A bill at the N.C. General Assembly criminalizing toplessness could spark a fight between women’s rights activists and lawmakers.
The proposal, filed last week, would make public exposure of the breast or nipple a class two misdemeanor, which can include jail time and or a fine up to $1,000.
GoTopless.org, a Nevada-based group that organizes national rallies for women’s rights, said the proposed bill would diminish gender equality.
“North Carolina is going backward,” said Nadine Gary, GoTopless.org president.
Due to the lack of a uniform federal public exposure law, offenses are determined by each state. N.C. law does not clarify whether women can be topless in public.
Controversy arose after a 2011 topless rally in Asheville, hosted by GoTopless, which drew thousands of participants.
One of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Rayne Brown, R-Davidson, said the legislation would eliminate any confusion.
“There’s nothing salacious here,” she said. “I’m not trying to impose any kind of morality.”
Gary said topless events advocate for equal rights rather than just the right to be topless.
“They consider us second-class citizens,” she said.
She said the group will continue to hold topless events for women across the U.S. until they have equal rights to men. Events will include rallies in North Carolina to lobby against the legislation, she said.
National GoTopless Day, Aug. 25, coincides with Women’s Equality Day, which commemorates the 19th Amendment that granted women the right to vote.
The bill could pose problems for gender equality, said Katie Pryal, a UNC School of Law professor.
“These proposed changes clarify that an individual woman’s body can be legislated in ways that a man’s body cannot,” Pryal said.
The bill does not disallow breast feeding in public, but Pryal said she fears that it could be the start of an agenda to prohibit it.
“Encroaching on the right to publicly nurse might not be far behind,” Pryal said.
Brown said the bill was aimed at keeping public order and not imposing morality.
Sarah-Kathryn Bryan, co-chairwoman of the UNC group Feminist Students United, said she would join a topless protest if one was held.
“When you can legislate on an entire group of people’s bodies, then it’s difficult to distinguish which parts of the body are free from state interference,” Bryan said.
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