Midwesterner in me. But I quickly adjusted to the uniform.

    The point being that context determines how things are seen. Men were regularly arrested for going topless on beaches in New York a century ago. Women for showing their knees. This was a wave of prudishness following the promiscuity of the Gay Nineties.

    If we see enough topless political protests at which harassers are arrested, the tide will turn. Big if.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    When I learned of the behavior of those boorish men along the route, I wondered how many other men along the route were embarrassed by the howling and whistling and hooting yet said nothing and did nothing. By saying and doing nothing, quiet people become worse than invisible.

    That’s how many disturbing movements start, of course. Because people fail to speak up. When you’re quiet, the bullies assume that you approve of their misconduct. Being quiet is thus a great way to support the bullies. Just imagine how different things would have been if even a few decent guys had stepped up to the oafs and told them that they were acting inappropriately. Yes, the decent guys would have been ridiculed by the bullies, but what if such public corrections are what bullies came to expect? What if the bullies came to expect that people would call them out on their inappropriate conduct in public? You know, operant conditioning.

    Not that this oafish behavior is unexpected. Just behold the out-of-control sexualized advertising that lines our internet and concrete highways! Madison Avenue has worked damned hard to polish the superstimulus of the barely hidden nipple. It might just be too much to deal with because of the way it’s been hidden away for so long, in order to tease us, Thanks to modern advertising, the nipple has come to have a strange dominant purpose: to suckle emotional baby boys who inhabit adult bodies.

    Good for you and your friends, Erika, taking to the streets to take your stand that bodies are not shameful. That women’s bodies are not dirty. That many of us are being constrained by our attitudes, not by our marvelous bodies.

  7. sosman says:

    news flash: men like breasts!!!

  8. Mindy Carney says:

    Sosman, men are certainly allowed to "like" breasts – even love them. Men are not, however, allowed to intimidate and objectify their fellow HUMAN BEINGS simply because they each have a pair.

    In our culture, because we've been conditioned to expect breasts to be concealed, these men operated under the (incorrect) assumption that these particular breasts had been unveiled for their enjoyment, that the women were intentionally trying to "turn them on." Um, no. I can see, culturally, why they made such an assumption, but that does not make it right. And yes, it would have been nice if men embarrassed by the oafs would have spoken up, but I'm guessing part of their reticence came from not knowing the motive behind the nudity. When someone takes an "in your face" approach to something, others get nervous, uncertain about how to respond. Had they been carrying signs explaining their "movement," perhaps someone might have spoken up. Not sure, just thinking out loud, so to speak.

  9. Erika Price says:

    Mindy,

    I agree that some kind of sign or banner would change the reaction. But isn't it sad that in order to go topless, women need a reason? I think that the sign might unintentionally create a social barrier- it's OK for these women to be topless, but only when they are in a group and represent a cause. The nudity is made special just as before.

    And to clarify, I don't have any problem with men or women loving breasts. They command attention to be sure. I just wish we could treat bare boobs the way we treat a short skirt- respectful, quiet admiration. We all check people out, but most of us try to be discrete. Unfortunately I think my radical friends would prefer a world with no such sexual impulses at all, which seems silly.

  10. Tony Coyle says:

    the old song says "Money makes the world go 'round"

    But as we all know, money is only a proxy for sex. Money = power, influence, prestige, success, glamor, attractiveness (unless all those young hot things really are attracted to those older people).

    Let's not abolish sex! Let's abolish stupidity and prurience. (but I promise to keep my pants on)

  11. Mindy Carney says:

    Erika, you are so right – the sign would have made it special, and I know their point was for it NOT to be. It's just that in this culture, it's going to take a lot of nervy nudists walking a lot of topless miles to bring bare breasts into the "not shocking" realm.

    And because we seem to be both a puritanical and a "lookist" society, I'm not sure how we reconcile our needs to cover up AND ogle. Quite the dilemma, that.

  12. sosman says:

    Mindy,

    At what point do you consider the behaviour became "objectifying"? The answer at first seems obvious but I am curious.

    Also, where you identified the gender of the "antagonists" it appeared to be uniquely male. What reactions did you receive from females?

  13. Erika Price says:

    Sosman,

    Women really didn't say anything. There were two exceptions: a gaggle of sorority-looking gals in dresses walked by the pack, and one said, "I think one of them was a girl!"; another said, "What smells? Oh, but I totally support you guys."

    I don't know how to interpret these comments. Did these women really have trouble telling that my friends were female? Did the second woman really 'support' whatever was going on? Mostly women met this display of ta-tas with a hundred yard stare, no acknowledgment, no comment.

    As for objectification: I don't know where to draw the line or how to identify objectification, so I'm going to witlessly dodge that discussion. But I would like to call into the question the notion that "objectification"- the act of seeing someone in a primarily sexual light- is always bad. My radical friends would argue that objectification is horrible and dehumanizing, but I disagree.

