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Vital liberation movements
Civil rights, civil liberties, and the consumer-driven nudist movement
“A naturism which separates from other vital liberation movements in society, and fixes only upon the external forms of its differentness from majoritarian values, is already a sect, a curiosity, and on its way to extinction.”
—Lee Baxandall, 1981
Working to protect the civil rights and civil liberties of others—even when these struggles seemingly have no impact on our own lives—is the morally correct approach. It’s just the right thing to do. We should not speak up only when our own rights and liberties are threatened. Looking out for one another is a cornerstone of a healthy, functional society.
Unfortunately, this is a controversial subject among many nudists who argue that nudism has no voice in a broader liberation movement, even as our own way of life continues to confront stigmatization, a lack of meaningful public acceptance, and legal challenges. But it’s both irresponsible and dangerous to view nudism and naturism as nothing more than a leisure activity, diminishing it to recreation and relaxation without philosophical principles and with no relationship to civil rights and civil liberties struggles. If we reject our role in the broader civil rights and civil liberties movements, and if we ignore the civil liberties of others, we do so at our own peril.
Civil rights differ from civil liberties, but we should care about both
It’s important that we avoid calling the freedom to be nude a civil right, equating it to civil rights movements, and instead recognize it as a civil liberty. The Legal Information Institute at Cornell University makes this distinction:
Civil rights refer to legal provisions that stem from notions of equality. Civil rights are not in the Bill of Rights; they deal with legal protections. For example, the right to vote is a civil right. A civil liberty, on the other hand, refers to personal freedoms protected from government intrusion such as those listed in the Bill of Rights. For example, the First Amendment's right to free speech is a civil liberty.
Nudists and naturists generally do not encounter challenges to our civil rights—the right to vote, or access to housing, healthcare, or services—based on our identification as nudists. We have, however, experienced government intrusions on our First Amendment rights to speech, press, and assembly. The distinction is an important one, as nudists do not face the same challenges as those who are discriminated against based on their gender, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, or gender identity. But that doesn’t mean that we are unaffected by these struggles.
Legislation targeting one group’s civil liberties is likely to be applied to other groups
We know that the enforcers of America’s Comstock Laws—which targeted “obscene, lewd or lascivious” materials for decades in the 19th and 20th centuries—often made little, if any distinction between pornography, art, and nudist publications. We know that legislative bills targeting strip clubs and adult bookstores have again and again been so broadly written that nudist clubs and clothing-optional businesses and publishers can become targets of their enforcement. Our nudist and naturist advocacy groups have fought bills targeting nude dancing, not because we have particular feelings for or against strip clubs, but because we appreciate that nearly any laws restricting nudity can easily be used against nudists. Although we recognize a distinction between the exotic dancer and the sunbather, we know that a broadly-written law, and the individual called to enforce it, may not.
The current set of bills targeting drag performances nationwide are a modern incarnation of the bills once used to target business with exotic dancers. Many of them are obscenity and exposure laws. These bills seek to regulate the personal expressions of drag artists by labeling their work as “adult cabaret performances,” thereby linking them to strip club performers. The bills are designed to shut down drag events by confining drag performances to adults-only venues, which are subject to broad regulation, licensing, and zoning restrictions. But carefully read some of the text of these bills, and it becomes apparent that the rather vague language used to define an “adult performance” might be used to restrict a theatrical performance where someone appears in a costume, or any performance involving nudity of any kind. A band, a comedian, or even someone singing karaoke in a nudist venue might constitute an “adult performance” according to the language in some of these bills, putting the performers and venues at legal jeopardy, and edging us ever closer to a scenario in which nudist parks are regulated and zoned as adults-only businesses.
Attacks on the civil rights of one group can affect us all
Broadly-interpreted disorderly conduct and resisting arrest laws have been misused in many instances as a pretense to detain citizens when it's unclear that a law has been broken, and these over-broad laws have disproportionately targeted minorities. These same laws, which are open to a variety of interpretations, have been used in police crackdowns on nude beachgoers. When used in an indiscriminate fashion, these laws become powerful tools which can be used for many purposes.
