“Free the Nipple” is a campaign that would allow women to be shirtless free of harassment and judgment. The movement challenges the convention that men are allowed to be topless in public while it is considered indecent or sexual for women to do the same. The argument is that both men and women have breasts and nipples, while men’s breast just tend to be smaller. The campaign asserts that it should be legally and culturally acceptable for women to bare their nipples in public. It does not aim to force every woman to go topless in public.
Clothing and Nudity Laws in the U.S.
The United States, like most countries, does not have clothing laws that state what clothing is required to be worn; however, wearing insufficient clothing can be prosecuted in many countries under indecent exposure or public indecency. Indecent exposure is the crime of deliberately showing one’s sexual organs in public or being naked in a public place. What is "decent" is judged by the community's standards based on morality, tradition, or religion. There is no federal law for or against nudity in the United States. However, nudity is generally against the law in public places in any state. Every state has a law regarding offenses related to nudity (“indecent exposure,” “public lewdness,” “public indecency,” and “disorderly conduct”) and classifies them differently. In some cases, clothing and nudity laws can conflict with constitutional protections for freedom of expression. Two U.S. states have laws where the mere showing of women’s breasts is illegal: Indiana and Tennessee. Fourteen states and many cities in the U.S. have laws with ambiguous implications on how much of a woman's body is allowed to be shown in public.
Free the Nipple Campaign
The Free the Nipple campaign started in New York City by filmmaker Lina Esco. In 2012, she created a documentary of herself walking through New York City topless. She posted to social media with the hashtag #FreetheNipple and gained the support of celebrities like Chrissy Teigen, Chelsea Handler, Miley Cyrus, and Lena Dunham. Even in jurisdictions with no explicit laws prohibiting showing breasts in public, women have been arrested or charged with public indecency, disturbing the peace, or lewd behavior.
An example of this occurrence was from 2016 when two protestors named Tierman Hebron and Anni Ma were arrested at a Bernie Sanders campaign. The two women were topless with tape covering their nipples. After refusing to cover up, the two women were arrested by the Los Angeles Police Department but were not charged with any crime. After their release, Anni Ma filed a lawsuit against the LAPD. She argued that the mammary glands were for breastfeeding children and were not sexual organs. She also argued that California’s indecent exposure laws only applied to genitals, not breasts, and that she did not show her genitals at any point. Her lawsuit alleged that she was subject to unlawful gender discrimination, that her constitutional rights were violated, and that federal civil rights laws were also violated.
In 2015, the Free the Nipple campaign caught attention in Iceland when a student activist posted a topless photo online. She received support from a Member of Parliament, Björt Ólafsdóttir, who posted a topless photo in solidarity. The Free the Nipple campaign gained a lot of traction thanks to social media. Every social media platform has its own guidelines and rules regarding nudity and revealing nipples, so activists used the hashtag #FreetheNipple to spread awareness. Other celebrities supporting the movement include Jennifer Aniston, Rihanna, Naomi Campbell, and Willow Smith.
States that Allow Women to Go Topless
According to GoTopless.org, there are 32 states where top freedom is in effect. In three states—Indiana, Tennessee, and Utah— state law states that the showing of a female breast in public is illegal. In the remaining states, laws surrounding going topless are ambiguuous.
Some cities in top freedom states have passed ordinances annulling the top free statute. These cities include:
- Asheville, NC
- Austin, TX,
- Boulder, CO
- Columbus, OH
- Eugene, OR
- Honolulu, HI
- Keene, NH
- Key West, FL at Fantasy Fest
- Madison, WI,
- New Orleans, LA, at Mardi Gras
- New York City
- Portland, Or,
- Santa Fe, NM
- South Miami Beach, FL (on the beach)
- Washington, DC