There’s an interesting academic paper that came out recently:
Although the paper was published in September 2018 and has been discussed briefly in a few naturist forums, now is a good time to subject it to careful scrutiny, because a summary of it has just been published in Issue 38.3 (Spring 2019) of The Naturist Society’s “N” magazine. Unfortunately, the article hasn’t been published online, as far as I know. If you care about the public nudity issue, it’s probably best to read the original paper anyhow.
The paper makes some good points that most naturists will agree with. If you want to read a positive article on naturism you might check out the paper – even though it uses occasional legal jargon. However, it must be said that the paper has some weaknesses.
I’m not going to disagree strongly with it. But if naturists want to use this paper to defend a right to be publicly naked, they should understand the weaknesses in order to develop improved arguments for nudity in public.
One weakness in the argument of this paper is an ambiguity of the word “public”. Are we talking about being naked socially, with other people who don’t object to nudity but may or may not be naked themselves? That could simply be in private homes other than with immediate family. It’s certainly the case in both naturist clubs and resorts, and also in the few “public” beaches where nudity is officially (or de facto) allowed. It also includes “public” facilities, such as theaters or restaurants, where nudity may be seen (in performers or patrons) but is expected. (On private property, including office buildings, shopping malls, etc., the property owner understandably has the final say.)
On the other hand, a more inclusive meaning may be considered, where nudity should be deemed acceptable in many or most places freely accessible by the general public, such as public parks, camping facilities, walking or cycling paths, etc. Or, at the very least, some reasonable portion of these. This vagueness is a problem, since it can be claimed that being naked in places which are “public” only in a limited sense is sufficient for a person to enjoy the benefits of naturism. And therefore it isn’t necessary to allow nudity more broadly.
One matter that isn’t quite adequately addressed is how to balance the benefits of public nudity (in either sense) against supposed harms that many people fear may result from unrestricted public nudity. The alleged possible harms are many and varied, so there’s a need to deal with them explicitly. The paper briefly discusses some, but not all, of the harms that many people fear from allowing public nudity. However, the arguments offered about such fears are somewhat cursory, and probably wouldn’t satisfy many people who hold the fears.
What is meant by “rights”?
The thesis of the paper is that “states should recognize this liberty [being publicly naked] as a distinct right rather than try to protect it under existing rights”. The author further states that “By a ‘right to be publicly naked’ I mean a legally protected liberty to be naked in a range of places, including public beaches, streets, squares, and forests.” That’s a fairly ambitious proposal. So strong arguments are necessary in order to defend it. A proposal that’s not quite so sweeping might be accepted based on somewhat weaker arguments.
Before we can reasonably discuss the issues at all, we need some clarity on what is meant by “rights” in the first place. It’s good that the paper doesn’t go so far as to assert that public nudity (in any form) is, for instance, a “fundamental human right”. Instead, it’s proposed only that “states should recognize” the right. The difference is that this avoids issues about philosophical questions of what “rights” actually are. The proposal is simply that being naked publicly is in the same category as other things that the state treats as “rights”, such as freedom of speech or religion. While limits usually apply to any such “rights”, for the most part they are recognized and respected by the state.
Realistically speaking, there is no such thing as a “fundamental human right”. In the real world, rights exist only after – and to the extent that – they have successfully been fought for and recognized by the government. Historically, it has usually been the case that most rights have achieved recognition and protection only after some amount of struggle on the part of people who desire the right. Unfortunately, governments – and many special interest groups in every society – have vested interests in fighting against almost any right you can think of or might want to exercise.
There are many examples. In most societies throughout history, “slaves” have not had any significant rights at all – not even to life. In the U. S. it took a bloody civil war to establish “full” civil rights for slaves. In the U. S. – and in most of the rest of the world currently – LGBTQ people have only a subset of full rights. In many countries – especially in Africa and the Middle East – they are still struggling to have even minimal rights recognized.
It’s true that the U. S. Constitution has a “Bill of Rights”. There are similar things in many modern countries – but little that is genuine in most authoritarian countries, such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, etc. And even in the U. S. the list of “enumerated” rights is quite short, with all other rights being “unenumerated” and thus subject to debate and variation over time. Such other rights include the right to vote (!), the right to travel, the right to make decisions about one’s health care, and the right to end one’s own life when facing painful “natural” death.
