Events In Springfield Show The Political Implications Of Free The Nipple

Why don’t politicians talk about the Free the Nipple movement? It sounds like a ridiculous question, yet there’s no denying the movement is relevant to some weighty sociopolitical issues, ranging from interpretations of the Constitution to how we discuss and approach sexual assault.

In a lawsuit in Springfield, Missouri, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is working with Free the Nipple supporters to fight a newly-passed city ordinance illegalizing female nipple exposure, which, as the ACLU points out, violates the 14th amendment by treating women different from men under the law. Worse yet, the ordinance is justified with victim-blaming rhetoric, an approach condemned by White House-led anti-sexual assault initiatives as it attributes sexual predation to female public toplessnes.

The ordinance is a response to Free the Nipple protests staged in the city in August, which resulted in dramatic upheaval among the city’s councilmen and, of course, some of its church and youth ministry leaders.

“I would like to see a revision made to Springfield’s Indecent Exposure ordinance to align it with state law,” Springfield Councilman Justin Burnett wrote to fellow council members when plans for the rally were made public three months ago, the Springfield News-Leader reported. Burnett called the protest “obviously unacceptable,” citing complaints he claims he received from “moms, dads, and grandparents.”

He went on to claim there were “known sexual predators recognized at the event,” which contradicts police reports put forward by City Manager Greg Burris that there had been no “spotting of pedophiles or really any problems with the event at all.” According to Burnett’s logic, as the inherently pornographic body parts they are (of course, only on women), nipples naturally attracted sexual predators. Thus, the burden should fall on women to fix the community’s alleged problem with sex offenders, who would presumably disappear like magic once shirts are put on.

And despite forcing women to assume responsibility for their body parts’ obstruction of the peace and cover up, Burnett and outraged Springfield church leaders also infantilized adult women by asserting that as men, they knew what was best and safest for women. A local Sunday school teacher wrote to the Springfield City Council to express his outrage with the fact there was no age restriction on public toplessness for girls. “My wife and I … are nauseated by the very idea that this would be legal for any of the young girls in our church,” Pawlak said, according to the News-Leader. Giving only adult women the right to public toplessness might seem like a safe decision. And yet doing so only magnifies the inequality at hand by conditioning teenagers to think that boys can peacefully roam the streets shirtless and girls can’t, and implying that bearing your nipples as a female is some sexual, “adult” behavior.

The lawsuit against the September passage of the city’s nudity and indecent exposure ordinance asserts female nipples “offend,” “cause affront or alarm,” and ruin the city’s “family-friendly” atmosphere (because nothing restores family-friendliness like not allowing mothers to breastfeed their children). But, naturally, the ordinance makes a specific exception for “adult entertainment” purposes, which makes sense in a society that permits the commercial sale of women’s breasts to entertain men, and denies everyday women from wearing them in public.

However, these events remain largely ignored in mainstream media, likely due to the lingering perception that Free the Nipple isn’t a critical feminist issue, and the unspoken stigma against “fifth-wave” or “millennial” feminism. And ultimately, while there’s been no shortage of celebrities willing to raise awareness about the movement on social media, this fundamental issue of bodily autonomy and equality under the law is one politicians maintain a radio silence on.

Public figures might be cautious about the Free the Nipple movement due to international Internet policies about what constitutes pornography. It’s also entirely possible they recognize the movement’s advocates as young women, arguably the most undermined demographic, and consider it trivial. However, the lawsuit in Springfield is proving the movement is anything but, and that discussing women’s right to choose to not be sexualized and objectified could be important too.

At any rate, despite politicians’ lack of attention paid to the subject, Springfield women have since taken charge in their city’s political scene. “What I like about this case is these young women standing up and questioning the way things are,” Missouri ACLU legal director Anthony Rothert told the Kansas City Star. “The answer ‘It’s always been that way’ is not good enough for them.” Local women have also been leading recall efforts against Councilman Burnett and even the city’s mayor, Bob Stephens.

“Thirty percent of children in Springfield went to bed hungry last night,” Katie Webb, who is leading the recall campaign against Burnett, told the Kansas City Star. “I think it’s disgusting we’re spending this much time protecting children from boobs.”

Mayor Stephens actually joined the dissent in the 5-4 ruling that ended up approving Burnett’s proposed ordinance, saying, according to the Star, “If we believe them, the sight of a female breast, whether inadvertent or deliberate, turns men into raving sexual predators and they rush to a public restroom and kidnap children.” As for the recall efforts against him, Stephens has told the Springfield News-Leader “being mayor sometimes means taking the heat for the whole council.”

Despite the minimal dialogue surrounding events in Springfield, they have tremendous implications. The lawsuit makes valid points that prove Free the Nipple isn’t just a social movement, but a political one. And if similar sexist ordinances — and, in response, lawsuits — occur in other cities across the country, over time, Free the Nipple might just become a political movement politicians have to start talking about.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

Kylie Cheung is the author of 'The Gaslit Diaries,' a book of essays exploring the gaslighting and politics that underlie American women's everyday experiences in the patriarchy. She writes about reproductive justice, women's/LGBTQ rights, and national politics. In her spare time, she enjoys volunteering for political campaigns and re-watching The Office. Learn more about her work at

Kylie Cheung is the author of the book, 'The Gaslit Diaries,' a series of essays exploring the gaslighting and politics that underlie American women's everyday experiences in the patriarchy.

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