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3 min

Tits out

Why are women's breasts still considered indecent in parts of Canada?

Lipster organizers Michael McCarthy and Julie Paquet sing karaoke in Montreal.
Last week, the 20th anniversary of Montreal’s Edgy Women Fest came to an appropriate end at Lipster, a karaoke night at the Royal Phoenix with a wild reputation. Event organizers Julie Paquet and I were not, however, prepared for the post-festival adrenaline that resulted in a bar full of topless feminists.
 
At one point, as festival participant Lex Vaughn describes it, “there were about a dozen women with their shirts off and some guys, too. People that would never even do that. It was amazing!
 
“The poor bar staff tried to get us to put tape on our nipples, but that was like trying to get a hyena to stop eating a fresh carcass. After repeat pleas from a sober and attentive staff, worried about cops coming in and fining them and shutting the place down, a few people acquiesced, but then it would start all over again. It was like Lord of the Flies.”
 
In Quebec, in order for a venue that is not a theatre, amphitheatre, racetrack or sport centre to legally allow nudity, its permit must include an authorization for shows involving nudity. This authorization is hard to come by and is usually available only when an existing permit is transferred from a former establishment, such as a strip club, to a new one. Unfortunately for the Edgy Women Fest, the organizers of Lipster and the bar staff, while the Royal Phoenix may be a queer bar, it does not hold such a permit.
 
The result last week was a very awkward situation in which all three parties had to enforce, obey or rebel against a law they collectively disagree with. Bar owner Val Desjardins, who grew up performing in the Edgy Women Fest, found herself in a conflicted position dealing with the aftermath the following day. “When you find yourself in a role where you have to obey permits, it unfortunately entails having to conform with, and enforce, laws you strongly disagree and have issues with. We had to play bad cops while working in solidarity with the folks in the Edgy crowd.”
 
According to section 174 of the Canadian Criminal Code, one who, without lawful excuse, is nude in a public place or is nude and exposed to public view while on private property, whether or not the property is his own, is guilty of a punishable offence. There are different situations in which there is a lawful excuse to be nude in a public place – such as a designated area like a nude beach, at a venue that holds a permit for shows containing nudity, or at a demonstration where the authorities have given special permission in advance.
 
Since Paquet and I also happen to be part of a body-positive queer burlesque collective, we were extremely cautious to keep gender out of our newfound and undesired role as the nipple police. Despite our personal political awareness, the law remains that men have the right to go topless but women can do so only if they cover their nipples, whether it is with tape or pasties.
 
What if you happen to be a female walking down the street on a day that is so blisteringly hot you want to take off your top but you don’t happen to have a roll of duct tape or pasties in your purse? Furthermore, gender is not a binary that a police officer should be permitted or obligated to determine when enforcing a law.
 
Nearly 23 years ago, during the unbearable heat of a sweltering summer day, Gwen Jacob opted to make like nearby male athletes and go topless. She was arrested, charged and found guilty of committing an indecent act. The judge ruled so on the grounds that a woman’s breast should not be exposed in public, as it is “part of the female body that is stimulating to men both by sight and touch.” Here the male gaze was the justification used by a male judge for the unequal treatment of women. By the same heteronormative assumption, this judge should have also banned men from being topless in public because a man’s pectoral and abdominal muscles are parts of the male body that are stimulating to women by sight and touch. 
 
Jacob was acquitted of the charge of indecency in 1996, and 15 years later women in Ontario gained the right to be topless in public. Since the Supreme Court has yet to make a ruling on the matter, it is still possible for women to be charged for being topless in provinces other than Ontario, but only with consent of the attorney general.
 
Jacob’s case, however, seems to have set a precedent, as women in Saskatchewan and British Columbia have since been acquitted of similar charges. The topless afterparty for this year’s Edgy Women Fest highlights how the battle that Jacob inadvertently spearheaded is not quite over. Organizations like Topfree Equal Rights Association provide a structured meeting ground for people in North America fighting for equal rights and the de-sexualization of breasts in public.
 
In the meantime, working in solidarity with this movement, bar owners limited by their permits can respond in creative ways, such as Desjardins, who has since ensured that pasties are available for patrons of the Royal Phoenix. This way its patrons, regardless of their gender identity, can rip their tops off in the heat of a drunken karaoke performance – and do so within the law.