In recent years, I have been disappointed to see many anarchists take a categorically anti-nudity position with respect to a very broad variety of situations and settings. This has often been as an extension of their “sexual politics” – an imperfect term, to be sure, but which I mean the sum of their ideas about sexuality, which are often (not always) received ideas, i.e. dogma or ideology.
I am not talking about any time that a given person had a negative emotional response to someone else’s nudity in a shared situation – that is, by a lake or at a party. We could get into the details of any of these incidents, both those where I was present or where I heard the story later, but suffice it to say, people are going to have emotional reactions, especially to nudity that they weren’t expecting. I have also had emotions to nudity that I wasn’t expecting!
In discussions that touch on the appropriateness of nudity in given settings and situations – from anarchists living in the same rented house or apartment, to urban demonstrations on hot summer days, to those times when anarchists go to secluded places together – people usually come with a sexual politics of some kind. This can come in many flavours: basically sex-positive or basically sex-negative; try-hard decolonial feminist or shitty manarchist activist; orientated towards nude or prude futurity.
I wonder where people categorize me?
Most ideological positions that oppose nudism, these days, are justified on political and moral grounds – and not purely on an argument that God, or a leader who is ordained by God, has decided that it should be so. For the purposes of this text, I am only concerned with the most common anti-nudism position within anarchist circles, which I will admit to having homogenized a bit. Many of the mildly or seriously anti-nudist anarchists I have had chats with over the years didn’t know any of the others, or if they did, they didn’t know them well. I hardly imagine that they have any real uniformity, even on this issue; they would disagree among themselves, probably, about certain situations and settings. But they hold a common position, namely that nudism is not cool.
Maybe naked people aren’t what The People want (boring); or it’s not what I, an individualist anarchist, want (an even worse take, held exclusively by insurrecto bros in my experience, and based purely on a rather conservative aesthetics); or the most important argument, which I will address, which is that nudity is sexual and thus consent is required.
This is a weighty topic in more ways than one. I’m inordinately worried that I will say the wrong thing – not even so much because I am afraid I will hurt someone reading this post (although I am in fact also worried about that), but because I am afraid for my own reputation as soon as someone reads this text in a bad faith way (which will happen at some point, inevitably).
But let’s just get into it.
Terror Incognita by CrimethInc. is an imperfect text, but as far as an accessible essay on the topics of both consent and politics, I don’t know of a better example currently extant in the anarchist canon. The essay touches on several different topics, but one of its points is that a “consent framework” was widely adopted in anarchist circles (in the U.S., specifically) because of its broad utility with respect to understanding, and addressing, the many thorny issues around sex, rape, and areas in between that exist in both anarchist circles and basically all other circles.
A subsequently argued point is that the consent framework has virtually zero utility as regards political issues. I would argue, myself, that in the context of a conversation about occupying buildings, fighting police, and so on, it is a serious misapplication of the consent framework. If everyone involved in a “project” – even an ad hoc and very politically heterogenous one like a local Occupy cohort circa 10 years ago – has a “block” on political behaviour (by which I mean something more or less identical to the anti-social behaviour that most of my friends like), then certain things simply will not happen as a result of any number of liberal or naïve positions that even a single person involved in things might hold.
And this in a marginal social movement context. Stretching the idea out to include all of society is more ridiculous still. Terror Incognita speaks of “consensus reality” as the limits of what people can imagine as possible, and identifies the anarchist project with challenging that consensus. I am generally on board with that idea.
Now, importantly, nudity is not sex. I don’t think nudity is politics, either, but I would argue that nudity is more a political issue than it is, per se, a sexual issue. Some readers will reject this bifurcation, but I hope they will bear with me.
That nudity is not sex is one of the most basic naturist principles. It’s not a complicated idea, and I’d argue that it’s also a pretty sound hypothesis, even if some qualification is possible. Said differently, the precise delimitations of “sex” may be in question, but nudity qua nudity is neither identical to the category of sex nor wholly encompassed by it.
Nevertheless, nudity, as a subject matter, is rhetorically sexualized. And perhaps, then, it doesn’t matter whether it is inherently sexual or not. Society has spoken, and the answer is what it is. Utopia lost!
