Discover more from Planet Nude
Inside the Wisconsin Assembly’s latest hearing on anti-nudity bills
The political body: Legislators and citizens debate the boundaries of nudity and public decency
The Wisconsin Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety conducted its first public hearing on the proposed anti-nudity bills, AB 503 and 504, this past Tuesday. The two bills are written to target and effectively outlaw the World Naked Bike Ride (WNBR) in the state. In contrast to the previous public hearing convened last month by the Wisconsin Senate Committee on Mental Health, Substance Abuse Prevention, Children, and Families—which was held with almost no advance notice—Tuesday's hearing was scheduled with at least a week's notice. This enabled activists across the state to more effectively organize their efforts to attend and voice their opposition to the restrictive legislation. Consequently, the committee witnessed a diverse range of citizen speakers delivering compelling and coordinated testimony against the bills, bolstered by impassioned arguments against their enactment, and only two speakers in support of the bills, both of whom are legislators who are responsible for the bills’ authorship.
It’s my goal here to give an overview of the hearing and some analysis. For further context, full text of the bills plus some background is available here:
Discussion of AB 503 and 504 kicked off with an introduction to the bills by Republican State Representative Cindi Duchow, who quite literally clutched her pearls as she suggested without irony (or evidence) that World Naked Bike Riders were perpetuating abuse and emotional harm against children.
“While someone may have the right to protest,” Duchow said, “and even bring their child to a protest, we have a duty to protect Wisconsin children from obvious long term mental, emotional, and even physical harm. That is why Assembly Bill 503 and 504 have been introduced.”
“In our chamber,” Duchow also said, “legislators have heard countless hours of testimony and presentations on childhood sexual abuse, keeping kids safe from online predators, the slippery slope to human trafficking, and the impact—images last forever when they are posted online. Do we throw all that knowledge out just because the abuse is done in the name of social justice?”
A few committee members raised questions for Representative Duchow. One such member was Representative Todd Novak, a Republican from Assembly District 51, who pointed out that enforcing these laws would ultimately come down to prosecutorial discretion. “No Dane County prosecutor or Dane County judge is ever going to touch this with a hundred foot pole because that's just the way we work up here,” Novak pointed out. “Would you agree with that assumption?”
“Yes, the prosecutor could choose not to charge,” Duchow replied. “They always have that ability. But I think that […] they were saying it was not indecent because it was actually not sexually gratifying. So by making that intentional, we took that […] loophole away. Sure, they could still choose not to prosecute, there's nothing we can do about that—”
“Which I think most of us would agree would happen here,” Novak quickly replied.
Representative Duchow's introduction was followed by testimony from Jeff Weigand, the Dane County Supervisor and Christian father of five who first ignited the controversy surrounding the Madison WNBR, when he made press appearances and secured legislative support after hearing from a constituent that a child had attended the June event. Weigand’s testimony echoed many of the same points he had made during the aforementioned Senate hearing last month.
“Proponents of this bike ride have stated that they believe this is about their freedom to protest,” Weigand said. “My question to them is what about my freedom? What about my freedom to walk down the street and not be assaulted by nudity? What about my children's innocence that I work very hard to protect? I used to love going to the Dane County Farmer's Market. I used to love going to places like Monona Terrace and State Street. I can no longer do those things with my family for fear of what my children will be exposed to.”
Advocates for these bills often claim, without evidence, that exposure to nudity is psychologically or emotionally damaging to children or other individuals. It is not. These proposed laws are reactionary measures, prompted by an event where no crime was committed and no victims were identified. While the initial supporters who spoke in favor of the legislation were the legislators responsible for drafting the bills, the tone shifted significantly once the hearing was opened to public comment.
First up to speak against the bills was Michael Bomier of the Madison WNBR. Mr. Bomier began his comments with a statement from the mother of the child who was at the center of the initial WNBR controversy. Readers of Planet Nude will note that we previously spoke with the mother under the condition of preserving her anonymity, an understandable request considering the media scrutiny which has occurred over her decision to bring her daughter to the World Naked Bike Ride. The mother’s complete statement, read by Mr. Bomier, follows:
“As a parent, it is my responsibility to prepare my daughter to be a thoughtful adult who is engaged with her community. The World Naked Bike Ride is a place of empowerment for my daughter and I, we have participated several times because it is a rare situation where we can exercise freedom over our own bodies and be naked of liability for the behavior of others towards our bodies. I would like to believe that our community values, freedom of speech, self expression and the right to protest. Those bills would do harm to those freedoms, and as a parent, I must try to preserve those freedoms so that my daughter may continue to enjoy them.”
