July 20, 2011
Yesterday I received a message from a friend who works at the CBC, inviting me to comment on the 20th anniversary of Gwen Jacob’s arrest for walking topless down the street in Guelph, Ontario. Unfortunately, I’m sick with an awful cold this week, so sick that last night I resorted to sleeping sitting up on the TV room couch in an effort to keep the coughing jags under control. I’m drowsy, a little bit stoned on cough syrup, and my cough-ravaged throat is in no condition to be heard on the news. But! YOU ALL ARE IN LUCK. Just because I’m sick doesn’t mean I haven’t got anything to say about Gwen Jacob.
See: the Gwen Jacob case kind of made me a feminist. I don’t mean that this case changed my life or made me a radically different person (a more radical person? heh) than I would otherwise have become. If it hadn’t been this it would have been something else. I just mean that, for me, it was this. In 1991, at age nineteen, I had already experienced rape, sexual coercion (something that I didn’t yet understand then, but do now, is ALSO RAPE), being dumped from a car on a sideroad in the middle of the country for not “putting out”, various other non-sexual assaults including a friend’s boyfriend trying to crush me with a chesterfield (I’m not even kidding), and a massive amount of slut-shaming. This one incident, this woman I didn’t know who was my age and grew up near where I did being arrested and charged with indecency for taking her shirt off, seemed to highlight all of the double standards in the whole world, for me. It was something concrete to be angry about at a time when I didn’t possess the words to protest against things like slut-shaming.
(Incidentally, I tried going topless outside for a while once, the summer after Jacob’s arrest, when I was all alone on the farm, not likely to be seen by anyone but the occasional gravel truck driver out on the road. How it felt: silly, contrived, exhilarating, terrifying. And oddly itchy. And when my areolae starting feeling the effects of too much sun, I gave it up.)
After the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned Jacob’s conviction in 1996, when going topless effectively became legal in Ontario for all sexes, a few (very few) women started trying it just because they could. Once or twice Peter and I saw one in downtown London, always walking with a male companion, never alone, reveling in their new freedom but cautiously, self consciously, defiantly; drawing stares. Hardly free of any kind of double standard, and certainly not free of their bodies being immediately sexualized. Peter overheard one of these topless women in conversation with her (male) friend, and guess what the two of them were talking about? People’s reactions to her toplessness. In the days after the court ruling our options had expanded from living with the double standard of only men’s toplessness being socially acceptable to either that or being an activist, a test case, and having our bare breasts be a constant centre of attention. Our options hadn’t really expanded to include our toplessness being NOT A BIG DEAL.
The thing is, double standards don’t just disappear overnight because the Court of Appeal says they’re unfair. Body policing and slut-shaming and rape culture don’t just disappear overnight, and the evidence is all around us, every day, that they haven’t even budged one bit. 20 years after Jacob’s arrest, 15 years after her conviction was overturned, what does her case mean for women in Ontario, exactly? If I went outside right this minute, took off my shirt and walked down the street with my breasts visible, here is what it does NOT mean:
-that I will not be perceived as behaving with indecency;
-that my body will not be sexualized or consumed in a sexual manner;
-that I will not be catcalled or otherwise verbally harassed;
-that I will not be groped;
-that I will not be propositioned;
-that I will not be raped;
-that I will be treated with respect, or even with indifference.
-that if I am perceived as behaving with indecency, that will not be perceived as my fault;
-that if my body is sexualized or consumed in a sexual manner, that will not be perceived as my fault;
-that if I am catcalled or otherwise verbally harassed that will not be perceived as my fault;
-that if I am groped that will not be perceived as my fault;
-that if I am propositioned that will not be perceived as my fault;
-that if I am raped that will not be perceived as my fault.
What it means: that at least I won’t be arrested.
Posted by jodi on July 20, 2011 at 1.57pm
Categories: because the whole internet is dying to know what i'm wearing, keep it beautiful, navel gazing