I am the woman responsible for a recent lawsuit filed against New York City, citing 10 separate incidents where the NYPD showed widespread ignorance of a 1992 ruling allowing women the right to go topless in New York state anywhere a man can go topless.
NYPD officers arrested me, officers had me taken by ambulance to mental facilities (once I was held for evaluation for approximately six days), and officers gave me summonses. My own constant topless activity in New York City, this lawsuit, and the work (to a lesser extent) of my lawyer Ron Kuby, was directly responsible for the memo released to the NYPD, which was to be read at 10 consecutive roll calls throughout the city, in February. I feel my experiences and knowledge expose many myths about topless behavior and its effects on the public.
The story about my lawsuit was covered in all the major New York newspapers — the New York Times, the New York Post and the New York Daily News. It was also covered on PolicyMic, and received phenomenal attention and huge amounts of very passionate comments. To date, the story has been shared over 300,000 times and counting.
The events leading up to this lawsuit happened while I was shooting footage for a dual-intent project that I have been working on for two years. While utilizing guerrilla publicity methods, I was showing originality in promoting a select group of “punk drag” performers that have inspired me (among other things) to create an original entertainment character known as Harvey Van Toast, aka the “topless paparazzo.” I was at the same time (and with the same footage) collecting live public responses from both celebrities and regular New Yorkers, to show what happens when they are confronted with what I knew to be legal topless behavior. This footage makes up a large part of the documentary TOPLESS SHOCK SYNDROME.
I appeared topless outside elementary schools in the Bronx and the Upper East Side. I traveled on the subways systems and the Staten Island Ferry. I commuted to a job on the D train. There are countless online accounts of my topless activities, and all were carried out alone and all were documented by me with a video camera.
The myths and questions about topless behavior, and the fears expressed can all be seen to some extent in the comments following the PolicyMic story. One of the most interesting things I ran across when going through the comments for this story were comments like this:
“This has been legal for years in Columbus. It’s rarely used, and when it is, once people get used to it (and stop waving cameras around like idiots), everybody realizes it’s not really any kind of big deal. They’re breasts, people, get over it. Grow up.”
“In Ontario going topless has not been illegal for over a decade, and you rarely see it. In fact it has never been illegal for women to be topless in Ontario, as the law states, you must cover your reproductive organs. Breasts are not reproductive organs, they are food machines. (It just took an enlightened few to see it that way).”
In a comment thread about the NYT story about me on Facebook, a gentleman noted:
“Has anyone done a survey on how many women actually WANT to go topless? These stories always make me laugh.”
This question, which I have heard before many times, assumes that most women just don’t want to go topless, period. The idea that most women don’t want to go topless may be one of the biggest topless myths. To shed some light on this particular issue involving this common question, I will show some quotes that I came across, from a female BURLESQUE figure who is well known in New York City, (and she is not known for tame performances). These comments were in a thread under a posting of the recent PolicyMic story on Facebook.
“The thought of walking around my neighborhood topless makes me sick to my stomach.”
That makes sense, of course. If women feel sick to their stomachs from even thinking about going topless, even if they are burlesque dancers, they might not want to go topless. Perhaps we can find out here a little bit about why women might not want to go topless, even when they have the legal right to.
“It's hard to feel good about being topless when we are constantly told it's wrong and get negative attention for it.”
It may be that we can’t really ask how many women want to go topless, when they still get treated in extremes, such as violent screaming, loud and bullying laughter, and bizarre frozen staring when they do, even when it’s legal. It might be that a great many women might not even mind going topless … and wouldn’t feel sick to their stomachs simply thinking about going topless, if people didn’t act in such an extreme and unsocial manner when they encounter a topless woman. In my own experience, the legality and police officer awareness doesn’t really have anything to do with the behavior of the public in this instance.
How does public perception and behavior change then? How are the myths about topless behavior, like breast exposure being dangerous for children and inciting rapes exposed? I believe that “protests” like those held every year by the Raelian cult organized GoTopless.org only serve to place topless behavior in a controlled and even expected context, where no real insight or progress can be gained. In my own countless topless activities through the city, almost every time I was in public, I was asked “What are you protesting?”
Until more women take the chance and go topless in public on their own in an everyday context, and until people get used to seeing women topless and interacting reasonably with legally topless women, we just won’t know how many women want to go topless. Their breasts are responsible. My breasts are responsible. Your breasts may be responsible.