It Happened To Me: I Go Topless In Public For Activism (And Fun)

A topless woman in public, to some men, is “asking for it.” As in, she’s inviting harassment.
Publish date:
September 5, 2013
activism, public nudity, toplessness, naked women, M

Yeah, I have my shirt off, and no, it’s not a big deal.

“Summer” and “break” seem deliciously synchronous long after school ends, don’t they? Even when you’re a bitter, joyless adult working a bitter, joyless job, summer seems special and free. I love summer. I mean, yeah, I love the beach and summer fruits and ice cream trucks, but I think maybe some of that free feeling comes from being able to finally venture outside in mini skirts and short shorts. My thinking goes: less clothing equals more happy.

This year, and this summer especially, the “phenomenon”-not-phenomenon of female (and, of course, female-presenting people of any identity) toplessness is exploding in the US.

Really, you can’t miss it: Media coverage has been all about it, lately. Bare breasts have actually been legal in NYC for decades (what’s up, 1992!), but recently, slowly, other cities and states have followed suit. Women are reveling in the legal recognition of boobs as what they are: just another body part. Not indecent. Or inherently sexual. Just, you know, boobs.

And how could women not revel? What’s to dislike about tan-line-free tanning and freedom from sweaty shirts on humid summer days?

As a female person who goes topless in public on the regs, honestly: it’s pretty revel-worthy. But some days, in actual practice, the reveling doesn’t quite work out.

The Outdoor Co-ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society (take a breath! long name, I know) does just what the name implies, which is, read books outside sans shirts. It’s one part activism to, say, um, nine parts or so fun; in the two summers I’ve been running around NYC with this group, I’ve had fun approximately 93.4% of the time. The 6.6% of the time that it hasn’t been fun is, I guess, where the activism comes in.

(Before I really talk the negative side of public toplessness, I should acknowledge how awesome many, many people are about it. There are tons of people who are supportive and nice, and there are even more people who don’t react at all -- which is amazing, because honestly, it shouldn’t be a huge deal.)

Women know how unpleasant it is to get catcalled, and I think we’re all familiar with the weird mentality of the catcaller. It’s something like: You’re in public, so your body is now public. It’s not a conscious thought process, but a product of the much-discussed rape culture, victim-blaming type attitude.

A topless woman in public, to some men, is “asking for it.” As in, she’s inviting harassment. She’s inviting sex. And that makes her a bit less of a person.

So those men treat topless women in ways they’d never treat a man, or a more “respectably”-dressed woman.

The difference is amazing (and I say that even as someone with plenty of experience going out in scanty [aka slutty] clothing). Suddenly, saying “no” doesn’t mean nearly as much, whether it’s “No, I don’t want to talk to you” or “No, I don’t want my picture taken (six dozen times)” or “No, don’t follow me.”

There’s sometimes a palpable and bizarre sense of aggression in these interactions, too. It’s uncomfortable at best, scary at worst. (I have yet to find myself in a situation that’s actually dangerous, so it’s likely that I’m easily scared. Still, though.)

And that’s kind of the crux of it, right there: why should something so freaking simple, something that should make me and my sun-loving skin happy, also make me -- at times -- so unhappy? It shouldn’t. Duh.