CW: direct mention of heavy stuff related to sex (no details)
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 by which I mean to refer to the sum of their ideas about sexuality, which are often received ideas (that is, what could be called “dogma” or “ideology”), at least in part.
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 vis-à-vis someone else being naked when I wasn't expecting it!
Instead, I'm more talking about how anarchists talk about nudity (and nudism), whenever the conversation has come up.
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 in with a preconceived 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 a nude or a 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 positions 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 all of them think that, broadly speaking (which is to say, in public settings), nudism is not cool.
Maybe seeing naked people isn't what The People want (which I think is a pretty boring position); or it's not what I, an individualist anarchist, want to be seeing (an even worse take, held exclusively by a certain kind of insurrecto bro in my experience, and based purely on a rather conservative aesthetics); or there is the most heavy-handed argument of them all, which I will address for the rest of this post, namely 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 probably an imperfect text (although I remember liking it a lot), 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 (specifically in the U.S.) because of its broad utility with respect to understanding, and addressing, the many thorny issues around sex, rape, abuse, trauma, 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, the consent framework doesn't have much place whatsoever. If everyone involved in a “project” – even an ad hoc and very politically heterogenous one like, for example, 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 are into), then certain things simply will not happen as a result of any number of liberal or naïve positions that even a single person involved with that project may hold. That's a problem, because the anti-social stuff (which is to say, the gnarlier, more dangerous stuff that gets denounced as anti-social) is typically where a collectivity with demands and/or ambitions gets its power.
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 in order to, perhaps, change reality. 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 of 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 – and unlike most things in naturism, I think it's worth importing into anarchism. It's certainly not a complicated idea to understand, whatever a person may think of it. I'd argue that nudity ≠ sex is better understood as an hypothesis than a truth, but it is a pretty solid hypothesis. The precise delimitations of “sex” are in question (and probably always will be), but nudity-qua-nudity is neither identical to the category of sex nor wholly encompassed by it.
Despite this, 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, its answer known. 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 stop people getting naked (more appropriate for a religious conservative than a queer feminist or fellow traveler), it simply doesn't make sense. It won't stop abuse. Stopping abuse is what the consent framework does (imperfectly, but provably) when applied to sex that is actually sex. With respect to nudity, however, the consent framework just creates misery, neurosis, and confusion.
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 acknowledged 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: urban wastelands where cops usually don't go; anarchist gatherings in the woods; inside of 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 sometimes) than I expect they would be about anyone taking all their clothes off, even though secondhand smoke is materially aggravating to literally anyone with lungs.
Some people may not mind a little cigarette smoke, of course, but that's hardly my point. It is definitely bothersome to some people, and harmful to all people, even the ones who don't care.
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 space with smokers lighting up and not asking the people near them whether that would be bothersome or not, we (as anarchists or whatever) can – and maybe should! – talk about fixing that problem. I'm not saying that I personally want to have that conversation, necessarily, but I think we could talk about it and it should be fine to do so. But, I also don't think it would ever be useful to escalate that conversation by bringing in a consent framework, with all of its threat of consent violated, consent transgressed. That shouldn't be necessary for dealing with whatever the issue might be with smoking.
On the contrary, I think bringing the consent framework into this framework would serve as a pretty sneaky way of trying to introduce governance into a space that might otherwise be characterized by ecstatic interplay between affinity and conflict. In other words, people hanging out because they like hanging out, and also people deciding they won't hang out because they don't really want to fuck with each other. Voluntary association, and maybe a bit of conflict, but hopefully without abuse or violence. Which is what I guess I would prefer, and what I also tend to think is the best thing we can hope for. I'm not a utopian.
So, 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, and probably never will.
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, right? I wonder how many people 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.