Even accepting this logic (which I don’t), applying the consent framework to simple nudity is without good cause. Unless the goal is to simply to stop people getting from naked, it doesn’t make any sense. It won’t stop abuse. That’s what the consent framework does (imperfectly, but provably) when applied to sex that is actually sex. With respect to nudity, though, it just creates misery – at least in my case, as a guy who just wants to be naked, maybe, and have it be chill – and maybe a little more neurosis or confusion that could, perhaps, pave the way to abuse.
What does applying the consent framework to nudity do in practice?
The “concerned parties”, with respect to nudity, are presumably all of the people who can – even just in theory – observe the fact of a person being naked, by which I mean the tits, dick, or ass. Prior to getting naked in a park on a sunny summer day, then, it must be acknowledge that it is impractical to the point of ludicrousness to ask everyone already present in the park for permission to do so, and actually impossible to ask the consent of the people who are still on their way to the park, who may show up a few minutes after the clothes are already off. In the context of the dominant culture, there is no realistic chance of getting a resounding okay from everyone.
In effect, to ask permission to get naked in most public settings is to be denied permission to get naked. Worse, however, it concedes that being naked, in itself, is something that requires permission from others who may be “exposed” – as if nudity were like smoking a cigarette, and seeing a naked person like secondhand inhalation.
I have spent a lot of time in “ungoverned” spaces: anarchist gatherings in the woods, in urban wastelands where cops usually don’t go, inside private apartments where no one presumes to be the boss of anyone else. Often these spaces don’t have any explicit rules about anything; if there are a few rules, they are usually about practical issues (rotating schedule of taking out the garbage, buy toilet paper if you notice supply is low, don’t take dogs into the library tent, etc.). In these settings, I have noticed that people tend to be a lot more cavalier about lighting up cigarettes without asking those nearby (like myself) who could be affected than I expect they would be about anyone taking all their clothes off, even though secondhand smoke is materially aggravating to anyone with lungs. Some people may not mind a little cigarette smoke, of course, but that’s hardly my point.
Anyone who wants to smoke, too, usually can smoke somewhere else, i.e. at such a distance that other people are unlikely to inhale much or any secondhand smoke. Insofar as nudity is to be considered an aggravation to others, however, it can be presumed to remain aggravating so long as it is within sight range, i.e. a much greater distance.
I think that, to the extent that there may be a problem in a given situation or setting with smokers lighting up and not asking the people near them whether or not that would bother them, we can talk about fixing the problem – and I don’t think we need to escalate that conversation by bringing in a consent framework, with all its threat of consent violated, consent transgressed. It’s not necessary to deal with whatever the issue is. It is, however, a means of introducing governance into a space that might otherwise be characterized between the ecstatic interplay of affinity and conflict, i.e. people coming together and people deciding they don’t want to fuck with each other. Which is what I guess I would prefer. (We can discuss the details on my anarchist blog, which doesn’t exist.)
I want to repeat that the consent framework, as it applies to sex, is pretty okay. It’s just not great with respect to other things. The idea that more of our lives should be governed by the consent framework – our relationship to landlords, teachers, bosses, etc. – is one I see sometimes, and I guess it’s fine as a sort of anarchist imaginary to strive for (though not really what I go in for), but it’s obvious that the world doesn’t work like that, for the most part. I think it’s fair to say, too, that an expanded ideology of consent can fuel a lot of annoying, entitled behaviour as to how others ought to behave. My experience is that this ideology primarily manifests itself as a sort of antagonism internal to “radical” and anarchist scenes, and not externally, because outside of these scenes, no one is going to give any fucks at all.
I’ll conclude with two comments.
One, I think that simple nudity should be considered less materially obnoxious than other behaviours that, for whatever reason, a lot of us are willing to let slide. Obviously! My position is obviously very biased here, but I figure that there must be many people who live with overly loud neighbours, with roommates who don’t clean, or whatever else. Surely, whatever a person’s view on nudity, that sort of behaviour ought to be considered more annoying than being bare-assed. How many people, I wonder, wouldn’t prefer a neighbour or roommate who was regularly naked in full view, but who did the dishes, didn’t blast drum & bass ’til 2 am, etc.?
Two, I don’t think equating simple nudity to sex does any good for a conversation about difficult or heavy subjects related to sex.