Beginning all of the testimony with a statement against the bills from the very mother whose child is at the center of this controversy was strategically brilliant, serving to effectively establish right out of the gate that these bills were written in response to a non-event, in which legislators have gone out of their way to portray harm and offense where there was none to begin with.
Bomier followed the mother’s statement with his own comments:
“As our Republican fellow citizens often point out, parental control over the lives of their children is a social positive, and I concur. This mother rightly felt that her daughter will have to live in the climate changed, damaged environment of the near future. The participation of people of any proper bicycling age reflects their awareness that there is no escape route from the serious illness or death of the biosphere.
“The city of Madison does not have an ordinance that prohibits public nudity if it has no salacious or prurient intent. This is a fine example of local control being exercised. The idea of local control has been a mainstay of Republican politics since the days of busing and fair housing. Parental and local government controls cannot be turned on and off like sluice gates or volume knobs. If these concepts are to be meaningful, they must apply in each kind of case.”
After Mr. Bomier spoke, Rebecca Hudson, a longtime participant in the WNBR, took the podium. Her comments reflected the positive effects of the social nudity aspect of the ride. “As a youth,” Hudson said, “I grew up being taught by our society that my physical body is a sexual object. As I've heard you all be concerned about to be judged, rated, and consumed by others. I wished I could disappear. As soon as I arrived at the starting location of the first Madison World Naked Bike Ride, I felt like I was finally at home.”
Next up was Robert Curry, a writer and acting instructor. Curry was eloquent and made several important points during his statement. One of the more salient comments he made follows:
“Indecency is in the eye of the beholder. And criminalizing public nudity for religious, political, aesthetic, or cultural reasons is a huge overreaction against those not guilty of a crime. […] If these bills are successful in criminalizing public nakedness, including naked protest, where do their authors aim next? Can they tell us what to wear? You may scoff, but slippery slopes start with one move. Is a nursing breast next? Bare shoulders? Mandated skirt length? Forbidden hairstyles? In Iran, the hijab is mandatory for women. Last spring, the Iranian decency police killed a woman in their custody after she was arrested for removing her head covering in protest of mandatory head coverings. But that can't happen here, right? It can! In France, a country which, like the US, cherishes liberty as a founding principle, denies women the wearing of burqas and hijabs. It's so easy to cloak zealotry in a condemnation of indecency. ‘What about the children?’ I believe a lot more can be lost with laws stepping on our freedoms than the sight of non-sexual nudity by a child or anyone else.”
Fourth to the podium in opposition of the bills was Holly McEntee, a regular participant in and organizer of the Madison WNBR. McEntee first shared an official statement from the ride organizers, followed by her own personal statement. The following excerpt represents just a portion of the organization’s larger statement.
“Both of these bills require proof of compelling government interest. That is, their goals must be shown to be so important that they warrant suspending the constitutional and fundamental rights of individuals. The proponents of these bills have not offered anything in the way of compelling government interest, or indeed, any government interest at all.
“The proponents merely keep saying that the actions which the bills seek to prevent are indecent and lewd. This seems to be based on their opinion that nudity is innately indecent. But this is contrary to our belief that nudity is not lewd. We believe that these bills are frivolous and do not address real issues that are not covered by existing legislation. We believe that if they become law, they will be inevitably stricken from the books upon their first challenge, a waste of public resources. Therefore, we request withdrawal of these bills.”
Holly McEntee followed with her own personal statement. In it, she described the impact that WNBR has had for her as a survivor of breast cancer. “The messages of the World Naked Bike Ride of body positivity and of reexamining our dependence on oil, especially in recognition of climate change resonates strongly with me as a breast cancer survivor and a survivor of a near fatal brain aneurysm,” McEntee said. “I have had several opportunities in recent years to examine my own body and my relationship with it and the changes to it. And I've participated in the World Naked Bike Ride since 2015. Every time, every time it has been empowering, affirming and positive.
“2023 was not the first [WNBR] in which minors participated,” McEntee continued, “and I believe that a family's intentional decision to participate in the ride is not only an issue of free speech, but of parental rights. The child participant was joyful. She was free. She was confident, and this was inspiring to see, especially in the face of the enormous negative messaging that we get about our bodies. ‘You're not tall enough.’ ‘You're not skinny enough.’ ‘You're not pretty enough.’ ‘Your teeth aren't white enough.’ Girls are especially targeted by body negativity; and I am proud that the Madison World Naked Bike Ride provides an experience that is powerful and positive. And I respect families who make the intentional decision to exercise their rights and participate. Bill 503 and 504 infringe upon those rights.”
