Gawkers Complicate Topless Protest At Hampton Beach

Aug 24, 2015

On Sunday, female activists in dozens of locations around the world went topless. Their goal: to encourage women to go topless anywhere that men do. To the dismay of local lawmakers, over 500 women signed up on Facebook to participate at a Hampton Beach event in New Hampshire. 

"It’s so rainy out. There’s some people on the beach not very many. But I did just see a woman walk by with a sweatshirt on but unzipped and nothing on underneath so I guess this is really happening here."

I find 20 or so women on a pavilion stage, letting it all hang out. They’re chatting, laughing, posing for TV news. It’s crowded. 

25 year old Samantha Durrette is standing off to the side, next to her husband. She says she’s here – topless – so their daughter can grow up in a world where she knows "that her body’s okay. That it’s not ABOUT the body it’s about who she IS."

New Hampshire is famous for its “live free or die” mentality, and nobody’s getting in the way of these women chilling with their shirts off . But a few passersby – one from Massachusetts, another from Montreal – tell me they are not impressed.

Lowell, MA resident Jonathan Mitchell says he borrowed his 11 year old daughter’s bra and joined 3 other men wearing bras or pasties to show solidarity with women. Women, he says, deserve the same liberties as men.
Credit Emily Corwin

It’s families like these who started threatening to cancel their vacations here when they heard women would be topless at the beach. Republican state rep Fred Rice says he can sympathize.

"People always say if you don't like it don't look. No, you can't unring a bell and you can't un-look what you've seen. "

Rice tried to find a way to stop it – but New Hampshire is one of 32 states where the law allows women to go topless. Still – he calls the movement “ridiculous.”

"This beach for its entire existence has tried to foster being a family beach."

Back in the pavilion, 54 year old Heidi Lilley seems at ease without a shirt on. 

"Oh my word, family, family, family...what about the family?" 

Lilley says it wasn’t until the 1930’s that men began to go topless in public, and it’s that arbitrary inequality  – that perpetuates harassment, and crimes against women.

"Society sexualizes the female breast, and it’s in America only, or primarily in America."

Lilley was just telling me this – when the day got …weirder… and louder. Gawking men had climbed on the stage, and were taking photos of the topless women with their smartphones. John Roy told me he thought this was a nipple contest.  

"It’s not a contest then? I guess it’s just a showing, a viewing?"

That’s when I finally spotted the organizer of the Go Topless Day at Hampton Beach. Kia Sinclair. Only she wasn’t topless. She was holding a towel tightly around her.

"What do you make of all of this spectacle? I don’t like it. Honestly, it gets to a point where all of a sudden these people are surrounding me to take pictures. Not everyone was asking."

Sinclair says if it weren’t raining – there’d be hundreds of women sunbathing, instead of just a handful on this stage like some kind of show.

The National Go Topless day event at Hampton Beach was complicated by crowds of gawking men.
Credit Emily Corwin

"It proves my point about the sexualization, the obsession with breasts, that people feel the need to like stand here and stare at us."

Sinclair told me she was heading home.

But relative old-timer Heidi Lilley says the more women go topless, the less anyone will notice.

"This is a new thing, this is totally brand new." 

But even in libertarian New Hampshire, Hampton’s Republican state Senator Nancy Stiles says – baby steps! She’s planning to propose a new law. It would let beach towns designate special areas for topless women, or for families only.