Should Public Nudity Be Legalised?

It seems very strange that it could be illegal for someone to exist in their natural state: naked. It is not true to say that public nudity is outright illegal in the UK. There are unofficial nude beaches in the UK (such as a small section in Brighton's beach), so these are a safe haven for naturists (or nudists) who practise and advocate social nudity. Yet while many naturists appreciate the freedom of nude beaches, they are obviously exceptions to the rule – they are small pockets where you can wear no clothes without facing any harassment or threats of arrest from the police.

Many naturists believe it should be a natural right to be naked in public, so these exceptions (which also apply to some swimming pools and music festivals), whilst accommodating to naturist beliefs and lifestyle, do not go far enough. Also, from a libertarian point of view, it is argued that any lifestyle should be tolerated so long as it does not impinge on the rights and well-being of others. Offence is not a legitimate reason to prohibit a particular way of living. So what does UK law say about public nudity exactly?

Under the Public Order Act of 1986, using nudity to “harass, alarm or distress” others is a criminal offence. If you are nude and minding your own business on an unofficial nude beach, respecting ‘nude etiquette’, then you will probably be fine. However, in England and Wales, if a policeman or a member of the public believes that your public nudity is causing offence, then you can be arrested. Scotland is even less tolerant of public nudity, so not only will you be arrested, you are more likely to end up in jail.

Steven Gough, who was known as The Naked Rambler, tested the UK law from 2003-2004 by attempting to walk nude from Land's End, Cornwall, to John O'Groats, in Scotland. He was arrested 14 times and served 2 short jail sentences. He tried to repeat the walk with a companion in 2005, but was arrested for a breach of the peace and spent two weeks in jail in Scotland, showing how much stricter Scotland is on this issue.

Many libertarians will maintain that an act which causes offence, but which does not cause harm, such as public nudity, should not be outlawed. Breastfeeding in public is protected under the Equality Act 2010, however negative public opinion still surrounds the issue - for example, one woman was recently called a "tramp" for breastfeeding her baby in public. Other mothers receive similar disapproving stares and comments. But there seems to be a double standard at play here - why is public breastfeeding protected but not other forms of public nudity? If people think that public breastfeeding and public nudity is inappropriate or offensive, then the problem lies with them, not with the mother feeding her child or the naturist roaming the street. Should the naked body really be something to be ashamed of and frowned upon?

Freedom of expression should include the right to wear what one wants or to wear nothing at all, just as freedom of religion entitles one to belong to any religion they choose or no religion at all. J.S. Mill believed that individuals should be able to express themselves however they want, so long as another's rights and interests are not affected. These restrictions on public nudity can be viewed as a form of "tyranny of the majority"; the term Mill used to describe the influence of public opinion on the law. Similarly, many naturists share this outlook – they believe that no-one has the right to tell others or their children to wear clothes. This is a personal decision which must be respected. Some naturist writers have said that in order to get close to nature you have to exist as it does; naked. Henry David Thoreau, for example, in his essay Walking, commented: “We cannot adequately appreciate this aspect of nature if we approach it with any taint of human pretense. It will elude us if we allow artifacts like clothing to intervene between ourselves and this Other. To apprehend it, we cannot be naked enough.”

The problem with UK law on this issue is that someone can be arrested on the grounds that their nakedness is causing offence or public distress. But we cannot legislate about what offends people because ‘offence’ is such a relative term. Harm, on the other hand, is more easily defined and noticeable. Moreover, the fact that nakedness offends people is their problem. Admittedly, public nudity is shocking because it is out of the ordinary, but there is no reason for someone to be offended by the human body as it exists in its natural state – unclothed. Wearing clothes is the cultural norm, but just because it is the norm does not mean that it should be mandatory. Eccentricities and diverse lifestyles, so long as they don’t harm or harass the public, should be tolerated. The argument that public nudity is damaging to children is absurd – as if children will be forever scarred by knowing that people have sexual organs or have more skin under their clothes…

Critics of this argument may pose the following question: If adults and children can be naked in public, isn’t there a risk that sexual perverts will try and capitalise on this? Firstly, we cannot prohibit public nudity based on the assumption that some crimes could potentially follow from its legalisation. Secondly, if crimes such as sexual harassment do follow, we already have laws in place to deal with these cases. In any case, this is probably an unfounded worry. The legalisation of public nudity is unlikely to result in huge numbers of naked people walking the streets or taking public transport. The social and cultural stigma attached to public nudity would most likely restrict its popularity.

