If you’re a man, you probably don’t think much about your nipples. And why should you? Hardly anybody notices them, or has rules about them, or asks you to cover them up—except in obvious places, like at the office or in Victoria’s Secret.
I’m a woman, so mine are obscene, indecent, lewd, banned on Instagram and other social media, and against the law in most places.
I am writing this story on a park bench just outside of Chicago. If I took my shirt and bra off right now, Illinois law says it would be an act of public indecency. It would be considered a lewd exposure of my body done with intent to arouse or to satisfy the sexual desire of another person. That’s a class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine. And because it’d be considered a sex offense, I may even have to register as a sex offender.
But you guys? You go right ahead and take your shirt off, join me on this park bench, walk down the street, post selfies on Instagram, and otherwise flaunt your little pink nips. Heck, you can even rub them with your fingers like you’re reenacting a scene from Showgirls. No one will care.
I will be over here putting an X of black tape over mine; camouflaging the very heart of my areola will keep me out of jail.
To better understand this nipple double standard—and find out what it’s going to take for American men and women to have equal nipple rights—we asked a handful of experts to weigh in on the gender disparity.
First, a Quick Nip History
About 75 years ago, no one could go topless. Men or women. But in the 1930s, men won the right to take it off from the waist up. Look at this pictorial from LIFEmagazine, dated July 18, 1938.
The article reads: “At Atlantic City topless bathing suits are still forbidden, and only this year has Long Island’s ultrademocratic Long Beach allowed men to air their backs and chests.”
It took over half a century for women to get the same rights. Well, sort of. In 1992, New York legalized female toplessness—thanks to People v. Ramona Santorelli and Mary Lou Schloss, in which the New York Court of Appeals ruled in favor of two women who exposed their breasts in a Rochester park.
Today, it’s legal for women to take off their shirts in 36 states. And only three states—Utah, Tennessee, and Indiana— have laws explicitly forbidding female nipple exposure.
But women would still be flouting the law by going shirtless in any of these states. That’s because an exposed female nipple is still considered lewd pretty much everywhere, except at nude beaches and resorts (which are governed by local laws) and on Bourbon Street in February (where nudity is actually illegal, but police are having too much fun to care).
Same goes on most social media. Facebook, Instagram, and—the real shame—LinkedIn are all nip-free.
Micol Hebron, an artist and associate professor at Chapman University in southern California, was stunned when some of her personal pictures were censored on Instagram. Specifically, this one:
The male nipples weren’t the problem. The problem were her nipples.
“I didn’t know there was a policy against female nipples, and even more specifically that male nipples were okay,” she says. “The fetishization and censorship of female nipples gets to the point where the body is being seen only as a sexual object.”
Instagram’s Community Guidelines state they do not allow “some photos of female nipples,” though what gets through seem to fall into two groups: 1) Paintings and 2) Nips that have slipped past the site’s censors.
But male nipples? Grab your selfie stick and go to town. So last summer, Hebron created a Photoshopped male nipple, and suggested that women cut and paste the image over their actual nipples, thus making their topless shots more social media–friendly.
Over the past few weeks, her nipple campaign has taken on a new life, with women across the Internet (and the world) posting photos of themselves with male nipples, along with the hashtag #FreeTheNipple.
When you see nipples pasted over nipples, it just points out the absurdity of this double-standard, and begs the question, will we ever achieve true nipple equality?
The legal issues involving nipple censorship in the United States—according to Jeffrey J. Douglas, a criminal defense attorney in Santa Monica who has been defending all forms of sexual speech and conduct for more than 30 years—came from a time and place when Christianity “blamed women for giving men hard-ons.”
And Douglas doesn’t think the laws will change any time soon. “I am not optimistic because such changes require organized efforts by a relatively large minority,” he says, adding that the current rules are based on prohibiting women from arousing men, rather than prohibiting men from misbehaving when aroused.
In many jurisdictions, he explained, the rules defining what can be shown in a bar or non-adult entertainment facility prohibit the exposure of the woman’s breast below the top of the areola. That’s great news for corset makers, but bad news for women who want to show off the lower halves of their upper halves.
So What’s Next for Nipples?
Instagram and Facebook currently maintain a very anti-nipple policy, but only for the ladies. This is not likely to change anytime soon.
Think about it the next time you whip off your shirt on a warm day—not because you’re trying to get anybody’s attention, or make the ladies swoon, but just because you want to feel more comfortable. Remember that you’re enjoying something that your fellow nippled human beings won’t ever get to experience. At least not without getting handcuffed and taken to jail.
Male nipples have just never been as socially sexualized as female nipples, says Toronto-based sexologist Dr. Stephen de Wit. “Men have been conditioned to see the female breast and nipple as a sexual accessory,” he says. “They are something to be coveted, desired, and unfortunately hidden until sex is imminent.”
Because they’re hidden, they’re more “intriguing, enticing and captivating,” he says. “If the female nipple was seen all the time as in other cultures, it would not be eroticized and logic would dictate therefore not illegal.”
In other words, to achieve true nip equality in this country, we first need to de-sexualize the female breast. And the way to do that suddenly seems completely obvious: #FreeTheNipple.
Are you up to the challenge? Show the world that you support female nipples. Print out two copies of the nipple below and attach them to your own nips. Then take a shirtless picture. Let’s see if we can add some fuel to the #FreeTheNipple movement.
Will Instagram and other social media sites start banning shirtless men who dare to wear female nipples? Well, there’s only one way to find out.