When women marched in Phoenix, the one woman we heard about had gained her 15 minutes of fame because she marched bare breasted. Some observers referred to her as lewd and immoral, suggesting she was asking to be assaulted. Others said we should focus on her heart and soul and not whether her top was plunging. She wasn’t, this group insisted, “asking for it”.
While we can’t know what she was thinking when she walked out her door and joined the march, we can be pretty sure that she was not thinking she wanted to be assaulted. Women don’t want to be assaulted. We can assume, however, that her aim was to attract attention and at that she was successful. That does not mean she was asking to be raped.
Trying to look at this objectively, the first step of influence, of getting attention and eliciting a response, negative or positive, is attracting attention. Animals know, perhaps instinctively, that attracting attention makes them vulnerable, that attracting attention can lead to death or rape. That is why so many have protective coloration. Humans, of course, are more complex. We have bigger brains and more complex behavior and culture. The function of breasts, for humans and other female animals, is to nourish an infant. Here, in the U.S., however, breasts are seen as sexual objects. Bare breasted women inhabit the pages of men’s magazines presumably because men find them enticing. While breasts are not ignored in other, very different types of cultures, the males see breasts in terms of their function – feeding an infant. When I lived with a tribe in a remote part of the Ecuadorian jungle, the women, traditionally, had gone bare breasted. At that time, shortly after outsiders began to enter the area, only older women continued that tradition. Younger women, when asked why they covered themselves, said that they felt uncomfortable -- outsiders stared at their breasts. The local men, as far as I could determine through observation and conversation, did not refer to breasts as sexually tempting. They referred to them as milks. Culture, in other words, seems to have a strong influence on what women do publically and how males interpret what they do and, given opportunity and depending on character, subsequently respond.
A great many women, including fully clad ones like Catholic sisters in habits and women in burkas have been assaulted. What this suggests is that women themselves, not just their breasts attract the attention of males. Women are vulnerable to assault when they are in a powerless position and in the presence of a male who does not exercise self-control. Clearly we are not talking about most men, only some men.
Going bare breasted in public does attract attraction. Doing so may have positive effects -- commentary in the local news and possibly a starring role in a Hollywood film. It is equally likely, however, that showing your breasts -- when they are seen as sexual objects -- can make you vulnerable, attracting the attention of someone you never would want to meet. Simpler animals can teach us important lessons if we open our minds to learning; attracting attention can be dangerous.