In support of Stephen Gough

The last time I wrote about current events on this blog, the news was regarding Brian Taylor, former head of public relations of British Naturism and then chairman of the Spectrum Swimming Club for naturists (whose licence to use the public swimming pool has since been suspended).

This time, the news is again bad for people who enjoy nudity.

I mentioned Stephen Gough, also known as the Naked Rambler, in one of my earlier posts. I also wrote about the morality of nudism, concluding that nudism per se is amoral and that it’s the actions one takes while nude that one ought to judge. I have been reading various articles about Stephen Gough and about the number of times he’s been arrested for laws which are increasingly better tailored to “clothe” our society’s fears of nudity. His nudity has always been a victimless crime – victimless, unless you count him as being the victim of these laws.

Let me make this much straight: I think Stephen Gough is irresponsible, he acts like a pig and is not very smart. I’m guessing you can easily get the same impression if you watch a documentary about him, which is available on YouTube in 7 parts (not a very good quality and part 5 seems to be missing). But that doesn’t matter in his case, because he’s continually being arrested for nudity – not for being irresponsible, or a pig, or stupid.

That being said, let’s not have his failings overshadow the fact that he is trying to make a point – and a good one at that. In his own words:

We consider ourselves a democratic and free society but how far does that go? There’s a bigger thing at stake.

Indeed there is, but he is unable to specify, according to an article in Daily Mail. Let me articulate what he cannot: the thing at stake is our freedom – to make our own choices free from interference from society; freedom from having to succumb to the societal norms which are consistently being turned into laws and used as ways to prohibit dissent – the very thing human rights are designed to protect in all forms – in speech, art, or as in this case, public nudity.

Yesterday, on 28 October 2014, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that laws which protect privacy and freedom of expression do not apply to Gough’s nudity, because of his “deliberately repetitive antisocial conduct” and because “He had plenty of other ways of expressing his opinions”.

I must say that I’m shocked by such a statement. Does that mean that slaves, in their fight for freedom, should have “expressed their opinions” in ways other than running away from their masters? Is the fight for the freedom of speech done in a “legal” manner only if its proponents never speak out? On the contrary, that’s exactly what they ought to do – practice controversy until it becomes the norm! The idea that one should fight for their principles, but not practice them, is as horrendous as it is debilitating.

Clearly, we consider ourselves a democratic and free society. However, as Stephen has noticed but cannot articulate why, this doesn’t go very far. This high opinion of ourselves is baseless because some of us – our Human Rights Court judges (no less) included – are not ready to accept this in all possible instances of our exercise of that democracy and that freedom. This fear of accepting behavior which is outside the social norms then results in laws being passed which limit our freedoms, making it ever more difficult to fight them. The tragic fact about nudity in particular is that it is not essential to one’s survival (unlike being free, as in not having a master) and it’s a stretch to prove that it would increase the quality of life for anyone, so anyone fighting for their right to be naked in public is perceived as weird or disturbed and it’s unclear why they do it in the first place (as is the case with Stephen Gough).

Even I myself am unwilling to do anything more than to write this blog and for my practice of nudity visit only those places where nudity is allowed (like a black guy sitting obediently at his designated spot at the back of the segregated bus and move away when a white person shows up) – or practice it out of sight of others. Should I do anything more than that, my other life’s goals which I deem more important, would be compromised. Yes, I love being naked, but unlike Stephen Gough, I don’t think it’s worth sacrificing my family and career and other things I value but wouldn’t be able to do if I dedicated my life to fighting the society’s anti-nudity sentiment. Nudity isn’t essential to my happiness, but having a family and a job I love doing is.

So I support Stephen Gough like a rather timid black person would support Rosa Parks during boycott: walking or carpooling instead of taking the bus. One might say that what he is doing is counterproductive if our goal is the acceptance of public nudity, but I don’t think so. People need to see what things look like in practice. They need to laugh their own ignorance, their own shame and fears, out of their system. Things don’t become the norm by not happening.