Even protected rights in the U. S. (e. g. for speech, (limited) privacy, protection against self-incrimination, etc.) are subject to endless political debate at the margins. And many things that ought to be rights aren’t recognized at all. A right to public nudity is one of those.
The Supreme Court in the U. S. is pretty much able at will to grant or refuse recognition to rights. That’s basically how LGBTQ people in the U. S. have obtained partial equality with others in terms of exposure to criminal sanctions. But their rights at the margins remain under political attack. In 1973 the Supreme Court gave half the population (women) the “right” to have an abortion (within limits). Yet that right could just as easily be yanked away, depending on how the political winds are blowing. A number of U. S. states have already attempted to do that.
The Supreme Court of the U. S. in the decision known as Barnes v. Glen Theatre, Inc. specifically ruled that “the state has the constitutional authority to ban public nudity, even as part of expressive conduct such as dancing”. (This was a case where people saw nudity voluntarily – not by surprise.) In other words, the Constitution’s 1st Amendment that supposedly guaranteed freedom of “speech” was null and void as far as non-verbal forms of speech – such as “expressive conduct” – are concerned. One could argue that therefore the use of sign language is also not protected “speech”. Actual speech itself may be subject to restrictions based on a “time, place, or manner” test. See how ridiculous such denial of rights can get?
The bottom line is that no rights exist except to the extent that political authorities recognize them. And the only way to obtain that recognition is to fight for it on the social and political battlefield.
Symmetry of “rights” and “obligations”
There’s another way to look at this situation that might be illuminating and give naturists a stronger way to argue for a right to be publicly naked (to some extent or other). Naturists are on the defensive if they have to debate the question of whether there should be a right to be naked in public. So naturists might be in a stronger position if they insist on a debate over whether there should be an obligation to wear some amount or special type of clothing in public.
It’s well understood that citizens do have certain obligations (both legally and socially) as well as rights. In fact, rights and obligations typically occur in pairs. For instance, there is a right to own private property, and (nonauthoritarian) governments generally protect the right. But that directly implies people have an obligation not to take another person’s property by theft or fraud. Citizens also have positive obligations, such as paying taxes, ensuring their children get a proper education, and obeying traffic laws.
But such obligations can also be subject to question and debate. So naturists might well ask why there is an obligation to wear any clothes in most public places. Or whether this obligation applies only in certain specific places (schools or government offices, perhaps) – instead of all public places except some beach or campground 100 miles away. The good thing about framing the debate this way is that it places a burden on opponents of public nudity to offer and defend sufficiently strong justifications for making obligatory the wearing of (at least some) clothes in public.
Possible arguments against a right of public nudity and in favor of an obligation to wear clothes
The paper has a section on “Objections and Some Rejoinders” to the idea of a right to be naked. This is very important to examine, because if opponents of nudity try to justify an obligation to wear clothes – which naturists regard as an unfair burden – it’s necessary for naturists to have good arguments against the obligation. Unfortunately, this part of the paper is brief, weakly argued, and focuses on “straw man” arguments that may not adequately deal with the objections to nudity.
I do believe there are good arguments against most of the objections listed, even though the paper doesn’t deal with them as well as it could. Note that only 4 points are included. Certainly there are more out there, some of which may be more troublesome. I won’t go into much detail about these here. Any of these points could be the subject of extended discussion, and I’ll probably return to that in the future. For now, though, here’s the “complete” list:
Human bodies – as well as the bodies of common animals, none of which are required to wear clothes – do harbor a variety of infectious agents internally and on the skin. It’s true that clothing provides some minimal protection from agents carried on the skin. But what about transmission of pathogens by sneezing or from dirty or infected clothing? And outdoors, people are exposed to all kinds of animal-source pathogens, from bird poop to animal scat. What about any things, like door handles or faucets on restroom sinks, that other people touch frequently? There certainly are some people who are germophobes. But how much weight should their concerns carry as a justification for an obligation on others to wear clothes? Is there any evidence that nude beaches and nudist/naturist resorts are responsible for causing any more contagious diseases than other facilities used by many people?
Here’s a really contentious area. It’s obvious that in most “modern” societies the sight of naked bodies – sometimes even partly naked bodies where genitals and female breasts are covered but little else – is considered per se “offensive” to many. That much is hard to deny. Even artistic or photographic depictions of naked humans are considered offensive by many. However, there are quite a few other things that many people also find “offensive”, yet which are not regulated as strictly as naked bodies. The list is long: homeless people, people who wear dirty or controversial clothing, talking loudly on a cell phone, rude or “profane” language (even sometimes people who speak in a “foreign” language), and so on.
