11/28/2012 11:25 am ET Updated Jan 28, 2013

Some Nudity is Apparently More Lewd Than Others

Taking off your clothes for a cause is nothing new, but it generally can be counted on to garner attention -- as it did yesterday when seven among a group of AIDS activists removed their clothing in the office of House Speaker John Boehner. A friend of mine who was there described the lack of modesty as the four men and three women quickly disrobed to reveal bodies painted with slogans and symbols protesting possible cuts in HIV/AIDS funding. Their chants were clever and memorable, including: Boehner, Boehner, don't be a dick, budget cuts will make us sick.

Sequestration is a grim prospect for all of us who care about social issues, and cutting funding to prevent HIV/AIDS transmission and support those living with the disease would be devastating, though I would not be willing to disrobe for it. I'm old enough to remember the tactics of ACT UP during the Reagan years and am in awe of those willing to engage in civil disobedience.

But I am horrified at the outcome of this little protest. All three of the women who removed their clothing were arrested. According to ACT UP New York, they are Cassidy Gardner, 23, and Megan Mulholland, 23, who are community organizers for Queerocracy, and Jennifer Flynn, 40, of Health GAP. How many of the men were handcuffed? Not one.

The U.S. Capitol Police said in a statement that the women were charged with lewd and indecent acts -- a misdemeanor. Video from WTTG-TV shows a police officer telling the protesters that they would be arrested if they didn't put their clothes on and leave Boehner's office in the Longworth House Office Building immediately. They all did. It wasn't until they were in the hallway that officers stepped in to arrest the women. The men were allowed to leave. Amirah Sequeira, 22, national coordinator of the Student Global AIDS Campaign, was at the protest and says, "Lots of people were confused and appalled by how that happened. Perhaps it was because the women were easy to spot in the crowd."

How to explain this? Perhaps the Capitol Police find breasts and vaginas to be more lewd and indecent than penises? Maybe public nudity is more acceptable among men than among women? The Capitol Police are declining to explain this rather blatant form of sexism. It is also possible that more arrests are imminent. People are paying attention because there were bouncing body parts in Boehner's office yesterday. Hopefully some attention is also being paid to the cause itself and the lives saved globally by efforts to eradicate HIV/AIDS. And as we step ever nearer to the edge of the fiscal cliff, such protests may become less noteworthy for their frequency.

But I can't help thinking that there is something terribly wrong on Capitol Hill when men and women are treated in such disparate ways for the same offense. Perhaps the U.S. Capitol Police should look over at the Senate Office buildings which, come January, will be occupied by a historic number of women -- 20 in all. Yesterday in the Longworth Building seven people had the balls to expose their bodies in order to publicize what they call "the naked truth" about looming budget cuts. They should have been treated equally.