New York’s Topless Co-ed Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society Wants Women to Know Their Summer Reading Rights
From Nerve.com, February 24, 2014.
Hey, my eyes are up here!
BY ALISON GAYLIN
They crop up in New York City’s public parks when the weather gets warm: clusters of bold young women, poring over volumes of crime fiction, horror, sci fi, erotica— whatever books they can get their hands on—chatting, snacking, soaking up the sun. All of them are completely naked from the waist up.
The group is known as the Outdoor Co-Ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society. It’s just three years old, but continues to grow exponentially, in both notoriety and numbers. To date, OCTPFAS has swelled from around a dozen to 100 regular members, while its blog has racked up more than 8 million hits. They’ve received fan mail from columnist Dave Barry (who also blogged about them) and a carton of free books from the late Elmore Leonard. They’ve dined with authors Lawrence Block and Christa Faust, sparked newspaper headlines and myth-like rumors (Did Bob Dylan really paint one of their meetings in Central Park?) and have found themselves, more than once, playing the role of muse. “Authors have written about us,” says the group’s founder, an avid reader who goes by the name Alethea. “One wrote us a poem recently. It’s fun.”
It all started with Getting Off. Back in 2011, Alethea was talking to her friend, publisher Charles Ardai, about Lawrence Block’s steamy new crime novel, an upcoming release from Ardai’s company, Hard Case Crime. Getting Off was causing some in-house concern because of its cover. “Is it too much?” Ardai asked Alethea, holding up the proposed book jacket, which depicted a completely naked woman walking in on a lover, long dagger clasped behind her back. “Would you read this in public?”
It was a legitimate question for Ardai to ask a female reader. This was 2011 – the same year thatFifty Shades of Grey first leapt onto the scene and skyrocketed, largely due to the fact that, as an e-book, it lacked a cover. As numerous breathless articles pointed out, Fifty Shades could be safely read anywhere: on a commuter train, waiting for your kindergartener’s school bus, working the cashbox at a church bake sale – anywhere. And no one would be the wiser.
But a troubling one, too: The idea that a woman might find herself the object of criticism or unwanted attention while involved in an activity as cerebral, as solitary, as thoroughly un-provocative as reading…
“Yes,” Alethea said. “I would read that book in public.” She then contacted some friends and asked them if they’d be interested in reading Getting Off in Central Park. Then she asked if they’d be willing to do it topless.
Everyone jumped at the chance.
First, let’s get this out of the way: In New York City, it’s legal for women to go topless in public places. This is not a new law. In fact, it’s been in effect since 1992, when, in the case People v. Ramona Santorelli and Mary Lou Schloss, the New York Court of Appeals ruled in favor of two women who had been arrested for baring their breasts in a Rochester park. Since men are allowed to go shirtless in public, the court reasoned, women should be too—and the initial law was held void as discriminatory. The new law was put to the test in 2005, when a woman named Jill Coccaro successfully sued the city for $29,000 after being arrested for taking off her top on Delancey Street.
But when Alethea came up with the idea of the Outdoor Co-ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society, nearly 20 years after the law was enacted, very few women had taken advantage of it. “It seemed to us that this wasn’t because no woman would ever want to,” Alethea says. “It was either because women didn’t know they had this legal right, or they knew about it, but were afraid to use it.”
After all, who wouldn’t want to go topless on a stifling summer day? For Alethea and her friends, it wasn’t the shock value, or even the idea of exercising a legal right that appealed most. It was, to be honest, a matter of personal comfort. “We wanted to combat this ignorance and fear that was keeping women in two layers of fabric—shirt and bra—while men were strolling, jogging, playing Frisbee, lying in the grass, and otherwise enjoying themselves, comfortably bare-chested,” she explains.
And thus the group was born. “It’s really a great bunch of people,” says Paige, a student in her 20s who joined OCTPFAS about a year ago after reading about it online. “At the first meeting I went to, I got into these great conversations about Sailor Moon and feminism, and I knew I was meeting some like-minded girls.”
Slim and striking, with wavy jet black hair and a taste for theatrical vintage clothes, Paige resembles a pulp fiction cover model, which, she confesses, is one of her dream jobs. The books she brings to the meetings vary between college textbooks and her pleasure reading of choice—LGBT erotica with titles like The Leather Daddy and the Femme. “I like smut,” she says.