This becomes somewhat of a philosophical issue. Exactly why is it that anyone is able to use being “offended” – though suffering no physical harm – as an excuse for imposing an obligation on the offending party to cease or hide whatever causes the “offense”? Especially since the obligation is mostly mandated by law where nudity is the source of offense. “Public displays of affection” also “offend” a lot of people, but are seldom regulated as severely as nudity. Even when the display is between people of different races – or the same sex. This is an area where naturists should be aggressive in objecting to “offense” caused by nudity as justification for an obligation to wear clothes.
- Ugly bodies
This is mainly a subcategory of the “offense” issue. Certain types of bodies seem to be per se “offensive” to many people. Examples include bodies of the elderly, the obese or merely overweight, people disfigured because of accident or disease, excessively hairy people, people of different ethnicities, and so on. And this is true even if the “offensive” person isn’t naked but is unable to hide the “offensive” element with some sort of special clothing. People whose appearance may be deemed offensive, even if wearing only a conventional bathing costume (at the beach or on their own property), are usually not required to cover up. Obviously, the obligation to cover up arises only with body parts having sexual associations (genitals, female breasts). Then, and generally only then, is there an obligation to cover the “offensive” parts, no matter how aesthetically pleasing the rest of the body is or isn’t. This is unfairly burdensome on women more than men, for obvious reasons.
Male and female genitals alike are usually not considered especially aesthetic by themselves in most societies. (Indeed, male genitals are often referred to as “junk”.) But obviously the sexual association is mainly what makes them “offensive” when not covered up. This isn’t right, but it’s how things are. Naturists have a lot of work to do to convince the rest of society that genitals are just completely ordinary body parts, and ought not to be treated as something that is “shameful”, “disgusting”, or “offensive” by their mere physical appearance or sexual association. Obviously, this requires addressing very common sexual hang-ups in society – often based on specious religious opinions. And that’s not at all an easy thing to do.
- Deviant sexual behavior
This is a category of reasons for an obligation to wear clothes that, in my opinion, the author of the paper handles poorly.
There are various categories of such behavior, such as rape, pedophilia, exhibitionism, “lewdness”, etc. There are two distinct issues here. First, how likely is a naked person to engage in one of these behaviors? Would such a person having the deviant tendency be more likely to express it if naked than if not? That question can be addressed with empirical studies. The answer would probably be “yes”, almost by definition in the cases of exhibitionism or lewd behavior. It’s not an uncommon problem at clothing-optional beaches for a few people (usually men) to masturbate or behave sexually with a willing partner. To deal with the problem it’s necessary for responsible naturists to take action to curtail the unwelcome behavior – such as by alerting police. If and when public nudity is considered acceptable at places likes beaches and parks this type of problem has to be addressed.
But what about rape and pedophilia? It would actually seem, in general, very unlikely that a person who’s publicly naked would attempt anything of the sort. Why? Simply because the person’s nudity would immediately draw attention to himself (or herself). That’s not a good situation if the person is of sound mind and intent on committing real crimes of any sort. However, again, in a place like a beach or public park where nudity is allowed, a potential perpetrator might not be immediately noticed if attempting, for example, to behave improperly with children.
The second issue is whether the presence of naked people in public would tempt or incentivize others (who may or may not be naked) to engage in deviant behavior. Again, this is certainly possible. But how likely is it, really, for a person who’s aroused by the nudity of others to behave deviantly? It’s possible that a person with such tendencies might yield to temptation. Probably, however, that’s only if others’ nudity is perceived as a sign of openness to sexual advances, and if the person doesn’t understand that naturists who are naked in public places where it’s allowed are not interested in or tolerant of deviant sexual behavior.
Naturism is easily misunderstood by many people in most societies as an expression of interest in sexual activity. The public needs to be educated that such is not the case. Naturists need the cooperation of news media to get that message out. Communication of misunderstandings about naturism by the media needs to be strongly opposed. Then, once the facts are well known in the community, clothing doesn’t need to be obligatory, and naturists can be publicly naked without encouraging inappropriate behavior. It’s necessary but not sufficient to set aside specific public places where clothing is optional. It’s also necessary to make clear to the public that naturism is a legitimate choice that naturists themselves cannot enjoy in the presence of any deviant behavior.
