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From family to fodder: How new anti-nudity bills targeting a naked bike ride in Wisconsin exploit a child to undermine naturism statewide and beyond
Editor’s note: This is a developing story. We will do our best to keep the article current, at least until a new article is warranted. The audio version takes longer to update and may not be current. All updates will be logged at the bottom of the article. Check back.
In June of this year, in lockstep with the arrival of summer, many cities across the northern hemisphere participated in the increasingly popular World Naked Bike Ride (WNBR). The event takes place in various seasons globally but sees the most participation in June. This June, rides took place in cities like Edmonton, London, Los Angeles, Brussels, Portland, Chicago, and Madison, Wisconsin.
The 13th annual ride in Madison was, by all measures, a success. Over the years, the city has seen all kinds of participants—first-timers, recurring attendees, local advocates, and families. Among the nearly 200 who participated this year was a young girl no older than ten and her mother. The mother saw it as an opportunity to teach her daughter valuable lessons—not just about body positivity but also self-empowerment, giving her the option to dress however she chose. The young girl chose to participate nude just like everyone else, a choice respected and supported by her mother and, indeed, aligned with the event’s clothing-optional policy.
Yet the girl's presence, entirely unremarkable in the international scope of World Naked Bike Rides, has nonetheless ignited a moralistic media controversy that has escalated to the national level. In the latest development of the continuing saga, proposed measures now aim to redefine public decency laws in Wisconsin, sparking a national debate that could alter the course of body freedom in the state and jeopardize naturist events like this one going forward.
This article will explore the events as they unfolded and the ensuing manufactured media panic. It will scrutinize the escalation of the controversy and the latest legislative attempts to criminalize nudity. Importantly, it will also present a perspective that mainstream media has essentially overlooked: that of the actual child who has been labeled as the subject of concern.
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The mother and the girl
This was not the first World Naked Bike Ride attended by the mother and daughter who would soon find themselves unwittingly at the center of a national media frenzy. In fact, they’d participated once before, a few years ago.
“She went in a bike trailer during our first ride,” the mother told Planet Nude on the condition of anonymity. “The pandemic put a bit of a halt on our participation over the last [few] years, but I was lucky enough to be in town and off work during this year's bike ride and wanted to do it again.”
In preparation for the ride, she ensured that her daughter was keen on participating. "Several days before the ride I asked my daughter if she would also like to come on the naked bike ride, and she was an enthusiastic yes," the mother shared. “I asked her again the day before the ride to make sure she did want to come. She had a couple of questions, like if she had to go totally naked or if other people would be there. I told her it was clothing-optional, which has always been the case at WNBR, and that she could wear as much or as little clothing as she liked. I told her I wasn't sure how many people would be there, but there were usually over a hundred. She apparently decided both answers were acceptable to her, as she said she still wanted to go.”
The ride’s twelve mile route was challenging and exciting. "We had a wonderful time,” the mother says. The girl’s enjoyment of the event was childlike and wholesome. She particularly enjoyed the body painting, and made an artistic canvas of her mother’s back. She also played frisbee with a small group of mostly-nude riders before the ride began. “She insisted upon riding at the front of the ride, next to the ride leader, and she spent much of the ride ringing her bicycle bell and generally having a great time. She still asks periodically when we're going to do the ride again.”
Weigand wages war
Not long after the event, Dane County Supervisor Jeff Weigand—a “Christian dad from Wisconsin”1—received “an email from a constituent”2 informing him of the young girl’s participation, as well as an image of the child that had been posted to Facebook. The image, which apparently did not even run afoul of Facebook’s strict anti-nudity standards, featured the girl accompanied by four adults including her mother, all on bikes, viewed from behind. According to one report, the girl appeared to be nude "except for shoes and a helmet, and her buttocks were visible."3
Weigand then filed a report with Madison police and emailed the Dane County Sheriff's Office requesting an an immediate investigation. “Our law enforcement officers need to investigate this matter and enforce our laws,” he said in a statement, first posted by conservative blogger David Blaska. “If a child was allowed to participate in this naked bike ride, any and all adults who supported and condoned this need to be arrested immediately.”4
Madison's police promptly investigated the matter and concluded that no state or local laws had been violated. The police’s Special Victims Unit reviewed the case and stated that no applicable statutes were breached. A spokesperson for the Madison police said detectives “looked at the state’s statutes on possession of child pornography and exposing a child to harmful material or narrations,” but that “based on the image observed and city-sanctioned event status of the bike ride, it was determined at this time that neither statutes are applicable. (sic)”5
Organizers of the Madison World Naked Bike Ride first learned about the complaints three days after the ride, on June 20th. “I received an email from a woman [who] has a seat on the county board, making her a colleague of Jeff Weigand,” ride organizer Peter Keating told Planet Nude. “She ultimately told me it was ‘an incident that happened at your event with a minor.’ At first I thought, ‘My God, what happened? Was there an accident? Did somebody try to attack her?’ Then, it came out that the ‘incident’ was nothing more than the child's participation. I didn't think that was any more of an incident than, say, taking your child with you on a trip to the grocery store. I later emailed her saying if that counts as an incident, there were close to two hundred incidents that day because that many people went on the ride.”
