Feminism | Posted by Eloise Bouton on 06/10/2015

It’s Hard to be a Topless Feminist in France


Many people probably think France is a feminist-friendly country. My experience as an activist with the international feminist organization Femen has taught me that this is not the case. I’ve found that fighting for equality is costly and protesting topless for women’s rights — as I have done — is not only unfairly considered exhibitionism, but has had a damaging effect on my life.

I joined Femen — a feminist organization whose members protest topless — in April, 2012. This organization was born in Ukraine but established a presence in Paris in September, 2012. The Paris branch has been led by Inna Shevchenko, but I helped build the group.

On December 2013, I posed topless at the Catholic Madeleine Church in Paris to support abortion rights. At the time, the Spanish government wanted to restrict abortion access by allowing it only in cases of rape or when a pregnant woman’s life was at risk. I scrawled the words “344e salope” (344th slut) on my stomach in reference to the “Manifesto of the 343 Sluts,” a declaration published in the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur in 1971 and signed by 343 feminists. These women publicly admitted they had an abortion though it was still illegal at the time. This effort greatly contributed to the eventual adoption of the 1975 law that legalized abortion during the first 10 weeks of pregnancy (although now it’s legal for 12 weeks).

To my great surprise, my protest caused a major outcry in France. I assumed my topless defense of women’s rights would be no big deal but I was wrong. The church priest lodged a complaint against me for exhibitionism and in December 2014 I was given a one-month suspended sentence and ordered to pay 2,000 euros in damages as well as 1,500 legal expenses to the church. It was the first time in 49 years that a woman had been found guilty of exhibitionism in France — the last case occurred in 1965 when a young girl was tried after playing ping-pong topless on the Croisette in Cannes.

In court, I was compared to a sexual offender, treated like a regular delinquent and the substance of my act was dissociated from its form. “Whether you stood topless in a church to support abortion or for any other reason is not of my business. I’m only here to talk about the act of exhibitionism,” the judge said.

The problem is that the French law does not clearly define exhibitionism. The penal code only states that “an indecent sexual exposure imposed on the view of others in a public place is punished by one year’s imprisonment and a fine of €15,000 ($16,300).”

So what, then, is “an indecent sexual exposure”? Why are women’s breasts considered more erotic than men’s? Why aren’t topless men on the streets tried for exhibitionism? Why should a feminist action be considered exhibitionism rather than a political statement? Apparently, it’s up to the judge to decide.

Ironically, France’s double standard about women’s nipples happens at a time when the question of equality between women’s and men’s breasts is being widely debated. Many countries are beginning to realize that biological differences do not justify discrimination. I am currently meeting MPs and senators, asking them to change laws about exhibitionism that discriminate against women, but I recognize that this will likely be a long road.

My experience has certainly made me doubt that France is a feminist-friendly country. Even if I’m found not guilty on appeal, even if the judge takes a stand against discrimination, I am still certain France has a long way to go before it can truly be considered a place open to feminist ideals.

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