Libertarians & Public Nudity

Defenders of liberty must be defenders of nudity

Next to property rights, perhaps the most sacred totem to libertarians is freedom of expression. Normally this manifests itself in freedom of speech, whether via the written or the spoken word. However freedom of expression extends into other areas too. It could be the art one produces, the music one makes, or the clothes on wears…or doesn’t.

Clothing, nudity and politics have a long history. Generations have signified their political allegiances through the colours and styles of their garments. Countless t-shirts have been emblasoned with ideological slogans and images. And of course streaking or nude protesting has been a favoured form of message sending since Lady Godiva. Pussy Riot in Russia being perhaps the latest high profile examples.

So can libertarians ever oppose public nudity? There seem to be five principle avenues of opposition to the idea of public nudity.


It’s harmful to children

It’s unsanitary

It will encourage rape and sexual assault

I shouldn’t have to see it

It’s just wrong


Think of the children!

Arguably the most obvious and understandable resistance to public nudity is the effect it would have on children. The idea being that children being exposed to naked bodies would somehow become distress or damaged. On face value, this makes sense. However there is zero empirical evidence for this assertion. In a 1995 review of the literature, Dr Paul Okami concluded that there was no reliable evidence linking exposure to parental nudity to any negative effect. Three years later, his team finished an 18-year longitudinal study that showed that, if anything, such exposure was associated with slight beneficial effects, particularly for boys.

Boys exposed to parental nudity were less likely to have engaged in theft in adolescence or to have used various psychedelic drugs and marijuana.”

The report goes on to state that “Girls were also less likely to have used drugs such as PCP, inhalants, or various psychedelics in adolescence.”

Public attitudes to sex and nudity are far more relaxed in Europe, and with access to the internet, there’s nothing British children are watching that French or Dutch teens can’t. Much like alcohol, the difference is cultural. Indeed, it’s rather telling that British and American attitudes to nudity are fairly similar, and both the US and UK have a teen birth rate far in excess of their European counterparts.

Nudity is icky and unhygienic

The most unhygienic parts of our bodies are probably our hands and mouths.  Germs are most commonly spread by our hands and by sneezing or coughing, yet no one is calling for gloves or facemasks. Nudists recognise that surfaces can by unhygienic and so usually carry their own towel to sit on. Food handling and preparation legislation would still apply, so there would be no danger of a waiter/waitresses unmentionables brushing against your meal (unless you had complained and sent it back to the kitchen, in which case, even now, all bets are off!)

Public nudity will make us all sex fiends!

This stems from the idea that because one is only nude for sex, the sight of naked people will somehow spawn a wave of sexual assaults. Yet if this were the case, wouldn’t nudist colonies or beaches be scenes of mass rape? If people were simply unable to control themselves at the sight of skin, shouldn’t we be frantically insisting on 19th century bathing suits at the local swimming pool? Of course not. If you’re wicked or disturbed enough to engage in sexual harassment or assault, a few millimeters of fabric aren’t going to stop you.

And it seems odd that the same people that say that the sight of the body is off putting and offensive could also say that nudity will cause an epidemic of sexual stimulation. It would be wrong to suggest that nobody would get off on public nudity. We call these people voyeurs.  But much of the voyeur behaviour arises (no pun intended) because of the body is hidden and associated purely with sex. Anything that is forbidden immediately becomes more desirable. It is not unreasonable to assume that a legalisation of public nudity would see a decrease in voyeurism, because it would stop being exciting. Indeed, in naturist settings and events there is a remarkable lack of sexual stimulation because of the acceptance of social nudity.

I don’t want to see all that

Another seemingly valid argument against nudity is that people should be forced to see things we don’t want to. After all, isn’t it a right of ours not to have somebody’s unclothed form imposed on our delicate retinas? But nudism is not for the benefit of the onlooker, but for the person engaged in that lifestyle choice. And who does it really harm? Seeing a naked body, even a really ugly one, does no damage. Topless women at beaches, exposed midriffs during summer, and mothers breast feeding are no cause for alarm. It is not libertarian’s responsibility, nor is it the responsibility of the state, to make sure people are safe from the sight of flesh organs. There are a lot more uncomfortable things people put up with every day, such as men in Ugg Boots or visible thongs.

It’s just wrong. It just *is*

Easily the vaguest, but perhaps the most deeply felt resistance to public nudity is this. There is a lingering, unquantifiable something that makes us uncomfortable with nudity. And like many of our national habits and quirks, it stems from the Victorians.

Regency Britain was a raucous place of hedonism and vice. It was Freshers Week, every week! But the pious and virtuous Victorians soon nipped that in the bud. Sobriety, temperance, modesty and faith were the orders of the day. If it was good enough to be rammed down the throats of the colonies, then by golly we should lead by example. Of course, these were the same Victorians who were cool with child labour and didn’t think rape within marriage was even a thing.

We finally got round to decriminalising homosexuality and the other socially conservative nonsense of that era, but many attitudes to sex and nudity remain. Sex is still naughty. The body is still shameful. Touching yourself is still dirty. These attitudes are changing, but painfully slowly.