There’s a good analogy here with what women face if they want to dress “comfortably” and are then misunderstood as “asking for it”. Therefore, in order for women – and men as well – to feel comfortable taking advantage of places where clothing is not obligatory, it should be expected for appropriate action to be taken against anyone who engages in harassment of women, men, or children who’re enjoying partial or full nudity. The goal is that anyone, whether female or male, young or old, can feel secure wearing as little (including nothing at all) as is physically comfortable for them.
So what’s the best way to summarize what naturists should be doing to achieve more acceptance of public nudity? It seems that the main thing not to do is to argue that deviant behavior is quite unlikely. I think it’s a mistake to suggest that this problem is not a good reason to justify anti-nudity laws. What needs to be done, instead, is to take the problem seriously and give a credible proposal for how to deal with it – short of simply making clothes obligatory.
This can be done in various ways. One is to point out that problems of deviant behavior are handled pretty well at private nudist/naturist clubs and resorts. That, however, is only because the management of such places is usually vigilant in suppressing unwelcome behavior. The same is true at popular clothing-optional beaches where naturists themselves accept the responsibility to deal with improper behavior. So in order to secure many more places in public parks, hiking trails, etc. where wearing clothes isn’t obligatory, everyone who wants to freely enjoy such places has to take responsibility for encouraging proper behavior.
This is a small scale example of what the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau called the “social contract”. In other words, in exchange for enjoying rights (such as being publicly naked), people need to assume the concomitant obligation of ensuring that the rights are exercised responsibly by everyone.
As it happens, the fact that smartphones are now present almost everywhere is a good thing. Any unacceptable behavior can be easily recorded and the proper authorities can be notified immediately. That seems like a pretty good deterrent to misbehavior. (At the same time, the violation of others’ privacy by photographing without permission needs to be discouraged. This is another example of a social contract: use the smartphone responsibly but don’t violate the privacy of innocent people.)
An interesting question is whether there’s some way to exclude from clothing-optional areas anyone who’s been found guilty of deviant sexual behavior. People who are convicted of sexual offenses are generally required not to live near schools, to have their names put on a register of sexual offenders, and so on. It would make sense that they be excluded from places where nudity is allowed, such as at designated portions of beaches and parks. Naturists clubs and resorts generally check registers of sexual offenders in order to deny them admission. But those are private businesses, and it’s not clear how to do this in public places.
But what about the effect of adult nudity on children?
This is the elephant in the room of reasons to make wearing clothes obligatory in public. And yet the author of the paper under discussion doesn’t even include the issue in his list of “objections” to a right to be publicly naked. In fact, the possible effects of adult nudity on children are hardly mentioned at all, except to be summarily dismissed. Practically the only relevant discussion is on page 7. Five empirical studies “of the last few decades” that deal with “the link between nudism and well-being” are mentioned. (Only one of them is more recent than 1998.) The author then writes “Whereas it is often feared that exposure to nudity has a detrimental psychological and behavioural impact on children, this has not been corroborated by empirical research.” Two studies (from 1966 and 1998) are cited that “found no relationship between early-life exposure to nudity and the development of psychiatric symptoms later in life.”
I tend to believe that these research findings are correct. But I think we’re all very well aware that large segments of the general public have quite different opinions on the matter. Certainly, a number of careful studies on this are needed. Exposure to adult nudity has been cited as potentially harmful to children by some professional psychologists. Even people like Benjamin Spock have been skeptical or cautionary about this. So naturists must take the matter seriously – even though most have not found nudity to cause harm to their own children or to the children of other naturists they know. (It is, of course, also well known that teenage children in naturists families often become uneasy with being naked themselves – usually out of possibly valid concern for the opinions of their peers.)
The point, then, is that this issue simply can’t be ignored in any proper discussion of people being publicly naked. But it’s a very complicated issue, so I’ll return to it in a later post. All I’ll do here is list a few questions that ought to be considered.
- Does the sight of adult nudity harm, “scar”, traumatize, or have other bad effects on more than a very few children?
- What rights do parents have if they wish, for whatever reason, to shield their children from seeing anyone naked in public?
