*Over the past week or two tourists in New York City’s Times Square have been treated to something beyond the regular jumbo sized billboards, street artists and musicians, salespeople, children’s characters, and stores: topless women.
These ladies spend all day with body paint but without shirts attempting to get people to take their picture, then demanding a tip. It should be noted that the tips are technically whatever a person feels like giving but in practice the ladies proscribe various sums for different kinds of pictures. It should also be noted that the women then hand over their tip money to men who hold the cash of several different women throughout the day.
Let’s just call this what it is: sex work. Properly labeling the situation allows us to examine one possible outcome. If the mayor takes no action, more and more topless ladies (and their “bankers”) will descend upon Times Square to take advantage of the lack of a law banning their behavior. This would effectively turn Times Square into a topless bar minus the drinks.
On the other hand many are saying that these ladies should be made to cover themselves. Of course the end result of that course of action would be the criminalization of the women’s breasts. This sounds like the conservative solution that would transport us to a previous era when sex work was largely underground, but also when women were less welcome to express themselves in American society.
To be clear, I am not someone who believes governing is easy. In fact I believe mayors, governors, and the president earn their salaries precisely through decisions like the one facing Mayor DeBlasio of New York City. He must implement a policy that safeguards Times Square as a family friendly tourist destination while not violating the civil liberties and civil rights of women. And while there may be some pushback initially, the solution in this case is not as difficult as it appears.
The mayor should promote a law that bans panhandling. Such a law would allow the police to stop the picture business in Times Square while continuing to allow women to remove their tops. Of course these women are not the only ones begging in Times Square or throughout the city. Fine. The topless women have gotten the most publicity for their modus operandi in Times Square because of the nudity, but plenty of people have complained about the children’s characters operating in the same manner and stating that they should be stopped as well. If topless women or people in costume want to charge for pictures, that’s okay; just rent some space and apply for a business permit. Contrarily if women want to go without a shirt I don’t see a problem with that. They should be allowed the same freedom as men.
A law against panhandling could get a bit murky in that people don’t only beg in Times Square. But no law is universally enforced. So to ask police officers to pay special attention to this section of the penal code in Times Square but not to be as vigilant when a homeless person is sitting in a gutter with a cup and a sign is not asking a lot. The difference is one person (by prescribing the amount to tip) is engaged in a form of business and forcing others to participate, the other is not. Part of the job description for police officers is to make just these kinds of judgment calls about when to let someone off with a warning versus when to issue a citation or make an arrest.
Circling back around to the possibility of banning female toplessness altogether – that is a bad idea politically and culturally. When the law treats female breasts differently then male breast the municipality opens itself up to a lawsuit. The bodies are basically the same (outside of the breastfeeding function). Indeed we treat them differently mostly because of cultural understandings, one of which is that women’s bodies are more sexual than men’s and therefore need to be covered. This line of thinking leads to some men believing that women who do not cover their bodies are more sexually promiscuous and are inviting sexual attention. In fact what we need is to normalize women’s breasts so that men can mature enough to see them in leisurely contexts and not overreact.
The answer is not to display bias against women.
Mayor DeBlasio should be able to get this law passed quickly. And if the law exists already then direct officers to enforce it. An important piece of real estate is dependent on it.
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.