Back in June, when it was sultry and sunny on the city streets, there was a woman who walked the Bowery topless. Some were shocked, as people sometimes are; others responded coolly, knowingly that, actually, it is legal to be topless as a woman or a man in New York City. Still others were inspired to try it for themselves. And then, we all pretty much put our shirts back on and went about our business, except for a group known as the Outdoor Co-Ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society. After a first meeting on August 17, they are still going topless as they read pulp fiction outdoors in various New York City locales — although probably not today, given the rain. They are hoping to take female toplessness from “something taboo,” albeit legal, to something that people don’t much notice, or care about if they do. They’ve got a blog that’s been seen by more than 100,000 people (and they’re on Twitter, now, too). We had a chat with a couple of the group’s members this weekend.
How did the group get started?
A: I know a lot of women who’ve said, “It’s great that in New York the law says you can go topless anywhere a man can, and I’d love to try it sometime, but I don’t have the guts to do it by myself.” Finally a bunch of us decided to try doing it together: Just pick a day with nice weather, go to a park, lay out a towel, and do it. But we figured if we were just lying there people would come up and bother us, so we thought, What if we brought books and were reading? People would be less likely to bother us then, and we’d have an excuse to ignore them if they did. Then the question was, What sort of book would go well with a bold topless outing? And the Outdoor Co-Ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society was born. We had our first outing about a month ago, in early August. I only wish we’d started sooner, so we’d have more of the summer left!
C.L.: The overall purpose of the group is for girls who want to take advantage of the legality of being topless in New York to be able to, while reading books. Along with bare-breasted sunbathing being something that we enjoy, we also have noticed that despite female toplessness being legal, there are very few who take advantage of it. We are hoping to go from this being something taboo to something of social inconsequence.
Were you inspired at all by the topless, still anonymous, Bowery woman?
A: No, we knew about the toplessness option before all that coverage, but that probably helped get us talking about it a bit more than we otherwise would have.
How many outings have you had since you started?
A: We’ve had eight so far, and we plan to keep going until the weather turns (which, sadly, will be pretty soon). We’ve gone to a batch of parks and some other public spots like the Battery Park esplanade and the tables outside the Flatiron Building. We’ll pick a convenient place to meet, and then decide where to go from there.
How do you choose your reading material?
A: A good friend of mine is the editor of a line of books called Hard Case Crime. I knew they were coming out with some new books in the fall and looking for ways to make readers aware of them, so I asked him if he’d be willing to supply us with advance copies. He was glad to. So we’ve been reading their forthcoming titles. One that’s been particularly fun to read in public is Getting Off by Lawrence Block, since the women on the cover are wearing even less than we are.
How many members do you have?
A: So far we’ve had something like 15 people participate, though not everyone has come to every event. Usually it’s maybe 3-7 people at a given event.
Are you all friends outside the group?
A: Some are friends and friends of friends, some are complete strangers who heard about us by word of mouth and asked if they could come, some are people who’ve done work for my friend at Hard Case Crime. One nice thing, though, is that a lot of people who didn’t know each other before they met at one of our events have exchanged e-mails or phone numbers and have met up socially since.
C.L.: I participate because I feel like these are people I can really become friends with, and that’s a pretty great feeling in and of itself. What it means to me is that I’ve finally found a group of like-minded people who believe in equality. It means there are other people who want to help dismantle the stigma of breasts in public being something “dirty.”
Do you have a “mission statement” or anything?
A.: Not really a mission statement, though our website says “Making reading sexy,” so I guess that’s sort of a goal. Why shouldn’t reading be sexy? But the real point is just to go outside and relax and have a good time, and to enjoy the freedom the law gives us but that most of the time women are too nervous or anxious to take advantage of. It’s fine to say women can do the same things men can, but if they never do — and it’s not because they don’t want to but because they’re scared to — is that equality?
According to your name, you’re co-ed. What about guys?
A: We have had guys show up from time to time — a couple of participants had their boyfriends meet us in the park and hang out with us for a while, and my editor friend has come along, but it’s mostly women.
What kind of reaction do you get from the cops? What about from other people?
A: We haven’t had any reaction from the cops at all. None. Literally none. And it’s not because they haven’t seen us — you can see a police car in the background of one of the photos on our site. The police have left us completely alone, and that’s exactly the way it should be. Cops don’t bother guys when they sit in the park shirtless, why should they bother us?
