On Go Topless Day, a look at topless activism and the law

Should women defend our right to bare our breasts in public?

It’s been a big month for breasts on display. Between World Breastfeeding Week, a 25-women nurse-in at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, a 20-women nurse-in at a Knoxville, Tennessee Chik-fil-A, Naked Breast-Feeding Yoga Mom’s Instagram account being banned, photographer Allen Houston’s New York City topless photo shoots atop the Empire State Building and in restaurants, and Tunisian feminist group Femen’s ongoing protests, breasts are a newsworthy topic. British Columbia, Canada newspaper columnist Lori Welbourne even engaged in some impressive stunt journalism and took her top off during an interview with Kelowna Mayor Walter Gray as she asked about the right to bare breasts in a videotaped interview. The Ottawa Citizen sums up the bottom line: “Gray told Welbourne that although many people would be tempted to call the police if they saw a topless woman, there would be little the police could do.” Today, August 25th, women in various cities will bare their breasts for Go Topless Day.

When I first started thinking about those ardently defending the right of women to go topless, it didn’t seem to measure up in importance compared with the right to breastfeed; the insistence that going topless is somehow linked to a larger cause of equality between the sexes eluded me. I was inclined to agree with Kate Ligon, who wrote at Hypervocal last year about activist Moira Johnston, who she encountered outside a Union Square Petco, “Her determination to inform all the ladies out there that they have every right to take off their shirts seems as pointless as that training bra I got in the 5th grade.”

Maybe that’s true in New York, where even topless roller blading across the Williamsburg Bridge is met with either high fives or indifference. But bare breasts are a bigger issue, forcing us to reckon with whether a breast, by its very nature, is sexual—or just by definiition. The answer has real-life consequences that do highlight the inequality that men can go topless in public with impunity, but women face can face arrest for doing so. According to an Atlanta city ordinance, simply exposing a female breast is prohibited (even though it’s not against state law), and doing so got model Gabrielle Mirville arrested on August 4th. She was given the option to spend 10 nights in jail or pay a $500 fine; she chose the latter. As Jessica Blankenship wrote about the case at Creative Loafing Atlanta, “It’s a culture that, in fact, beats into women and men the notion that female bodies are exclusively sexual, even when acting in ways that would be innocuous and permissible for men.”

Go Topless Day is deliberately time pegged to Women’s Equality Day, designated by Congress in 1971 to celebrate the passage of the 19th Amendment granting women’s suffrage (and presumably because International Women’s Day, March 8th, would yield colder weather). What can attendees at Go Topless rallies expect? According to an LA Weekly report on a 2011 event, there were more photographers than marchers, which included men wearing bras in to show their solidarity.

While the GoTopless website features a “boob map” citing over 30 cities hosting Go Topless Day celebrations, an email last Monday to the organizer listed on a Facebook event page for a New Hampshire event revealed that she wasn’t even sure if the event was still happening. Events were confirmed for New York City, as well as Vancouver, Chicago (where it’s illegal to go topless), Venice, California and San Francisco. What’s their goal? GoTopless president Nadine Gary explained, “Our slogan ‘free your breasts, free your mind’ goes for the men too since topless repression makes the men act unbalanced at the sight of the breasts much like the sight of a woman’s leg would have sparked a frenzy 100 years ago. Repression begets obsession and violence.” SF Weekly calls Go Topless Day a “media stunt,” and they’re undoubtedly right, but that doesn’t mean GoTopless.org owns the issue, or that it’s not important.

Dr. Paul Rappaport is the Co-ordinator of Canada-based Topfree Equal Rights Association, formed in 1997, which provides assistance to those “who encounter difficulty without tops in public places in Canada and the USA.” Rappaport calls his organization a feminist one, and considers topfreedom “a fundamental body issue, which also relates to large issues in body image, pregnancy, birthing, breastfeeding, growth and aging, and women’s health generally. We are sometimes accused of having a trivial subject, but if women’s rights don’t extend to their own bodies, the insidious power inequality against them in this society will never disappear.”

