Demonstration over the arrest of topless woman kicks off annual event
As someone well familiar with laws on public indecency, Rain Scher didn’t anticipate being arrested on an unseasonably warm winter afternoon for baring her breasts in City Plaza—because that’s not illegal. Even so, on Jan. 3, when Scher and her friend Meagan Fischer took off their shirts and lounged on a sunny patch of grass, it drew the attention of a police officer responding to a citizen’s complaint.
“The officer came over and asked, ‘Do you think this is appropriate?’ I said, ‘Not only do I think it’s appropriate, I know it’s not against the law,’” Scher recounted.
The officer left and shortly returned with his partner, Scher said. By then, Fischer was preparing to leave and had put her shirt back on, so only Scher was taken to the Chico police station, fingerprinted, cited for public indecency—a misdemeanor—and released. A conviction would have forced her to register as a sex offender, along with possibly facing fines and jail time, but the case was dismissed by Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey on Feb. 9.
Scher knows exactly what constitutes public indecency in California because she’s organized demonstrations in Chico the last four years to coincide with International Go Topless Day in August. She’s quick to cite California Penal Code 314, which has remained unchanged since its enactment in 1872.
“The way the court system looks at 314 is that you need to specifically expose your genitals, which breasts are not,” Scher said. “It also has to be with the intent to offend or arouse somebody in a sexual way. So, they have to prove your intent. Simply being without a shirt in public is in no way indecent exposure.”
And while municipal code would take precedent over state law, Chico doesn’t have an ordinance banning toplessness, either, confirmed Chief Deputy District Attorney Francisco Pancho Zarate. (The City Council did consider banning nudity within city limits back in 2003, however, due to complaints of skinny-dippers at Sycamore Pool.)
Meanwhile, many women around the world—including in other cities in California—aren’t afforded such freedoms, and some willingly risk arrest on International Topless Day to protest sexist laws, support positive body image and normalize female breasts. In Chico, participants of such events have faced minimal harassment, Scher said. “Every time, we’ve had park rangers and police tell us we weren’t breaking the law.”
Scher’s arrest has stirred local activists to organize the Toptional Ride, an all-gender-inclusive ride through Lower Bidwell Park and the heart of downtown set for Sunday (April 19). Riders will cover their upper bodies however they see fit.
The highly visible demonstration will kick off Chico State’s Take Back the Night Week (April 20-24), which includes a series of educational events hosted by the Gender and Sexuality Equity Center (GSEC) to raise awareness of rape culture on campus. The week culminates in the Take Back the Night march through campus and downtown on Thursday (April 23).
As Scher explained, it made sense to coordinate the efforts of GSEC and the Toptional Ride.
“We want to feel comfortable in our bodies, but we also want to feel safe in our bodies,” she said. “Take Back the Night shares our message that, no matter what she’s wearing—or not—it’s not an invitation to assault her.”
Sexual assault on college campuses has been a hot topic of late, receiving heavy coverage by the national media due in part to Rolling Stone’s now-infamous article, “A Rape on Campus,” about a female student at the University of Virginia who claimed to have been gang-raped at a frat party. (The magazine has since retracted the article.)
But it’s still difficult for feminist organizations like GSEC to jumpstart productive dialogue about the underlying issues, said Emilee Hunt, GSEC’s women’s program coordinator.
“We need more administrative conversations, get the higher-ups involved,” she said. “If we had more widespread conversations from administration, it would be easier … to target the students who aren’t already engaged.”
This is the first year that Hunt is spearheading Take Back the Night. It’s also the first with only one march; previously, they were held every semester. To compensate, Hunt decided to expand the event to a full week of educational programs. With the help of off-campus organizations like Planned Parenthood, GSEC has also conducted more outreach than ever before, Hunt said, hoping the march will draw 500 participants. On campus, GSEC interns have been making a concerted effort to involve Greek organizations, which make up 10 percent of the student body.
“Having specific outreach to men will help,” Hunt said. “More fraternities than sororities have responded to our inquiries, so that’s pleasing. We’re highlighting how the negative images of fraternities are affecting them personally. In order to get back to the true values of why frats are established, we need to change those images—there needs to be personal investment.”
GSEC intern Mary Modisette has been giving short presentations on rape culture to Greeks. She said she believes that it’s important to reach those students, but the responsibility for addressing sexual assault at the university isn’t theirs alone.
“Especially when it comes to rape culture, there are a lot of stigmas and stereotypes,” she said. “All of the pressure and blame is placed on Greeks.”
Modisette’s sociology project on the sexual objectification of women’s nipples forged the connection between Take Back the Night and the Toptional Ride.
“I really wanted to focus on breasts because at a certain point in history it was also illegal for men to be topless,” she said. “So, you figure, ‘If it’s legal for them now, why can’t women have the same rights?’”
Modisette’s search for a local movement along those lines led her to Scher and her organization, Chico Breast Liberation. And since GSEC also strives for women’s empowerment, the two parties agreed to align their upcoming efforts.
“The way it relates back to the Toptional Ride is just embracing our bodies,” Modisette said. “Women are told their sexuality should be controlled and hidden, when they should be able to embrace it.”