Three days ago in New York City, dozens of bared breasts and half as many women marched from Columbus Circle to Bryant Park, accompanied by a coterie of similarly topless men. The occasion—International Go Topless Day—was marked by eager press coverage in the New York Post and elsewhere. Very little of it mentioned aliens or UFOs—despite the fact that International Go Topless Day was created and is sponsored by one of the world's largest alien-worshipping UFO cults.
Every year since 2007, on the Sunday before Women's Equality Day, self-described topless activists have marched in cities across the globe, demonstrating and celebrating the idea that women and men have the same right to bare their chests in public. They're right, of course: it is dated and silly and prude to allow men to traipse around shirtless, showing off pecs, without letting women do so too.
The "recommended reading" section of GoTopless.org, the organization behind the event, however, reveals a less orthodox set of beliefs. "Read for yourself the message for humanity that was given to Rael during his UFO encounters of 1973!", beckons a link, right there on the front page, to an ebook called Intelligent Design: Message from the Designers. Clicking through reveals this synopsis:
Years ago, everybody knew that the earth was flat, everybody knew that the sun revolved around the earth, and today everybody knows that life on earth is either the result of random evolution or the work of a supernatural God. Or is it? In "Message from the Designers", Rael presents us with the vast amount of information that he received during his UFO encounters in 1973 - a third option: all life on earth having been created by advanced scientists from another world.
Intelligent Design, published in installments beginning in 1974 by a French race car driver-turned-spiritual leader named Rael (formerly Claude Vorilhon), argues that a group of benevolent alien scientists called the Elohim are responsible for all human life, and that world peace must be achieved so that the Elohim can return and impart their knowledge to all Earth's people. In its 389 pages, between stories of alien abductions and detailed specifications for building the Elohim's residence on Earth—swimming pool, spacecraft landing pad, conference room seating at least twelve—it lays out the basic tenets of the Raelian Movement, a religion that, according to its own numbers, boats over 70,000 followers in 97 countries. (I couldn't find independent confirmation for these numbers, so they should be taken with a grain of salt).
Thomas Kaenzig, an exceedingly friendly Raelian Movement spokesman living in Las Vegas, explained to me how the group became involved in topless activism. In 2007, Phoenix Feeley, a New York activist, was arrested for going bare-chested, and successfully sued the city for $29,000 (toplessness is legal in New York). When Rael heard about her case, Kaenzig said, he decided to take action, and began hosting the marches: "That's when he said, 'we have to do something about this.'"
"That's why we're holding these events worldwide now," Kaenzig added. "Obviously, equal rights is something that's in the constitutions of many countries—not just the United States—but unfortunately, it's not being implemented in this case, in many parts of the world." According to Go Topless, there were 55 marches in places as far-flung as Holland, Israel, and Burkina Faso this year.
Beyond the focus on equal rights, Kaenzig told me, toplessness fits Raelism because its adherents believe people shouldn't be ashamed of their bodies. "We were created with these body parts; it would be a huge insult to our creators to be ashamed of them," he said, adding that "very ancient tribes, like in Brazil and stuff," were regularly naked in public. "Even those who see the creators as a singular being, as a God, it's the same thing," he continued. "If you were created that way, that's nothing you should be ashamed about."
Rachel Jessee, a Go Topless spokeswoman who led this week's march in New York, has been going bare-chested in public since she began attending Burning Man as a teenager. She was introduced to what Raelians call "The Message" when a friend in Las Vegas gave her Rael's book, and shortly after, she became involved with Go Topless. "I was asked by the president of the Go Topless organization if I would be interested in being a spokesman, because I'm a performer, I'm an actor," she said. "I'm used to talking with people. I'm comfortable talking to people. I stay in shape, you know, I'm young. It's good to have a good face for the movement."
As far as new-age intergalactic religions go, the Realian Movement is pretty liberal, like a sci-fi Source Family. Beyond toplessness, Raelians like peace, sex, and the advancement of technology: they're pro-gay marriage and anti-female genital mutilation, pro-GMO and anti-gun. In 2002, a Raelian-run project called Clonaid claimed it cloned a human baby, and recently, the group has urged Cliven Bundy to pay grazing fees not to the U.S. government, but a local group of Native Americans.
A passage from Intelligent Design, ostensibly narrated by a representative of the Elohim speaking to Rael, details the organization's enlightened attitude toward sexuality (which includes, on a pink-hued website called "Rael's Girls," an explicit invitation to the movement for sex workers):
All things that bring pleasure are positive, as long as that pleasure is not harmful to anyone in any way. This is why all sensual pleasures are positive, for sensuality is always an opening up to the outside world, and all such opening is good. On Earth you are only just emerging from all those primitive taboos that tried to make anything to do with sex or nudity appear evil, whereas nothing could possibly be purer.
Nothing is more disappointing for your creators than to hear people say that nudity is something bad: nudity, the image of what we have made.
Another touches on homosexuality, group sex, birth control, and gender equality. Everything, we learn, is permitted among Rael's followers:
If you feel like doing something, first see that it does no harm to anyone, then do it without worrying about what others think of it. If you feel like having a sensual or sexual experience with one or several other individuals, whatever sex they may be, you may behave as you desire, as long as they agree. Everything is permitted on the path to fulfillment in order to awaken the body, and hence the mind.
We are at last emerging from those primitive times when women were seen merely as instruments of reproduction belonging to society. Thanks to science, women are now free to fulfill themselves sensually, without having to fear the punishment of pregnancy. At last, woman is truly the equal of man, since she may enjoy her body without living in fear of having to endure alone the undesired consequences of her acts.
"We are conscious, living beings, and we should indulge in all of our senses, because we're so privileged to have them, and it's such a beautiful thing," Jessee told me, elaborating on this philosophy. "And a human being, to feel shameful over their body—it's very sad to us. So we try to encourage people to explore their comfort zones."
One obvious explanation for the Raelians' relentless attachment to sex and controversy—another campaign involves rehabilitating the swastika's public image—is a spectacularly canny PR strategy. Go Topless Day, for instance, which offers media outlets a newsy excuse to publish photos of breasts, will continue to get press, year after year, for as long as it exists. What better than boobs to keep The Message in the news?
Both Kaenzig and Jessee, however, insisted the march isn't a simple recruitment tactic. Jessee explained that Go Topless Day is "a way for people to become more aware of the movement," but that its principles transcend any one system of thought. "This is really an opportunity for everyone, regardless of what their belief system is, to support a cause and explore their own comfort zones," she said. "For women, who could have been brought up in a Catholic religion, or a religion that makes you feel ashamed of your body, or your sexuality—it's an opportunity for them to maybe take a second look at themselves, and their beliefs, and what's important to them."
Kaenzig offered up the Christianity of Martin Luther King as an example: "We have a lot of people joining for these protests who have no interest in the Raelian Movement at all, and that's totally fine. It's really about equal rights. Just as many other civil rights causes—I mean, Martin Luther King, to be sure, was inspired by a certain philosophy and religion, but he didn't want everybody in the civil rights movements to think that way, or believe what he believed."
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]