Public Nudity and The Socio-cultural Impact


Public nudity, or nude in public (NIP), refers to nudity not in an entirely private context, that is, a person appearing nude in a public place or being able to be seen nude from a public place. Nudity on private property but where the general public is commonly free to enter, such as a shopping mall, public transport or swimming pool, is also considered public nudity. Nudity in the privacy of a person’s home or grounds is not considered public nudity, nor is nudity at privately owned facilities where nudity commonly takes place, such as gymnasia, locker rooms, saunas, or specific nudist clubs or resorts.Naturism is a movement that promotes social nudity in nature, most but not all of which takes place on private property.

Social public nudity

Not all people who engage in public nude events see themselves as naturists or belong to traditional naturist or nudist organizations. Some activists, such as Vincent Bethell, claim that association with naturism or nudism is unnecessary. Others will point out that many people who participate in events such as clothing-optional bike rides or visit clothing-optional beaches do so casually and without association or formal affiliation to groups or movements. Activist Daniel Johnson believes that labels and affiliations overly complicate a relatively simple phenomenon, alienate others from a fear of over-commitment or undesirable stereotypes, and thus get in the way of integrating nudity into everyday life.

The social norms or laws of each culture require the wearing of clothes in most situations, but this expectation may be suspended in limited circumstances. For example, there are many countries which have designated public areas as nude beaches, or where nude bathing is unofficially tolerated. In those places, a person would not face legal prosecution or official harassment merely for being nude.

Outside of those areas, community and legal acceptance of public nudity varies considerably. To avoid offending the public in general, public authorities maintain what are sometimes called “standards of decency”. What falls outside these standards are usually termed “indecent exposure”, or similar terminology. These standards, however, vary with time and place. If the intent is to draw attention to oneself, it may be referred to as exhibitionism, otherwise it may be to draw attention to a cause. There are also some people who disrobe in public to attract publicity to themselves, as a career move, such as some streakers at sporting events. There are also others who spontaneously disrobe in public, as an expression of their freedom and the shedding of inhibitions; an example being skinny dipping.

Public social nude events

Nude in public at Przystanek Woodstock festival in Poland, 2014

Some people take part in non sexual public nude events. These may be in a naturist resort or club or at a nude beach. Outdoor nude recreation can take place in private or rural areas, though generally limited to warm weather.

Others practice casual public nudity. Topfree sunbathing is considered acceptable by many on the beaches of Finland, France, Spain, Italy and most of the rest of Europe (and even in some outdoor swimming pools); however, exposure of the genitals is restricted to nudist areas in most regions. In the United States, topfree sunbathing and wearing thongs are not common in many areas, but are limited to nude beaches in various locations. It is normally acceptable for men in the U.S. to be barechested or shirtless when engaged in outdoor recreational activities.

more-details-world-naked-bike-ride-in-london-2012World Naked Bike Ride in London, 2012

Where the social acceptability of nudity in certain places may be well understood, the legal position is often less clear cut. In England, for example, the law does not actually prohibit simple public nudity, but does forbid indecent exposure. In practice, this means that successful prosecution hangs on whether there is a demonstrable intention to shock others, rather than simply a desire to be nude in a public place. Specifically, using nudity to “harass, alarm or distress” others is an offence against the Public Order Act of 1986. Occasional attempts to prove this point by walking naked around the country therefore often result in periods of arrest, followed by release without charge, and inconsistencies in the approach between different police jurisdictions. Differences in the law between England and Scotland appear to make the position harder for naked ramblers once they reach Scotland.

Photography of installations of massed nude people in public places, as made repeatedly around the world by Spencer Tunick, claim artistic merit.

Legal position

Public nudity is tolerated in some European countries: woman inSiegburg Germany, 2005

While it is often accepted in western countries that a naked human body is not in itself indecent, the circumstances of its exposure, and any offence caused to others, may be deemed offensive or disorderly. That principle is reflected in depiction of the human form in art of various forms. This is the position, for example, in Germany and Spain, although local laws in the latter country can stipulate that public nudity is either restricted or not permitted. In Barcelona public nudity used to be regarded as a recognised right, although there have been successful prosecutions for public nudity even there and a local ordinance by the local council in May 2011 empowers the authorities to impose a fine for nudity and being bare chested. In the Netherlands public nudity is allowed on sites that have been assigned by the local authorities and other suitable places [3] which effectively means any complaint will cause one to be arrested as a complaint is indication that the place was not “suitable”.

On the other hand, it is also recognised that there are large numbers of people who are, for various reasons, offended by and even distressed with displays of nudity. To accommodate these apparently conflicting principles, the courts will intervene only if there is evidence of intent either to cause offence or to behave indecently, or where such offence is a likely or foreseeable outcome. However, the exact standards of “decency” are subject to local community standards, which vary with time, place and circumstances. In general, public nudity with any perceived sexual element will be prosecuted, as it will if it is considered to be exhibitionist in character or involves exposure to children.

