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When women bare breasts, the context is everything Add to ...

They bared their breasts to loud cheers while sitting on men's shoulders or dancing like divas.

It was two years ago and the Calgary Flames were battling for the Stanley Cup. Thousands of euphoric fans clad in red flocked to a city street known as the Red Mile where, every now and then, a woman lifted her top.

While most commentators disparaged the breast baring as the antics of drunken, foolish women, new research concludes it was motivated by a complex set of factors, including a desire to celebrate the Flames victories, a desire to break the rules, feelings of stardom and a sense of history.

"The context was so important," said Mary Valentich, professor emeritus of social work at the University of Calgary. "You just wouldn't necessarily do this elsewhere. It had to be the right kind of setting."

Prof. Valentich's findings come amid the popularity of the Girls Gone Wild porn video empire, which travelled to Calgary after the Red Mile revelations to film "ordinary" women lifting their shirts.

Indeed, breast baring has increased of late, including at sports events and concerts, partly due to relaxed societal attitudes on nudity, said Edward Herold, a professor emeritus at the University of Guelph who studies human sexuality.

"It happens with a certain degree of regularity now at certain events," he said. "Some women today are more likely to have this sense of freedom."

A new study of Canadians' attitudes on female toplessness also found context plays a key role. The paper, which was co-written by Prof. Herold and is published in the current issue of the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, found the majority of poll respondents -- 52 per cent -- believed it should be legal for women to go topless at the beach. Thirty-eight per cent thought such behaviour should be acceptable in public parks and 28 per cent said the same for city streets.

Prof. Valentich conducted her qualitative study, which she is presenting next month at a sexual-health conference in Calgary and also plans to publish, after recruiting and interviewing a half-dozen women who participated in varying degrees in the Red Mile phenomenon. (Several others would not agree to interviews.) Of the six women, four lifted their shirts, one simulated doing so and one wore a provocative top. While no one knows how many revellers bared their breasts, some observers estimated it was a few dozen.

The Red Mile flashes of nudity occurred in the midst of a friendly crowd -- some women even said protective -- that was swept up in Flames mania. Indeed, support for the team played a role in some women's decision to expose their breasts, sometimes to chants of "Tops off for Kiprusoff," a reference to goalie Miikka Kiprusoff.

"It was like, 'We're the Flames girls,' " said Prof. Valentich, who is also a certified sex therapist and educator.

"Women did talk about how they wanted to do something for the Flames and this was something they could do."

And, for many, part of the fun was flouting societal norms.

"The word daredevilish kept coming up. This was something they could do that was just somewhat off the edge," Prof. Valentich said.

Other women said they felt like models or celebrities as cameras flashed at the sight of their exposed breasts.

Indeed, photos of those who took part soon appeared on the Internet.

Some participants felt they were part of history. "One of them said maybe it's insignificant, but when the kids look in the school books, I'll be there," Prof. Valentich said with a laugh.

Just one participant said she was making a political statement.

Perhaps surprisingly, the women did not perceive their behaviour as sexual, although they knew men saw it as such. "One of them said men are all about boobs and hockey so this was wonderful for them."

The study demonstrates that breast baring is not created equal, said Prof. Valentich, who funded the research. Girls Gone Wild videos are exploitative because women receive a free T-shirt while the company makes millions, she argued. And women flash during Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans to get beads from men, which she said is more sexual than what occurred in Calgary.

"Just because women lift their tops doesn't mean it's the same kind of behaviour," she said.

Prof. Valentich, who acknowledges she cannot be definitive because of her small sample size, said all the study participants reported making their own decisions to expose their breasts. Only one said she had had too much to drink. All the women felt good about their bodies, she said, and some had previously bared their breasts, including while bungee jumping and on a beach in Europe. Just one or two considered themselves feminists, though others expressed related views.

Most of the women in the study did not have university degrees and were between 18 and 30, though one was in her mid-70s. The oldest woman simulated lifting her shirt, but did not because she was worried about her grandchildren's reaction.

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