There's no question that Free the Nipple supporters and participants have faced backlash. They've been asked to resign from sororities, banned from social media and even arrested for simply opposing sexist public nudity laws. The unanswered question for many, however, is why women can face hefty penalties for a nonviolent act, whereas potentially lethal acts — like carrying and owning a gun — are completely permissible in many places around the globe.
It's a hypocrisy that Shreena Patel, researcher and brand manager of the website Clinic Compare, highlighted by comparing global public nudity laws to firearm laws to reveal which countries criminalize women's bare breasts more than they do guns.
"I was puzzled by the negativity [Free the Nipple] was receiving," Patel told Mic of her inspiration for the project. "It seemed as though being topless caused more offense than life-threatening issues."
Patel soon found evidence to back her observation: She identified 17 countries in which women face a range of serious penalties — including imprisonment, prosecution, fines and lashings — for going topless, but can legally own and carry a firearm.
Far too many countries hand out "severe penalties for women exposing their breasts in an attempt to keep women chaste and our minds uncorrupted," Patel said. "Whilst breasts are banned from public view, it's acceptable to carry a gun that can kill."
Lest anybody attempt to conflate this issue with these particular countries' broader approach to women's rights, however, Patel also examined varying laws within the United States. As it turns out, the nation many are quick to argue is comparatively "progressive" or "advanced" didn't fare too well either. Patel's research found it's illegal for women to go topless in three states — Indiana, Tennessee and Utah — and, it's worth noting, ambiguous laws in 13 other states prohibit toplessness in effect, Time reported.
While women's breasts aren't lethal, lenient gun laws are often the norm. Studies conducted by the Violence Policy Center, for example, consistently show that in the United States, "states with stricter gun laws and lower rates of gun ownership have some of the lowest overall gun death rates in the county," the center's director Josh Sugarmann wrote in the Huffington Post. Countries with stricter gun control policies also have substantially lower rates of gun homicides and suicides, Newsweek reported in October.
Beyond policy, the simultaneous acceptance of violent images and rejection of nudity is also concerning on a cultural level. While children are inundated with violent images — the average American child sees more than 200,000 acts of violence and 16,000 murders on TV before they turn 18, according to the American Psychiatric Association — women's bare breasts are aggressively censored. In fact, the Federal Communications Commission was still debating whether or not to reconsider the broadcasting ban on "nonsexual nudity" in 2013, the Hill reported.
"I agree that there are a variety of issues [related to gender equality], some of which should be a higher priority," Patel said. But the fight for gender equality must address all forms of inequity, including how their bodies are stigmatized or even criminalized, she added.
Ultimately, Patel hopes her research will help people "learn to put political issues into perspective." Rather than criminalize nonviolent public nudity, people the world over would do well to push back on pervasive violence and the laws that facilitate it.