While it’s not surprising that men are at the forefront of organizations centered around toplessness (Rappaport heads TERA, the Topfree Equal Rights Association, while Raël, founder of the UFO-themed religion the Raëlism Movement, is the founder of GoTopless.org), it’s women who are putting their bodies on the line for the cause. Activist Phoenix Feeley recently went on a hunger strike while in jail for refusing to pay her fines for going topless at a Spring Lake, New Jersey beach, and was ultimately released after nine days “for time allotted.” Holly Van Voast, performing as “topless paparazzo” Harvey Van Toast, a character inspired by Amy Sedaris’s work, has been sent to a psych ward and arrested numerous times for baring her boobs in New York—even though technically she wasn’t doing anything illegal. Van Voast, whose documentary Topless Shock Syndrome debuts online today, sees herself more as an artist than activist (she does post about the issue’s legal repercussions on Facebook) but said she “worked like a detective” to figure out why she faced repeated arrests.

After Van Voast filed a federal lawsuit against New York City and the NYPD, in February 2013, a memo clarifying the law was read at ten consecutive roll calls, an event covered by The New York Times. Of this action, Jordannah Elizabeth wrote at Bitch that it’s “part of a long running movement lead by women who have fought for topless equality.” After giving context to this legal struggle, Elizabeth concluded, “I definitely applaud the city of New York for addressing the topless law to their local police force. This affords topless woman their rights and the protection of the police force, so that they can safely expose their bodies when it feels right to them. Yes!” Said Van Voast, “It is a trend that is just going to take off because frankly, it’s tits. And it’s not the end of the world or civilization, it’s the fucking start of civilization. Because throwing women in jail for exposed body parts which everyone knows we all love is just too bizarre, and primitive.”

The word of bare-breasted legality is spreading, according to New York’s The Outdoor Co-ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society. The group of friends has met dozens of times since 2011 to take advantage of their freedom to go topless while reading in Central Park, Washington Square Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park, the Highline, on the steps of the New York Public Library and many other locations. Cofounder Alethea Andrews (a pseudonym) said they’ve never had issues with the law, save for a lone 2011 incident: “A policewoman came up to us in Sheep Meadow and asked us to put our shirts on; we told her what we were doing was legal and when she questioned this, we encouraged her to call in to headquarters and ask them. She did, was told we were right, apologized, and went on her way.” This year, in fact, they’ve faced the opposite treatment. “We’ve had cops come up to us several times, in each case just to tell us (unsolicited) that what we’re doing is legal.”

I got the chance to hang out (pun intended) topless with the group this past Wednesday in Washington Square Park, where we read, ate nachos, frolicked in the fountain, bought gelato (“what are you taping?” the seller asked) and got serenaded by a visiting guitar player. We only encountered one truly creepy gawker; the overall vibe was fun and carefree. It wasn’t necessarily a political act, but it was an in-your-face reminder to those around us that going topless is our right and, perhaps, fun (especially on a hot day).

There can be a tone-deafness to any single issue cause, as evidenced by the fact that ToplessEquality.com wants to bring the cause to India,“the cradle of civilization.” Without a word about any of the other issues important to Indian women, they simply state, “We are currently sending several female volunteers into the…streets around Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, and Bangalore,” before asking for donations (in exchange for photos and monthly updates). ToplessEquality’s photos of a Hawaiian model, Kyllie, appear to be just that: modeling, and it’s unclear why, other than race, they write, “At first site [sic] Kyllie may not appear like the ideal representative of Topless Equality.” TERA has posted links to articles supporting Femen for its topless protests, claiming “the topfree aspect of their stagings is rarely understood,” in an April 11th update, which concluded “It also remains a question whether topfree equality gains or does not gain from Femen’s actions.” Femen’s actions and tactics, such as promoting “International Topless Jihad Day,” have been criticized by many Muslim women as imperialist.

But there’s a difference between being culturally insensitive and exercising one’s legal rights. It’s hard to argue that women like Mirvelle, Feeley and Van Toast should have faced arrest for what seems like a trivial “crime,” unless you want to argue that women’s breasts are by their nature obscene and offensive. Andrews believes this is a worthy feminist cause. “Maybe it’s not the most important issue in the world, on par with climate change and starvation and genocide, but an issue doesn’t have to be life-or-death to be worth fighting for. The right to go topless is about not being afraid of the female body, not viewing it as an object of shame on one hand or shamelessness on the other. It’s just a body, and breasts are just body parts, the same as ankles and necks and hair. There was a time when for a woman to show her ankles in public was scandalous. We’re making progress.”