Nude demonstrators in San Francisco campaign against restriction of nudity in public, stating that “clothing is optional” and “nudity is not a crime”, 2013

In many countries public nudity is forbidden outright on the basis that nudity is inherently sexual. Many states of the United States fine offenders on that basis. In Arkansas, not only is nudism illegal (even on private property), it is a crime to “promote” or “advocate” (i.e. express a favorable opinion about) nudism. In many contexts, public nudity has been more accepted, especially at designated areas such as nude beaches and, even in the United States, e.g. during World Naked Bike Ride events or Bay to Breakers. In some states, such as Oregon, public nudity is legal and protected as free speech, as long as there is not the “intent to arouse”. In the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland nudity per se is not unlawful, but the circumstances surrounding particular episodes of nudity may create public order offences, according to a police spokesman in July 2013. After repeated arrest, prosecution, conviction in Great Britain, the activist Stephen Gough sued at the European Court of Human Rights for his right to be nude in public outside of designated areas (like nude hiking). Gough’s case concerned only charges brought against him in Scotland. The ECHR rejected his complaint in October 2014, stating that authorities in Scotland had not “unjustifiably interfered with his exercise of freedom of expression”, though they did admit that the “acceptance of public nudity in a modern society is a matter of public interest”.

Nudity and protest

Nudity has sometimes been used to attract media and public attention to a cause. Nudity in protest was used as a tactic by the Doukhobors in the early 20th century, and has been more widely used since the 1960s. Modern slogans include “Disrobe for disarmament”, “Nudes, not nukes!”, “Naked For Peace”, and PETA’s “I’d rather go naked than wear fur!”.

more-details-nude-people-protesting-in-san-francisco-ahead-of-the-2008-olympic-games-in-beijingNude people protesting in San Francisco ahead of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing

Public nude protest groups and events include:

  • World Naked Bike Rides attract attention to problems caused by vehicles that depend on fossil fuels, and promote a healthy alternative; the naked body is used as a symbol for the vulnerability of humans to pollution, and of cyclists to the traffic in cities. These rides are usually referred to by a name derived from their Spanish origin ‘Ciclonudista’ in countries with a Romanic language.
  • Vincent Bethell conducted The Freedom to be Yourself campaign.
  • Day Without Bathing Suits. It began in Spain in 2007. From 2009 is extending all over the world.
  • Steve Gough, UK walker who has walked from Lands End to John O’Groats naked.[13]
  • Mark Storey is a member of the Naturist Action Committee, directed by Bob Morton, a sister organisation to the US The Naturist Society. He co-founded the Body Freedom Collaborative in Seattle with Daniel Johnson, Washington state in the US, whose goal is to bring attention for the need for legal clothing-optional beaches through “guerilla pranksterism”, among other approaches.
  • Anarcho-naturism is a tendency within the anarchist movement that advocates naturism.
  • The Sex Party of British Columbia (Canada) promotes normalization of all parts of the human body and destigmatizing human sexual organs. It would pass legislation requiring all public parks and beaches larger than one hectare to designate areas reserved for nudists.
  • The former Dutch party Naastenliefde, Vrijheid en Diversiteit would have passed legislation to make public nudity legal everywhere, provided that a towel is used when sitting on a public bench.
  • Starkers! and the emergence of clubbing culture and naturism developed in London.
  • The short-lived Naturist Lifestyle Party in New South Wales, Australia aimed “to bring naturism fully into the public eye, with view to getting an equitable allocation of public resources to those who support the naturist lifestyle.”
  • Gerald Ganglbauer convened Free Beach Action NSW, a lobby group for naturism in New South Wales.
  • FEMEN (Ukrainian: ) is a group of topless female activists. The organization became internationally known for organizing controversial topless protests against sex tourism,[19][17] religious institutions, sexism, homophobia and other social, national and international topics. Founded in Ukraine, the group is now based in Paris. The organization describes itself as “fighting patriarchy in its three manifestations – sexual exploitation of women, dictatorship and religion” and has stated that its goal is “sextremism serving to protect women’s rights”. FEMEN activists have been regularly detained by police in response to their protests. In September 2013 FEMEN came under heavy criticism when the Australian documentary film-maker Kitty Green exposed a man named Victor Svyatski as the mastermind behind the group. Svyatski was previously known as (only) a “consultant” to the movement. In the documentary Ukraine is not a brothel Svyatski admits he is the brain behind the group, stating that the girls would not have been able to start FEMEN without him, which is confirmed by some of the female FEMEN activists. In the documentary Svyatski is heard intensively instructing the FEMEN women how to perform their protests and bullying them when not all goes according to plan. Activist Inna Shevchenko admits later in the documentary that the patriarchal system runs so deep in Ukrainian women, it was probably indeed not possible to start FEMEN without Svyatski, but is also clear that this is not something that can continue much longer. Shevchenko explains that Svyatski will have to go, even if he is unwilling to do so. FEMEN received much criticism after this exposure, but film-maker Green stated that the press overemphasized Svyatski’s role, not including that he indeed was no longer involved with FEMEN after the release of the film.

