The question ‘are you wearing any clothes?’ from Justin Webb on Monday’s Today programme brought me out of my pre-coffee fog. Supported by a task force headed by Colin Langham-Fitt, a former acting Chief Constable of Suffolk Police, the British Naturists have launched a campaign to have abuse levelled at naturists to be classed as a ‘hate crime.’
Mark Bass director of British Naturism, claims that naturists are increasingly being persecuted and as such naturism should be legally protected as ‘a philosophical belief’ under the Equality Act (2010). Crown Prosecution Service guidance currently notes that ‘a balance needs to be struck between the naturist’s right to freedom of expression and the right of the wider public to be protected from harassment, alarm and distress’.
The ensuing discussion put me in mind of a trip I took last year to the improbably named ‘Studland.’ Walking towards Old Harry’s Rock’s on the South Coast, my partner and I crossed into a designated ‘naturist area’ where we were confronted by a parade of men airing their wilting meat-and-two-veg in the seaside spray. Our strategy varied between strict eye-contact with brusque ‘hellos’ and awkwardly staring into the horizon — it was a strange experience, not least because the beach was populated almost exclusively by men. The sausage to baps ratio was so disproportionate it was hard not to feel vulnerable despite being clothed; indeed it made me acutely conscious of the female body under my own clothes.
The British Naturism website has lots of photos of smiling women, but the reality is the apparent joys of wandering around naked is either not afforded to women and men equally, or else it is not pursued evenly between the sexes. As an aside, most of the women on the British Naturist website have removed their pubic hair, so presumably they don’t feel entirely comfortable with what mother nature gave them.
The ethos of British Naturism is attractive, and the slogan ‘When you shed your clothes you also shed just a few of the burdens of everyday life’ has a wholesome hippy appeal. In my own garden I’ll gladly go topless to enjoy the feeling of sun on my skin. But my encounter with the men in Studland left me wondering where the boundary is between exhibitionism and simply enjoying the closeness with nature that some experience when naked.
Writing on British Naturism’s website Mark Bass opined “You would be upset if somebody shouted abuse or threatened you because they did not like the colour of your shirt — we would prefer not to receive such abuse for not wearing a shirt.” This may well be true, but it seems fair enough to question the motivation of someone who chooses to go out naked, in the same way it does someone who decides to wear a t-shirt with a political slogan. Like it or not, naked bodies make a statement that we ought to be free to challenge, or indeed avoid.
When asked about a controversial swimming event last year, Matt Bass explained: “Children are safer in naturist environments as they are never allowed to attend unaccompanied and are always supervised by parents or guardians, unlike schools, churches, scouts, play areas and other venues where parents often opt to leave their children in the care of others.”
And the British Naturist website claims:
“A naturist environment inspires freedom, body positivity and has been proven to make people happier, improving mental health and well being. It is a positive family lifestyle.” But naturism has a dark past, in 1995 american feminist activist Nikki Craft, who had became involved in the naturist moving following arrests for being topless, wrote a searing expose of the links between naturism, paedophilia and the production of images of child abuse.
What’s considered rude in terms of the human form has varied across cultures and time, and the difference between naked bodies and nudity has long been debated. The refrain from naturists have always been ‘if you sexualise a naked body, that says more about your hang-ups than it does about the person who is naked.’ But in a world saturated by pornography and sexualised images, it seems naïve to assume that people’s motivations for stripping off are always virtuous. Indeed, exhibitionism is a very common fetish.
According to a poll released by YouGov last week, one quarter of women report being flashed in public. Men flashing at women might be deemed ‘indecent exposure’ but it would not routinely be deemed a hate crime, despite perpetrators seeking out their unwilling audience on the basis of their sex. However, in a troubling reversal, should British Naturism’s campaign be successful, then women who confront men they consider to be flashers could themselves be guilty of a hate crime.
Given the woeful rates of conviction for sexual offences, anything which undermines the right of victim to feel confident in reporting or challenging behaviour should be viewed with suspicion. If naturism is protected as a philosophical belief it will be reduced to little more than a fig leaf for flashers and exhibitionists.