Are bared breasts lewd and indecent? Always?


Boobs are back in the news in Douglas County. This time it’s not fake jubblies on the fairgrounds but a real breast on film.

When the Parker Arts, Culture & Events Center screens the cult classic Rocky Horror Picture Show later this month, the center risks running afoul of city ordinances. Because the venue has a liquor license, it cannot show anything that is “lewd and indecent,” and this includes the barest peek of the female nipple.

In response, the Parker City Council is amending its laws to make the indecency criteria gender-neutral. Neither women nor men will be penalized for exposing their full front torso. Members suddenly felt compelled to align city ordinances with the 2019 appeals court ruling that struck down Fort Collins’ topless ban.

Are council members truly concerned about the upcoming Rocky Horror Picture Show, or is this their way of weighing on the silly controversy over the rubber nipple incident? Who knows? Politicians never waste a chance to show they’ve stayed abreast of cultural progress.

But is this really a sign of progress? Are indecency standards that differentiate between male and female breasts just “ancient ridiculous laws” as David Lane, the Denver attorney who represented the Fort Collins women in the federal case, characterizes them? Should women’s breasts be treated differently under the law than men’s? And since law is a reflection of culture, should we respect cultural distinctions regarding anatomy?

Taboos about food, clothing, physical intimacy, language (what is profane), bodily functions, and other facets of daily life exist in every culture. Unlike norms against harmful behavior, these mores constrain behavior in some times and some places. They distinguish between brushing your hair in your kitchen from doing so at a restaurant, chatting on a cell phone outside and chatting during a funeral, dropping f-bombs while fixing the car and dropping f-bombs at a little league game, showing a female breast at a film for mature audiences from displaying a breast while walking down the street.

Some of these norms make sense, nobody wants another’s hair in his soup, but other cultural time and place distinctions seem arbitrary.

But are they? After all, that which is considered lewd, indecent, or merely rude have one thing in common; they distract and detract from the experiences of others. Although time and place taboos vary from culture to culture, they have a purpose that is anything but arbitrary; they ease human interaction and avert conflict.

In many of the African and Asian countries I have visited, kissing a dog or cat is considered disgusting, so I don’t do it, even though I often do it here. Except for that time in Nepal with Tibetan mastiff puppies of unbearable cuteness, I’ve been quite disciplined.

I also dress conservatively when in the Middle East and remove my shoes when entering a home in East Asia. I read up on culture before traveling because I don’t want to give offense.

Emily Post, the icon of etiquette, defined manners as the “sensitive awareness of the feelings of others.” This may seem quaint in an age of manufactured outrage, cancel culture, and boorish provocateurs out to “own” opponents. While there are times when it is right to provoke a reaction to expose an injustice or some other worthy cause, unwarranted provocations coarsen society and erode social trust. Can there be any doubt that this is happening right now?

Some would argue that different standards regarding male and female breasts are inherently unfair, and provocative behavior is necessary to challenge, undermine, and change cultural norms and related laws. There is some truth to this. Time and place constraints do impinge on individual freedom. The two women who went topless in Fort Collins secured a favorable court decision that ultimately impacted Parker, many miles south.

However, as with other time and place constraints, cultural and legal decency standards have value and jettisoning them will have consequences. Equal treatment of women’s breasts may cause more than just social disruption; it could contribute to the over-sexualization of women resulting in greater inequality.

Krista L. Kafer is a weekly Denver Post columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @kristakafer.

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