Fighting for the Right to Go Topless

Holly Van Voast, shirtless in New York

This past week, the news broke that New York City began to instruct its police officers this winter that to make sure they act accordingly to legality of women going topless in public. It’s easy to dismiss this law with a punch line, but the truth is that instructing all of New York’s police force to leave topless women alone is groundbreaking and part of a long running movement lead by women who have fought for topless equality.

New York’s instructions to its officers likely came about as the result of the lawsuit filed by performance artist Holly Van Voast (pictured above), who was arrested several times for going topless in public.  From the New York Times:

“The suit lists 10 episodes in 2011 and 2012 in which the police detained, arrested or issued summonses to Ms. Van Voast, 46, for baring her breasts at sites that included the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal, in front of a Manhattan elementary school, on the A train and outside a Hooters restaurant in Midtown. The last episode, the suit says, ended with her being taken by the police to a nearby hospital for a psychiatric evaluation.

Each complaint against her was dismissed or dropped, her lawyers said, for one simple reason: The state’s highest court ruled more than two decades ago that baring one’s chest in public — for noncommercial activity — is perfectly legal for a woman, as it is for a man.”

Van Voast isn’t alone—plenty of folks believe that the right to bare their breasts is worth fighting for. Groups like Topfreedom and the nudist group Go Topless—who established the national “Go Topless Day” in 2007— have advocated for years that being able to go topless is a step forward for gender equality in the United States. They believe that women deserve the same treatment as men who are allowed to appear in public shirtless-as-they-please. We often take women’s rights for granted, but legally, the United States has unabashedly described women’s bodies as “lewd.”

Topfreedom sells the idea of legal toplessness as simply an issue of equal rights. Their statement of mission reads, “Our basic claim is that women deserve equal rights. We do not suggest that women or men should go about with bare breasts. That is every individual’s decision. We do believe that since men may choose to do so in many situations, women must also be able to at least in the same situations. Without penalty of any kind.”

That’s what the New York police department is now enforcing: equality of toplessness. The New York policy change isn’t coming out of the blue. Local jurisdictions have seen several key cases that have become staples in the legal battle between women, their breasts, and the law. People take getting naked seriously.

Policymic reports a specific and crucial case to the movement:

“In the 1992 case People v. Ramona Santorelli and Mary Lou Schloss, the New York Court of Appeals ruled in favor of two women who were arrested with five others for exposing their breasts in a Rochester park, holding the law void as discriminatory.  The ruling was put to the test in 2005, when Jill Coccaro bared her breasts on Delancey Street in New York, citing the 1992 decision, and was detained for twelve hours. She subsequently successfully sued the city for $29,000.”

In addition to New York, there are a few states who have overturned arrests and prosecution of women who have appeared in public without a top. Florida and Oregon share a similar law that protects female nudity as free speech. As long as a topless woman is protesting for a cause or making some sort of political statement with her body, she is protected by the First Amendment.  In Oregon, several cases (including one where a man stripped at the airport to protest the TSA) have upheld the state law that nudity is only indecent exposure if its intent is to arouse. In Florida, a woman challenged anti-nudity laws and won in 2006 after she was arrested for going topless at a protest at Daytona Beach.

Meanwhile, all the way back in 1979, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that women can sunbathe in public without their tops as long as they are not committing “lewd acts.” The rest of the country is just catching up.  

I definitely applaud the city of New York for addressing the topless law to their local police force. This affords topless woman their rights and the protection of the police force, so that they can safely expose their bodies when it feels right to them. Yes!


Photo of Holly Van Voast via

by Jordannah Elizabeth
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Jordannah Elizabeth is a musician, arts and culture journalist, editor of The Deli Magazine San Francisco, and author of the upcoming book, Don’t Lose Track Vol 1: 40 Articles, Essays and Q&As By Jordannah Elizabeth, on Zero Books.

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10 Comments Have Been Posted


When I delivered my daughter 21 years ago, I was immediately cordoned off to protect the sight of me breastfeeding in front of a man.

Allowing us to go topless prevents censure against breastfeeding women.

There's also this weird

There's also this weird standard where if a trans man (who hasn't had top surgery) goes topless he's treated as a woman and a criminal, regardless of his legal gender.

If a trans woman goes topless, she's arrested for a crime applicable only to women, the police misgender her publicly and throw her in men's lockup, again regardless of her legal gender. There have been several cases where a trans woman goes topless to protest not having her proper gender recognized, and this is exactly what happened.

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