A Femen-like Movement in the U.S., Sort of

Jul 02, 2013 at 6:08 PM ET


The bills read like a high-school biology textbook, with plenty of ambiguous references to “private parts,” which in case you were wondering, include breasts, nipples and other “external organs of sex and excretion.” But this spring when conservative lawmakers in Asheville, North Carolina tried to pass House Bill 34, which would have banned women from displaying their bare breasts in public “for the purpose of arousing or gratifying a sexual desire,” the legislation died in committee. The result: Next month, activists from GoTopless, a women’s rights group, will once again parade bare-breasted on “Go-Topless Day” in Asheville.

While men gained the right to walk around topless in public in 1936, in many places across the country it’s still illegal for women to do the same. But over the past five years or so, a number of activist groups have been holding bare-breasted rallies to push the envelope on what qualifies as public indecency. While many states have public indecency laws, some use ambiguous language, and as a result, local lawmakers often interpret these phrases in different ways and the legality of top-free activity changes from city to city. “The attitudes and legalities vary so much it’s really hard to get a hold of,” says Dr. Paul Rapoport, an activist for the Topfree Equal Rights Association.

Internationally, other bare-chested groups such as Femen have been using topless protests to call attention to women’s rights (or the lack thereof) in countries such as Ukraine and Tunisia. But whereas Femen emerged in 2008 to protest the exploitation of Ukranian women, GoTopless was established in 2007 by a journalist-turned-spiritualist named Claude Vorilhon. Also known as Rael, Vorilhon is the founder of Raelism, a religious movement grounded in the belief that the world was created scientifically by extraterrestrial masterminds. Elements of the Raelian philosophy—particularly the movement’s emphasis on sexual freedom—filter into the mission of GoTopless, most clearly in the group’s adage, “Free Your Breasts! Free Your Mind!”

“All human beings should feel good in the temple in which they live,” said Nadine Gary, one of the leaders of GoTopless. “The more repressed you are physically, the more imbalanced you are.”

But the group’s belief that women should go topless isn’t just about rituals or spirituality—it’s about the law. In North Carolina, many city governments have forbidden women to walk around topless, but Asheville—a city with a quirky, liberal reputation—has not, which is why it has been an ideal site for topless rallies.

Not everyone in Asheville has been thrilled about the presence of bare breasts in western North Carolina. While many onlookers brought cameras, hoping to snap photos of the legal public display, other North Carolina residents were concerned about the moral issues in question. Asheville’s former Vice-Mayor, Carl Mumpower, for instance filed a complaint saying that a man had “‘made oral connection with a woman’s exposed breast and nipple’” in public.

Local insiders say the clash between the GoTopless activists and local Asheville residents has caused declining enthusiasm surrounding the topless movement. “Asheville has a reputation as a very progressive, inclusive community, and I think most locals (myself included) are very proud of that,” said Casey Blake, a reporter at the Asheville Citizen-Times. “But these rallies have never been organized by local women, and I get the sense that the people working hardest around women’s equality issues in the area are pretty disenchanted by the GoTopless rallies, and don’t see them as adding to the cause of making life better for women in North Carolina.”

The bill’s sponsors are obviously upset that the legislation failed and that topless protesters will return to the city in August. “I hate it for Asheville,” Representative Rayne Brown, one of the bill’s two sponsors, wrote in an e-mail. “If the officials in Asheville continue to allow this, it’ll just get worse. The topless folks will become emboldened.”

Members of Topfreedom are already emboldened. And this summer, Gary thinks, may be the perfect time for more topless activism. “We hope more and more women will take off their tops because it’s hot,” she said, jokingly. “We hope to have all 50 states topless.”