I have taken to nude swimming in my local leisure centre and think that others, if they want to, shouldn’t be shy. It creates a sense of freedom both bodily and mentally, and is an exhilarating experience. Writing in the Daily Mail, Quentin Letts, who has a private pool, said, “There’s no greater joy than skinny dipping.”
There is no law in the lands of England of Wales that prohibit public nudity, although one can experience harassment from ignorant authorities who are unaware the law acknowledges that the human body, in and of itself, is not indecent or obscene, and they might try to ‘ASBO’ you, though it rarely stands up in court. But when ‘the naked Rambler’ Stephen Gough travelled to Scotland to pursue his chosen lifestyle, he ended up spending 10 years in jail. So too in Northern Ireland, where the winning of peace hasn’t meant the winning of liberty, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has threatened skinny dippers with 2 years in jail.
At least however, the PSNI use the argument that “children might be present.” This is a valid argument not because children have inalienable natural rights never to see an adult nude, but because their parents may not wish it. Parents who wish to steer their child in a certain direction – e.g. away from nudity – should be respected for their will and others should be sensitive to this aspect of parental autonomy. But this blog is about challenging a climate of fear – not necessarily a legal enforcement, but a moralistic one – that prohibits the free expression of nudity in a situation where no child is allowed to be present, i.e. swimming sessions that are billed as ‘adults only.’
With butterflies in my stomach to the verge of feeling sick, the first time I tried this, I slipped my trunks off on the 32nd of 40 lengths and placed them under my towel by the side whilst still being in the water. I swam the remaining 8 lengths totally naked. I was highly nervous because of the social climate of repression nowadays, but perhaps I need not have been. The pool’s policy has no section about nudity, no-one complained, although I did receive a look of disdain from a lifeguard accompanied by a knowing smile. The truth is there was little they could do about it in an ‘adults-only’ session where everyone there has previously seen a naked body. Furthermore, just doing breast stroke, only my buttocks could have been visibly exposed, and even then, only to the lifeguard sitting up high, not to the other swimmers whose eye level isn’t much higher than the water level. Nevertheless, I was breaching a serious modern taboo, and for everyone to experience liberation which is just as much bodily as mental, the assumptions need to be questioned.
Firstly, it is not about sex. Public masturbation can rightfully get you 14 days in jail in England because that really is an obscene act to present to others. But simply being nude in a public place can just be seen as an act of free expression without the intention to shock or offend. If you think the sight of a naked human body is inherently offensive, indecent, or obscene, then you might as well accept an alien invasion that would ban us for it. To see things in this way, you are saying human beings should find the human body offensive, indecent, or obscene, a notion that expresses the height of alienation and repression. It is also clearly not about sex because it is very difficult for a man to get an erection in chlorinated water and similarly for women: vaginal lubrication decreases in these circumstances.
Secondly, it is also not abnormal to desire the freedom to swim nude. For most of history, including most of the 20th century, it was the norm, although sadly mostly only for men, not both sexes. Swimming pools up to the 1970s often demanded it because swim-suit material was often woollen and unhygienic – threats to the pool itself. But as clothing tech progressed, the arguments over hygiene and security of the pool waned. What was left was a pretty paltry notion that ‘swimming nude is character building.’ The notion here was that the heavily militarised society required this as a kind of ‘team-building’ exercise right from the Army down to the Boy Scouts: kinship and bondsman ship was to be served by swimming nude together. If only ‘character-building’ had meant ‘expressing freedom,’ ‘right to enjoy life,’ ‘to combat repression,’ then we might be in a better situation today. Furthermore, even in Western countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Canada, nude swimming is acceptable if not obligatory. So, the current situation of fear in England is certainly not ‘natural.’
Adults should be able to swim nude in adults-only sessions at a local swimming pool rather than have to face cold dirty rivers, lakes, or seas, as an article in The Guardian compromised. If we have social tolerance over this issue, we will find that many other liberties and the dignity of mankind, partly based on the dignity of the human body, will fall into place.
Thirdly, it is worth stressing that contemporary taboos over public nudity co-exist with increasingly sexualised TV and internet porn. This can mislead people into thinking we are freer today. But observing something through the remoteness of an electronic medium is far from experiencing it in actual life. The two trends – sexual TV in for example, ‘The Game of Thrones’, can co-exist with an increasing repression in society. It is the latter trend that really is harmful to people. If you consider the exponential rise of eating disorders and general dissatisfaction with one’s own body, you will see that modern body-shaming which is intensely expressed in the taboo over swimming nude has a lot to answer for causing real harm to individuals.
Finally, there may be a broadside against my position from a minority of some feminists. They might say “we just don’t want to see men’s wibbly bits.” However, we don’t normally expect to go through life not seeing things we might not like, be it homelessness or an immigration-enforcement riot van. Moreover, the struggle against alienation ought to involve women just as much as men, if not more so, given their historically higher level of repression. Women have fought tooth and nail to dress how they want without certain stereotype-ideas being applied by men, including the infamous ‘burning the bra’ protests. This battle persists to this day. An Ontario woman recently won the right to bare breasts in a swimming pool – Canadian law was already lax, but there were attempts to upset it. Men and women should be able to admire each other’s bodies without that ever being necessarily a sexual thing, as it isn’t usually in a swimming pool, as discussed earlier. Men or women who lack clothing in a swimming pool are not ‘asking for it’ just as much as a woman who dresses provocatively in the town isn’t ‘asking for it’ – that pathetic apology went out in the ‘80’s. It is about human beauty and freedom, rather than a sexual fetish. The real existent fetishes are on TV and on the internet, and perhaps to undermine those things, we need naked-equality in circumstances where no child is present.
Addendum: the empire strikes back 😦 Tonight after doing 16 lengths in the buff in an ‘adults-only’ session, an angry female pool manager came out and said “We don’t allow naked swimming”. As far as I am aware none of the other pool users had complained – she’d probably spotted it on the CCTV as the lifeguard didn’t give much of a shit either. I said, “I wasn’t aware there was a policy – I’ve checked the internet.” She said “All the councils have agreed on this – NO NAKED SWIMMING!” I was about to say, “Isn’t that a bit Kafka-esque to not even tell us the policy exists and rely on social taboo for enforcement?” but I thought I’d better cool things down rather than be barred from my local pool. So I said, “Oh sorry – I’ve lived in Germany the past 2 years where it’s perfectly normal. OK, I won’t do it again, it’s not a problem.”
There we go, another little avenue of pleasure closes down. But the war has just begun.