The fight for public nudity is far from over, as this ruling clearly shows. But to reach a different ruling, there are layers of fear and shame and sheer hatred of humans and human form which need to be removed first, and that is not likely to happen very soon. There are positive movements in that direction which involve a large number of people meeting in public places for things like the World Naked Bike Ride and similar events. What is really required is to erase the stigma of equating nudity with sexuality and to reassure people that nudist communities – and anybody having a healthy attitude towards nakedness – will not judge their appearance as they are all quite familiar with the various shapes and sizes of the human form and theirs is likely not at all outside the norms. What the mass media made them feel they should look like is very dissimilar to what people (should) actually look like.

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20 comments

  1. Not sure I agree with you analogy to civil rights but it is tragic how Gough has been treated. Suggests that societies that proclaim individual rights paarounts do so only in principle not in reality. Good post. Enjoying your blog.

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    • Hi! I actually thought that as far as analogies go, it was a really good one. Of course, like I mentioned, there are limitations to this analogy, namely the fact that nudity is not an essential to happiness, whereas civil rights are. You can easily change being naked, but you can’t change being black (unless you consider Michael Jackson to be a good counterexample, which, I assume, neither of us does).

      What I wanted was to illustrate that the same principles are involved in the nudity debate as there were in the civil rights movement. As nudists, we go where we are allowed to go – nudist camps, nudist beaches, nudist clubs, or wherever we can get away with being naked. Similarly, black people had designated areas where they could be separate from whites. We can only return to the rest of the society if we don clothes. This is where the analogy breaks, because one can’t change the fact of being black.

      Clothes are a sort of “permission” for us to partake in regular activities of a society, much like being white was a “permission” for people to mistreat everyone who isn’t before the civil rights movement. I don’t think, however, that one should require any sort of permission to be free. Your human rights are given to you by virtue of being human and no other condition (like wearing clothes, or being white). They call them human rights and not caucasian rights, or clothed people’s rights, for a reason.

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      • I get what you were saying and ti didnt take away from the point of the post. It just whenever you introduce a complex issue like race into the discussion in the highly racially polarized context of American society anyway it can create unanticipated issues on both sides of the equation. For instance how does you analogy play for black naturists who may feel isolated or separated by the dominant white naturist community? Hope you get my meaning. I still think it was a good post though.

        Keep up the good work

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      • I see what you mean. I meant no disrespect for black nudists, or black people in general. I hope this much is clear. Perhaps this polarization you speak of escapes me because I’m not American, so I might not have the same sensitivities towards the issue as you do.

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      • Yes that polarization is very intense in America and you cited iconic American events and personalities. But I do think it extends beyond America check out the guest blog on our site clothesfreelife.com from an naturist female person of color who reports on a visit to naturist resort in Croatia and see how it neters into her experience.

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  2. You’re spot on Nikola. There’s a larger cultural problem driven by religious forces: the diabolisation of the body. At the same time, we, as a society, are allowing war and destruction and find morale justice in it. We are allowing sex and violence in movies displayed to kids… the fight has to continue, I’m optimistic justice will prevail. In the meantime, we need to stand for what we believe: nudism is good and healthy.

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  3. I don’t disagree with your line of reasoning, but my feeling is that the fundamental problem is that we are up against a cognitive style that is nearly the antithesis of free thinking. There are a lot of people in society who adhere to the arbitrary social mores that they were brought up with as though they were immutable laws of physics. For them, genitals *are* ‘private parts’ and exposing them in public is always wrong. There doesn’t have to be any rational reasoning there, it just ‘is’. Those of us who prefer to put arbitrary socially-propagated customs aside and look coldly at the facts of the matter are in the minority. I think Homo sapiens evolved to be like this because the resulting social cohesion and conformity was adaptive.