Madison, a city that once had its police issue citations for disorderly conduct during the WNBR's inaugural year in 2010, has never actually had a legislative ban on public nudity in place. An update to the city’s liberal public indecency ordinance intending to ban nudity was proposed to the Madison Common Council in 2011, but after council discussion the provision was eliminated. With this act, the city tacitly acknowledged public nudity as a legitimate form of political protest, and rides in subsequent years have faced less legal difficulty, end even some measure of support from local police.
In other words, the statutes that the police considered in their investigation of the complaints about a child participating in the World Naked Bike Ride require the existence of indecency beyond mere nudity in order for charges to apply. Since there is nothing sexual or indecent about the nudity in the naked bike ride, and since the child in question was accompanied by a parent throughout the event, and since none of the complainants have furnished any evidence of harm or wrongdoing, the police rightfully determined that there was no crime.
Not content with these findings, Weigand escalated his campaign against the WNBR, appealing to a wider audience through a Fox News interview, saying, “If someone wants to do something without clothing on, and they're not violating other people's freedoms, then that's up to them. But when you take your nudity into the public square, you're actually violating my rights… and my children's rights to not want to see that. That's where it crosses the line.” Weigand’s media appearances drew more outlets to pick up the story.
The girl’s mother, mostly unaware that there had even been an issue, first caught wind of the controversy sometime after the news reports began to percolate. "People I know [began] asking me about the news articles," she said. “It struck me at the time the same way it does now: as a couple of individuals trying to create an outrage that they personally benefit from, at the expense of myself and my family.”
Her initial reaction was one of disbelief at the misplaced moral outrage. She criticized the notion that living in fear of predators is practical or healthy. "I refuse to live in such a way that I have to presume the worst of everyone around me, and I don't think it would be healthy to teach my child that such a worldview is necessary either," she firmly stated.
Tiffany’s tumultuous tactics
One day after Weigand’s Fox News appearance, on July 14th, Wisconsin Republican Representatives Tom Tiffany and Scott Fitzgerald wrote (and published) a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, calling upon him to investigate what they termed as the “exploitation of a 10-year-old minor.”
In the letter, the signers admit that the child was there under the supervision of her parent, though a disparaging picture was attempted:
“Those entrusted in the care and protection of this innocent child, consented, and condoned this harmful conduct and her indecent exposure. It is undisputable that indecent exposure is lewd conduct (obscenity) and is not protected speech,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter. “In the instant case, not only did the minor child's parents or caretakers' consent to her participation, but their actions are the proximate cause of the creation of the child exploitive images captured by the attendees and the media.”
Read the full letter (PDF)
Things quieted for two months, seemingly stagnant while Tiffany and company awaited a response from the justice department. Nothing came. Finally, during a Judiciary Committee hearing in September, Rep. Tiffany found a moment to corner Garland on his lack of response to their calls for federal involvement.
Garland's response to Tiffany's gripe was humorously understated: "It sounds like you're asking [about] state and local law enforcement. Um, We get hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of letters, um, I'll ask the Office of Legislative Affairs where that letter is."
“State and local law enforcement would not act,” Tiffany grumbled. We were hoping you would. It's obvious you're not. I yield.”
Rewriting the rules
Just a few days later, on September 27th, Republican State Senator Chris Kapenga and Representative Cindi Duchow circulated a 'co-sponsorship memorandum' among fellow legislators. This document sought support for a pair of proposed bills they are misleadingly dubbing the 'Child Protection Act,' which are explicitly aimed at curtailing the activities of the World Naked Bike Ride.
On September 29th, bills were officially introduced to the Wisconsin State Legislature, intended to amend the current criminal codes 944.20(1)(a) and (b), as well as 944.20(2).
Labeled Senate Bills SB477 & SB478, the act was introduced by Senators Kapenga, Ballweg and Stroebel, and cosponsored by Representatives Duchow, Behnke, Binsfeld, Dittrich, Goeben, Green, Gundrum, Maxey, Michalski, Rettinger, Rozar, Sortwell, Schraa, Tusler and Wichgers.6 All of the nineteen names attached to the bill belong to Republicans. The bills read:
Analysis by the Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB-3844/4539)
This bill prohibits a person from causing a person who is under the age of 18 to attend an event at which a group of adult participants intentionally expose their genitals, buttocks, or other intimate parts in a public area. The bill also prohibits taking a picture or other representation of a child at such an event if the representation depicts the child's intentionally exposed genitals, buttocks, or other intimate parts. The bill provides an exception to the second prohibition for a person who takes the picture or other representation with the intention to report to law enforcement a violation that is created under the bill as long as the person reports the violation within 24 hours of taking the picture or representation.
