Why can't women go topless?

Cristen Conger

Getty Images/Mehmet Salih Guler

Earlier this summer, Scout Willis, daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, took to the streets of New York City to protest...without a top on. Tweeting photos of herself sans shirt and/or breast covering with the hashtag #freethenipple, Willis was demonstrating against Instagram shutting down her account after she posted a couple nipple-revealing pics. Writing about her decision to set her nipples free in public at xoJane, Willis acknowledged that, by virtue of her A-list parents, she has a more visible platform than most to call attention to what she sees as a cultural repression of women's autonomy over their own bodies:

I am not trying to argue for mandatory toplessness, or even bralessness. What I am arguing for is a woman's right to choose how she represents her body -- and to make that choice based on personal desire and not a fear of how people will react to her or how society will judge her. No woman should be made to feel ashamed of her body.

So what is it, exactly, that breeds this kind of breast shame: the nature of the law or the nurture of a society that sexualizes the female body in practically any state of undress? Like most nature-nurture debates, the answer is a bit of both.

Legally, female toplessness in public isn't as forbidden as you might think; New York where Willis took her bold stroll, legalized it in 1992. In fact, only three states -- Utah, Indiana and Tennessee -- have state laws on the books explicitly banning it. However, those state statutes tend to include language that allows local municipalities to define their own rules and regulations regarding female toplessness. Take, for example, an L.A. County ordinance that puts the kibosh on the women sunbathing topless: "No person shall appear, bathe, sunbathe, walk, change clothes, disrobe or be on any beach in such manner that the...any portion of the breast at or below the upper edge of the areola thereof of any female person, is exposed to public view.."

But bans against women walking around without their shirts give some legal scholars pause since they delineate so starkly between male and female nudity.

In many places, topless women at strip clubs is permissible, and yet a bared breast on the street incites controversy -- why? Reena Glazer writing in the Duke Law Journal, sees a patriarchal undercurrent to it: "Because women are the sexual objects and property of men, it follows that what might arouse men can only be displayed when men want to be aroused."

Meanwhile, men are free to walk around without their shirts on (because apparently the male nipple is a far more benign sight) and it's only when they intentionally expose themselves in an intentionally lewd manner that their public nudity becomes a problem. In other words, by American cultural logic, topless men are only sexual when they want to be, but topless women are inherently sexual regardless of their actions -- with the sole exception of breastfeeding.

Put that way, Scout Willis' argument to #freethenipple starts to make a lot more sense.

When I studied abroad in Spain during college, the beaches my friends and I went to were topless. The first time I overcame my initial nervousness and removed my bikini top, nothing happened. No one gawked or pointed. Nobody cringed or leered. I was just another beachgoer soaking up some Mediterranean sun. My exposed breasts were just breasts, not billboards for sexual willingness, and it felt incredible.