Ethics of Lust: The Law Has an Awful Lot to Say on What Women Do and do not Wear

This post was previously published on and has been slightly edited for relevancy.

I got a complaint that my Autostraddle posts were lacking in pictures of cute girls in underwear, so I decided to write a couple Ethics of Lust focusing on the laws surrounding displaying, presenting and showing body parts to others. While I can’t guarantee many links to cool tumblrs, I can guarantee you’ll get more pictures of cute girls.
Starting with this one:

Via I Speak For Myself

And this one:

via NY Mag

Why, you might ask, did I answer a request for more “cute pics of girls in underwear” with a picture of news anchor Mariam Sobh wearing a hijab and photographer Catherine Opie breastfeeding? Maybe this video (which won a Voices of the Year award at BlogHer ’11) from PhD in Parenting will help you understand:

The laws surrounding what you can and cannot show of your own body in public are so complex and convoluted that I could not even begin to cover them all in a single blog post. Whether they’re requiring the burqa in Afghanistan or outlawing it in Europe, limiting breastfeeding in public in Georgia or outlawing “sagging” pants that show your underwear, or worse yet butt-crack, in Louisiana, lawmakers always seem to have an opinion over what body parts people – most especially women – should and shouldn’t show.

Via Love Detour

Most of the laws, like the ones requiring niqab, outlawing scantily clad women or banning public nudity, claim to be for the purpose of protecting women from predators (read: men assume all men can’t control their “natural urges”) and/or protecting the public from “vulgarity” and “indecency.” Whether you agree or disagree with the benefits of the recent SlutWalks happening around the world, there’s no denying they have gotten people thinking critically about the societal and legal requirements put on women to cover up their bodies.

Like most other laws regarding sexuality, whether nudity in public is illegal or not hinges on a very subjective idea of “decency” – or even “properness” in regards to breastfeeding in public. The hardest part about writing this article was finding an exact amount of skin that constituted being “indecent,” as it varied so much depending on social mores and content. For example, how is this on a billboard ad for all to see ok:

Via American Apparel Ad Archives

But this on a website requires me to be over 18 to view:

Via NoFauxxx

Often times, the enforcement over whether something is “indecent” or not will come down to public (or I should say assumed public) opinion, or “properness”. Remember when ABC cut a Lane Bryant commercial out of its Dancing with the Stars line-up because it was too risqué, only to allow a much more revealing Victoria Secret ad to run?

Via Sinful Misadventures

The ridiculous reasoning for this kind of censorship goes something like this: the more skin you show the more indecent an image is, fat girls show more skin (because we have more skin) therefore they’re more indecent when seen in a bra and undies.

Via Queen of Sports

While most places still have “public indecency” laws, some countries and states have recognized that nudity doesn’t always mean indecency. Throughout the world, people are fighting forand winning – the right to bare their bodies in public if they so choose. Most recently, New York’s lack of a ban on being topless in public has inspired some great social experiments and parades of women marching through Central Park as bare chested as their male counter parts. These events don’t just happen in New York, though, as National Go Topless Day has inspired similar political protests across the nation (in fact this post will go live on August 21, National Go Topless Day, so go out and celebrate!).

Via The Gloss

Additionally, amazing mommy bloggers and breastfeeding rights activists have been working for years to change laws and social norms surrounding baring a breast to feed a child in public. Thanks to their work, 45 states now have laws allowing women to breastfeed openly in public, however only 28 states exempt breastfeeding mothers from public indecency laws.

Via BlogLovin'

While they may seem contradictory, laws disallowing women to be completely covered in public can be just as oppressive as laws disallowing women to be completely nude. A quick glance down the list of links on the Muslimah Media Watch website shows just how much Muslim women are having to fight for their right to cover up if they so choose: Egypt Air Hostesses want the right to wear a hijab at work, hijab used (once again) as a pawn in political campaigns, Iranian football/soccer team banned from the Women’s World Cup for wearing hijab. The list goes on and on.


Feminist Muslims and their allies are fighting for their personal right to wear whatever they choose and many, like those pictured above, have joined the SlutWalks in protest of laws dictating women’s clothing. In response to FIFA’s hijab ban, The Right 2 Wear campaign organized soccer/football games all across the world, asking women to play wearing a hijab in support of women who are banned from playing the sport because of their clothing choices.

Via Payvand

Laws defining public decency and properness are so heavily tied to constructed social norms that even when they’re lifted, officials and lay people often still attempt to enforce them. Women walking topless through Central Park are going to be asked to cover up, mothers breastfeeding in restaurants are going to be asked to do “that” in private and women wearing headscarves are going to be gawked at by strangers. But, thanks to the activists mentioned above, that social change is coming and maybe one day soon the person who can decide how much or how little of my body to show can be me.

What do you think? Should women be able to go topless in public spaces like men do?

About Queerie Bradshaw

Lauren Marie Fleming is a writer, speaker and motivator known for her intimate, informative and often hilarious look at sex, relationships and body-image. Lauren runs the critically-acclaimed blog, writes for major news sources including VICE, Nerve, Huffington Post and Curve, and is the author of her memoir Losing It: My Life as a Sex Blogger. In 2013, Lauren founded Frisky Feminist Press ( as a way to enhance conversations about sexuality through educational guides, online classes and entertaining publications. A law school graduate, Lauren has spoken all over the United States and is internationally recognized for her dynamic, engaging style. In everything she does, Lauren’s goal is to educate, remove stigmas and encourage people to achieve their desires.
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