In an apparent attempt at a “gotcha,” Republican representative and committee member David Steffan attempted to contort McEntee’s words back to her, posing an absurd and irrelevant hypothetical: “So if I wanted to protest [the] twenty one year old drinking age,” Steffan said, “and therefore I was having my kids get five year old kids get drunk on the Capitol lawn—smoke cigarettes, smoke pot, do drugs at the age of five—as long as I say I have a message and I don't believe it has a negative impact, that should be protected, would you agree with that?”
McEntee looked confounded by his suggestion. “I'm not a legal scholar—” she began, before Steffan abruptly cut her off.
“I'm not asking you to be a legal scholar,” he said. “I'm asking what you personally believe.”
McEntee was cool under fire. “What do I personally believe if you wish to protest drinking age of twenty one by having […] five year olds get drunk on the lawn of the capital? To me, that is a harm to the child,” McEntee said. “Alcohol is harmful.”
“It's protected speech,” Steffan led. “It’s protected. It's speech.”
“Is it?” McEntee asked.
“Don't you believe that?” Steffan continued, “If I'm protesting?”
“But you're inflicting harm,” McEntee said simply, unwilling to let the man put words in her mouth. Her response brilliantly contrasted Representative Steffan’s poorly assembled point, and highlighted that no one has ever suffered significant harm from seeing a nude body, unlike the immeasurable harm that has been caused by the abuse of alcohol.
Next up was Michael Marslender, of Stephens Point, Wisconsin. In his statement, Marslender pointed out the irony of the fact that these bills, authored by Republicans, go against the traditionally conservative values of parental rights:
“Thank you for the opportunity to speak. I wanted to speak briefly on rights. I believe you all have copies of what I'm going to say. Since 2010, the Wisconsin legislature has been creating legislation aimed at enhancing individual rights. Examples will include the right to work, the right to carry a firearm, both open and concealed, the parental right to choose where and how to educate your children. AB 503 and 504 are not about rights. They are quite the opposite. These bills, if enacted, would instead further restrict a parent's ability to choose how to raise their child. This is state government intruding on a parent's right to educate both by design and by example how they want their children to feel about themselves.”
Next to speak against the bills was Debbie Carley, a fine art photographer and poet who often photographs nude subjects in natural, public spaces. She spoke rather passionately about these bills and the adverse effect they would have of criminalizing her work and process. Carley shared the podium with Amber Ostergaard, a nude art model. Ostergaard reiterated Carley’s concerns from her own perspective. Seeing as many of the other speakers represented themselves as WNBR participants first and foremost, it was a welcome change to have diverse individuals from other fields like fine art there to speak on the potential for collateral damage from these overly broad bills.
Following the artists was Kris Haibeck of Muskego, Wisconsin. Of all the speakers, Kris was one of the only ones to actually identify himself as a nudist. Kris did a good job of candidly breaking down what this lifestyle looks like from his perspective and painting an inoffensive, realistic picture of what that means to him, thoroughly explaining why the human body is not inherently sexual or lewd.
Haibeck was followed by John Jankowski, an organizer of a neighboring WNBR in Milwaukee. Jankowski delivered a statement that was passionately composed and delivered, and represented possibly the most compelling case against the bills by highlighting the global scope of the WNBR, its twenty year history, and then outlining the process of collaboration with the city that is regularly sought in preparation for the ride and its positive economic impact on the state of Wisconsin.
“I've had discussions every year with the Milwaukee District Attorney, Milwaukee Police Department, [on] how to continue the bike ride. My first year of the bike ride in Milwaukee was September 11th, 2020. Our day of celebration this past year consisted over 200 beautiful protesters from all over. Different states; Virginia, Florida. Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, and of course, our beautiful state of Wisconsin. We had body painting. Four local bands. We even had a polka band playing. Both players in that band were over 70 years old. Kind of funny. We had a comedy show. We had food trucks. We had over 25 vendors that support body acceptance and body positivity that sell their products. This is a huge impact on the economy in Milwaukee. I had made, personally, seven different hotel reservations for people that came in from out of town.”
Three more speakers gave testimony before the allotted time was up. First was Andy K., a gentleman who spoke briefly, but said that he believed these laws would be an erosion of parental and constitutional rights.
