Debbie's head is resting on my sternum, listening to my organs, her bare breast smooshed against my arm. Nina Shilling is sitting cross-legged at my feet with her eyes shut, following Debbie's voice as we lie on our backs in their Berkeley back yard. Both are topless, wearing colorful, spangly skirts, their breasts devoid of tan lines. Debbie rolls me onto my side and places her hand on the small of my back.
"You seem like a very flexible person," says Debbie, as Nina comes up and spoons me from behind. "This is my in, to be able to feel you, kind of as you were when you were between age 3 and 6, and I'm feeling this very wiggly little boy, as if you are flipping around in water, kicking and swimming." I fix my gaze up on a frond of a tree.
My professional intention was to interview Debbie, 43, and Nina, 49, two computer graphic artists, about their bare-breast freedom movement, to glean insights into the political beliefs of women who insist on public toplessness. Instead, within 10 minutes of arriving, I'm splayed on a lawn, brain activity regressed to that of a tripped-out skink. Two half-naked women are running fingers along my eyebrows, consoling me like some trembling pet that's been fed too many bong hits. I am a breast sandwich, part of an aureole Oreo initiation into the secret Temple of Tit.
And then I remember that Debbie and Nina just want to get to know me better before we begin the interview. They're a bit apprehensive; they don't do much press. This is their way of learning about someone. It's sort of like if you want to join a street gang, you've got to shoot up a liquor store. After a bit more eyebrow-stroking and a group hug, we are better acquainted, and we file into their purple, pink, and orange house with the permanent Christmas tree lights on the windows.
The two began appearing nude in public to protest the Persian Gulf War in 1991, appearing at a San Francisco Civic Center rally wearing body paint. Nina describes the moment:
"We felt like we had to do something to express how we felt, but we didn't want to be in that very morose state," she says. "We looked kind of whimsical, and we didn't know whether people would understand what we were trying to express. There were four of us, and we just slowly took our clothes off, and slowly everybody turned to look at us. And it was incredibly riveting. I felt like electricity was pouring through me."
"People drew toward us," chimes in Debbie, "and it felt like they were feasting on us. There was no need for any word of explanation about what our statement was."
Oddly enough, several weeks later the war was over.
"We became very encouraged to keep going out publicly and being vulnerable and making our statements with our bodies," adds Debbie.
From that protest arose the X-Plicit Players performance group, which espouses the belief that if men can walk around shirtless, then women should, too. And, if it's appropriate, totally nude. Around Berkeley, the X-Plicits are known as the "Naked Folks." (Just to get it over with, Debbie's breasts are smallish, perhaps an A or B cup, and Nina's are larger, either a B or C.)
The group now includes Bob, who also lives in the house, and Marty, a computer programmer who plays guitar. Others came and went, crashing at the house, and they began staging more nude "experiments" and "pilgrimages" in supermarkets, on the UC Berkeley campus, on BART, and in San Francisco at places like the New College, Adobe Book Shop, and Klub Komotion.
Nina and Debbie, the scamps, also staged an appearance at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, in which, according to their literature, they "had intercourse while cast and audience entered the spell of their intimacy by watching." The following night the class was invited to a strip club, where the two slipped around in chocolate, let audience members brush their teeth, and generally enjoyed themselves, an ongoing part of what Debbie has referred to in interviews as "a sincere, 20-year history of personal, scientific study."
"When we are naked or even partly naked with people," says Debbie, "people are stripped down, and they expose a part of themselves that's so refreshing that we find ourselves having communion with people and starting to live on another planet."
Here on Earth, the three of us are sitting on a futon in their living room, which is filled with keyboards and guitars. Nina and Debbie munch scones and pet each other, Debbie holding my hand as we chat. Behind me, on the wall, is a brightly colored painting of Annie Sprinkle playing show-and-tell with her cervix. Other walls offer color photos of the naked X-Plicits on the Berkeley campus, laughing, surrounded by photographers.
I ask about their special "Top-Free" song, and the two immediately burst into the lyrics:
"Breasts are for huggin'/ For dancin' and lovin'/ Breasts never hurt you or me/ LET THEM BE, TOP-FREE!"
But all is not fun and games in this world. In August 1993, after the increased notoriety of Andrew Martinez, UC Berkeley's famed "Naked Guy," and such X-Plicit antics as showing up nude for court appearances, the City Council voted for an anti-nudity ordinance. What was once a warm, armpit-hair-whistling breeze of freedom had become a cold, stifling wind of discrimination.
"It's really sad," says Nina quietly.
"We felt that we were watching oppression go on," says Debbie, her eyes growing moist.
Debbie and Nina were law-abiding for a year, but couldn't help themselves. Last October, they were charged with the misdemeanor offense of being topless on the street.
We talk about their upcoming event, a Feb. 25 indoor performance/rally to prepare for their March 1 pretrial hearing, in which they hope to render the ordinance unconstitutional (call 510/540-0907 for details on the show). Their fliers exclaim, "C'mon out and lend a tit!"
"By the end of the event we will have planted ourselves with the people in the audience," says Debbie. "We call the excursion that we take a 'tour of touch.' We literally are asking people to tap into and read each other's places of body, finding a place on the person's body that calls to them. And then we take people on a journey that goes for several hours."
It's time to leave. Nina eagerly runs over to the stereo and puts on their "Top-Free" song, and the two begin twirling about the living room. We exchange a final group hug -- both are terrific huggers. As we clutch each other, our respective scents emit from the pores as one collective aroma of freedom, rising high into the cloudless sky to pierce the oppressive fog of Berkeley's breast-baiting, jackbooted, totalitarian government.
Address all correspondence to: Slap Shots, c/o SF Weekly, 425 Brannan, San Francisco, CA 94107; phone: (415) 536-8152; e-mail: Slapshawts@aol.com.
By Jack Boulware