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    • Adaptive, yes, but not always beneficial. That’s why we also have large brains, so we can think through such conundrums. Yes, we are in the minority, but people who thought the Earth was round were once the minority as well. I don’t know of an advancement – whether social, or scientific, or any other kind – which was achieved by means of conformity or social cohesion.

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      • Quite true – but technological and social advancement has happened very late in Homo sapien’s overall history, and occurs in spite of, rather than being part of, our evolution as a social hominid. The train of civic and social advancement is also only loosely connected with technological advancement.

        I have just started reading Derek Beale’s ‘Enlightenment and Reform in Eighteenth Century Europe’. It is staggering how in that century, western Europe was only just feeling its way back to the level of philosophical advancement and statecraft that the Greeks had attained 500 BC in the context of a bronze-age culture. Beyond a small elite of humanists and scientists the level of ignorance and superstition across Europe then was comparable to that in the tribal areas of West Africa today. Reforms in the direction of social emancipation and fairness pushed by Joseph II in particular were robustly resisted not just by the nobility but also by the lower social orders, who valued cultural continuity and affordability of the basics much more.

        As Thomas Picketty opined in his ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’ published last year, it seems in hindsight the great shift to the political right and attempted retrenchment with traditional values under Reagan and Thatcher in the Anglo world was precipitated by an uncomfortable realisation that the leading countries of the West were losing their lead, their unquestioned hegemony. There was a feeling that the West had lost its way, ventured into unwise territory, and should turn back to the values that were in place when the West first attained its position of economic primacy. Hence the current paradoxical situation in which the ubiquity of a technological advance, the internet, means a high proportion of the population are inured to what in the 1970’s was regarded as shocking hard pornography, the kind of thing that used to trigger raids by the Vice Squad and prison sentences in the UK, and most people have also abandoned active practice of the Abrahamic religions, yet at the same time many cling on to outmoded notions of social propriety with regard to elective public nudism. Including an asinine ECHR judge, who seems to have missed the point that what was being challenged was the philosophical validity of laws prohibiting nudity, rather than whether an example of such a law had been transgressed by one individual in one country.

        I’ve just become aware of another fascinating branch of this paradox today. Everyone has heard of the recent repressive backward turn in Russia under Vladimir Putin, including a new wave of legal repression and popular discrimination against homosexuals (e.g. a memorial to the late Steve Jobs in St Petersburg has just been removed from a public street because his successor at Apple has come out as gay). Yet gender-blending Ukrainian performer Pavel Petel chooses to remain in Moscow, and has said recently that he knows he would get arrested for his naked and highly exhibitionistic public ‘happenings’ in Europe, whereas in Moscow the police just smile and warn him not to damage the fountain. He is so famous and popular that as soon as he and his partner arrive anywhere with props and camera, people spontaneously congregate with their smartphones at the ready waiting for something extraordinary, making it hard for his team to photographically record his antics against an otherwise normal background. How to explain this? Maybe while Putin plays to the still widely prevalent historical prejudices of the proletariat and peasantry, urban Russians, equally subject to the liberalising influence of social media as everyone else, have been less influenced by the litigious New Puritanism emanating from the US than has western Europe.

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  4. While I would not go nude in public and make a spectacle of myself, I applaud those who have the courage to do it. People need to realize that it is possible to be nude and NOT be sexually aroused or be doing anything sexual.

    Although I live full time in a nudist resort, I live here mainly because it’s a lot cheaper than living anywhere else, and I can be nude outdoors without the fear of offending anyone or being arrested. I am dressed only when I do my grocery shopping once a month and see my doctor occasionally. Otherwise, clothes serve no useful purpose.

    While I’m comfortable enough with my body to be nude with like-minded people, I am not comfortable enough to be the only one nude in places where I could get arrested. I certainly have no desire to get myself arrested just to prove a point–that there is NOTHING shameful or indecent about the nude human body. I find it interesting that a society that is addicted to porn and spends BILLIONS on it every year would be offended and shocked by simple non-sexual nudity.

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