The Baystate Objectivist

The Baystate Objectivist

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Naked Valley

How much is too much?

In 2006 the town of Brattleboro, Vermont attracted national attention for its high tolerance of public nudity. As reported at the time in the Boston Globe:

"Here on the banks of the Connecticut River, in the busiest parking area of a downtown peppered with bookstores and coffee shops, more is meeting the eye than some people want.

A politely rebellious collection of teenagers passing time in the Harmony Parking Lot this summer has taken to disrobing. Seemingly on a whim, they shed clothes and soak up the sun, nude.

What began as a lark or an ode to youthful exuberance has now turned into a municipal quandary, because public nudity is permissible in Brattleboro.

In the words of Town Manager Jerry Remillard, if you're naked in public, and you're minding your business, you're legal."

But that didn't last. The following summer town officials voted 3-2 to pass an ordinance banning nudity in the downtown area and near schools. The reason for the change of heart was that all the publicity had turned Brattleboro into a nudist tourist destination, with all kinds of folks showing up nude from out of town. Some of them were acting pretty lewd.

Brattleboro's experiment in public nudity raises an interesting question - why exactly is being nude in public against the law? In Massachusetts such a ban is perhaps less surprising, just look at the attire of the Samuel Chapin statue next to the Quadrangle in Springfield. Buckled and buttoned from head to toe and wrapped in a flowing cape, the Bay State's puritian heritage is perfectly represented in the Chapin statue's far from revealing clothing. The women of his time wouldn't have shown a bare ankle, let alone a bare breast.

Although standards of modesty have relaxed considerably since the 1600's, complete nudity in public is still far from legal in Massachusetts. In fact "public indecency," which is the charge usually brought against those who are too undressed in public, can be a serious black mark on your record. Employers who see such a charge are not as likely to think you were a hippie at Woodstock as they are to think you were caught in a schoolyard dressed in nothing but a raincoat. It can be a hard conviction to explain away, even though the circumstances may have been quite innocent.

For example, you might have been arrested for streaking. That was the big fad of the college campuses of the late 1970's where students, sometimes alone but usually in groups, would strip off their clothes and go running around campus in the nude. I was a student at UMass during the streaking craze. While plenty of my classmates participated, I can't recall that I ever did. However that might be because I was part of a gay scene in the Southwest dorms where paryting naked was common. In fact next to what me and my queer friends were doing, the straight kids with their innocently nude running seemed almost quaint. Frankly, the pre-AIDS gay scene was awfully loose.

At first the campus police would chase streakers and arrest them if they were caught. Then the cops learned that chasing the kids only encouraged the streakers, and that ignoring their behavior tended to take the fun out of it. So the fad faded once the novelty wore off, but the prevalence of nudity on campus continued to increase in other ways. For example casual nudity in the dorms became more common.

In the 1990's UMass decided to crack down on the level of nudity in the dorms, resulting in student protests. WNNZ Radio personality (and Valley Advocate writer) Al Giordano expressed his solidarity with the protestors by doing his radio show in the nude. Of course it's hard to tell what someone is wearing or not wearing on the radio, but no one who knew Al, a disciple of 60's radical Abbie Hoffman, doubted in the least that he was starkers in the studio.

Without anyone really taking note of it, today's college students have adopted an almost European indifference to nudity. I lived in Amherst until recently and occasionally got invited to student parties. I'm surprised by how common it is after midnight for people to wind up nude, guys mostly but some women as well.

There seems to be a double standard for the sexes in regards to nudity at parties, which perhaps reflects the double standard in society at large. For example men can go naked from the waist up almost anywhere anytime, but women can still be charged with indecency for doing the same. In fact, it has only been in recent years that exceptions were allowed for breastfeeding. Are guys running around bareass just boys being boys, while girls doing the same thing are acting slutty?

A female UMass student I know told me about an experience she had last semester at a "Socks on Cocks" party. This is a gathering where the guys party nude except for socks that cover their genitals, a fashion inspired in part by the popular rock band Red Hot Chili Peppers who in their early years used to perform live so attired.

