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Fight for topless rights as US cools on nudity

To bare or not to bare? The question of whether women should be able to sunbathe topless is set to become the hottest controversy on American beaches this summer. In a nation notoriously prudish in its attitudes to public nudity, the issue of how much can be decently exposed arouses strong passions. The mayor of one Californian beach resort is facing calls for his resignation after suggesting that his town should lift its ban on skimpy swimming costumes.

Bob Benz, the mayor of Hermosa Beach, caused an outcry last week when he turned up at a town council meeting with a female model, who bared her breasts in front of council members to support his case. He said: I can go topless - why can't women?

Hermosa Beach, near Los Angeles, is one of many resorts across the country with strict laws on what is acceptable wear on the beach. A 1987 local ordinance makes it a criminal offence to sunbathe topless, wear thong bikinis or expose female navels. Benz, a colourful character who was once fined $271 (about 170) for drinking beer on the beach, and who plays in a rock band called the Testoster-Tones, calls his opponents "a severe anal-retentive element". The council will vote on the issue next month.

Other resorts will be watching closely. They include the beaches of Kaloko Park in Hawaii, where the authorities recently banned all public nudity, saying it offended cultural standards. The local branch of the Naturist Society is planning a legal challenge.

However, few American women would consider sunbathing topless or even allowing small children to run naked on the sand. Those resorts where it is allowed are often heavily dependent on foreign tourism, such as Miami's South Beach. While some towns have set aside remote nudist beaches, many of these are now under threat.

New Jersey, whose long Atlantic sands are packed with millions of holidaymakers every summer, is considering a new law which would ban nudity on all state-owned beaches. The move follows complaints from some residents of "lewd behaviour" by sunbathers.

Erich Schuttauf, of the American Association for Nude Recreation, says he is baffled by all the opposition. He said: "You can see the most gratuitous things on television, and yet a soap commercial showing a mother washing her naked baby would be banned."

The association says its membership has doubled to 50,000 in the past 10 years, adding that opinion polls show that 70 per cent of Americans support the provision of nude recreation areas. They also show that 40 million Americans have gone skinny dipping in mixed company, said Schuttauf.

The reality, however, is that there is little sign of a relaxation of public dress codes in a country founded on Puritan values. In Ohio last year, state legislators began enforcing a ban on topless swimsuits and thongs. Offenders face 30 days in prison or a 160 fine. Earlier this year, university authorities at Princeton, New Jersey, banned a traditional naked run by students through the campus.

Supporters of a more liberal attitude towards toplessness - which they call "topfreedom" - are pinning their hopes on equality laws, arguing that men and women should not have different standards in beach wear. The American Civil Liberties Union is fighting a number of cases. In one, a Florida professor says the refusal of Miami University to allow him to wear a thong in the college swimming pool is a violation of his constitutional rights.

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