Earlier this week the ongoing Brexit debate took a bizarre turn when members of the climate change action group Extinction Rebellion stripped half-naked and bared their bottoms in the British House of Commons’ glass-walled public gallery.
Some of the protesters appeared to be glued to the glass with slogans painted on their backs including “Climate justice now” and climate extinction symbols.
The naked action immediately set off a volley of good-humoured commentary on Twitter, with Chris Mason from the BBC commenting: “They had some cheek that lot. And we saw ’em all.”
Some of the British MPs appeared to join in on the gag, with Labour’s Peter Kyle speaking about getting to the “naked truth” and the “bottom line” of Brexit discussion.
The action in the British Parliament made waves around the world, but it follows in the footsteps of a proud tradition of naked actions and flagrant public exhibitionism that has always been part of public life, both in Australia and abroad.
Nude protests date back to 1903, when a group of Spiritual Christian Freedomites stripped bare in Saskatchewan to protest Canadian immigration policy. Chances are that particular protest would never have been remembered had the participants not disrobed. And that, in a nutshell, is why some protesters resort to baring all. Four people holding up signs probably won’t make the news. Four naked people holding up signs. Well, the difference is stark. Or starkers I should say.
Naked protests have a fine tradition and pedigree. They offer a free and non-violent but confrontational means of grabbing media attention, and amplifying their underlying causes.
For some, they are too much of an affront to public decency, but for others they offer the dual bonus of free expression and body liberation. Activists strip down for their own personal and political reasons, and not simply for the gratification or titillation of the viewers.
I recall way back in the 1980s taking part in a naked action outside the Pine Gap US army base in central Australia. A group of us positioned ourselves in view of television cameras outside the fence of the base and took our gear off to expose the letters written on our backs spelling out the words: “We won’t wear these US bases.”
The images of us naked became the lead in several television news bulletins that evening and an image of our action (much to our annoyance) was later used to advertise a leading brand of sports shoes (yes, we kept our shoes on!).
And in a more recent phenomenon, the annual naked bike rides now take place in many Australian cities aiming to make a political point, encouraging sustainable transport and promote positive body image for all. Needless to say, a big part of its appeal is purely for the ostentatious fun of riding naked around city streets in the March sunshine as unwitting pedestrians choke on their lattes.
But sometimes public nakedness is more about the simple joy of exhibitionism than trying to make a political point. Anyone who regularly frequents the cricket in Australia would surely have memories of watching as streakers took to the field — in fact it is arguably often the most exciting and colourful part of an otherwise long and dull cricket season.
Just last year streaker Ben Jenkins stole the show when he streaked across the cricket pitch at the newly opened Perth stadium before being arrested. He eventually paid his $2000 fine through a GoFundMe page — proving the point that Aussies generally love a fair dinkum streaker to add colour to the sports field.
Prior to that, perhaps Australia’s most famous streaker Helen d’Amico interrupted the 1982 AFL grand final when she ran buck naked across the MCG (OK she wore a Carlton scarf!). d’Amico was later tracked down living in Darwin doing a nursing degree, before being coaxed back onto The Footy Show and crudely asked whatever happened to her ginger cat (good one, fellas).
In other liberal democracies like ours around the world, public nakedness has become so common as to be De Rigueur. In Berlin for example, it is perfectly normal to see entire families naked in public parks having a picnic in the middle of the city in the summertime. I remember last year when I was there walking into a public sauna with my bathers on and having a German woman yelling at me: “This is naked sauna! Bathers off!”
But Australians who want to get naked in 2019 to make a political point or just for the fun of it should take note — laws around public nakedness are getting harsher.
In 2016 the Victorian parliament made a unanimously passed amendment to Section 17 of the Summary Offences Act 1966 that “behaviour that is indecent, offensive or insulting includes behaviour that involves a person exposing (to any extent) the person’s anal or genital region”, and that behaviour is now outlawed. Similar laws now exist all over the country.
In reality, it is hard to see how such overreaching laws could ever be fully policed — and nor should they be.
Although we haven’t yet experienced nakedness in our federal parliament as the Brits were treated to this week — whether it be naked bike rides, sexy protesters baring it all, slacker kids with their fashionably loose pants, or streakers on the sport field — outbreaks of public nakedness is surely part and parcel of Aussie culture.
And that is as it should be. As RuPaul famously quipped: “You’re born naked and the rest is drag.”