Selfie Sticks, Gawkers Mar Topless Pride Event in New York

Harassed marchers, including a large group of men, supported women's empowerment and right to appear partly naked in public.

New York's annual Topless Pride parade, August 28, 2016
Mark Lennihan, AP

NEW YORK – This year’s Topless Pride event, proclaiming women’s right to appear in public partially naked just like men, was notable mainly for an abundance of selfie sticks – and harassment.

Just two months ago, tens of thousands of LGBT men and women marched through the streets of New York to the loud and sustained cheers of spectators, during one of the Big Apple’s largest ever pride parades. But to the dismay of anyone who expected to find similar support for female empowerment at the annual Topless Pride event this past Sunday, it was evident that even in one of the world’s most liberal cities, support for women’s rights over their bodies is still far from being at the heart of the consensus.

The atmosphere was radically different not only from the Pride Parade in the city this year, but also from similar events in Tel Aviv, mainly the Slut Walks that have been taking place there since 2012. Walking in Tel Aviv in that procession felt like a true empowering event for women, led by women, with a few men joining as allies, in a respectful manner. Yes, there were a few offensive comments from bystanders, mitigated by expressions of support from others, but Tel Avivians were mostly indifferent to the sight of women marching in skimpy clothing, or even topless, while chanting against rape culture. 

In no way does that compare, however, to the overwhelming and relentless harassment of the female participants in New York's Topless Pride event by hordes of gawking men.

New York's annual Topless Pride parade, August 28, 2016.
Kena Betancur, AFP

The “Free the Nipple” movement, which arose in protest to social media censorship of images of women’s breasts, as well as other campaigns on behalf of a woman’s right to appear partly naked in public, whether for the purpose of breast-feeding or just because men freely enjoy this right – such efforts would seem to be going strong. Hollywood celebrities have been photographed topless on the street, and there have been numerous viral online campaigns aiming to distinguishing breasts from sexuality in a societal context.

This year, although many of the women in New York who support these campaigns apparently decided to stay home, there were dozens of men, young and old, who did show up at the parade – carrying signs in support of female empowerment.

“Although I’m a man, I don’t feel safe when I see that women can’t dress as they wish,” said Danny Miller, 23, who marched in a bra and a blue skirt.

John Oliver, 37, from Syracuse, said he came to support his wife who was marching at the front of the parade. “I think it’s a worthy cause. Breasts are what you make of them, and it doesn’t have to be a sexual thing,” he said.

New York's annual Topless Pride parade, August 28, 2016.
Kena Betancur, AFP

“I feel like there are a bit too many men here, but I wouldn’t want to limit the parade to women only. The parade should be open to men, women and children,” said Stacy, 49, from Brooklyn, as she marched surrounded by men.

Despite the ideology and good intentions behind the event, however, it was also attended by many men, some of them apparently tourists, who didn’t believe in the organizers’ feminist messages. As the topless marchers made their way from Broadway toward the United Nations building uptown, nearly all of them had to deal with being surrounded by groups of men, all holding selfie sticks positioned at the height of her breasts.

“I think it’s disappointing that people come here to film breasts,” a marcher named Stacy Lynn said calmly as a man leapt out at her from the sidewalk, snapped a picture of her and ran away laughing. “I wish there were more women here. We’re surrounded by men and I don’t know if they’re here to support us or not. I’m very proud of what we’re doing. It shows that we’re just as strong and free as men.”

Unlike at the Gay Pride Parade, when the New York police carefully separated participants from spectators and only people who registered were allowed to participate, at the Topless Parade there was nothing to prevent bystanders from getting close to the marchers and harassing them.

Rebecca, 34, sometimes used a sign to hide her body and her friend’s body, and tried to push away the cameras and selfie sticks that were constantly being thrust at them.

“I wish they would show a little respect and not take creep shots and videos. I’m trying to protect my friend Angelica," said Rebecca. "Still, as someone who has the victim of sexual assault, I feel that this parade is important and that there’s something healing about it.”

Many of the women who participated in the march said they would come back next year, too, and hoped that by then the situation will change.

Oscar and Alexandra marched with their baby daughter Anita.

“We want her to grow up in a society that appreciates her for her strength and her beauty, not because of her sexuality,” said Oscar.

“Men should show interest in what a woman knows, in what she thinks, not in her breasts,” said Alexandra, who wasn’t ashamed to admit that she was too embarrassed to march topless herself.

“This movement is just beginning,” she added. "Ultimately, men will get used to looking women in the eyes and not just at a woman’s chest, and then I’ll be able to do it too.”