Democracies often pride themselves on their liberties, but they often have overreaching restrictions on nudism and naturism. There is a litany of laws and codes that restrict or outright ban any forms of public nudity, often equating them with public indecency, sexual exhibition, disturbance to the peace, among others.
In France "Publicly visible sexual exhibition in public zones" is punishable by 1 year of imprisonment and a €15,000 fine. In the UK, nudity that is likely to cause harassment, alarm, or distress is illegal. In the United States, laws surrounding nudity can differ greatly between states. In Oregon, nudity is protected as free speech as long as there is not intent to arouse, while Arkansas bans nudism beyond the immediate family unit, including on private property.
These laws are often seen as relics of the Victorian sensibilities Many feel that they have been or will be replaced with a more liberal approach to nudity, as society itself becomes more socially liberal. Unfortunately that is not always the case. In Spain, which has traditionally been tolerant of Nudism many municipalities have recently restricted nudism on public beaches. In 2012 the arguably liberal hotbed of San Francisco banned public nudity.
Reasons For Recognizing The Right To Publicly Nudity
I've written a myTake about the positive self-image implications of social nudity before. You can read it here: How Nudism Can Improve Your Body Image. Individuals that participate in social nudity report higher self-image than those that don't. Individuals also report having a more realistic view of the human body.
While nudists are often depicted as sexual miscreants by those unfamiliar with it, there is evidence of nudism bringing pleasure that is far from immoral. Being naked is liberating! While not pleasure might not derive from every instance of social nudity (social nudity isn't all that fun when there is an outbreak of mosquitoes, for example), the fact that it brings pleasure to some people at least some of the time is enough to contribute to the defense of public nudity.
Lack of Detrimental Effects
Multiple Studies have shown that exposure to non-exhibitionist public nudity lacks any detrimental psychological and behavioral effects that people often attribute to it, and in fact these studies have found that exposure to public nudity, while not participating in it, can improve your body-image.
It is often feared that exposure to nudity has a detrimental psychological impact on children, but this fear is not supported by any empirical research. Studies have shown no relationship between childhood exposure to nudity and the development of any psychiatric symptoms later in life. In fact, some positive effects have been found, including reduced rates of teen pregancy, STDs, use of recreational drugs, antisocial behavior, and higher levels of self-acceptance.
Freedom of Expression
For many nudists, the right to be nude in public is necessary for expressing their identity. For these nudists, anti-nudist laws deny them the legal right to align their outer appearance with their inner convictions. Laws and codes which restrict this freedom undermine the dignity of nudists, as treating people in a dignified way requires that they be free to act upon their ideas of a good life so long as it doesn't impose unreasonably on others.
One of the most cited reason for denying the right to be publicly naked is that many people are offended by public nudity. 'Being offended' is this case means that these people have an unpleasant mental state induced in them by the sight of public nudity - shock, annoyance, anger, fear, embarrassment, etc.
Does nudism-induced offence justify the current restrictions on nudism?
There are two things we must look at to answer that question: Do people have good reasons for being offended, and does their being offended constitute a greater evil than that which offends them?
To the first question, there are many things that people find offensive that are not criminalized. There is still a large group that finds homosexuality offensive, as well as groups that find interracial marriage offensive. In much of the world, those offences are unsuitable grounds for government interference.
One reason frequently cited by those offended by public nudity is that they find naked bodies ugly (often meaning "certain kinds of naked bodies"), and as a result unpleasant to look at. This is an unreasonable reason to outlaw nudism, as it is based only individuals perceptions of the human body.
Deviant Sexual Behavior
Many people associate public nudity with immorality and sexual deviancy. Nudists are often seen as exhibitionists, people who get sexual pleasure from exposing their genitals and/or breasts to strangers. Such offence is unreasonable as well, as it is based on misconceptions of nudism and the motivations of nudists.
I would argue that the offence felt by many people is due to the prejudicial belief that nudity is immoral. Legislating based on prejudicial beliefs is highly problematic. Prejudicial beliefs leading legislation has to anti-sodomy laws, the prohibition of interracial marriage, and forced segregation in the past, and we (for the most part) rightly see many of those prohibitions as arcane today.
The right to be publicly naked should be established. The freedom to be publicly naked serves well-being and expressive interests, and any offence that nudism might cause does not outweigh or override the reasons for securing the right to be publicly naked.