Paige says it was her two primary interests, “boobs and books,” that attracted her to the group in the first place, but she also readily admits that there’s a sybaritic element to her involvement—the feel of the sun on her skin, the exhilarating freedom that bareness can bring. It’s a natural high, one that men have been enjoying for centuries.
Of course people are going to gawk. But while she has no problem with that, Paige is out there for her own pleasure—not theirs. “I’m not a Hooters girl,” she says. “I’m just out in the sun, reading.”
There’s no denying the thrill, though. For a legal act, going topless in public is something that feels wholly forbidden, daring, and, as longtime member Shelby observes, “liberating.” A 21-year-old college student, Shelby is the same age as the New York law. Yet, like the other members, by reading topless she’s traveling territory that’s largely uncharted. Though her book choices are more staid than most (Steinbeck is a favorite) Shelby gets a charge out of the double takes she chalks up when she’s out there with her OCTPFAS friends, Grapes of Wrath in hand. “You know that everyone is staring at you,” she says. “But there’s the safety in being in a big group, and in knowing that what you’re doing is completely legal.”
Anonymity adds to that safety. While photos of OCTPFAS exploits are routinely posted on the blog, names never are, so no one needs to worry about an employer or parent getting an unwelcome eyeful. Most members would sooner whip off all their clothes than reveal their last name—but there is one notable exception: 19-year-old model Cheyenne Lutek, who came to fame this past July when she was ejected from a New York restaurant for stripping off her top while seated at a table. (Restaurants are private property and therefore don’t fall under the 1992 law.) “I’m confident in my own skin and wish for other people to feel this way, as well,” explains Lutek, who joined the group after receiving an invitation. “It wasn’t purposefully planned for the worldwide media to pick up my story, but if it hadn’t, I would have never met OCTPFAS and all of the lovely members, and friends.”
Since joining the group, though, Lutek hasn’t been ejected from anywhere. “We haven’t had one negative encounter with the cops yet,” Alethea says. And it’s for good reason. OCTPFAS makes sure to stay within the confines of the law. When they were asked to leave the courtyard of Lincoln Center—which is, as it turns out, a private business—they did, without protest.
Onlookers, for the most part, have been surprisingly polite. “That’s been the best discovery,” Alethea says. “Some passers-by are oblivious—this is New York. But the ones who do notice us are almost all pleased at the sight and welcoming. We get smiles, thumbs-up, waves.” Photo requests, which can “either be creepy and intrusive or warm and friendly,” happen often, says Alethea. But there’s always the knowledge that, should anyone get too friendly, they can always call the police.
Of course, she notes, not everyone’s response is positive: “Women – it’s always women – who roll their eyes and say, ‘Really?’ under their breath. Men who feel the need to zing out some snarky sexual remark or try to get a phone number (to which our response is, ‘Really?’) Occasionally, a guy will hide behind some bushes and stare. But these interactions are rare. If a thousand people see us in Central Park on a sunny summer afternoon, we’ll have maybe two or three annoying interactions. It’s a much better ratio than we expected.”
OCTPFAS members range in age from 17 to 43, says Alethea, who adds that they’d welcome older women as well. Besides their base of 100 New Yorkers, the popularity of the blog has made their meetings a destination spot for tourists from France, Germany, and Brazil, places all far more familiar with topless women in public spaces. The group has never turned any woman away, and never intends to.
Men are a different story. Despite the “co-ed” in the title and daily requests from men all over the world, the only male members of the group are boyfriends, husbands, and trustworthy friends like Ardai—a slight, scholarly looking man in his 40s who, during one meeting, was compelled by a female onlooker to take off his shirt. (“It’s only fair,” she told him.) “There are about 95 women in the group and five men,” Ardai laughs. “It isn’t very balanced.”
As a result, Ardai sometimes winds up acting as a bodyguard. More than once, he’s asked guys to back off. And when Lutek decided she wanted to ride the subway topless, Ardai made it his business to accompany her. What else could he do, the world being what it is?
Still, Ardai believes that, with the way things are going, the day will come soon when a topless woman engaged in summer reading would get no more attention than a shirtless man doing the same. “They’re not making out with each other, they’re not coming on to anyone,” he says. “They’re not doing anything that’s remotely sexual. They’re reading.”
The book covers, on the other hand…that’s another story.
Images via OCTPFAS