    Perhaps my view comes from a steady diet of Dan Savage-style sex-positive commentary, but I think most sexual people want others to see them in a sexual manner in certain contexts. The only problem, if there is one, is that women need to start openly objectifying men more, or that some men need to make their form of objectification a little less crass.

    For example, there is an oft-cited exception to the feminist assumption that objectification=bad. That exception is people with noticeable disabilities. Those people, it is claimed, often find it dehumanizing to not be seen as complete people with sexuality and sexual appeal. I couldn't find much info on this, but there is a discussion here.

    I suppose the problem with the discussion of objectification lies in the fact that the term can mean both A) seeing a person as a sexual being; and B)seeing a person as a sex-object. I'd venture most people see their sexuality as an integral part of their identity, even their humanity, and hyper-sensitive attempts to cleanse the world of sexuality harms everyone.

    Ultimately I think this is what the Tit-ical Mass should be about. People should have the ability to express themselves, their bodies and their sexuality, instead of having society determine that a baring of the breast is always a sexual expression. A topless guy can be totally sexy, or it can just be some dude playing sports on a hot day- yet we allow for both possibilities by not throwing a curtain over the guy.

  14. Mindy Carney says:

    Hmmmm. So many thoughts roiling around here – – –

    First, I don't think topless guys is applicable as the correlation to topless women. I think you'd have to have the boys going bottom-less. Our breasts are useful in two ways – maternally, for both feeding and cuddling, or as errogenous zones. Boys' chests are . . . chests. Yes, I realize their nipples are also errogenous zones, but on a much ::ahem:: smaller scale. Penises, on the other hand, are either sexual parts, or elimination parts. So they, too, serve more than one function. And certain elimination would be simpler without pants, so why should society get to determine that baring a penis is ALWAYS a sex expression?

    I'm not personally advocating the non-wearing of pants in public, I'm just sayin' –

    As for objectification, I agree with you, Erika. I guess when I hear the word, I don't assume objectification = seeing someone as a sexual being. I assume objectification = seeing someone ONLY as a sexual being. I don't want to be objectified because there is more to me than that – but no, I don't really want people to miss that part of me entirely, either.

    Being a sexual being is part of being alive, part of being connected, part of being human. I just don't want to ONLY be seen as that, nor do I want someone assuming that my sexual side is there for their titillation, unless I am obviously presenting myself to them that way. I guess in other words, *I* want to decide when someone else is allowed to "objectify" me. If I don't give them permission, they better not.

    And of course, the discussion then becomes how that permission is granted. If I walk around topless, in this culture where the norm is to cover breasts even if ever-so-slightly, am I granting permission for any man or woman with eyes to ogle and objectify my breasts? Simply by violating social norms, have I sent out an invitation? Even if my only intent was to cool off on a hot day?

    Hmmmm . . . .

  15. Tony Coyle says:

    Erika

    My take on 'objectification' is not predominantly sexual – it is simply that the person thus objectified is considered, in every regard, to be nothing more than an 'object' – for use, vilification, ridicule, desire, adoration, whatever.

    Fans often objectify the target of their fandom – sometimes to the extent that they are disappointed and reviled by the actual person, rather thanj their object.

    Objectification is also at the root of stereotyping – which can be a useful 'broad brush' approach at understanding complex interpersonal dynamics (using the 'correct' or appropriate sterotypes) but more often is used to vilify or demonize (the sterotypical "criminal illegal immigrant" stealing the sterotypical "good old joe's" livlihood)

    Regardless: whenever we 'objectify' a person, we reduce them to the level of caricature – and caricatures are seldom flattering.

    Just my $0.02

  16. grumpypilgrim says:

    I've never understood the bizarre attitude that many Americans seem to have toward nudity. Sexual references are ubiquitous in public visual media, from television to magazines to billboards, yet you'd think no one had ever seen a naked body. Meanwhile, Americans seem utterly blase about seeing graphic depictions of violence. Go figure. It must be related to learned social mores, because Europeans allow far more graphic examples of nudity in public settings (nude sunbathers on French beaches and in German city parks come to mind), yet they don't seem to have any trouble maintaining orderly societies. Meanwhile, men in some Muslim countries reportedly get excited by the sight of a bare female ankle. I imagine if Americans were exposed (no pun intended) to more public nudity they would eventually become as indifferent to it as they now are toward graphic depictions of violence. Who knows, maybe the reverse process would occur: in a world where nudity is common, perhaps wearing clothes would become a greater titillation.

  17. Erich Vieth says:

    From Huffpo:

    Friday morning a Miss California Pageant official confirmed previous reports that controversial contestant Carrie Prejean received free breast implants, organized and paid for by the pageant, weeks before the Miss USA competition.

    I'm tempted to say that gawkers have the absolute right to objectify this freakish woman. Not only does she intentionally enhance her chest into a superstimulus, but she entered a contest that essentially demands that contestants be objectified as part of the competition.

    I agree that it's boorish and potentially immoral to objectify most woman. I'd make an exception for Miss California. If someone followed her around and stared at her as a pure sex object, I'd conclude that she begged for it.

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