Analysis by the Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB-3843/4533)
Current law prohibits a person from publicly and indecently exposing genitals or pubic area. A person who violates the prohibition is guilty of a Class A misdemeanor. This bill eliminates the element that the exposure be indecent and instead requires that the exposure be intentional.
Download the full bills (PDF)
These bills seek to redefine indecent exposure and to prohibit minors from participating in nude events entirely—language which could seriously effect nudist businesses in the very state which plays home to The Naturist Society and the Naturist Education Foundation. Finally, the proposed bills would make it a crime to photograph a child at such an event, unless, of course, the photographs are to report the event to the police—a paradoxical stipulation if ever there was one.
While the language proposed above is broad enough that it could presumably have serious implications for naturism in the state of Wisconsin, it seems abundantly clear that the suggested legislation also has a specific target in its sights: the World Naked Bike Ride.
“The proposed legislation is completely based on vilifying the human body,” ride organizer Peter Keating says, “which is in direct opposition to the philosophy of World Naked Bike Ride. It is institutionalized body negativity.”
Unpacking the hypocrisy
All of this indicates a targeted assault on body freedom, nudism, and, ultimately, civil liberties. No laws were broken, no child was harmed, yet a few politicians are dead set on creating an issue where none exist. It’s no coincidence that this moral panic is occurring in a year that has seen heightened transphobia and intolerance around the LGBTQ+ community. This summer also saw several stories in the media around nudity at Pride events in Toronto and Seattle. This reaction is an extension of that moral panic.
Sen. Kapenga, who once criticized the government for adopting an “arrogant ‘we know better than parents’ mentality,” and asked, “when will the Governor let parents decide what’s best for their kids?”7 has conveniently adopted the opposite posture in this issue, contradicting his previous stance on parental rights. His legislation specifically aims to criminalize parental choices around events featuring adult nudity, even when conducted in a public setting with no indecent intent. This is in direct contradiction to his earlier rallying cry for parental rights and the freedom for families to make their own choices without governmental interference. The Senator can't have it both ways—championing parental rights in one context while stripping them away in another.
The girl’s mother is quick to pinpoint the contradictions. “To me, the real irony in the whole controversy is the claim of exploitation of a child as the ‘issue’ at hand. We just went to have a good time at a body positivity rally that happens every year. The only parties I see exploiting a child are people publicizing her presence for their own benefits via media attention or clicks.”
For the mother, the core issue isn't so much about nudity, but about the policing of bodies and the misplaced burden of responsibility. “I want my daughter to understand: her body is acceptable, that different types of bodies are also acceptable, that her body belongs to nobody but her, and that how others interpret or behave in reaction to her body's presence is not her responsibility. I maintain that the WNBR is an appropriate way to continue to re-enforce lessons of empowerment.”
“I’d like to share one of the slogans during the ride,” she says. “Love yourself, love your body, love your neighbors, love the community, and love the planet. That’s really what the ride is about, and I’ll be proud to be in it again next year.”
While Madison serves as the current battleground, it's merely symptomatic of a larger issue: the rise of moral panic, often exacerbated by reactionary politics against the LGBTQ+ community, climate activists, and anyone falling outside the conservative norm. For nudists, this could be the canary in the coal mine, an early sign of broader threats to body freedom and self-expression. Naturists, civil libertarians, and indeed all advocates for personal freedom should watch Wisconsin closely, as it may well serve as a bellwether for the challenging times ahead. 🪐
Updated Oct. 4th at 9:45 am PDT: The article and subtitle were updated to reflect the discovery of official Senate Bills SB477 & SB478.
Updated Oct. 4th at 1:45 pm PDT: The “Call to action” section was updated to include all the state representatives who co-sponsored the bills SB477 & SB478. Article voiceover track updated.
Updated Oct. 4th at 8:15pm PDT: The end of the post was updated to include a link to a new post featuring details about a public committee hearing to be held over the bills.
Grossman, Hannah. “Wisconsin official fumes at naked climate change protest for allowing little girl to join: 'Enough is enough’.” July, 13, 2023. Fox News. www.foxnews.com /media/wisconsin-official-fumes-nude-bike-ride-protest-allowing-young-girl-join-enough-is-enough
Harnopp, Hope. “A young girl's participation in Madison's Naked Bike Ride didn't violate state law, police say. Here's why.” July 3, 2023. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. https://www.jsonline.com/story/news/2023/07/03/a-young-girl-participated-in-madisons-naked-bike-ride-is-that-legal/70366406007/
Rickert, Chris. “Madison Police: No law broken in girl’s participation in World Naked Bike Ride.” June 24, 2023. Wisconsin State Journal. https://madison.com/news/local/crime-courts/wisconsin-madison-naked-bike-ride/article_5d1cd182-11db-11ee-833f-77d1bae3f5cd.html
“Sen. Kapenga: When will the Governor let parents decide what’s best for their kids?” April 8, 2022. WisPolitics. https://www.wispolitics.com/2022/sen-kapenga-when-will-the-governor-let-parents-decide-whats-best-for-their-kids/