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Topless NYC woman Moira Johnston on a crusade to exercise her legal right

Nadine Bells
Shine On
July 30, 2012

Self-described "topless activist" Moira Johnston, 29, has been walking around New York City's East Village neighbourhood this summer without her shirt — or bra.

She insists her toplessness isn't out of protest. Rather, she's reminding women of their legal rights to bare it all. In fact, New York women have had the right to shed their shirts for 20 years now.

"I want women to know their rights and to give them the courage to go topless too," Johnston tells the Daily Beast. "It's not that I want everyone to take off their shirt, but I'm supporting a woman's choice to do it and think every woman should do it on her own terms."

In Ontario, women have had the same rights for 16 years, the Globe and Mail reports.

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Johnston's toplessness seems to have flustered officials into forgetting that she has legal right to walk around as she does. Earlier this spring, she was arrested near a children's park for refusing to put on a shirt.

"[The officer] says it could be considered endangering children," she tells the Daily Beast.

Johnston was also banned from a yoga studio after going topless in class, something her male peers were freely doing.

Yoga studios are privately owned institutions and can establish their own rules, as long as they don't discriminate against sex or race. After Johnston filed a legal complaint against the yoga studio, the studio made it mandatory for both men and women to wear shirts in class.

Johnston's not the first North American woman to meet opposition from legally walking around topless.

On a sweltering day in 1991, Gwen Jacob took off her shirt on Gordon Street in Guelph, Ontario. Her subsequent arrest was the catalyst for addressing the double-standard laws about toplessness in Canada.

She was acquitted in 1996 by the Ontario Court of Appeal on the basis that going topless is not in itself considered an indecent or sexual act. Because of Jacob's groundbreaking case, similar cases in British Columbia and Saskatchewan have since been acquitted.

"Canada needs to grow up like our European brethren. There are enough oppressive laws and social mores that restrict our freedoms," says Judy Williams of the Vancouver-based Topfree Equal Rights Association, a group that Johnston cites.

"In 20 years I don't think I've ever seen a woman topless on the street," Judy Rebick, once the president of Canada's National Action Committee on the Status of Women, tells CBC News. "Women don't walk around topless because they get hassled, they get harassed if they do. People stare at them. It's cultural, something about North America and the Puritan history."

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In 2005, Jill Coccaro was arrested for walking down New York City's Delancey Streets without a shirt on. She sued the city and received a $29,000 settlement, the Daily Beast reports.

Johnston claims that the right to bare breasts is related to other women's rights issues.

"For instance, it's related to breast-feeding. I feel that if people felt more comfortable with just seeing breasts in public, breast-feeding wouldn't be so socially stigmatized. Another thing is our bodies don't have to be sexualized or commercialized. The way we see it now in American culture, female breasts are seen in an exclusively sexual or commercial territory. I want to expand the vocabulary and definition of what breasts are. They can be non-sexual in any culture," she tells Alternet.

Hypervocal blogger Katie Ligon argues that topless laws are the least of women's concerns when it comes to equal rights.

"There are a multitude of equality issues that women are fighting for on a daily basis — right to choose, fair wages, maternity leave, access to health care — and this is what you chose?" she writes. "We get it, women walking around without tops is totally legal. Now do us a favour and put your shirt back on."

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