Naked in New York

August 18, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

When one considers the names of "progressive" U.S. cities, New York probably isn't at the top of the list (despite its status as the largest and best known locale in the country). San Francisco, in all likelihood. Seattle and New Orleans too. Nevertheless, a law exists in New York that puts it leagues ahead of many of its fellow East Coast metropolises. According to this statute, women have as much right to go topless as men do. Or, to put it another way, it's legal for a woman to wander the city streets bare-breasted.

For the most part, this law has been meaningless since no women have chosen to take advantage of it. This is understandable. In a culture where the covering up of the human body has resulted in breast obsession being raised to a high art, it's reasonable that a woman would feel uncomfortable letting it all hang out (literally) if she was the only one doing it. There's safety in numbers. A female who would go naked at a nude beach might show more restraint in Central Park, regardless of the legality of her actions.

Recently, however, one woman broke from the crowd and wandered the streets of the lower East Side topless. It happened on August 4. That woman, Jill Feeley, was taken into custody but not charged. The police detained, then released, her. On August 14, ten women (including Feeley) stripped off their tops in Columbus Circle to protest Feeley's earlier encounter with the police. Expectedly, they received a lot of attention. More noteworthy, however, is the fact that many New Yorkers are now aware of something of which they were previously ignorant: a woman cannot be arrested for removing her top in public. (Don't try that in most other East Coast cities, however.)

What New York has done is acknowledge an absurdity that most Americans ignore. How does it make sense that men can be topless in public, yet women cannot be? Both sexes have breasts. Women's are generally better shaped, but not necessarily larger. The only difference is that, because of societal conditioning, female breasts are viewed as sex objects while male breasts are not. Why? Because they are kept hidden. Go to a country where toplessness is the norm, and you'll find that breasts are viewed no more sexually than shoulders, eyes, necks, and feet. They are admired by many and fetishised by some, but there is no taboo. But this is territory I have covered in previous ReelThoughts. My primary point here is to indicate that there is a law on the books in New York City that gives hope to those who view the current American view about nudity as idiotic. Now, the question is whether women will begin taking advantage of this new freedom or if the statute will remain a paper act of lip service to sexual equality.