Part 2 discusses why such a right is a defensible aim and is sparked by the following paper.
Res Publica 25 (3):407-424 (2019) This paper can be accessed via Academia.edu
The history of naturism, particularly in the U.K., is not well documented on the internet. It is not clear what the original aims of the naturist movement were, but the establishment of the English Gymnosophical Society was made by a number of intellectuals who were concerned to create an exclusive society whose ideals went far beyond simply enjoying nude sunbathing. Many of those ideals have dropped by the wayside and certainly naturism is no longer a politically motivated movement. The national organisation for naturism in the U.K. - British Naturism (BN) – says ‘We exist to unite and support Naturists, to protect, and provide more Naturist venues, to make social nudity acceptable in the UK and to provide comprehensive information on Naturism and Naturists around the world.’ The International Naturist Federation (INF-FNI) ‘works to enhance and improve the naturist experience and the naturist business climate by promoting the benefits of naturism to the general public’. The page ‘About Naturism’ BN does not mention that Naturism as being a philosophical belief, but it does mention it when campaigning. Parts of the European Human Rights Convention are enshrined in the U.K. Equality Law (2010). This Act does not define which beliefs are protected other than to say religious and philosophical beliefs are included in the term, as is the lack of a particular belief.
Are nudists alarming?
In testing European Human Rights Article 10 which defends freedom of expression, the test appears to be that the court recognised public nudity as freedom of expression, but balances it against the rights of people who are offended or fearful of nudity. To naturists this sounds as logical as putting all spiders on trial who cause alarm by simply being seen by a sensitive human – such as myself. Clearly most spiders are not a threat to humans and its not clear why nudists should be seen as a threat. In fact, being unclothed shows there is clearly no intention to harm as nothing can be concealed.
In my mind the key question is – is it right to be alarmed by the way someone looks? This is not defensible on any level. When someone is partly or fully concealed on the other hand and particularly if the face is obscured and you cannot determine someone’s intent from their expression, then you could be alarmed. If someone jumps out at you or makes threatening gestures then these actions are obviously alarming.
So being alarmed by nudity may well not be what is going on. Historical research suggests that the mediaeval attitude to nudity was completely different from that today and no one would be alarmed by meeting someone nude in the street or elsewhere. So an aversion to nudity must be learned behaviour and consequently has been ascribed to the relatively recent effects of civilisation. Civilisation can perhaps be understood as the fine regulation of human behaviour that permits us to live in crowded urbanisations and enjoy other benefits of mutual co-operation.
The civilised disease - embarrassment
Interestingly, there is a well-cited book called ‘Civilisation. Its cause and cure.’ written by Edward Carpenter as a result of a lecture given by himself to the Fabian Society in 1888. Carpenter, a well-known nudist, argued that denying human nature by the process of becoming ‘civilised’ caused people to become unhealthy in body and mind. The realisation of the harms that industrialisation was seen to have had on human society inspired the Freikörperkultur culture and Lebensreform movement, on which English naturism was based, to advocate a return to a more natural life.
It may be that the problem with nudity is one of embarrassment and fear of embarrassment. Conversely, there may also be a resultant distrust of people who appear not to share the common level of embarrassment or fear, and so appear to exhibit ‘unusual or odd’ behaviour. Consequently, these behaviours are aggregated with those threatening behaviours and classed together as anti-social behaviour.
From the present-day perspective, people seem comfortable with the idea that the natural order is that people should be free to express themselves in private, provided that no harm is caused. Club naturists do not seem to find any tautology in the position that to enjoy the ‘freedom’ of being socially naked one should be fenced off from society. While non-naturists view naturist society with suspicion about their true motivations, naturists view non-naturists as potential voyeurs, so similarly having dubious motivation in being interested in naturism and naturists. This cannot be a healthy state of affairs and in recent times the traditionally closed nature of naturism has to some extent been rolled back and is more open. This seems to be driven not by philosophical or evangelical ideas, but by the needs of clubs and the national organisation to find new members.
Aims of a naturist movement in the 21st Century
As we contemplate the post-Covid survival of naturism as an organised activity we might ask ourselves what the aims of a naturist movement in the 21st Century might be.
I could argue that the 20th Century movement, like the socialist movement, attempted to establish itself by presenting logical arguments about the benefits of naturism and the illogicality of social conventions, particularly about clothes. The fundamental idea was that public education would bring tolerance (if not acceptance) and that the law would be brought into line with the subsequent change in public attitude.
As an example, N.F. Barford was an advocate of such a process. He established a number of sunclubs, a naturist magazine and gave numerous public lectures. Whilst there were others in the movement who advocated public nudity without fences and public demonstrations for the right to sunbathe partially or completely naked, Barford thought that a less shocking approach would gain tolerance. Accordingly, at the Fig Leaf club established in 1930 near Croydon, Surrey, club members wore nappy like bottoms and women wore tops to exercise and sunbathe. By 1931 everyone was naked. In broader society, the swimsuit changed out of all recognition to the Victorian design and topless bathing for men was accepted on U.K. beaches. It was only three decades or so since it was common propriety that men and women bathed on separate parts of a beach.
Public acceptance of naturism 1930-1980
In 1936 Barford declared that the task of gaining public acceptance for naturists was complete and disbanded his organisation. It seems that he miscalculated. In recent times public acceptance of many behaviours has fallen behind the changes that Parliament has brought in by legislation. Where a minority has campaigned hard for acceptance, it seems that the general public has largely accepted the changes (an example might be gay rights), but in the case of public nudity there has been no obvious campaign and many people may be unaware that the seemingly commonly held belief that simply being naked is unlawful is not correct.
In the late 1970s a prime aim for naturists seemed to be the establishment of naturist beaches in the U.K. Whereas in Denmark a similar aim was marked by an extended campaign to lobby the legislature and by mass skinny-dips, the establishment of a number of beaches was lead by council members themselves as they tried to attract more people to take holidays at their resorts rather than following the trend to go abroad. In retrospect, a policy of segregation does not seem to be progress. First, it suggests that you cannot be naked on beaches not so designated and second, it creates other problems – not the least attracting unwanted segments of the population who engage in unlawful pursuits, or are attracted by the very behaviour that they profess to be alarmed about – namely simple nudity.
Tolerance of minorities is not enough
Given that there is no right to be naked, except privately, and that quite extreme behaviour can be exhibited against naturists, it is not surprising that many naturists segregate their naturist and ‘normal’ lives – even having two sets of friends and separate week and weekend activities. The two cannot overlap as people are fearful of social censure or exclusion, even job loss, as a result of being ‘outed’ as a naturist.
The state of the law means that naturists cannot be sure that being naked anywhere might land them in court with their subsequent exposure and consequences. Whilst the recent history of reported prosecutions of naturists suggests that a naturist is extremely unlikely to end up in jail, the social cost of such an attempted prosecution is high, particularly for those below retirement age.
So I would argue that the aims of a naturist movement in the 21st Century should primarily be:
Campaign to establish the right to be naked
Campaign to make abuse of naturists for being naked classed as a hate crime
British Naturism has an ongoing campaign for the latter case. In recent years the Government has been attempting a massive review of the UK’s anti-discrimination laws and this is ongoing and the progress of the Law Commission review can be found at https://www.lawcom.gov.uk/project/hate-crime/.
Part 3 will discuss the ideas in Bouke de Vries paper in relation to the idea of a campaign to establish the right to be naked.