‘What I learned from going topless at Knockanstockan’
Thrown out of a festival for taking her top off, jazz musician Carina Fitzpatrick who features on this week's Women's Podcast, reflects on solidarity from topless men and a foreigner who said ‘in my country, this is not news’
’I removed my top as a peaceful protest. I took it off to send a message that regardless of whether or not someone finds me sexual or attractive, I am first and foremost a human being. My right to freedom takes precedence over a culturally ingrained breast fetish.’
Knockanstockan, a music and arts festival that is one of the most vibrantly representative of Irish talent and alternative culture, recently celebrated its 10th birthday.
This occasion also marked the first time any arrests have been made at the festival. Following my topless protest on Saturday the 23rd of July, many of the Knockanstockan community voiced their outrage that I had been removed from the festival for asserting my right to “Free the Nipple”. (For those who might not be aware, Free The Nipple is a movement which aims to advance gender equality and oppose sexual objectification).
After I was ejected from the site, several men and women at the festival took off their tops and some of them wrote “Free Carina” on their bodies. Security put a stop to the female toplessness, but left the men alone.Two women who had taken their tops off were arrested, placed in handcuffs and are awaiting a court date.
In my own case, a woman at the festival had complained about me taking my top off and that complaint was taken seriously by gardaí. But in the absence of any legislation stating that women cannot go topless, it is inappropriate for gardaí to impose subjective views regarding personal modesty on to women who wish to be treated equally to men, in accordance with our constitutional rights.
A conversation has since been opened up about how we view women in society, and how we hold them responsible for upholding archaic standards of morality, while simultaneously bombarding them with content that sexualises girls and women, and fetishises their breasts and bodies.
I removed my top as a peaceful protest. I took it off to send a message that regardless of whether or not someone finds me sexual or attractive, I am first and foremost a human being. My right to freedom takes precedence over a culturally ingrained breast fetish.
Emotions were running high at the festival, and I became a point of convergence. We all started to pull at different threads, and discovered the issues attached to the Free the Nipple movement are numerous and complex.
Here are some of the interesting people I spoke to following Free The Nipple at Knockanstockan and what I learned from them.
The Male Perspective
Many men approached me to offer solidarity. The most interesting male insights came not from those who already see things as I do, but from those that found themselves awakened by the sudden realisation that the protest had little to do with the desire to be topless, and everything to do with the numerous and far reaching double standards imposed upon women.
These men were expressing feminist ideals and ideologies, but they didn’t want to identify with the term feminist, because they feel alienated by it, mistaking it for misandry.
“Feminist” really is a four letter word, but I wondered, why quibble about the name, when we are finally seeing eye to eye? Men shared personal stories with me, and realised that though they love and respect women, they are part of a society that is inherently sexist.
One man said to me: “I’ve been walking around all day with a totally different perspective. A much better one. For the first time in my life I feel free from the macho teenage chauvinistic, stereotyping, misogynistic bullshit I was brought up in and bought in to.
“I also feel really sad about all the lost opportunities to create positive relationships with women because I bought in to the bullshit – it’s made me really sad. But mainly, it’s liberating – so thanks. You’re doing trojan work and it’s inspirational. Irish society needs you.”
The Emboldened Woman
One of the main issues that will hold the Free The Nipple movement back is shame. Even when we can collectively acknowledge the existence of the double standard; that a man who is topless is just a man, while a woman who is topless is indecent.
Even when we feel it’s unfair, unequal and wrong, women are so afraid of judgment and appraisal that they feel they will be told they don’t have the right to be proud of their bodies because they do not fulfil some paradigmatic standard of feminine beauty.
It frustrated me to hear women tell me: “I was so angry when I saw the guards take you away, I wanted to take my top off to protest, but my boobs aren’t good enough, I’d feel so embarrassed”.
These women have missed the point entirely. Other women, indignant at the hypocrisy, came to me and told me that though they were afraid, though they were insecure, they felt a fire rise up in their belly that said “You have the right not to be judged.”
They joined the movement, some of them persecuted by security, others arrested, while topless men shouted “What about us? Arrest us”.
For many people, the censorship of women at Knockanstockan by the authorities was a degradation of the innocence and the freedom of expression that are integral to the festival’s culture. But the ugliness gave way to an opportunity for us to assert, even louder, our beliefs and our values of peace, love, respect and equality.
And whether or not you feel comfortable with topless women asserting their personhood, I have to ask: do you feel it warranted arrest?
The Concerned Parent
'The position taken by the person who complained about me to the Gardai at the festival seems to have been that uncovered women are socially corrosive in some way. The view seems to be that the sight of female nipples would be detrimental or “confusing” to the children who were brought to Knockanstockan.'
Children in Europe, America, Canada and Africa are brought up in societies that are not scandalised by bare-chested women on beaches, at festivals, and in public parks on sunny days.
Is it easier to explain to a child: “The lady is topless because she wants to be, the lady is topless because it’s a hot day”. Or is it easier to explain to a little girl: “Though you are a child you are a female and are not allowed to go topless with your brothers, because people with sick minds won’t allow you your innocence”
Some parents commended me, saying that they were glad somebody took a stand so that their children will have healthier attitudes towards their own bodies and towards women. Breastfeeding advocates also contacted me to encourage me to continue the fight, so that women feeding their babies in public will not be intimidated.
