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Meet the Woman Fighting for the Right to Go Topless in LA

Melissa Diner thinks that the law banning the areolas of "female persons" could use some tweaking.

A woman walking topless on a beach. Photo via Flickr user Vox Efx

Even in stereotypically anything-goes Southern California, Venice Beach is known as a bastion of liberal ideals. It's full of street performers, colorful murals, and open marijuana use. And yet, as the Venice Neighborhood Council pointed out this week, there's one thing missing: female toplessness.

The City of Los Angeles has had a ban on female toplessness dating back to 1974 (and since Venice is a neighborhood within Los Angeles, not its own city, residents must abide by that law). It came into effect in the early 70s after groups of streakers and full-on nudists descended on Venice to hang out in the buff. The news of neighborhood's nudist communities made its way into the news, and it was then that the Los Angeles City Council decided that something must be done. They voted 12–1 to ban nudity citywide.

As of now, the law states:

No person shall appear, bathe, sunbathe, walk, change clothes, disrobe or be on any beach in such manner that the genitals, vulva, pubis, pubic symphysis, pubic hair, buttocks, natal cleft, perineum, anus, anal region or pubic hair region of any person, or any portion of the breast at or below the upper edge of the areola thereof of any female person, is exposed to public view, except in those portions of a comfort station, if any, expressly set aside for such purpose.

As a recent LA Weekly article pointed out, Los Angeles's nudity ban is actually more conservative than state law requires. (There is no federal ban on public nudity, so legality of nude or topless beaches is determined on a local level.) There are something like 50 nude or topless beaches in California; in some of these places nudity or toplessness is explicitly allowed, while in others it is tolerated though not explicitly legal.

Perhaps the most notable part of Los Angeles's law banning nudity is its explicit mention of "the areola... of any female person." Emphasis on "female." This phrasing struck Melissa Diner, a member of the Venice Neighborhood Council, as unfair. So earlier this week, at a Venice Neighborhood Council meeting, Diner proposed a change: legalize toplessness.

I spoke with Diner about why she wants to bring topless sunbathing back to Venice Beach, and how she plans to accomplish that.

VICE: What inspired you to spearhead the bill to legalize topless sunbathing for women on Venice Beach?
Melissa Diner: Other committee members and myself are constantly thinking about how we can engage people to help move all the community projects we are working on forward, including this one, but many others too. There are 95 Neighborhood Councils in Los Angeles, all that receive a budget from the city, and anyone can submit motions as an individual whether or not they sit on the council.

For the motion itself, I was inspired by Scout Willis, Demi Moore and Bruce Willis' daughter. She had done something similar to the #freethenipple and "rock the vote" campaigns. I saw her in the news supporting women's equal rights by going topless. I thought that this topic, although a serious equality issue, has the ability to start a conversation and get people involved.

What are your thoughts on the #freethenipple campaign?
I think we we are aligned on this as an equality issue, and I look forward to seeing how we can collaborate on this initiative in the future. #Freethenipple posted something on Instagram in support [of the Venice Bill]. That was really cool.

Under the current ban, if a woman is caught sunbathing topless at a beach, what penalties might she face?
I think in most cases the law, police lifeguards, etc., would not jump to penalizing instantly—rather, [they would issue] a preliminary warning. From the recent past, from what I've heard from people, there hasn't been aggressive enforcement of it. From what I hear, it's simply: "Hey, cover up."

[Note: A spokesperson for the West Los Angeles Police Department said toplessness is considered a misdemeanor, and that if a police officer witnesses the act, the perpetrator can be arrested for indecent exposure. If a police officer isn't present but a nearby person is offended by the toplessness, he or she can make a citizen's arrest—though I couldn't find any instances of citizen's arrests for toplessness in Venice Beach.]

Can you tell me a little bit about the history of nude and topless beaches in California?
As I have heard from people that were here in the 60s and 70s, nude sunbathing was allowed in Venice until the ordinance prohibiting it was put in place. [Los Angeles County Ordinance] 17.12.360 outlines the versions dating back to 1969. Others have told me that in the 80s, women were laying out topless with no one bothering them.

Related: VICE meets the topless protest group known as Femen.

Do you think the wording in the current law is sexist? Is it significant that there is something that specifies a different rule for "female persons"?
I think it's significant because it shows that it's specifically calling out only females. Maybe at the time when it was first written, they were trying to protect women. But I just think now, reading it, we should eliminate specifically calling out "female persons." Just take out that one sentence—really, only a couple words.

Do you hope that Venice Beach might eventually become clothing-optional or a full nude beach?
I try and find middle ground in order to push things forward. I definitely hear the people that say it should be all nude. Although I support them, I don't think that's something that would happen on Venice Beach, for various reason. I think you always have to start somewhere, and you start where people can all be on board. That's why I think this is the best place to start.

Besides changing the law, what do you hope to achieve?
I think this is a serious equality issue and I'm excited to pursue this further to see what we can do in order to have a say in changing this law. But it's also just something I hope will inspire people, more than anything, to come up with their own conversation starters and get involved in local politics, here in LA or across the US. If you have to put something sexy on the ballot in order to get people involved, I think that's OK. The more people that are involved, the more people are being represented in our community as a whole, and we have the right to vote for that reason. So many people that are young are not interested in politics in any way. I think it's important to be a part of your community.

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