Don Emmert / AFP / Getty Images

Mayor’s body headed for topless bar? De Blasio vs. Times Square nudity

NYC task force seeking way to ban semi-naked women from working in Times Square, once home to peep shows galore

There may be too many Elmos, Spidermen, “Frozen” Elsas and Incredible Hulks to count, but it's the semi-naked women of Times Square who have captured the attention of New York City politicians.

Earlier this week, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he would crack down on topless women — often with only red, white and blue body paint covering their breasts — who pose for photos in Times Square, the more or less family-friendly tourist attraction that was once home to live sex shows. On Wednesday he created a task force to look into ways to bar the women from barring their breasts in public.

But for those erring toward the prudish side in City Hall, there is a snag. It’s perfectly legal for women to go topless in New York.

“Mayor de Blasio recognizes there are First Amendment implications in regulating performers in a public square,” said Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, in a statement to Al Jazeera, “and that any efforts to pass legislation in response must comply with the Constitution.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in a rare show of solidarity with the mayor, said that he believed the activity of the topless women in Times Square was illegal. “I believe it is infringing on legitimate businesses,” he said in an interview with NY1. “I think it is infringing on the investment that the state and the city made in the 42nd Street area, and I think it has to be stopped.”

De Blasio said Thursday that he would even consider removing Times Square’s pedestrian-only plaza, a Bloomberg initiative that has helped transform the area since its introduction in 2009.

On Thursday afternoon, an advertisement of singer Miley Cyrus in a swimsuit with computer-animated dolphins covering her breasts flashed on a screen in Times Square. But there were no topless women to be found. 

A police officer told Al Jazeera that the painted naked ladies were probably staying away because one of their managers, Chris Olivieri, was arrested the night before on a warrant for marijuana.

Unlike the costumed characters, most of whom work independently, recent reports on the topless women suggest that they are in most part managed by men, who take a cut of their earnings. In reports, these men and the topless women insist that there is no pimping going on.  

Robert Burck, the Naked Cowboy, going not topless in Times Square, Aug. 19, 2015.
Richard Drew / AP

Many of the other Times Square performers have mixed feelings about the women.

Robert Burck, who appears daily before lunchtime as the Naked Cowboy, says it’s not a matter of double standards but of women and their managers aggressively asking the people they pose with for tips. “You can’t go after them and say, ‘You gotta pay,’ and you can’t knock them all down and force them to try to get a picture,” he said. “That’s creating a negative experience for the people here, which of course makes the businesses unhappy, and then it goes to the mayor and then Cuomo. Before you know it, [Barack] Obama will be weighing in on it.”

Patricia Cruz, who is married to Burck, started working as the Naked Cowgirl in 2013, wearing a bikini and cowboy boots. She says she has seen the number of topless women in Times Square grow from 1 to about 22. Other costumed characters working in the area estimate the number at about 30.

“I think if it’s one or two or three or five, it is not too much. But having 22 naked women here in Times Square, I think, is a lot,” she said. “I respect them. I know they’re working too. They’re doing their best.”

Daryll, 50, who works nearby but declined to say where or provide his last name, said he knows some of the topless women. He’s of two minds on the issue, saying of them, “One’s from Hungary. One’s from Italy. They don’t have the paperwork to get a job. Everybody needs to eat.” But he also thinks the mayor needs to crack down so that Times Square doesn’t become what it was 30 years ago. “You kind of feel bad with the kids and everything having to see that,” he said.

“The crackdown feels like another attempt on policing women’s bodies when they’re trying to earn a living,” said Jessica Peñaranda, a special projects coordinator at the Sex Workers Project, a group that provides legal and social services to people who engage in sex work. “We feel that the resources that are dedicated to this task force could be better spent protecting and reinvesting in the community.”

This month de Blasio received the lowest approval numbers of his mayoralty, with 47 percent of voters saying he does not deserve to stay in office.

New York resident Erica Eleam, 27, was not impressed by de Blasio’s tough talk against topless women. “It just feels a little ridiculous that they would build these ordinances around very specific issues that are concerning gender roles that really don’t affect anybody,” she said. “Be concerned by people who have no place to stay. That’s where you should be focusing your energy. Not the people who are choosing not to wear tops because it’s fun and they make money.”

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