The Owl and the Topless Climber

Long time and valued contributor Jude Calvert-Toulmin has written a provocative piece in the last issue of High magazine which has unleashed a carcophony of debate on the ukc forums about the appropriateness of female climbers stripping off to climb naked and the inequality between male and female behaviour etc etc etc. You can download the article here.

Perhaps the most learned contribution to this debate has come from Marc C, co-author of the UKC-inspired climbing poetry anthology THE OWL AND THE CRAG RAT. The following piece was posted by Mark on the long thread linked to at the base of the page.

Topless male climbers at Cratcliffe
Within our culture, women's breasts are sexualised. Within our culture, many men enjoy looking at, and are aroused by seeing women's breasts. Some men climb stripped to the waist. Some women enjoy looking at men stripped to the waist. However, within our culture, a 'topless' man is not regarded as being as sexual as a 'topless' woman. (We can have a long debate about why the geography of male and female bodies is differentially evaluated).

IMO Both men and women should have the right - within certain contexts - to climb 'topless'. Depending upon the context, such 'displays' may be seen as more or less provocative, shocking, daring or sexual. Within the context of a group of friends enjoying a pleasant day's bouldering in the sunshine, then a 'topless' female would hardly register on the Titillationometer or Shockwavemeter (when Judde and I stripped off at Brimham, I treated it like a bit of harmless play - though I was also aware of the different codings of our bodies - JCT can go topless - shock! - Marc C can go topless - no big deal - Marc C can go bottomless 'naughty naughty' but fun - JCT keeps her undies on - showing her genitalia is 'no go'.) By contrast, being naked and semi-naked when 'strangers' are in the vicinity raises issues about respecting the rights and aesthetic sensibilities and sexual/moral codes of others.

However, the deliberate creation and circulation of images of nudity or semi-nudity to a wider public will unavoidably attract sexual and/or pornographic 'readings' - human beings (particularly men) often like to objectify bodies before 'consuming' them. One can have no control over such readings.

[Missing photo!]

The tricky questions are whether bodies SHOULD and even CAN be desexualised or sexualised dependent upon contexts? Bodies ARE sexualised - and the female body is particularly (and no doubt gratuitously) sexualised. As part of this process, the female breast is imbued with multiple meanings (one of which is sexual) . (Again, there is a long debate to be had about the social construction of the breast - drawing upon anthropology, evolutionary biology, history, politics etc). To change this 'valuation' and symbolic coding would require a wholesale process of resocialisation (which would probably run aground on the rocks of human nature). Jude sees in the sexual metaphors (that some men use to describe climbing activities) a repressed homo-eroticism and/or evidence of sexual inadequacy. IMO, it's just one of the ways heterosexual men express and fantasise about sex (we sing love songs, write love poems, buy flowers - and we also visit pornsites and tell dirty jokes). Even fully-clothed female climbers are seen by many men - at some level - as sexual beings. Very difficult to imagine topless female climbers being viewed dispassionately and asexually (a RT topless picnic where we all climb naked apart from our rockshoes, and everyone is as blase as a group of naturists - 'pass the cucumber sandwiches please'... 'Be careful, there's some hair on that one' '?!) I'm sure many women (not just those buying pretty bras from view their breasts in sexual terms - is it possible to regard them as 'sexual' in the bedroom, but not at the crag?

[Missing photo!]

Another question is whether women breaking the 'topless taboo' (within the same range of permissible contexts as men) are empowering themselves or engaging in a pointless, needless and potentially risky Equality War - that, if won, would diminish the power of the sacred feminine - by undermining their mystique? Should the sexes seek to act - or have the right to act - in exactly the same way? As our cultural attitudes stand at present, women climbers 'going topless' outside a private setting are likely to be caught on the horns of the Madonna-Whore dichotomy (Breasts are for babies vs breasts are sexual playthings; Nice girls cover up, naughty girls flash) and receive abuse, harassment, unwanted attention and kneejerk moral judgements. Maybe as more women go 'topless', then it will become more normalised - and, in time, our social attitudes may change - become more 'grown-up'. Or maybe such an eventuality, would devalue the differences that make our social and sexual worlds so fascinating? I have no answers or predictions - though, my general feeling is that Jude's article - fun and provocative as it is - is already 20 years out of date. No woman can speak for 'Women' anymore (or man for 'Men' for that matter). Society is much more diverse - and it's impossible to make any universal statements about 'how things are'.

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