If you are genuinely troubled by the site of human form, it’s probably worth asking yourself why, rather than insisting others cover up.


  1. In the US, being nude in public or in front of your children would probably land you on the sex offenders list and follow you around for the rest of your life.

  2. I couldn’t agree more with this article. The mindset of a naked body equals “sex” can be largely put down to the media.

    “Sexy this” and “Sexy that” is all very well but one of the downsides is that it can put pressure, especially on teenagers to conform to the “ideal” body shape. Perhaps a more liberal nudist attitude will help to quash these myths and help people to feel good about themselves.

  3. When I read the list of reasons at the start of this article I thought, “Oh dear, here we go again!”, but then I realised that the point was to shoot each of these reasons down and I have to say Lee did an excellent job of doing that. Thank you.

  4. It is legal to be nude in public in New Zealand, as long as you are not naked with the intent of causing public offence. So nude beaches are allowed, anywhere. It has meant that naked protest marches are ok, but funnily enough it’s very rare for people to be nude in public at all. Flashers aren’t allowed, because they are drawing attention to their nudity.

    It’s all a bit odd, but a court case found in favour of people being naked as if it wasn’t a big deal, and it saw a local authority attempt to pass a bylaw prohibiting it being struck out.

    However, I fully agree with the point on property rights. There is no right to be on private land at all, and so nudity can be banned, permitted or mandatory depending on the owner of land.

  5. This has recently been something of a cause celebre in San Francisco, with the local authorities clamping down on public nudity.

    I take a ‘when in Rome’ attitude to such things.

  6. I personally agree with this article, but don’t think it should be forced on other people when, as Olly said, libertarianism is completely opposed to the concept of public property. However, as it stands today, I think it’s completely legit for people to be naked in state-owned areas, just for different reasons. State-owned areas aren’t legitimately owned by anyone because they only exist because of theft and coercion, therefore doing whatever the hell you want on them cannot be violating anyone else’s rights apart from, obviously, using coercion against other people, which nudity quite evidently is not.

  7. ‘Public’ Nudity would not be an instant guarantee in a libertarian world. Property rights are key, in a libertarian world public spaces would be privately owned, and so its property owners decisions, no one has a right to be naked on anothers property

    • Taken to its purest form, I quiet agree. However that’s not going to happen until all 192 states dissolve themselves, libertarians will have to content themselves by pushing for their values to be implemented in the current legal framework…. unless you want to sign up to my military coup idea (see other article today!)

    • I fail to see what property rights have to do with it and surely all private ownership began with an act of theft; the whole planet ‘belonged’ to all its occupants originally.
      Given that we now have the concept of property ownership, where does nudity connect with it? Having the right to be on another’s property is not affected by the person’s state of dress!

  8. I was on the tube the other day thinking about this – what if someone was just sitting there, naked? I couldn’t imagine it ever being allowed. But that’s because it’s always been illegal. All of your arguments show that, besides maybe offending, shocking or causing disgust in people, there’s nothing harmful about it. Many indigenous tribes are constantly naked and their children aren’t scarred or damaged by it.

    It’s good that we have the freedom to wear what we want, but the custom of wearing clothes shouldn’t stop people looking as they naturally are; naked. We seem to be lacking a freedom which every other animal has – it makes no sense!

    • Thanks Sam. I was promoted to write this for a similar reason. In a random drunken conversation with friends we got onto the subject. I was surprised by how many people opposed the idea for no other reason than ‘its just wrong’. None were able to expand or define why. As you said, its just such an alien concept to us that we immediately condemn it as being bad

      • And that is the main problem that the 3.7 million* Naturists in the UK face.

        The trouble is, it only takes one prudish neighbour objecting to you sunbathing naked in your own, otherwise private, back garden for you to be arrested, lose your job and have to go to considerable legal expense to defend yourself (more than one real example of this).

        *October 2011 Ipsos-MORI survey.

    • I have to correct one point in this comment: “But that’s because it’s always been illegal.” – NO! It is not illegal.

      There is only one law in the UK that even mentions nudity and it does so by referring to “exposing the genitals”. This is section 66 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and that law requires that the person exposing themselves does so with the intention of causing alarm or distress to a particular individual. This, of course, is a description of ‘flashing’ and it is the person’s intention that is important. It has been shown in court time and again, that this does not cover simple nudity. The legislators drafting this law in 2003 are on record as saying that it does not apply to streakers or Naturists.

      Even the common law offence of “Outraging Public decency” has been shown to require more than simply nudity to satisfy the definition of “Outrage” which has been deemed by case law to be a strong word. Again, behaviour and not state of dress is the important factor.

      The only law that Naturists fear is the infamous section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. I say infamous as that is the law the police could abuse to prosecute someone for walking on the cracks in the pavement if the wished to! Look for Rowan Atkinson’s speech about section 5 on Youtube. Appropriately defended, most cases brought against Naturists under this law get eventually rejected.


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