(In)decent exposure


On a hot August evening in 2005, after an art opening at a Lower East Side studio, Phoenix Feeley stepped outside for some fresh air. She then did something that would lead to her arrest, a stint at Bellevue psychiatric hospital, multiple court appearances, and ultimately a $29,000 settlement: she unzipped the top of her jumpsuit, baring her breasts on a public sidewalk.

She had the law on her side: a 1992 ruling by the New York Court of Appeals established that women are afforded the same right as men to have their breasts uncovered in public. Nonetheless, she found that even the law could be overruled by an individual’s interpretation of decency.

“The cop stopped me, and I tried to explain to him that it was legal,” Feeley said. “Eventually, his opinion got me in jail.”

Although the legal systems in New York, Ohio, Maine, Texas, the District of Columbia, and Hawaii do not prosecute women who choose to be top free in public places, the perception that a woman’s breast is inherently sexual has led many to be punished for indecent exposure.

The law, it seems, is not always enough to overcome the view that nudity, even in a non-sexual context, is a vice crime that must be punished.

Such groups as the American Family Association are vocal about what they see as the negative impact that such behavior purportedly has on society, often citing the effect on children.

“If society descends into hedonism or neo-Paganism or whatever you want to call it,” said Frank Russo, president of AFA-New York, “then it will be because we have made choices to allow amoral behavior like what these women are doing.”

In response to the view that a woman’s exposed breast is indecent while a man’s is not, Feeley has leveraged her own experience to become a sort of freedom fighter for topless women everywhere. On Feb. 14, she had her first court appearance in New Jersey, where she appeared without a top on a beach in June last year and was consequently issued five citations related to indecency, with a total fine of almost $2,000, according to Feeley.

“Since there were a hundred men on the beach with me who were top free, I didn’t think it was fair that I couldn’t take my top off too,” she said.

She is supported by groups like the Topfree Equal Rights Association, which campaigns to change laws against what it calls “top freedom” in the United States and Canada, and supports women in their legal battles against what they see as a form of sex discrimination.

The movement, at least in New York, began with the “Rochester Seven,” a group of women who were arrested in 1986 for having a picnic with their tops off in a public park. They were convicted of indecent exposure, a ruling overturned in 1992 by the New York State Court of Appeals, which ruled that the law was discriminatory for penalizing the display of a woman’s breasts but not a man’s.

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