Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Public Nudity, Civil Liberty, and Community Standards

Expanding on an issue I addressed last March, I believe that in a nation that values individual liberty, the right to appear nude in public should be a guaranteed freedom.

Before you construct your arguments against me, let me make a few points clear. I have no issue with business establishments and private citizens designating dress code rules on their own property - punishable by refusal of service or ejection from the premises. Nor do I have an issue with safety or health code regulations requiring minimum standards of dress under certain circumstances, such as food preparation/handling and construction. A right to public nudity does not, necessarily, mean that you can get naked anywhere you want without repercussion. It only means that, within reasonable expectations, a citizen should have the freedom to dress him/herself - including the freedom to not dress him/herself - as s/he sees fit. Mainly, this would apply to publicly-shared outdoor locations like streets and parks, as well as indoor pools (provided the owners are okay with it), and private yards (regardless of who can see them from the street) - basically, places where, in a less neurotic society, nudity would make sense.

I still think there could be rules in place restricting so-called "lewd" (i.e., sexually suggestive or explicit) behavior, with penalties (fines, perhaps) for anyone violating basic sanitary measures (such as sitting on a park bench without putting a towel down first). Maybe these would be hard rules to enforce, but I don't believe the solution is to take away a citizen's freedom to be bare. Although, frankly, in our modern society, I think these things would pretty much police themselves - as anyone's misbehavior could easily be recorded on somebody's mobile phone, to be used as evidence. And, gradually, the public would learn how to behave properly (and how not to behave) while nude in public.

Regarding privacy concerns, as is already the case, people in public would have no expectation of privacy in terms of any restrictions on the possibility of having their picture taken by strangers. I imagine that taking such pictures without asking first would continue to be considered impolite, but I do not believe it should be raised to the level of a crime. If you're going to go nude in public, you have to expect the possibility that you will be seen. If you don't want someone snapping a photo of you in your altogether, then don't go out in public undressed - it's that simple. In time, I think that society will get more or less used to the sight of naked bodies, and sharing pictures of them (to the extent that this practice will never go away completely, as any voyeuristic street photographer knows) will come to be recognized as the mostly innocuous activity it is (barring the levels of harassment the paparazzi employ), once the stigma is removed - which will be a direct consequence of codifying the right to bare one's body in sight of God and man into law.

Ultimately, I believe this will be a positive evolution for society, as it will reduce the taboo on nudity, and improve people's relationships with their bodies, as a counter to the unrealistic (literally, insofar as Photoshop is a contributing factor) images of perfection we are bombarded with in the media. Practically speaking, while it may be the case in our current society that a minority of people have any interest in going nude in public (and many of them may have questionable motives - a factor that I think the normalization of this behavior would go a long way in mitigating, coupled with the self-policing I described above), this is not a justification for the restriction of what should be a citizen's inalienable right to walk the streets unashamed of the way God made him (or nature, if you're not religious), rather than feeding the neurosis of a population afraid of its own bodies. If you're among the majority, and don't relish the possibility of encountering nude people in public, you should be able to rest assured in the fact that if it were allowed, very few people would actually do it (at least at first), and it would be at most a minor inconvenience to you. Is eliminating this minor inconvenience, then, worth the cost of restricting people's (all people's, including yours) basic freedoms?

Perhaps it's apparent that I am very confident in my point of view here, but I don't actually enjoy being in the minority on something that I feel so strongly about. I'm genuinely interested in what counterarguments people have to make, in the possibility that I could be convinced that I'm wrong - seeing as the alternative is to believe that most of the world is wrong. And that's something that a person should feel strongly justified in believing, at the risk of otherwise stroking one's own ego. I'd be happy to discuss the practical implications of legalizing/decriminalizing public nudity that might lead to the conclusion that it would be a bad idea - because I think those issues are valid and important to discuss. But, as an idealist, the core of my belief is that there is no argument that could undermine the theory that the right to opt out of covering one's self with clothing while in "the public square" (i.e., non-specialized publicly-owned spaces shared by equal people of diverse beliefs and opinions which may clash) is a critical component of civil liberty.

To summarize: in my view, in a free country, I should be permitted to - as an example - walk my dog (which we have no problem allowing to be nude) in a public, outdoor park while nude, regardless of other citizens' personal opinions on my nudity, provided I am not engaging in lewd or harassing behavior, nor posing an unreasonable sanitary risk to others. Am I wrong? And if so, why?

*Postscript: After finishing this write-up, I came to an illuminating realization about a difference of opinion I have (with respect to the majority) on an underlying principle fundamental to people's conclusions as to what should and should not be considered "appropriate" in public spaces. Namely, it's the concept of "community standards" - which, frankly, I find outdated in today's global culture. I have, in the past, boiled my approach down to a pithy statement that I am rather fond of - "in a free society, you will be challenged, not comforted, by what you encounter in the public square" - but perhaps it deserves closer inspection, now that I've hit on the motivation behind people's adoption of an opposing stance (compared to mine) on what the purpose of "the public square" really is.

In short, the freedom to assemble dictates that citizens should be allowed to form communities of like-minded people - as in study groups or clubs or what have you - but, in my opinion, those public spaces that are open for all to use should not be "safe spaces" where everybody gets along, but rather a stimulating forum for at-times challenging (yet hopefully civil) interaction between diverse populations. This is not the world we currently live in, exactly - although in the case of protests and such, it sometimes approaches it. But it's the one I want to be a citizen of, as opposed to the world we do live in, where you can only truly be yourself behind walls and closed doors, because people prefer to close their eyes and their minds to alternative possibilities, and revel instead in the relative safety and comfort of familiarity and tradition. I guess we're just two kinds of people. The question is, how do we coexist? Do you have to live by my rules, or do I have to live by yours?


  1. I agree wholeheartedly with your idea. The problem of course is that our society sees nudity as inherently sexual. How to assuage them of this mentality, I do not know.

  2. Maybe we should remind them, as frequently as possible (or reasonable). Do you have sex every time you take a shower? How about when you change your clothes? Is that appointment with your gynecologist actually a hookup, and if so, how does your husband feel about that? When a small child slips out of his diaper and goes on a rampage, is it because of his raging hormones? If we're going to treat, e.g., gardening in the nude as a sex act, then let's at least be consistent, and take every parent who's ever given their child a bath, and put them all in federal prison.

    But this doesn't change my opinion that justice based on reason should be instantaneous, and not subject to waiting for the public to catch up. Try telling a gay man in the 1950s to bide his time. Or a woman at the turn of the century. Or a black man a hundred years before that. With every advance we make, the fact that we're just patching bugged software, in lieu of retooling the system, becomes more and more odious.