RALEIGH — What began as a simple measure to redefine “private parts” in North Carolina law has made the state a butt of jokes nationwide, which a local lawmaker whose committee sponsored the legislation finds regrettable.
House Bill 34, which defines a woman’s bare nipples as indecent — and the public exposure of them a felony — stemmed from a request by officials in Asheville after a topless protest occurred during a women’s rights rally in a city park last summer.
But since emerging recently from House Judiciary Committee “C,” chaired by Rep. Sarah Stevens of Mount Airy, the bill has provided fodder for jokes around the country and, in Stevens’ view, “been blown out of proportion.”
“And it’s completely irrational,” the local lawmaker added Wednesday of how the bill has been mischaracterized.
“People have been very ugly about it — I mean nationally,” said Stevens, a veteran attorney.
Defining Private Parts
The measure has been referred to in some quarters as a “nipple ban” and as an attack, if not on women themselves, on certain fashions considered revealing.
“It’s not an attack on anyone — it’s simply defining what private parts are,” Stevens said of the bill introduced by Rep. Rayne Brown, a female legislator from Davidson County who’s a Republican, as is Stevens.
In response to the request from Asheville, House Judiciary Committee “C,” which includes Brown, saw a need to clarify the meaning of private parts in state law.
“We have a law on indecent exposure, it’s been a law for a long time — it’s a felony,” Stevens said. “All we did in this bill is add the definition,” she said of including both the nipple and areola — typically used to describe the pigmented area surrounding the nipple — to private parts that are unlawful to expose.
“The Supreme Court defined it that way,” Stevens said.
But the resulting furor has been less easy to comprehend in her view, especially how the bill has been ridiculed for making it a serious crime for a woman to bare her breasts. “We’ve actually heard more from people from California, who don’t understand that we’re not making it a felony to do this,” the local representative said.
“We didn’t create any new offense.” The bill does include an exemption for women who are breastfeeding.
Stevens said charges also have come from women’s rights advocates that the proposal is discriminatory — since it is OK for a man to show his breasts in public while a female can’t.
“If people can’t understand the difference between a man’s and woman’s breasts, we’ve got a greater problem than just this bill,” Stevens said. “Let’s be sensible.”
She also pointed out that the measure does not not state that baring the breasts themselves is illegal, just the nipples and areolas. It would be perfectly acceptable to use nipple coverings such as pasties and nothing else on the chest area.
In some published reports, one lawmaker has joked that duct tape also could be used, since it “fixes everything.”
However, Rep. Brown said public nudity is a serious concern for communities such as Asheville and that the committee is seeking to define the law to guide it and other localities and law enforcement agencies statewide.
Stevens said Wednesday that the bill is still at the committee stage and awaiting a vote on the House floor. It also would have to be passed by the N.C. Senate in order to become law.
Offenders could be sentenced to six months in prison.
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or email@example.com.