Next was Brenda Brown, a charming woman who did an excellent job of paying due thanks to the committee and establishing a good rapport by affably describing her own lifelong Wisconsin pride. She then gave moving testimony about her decision to speak at the hearing and bravely go public with her nudism—a fact about her that not even her own mother knows—in order to show the committee that nudism doesn’t always look like one expects it to.
“I am passionate that the Naked Bike Ride promotes body positivity,” Brown said. “I believe that in all of my heart and I've seen so many women empowered by nudism in the year and a half that I've done this. It is empowering and it is free. Freedom, that's why we do nudism. And we want everybody to be able to know that it's okay to be in your own skin. […] It is okay to be who you are. Because I'm not sexual, guys. Look at me. I'm not sexual until you see me that way.”
The final speaker was Jolene, a member of the American Association for Nude Recreation, who raised concerns about artistic expression and the potential devastation these bills could cause to the entertainment industry in the state. She alluded to a comment made by Senator LaTonya Johnson in the previous senate hearing, in which Senator Johnson raised concerns about concert revenues in her district which would be lost if performers should reasonably decide to go perform in a neighboring state instead of risking charges for wearing a wardrobe that would be considered too risqué under the restrictive Wisconsin laws. Jolene compared the conservative bills to the kinds of restrictive legislation embraced by the state of Utah, saying, “I asked if there's any other states that had bills like this. I was told only Utah is more restrictive than these two bills. And I don't think we want to, you know, be up against Utah. That's not Wisconsin.”
Each of the speakers did an excellent job of expressing their reservations about these bills, and filling in new, important points that added to and expanded the larger argument against this legislation. Kudos are owed to Jim Dickey and Claude Richards of the Naturist Action Committee, as well as to the American Association of Nude Recreation for their organizing efforts, encouraging speakers, and helping with messaging.
As many of the speakers pointed out, the anti-nudity bills that are currently coursing through the Wisconsin state legislature are overly broad and baldly unconstitutional. Hearing the excellent points brought up by the speakers, and the relatively thin arguments about “protecting children” that were made by the only two bill proponents to speak—neither of which were normal citizens but rather bill authors—really spotlighted just how wrong these bills are for Wisconsinites and Americans.
The proponents of the bills predominantly displayed a conservative perspective, often relying on subjective moral arguments rather than empirical evidence. Their approach seemed somewhat reactionary, disproportionately focusing on the potential harm to children without presenting evidence to substantiate these claims. The underlying assumption appears to be that nudity, in itself, is inherently harmful or abusive, which is a contested notion not universally supported by psychological or sociological evidence.
In opposition, the defenders of WNBR and similar events presented nuanced arguments underscoring the significance of body positivity, self-expression, and protest. They highlighted the potential benefits such as empowerment, challenging body shaming, and the promotion of naturism. Their testimonies evoke historical parallels with past struggles for body freedom and against censorship, where the human body’s display in non-sexual contexts has been a powerful medium of social and political commentary.
A noteworthy strategy was the commencement of the opposition testimonies with a statement from the mother at the controversy's epicenter. This effectively foregrounded the voices of those directly impacted by the proposed legislation, ensuring their perspectives were not overshadowed.
In the historical trajectory of nudism and body freedom movements, laws such as AB 503 and 504 symbolize steps backward. They manifest tendencies to criminalize the human body, curtail freedoms of expression, and impose a homogenized moral viewpoint. It raises the question of whether such legislation truly resonates with democratic principles and respect for diversity in societal norms and values. As advocates of body freedom, our perspective aligns with viewing these bills as a threat to the hard-won spaces where individuals can express body positivity and challenge societal norms. Such legislative moves warrant robust opposition to safeguard the progress made in promoting a more inclusive and liberated society respectful of personal freedoms.
Digging deeper into case law around obscenity, it seems obvious to me—as it was to several of the speakers, including at least one committee member—that should these bills pass, they could very easily be considered unprosecutable and costly or impossible to uphold. They would limit personal and artistic expression, parental rights, and have little to no positive impact, fiscal or otherwise, for the state of Wisconsin.
Personally, I don’t see the bills getting beyond the committee stage. I have some faith that the system will work as designed and these badly written bills will be defeated. However, despite what I believe are strong chances, complacency would be a mistake. With a Republican majority in both houses of the state legislature, anything is possible. 🪐
Planet Nude is a free newsletter that is possible thanks for the support of a few generous subscribers. If you find value in our work, please consider a paid subscription.