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The Naked Truth?

Stephen Gough, over a series of sentences, has served nearly six years in custody in the UK for refusing to wear clothes in public. He shows no sign of changing his view on the importance of nudity, and it is conceivable that he will spend the rest of life behind bars. Why does he do it? It’s not entirely clear but his position appears to be grounded on the value of living an autonomous life: ‘We can either end up living a life that others expect of us or lives based on our own truth. The difference is the difference between living a conscious life or one that is unconscious. And that’s the difference between living and not living.’

On the face of it, Gough’s decision sounds like a paradigmatic example of the kind of ‘experiment of living’ that John Stuart Mill thought no one should be prevented from attempting except in so far as they harm others: ‘the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when any one thinks fit to try them’. But in fact Mill himself would probably have advocated Gough’s imprisonment on grounds of indecency: ‘[T]here are many acts which, being directly injurious only to the agents themselves, ought not to be legally interdicted, but which, if done publicly, are a violation of good manners, and coming thus within the category of offences against others, may rightly be prohibited. Of this kind are offences against decency.’

The tension here arises within Mill’s utilitarianism itself. On the one hand, he recognizes the importance to human happiness of our following our own paths in life. On the other, he sees that our so doing can often seriously upset or threaten others, sometimes to the point where the best outcome may involve the restriction of individual freedom.

 But, if that were Mill’s view on the Gough case, would his siding with convention here be a mere product of Victorian stuffiness? Yes, people may get upset, perhaps even quite frightened, by seeing a man wandering around without clothes. But perhaps it would be more valuable, in the longer term, for us to allow experiments of living that upset others: we may discover more valuable ways of life, and even if we don’t our failures will provide a contrast against which truly happiness-promoting modes of existence can stand out. What, really, is the utilitarian value in having taboos concerning public nudity?

 I can see the force of this liberal, pro-Gough argument. It is not difficult to imagine a world in which nakedness is universally accepted, and it may well be that such a world would be happier without our hang-ups about clothes. But a central issue here is feasibility. Even if Gough’s experiment catches on, the upshot is likely to be a large increase in genuine offence and alarm, as well as an increase in sexually motivated exhibitionism universal acceptance of  which is even less likely in the longer term. In a sense, Gough is harmless: there is a possible world in which what he does harms no one. But in this world he does cause harm. And of course the chances of Gough’s changing attitudes and then the law are minuscule, especially in a country such as the UK, where the cool atmospheric climate is matched with a prudish intellectual one. My advice to Gough on release would be either to live in a naturist colony, or to find some less alarming way of expressing himself among the rest of us.


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9 Comment on this post

  1. Please, made this article gets to Gough so he can see your view point. I consider your last advice good, Gought has made his point already and he should now strive for a more convenient condition for himself as this is causing him too much harm.

    1. In my opinion, you have not yet understood Mr. Gough’s point if you believe the last advice of the author to be “good”, as his point is not either to live life as a nudist, nor to express “himself among the rest of us”.

  2. “But in this world he does cause harm”? No effort to substantiate this comment appears to have been made by the author, and I believe the statement to be entirely untrue. “Harm” is an entirely different matter than offense, and if one is a careful student of Gough’s history you will have a hard time even finding cases of offense; none of any reported actual harm. “Harm” is not merely a whimsical notion or something to talk about loosely. The concept has a long standing legal history. I think society would do well to leave Stephen Gough alone, except to the extent that they would pay attention to his message, as he seems to me to be a very principled person.

    I find the idea that Gough’s imprisonment could be justified on “grounds of indecency” to be completely outrageous. The human being as created is both noble and glorious; what can be indecent about a human being merely appearing human? Do we think this way about any other creature under the sun? I think there is a very real need for self-examination along this line. Further, the idea that a person’s liberty should be restrained because society has a “right” to certain “good manners” is very suspect in my mind.

    Scotland needs to do some serious sole searching. It is not even because of any member of the public that Gough is in prison, as the police have re-arrested him upon release with no other complaint than their own. Outrageous treatment in a civilized and pluralistic society.

    Nothing can be more abhorrent to democracy than to imprison a person or keep them in prison because he is unpopular. This is really the test of civilization.
    Sir Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965)

  3. The main concern I have with the idea of allowing people to go round naked is that some people would misuse that right by repeatedly putting themselves in view of others for sexual purposes, but it would be dead easy these days to put hidden cameras in place to capture such behaviour and to put actual perverts in prison or ban them as individuals from going naked out of doors, so the old law is no longer necessary. Whatever the case though, a simple pragmatic solution for the case of Stephen Gough is just to let him go while instructing the police to turn a blind eye from now on – we know that he is not interested in flaunting himself in front of others, and he’s spent far too long in prison for it to be fair to keep him in any longer. He should really have been given a right to roam naked after a month in prison – that’s the most extreme sentence that I would consider to be within the bounds of what is reasonable. Six years is an appalling abuse of human rights.

    1. Wait… Whats the harm of being seen naked, if you enjoy being seen naked in a sexual fashion?

      Lets say I enjoy seeing women with boots on their feet. I stand outside, and a woman walks by with boots. I stare a little. The woman asks, why are you staring? I say, I like your boots. Whats the harm?

      Lets say I get aroused sexually when I see women in boots. I’m standing outside, I see a few women, I get aroused. I’m clothed, but you can see my arousal through my clothing. Have I done anything wrong?

      Lets say I enjoy being naked, and I like people watching me be naked, sexually… not just enjoy on a Gough’s level. I walk out, I’m naked, I get aroused. Someone sees me aroused. I’m not harmed by it. Is the other person harmed by it? I didn’t attack the person sexually.

      Sexual attacks shouldn’t be confused with being naked.

    2. I question your first premise, David. It seems to me that people that intend to get jollies by exhibiting nakedness to others do not wish to go around naked generally, as their intentions are too exposed like that. Rather, they hide behind clothing, generally, and then expose themselves at a moment that is strategic for them. Most people will say, I think, that complete nakedness is generally less erotic than partial nakedness, and perverts are generally not interested in being very naked. I do not have any sources to site, however.

  4. I see nothing indecent about the human body, and think it cruel and unreasonable to keep locking him up in case someone finds his behaviour offensive.

    Perhaps they should release him over the border, and leave it to a slightly more civilised country to accept him as he is…

  5. I find it to be a cultural thing, if someone lives in another country they may worship the human body! So Society dictates the norms, and right & wrongs, and we must follow it unless we want to be thrown in jail. Me personally, don’t find it offensive, and if I did see someone naked I would just either ignore it or just laugh. Ha Ha, Where will we be in the year 3000, perfect stem cell bodies with nothing to be embarrassed or jealous about, and complete nudity allowed, that’s far from the Victorian era? I don’t think it would be offensive to see a naked person, it would be odd, but ultimately I have the choice to look, and walk away with my own free will.

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