Public Nudity

Public nudity refers to someone appearing naked in public, or being naked in an area that can be seen by the public. Examples of public nudity include being naked in a public swimming pool, on a beach, or on private property, such as at a shopping mall. Someone walking around naked inside the privacy of his own home is not considered a crime, unless he is visible from a public place, such as the sidewalk.

It is also not considered a crime for someone to be naked in an area where people are expected to take off their clothes, such as the locker room at a gym, in a sauna, or at a club or resort that is specifically designed for nudists. To explore this concept, consider the following public nudity definition.

Definition of Public Nudity

Noun

  1. The state of being nude, or naked, in a public place.

What is Public Nudity

Public nudity is the act of being naked in a public place, or in an area that can be seen by the general public. Interestingly, the act of public nudity is almost never sexual in nature. Some annual events tend to inspire nudity in public. For example, public nudity ran rampant during Woodstock, which was a music festival that took place in 1969 and drew 400,000 people to a dairy farm in New York over the course of four days.

However, it depends on the context of the public nudity as to whether it is considered sexual in nature, and whether it may be offensive to some people. For example, public nudity that takes the form of flashing others in public can be considered sexual in nature, and exhibitionism and voyeurism are often acts that are seen as offensive.

Typically, what is accepted both legally and by the public insofar as public nudity is concerned significantly varies around the world. To prevent offending the general public, law enforcement seeks to uphold what are referred to as “standards of decency.” Anything that falls outside of these standards is considered “indecent exposure.” However, these standards too can vary based on the time and the place.

For instance, while some people engage in public nudity for sexual gratification, others do it simply to draw attention to themselves, or to a cause they are passionate about. Of course, this doesn’t make their publicly naked bodies any more acceptable to the public, or in the eyes of the law. As an example of public nudity for the purpose of gaining attention, someone might streak through a crowd naked – an act referred to as “streaking” – or take part in a nude porting event. For instance, nude skating and rollerblading events have been organized in San Francisco.

Another reason some people get naked in public is to express their sense of freedom. This includes such activities as skinny dipping, or sunbathing in the nude.

Ritual Nudity

Typically, cultural or religious traditions involve dressing up in clothing specific to a tradition. However, some traditions either involve or call for ritual nudity. For instance, in India, Digambara monks reject the idea of wearing any clothing at all. Some forms of the Wiccan religion call for ritual nudity, which is referred to as “going skyclad.”

An early Christian sect known as the Adamites would also engage in what was called “holy nudism,” which was the practice of worshipping in the nude. Ritual nudity may be seen as symbolic of rebirth, similar to the act of being baptized in the Christian faith.

Recreational Nudity

There are certain instances where recreational nudity is more readily accepted than others. Someone sunbathing on the beach, for example, is more likely to be accepted as being naked in public than is someone who is shops for groceries in the nude. Additional locations where recreational nudity is acceptable include nude beaches and certain swimming pools.

Recreational nudity has slowly become more popular in recent decades, with the creation of nude sporting events, such as nude hiking and naked roller skating. One of the more recent developments in recreational nudity is the opening of naked restaurants in London, Tokyo, and Melbourne. Additionally, nudity is often the focus of works of art ranging from photography to paintings.

Some protestors will go nude in public to draw attention to their cause. One of the more well-known of these naked protests includes the ongoing “I’d Rather Go Naked than Wear Fur!” series of photographs promoted by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). This campaign against animal cruelty features nude celebrities posing with animals for the purposes of encouraging people to stop eating meat, and to stop wearing clothing made from animal skins.

Public Nudity Laws

Typically, the naked body is not considered to be indecent. The fact that the naked body pops up so often in art is proof of this. However, it is an unwritten rule that people are expected to be clothed when they go out in public. While public nudity may be acceptable at certain beaches, it is inappropriate in such places as the workplace, school, or on the street.

Public nudity laws apply when a person’s lack of clothing can be considered inappropriate and offensive to others. Different countries, however, have different public nudity laws. While in the United States there are “suitable places” to go nude, countries like Spain have certain local laws that either restrict or ban nudity entirely.

The courts will only get involved if there is evidence of the intent to offend others or to behave “indecently,” or if the nudity occurred in a location or situation in which it is likely that others will be offended. However, the exact definition of “indecent” varies by the community. In some jurisdictions, public nudity will be prosecuted if:

  • It is perceived to be sexual in nature;
  • It is perceived to be exhibitionist in nature;
  • If it involves exposure to children.

Many states within the U.S. forbid nudity in public entirely on the basis that nudity itself is fundamentally sexual in nature. For instance, in Arkansas, public nudity laws dictate that nudity itself is illegal, even on private property. It is also a crime to promote or advocate for nudity there. Other states, like Oregon, protect nudity as a subsect of free speech, provided there is no “intent to arouse” others with one’s nudity.

Public Nudity Example in Strip Clubs

There were two businesses involved in adult entertainment in South Bend, Indiana: The Kitty Kat Lounge and Glen Theatre. The Kitty Kat Lounge specialized in entertaining customers with live exotic dancers, while Glen Theatre was more about selling adult entertainment materials, such as magazines and videos. However, Glen Theatre also had a separate “bookstore” area where customers could put coins into a machine and watch live exotic dancers.

Both businesses wanted to add fully naked dancers to their list of entertainment options, but Indiana law dictated that this would be promoting “indecent behavior” that was intended to “arouse the sexual desires of another,” which was a misdemeanor. All dancers were required to wear pasties and G-strings in order to be adequately covered under the law.

Because the law prevented the possibility of either business promoting complete nudity, the two companies filed suit against the county. Their complaint was that Indiana law interfered with the freedom of expression that is afforded to all citizens under the First Amendment to the Constitution. The District Court granted an injunction against enforcement of the indecency law. This was a decision the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately reversed and remanded back to the District Court.

The case was then volleyed back and forth between the District Court and the Court of Appeals before finally being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court ruled on the issue of whether or not a state’s ban on complete nudity in public violated the First Amendment. Chief Justice William Rehnquist noted that nude dancing was more expressive than simply being nude. However, Indiana’s ban on public nudity had nothing to do with the “erotic message” that could be conveyed through dancing while nude.

The Court ruled that the public indecency statute was justified in spite of the limitations it ultimately placed on such an expressive activity. Indiana’s law “further[ed] a substantial government interest in protecting order and morality.” To support its findings, the Court held:

“The requirement that the dancers don pasties and a G-string does not deprive the dance of whatever erotic message it conveys; it simply makes the message slightly less graphic. The perceived evil that Indiana seeks to address is not erotic dancing, but public nudity. The appearance of people of all shapes, sizes and ages in the nude at a beach, for example, would convey little if any erotic message, yet the state still seeks to prevent it. Public nudity is the evil the state seeks to prevent, whether or not it is combined with expressive activity.”

The Court’s ruling ultimately found that it was not unconstitutional for a state to forbid public nudity outright, especially if the only requirement for someone to no longer be nude was to for that person to wear clothing that covered up as little skin as possible.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Baptism – The religious tradition of either sprinkling water onto a person’s forehead or submerging them in water to symbolize either purification or rebirth and admission to the Christian faith.
  • Exhibitionism – The act of displaying one’s naked body in public.
  • Flashing – The act of showing off one’s naked body to another person.
  • Injunction – A court order preventing an individual or entity from beginning or continuing an action.
  • Streaking – The act of running around a public place while naked.
  • Voyeurism – The act of watching others while they are naked or engaged in a sexual activity.

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