My friend said that at first there were several women at the party, all of whom were fully dressed. However as the night got late one of the women ran around the room pulling off the socks and throwing them out the window. This caused most of the women to leave, but my friend and one other woman remained. She said the guys started urging them to get nude as well, or at least remove their tops. Although the other girl did bare her breasts my friend kept refusing until she finally felt compelled to leave. She told me that the next day all her friends told her she had done the right thing, and that she would have degraded herself to strip.

My friend's experience showed there is still a sense that you shouldn't just get naked under all circumstances, especially if you are female. Yet at the other extreme is our insistance on nude celebrities. Today it is a mark of success, a sign that you have finally arrived, if you have paparazzi stalking you in hopes of catching you with your pants down. For those who have truly achieved stardom, to be nude before the public has become almost a job requirement, for male stars as well as female.

For some, their objection to nudity is aesthetic - they fear that if nudity becomes legal all the wrong people will get naked. They point to the lessons learned by the arrival of the bikini in the 1950's. At the time it was heralded as a great new fashion destined to reveal the best attributes of the nation's youth. Instead, it sometimes seemed as if the truly beautiful people remained modest, while every overweight middle-aged slob on the beach wore the tiniest of swimwear.

So what is this brave new world of nekkidness? Should people be arrested, even stigmatized, simply for appearing in public in the nude? It is one thing to advocate for the right to be casually nude on a hot summer day, but what about the dude that wants to strut down Main Street naked with his hard-on bobbing up and down? What about nudity around children?

Clearly there needs to be some relaxation of the public nudity ordinances to reflect changing societal norms. Obviously the standards have changed, with nudity being much more common in television, movies and especially advertising than was the case just ten years ago. It also would be a good thing if we finally shed the unhealthy vestiges of our Puritan heritage and learned to celebrate our bodies rather than be ashamed of them. But how much public nudity should be allowed and in what context? As Brattleboro learned the hard way, it is not as simple as just allowing people to get undressed, because exactly what the difference is between innocent nudity and tasteless lewdness is not quite as transparent.

In the UMass Campus Center today Students For Life had a table set up. They have been very active this semester.

Outside, there were free classes in pumpkin carving. While the instructions were free, the pumpkins cost five bucks each.

Nearby were trash bags meant to symbolize the bodybags of victims of the genocide in Darfur.

Am I a bad person because I can't make myself care about Darfur?

I'm saddened to hear that longtime Grateful Dead "family" member Merle Saunders has died. From the obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle:

SAN FRANCISCO -- Keyboardist Merl Saunders, the gentle lion of the San Francisco music scene best known as co-captain of guitarist Jerry Garcia's solo excursions outside the Grateful Dead, died Friday at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center after fighting infections.

The 74-year-old musician suffered a debilitating stroke 6 1/2 years ago and, although he lost the ability to speak, he made numerous sentimental guest appearances at shows over those years playing with one hand.

"I never met anybody so happy who had a stroke," said Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart. "In the end, the only thing that lit him up was the music. Sometimes he'd cry, but I've never seen anybody so happy in the realm of music."

"Merl was an ensemble guy, a groupist," said Hart, who played with Mr. Saunders in his early '80s solo group, High Noon. "He brought those sensibilities to the Garcia band. He let Jerry have his flights of fancy."

After Garcia fell into a diabetic coma in 1986 and lost some of his basic motor skills, Mr. Saunders spent hours daily with the stricken guitarist running scales, working him out on jazz standards such as "My Funny Valentine."

Here's Merle performing in 1998:


Anonymous said...

I saw Merle at the Academy of Music years ago. He was great!

Anonymous said...

I agree that nudity laws should be relaxed. Who does it hurt?

Anonymous said...

Nudity laws are there because of FUCKING IDIOTS who have no clue as to how to behave either privately or in public.