Other parents chose not to have a discussion, taking offence at an innocent act. At a festival where propriety is pushed to its bounds in every direction, it was not the half nude, gyrating men they objected to, not the open drug use, not the “sexual impropriety”. No, it was women’s nipples.
Children are welcome at Knockanstockan, but it’s not Clara Laragh. I say; when in Rome, don’t arrest the Romans for doing as the Romans do.
The LGBTQ Community
I have had some lovely conversations with LGBTQ people who shared stories with me about how gender identity or sexual orientation has had an impact on their lives.
One woman told me that a group of young men had assembled by a pathway in the campsite and were shouting homophobic, sexist bile at passers by. A man in drag told me about being harassed relentlessly by unattended children spouting hate.
Were a report made to gardaí, saying that some men had offended LGBTQ people with hateful remarks, would it have been acted on or fobbed off? The gardaí are not employed to protect you from feeling offended.
In society boys will be boys and the rest of us have to toughen up. Women, and LGBTQ people are often put in a position where they have to assess their safety. If an LGBTQ person chooses to stand their ground in the face of bigoted attacks, they risk escalating the situation to a dangerous level. This behaviour is horrible, but whenever we allow it to go unchallenged, we condone it.
For many of us, to deny our identity, to lie, or to act straight; that is too high a cost. In my situation, I knew that I could not look at myself in the mirror and know that I allowed other people to tell me that I am afforded less rights than a man because of a massive historical legacy of objectification and dominance.
The person who has to be okay with you is you. Being true to yourself even when there is pressure on you to conform, is not the same as “ramming” yourself “down people’s throats”. Be the change you want to see in the world, take a stand, and say “I am what I am”.
The Rape Victim
Last week, five separate women told me that they had been raped. Three of them had never told anyone before in their lives. None of them brought it to the authorities.
It appeared that by going topless I had opened up a conversation about gender equality and body confidence, and there are heavy, dark topics attached to that. There is a silence around rape. It’s covered in the media because we will click on shocking and salacious material, but we don’t openly talk about our experiences with rape and sexual assault. I sat on the grass at Knockanstockan having emotionally wrought conversations with strangers about why they were afraid to come forward.
The first reason is mistrust. We do not trust women to tell the truth about sex because we expect them to be ashamed of letting a man between our legs. A woman who comes forward will be subject to painful scrutiny and speculation of her “promiscuity”.
The second is stigma; we have a severe Catholic hangover that tells us that sex is dirty and the act of rape defiles a person. There is some sort of imaginary permanent status of the “Rape Victim”, a sorry, damaged shadow of your former self.
We need to remove this stigma by ending the silence. I don’t just mean going to the authorities, I mean dragging the ugly fact out into the light. If you tell a room full of people that your bike has been stolen, they’ll say “Aw, that’s terrible, I’ve been there, hard luck” and you’re not forever known as the “bike theft victim”, you’re not a different and somehow diminished person, for the lack of your shiny red Raleigh.
If the conversation turns to mugging and someone says; “I was mugged once”, people might be shocked and intrigued, they might ask how it happened, but you’re not seen as broken. But if you tell those same people “I was raped”, the temperature in the room drops, and it leaves a heavy silence in it’s wake.
There is nothing like the silence of a room full of people who desperately want to change the subject. We can change this, if we are brave.
Do not allow anyone to define you as a “Rape Victim”, you have not been debased, you have not been altered. A crime was committed on your person. The burden of secrecy is heavy, but it gets lighter every time you voice it. A crime was committed, a rape occurred, a mugging occurred, a bike was stolen. This is not something you need to feel ashamed of.
The third reason, and the most relevant in terms of my Knockanstockan experience, is victim blaming. There are those who believe that a topless woman is “asking for it”. There are those who postulate that a woman’s skirt was temptingly short, or that she should not have walked down a certain street, or that she shouldn’t have let her guard down.
Is rape some sort of punishment we mete out to women who do not do what we want them to do? Or is it a case of mistaking natural human attraction for a distorted sense of proprietorship over women’s bodies?
If we truly respected the rights and safety of women, we would not be in a situation where rapists can go unconvicted while the law says women who have abortions could face 14 years in prison.
A law that impedes my civil liberties by dictating what I have to wear, is mired in the same logic that thinks it also has the right to withhold the autonomy of Irish women. We have the right to bodily integrity and the right to equal treatment under the law. It is clear to me that arrests made at Knockanstockan were in violation of these rights.
The best reaction I heard this week was from a Bulgarian lady who was simply baffled by the media storm and the public outrage. She simply wrinkled her nose and said “In my country, this is not news”.
As far as I am concerned, this is not news. I cannot wait for the day when we have all outgrown our childish preoccupation with breasts, and we are ready to dedicate our time, not to national speculation on whether or not my breasts are offensive, but on addressing the many social injustices that have been highlighted by this simple yet profoundly loaded act.
Prior to my disrobing last week there was no Free the Nipple movement happening in Ireland, but it’s here now. I have been mobilised, and I intend to do everything I can to bring about positive change.
I will be organising a Free the Nipple event in the near future. Men and women of every ilk are welcome to come and support. I would like to reach out to breastfeeding groups, breast cancer groups, feminist groups and LGBTQ groups to name just a few.
If you would like to help, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.