On September 12, Berkeley City Council discussed an ordinance that would legalize the public display of female nipples in Berkeley. Introduced by District Seven Councilmember Kriss Worthington, the ordinance states that allowing women to go topless will equalize nudity laws that already allow men to expose their chests in public. Discussion was tabled around midnight.
Currently, the exposure of “any portion of the breast at or below the areola thereof of a female person” is illegal in Berkeley and can result in a misdemeanor or infraction.
Under California state law, female toplessness is not criminalized. According to Worthington, police already turn a blind eye to female nipple exposure at parades and protests.
The ordinance aims to formally permit exposure because male nipples can be shown in public and proponents say women deserve the same bodily autonomy. Worthington also hopes that the ordinance will prevent the invalidation of transgender people’s gender identity by police trying to enforce nudity laws. Simone Stevens, an intern for Worthington who authored the ordinance, asked, “If a transgendered man, who has not had breast reduction surgery, is topless in public, how should a police officer respond?” The ordinance would resolve that question.
At the meeting, several people spoke in favor of the ordinance. GoTopless, an organization that advocates for all people to have the right to expose their nipples in public, had two representatives present during public comment.
One of them, Florence Laudoyer, said, “If men’s nipples aren’t subject to sexualization, it is only fair the same respect should be granted to women.”
The ordinance’s most vocal opponent at the September 12 meeting was District Five Councilmember Sophie Hahn, who delivered her remarks after public comment. Hahn said that there are many other issues far more important to women’s rights than amending nudity laws, so she considers the ordinance’s purpose negligible.
She also said that if female nipples are allowed to be exposed in public on the basis of their utility for breastfeeding, then people ought to be allowed to expose their penises in public on the basis of their utility for urination. Or, she said, “If one’s goal is simply equality under the law” another solution “would be to cover men’s nipples”. In addition, in response to the argument that because babies see women’s nipples, they should be allowed to be exposed in public, Hahn said that babies are “essentially legally blind,” have no concept of gender or sexuality until after they stop breastfeeding, and have no context for what they see.
At the meeting, Stevens said, “The average belief is that nudity laws are designed to protect … children.” She said that the ordinance emphasizes equalizing nudity laws to avoid any association with indecent exposure.
Gypsy Taub, a member of GoTopless, said at the meeting, “Nothing is more perverse than the idea that the most natural state of the human body is shameful and obscene.” She said the criminalization of female nipples in public leads to sexual repression and consequently, poorer sex lives.
The president of GoTopless, Nadine Gary, said it was “wonderful” that the bill was written by a seventeen-year-old girl. Regarding the exposure of female nipples in public, she said “Our Judeo-Christian morality is telling us that this is dirty, this is bad, this is shameful,” purportedly undermining gender equality.
Gary said that GoTopless supports amendments to city law like this one, but that ultimately, the Tagami vs The City of Chicago case could accomplish the organization’s goal.
In 2014, a woman named Sonoko Tagami took off her shirt after a marathon in Chicago and was arrested and fined. The case is nearing its appeal date in federal court. GoTopless hopes the court will force municipalities to legalize the exposure of female nipples.
Taub completely disrobed at the end of the meeting after the item was tabled. She yelled insults at councilmembers. One of several people who have said the ordinance doesn’t go far enough in promoting topless equality, Taub said her disrobement was an act of protest against unjust laws.
Laudoyer expressed mixed feelings about the statement. She said, “We don’t want to give [councilmembers] another reason to discredit our activism,” but also added that she appreciated Taub’s courage. Gary called Taub’s nudity a “distraction.”
Council member Worthington said that, depending on the wishes of community members, he will decide whether to pursue a ballot initiative or council compromise.