Madison’s unequal displays of public nudity

There’s a telling contrast between Madison’s annual naked bike ride and nipple equality events.

There’s a telling contrast between Madison’s annual naked bike ride and nipple equality events. (Illustration by Rachal Duggan.)

When you bike nude around Madison, people are overjoyed to see you. They stop to smile, wave, laugh, cheer and take photos and videos. The mid-June World Naked Bike Ride, a 400-strong parade of merry pranksters, smeared with sunscreen and body paint, rang bike bells and shouted body-positive encouragement like “You’re beautiful!” to stunned and delighted bystanders. Do note that this cycle gang was 75 percent male and 98 percent white.

Madison’s political forays into public nudity are growing. The pro-body positivity, anti-oil-dependence fun cruise of Madison’s ninth edition of the World Naked Bike Ride this year presented a noticeable contrast to the experiences women in Madison have had participating in annual nipple-equality events like the upcoming Nipple Empowerment 2018-Rally For RCC. The former is not technically legal, while the latter is 100% on the books in Madison. In the gap between the two events is a lot of what we need to change about how society treats people who aren’t white men.


The international Free the Nipple movement has perked up in recent years, including here in Madison. Aimed at shining a spotlight on gender inequality, as well as advocating for change, Free the Nipple uses a blatant attention grabber—topless ladies—to center an issue that makes no damn logical sense: 50 percent of the world’s population is treated as less-than—less pay, less respect and more unpaid work. And that’s just a start of the historical, yet ongoing, indignities.

Billed as a rally, Sunday’s Nipple Equality fundraiser for the Rape Crisis Center features comedy, burlesque, aerial performance and music. Typically vulnerable topless breast-bearers take heart: Nipple Equality is committed to policies of no-harassment and ask-first—before each time touching someone. Volunteers will be at the ready to ensure that respect. In fact, the private event will not allow men unaccompanied by a female. Nipple Equality is produced by Lili Luxe, the founder of Madison’s formal Go Topless Day. Luxe spearheaded an initiative to train local bar and restaurant staff on promoting consent. Because women, particularly women of color and trans* women, still aren’t considered full people under federal law.

In the United States, the Equal Rights Amendment has been limping toward ratification since the late 1960s. Wisconsin, progressive bastion that it was until 2011, granted constitutional equal rights to women in 1921. And while the personal agency of women—particularly white, cisgendered women—has become generally more accepted over the last century, we still can’t walk around wearing what we want—or don’t want—without being leered at or worse. One in six American women has been the victim of attempted or completed rape, and all women have experienced some form of unwanted attention from men.

I planned on marching with the Madison Go Topless Day crew in 2017. The prospect of showing off an almost-finished tattoo that runs from my hip to my underarm added to the draw. But when disgusting and childish comments started popping up on the Facebook event page, I backed out. As much as I believe in the cause, I didn’t have the energy to put up with harassment and bad vibes that day. Later, male photographers posted links to Flickr albums of women strutting down State Street on the walk. This felt exploitative. I guess it’s tricky to promote a new norm that’s also the basis of objectification.

This is the difference between male and female nakedness in America. Toxic males and masculine culture treat women not as humans, but as invitations for their attention and judgement, as if women lived their lives for men. The Naked Bike Ride had some-built in safety, in part due to being male-dominated. There was a designated viewing area at Brittingham Park, though folks on the Memorial Union Terrace, State Street and the Capitol Square during the Dane County Farmers Market got an eyeful too. No one was overtly ogling old men’s junk or catcalling crudely. We also had added protection from being on vehicles and in an open space in case a getaway was needed.

Within the bike gang, lack of clothes felt like the great equalizer. In an unsexy environment, nudity cuts out a lot of distractions. Admittedly, I’ve felt much safer in a female body in recent years. I gained a goodly amount of weight after years of undereating and over-exercising to maintain a girlish physique. Now, embodying an adult woman, I feel less objectified and projected upon. My body is my own, not up for someone else’s approval and amusement. It’s rad. Dudes, I envy your freedom.  

Women know that toxic masculinity can break out at the drop of a fedora or the posting of a tweet. Having more estrogen or a non-male gender equates us with objects to many—even some women. Though the Nipple Empowerment rally is a safe, secure space, my brain has already montaged several reaction scenarios to creepery, should it arise. These are the calculations I have to make before exercising my right to let the girls breathe.

Going topless is about personhood, which women can’t have if men continue to observe aggressive masculine norms. Women in Madison are doing groundbreaking work to build strong norms around gender equality. At Nipple Empowerment, I’m hoping to revel in some of the liberty I felt on the Naked Bike Ride. As a human, I deserve that—and it’s my right.

An ode to the best and worst of Madison summers.

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