Opinion - Right to bare breasts

Not all exposure is indecent. Just ask the topless model arrested in Downtown.

Editor’s note: This column has been altered to correct errors. The piece originally referenced a state law. But Gabrielle Mirville was charged with violating a city ordinance. According to that ordinance, the simple “exposure” of a female’s breasts is prohibited. The conduct does not have to be sexual in nature, as the state law says. In this instance, the police officer was enforcing the city law.

Being in Woodruff Park at 6 a.m. on a Sunday is one of the more serene experiences you can have in Downtown. In the absence of morning commuters and students, the pre-dawn park is filled with only the steady white noise of the massive fountain.

It was this subdued scene that photographer Robert Oliver and his wife and assistant Kanishia chose as the setting for a shoot with Gabrielle Mirville on the morning of August 4. The shoot consisted mostly of the 24-year-old model standing alone against the early morning cityscape. The resulting photos are elegant, reverent portraits of both the model and the city.

A few of the shots required Mirville to be momentarily topless. This is where things got tricky. And Mirville got arrested.

Considering previous shoots that included nudity, Mirville says the team thought they had a good grasp of the law. On previous shoots in public places, Mirville claims, nearby APD officers had told them essentially “do what you gotta do and don’t be porny.” They quickly got the shots they needed, the project was tasteful and professional, and Mirville remained clothed except for the actual moment the photos were being taken.

On this morning, however, a bike cop felt differently. He arrested Mirville for public indecency. She subsequently spent nine hours in jail before being bailed out. At her Atlanta Municipal Court appearance the next morning, unaware of what constituted public indecency, she pled no contest.

“This was my first appearance so I hadn’t been assigned a public defender or anything,” Mirville told me. “I wasn’t sure what I should do. I was on my own. If I knew then what I know now about the law, there’s no way I would’ve accepted any of that.”

By Mirville’s account, Judge Terrinee Gundy allegedly wasn’t interested in hearing her defense: “When I tried to explain to the judge, she said, ‘No, and next time maybe you’ll learn to carry yourself like a lady.’”

Mirville had a choice: spend 10 days in jail or pay nearly $500 right then. Without anyone to counsel her on possible options, she paid and left.

That’s when the significance of her experience started to sink in: She had just been arrested, detained, fined, and saddled with a criminal record for very briefly standing still with her top off, in an unpopulated park, in a state where women are legally permitted to do just that.

Things got worse. Mirville says several lawyers who sent letters to her parents offering representation erroneously said she had been charged with solicitation, not public indecency. So now this Georgia State University graduate’s parents think she’s a whore. Mirville says her father won’t speak to her and her mother is confused.

These personal ramifications are very relevant to the bigger issue: The criminalization of the female body fucks with a woman’s ability to hold herself with any sense of balanced identity and worth.

Consider what exactly constitutes “public indecency.” In Atlanta, it’s defined as: sex or simulated sex in public; the touching, caressing, or fondling of one’s genitals or breasts; and the “exposure of one’s genitals, or of one’s breasts, if female.” In this instance, the officer was enforcing the city’s law.
In Georgia, a person commits the offense of public indecency when he or she performs any of the following acts in a public place: “an act of sexual intercourse; a lewd exposure of the sexual organs; a lewd appearance in a state of partial or complete nudity; or a lewd caress or indecent fondling of the body of another person.”

For a woman to have been rightfully arrested and correctly charged under the state law, her actions would’ve needed to be deemed “lewd.” There would need to be something sexual about her actions. The judgment as to whether or not her nudity was sexual in nature would be made by the arresting officer.

In Mirville’s case, it was more specific. The city ordinance explicitly includes breasts. Given how this conflicts with the state’s gender-neutral indecency laws, it’s easy to see how there could be confusion about what is and is not allowed.

Now we get to the core of what makes discriminatory topless laws, especially in an artistic setting, so upsetting: A third party - in a position of power, no less - made the choice about whether or not a woman was participating in a sex act. In other words, it’s someone else deciding that the woman is engaging in sexual conduct, despite her protests, and acted according to their feelings about her body.

This mentality speaks to a culture of objectifying women that is so deeply embedded in our collective social psyche that it’s challenging for even the most equal-minded individuals to view a woman’s exposed body as benign. It’s a culture that, in fact, beats into women and men the notion that female bodies are exclusively sexual, even when acting in ways that would be innocuous and permissible for men.

That’s the real goal of the topless equality movement; it’s not necessarily about the right to bare breasts, rather a larger mental shift toward normalizing women’s bodies for the betterment of their entire social standing.