You could blame the slow summer news cycle for the reason why this week’s local headlines in New York City have been dominated by the proliferation of topless women in Times Square. But the real reason why everyone is clutching their pearls about this “problem” has a lot more to do with American culture’s hypocritical and puritanical attitudes about women’s bodies.
This week, both the mayor and the governor have vocalized their disdain for predatory panhandling in Times Square and promised to do something about it, from a proposed bill to limit the hours and locations that anyone can solicit tips, to completely shutting down the pedestrian walkway.
But why this week? Costumed characters have harassed tourists for photos and tips in Times Square for years, and there have even been stories of altercations with angry Cookie Monsters and Spider-Men, yet the ranks of costumed characters have been growing unchecked. In fact, the Times Square Alliance counted
more than 120 costumed characters one week in late June this year. But it’s the other hawkers they counted, a much smaller group of 11 “painted ladies” that have turned the tide for both the public and the media from viewing it as an annoying but harmless part of the New York tourist trade to something that must be at least regulated and at most stopped.
Here’s where I should point out, as many have this week, that it is 100% legal for a woman in New York City to be completely topless in public. In fact local ordinances vary, but it’s legal to some degree for women to be topless in the same locations that men can be topless—parks, beaches, public streets – in all but three states. Of course many police (including the police commissioner who suggested turning the area into a park to get rid of the topless women) and even more citizens don’t seem to know this and there are countless stories of topless women getting harassed. (Case in point: Just last week I observed a topless woman on the beach get yelled at by a woman there with two teenagers, direct quote: “put that shit away, I have kids here!”)
(The green colored states are those where it’s legal for women to be topless.
The orange colored ones have ambiguous state laws on the matter.
The red colored ones are where the mere showing of the female breast in public is illegal according to state law.
It’s been noted in some reports that the women, who pose in underwear bottoms with patriotic symbols painted across their bare chests, are exploited by their male “managers” who paint their bodies, presumably watch out for their safety, and take 40% of their profits. If that’s true, it’s a battle worth fighting, but it’s irrelevant to the issue of the public and governmental moral policing of women’s bodies.
Personally I wish that these women didn’t feel like the best way for them to make money was to stand in the street topless and solicit photos with bros, but you can’t regulate your moral choices on others and the lack of lucrative career options for young immigrant women won’t be solved my banning photos with painted topless women. Besides, even if it could as long as it’s not hurting anyone, government shouldn’t dictate what is an acceptable of means of making a living.
But that’s exactly what many would have. The flurry of coverage this week has included plenty of horrified reactions from tourists whom you would think have never watched a show on HBO or needed to breastfeed away from home. From the New York Daily News:
“It’s disgusting. It should be illegal,” Jackie Castillo, 46, of Pennsylvania said. “It’s not a good example for the kids here.”
Yes, “think of the children!” is the common refrain, and that knee jerk belief that seeing a woman’s body is corrupting is exactly at what is at the heart of the real problem. Outrage over an exposed woman’s body teaches children that women are sexual objects – little boys can’t see it because they’ll get ideas of doing dirty things and little girls shouldn’t see it because they’ll think it’s OK to be “improper” and “impure.”
Things sorts of notions are absurd for 2015 and perpetuate notions like:
- Sex is dirty and shameful and we must pretend it doesn’t exist.
- Men and boys can’t control themselves.
- Women should cover their bodies for their safety, and because it’s “lady like.”
- Women’s bare chests are inherently sexual, and inappropriate for children to see, while men’s bare chests are neutral and acceptable. (It should be noted that the topless underwear-clad “naked cowboy” has been harassing tourists for over a decade and is so accepted that he’s received endorsement deals)
If you follow this logic through, it’s a short walk to the Missouri capitol where earlier this week lawmakers came up with a solution to the scandal in which two (male) lawmakers resigned over allegations of sexually inappropriate conduct toward (female) interns. Their solution? Mandate a “conservative” dress code to avoid tempting legislators into improper behavior.
It shouldn’t be surprising that government officials see telling women to cover up as a solution to their misconduct. Numerous schools across the country have long been in the business of policing girls’ bodies and clothing because boys simply can’t control themselves. Schools in states ranging from Illinois, Oklahoma, California, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts have banned yoga pants, saying they “distract” boys who should be paying attention in class. These arguments are all just another side of the “what was she wearing/she was asking for it” rape defense.
But it’s not just on the streets, beaches, and parks of cities and states where going topless for both genders is completely legal, or women’s clothing at their schools and jobs. Women’s bodies are censored in the name of purity on social media: both Instagram and Facebook ban images of topless women but not topless men, even when women are using their breasts for their biological purpose (to feed their offspring). It should be noted however that images of guns and violence go pretty much unchecked pretty much everywhere, and when we see those images (which we all do countless times a day), where are all the concerned parents and lawmakers saying “we need to take action and stop this, here’s what we are putting in place”? We have somehow come to accept near constant gun violence, and monthly mass shootings, but a woman’s boobs? Think of the children!