Why The Times Square Nudity Crackdown Is Just Plain Sexist

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images.
Repellant as it may seem to locals sometimes, Times Square has actually come a long way: Back in the 1970s, the intersection of 42nd and Broadway was a hotbed for prostitution, drugs, and poverty. While it's easy to romanticize the grittier city days, the truth is that crime was rampant — and women were especially vulnerable. These days, the tourist-stricken area of town is considerably less seedy and more sanitized. Grown men dressed up as Elmo and Cookie Monster roam the streets; on any given day, it's likely that there are at least a handful of Lady Liberties posing for pictures with out-of-towners. Along with them, desnudas — women clad almost exclusively in body paint — snap shots with tourists who want to commemorate their Big Apple visit with a little slice of hometown nudity. Mayor Bill de Blasio isn't a big fan of these gals, who show up in droves during the summer and stay until the warm weather gives way. Earlier this month, he referred to the presence of the desnudas — which is Spanish for naked women — as a "quality-of-life issue," not for the street performers themselves but for those who may encounter them. "I am unhappy with what's happening in Times Square in relation to the painted women," de Blasio later said. "I don't like it, and I'm going to do something about it." The mayor formed a multi-agency task force to figure out how to deal with "it," and last week, the NYPD doubled the number of officers patrolling the square — to crack down on topless women and other characters seeking tips in exchange for photos. "Times Square is an important piece of real estate in New York City," chief of department James O'Neill said in a statement on August 26. "You have to pay attention to what goes on there." This certainly isn't the first time the city has cracked down on folks trying to make a buck in Times Square (see: first paragraph and pretty much the entire Giuliani administration). And, to a certain degree, the mayor makes a valid point about the "quality-of-life" concerns in the area. After all, there's a reason locals avoid Times Square: It's a tourist-filled nightmare, and no number of pedestrian plazas have been able to change that. But, there's something deeply troubling about the mayor's disturbing witch hunt: It seems to be specifically focused on ridding Times Square of its topless women above all else. Neither panhandling nor baring breasts is illegal in the state of New York, and yet desnudas appear to be unfairly targeted for questioning by police. In one instance, officers took the clothing, purses, phones, and wallets of three desnudas from the plaza while the performers were using the bathroom; the women were forced to walk walk nine blocks to the Midtown South precinct to collect their belongings. Despite the fact that none of the women were actually being arrested, they were still held for questioning. The police "wanted to know if we were forced to be out here — if we were coercing people to give us tips, what would happen if people didn't give us tips. Silly questions," one of the women said. "Basically, we got the vibe that they felt that we were forced to work as a form of prostitution." Here's what the mayor needs to get straight: While he can go ahead and add more patrol officers to the area to crack down on illegal activities, naked breasts are not illegal, and they do not compromise quality of life. There is something unsettling about this attack on the desnudas of Times Square. Just because they are women baring their bodies does not mean they are prostitutes. And to insinuate that they are isn't just patronizing; it's straight-up sexist. As for de Blasio's quest to find an actual law these women are violating? Well, we're still waiting.
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