Artistic expression

Photograph depicting a performance of Spencer Tunick on a bridge in Amsterdam

A nude group of men among hundreds of tourists at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate; photographed by Team Henning von Berg/Marco.

Though depictions of nudity have been an aspect of art at all times, contemporary art has extended the use of nudity to non-traditional forms. For example:

  • Spencer Tunick’s installations feature photographs of large numbers of nude people (up to 18,000) posed in artistic formations. In these formal images, the nude form becomes abstract due to the sheer number of people placed so closely together. For Tunick, the individual naked body is not important; it is the big group which becomes a “living sculpture” in the landscape.
  • San Francisco Bay area photographer Jack Gescheidt stages events as part of an ongoing series, called “The Tree Spirit Project”.
  • Charles MacFarland’s films feature naked people in social settings. Locations include international naturist resorts and beaches.
  • Photographer Henning von Berg directs whimsical art happenings with small groups of completely naked people in public urban locations around the globe. While placing a few nude women and men at crowded landmarks in downtown metropolises, he is searching to capture the interaction between the naked amateur models and the thousands of very surprised passers-by. Von Berg also organized the world’s only-ever male nude photo shoot inside a parliament building, while hundreds of speechless people surrounded the group of six amateur models.

Recreation and sport

painted-cyclists-2005Solstice Cyclists in Seattle, 2005

Certain activities in public areas are more readily accepted to be done while naked, such as sunbathing and swimming. Everyday activities such as riding a train or bus, shopping, or attending school or work are almost never considered by the public to be appropriate without clothing.

Examples include going nude swimming at hot springs, nude beaches, naked hiking, streaking and even roller skating. Sandy Snakenberg has organized nude skating and rollerblading events in San Francisco, the largest of their kind in the world. Nude beaches are found in many Western countries.

In recent times, it appears that public nudity is becoming more common with nude sporting and other activities being held. These include naked hiking, canuding (nude canoeing), the World Naked Bike Ride, Bay to Breakers, Solstice Cyclists. Clothing-optional bike rides are becoming regular events around the world.

In 2016 naked dining has become something of a fashion, with naked restaurants opening in London, Melbourne and Tokyo.

Ritual nudity

Jain monk of Digambara tradition, 2010.

Although most ceremony and traditions involve dressing up, often with some preferential attire, certain cultural or religious traditions actually prescribed ritual nudity. For example, ancient Sparta held a yearly celebration from 668 BC called gymnopaedia during which naked youths displayed their athletic and martial skills through the medium of war dancing. The Adamites, an early Christian sect, practiced “holy nudism”, engaging in common worship in the nude. During the Middle Ages, the doctrines of this obscure sect were revived: in the Netherlands by the Brethren of the Free Spirit and the Taborites in Bohemia, and, in a grosser form, by the Beghards in Germany. Everywhere, they met with firm opposition from the mainstream churches.

This may be symbolic, especially for ‘rebirth’ to a new life phase, as in the case of baptism (originally taken by an adult, later often as a child – to symbolise the washing away of original sin – and/or at least partially covered up) or certain coming of age rites, such as cow jumping by young men of the East African Hamar people before they are eligible for marriage.

In other cases, the physical exposure is a functional part testing endurance, e.g., to undergo scarification, as among various Australian Aboriginal and Sepik River tribes in New Guinea.

In India, Digambara monks reject any form of clothing and practice nudity. Digambara (lit. ‘sky clad’) is one of the two main sects of Jainism.

There is a tradition in some neopagan Wiccan covens of ritual nudity, called going skyclad.

Sexual public nudity

Striptease at the Nudes-A-Poppin’-Festival

Nudity in public, if any, is most commonly non-sexual in nature. For example, aspects of the Nambassa hippie festivals held in New Zealand in the 1970s are regarded as non-sexual naturism. For example, of the 75,000 patrons who attended the 1979 Nambassa 3-day counterculture festival, an estimated 35% spontaneously chose to remove their clothing, preferring complete or partial nudity.

However, some nudity in public may give rise to controversy. For example, some people regard flashing, streaking and mooning as indecent exposure and as sexual public nudity. Similarly, some people regard dogging, exhibitionism, and voyeurism as offensive behaviour.

Burning Man camps range from non-sexual nudity to overtly sexually themed, while the Folsom Street Fair held in San Francisco is a leather and BDSM themed fair.

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