The Desnudas: NYC’s Manufactured Controversy Over Painted Boobs
The Story of the Desnudas Painted Boobs:
Put “topless women” and “kids” in the same sentence and you’ve got some surefire click-bait for a news article. That was my thought when, in April of this year, the NY Post published an article about topless painted women preying on teenagers and kids in Times Square.
Reading about this apparent “threat” to minors being targeted for photo-ops with and by these bare-chested women in thongs, I simply had to roll my eyes and laugh.
It turns out that was just the beginning. The topless painted women have come under major scrutiny lately as the NY Daily News launched a campaign against them with a series of articles. Their Sunday headline read, “Bust This Flesh Pit.
Growing Surge of Topless Hustlers Defiles City.” Monday’s headline read, “Too Much To Bare” and referenced police saying it was “a disaster” and “unacceptable.” Of course they were still acceptable enough to put on the front page of the newspaper for 5 days straight.
These women, who call themselves “desnudas” (Spanish word for “naked”), now seem to represent, for some at least, the impending downfall of Times Square. We know this because Governor Cuomo told NY1, “I was around for the bad old Times Square and this is starting to remind me of the bad old Times Square.”
What’s the problem exactly with these topfree painted women? The only real problem at hand seems to be aggressive panhandling. This is an issue that should pertain to all the costumed characters – topless or not – of Times Square (this includes Cookie Monster, Elmo, Spiderman, etc).
Aggressive panhandling is illegal, but that hasn’t stopped some costumed people from demanding tip money or a bigger tip. There have also been reports, over the last few years, of characters starting fights with each other, with visitors, groping teenagers and shoving people around.
The Times Square Alliance reported to the NY Times that 4 out 5 complaints received since June have been about the desnudas, mostly from people who work in the area. Half are complaining because they’re “offended” by female breasts and the other half are complaints that are actually worth looking into.
The latter contain reports of women who sidle up to pedestrians, rubbing body paint on their clothes or suits while trying to get them to stop for a photo. This is behavior that would fall under aggressive panhandling that should be dealt with. Nobody wants to be accosted by painted boobs on their way into work. (Well, maybe some do, but this activity does require consent.)
Sadly, this real issue of aggressive and disrespectful behavior is not what most of the media coverage has focused on. Most of it is just targeting these women and their painted breasts as the biggest problem in Times Square. They make it sound as if their uncovered breasts pose a threat to the entire city. The media’s underlying question is, how dare these women walk around shamelessly with their breasts exposed in front of children? How dare they threaten the family-friendly wholesomeness of Times Square?
These questions have never been asked of a certain almost-naked white male street performer. You know… the one dressed only in his tighty whities, his nips fully exposed, hanging out every day with his guitar in Times Square.
Sadder still is the fact that New York’s leaders and politicians have been totally on board with this absurd campaign. NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Cuomo have both spoken out against the desnudas. Cuomo told NY1 that their activities were “illegal” and “must be stopped.” He praised the Daily News for their diligent reporting on this “serious issue.”
De Blasio commented, “it’s wrong” and “I don’t like the situation in Times Square, and we’re going to address it in a very aggressive manner.” Last week, De Blasio assembled a task force “to curb topless individuals.”
The topfree performers are apparently such a “catastrophe” that Mayor de Blasio and police commissioner William Bratton have talked about tearing up the pedestrian plaza as a possible “solution.” The city has real criminals and murderers, but we have to tear up a plaza (the same plaza that’s been credited with a 35% decrease in pedestrian injuries) and rebuild the roads because of a few panhandlers’ PAINTED BOOBS?
Jordan and I purposefully went to Times Square this past weekend to see if any desnudas were there and what the scene was really like. (The ladies had reportedly been staying away due to all this negative media attention.)
We spotted two painted women walking around and taking photos with tourists and onlookers. They were accompanied by at least two guys who were doing paint touch-ups and looking after their stuff. It was all pretty orderly and tame.
We saw moms taking photos of their kids happily posing with the women. We also saw smiling couples taking turns for photos. People were smiling and handing over money for tips, which were graciously accepted.
There has been a lot of gossip about the guys who paint the desnudas. In the tabloids they’ve been depicted as “pimps” exploiting the ladies to do all the work while they collect the cash. The NYPD apparently thought there could be some truth to this, as they took in 10 women for questioning last Wednesday and temporarily confiscated their clothes and belongings, according to reports online. Police wanted to know if they were being forced or coerced into panhandling for the guys.
The answer is, no, they are not. In an interview on Gothamist, one of the desnudas explained how this “pimp” narrative is false. She said, “We’re all there of our own accord…The majority of us work for ourselves.”
Some of the guys they work with do apparently get a percentage of their daily earnings, but she emphasized that it was an even profit share. (She makes a number of good points in this interview, but unfortunately ends it with insulting remarks about “ghetto fat women.”)
We saw the desnudas periodically hand over wads of cash to their male friends. But we didn’t see anything that suggested an exploitative or non-consensual partnership.
We also briefly spoke to one of the painter guys, Chris Olivieri, about the recent uproar. He was arrested last week due to outstanding warrants. He told us that him and his comrades were among the first to paint women and collect tips for it in Times Square starting in 2013. He said they didn’t previously have any issues with police or the Times Square Alliance for doing this topless “art,” but spoke of his recent arrest. He described a scene of 10 cops showing up to arrest him, after which he spent 2 days in jail.
He told us there were other groups (mostly people from overseas) of topfree painted women who have come in to make a quick buck and who engage in aggressive tactics.
Aggressive panhandling aside, what these women are doing is completely legal. Panhandling is protected by the First Amendment and it’s legal for women to go topfree in public. Both rights were established by the Court of Appeals, NY’s highest state court, in 1992. De Blasio and Bratton have both acknowledged these legal rights, while Cuomo was confusing everyone with his ‘it’s illegal’ statement.
The NY Times also took the subject of the desnudas pretty seriously with a number of articles. One of them offered an in-depth look at topfree public panhandling from a legal perspective. It establishes how difficult it would be to make any sort of legal case against it, stating, “Whatever action the city takes to control the women, it will face legal challenges at every turn.”
There is still a discriminatory exception to the law on being topless – women can’t be topless in public for “commercial purposes.” While this might seem like a way to prosecute topfree panhandling, it’s not according to city officials. They are still protected by the First Amendment as panhandlers and street performers and thus exempt from the law.
Instead of trying to arrest or prosecute, Mayor de Blasio’s task force will probably be looking for ways to put limitations on the desnudas’ activities. However this will still prove to be very challenging to do without violating their right to free speech.
But the question still remains: why are the topfree painted women (which by most accounts seem to number about 10-20 on any given day) such a massive issue for the city? What is it about these women that it necessitates this daily media coverage and a special task force of top city officials to address it?
Does the city not have bigger issues right now? Like homelessness and affordable housing shortages (just two from the long list of things the city should be dealing with)?
There are some theories out there as to why this became a thing. Some think it’s an effective distraction manufactured by the billionaires who control the NYC media. Others say it’s a way for de Blasio to take attention away from his own failings as a leader, while trying to make it look like he’s accomplishing something that is good for the city.
But what’s clear is this: it is a manufactured controversy that is setting back progress on the gender equality front and profiting off of women’s bodies to sell papers.
The stupid, sexist questions of whether or not female breasts are “appropriate” or “family-friendly” should not be questions at all in a state that legalized topfreedom over 20 years ago.
Let’s hope this nontroversy ends this week and we can all get back to discussing the real social issues that plague the city of New York.
This post about the controversy surrounding the Desnudas Painted Boobs was published by Young Naturists and Nudists America