- Are children who are naked in public places at risk of attention from or “grooming” by pedophiles?
- Are pedophiles tempted to engage in unacceptable behavior by seeing naked children or adults in public?
- Is there evidence of any psychological harm to children in naturist families from being (willingly) naked in public?
- Are children in naturist families who are sometimes naked in public more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior?
What practical steps should naturists consider if they want to diminish some or many of the existing legal obligations to wear clothes in public?
We all know there are large segments of society that are now and probably will be for a long time opposed to any progress towards acceptance of even limited public nudity. So I don’t think that naturists can rely solely on arguments that there is an inherent right to be publicly naked.
Making the argument that there ought to be such a right can – and should – be part of the strategy. Stated differently, naturists definitely should argue that it’s inherently unfair to make clothes obligatory almost everywhere in public. For a long time, however, naturists will need to expect progress towards acceptance of public nudity to be gradual. Therefore, naturists need also to employ additional tactics to change public opinion. Here are some things this strategy might include:
- Be realistic, reasonable, and pragmatic. Expect to expand gradually but steadily the number of places where it’s possible to be publicly naked. This means slowly adding places like beaches, public parks, hiking trails, and camping areas where nudity is acceptable. It will be easier, but still good, if only parts of such places are made clothing-optional.
- Use your existing social network to try to find other people who might be interested in naturism. Even if you don’t think you know people like that yourself, if you are open with existing friends about your interest in naturism, they may know other people who might also be interested – even if they aren’t themselves. If so, ask them to introduce such people to you.
- If your family or other people you live with are reasonably comfortable with your nudity, don’t be afraid to be naked when others who are open-minded about nudity visit your home. They may be supportive or encouraging of your naturist interest even if they don’t share it themselves. You need not be naked every time someone like that visits, but only (perhaps) when using a swimming pool or spa, or for a “special occasion” like a costume or “birthday suit” party for yourself or a naturist friend.
- Use the techniques of “grassroots” naturism to spread awareness and understanding of naturism from current naturists to their more open-minded friends and relatives. Interest in having more places where public nudity is allowed will increase as more people learn about the pleasures and benefits of social nudity. (Read my fictional accounts of “grassroots naturism” to learn what could be possible.)
- As you find additional people who become interested in naturism, social nudity, or public nudity, suggest they attend meetings of city councils and the like with you to ask for more places to be designated clothing-optional, or at least to grant permits to hold clothing-optional events like picnics, parties, social gatherings, or “talent shows” in suitable areas of public parks. The more people you can persuade to join in doing this, the better the chances of success.
- Encourage and support specific events where nudity is acceptable – things like dramatic and musical performances, art gallery and museum events, world naked bike rides, naked yoga classes, public lectures on naturism, etc.
- Work to encourage scientific studies of both the social and health benefits of nudity, as well as to show that supposed negative aspects of nudity are much fewer than generally supposed. How to do that? Get in touch with faculty in the sociology and psychology departments of local colleges and universities. Suggest to them nudity-related topics that are worthy of study.
- Purchase and donate to local public libraries recent books, videos, etc. that deal with naturism, as well as the psychology, sociology, and history of nudity and naturism. If there seems to be positive interest, volunteer to give talks (clothed or not) on the subject. Bring naturist or naturist-curious friends along to participate.
- Consider starting a “support group” for anyone who has some interest in naturism or clothing-optional activities but has concerns about people or circumstances in their personal lives that might not have a favorable opinion of such an interest. Problem areas might include spouses or other family members, the opinions of friends, concerns about children, possible difficulties with employers, etc.
- Use your own imagination, interests, and talents to come up with similar ideas. For instance, if you’ve been to enjoyable naturist or clothing-optional places in the world, or taken a good clothing-optional cruise, a travel agency might let you give a talk on the experience. At least, they’ll probably be glad to take literature promoting such places.
- Continue to support and patronize existing naturist businesses and resources so that people who might get interested in naturism have easy access to places they will perceive to be safe and welcoming. Better yet, invite anyone who shows an interest to accompany you on your next visit to a naturist place so they can learn first-hand what naturism is actually like.
The general idea should be to gradually increase the number of people who enjoy and benefit from social nudity – because the more people who discover and begin to enjoy the pleasures of social nudity, the more likely they are to be understood and accepted by the general society. And in return society will gradually allow nudity in additional, suitable “public” places.