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Venice Beach declares war on our infantile obsession with nudity

Venice Beach's proposal to allow women to go topless in public shines a light on America's Puritanism

Not many people are aware of it, and few exercise the right, but it is legal for women to walk around topless in New York City and other cities.  (A bare-chested New Yorker even got $40,000 from the city to settle her lawsuit alleging harassment by the NYPD for her nudity.)

Now, if the Venice Neighborhood Council gets its way, toplessness will become legal somewhere more pleasant than the gritty, often slush-filled streets of the Northeast: Venice Beach.

"I think this is a serious equality issue, and I'm not going to shy away from it," Melissa Diner, the Venice council community officer who sponsored the resolution told the Los Angeles Times' Martha Groves. Diner said she hoped to "start a conversation about not only wanting to show our nipples on Venice Beach, but about what else people want to see."

"Venice Beach was founded and designed around the European culture of Venice, Italy," the neighborhood council said, "and ... topless [sun]bathing is commonplace throughout Europe, much of the rest of the world and many places within the U.S."

In many states and municipalities, the legal basis for prohibiting the exposure of female breasts falls apart because public lewdness laws are specifically targeted against genitals, which obviously breasts are not. Aside from the inherent gender discrimination of anti-toplessness statutes, the widespread social acceptance of breastfeeding in public beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, and the fact that many American travelers see that topless sunbathing in other countries don’t spark riots of sex-crazed males, exposes -- pun intended -- the utter absurdity of such laws.

So, yes, it is an important political, social and cultural issue. It's a question of equal rights, body image, addressing the problem of oversexualization driven by, among other things, advertising. But it's also a matter of maturity.

I'll admit, when I first read the headline about Venice considering this change, I giggled. Sorry, that's the 14-year-old boy I used to be. But then after thinking about it for two or three minutes, I shook it off and got serious.

Which is not unlike what happened the summer that the dorms at my college, Columbia University, converted from single-sex, all-male to coeducational. The showers were old, no curtains, one big room. The first female students moved in before they got around to putting in individual shower stalls.

One morning I stumbled in bleary-eyed to the shower, and found several of my new female classmates taking showers. Yes, I was surprised. I was 19. Then I found a spot on the other side of the room, lathered up and got over it. Within a day or two, it wasn't a big deal.  

As Nathaniel Hawthorne so brilliantly documented, America's original sin, alongside slavery, is Puritanism. Four hundred years after the first colonists arrived in America -- people who were so uptight that they couldn't get along with the British -- it's time that we declared war against our infantile societal obsessions with nudity, especially female nudity.

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