C.L.: The top reactions we get from people are “What is this for?” (as if it has to be for something) along with “Can my friend get his picture taken in the middle of all of you?” followed by “Why?” As if it’s somehow unnatural for a woman to want to be topless.
A: We also haven’t had negative reactions from anyone else in person, which surprised us — we thought we’d get at least some, but no, so far we haven’t. Some people give us a thumbs-up or a smile; sometimes other women will say, “You’re so brave, I wish I could do that” (and we invite them to join us, though so far no one has); sometimes guys will whip out a cell phone or camera and snap a photo. The only annoying thing is when guys come up to us and insist on talking. It’s either “Can I take a photo with you?” or “Can I have your phone number?” or “What is this event for?” That happens every time. But usually they go away when we make it clear we’re just ordinary people who are hanging out reading and would prefer not to be bothered. Once in a very long while some guy doesn’t take the hint, and in that case we pack up and go somewhere else. But that’s only happened a couple of times.
How about online?
A: Online, the reactions have overwhelmingly been positive as well — more than 100 blogs have said nice, supportive things — but there have also been some people who have posted cruel or contemptuous things, or putdowns in the guise of helpful advice. We just ignore these, or laugh at them. It helps that they’re so clearly in the minority.
Are you open to new members?
A: Sure. We get e-mails from time to time from people who say they want to come to our next event, and once in a while they drum up the courage and go through with it. So far they’ve always been glad they did.
What do you say to the people who say you’ll never date “nice boys” because you’ve shown your breasts in public? Or people who say you just want attention?
A: Yeah, there was this one blogger who said that [re: “nice boys”], and also said we’d never get jobs because our employers would see these photos online and reject our job applications because of it. That’s ridiculous. First of all, our names aren’t attached to the photos; the odds that someone who knows us will see them are low, the odds they’d recognize us if they did are even lower; and the more time passes, the more true that is. But even apart from that, come on — “nice boys” won’t date a girl because she’s sunbathed topless in a park? What is this, 1953?
Plus, more than half our members are already in relationships; as I mentioned, some of the boyfriends have joined us at our gatherings, and they seemed like perfectly nice guys. But the most important point is, if you’ve got a right, you need to be free to exercise it without fear that doing so will make you appear “unwomanly” and unattractive to men. I’m sure there were people back when women got the vote who said, “Ladies, don’t exercise your right to vote! Men won’t want to marry women who are that aggressive and opinionated!” To which the only mature and responsible answer is, Fuck you, I’m voting. Same thing here. It’s hot out, I’m not going to keep my shirt on if you don’t have to. If you have a problem with it, that’s your problem, not mine.
As for wanting attention, mostly what we want is to enjoy the warm weather, get a tan, hang out with cool people, and read some good books. Can it be fun to see jaded New Yorkers do a double take when they realize they’re walking past a half-dozen bare-breasted women? Yeah. It’s fun to bring smiles to people’s faces. But I don’t think any of us want attention for attention’s sake. We don’t mind getting attention, but it’s not like this is a political protest or something.
C.L.: No one has ever told me I’m not going to date “nice boys” because I’ve shown my breasts in public. Furthermore, I’m dating a very “nice boy” right now, who is level-headed and thinks what I’m doing is great in terms of women’s empowerment. He doesn’t mind at all.
To the people who say I or we just want attention or are just doing this for attention, I can only shrug. That’s their opinion and as long as I know that’s not why I’m doing it, they can say what they like, but they’re wrong. Unless more women start enjoying the freedom of being topless in parks and on the beach if they so desire, it’s going to stay something “inappropriate,” and they’re going to be viewed as “exhibitionists.” It’s not that we want attention, we want the issue to get attention.
Now that it’s September, do you have any other activities on the horizon?
A: We’ve talked about what we might do when the weather turns cold, and it’s possible we’ll come up with some fun indoor equivalent. Maybe a pool party or something.
In a word, how does it feel to bare your breasts in public while reading a great book?
A.: Pretty awesome. One word? “Triumphant.”
C.L.: I feel like it’s really cliche, but “liberating” is the only word that comes to mind.
[h/t EV Grieve]