Should Women Have the Right to Go Topless in Public? An Interview With NYC's Topless Activist

Moira Johnston wants to "expand the vocabulary and definition" of breasts: "They can be non-sexual in any culture."

Moira Johnston is 29 years old and lives in lower Manhattan. She shops at Whole Foods and practices yoga in Union Square. She visits her family often. She’s also a “topfreedom” activist who recently began receiving media attention for walking around in public without a shirt on.

Johnston, who started going topless in public this past January, recently shared her thoughts about her life and activism with AlterNet. Naturally, Johnston was topless throughout the interview, which was conducted in New York’s Union Square. During that time, one female passerby told Johnston politely but firmly that she should put a shirt o; a man asked her about her views on polyamory; and another woman expressed support for Johnston’s cause. But Johnston says most people -- men and women -- simply turn away in embarrassment.

Johnston argues that gender discrimination is a civil rights violation, and if men are allowed to go topless in public then so should women. In fact, women are legally allowed to go topless in New York state. The same is true of several other states around the country, though many cities have anti-female toplessness ordinances in place. (Topless activists argue that such ordinances are unconstitutional.)

So who is the woman who has the ovaries to fight topless discrimination in New York City?

Shiuan Butler: Are you topless all the time?

Moira Johnston: I do go topless as much as possible. In public, I'm usually topless. Unless I go into some kind of business that requires shirts. Then I wear a shirt.

SB: I was wondering about that. Like Starbucks -- they have shirt requirements.

MJ: Yeah.

SB: How was your first time going topless?

MJ: It was very draining. [laughs]

SB: In what way?

MJ: Just the response it gets from people, and it's a lot of talking to people. Doing something that's different from the social norm can be draining energetically.

SB: What is your main reason for going topless?

MJ: My main reason is to educate the public about women's rights. People don't know that it's legal for women to be topless in the whole state of New York. So it's primarily about raising awareness about that and about equality for women.

SB: I read about how bras can be detrimental to our health by weakening our tendons so we’ll sag more when we're braless. Is that part of why you go topless?

MJ: It wasn't part of my thinking initially, but I certainly think it strengthens the case for women to go topless or for women to go braless at least.

SB: How did you first get into topless activism? What inspired you?

MJ: I was practicing yoga at Jivamukti [Yoga School] right here in Union Square and I felt like taking off my shirt during class. I didn't do it at first. I actually went to the founder and asked her if it was OK because a lot of my male counterparts practice without a shirt there and in other yoga studios as well. So I practiced yoga topless and a bunch of people complained about it, and so I realized that they didn't know it was legal. That's what inspired me to become more active about letting people know that it's legal.

There are other yoga studios in the city that are saying that men are allowed to practice without a shirt but women are not allowed to. And that is actually against the law. It's a civil rights violation to make a distinction based on the sex of a person. And so the more people become aware that it is legal for women to be topless, the more that won't be an issue in places like businesses.

SB: What's the most hilarious or best reaction to your toplessness that you recall?

MJ: Best reaction? [laughs] Well, I don't know if you know I was falsely arrested.

SB: Yes, I did read that.

MJ: That I guess was one of the worst things that has happened because I was near the children's park right over there [in Union Square] and a bunch of adults called and complained about it. And I had never been arrested before so that was kind of traumatizing.

SB: Were the cops rough with you?

MJ: It was just humiliating. It's not really cool to get taken away and go to a jail cell for not doing anything wrong.

SB: What is your end goal? What do you hope to achieve through your activism, other than raising awareness?

MJ: This issue of women being able to show their breasts is related to a lot of other issues around women's rights. For instance, it's related to breast-feeding. I feel that if people felt more comfortable with just seeing breasts in public, breast-feeding wouldn't be so socially stigmatized. Another thing is our bodies don't have to be sexualized or commercialized. The way we see it now in American culture, female breasts are seen in an exclusively sexual or commercial territory. I want to expand the vocabulary and definition of what breasts are. They can be non-sexual in any culture.

SB: Guys have boobs too.

MJ: Right. And then there's the idea that it's against the law to be sexy or something. It's OK for women's breasts to be sexual. And for some women a man's chest can be very sexual as well. And that's OK. We're sexual. Human beings are sexual. We can be non-sexual. We can be civil. We can act in an appropriate way in a social circumstance. But there's really no escaping the sexuality of humanity, what it is to be human.

SB: Do you want to be nude in public too?

MJ: No. Not really. I don't consider myself a nudist, although people do ask me often if I’m a nudist. But that would be like asking a guy who's not wearing a shirt if he's a nudist. I feel like to me that's the same thing. The same issue. It's known as “topfreedom.”

SB: Oh, I like that.

MJ: There's actually a Web site. It's the Topfree Equal Rights Association. They're a Canadian organization. They have a lot of material and information that addresses the issue of topfreedom and equality between men and women.

Find out more about Moira Johnston on her Facebookfan page.

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Shiuan Butler is an Asian American feminist, entrepreneur and blogger. Follow her on Twitter: @shiuanbutler.