Today, anti-trans bills are sweeping the country. If they become law, they will give local governments the authority to regulate what a person can and cannot do with their own body, the kinds of healthcare they may seek, the clothing they may wear, the sports and other activities in which they may participate, the restrooms in which they may wash their hands or urinate, the locker rooms where they may change and shower. It’s not difficult to imagine how these kinds of laws, and their attention to “mixed gender” nudity might be used to target people on nude beaches, at naturist gatherings, or even in private nudist resorts.
Many nudists will exclaim that trans rights have nothing to do with nudist rights, even as nudists may soon benefit from the activism of a trans couple. On January 17th, Meta’s advisory board called for Facebook and Instagram to overhaul their policies on bare breasts, following a situation in which a trans couple’s topfree photos were flagged and removed.
The board found that “the policy is based on a binary view of gender and a distinction between male and female bodies”, which makes rules against nipple-baring “unclear” when it comes to intersex, non-binary and transgender users. It recommended that Meta “define clear, objective, rights-respecting criteria” when it comes to moderating nudity “so that all people are treated in a manner consistent with international human rights standards.”1
Nudists, who have largely remained silent as anti-trans legislation has worked its way through nearly every state in the country will no doubt celebrate the images of bare breasts that might soon flood their social media news feeds. A trans couple may well be what brings an end to the social media nipple censorship that has long inspired the fury of nudist individuals and organizations alike. We should remember this, and we should carefully consider its implications.
We should care about the struggles of our fellow citizens, because it’s the right thing to do. But even if some of us choose to not care, we should, at a minimum, recognize that regressive and restrictive laws work their way into our own lives more insidiously and more frequently than we’d like to imagine. We should appreciate that one group’s progress tends to pull us all ahead. When another person’s civil rights or civil liberties are affirmed, ours are affirmed. When another person’s pursuit of happiness is validated, so is ours. And when another person’s liberties and rights are taken away, so might ours. The exotic dancer, the bookstore owner, the drag artist, the nude beach goer, the writer, the trans woman, the artist, and the nudist resort member may not recognize a common cause. We may not agree with one another’s particular pursuits of happiness. And we don’t have to. We should only realize that progress for one helps all the others, and the threats we encounter often overlap, in ways that are not always immediately clear.
Nudists should not ignore our role in civil rights and civil liberties struggles
Many nudists are quick to exclaim, “Nudism isn’t political!” This is partly the result of the organizations moving away from promoting activism and toward marketing leisure-focused consumerism. The “nakation” marketing concept has caused many nudists to begin to see our role in the movement as that of the passive consumer, and that the nudist movement is nothing more than a set of resorts, cruises, and cheerful travel blogs. We are encouraged to be buyers and sellers, not activists.
We don’t expect everyone that enjoys a hike in a forest to become a Thoreau, an Emerson, or a Muir, but we should hope that they will develop a degree of respect for the necessity of environmentalism and conservation. Similarly, we can’t expect every nude sunbather and skinny-dipper to become hardened activists, but we should maintain a serious, clear-eyed, ongoing conversation regarding the threats we face and what we must do to confront them.
What happens when the next Hippie Hollow controversy erupts, and a nudist space is legislated into an adults-only venue. Who will confront this?
What happens when another beach is shut down using the same tactics (community complaints, nuisance ordinances, even environmental concerns) that have effectively been used to shut down nude use of dozens of beaches, from San Onofre in California to Mazo Beach in Wisconsin? Who will confront this?
What happens when the tactics used to close the nude beaches are expanded to other nude activities, like the World Naked Bike Ride? Even in progressive Portland, a 2011 bill pondered just such a possibility. Or maybe the new slate of laws designed to clamp down on protests will be used to stop the WNBR, the Fremont Solstice Parade, Rainbow Gatherings, Burning Man, Spencer Tunick photoshoots, and other nude or clothing optional happenings. Who will confront this?
Ideally, naturists will come to see themselves as part of a much larger civil liberties movement, connected to other groups, even those with seemingly unrelated interests or concerns. Ideally, we’ll back away from succumbing to the illusion that nudism is nothing more than a leisure activity, and that we no longer need a national movement, with organizations, gathering spaces, volunteers, activists and advocates working in unison to protect our freedom to live as we choose. At a minimum, we must understand that laws targeting the civil rights and civil liberties of one group can be used to target other groups. We are not insulated from the threats they face. This is a practical reality that we must be willing to confront. 🪐
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Alaina Demopoulos, writing for the Guardian, 1/18/23