Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Putting My Arse Where My Mouth Is

If nudity offends you, or is somehow too illegal for you, leave now. This is a serious political piece and I've taken the trouble to hide all legally-questionable nudity behind clearly labelled links, so don't say I've been inconsiderate or deceptive. Seriously, I don't want the nuisance of Blogger sticking my whole blog behind a stupid interstitial page, just because some busybody feels we all have to stick to their personal standards and isn't afraid to abuse the Report Abuse button. And that's ultimately what this post is about: Freedom of expression and personal choice. If you disagree with me, I welcome your feedback, but not your tattling, snitching, grassing, etc.

Anyway, to more interesting matters.

About a month ago, a female friend of mine posted a link on Facebook in support of GoTopless Day (this link contains naked breasts), held on Sunday the 26th of August, which is part of the GoTopless campaign, the key point of which is that it's unfair to apply different laws (or the same law in different ways, in some cases) about how covered up male and female chests have to be. If we want to be fair, they argue, then women should have just as much right to go bare-chested in public as men.

I completely agree with that core concept. If we claim to value gender equality (which we do here in South Africa, and which the US, where GoTopless originates, also seems to), then that needs to apply to all laws, not just the ones that a select group of people are comfortable equalising. And yet, I can post all manner of topless males here, from the artistic to the silly, and nobody's going to accuse me of spreading smut. Consider the following photos of me and some of my male friends, and ask yourself what exactly would make them so much more dangerous or revolting if we were all replaced by females, dressed and posed the same:


Any woman in South Africa who publicly looks like we look there stands the risk of being charged with public indecency, which is quite vaguely defined (though more specific, and more clearly biased, here) and may face a fine (R500, I believe). Even if she gets away with a warning from the court, it means she has a criminal record. For dressing and acting like we have above, but with one X chromosome too many. A criminal record. Like a murderer or rapist.

Of course, it's much easier for my friend to make that demand on Facebook, being a heterosexual female. As soon as I add my support, my motives are immediately in question, because surely I just want to ogle naked lady-boobs? Well, sure, they're often nice to see. But it's not just about that, and I don't think that's even my primary motive, because I support this right for all women, whether I find them attractive or not. To take the most extreme example, the person I least want to see topless is my dear old grandmother. But even she, I have to admit, should have this right, or none of us should (and I see no good reason why none of us should). It's also worth remembering that a right is not a requirement; not all males go topless all the time, so there'd be no expectation that females should have to too.

But what if I'm just saying all that as a gambit to get prettier women naked? It's not unreasonable to question my motives, no matter how earnestly I speak or write.

The conclusion we came to a month ago was that since my support can't be assumed to be genuine and serious from my word alone, I could/should make a more significant gesture to show how serious I am. And the obvious gesture is to get my own clothes off in solidarity. It took some thought to decide exactly how, though. I'm not opposed to full nudity, it's really not something that bothers me, but that might be too far for some to manage in one step, and I get that this is about equalising current laws, not completely overturning existing "decency" laws. But I can't just bare my own chest, since the whole point is that there's no big deal about male chests. I conducted a very small, informal survey, and it's surprisingly hard to get agreement on what a male can show in public that's equally "naughty" to a female showing breasts in public, according to both SA law and informal social norms. Someone suggested I flop only my scrotum out, but I think that's still too much of an overshoot. The closest male compromise I could find to female breasts is - and I freely admit this is still an awkward, uneven analog - the buttocks.

Here then are my pretty white arse cheeks, officially on public display for the first time, in support of gender equality, for whatever that turns out to be worth.

[This link contains my naked buttocks.] - Me in my natural environment. I'm glad that it shows all the details, nearly every spot, hair and squiggle - "warts and all," to borrow Oliver Cromwell's instruction to his portrait painter - because, in addition to showing how serious I am about this, I think a failure to be realistic about our bodies is part of the problem. My arse is not abstract or imaginary (probably the greatest line I can ever remember writing), and nor are any woman's breasts. These are real, present things, and to pretend otherwise is just silly.