Some pressing questions follow from these considerations however. For example, if public nudity should be tolerated because it is ‘natural’ – no one is born wearing clothes – shouldn’t other natural acts be tolerated on similar grounds? Should defecating and urinating in public also be legalised? Well, these instances are slightly different since they would involve ruining public spaces and would be more of a nuisance and cause for distress than nudity.

Okay then, what about public sex? This issue is tricky. Sex, of course, is completely natural but it is believed by most people to be a completely private affair. Several laws can be broken if you have sex in public: the Public Order Act, the Sexual Offences Act and outraging public decency. Similar to laws on public nudity, having sex in public is illegal in order to protect those who do not want to see it. Many parents would not want young children witnessing such acts before they deem them old enough to be taught about them. Indeed, for some libertarians, if something is unavoidably offensive, such as public sex or some deeply offensive billboard or poster, then it is justified to prohibit it in that context.

It is questionable whether public nudity would fall into this category. It certainly isn’t as offensive as public sex, yet if it is public, it is therefore unavoidable. I doubt whether most people would be deeply offended by public nudity, although it would still seem bizarre. This is an issue which remains controversial for many libertarians. A compromise could be made in the UK by having a sufficient number of nude beaches and facilities to meet the needs of naturists, whilst restricting public nudity in certain spaces.

7 comments:

  1. This is a spot-on argument for public or social nudity. I will never understand why anyone finds the human body shameful or lewd, especially considering all the positive psychological affects social nudity provides its practitioners. In the final analysis I agree, there should be more beaches, parks and facilities for nudists. This would satisfy both perspectives.

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  2. There is no right not to be offended. The Public Order Act only mentions "Harassment, Alarm or Distress".
    As SW says, some are offended by breast feeding. Others by public displays of homosexual affection, even hand holding! Tough! Nudity ought not to be no different.

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  3. Social nudity is sensible and as innocent as nature itself. There is no threat to anyone from a naked person, they are not going to attack you (they are naked!), they are not going to abuse you & they are most certainly not going to commit a sexual act in a public area. Any perverts either clothed or naked should be put in a closed & safe environment away from the public. Anyone should be able to be naked any time, any place. I would like that!

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  4. I would too.
    Little known fact: Did you know that nude people do not carry concealed weapons? At least not on their bodies.

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  5. You mentioned that children should not see sexual acts before they are old enough to be taught about it.
    The question is, even if they are taught about it, should they see it? And when are they old enough?
    My wife said, and has backed that up, "If they are old enough to ask, then they are old enough to tell and you should only tell them as much as they are willing to accept". If they say "OK", meaning, "my question is answered enough for now", then stop. let them think about it and come back later for more information. It has always worked for us and our daughter knows enough to stay out of trouble.....for now. They probably don't want to see it anyway. Our daughter has been part of a nudist family since she was born, so she is used to going to nudist resorts and is not ashamed of her body.

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    1. Your comments about what & when to teach things to your children are spot on ! This is exactly the way we were brought up by our parents. We too are part of a nudist family, although my parents didn't belong to any recognised group, club or organisation, it was just a way of life to them. They weren't naked all the time at home, but being naked wasn't even an issue. If you were naked then you were, no-one commented or made any reference to nudity at all. (unless we planned to go outdoors beyond our yard.) Being with naked adults or other children was a part of everyday, so it is still difficult for me (at 63 years old!) to understand why nakedness (nudity... naturism.. whatever you call it?) is seen as anything but natural, normal & perfectly acceptable.

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    2. A lot of people think they have some inalienable "right" to never be offended. If that is the case, why isn't anyone doing anything about the myriad of things which I am offended at, such as vulgar language and rudeness? Is it "okay" for people to use vulgar language just because a lot of people do use vulgar language? Is it "okay" for people to be rude just because a lot of people are rude?

      If all those things are "okay" because a lot of people do them, even though I am offended by them, why isn't it "okay" for me to be out and about as God created me - NUDE? Does others "offense" at my being nude make it "wrong"? It certainly appears that way. It is called "tyranny of the majority".

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I'm a freelance writer who is interested in a variety of subjects, especially those which are philosophical, complex and involve a multitude of perspectives. I created this blog in order to share my thoughts, and to encourage debate and discussion about the most fascinating topics I can think of. Get in touch: samwoolfe@gmail.com