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Duluth cops are called as a woman asserts her right to sunbathe topless

Michelle Bennett of Duluth got 20 minutes into her usual sunbathing routine when a woman told her she was "making her children uncomfortable."

Michelle Bennett of Duluth got 20 minutes into her usual sunbathing routine when a woman told her she was "making her children uncomfortable." Fox 21

About two weeks ago, Michelle Bennett, a photographer in Duluth, went down to Park Point beach with some friends. It was the first really warm day of the summer, and the beach was unusually crowded.

They chose a less frequented access point and settled in. Bennett – just as she has done at the beach for about two years now – took her top off.

About 20 minutes into sunbathing, a woman approached and asked her to cover up. She said Bennett was “making her children uncomfortable.”

Bennett politely told her “no,” and pointed out there was a large umbrella between their group and the woman and her children. It would be fairly easy, she said, to avoid looking at her if they didn’t want to.

What if Bennett decided to get in the water? the woman countered. 

“I don’t know what to tell you,” Bennett shrugged.

Shortly after their exchange, the woman took out her phone. About a half-hour later, a Duluth police officer showed up, told Bennett this wasn’t a “nude beach,” and told her to cover up.

“Well, nobody here is nude,” she said. She only had her breasts showing.

What followed was about an hour-long back-and-forth between the officer and Bennett in which he had to call in for legal expertise and find out what the statutes actually said about breasts. As it turns out, they say very little.

It’s considered indecent exposure in Minnesota to show your “private parts,” but nowhere does it say a woman’s breasts count as “private.” There are also laws about nudity that do count breasts, but it’s only considered wrong if you’re “lewdly” showing them to an audience.

Bennett says she wasn’t being lewd. She was trying to enjoy her day at the beach without “two wet triangles” of swimsuit material covering her chest, making “big, stupid boob marks” in her suntan and otherwise doing nothing to contribute to her experience.

While this lengthy discussion was going on, the woman and her family were smiling and playing and enjoying their sunny day, she says, largely unperturbed by Bennett’s breasts.

The officer didn’t hit her with a citation, but he told her she had to put a shirt on – which she did.

Still, the whole thing left “a bad taste” in her mouth. A lot of women she knows go topless at the beach. Just because they do doesn’t mean they’re doing it for attention, or because they want to have their “tits out” at “restaurants and banks.”

“I just want to be topless anywhere a man can,” she says.

She shared her story on social media and with local news stations, and she’s been overwhelmingly bolstered with support. A lot of people are asking the same questions she is – like, what’s the difference between a male breast and a female breast, and what about gender fluidity? What about people who neither identify as men nor women, or women who have had double mastectomies, or trans men who have breasts? Whose chests are okay to view in public, whose aren’t, and why?

If you examine Fox 21's Facebook post about the story, you’ll find a few people not particularly sympathetic, arguing that Bennett was being “indecent,” that she was “looking for her 15 minutes of fame,” or that she was one of purportedly many “needy women always rocking the boat.”

Either way, Bennett wants answers more concrete than online sniping. She called city officials and got limited responses back – mostly to verify she hadn’t been issued a citation. What she really wants is for statutes to be clarified so police know whether this is actually okay and aren’t asked to litigate on the spot.

She hasn’t been back to the beach since the incident, if you don’t count the interviews she’s done. She says she will, eventually – and she will be topless when she does.

“You can’t sexualize someone’s body without their consent.”