How many did you count at the weekend? I counted three, each more visually disturbing than the last. First there was the scrawny, milk-bottle white twentysomething with his menagerie of tattoos, next the middle-aged one with the dog and the can of lager and finally, in a pièce de résistance of yobbish urbanity, there was the waddling warthog, who confidently carried his undulating folds down the street as if he was David Gandy on a cat walk. Each one had something to give to the world on that fine spring day, namely a view of their bare torsos uninhibited by any vests or T-shirts.
Each spring in Scotland, modesty throws caution and clothes to the wind – at least among a certain breed of men who clearly believe it is selfish to deprive us, the public, of an x-rated view of their whispy-haired chests or pasty white folds.
A beacon of civility has now begun shining the way towards a more civilised summer and from Southend-on-Sea of all places, a town not previously celebrated for its modesty. Last week, the Adventureland amusement park instigated a new “wear your shirt” rule that will ensure the male belly and those hairy shoulders will be suitably camouflaged. A spokesman for the park explained: “We don’t have a strict dress code as such, but would like our male customers to show some decorum.” Security guards will now challenge those swaggering “Davids” who insist of displaying their chiselled abs and request that they cover up.
An indication of how far male toplessness has spilled over from beaches and into the streets has been illustrated by the media response to this mild request and the subsequent debates about infringements of civil liberties.
The argument in favour of men parading topless like tattooed peacocks through our parks and along our city streets could be one of hygiene, why ruin a perfectly good T-shirt with sweat when it can be tucked into the waistband, so that it is instantly at hand should the weather turn and the temperature drop below 58 degrees, which seems to be the current minimum temperature for male denudement? No sweaty shirt means no excess washing, which means a greener planet.
I admit I may have overlooked the environmental benefits of having our streets populated by topless men. Gaia may wish to turn a blind eye, but I certainly don’t, though I would listen to an argument that they are exhibiting their rights of free expression. If they wish to strip off their shirt, there is certainly no law to stop them.
In Britain, there is no specific law prohibiting public nudity or toplessness. In England and Wales, it is not an offence to be naked, or semi-naked in public. However, it does become one under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 if a member of the public complains and argues that such behaviour causes “alarm, distress or harassment”.
In Scotland, there is no statutory offence but there is the common law of offending public decency, which is triggered if a member of the public argues that they have been put in a state of fear or alarm.
Don’t you feel a mild tingling of alarm when a portly, hirsute man lumbers towards you with a belly like rippling, frothing waves coated with seaweed? I do.
For those of us opposed to casual summer toplessness, the belief that it is considered, by some, acceptable for men but unacceptable for women is an argumentative cul-de-sac. If public decency currently prevents half the population from strolling along the high street while topless, it seems foolhardy to argue against that view, but there is a point there. Why should it be considered acceptable behaviour by one sex and not by another?
In the United States in 2007, the organisation GoTopless was set up to encourage women to claim the same constitutional rights as men to go bare-chested in public, a right they promote with public marches on the Sunday closest to Women’s Equality Day on 26 August. I thought this was a bad idea even before learning that the movement was set up by a man, Rael, a spiritual leader who uses the GoTopless website to promote his new book Intelligent Design: Message from the Designers: “Read for yourself the message for humanity that was given to Rael during his UFO encounters in 1973.”
My view is that it should be considered unacceptable for both sexes outside the strict confines of a beach or a back garden and certainly not welcome in the car park at Tesco.
It is a curiously British phenomenon as I can’t think of an occasion in France, Spain or Italy when I’ve encountered a topless man sauntering along the aisles of a supermarket. It’s not about prudishness, but simple good manners. Please put them away.