Why is it illegle for the female nipple to be shown, but not males?

Why is it illegle for the female nipple to be shown, but not males?
to me, it just seems like sexism…

There’s no one factual reason for it. Many people say that the major factor is the power of religion in our culture, some going as far as to call it religious hysteria.

Historically, allowing public display of nipples in American culture has waxed and waned and shown impossible to explain contradictions. For example, in the 1920s nudity was allowed on the Broadway stage in such high-end shows as the Follies or the Scandals but not allowed at burlesque shows down the street. After censorship laws were gutted by landmark Supreme Court rulings in the late 50s and early 60s magazines could show nipples freely and many did so. (Today it is much less common for those same magazines to show nipples, even fashion magazines like Vogue that once commonly showed nudity. No-nude men’s magazines have replaced the nude-showing ones in acceptance.) Back in the 50s, Playboy could show nipples (though nothing else) and won all censorship battles. Life magazine would show nudity at time as far back, IIRC, as the 30s. Censorship shows tremendous differential depending on class status. Reading commentary on “obscene” materials reveals a totally consistent bias against the lower classes. “They” were liable to be affected by nudity and “filth” although no judges, prosecutors, or others of their class were ever harmed by having to view the same material.

The Catholic Church had enormous power in the country after the huge number of Catholic immigrants started streaming in starting around 1850 with the Irish. The Catholic Church was behind the censorship of magazines and movies with “voluntary” industry guidelines keeping the pressure off. The Catholic Legion of Decency rated movies until the 50s or 60s and made it essentially a sin to attend forbidden ones.

The loosening of standards in the 70s means that nipples are not illegal in almost any context. Many states, like New York, even have laws on the books allowing women to go topless in any public area that men are allowed to go topless in. Nothing prevents the showing of nipples on movie screens. Television networks are subject to fines by the FCC if they show nipples in certain contexts but nothing makes this illegal. Cable and satellite tv is not regulated by the FCC at all; the only reason they wouldn’t show nipples is that advertisers and viewers might not like it.

Why wouldn’t they like it? We’re back to religion. Display of the female body tempts men to sin. Therefore it must be prevented. Enough people still believe this, or some variant of it that means the same thing but buries the obvious double standard, that it remains a cultural norm.

Interesting post, EM. Thanks.

I think it’s also true that there has been a bias toward making it OK to show female breasts and nipples if the culture involved is OK with it, and less so if the culture is not OK with it. Many kids of my era saw their first full female breast photos in National Geographic, from tribes and cultures that displayed them.

It’s pretty rare, even today, to see a naked Western breast in Nat Geo–print or TV version–but in documentaries on cultures where nudity is accepted, pretty common.

In most states it was indecent, and illegal, for males to show their nipples in public, even on beaches, until well into the 1930’s.

Life Magazine showed the first topless males, on a New Jersey beach, who did not get arrested, in about their August 1937? issue.

So, it has been a double standard only for a relatively short time, about the last 80 years or so.

I think you have this part backwards. Cultural standards, norms, and manners establish what is considered indecent. Then religion is often invoked to justify or enforce those cultural standards. But I believe we’d still have standards of decency with regard to nudity even without religion, and at least some people have a sense of privacy, shame, or embarassment with regard to their own nudity that is unconnected to any religiosity.
As to the OP: like it or not, women’s breasts are considered sexual, probably because women have them while neither men nor prepubescent girls do. For more insight into why women’s breasts are sexualized, or why heterosexual men are attracted to them, you might look at the thread Any other mammals in which mammary gland have been sexualized? (especially Post #10 of that thread) or, for a more IMHO perspective, Why do guys like breasts?

So, a women whose breasts are exposed is sexually “on display” in a sense. The nipple makes for a convenient limit: in certain (culturally determined) contexts, a woman can partially expose her breasts, and as long as the nipple isn’t exposed, she hasn’t crossed the line between what’s acceptable in public and what’s only acceptable in private. (Though, as noted, this is not necessarily a matter of legailty but of propriety.) I think a topless man is considered, in our culture, to be at the same “level of exposure” as a women wearing a bra or bikini top.

