In July 1974, a streaking craze swept the nation. It hit Los Angeles hard. There were naked runners in Pasadena and naked strippers on Hollywood Boulevard. One guy streaked the Academy Awards. Ray Stevens’ made a song about it, “The Streak,” which rose to #3 on Billboard and sold over five million copies.

The center of streaking, in L.A. at least, was Venice Beach. Hordes of “naturalists,” “nudists” or just people who liked to get naked paraded around the beach in fleshy squadrons. After news cameras exposed the widespread nudity on Venice Beach, the Los Angeles City Council decided to do something about it.

It was the most controversial issue the council had faced in years. So many people showed up at the hearing there wasn't enough room for them in the 400-seat chamber. A crowd of 200 gathered outside.

“I’ve never received more concerns on any one issue than this one,” said one council member, frustrated that more pressing issues didn’t receive the same attention.

The Council wavered on whether to initiate a ban on public nudity (an earlier vote was 9-4 against a ban), but then a streaker showed up. It was Bob Opel, who had streaked the Academy Awards. He ran naked through the crowd, which included many children, and exposed himself in front of the Council table. A woman screamed, “Is this what you want?!”

The streak gelled the dissension. The Council voted 12-1 to ban nudity citywide and, for forty years, L.A. remained nudity-free.

That may be about to change. Where Venice was once the reason for the killing topless sunbathing, it may now be responsible for its revival. And it's about time.

Tuesday night, the Venice Neighborhood Council voted 12-2 to recommend legalizing topless sunbathing for women. The resolution argues:

Venice Beach was founded and designed around the European culture of Venice, Italy…topless bathing is commonplace in Europe…Venice Beach has been a safe haven for liberal views and free thinking…The Venice Neighborhood Council supports women being afforded the same rights as men to sunbath topless on the sand of Venice Beach.

It was introduced by a young, enterprising councilwoman named Melissa Diner. The dull VNC meeting lit up like Christmas when her resolution was called. There was hooting and clapping from the crowd. Other Council members couldn't help but smile. Locals stood up and gave their comments, some passionately for toplessness, some passionately against, some passionately non-sequitur.

“If we’re going topless for females, we should allow total nudity for everyone!” said one local. “The only people against it will be prudes and the swimsuit monopoly!”

Diner, thankfully, did her politicking beforehand.

Go Topless Day in Venice; Credit: Photo by Keith Plocek

Go Topless Day in Venice; Credit: Photo by Keith Plocek

The bill is in part a publicity stunt, to be sure. The resolution's passage means only that an official letter will be sent to the mayor's office, persuading him to make the issue a priority. Even if the mayor pressures the City Council, the only action the City Council could take would be to remove the nudity ban citywide. Most people don’t think the City Council would ever do that.

But Diner recognizes that removal of the ban is a longshot, and is transparent about her resolution's PR potential. She wants to use toplessness in Venice to draw the interest of young people to the leadership of their communities — to return a little sexiness to local government. If that's all that comes out of this, it's fine with her.

However, it’s not necessarily true that the law can’t be changed, or that it won't be. It's much easier than it seems. When citizens call the City Council's attention to an oppressive law, they have the power to amend it. They do it all the time.

More than that, the law should be changed. It’s not just a silly little thing. Both symbolic and actual equality are at stake and that really does matter. Just look at the city's law itself:

A) 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.

(the bolds are ours, of course)

Why are women being singled out? What about breastfeeding mothers? Rich people with private beaches and pools can sunbathe whenever they want. Why shouldn’t the common woman be able to do the same? Particularly in Venice, of all places.

There are nude beaches elsewhere in California and the United States, as federal law does not prohibit public nudity (though it doesn’t guarantee it either). Most, like South Beach in Miami, exist in legal gray areas — there is a law, but it goes unenforced. In California state parks, like San Diego’s famous Black’s Beach, the largest nude beach in the U.S., nudity is technically illegal, but the parks department has issued a statement saying they will not prosecute the victimless crime unless there are specific complaints. In non-state park beaches, like Venice, state law says that nudity qualifies as illegal “indecent exposure” only when “there are other persons to be offended or annoyed thereby.” To be convicted under state law, you must intend to offend someone with your nudity, which naked sunbathers rarely do.

A mural in Venice Beach; Credit: Flickr/ azequine_surgeon

A mural in Venice Beach; Credit: Flickr/ azequine_surgeon

In other words, without a specific local ban, or a spate of complaints from offended citizens, topless sunbathing is tacitly allowed on California beaches. Thus, Los Angeles has gone out of its way to be more conservative than the state norm.

As the lone dissenter from the 1974 vote explained, “I don’t know of any nudity that killed anyone…I’m not interested in making something criminal that isn’t a crime.” Laws should always err on the side of freedom, particularly when there is gender involved, and not restrict it unless there is a very good reason. In a world where Internet porn is ubiquitous and salacious billboards dot the landscape as far as the eye can see, protecting kids from seeing areolas is not a good reason. They've already seen them.

The City Council should amend the ban, only to remove the specific part about women. That way any nudity below the belt stays illegal, for those worried about childrens' eyes, while gender inequality is removed.

Some VNC members are concerned about the viability of repealing even the female-only part of the ban, because it would not just affect Venice, but the whole city. This is a valid concern. The City Council can’t write “except Venice,” into the code.

However, repealing the female-areola ban would not necessarily allow topless sunbathing everywhere. Rather, in the absence of a local restriction, state law — which says public nudity is illegal if it offends people — fills the gap. If a community like Marina del Rey wanted to keep tops on, it could enforce it by making it clear, via rules and signs, that its citizens are offended by topless sunbathing.

Ultimately, the freedom and equality gained by removing the female-centric part of the ban would cause much greater public good than harm, and would remove systemic sexism. None of us are interested depriving women their equal right to enjoy the beach. Diner's motion could be the spark needed to draw the attention of the City Council to an antiquated law.

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