[This link contains my naked buttocks.] - On the other hand, a blurry, detail-free shot like this illustrates the point that the basic form - a round mass of flesh - is pretty damn unremarkable, and it's only our arbitrary social conventions that dictate that a buttock is considered taboo in any way. Does the addition of a nipple to the same basic form make a female breast so much worse, when we've already demonstrated that male nipples are easily disregarded?

[This link contains my naked buttocks.] - And finally, the face to very closely match the butt. Part of the problem specific to female nudity seems to be that too much of our society is content to treat the female body as just a series of body parts, to be viewed in isolation. That's pretty dehumanising, and I would argue that there's a self-reinforcing relationship between this and the idea that females have to keep those virtually disembodied parts hidden, rather than requiring people to treat the whole female as a full person. If your only way to concentrate on face is to hide boob, then having to hide boobs makes them seem more different and distinct, making it harder to disregard boob, so that your only way to concentrate on face is to hide boob, etc. As I say, self-reinforcing and dehumanising. Rather just collectively get over it.

Am I advocating that all men hang their butts out for this cause? Yeah, if they like, I suppose. I'm not trying to start a movement, but I'm not going to panic and cry if anyone else repeats this exercise. I certainly wouldn't be the first of my friends to be bare-bottomed (or more) in public. This started out as just an interaction between a couple of friends, a personal gesture of support, and it's only here now because it's a gesture that relies on a certain degree of public performance.

Let me pre-empt some of the criticism I've already seen from more conservative types.
  1. "I don't want to be topless!" - Ok, don't be. Nobody's arguing that it should be compulsory, just that it shouldn't be prohibited either. It doesn't do any harm, so let other people live their lives how they like.
  2. "Aren't there more important issues to deal with than toplessness?" - You're fucking right there are! But on the one hand, if this is such a trivial issue, then why oppose it? And on the other hand, no degree of pointless, petty rules-mongering is acceptable. Yes, it's worse to say that women aren't allowed to vote with men than to say they can't get topless with men, but neither is fair or just. We can aim to fix all injustices, not just the massive ones. You can't end apartheid every day, as it were.
  3. "What about the children?" - What about them? Children don't have all your baggage and preconceived notions, they'll adapt quite well to whatever social norms they grow up around (this link contains naked breasts). And would you rather have them grow up around tolerance or discrimination?
  4. "It'll cause rape!" - No. Rapists cause rape. And I have worrying news: Rapists rape people in all states of dress. But if revealing attire really did correlate with the incidence of rape, shouldn't we ban bikinis and low-cut tops too? In fact, just to be completely rape-proof, why not go full Taliban on women and make total skin-covering compulsory, for their own safety? I don't think it's true that clothing and rape correlate, send evidence to the contrary if you have it, but that would be the logical implication if it were, once you start dictating what specific anti-rape precautions people must take.
  5. "People who want to get naked should go stay in nudist colonies!" - I don't want to go quite as far as comparing that with the Group Areas Act, since skin colour is completely non-optional, but it is pretty fucking arrogant to say that different people with different customs aren't allowed to live and practise those customs where you are, just because the mere thought of it offends you. But never mind full nudism, just focus on toplessness: This is already widely accepted in your area, it's just unfairly gender-biased.
  6. "Get your mind out of the gutter!" - I should also point out that going topless (or bottomless, for that matter) does not automatically mean you're after sex. I usually do it when I'm hot or uncomfortable, for purely practical reasons, but there are more dramatic non-sexual reasons (this link contains a topless woman but doesn't show much) for it too. And sure, sometimes it can be about sex. But not always, is the point. Regardless of the reason, if we allow it for males, we should allow it for females too.

Two closing thoughts. First, it's worth pointing out that GoTopless is a Raëlian Church (this link contains naked breasts) initiative. I don't think that undermines the inherent value of it, but I will insist on making it clear that I think Raëlism is whale-shit crazy. Not more crazy than talking snakes, people holding up a solid dome sky, magic underwear or invisible wish-granting beardy men, but still whale-shit crazy.

Second, in digging through a decade of old photos for the ones I used here, I was surprised (not completely surprised, but still surprisingly surprised) at how many photos I've accrued of friends' hairy balls. Perhaps getting comfortable with nudity is just a matter of practise.