If Daniel Craig coming out of the water in Casino Royale is any indication, the inverse is also true.

Female nipples are sexual organs and male nipples are not. Why do we need any more in the way of explanation?

No, not as their primary function. And male’s nipples’ are really only for decor. If you stop and think about it, it would make more sense to be the opposite: to allow women to expose THEIR breasts, and not men. (By arguing that women’s breasts are primarily for feeding infants)

But then, people even today get all up in arms about women breastfeeding in public.

I don’t buy this explanation. Female breast tissue is a sex organ. (Forgive me for not being able to cite scientific support of this). Females have in general, much more breast tissue than men. It is a matter of their sexuality and therefore a sexual characteristic. Females and males have nipples. Nipples are not unique to either sex. Yet, the exposure of the prominence of breast tissue is not “obscene” or illegal. The exposure of male nipples is not “obscene” or illegal. Yet, the exposure of the female nipple is somehow "obscene or illegal. There is no logic to this. If there is, explain it.

There are some municiple laws that allow females to expose their breasts as long as their nipples are covered with pasties. (I’m thinking New Orleans from years ago but maybe the laws have changed.) In some strip clubs the “pastie” is a piece of clear plastic.

It makes absolutely no sense to my logic.

I’d hope that any anthropologist would run screaming for the door at this explanation. How exactly do you explain all the cultures in history that thought absolutely nothing of woman going topless? How do you explain all the cultures within the past century of two that went topless until Christian missionaries invaded?

There is no question that in America standards of obscenity, filth, pornography, and sexual display and standards are simple outgrowths of what a sufficient number of Christians at the time consider to be sinful. Most of these grow out of the Christian heritage imported from Europe. Enough time has gone past for our cultures to diverge somewhat. Nipples are simply not the horror in most of western Europe in most contexts the way they are here. We are a much more religious nation than any in western Europe, and that explains the difference.

You have to look at the subject anthropologically, that is, look at other times and cultures than merely modern America. Once you do, any notion that female breasts are inherently sexualized and forbidden to be displayed vanishes. So does any notion that nudity is inherently shameful. You’re only saying such things because you’ve been brought up in a Christianized culture that happens to say so. In a million other times and settings you’d be aghast or laughing hysterically if anybody said such stuff.

Likely some religious douche arbitrarily chose that to be so years ago.

The western cultural standard was enforced on the local culture under the guise of religion. I don’t see that you’re contradicting Thudlow here.

The western cultural standard = Christian religion. Missionaries imposed it. Religion caused toplessness to be forbidden. Suddenly. Not because they were trying to justify mores that the culture already had. Because of the imposition of a foreign standard, i.e. religion. Exactly the opposite of the process TB described.

Why do you identify the Western cultural standard with the Christian religion?

I think this goes waaaay back into Roman, Greek, Egyptian and other civilizations.
“Topless” cultures were not present in Europe even before Christianity.

Even more, I would be very hard pressed to find a civilization with cities that accpeted topless women.

I have been to a clothing-optional beach in Europe and it doesn’t take any time at all to get used to it. (I didn’t know ahead of time that it was going to be optional. This was a surprise that a friend had for me.)

Yes, of course it is sexist. Too bad they didn’t pass that Equal Rights Amendment back in the 1970s. You guys will give it your full support next time, right?

ETA: “…cities that accpeted topless women” – OUCH!

The theoretical “rule” is that nudity in the National Geographic sense is okay “above the waist, below the Equator.”

In a practical sense, going braless can be damned uncomfortable.

(my colouring)

When I’m talking about breasts, many of my brain functions go dead.

Breasts are not sex organs, which are strictly in the realm of the reproductive system. They are, however, secondary sexual characteristics: caused by the activity of the sexual organs, but not instrumental in creating babies. Men’s facial hair is another example of secondary sexual characteristics.