originally published January 25, 2013

“How do I attract more readers?” I asked of Lucius, my imaginary pygmy-elephant and trusted advisor.

“Controversy,” Lucius replied.

He was right. It’s time to stir things up. It’s time to shake the Internet’s rickety bones. It’s time to get naked! Or at least write about getting naked. I’m at work, and I think there’s some kind of safety concern over being nude in the presence of lamination equipment.

But there’s a lot to say about public nudity. Not surprisingly, there are a lot of photos on the subject as well, but this is a family site, so I’m going to do my best to uphold our image of respectability. I don’t want to jeopardize this site’s future purpose as a textbook for millions.

From what I can gather, there are four possible reasons one would be naked in public. Any of the four could get you in trouble with the authorities, depending on where you are and whether or not you get caught.

The first reason you might find yourself publically defrocked is for religious reasons. I’d advise getting a note from your priest/rabbi/shaman/spirit-monkey just in case the police interrupt you. The Adamites, an early Christian sect – you know, the kind that were probably murdered en masse by ‘normal Christians’ later on – would practice something called Holy Nudism, which is just like regular church-going, but with everyone naked.

If you happen to live among the Hamer community in southwestern Ethiopia, you’ll need to overcome any shyness if you hope to be a man. The rite of passage into adulthood for boys involves stripping down, then running across the backs of eight cows, three times back and forth. Only then can you be accepted as an adult and allowed to marry. This is why when one of my single friends asks me what it’s like to be married, I answer, “It’s like running on the backs of cows, man.”

The second reason you might expose your underbits to the elements is artistic expression. Yoko Ono famously staged her “Cut Piece,” an act of performance art in which audience members were invited on stage to snip off a piece of her clothing until she was naked. This was a powerful statement on the prevalence of scissors in our society (I think). Spencer Tunick is an American photographer who has staged numerous large-scale installations with heaps and heaps of naked people, which seems like a great way to earn a living if you like being around naked people.

Some public nudity is merely a protest, a way to get people to look at you and by extension, your cause. If your cause happens to be “people should be naked more often” then this sort of protest is doubly productive.

The World Naked Bike Ride is a recurring group protest in which people ride in the buff in order to promote environmental awareness and breaking our addiction to oil. These protests do a fine job of getting a cause on national news, but I’m not seeing any data that indicates that naked protests accomplish any good.

Actually, that’s not true. Back in 2003, the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace sought to put an end to the 14-year-old civil war in that country. They employed a number of non-violent tactics (though the nation-wide sex strike seems particularly cruel), and threatened to remove their clothing and curse the men unless a peace agreement was reached. It worked.

The fourth reason you might find your scruffy li’l nerfherder flopping about in the open air is simply because you damn well feel like it. Maybe you’re the nude beach type. Maybe you go to those naturist spas and play tennis wearing nothing but court-gripping footwear and an 80’s-style headband. Maybe you’re big into skinny dipping and stealth enough not to get caught.

This is, of course, a tricky gamble. The concept of ‘indecent exposure’ varies from state to state. You may find that brisk evening stroll au naturel to be well-received at home, but try it on vacation and you may find your wang or wangette in cuffs. Even if that’s what you’re into, the cops will probably do whatever they can to make sure you don’t enjoy it.

Despite what I’ve heard about European countries being a lot more relaxed about public nudity, America has still come a long way. Just over a century ago, professional Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman forsook traditional Yankee pantaloons and wore her onesie to a Boston beach, winding up in the slammer for her brevity. This was the shameful frock that got her locked up:

Most states have loosened up their nudity laws when it comes to breastfeeding, though for some reason this remains a contentious issue among some. Oregon has it down on paper that public nudity is legal and protected as a facet of free speech. The catch is, your public nudity must not have “intent to arouse”. For the over-Twinkie’d slobs I saw at a gas station when I was driving through Portland a few years ago, that would never be a problem.

If you don’t care about your local laws and just want to freak people out, you could always join that illustrious community of streakers. Considered to be a fad of the 70’s, streaking actually dates back over 200 years. Actually, I’m sure it dates back as far as people have been scandalized by public dinks and boobies, but ‘recorded’ history only makes a big deal of it since around 1800.

The first college student to be arrested for streaking was George William Crump on the campus at Washington College in 1804. Crump went on to become a Unites States Congressman. Not saying there’s any correlation there, but I’m also not saying there isn’t.

The largest recorded group streak has been held by the University of Georgia since 1974, with 1,543 naked bodies scurrying through the streets at once. Come on, fellow college students. That’s nearly 40 years ago! Why hasn’t any enterprising campus put in the effort to beat that record? I’d talk to my own school about getting this going, but the student-run media won’t return my calls.

I think it’s time to bring back streaking as a fad, and see if we can loosen the gnarled-up stigma surrounding public nudity. Well maybe it’s not exactly the time… with temperatures well below freezing across much of this country, public nudity might become a health hazard. But we should keep an open mind, and court a little controversy every now and then.

Right Lucius?

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