It is "desnudas," attractive young women who strut around in bikini bottoms, feather headdresses and body paint in lieu of shirts. For about $20, they pose for snapshots with teenage boys (see below) or older guys who enjoy looking at and being photographed with naked women.
Desnudas is said to be the Spanish word for "nudes." It is also the Spanish word for "obvious," which may be more appropriate.
News reports say the desnudas have "assistants," men who paint their breasts, hold their clothes, protect them from creepy guys and apply pressure to men who do not pay appropriate gratuities. (There is another, less flattering name for guys like these who work the darker end of the money-for-sex continuum.)
The almost naked women seem to attract good custom -- reportedly, $200 to $300 daily -- while the Elmos and Spidermen in $150 costumes compete with each other and are lucky to collect $60 or so.
(In fact, some costumed characters have moved to the Battery and Coney Island to work those crowds. Others now troll Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco and and the Las Vegas strip, confirming a theme of mine that Americans consign tourists to the most unpleasant locations in every city.)
The Times Square Alliance, a chamber of commerce-type group, reports that 80 percent of its complaints this year are about desnudas. The mayor has said he would like to get rid of the desnudas and to jackhammer up the square's pedestrian plazas, which were established during the former mayor's tenure. The governor seems to share the view. (Both men have daughters, which may influence their thinking.)
All the really cool people seem to believe the desnudas should not be criticized or shamed for plying their trade, or their secondary sex organs, because men and women are equal.
The general logic is this: Men are allowed to walk around topless wherever they want, and so it is only fair for women to be able to do the same thing.
I could be described as a "First Amendment nut," and I get it. Strutting around half-dressed or naked can be understood as expression. Substituting body paint for a shirt can be described as art. There is no legal way to ban this activity.
In fact, there seems to be broad public support for the idea that aggressive panhandling in Times Square may be a problem but desnudas are not.
Last week, New York's annual topless parade of 300 women made a special detour through Times Square to show solidarity with the desnudas.
(Interestingly, the parade is a group activity in part because individual women do not go out topless for fear of encounters with lecherous men; maybe the point of the topless parade is to change this dynamic. This is not an issue that interests me.)
The city's newspapers, with the exception of one owned by a man who also owns an office building in Times Square, are neutral to fine with desnudas. From a New York Times editorial:
"Times Square has an old reputation as a crossroads of bad behavior.
But is it really being overrun again by vice? By pimps, prostitutes, muggers,
drug dealers, bootleggers, pornographers or even card-game hustlers?
Not even close."
People who are uncomfortable with the desnuda phenomenon are ridiculed and reminded that breasts are natural. There are frequent mentions of European beaches where women often sunbathe topless. On the other hand, European sunbathers don't solicit money for photographs in Potsdamer Platz or the Piazza San Marco.
The most broadly expressed view is that Americans are a bunch of judgmental, Puritanical yahoos. In fact, this may be true.
But I have a few questions.
-- What do you do if you are a tourist with children? Times Square is home to the
world's biggest Toys R Us store, outfitted with a Ferris wheel inside. If you want
to attend family-oriented Broadway shows -- Lion King, Matilda the Musical or
Aladdin, say -- you pretty much have to go through Times Square.
How do you tell a six-year-old that naked women selling pictures of themselves
is natural because of equality and the First Amendment?
(For that matter, how do you explain the difference between TV Elmo and
hustler Elmo in an old, smelly costume when hustler Elmo moves in for a hug?)
-- What if a dominatrix paraded a lightly leather-clad submissive man through
Times Square to complete his humiliation? Or a dominant man did the same
with a leashed woman wearing a black leather collar? Would this be cool?
-- What if a Times Square beggar adopted a new approach -- sitting naked on the
sidewalk with a clever sign: "Need money for clothes"?
-- What if a topless, spray-painted guy set up shop in Times Square? Would he
score hundreds of dollars in tips from horny women? Would he require a female
"assistant" to protect him from his admirers?
Equality can be a bitch sometimes.