John C. Kirk (johnckirk) wrote,
John C. Kirk


I've been involved with the World Naked Bike Ride for the past five years. I took part in the London ride in 2009, then London and Brighton in 2010, and Southampton/London/Brighton in 2011-2013. When I've spoken to people about this, a lot of the same questions keep coming up, so I've structured this post as a dialogue.

Disclaimer: As with all my blog posts, I'm only speaking for myself here, i.e. these are my personal views. The WNBR wiki has more of a concensus view from the various people who've helped to organise the protests. Also, there aren't any photos on this page, but I have linked to some other sites which contain nudity, so click through at your discretion.

Q: Hold on, do you seriously ride your bike around completely naked?

A: Personally, I keep my shoes and helmet on, but that's all. Technically, the ride is clothing optional rather than clothing forbidden, so some people wear more than others (e.g. underwear). I've also noticed some people who gradually remove clothing as the ride is in progress, and that's quite nice; I'm glad to see that they feel more comfortable.

Q: But isn't that against the law? How come you don't all get arrested for indecent exposure?

A: No, it's perfectly legal, at least in England and Wales. The CPS have advice about nudity in public:
"Exposure contrary to section 66 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003
This requires a person to intentionally expose their genitals and intend that someone will see them and be caused alarm or distress."

The key word there is "intend". In this case, it really is the thought that counts. If I don't intend to cause alarm or distress then I'm not breaking that law, even if other people are in fact alarmed or distressed. By contrast, if someone leaps out in a flasher's mac then they would be breaking this law, even if nobody else actually sees their genitalia.

Similarly, here's a scanned copy of a letter from Cleveland Police. Here's the most important quote: "It is not an offence per se in England and Wales to be naked in a public place".

If anyone took advantage of the ride to deliberately cause trouble then I'd expect the police to arrest them; if necessary, I'd call the police myself and give a witness statement.

Q: So what about that naked rambler guy? Didn't he get arrested?

A: This is a bit more tricky, but here's the way I understand it. Back in 2005, Stephen Gough set out to walk naked from Land's End to John O'Groats. He was stopped by police a few times in England, but then released. However, Scottish law is more restrictive so he was arrested after he crossed the border in 2006. He then spent the next 5 years in prison: he kept getting relatively short sentences (e.g. 3 months at a time), then as soon as he was released the police arrested him again (right outside the prison) for public nudity and he'd get locked up again.

He's now back in Southampton, and he's been issued with an ASBO which orders him not to be naked in public. However, this applies specifically to him, not to anyone else; it's a similar concept to a restraining order. He appealed against this, but the high court dismissed this appeal a few days ago (that document is dated 31 Oct 2013). I don't know what will happen to him next, but I don't think it will directly affect the WNBR.

As for Scotland, there has been an Edinburgh WNBR, but the riders had to cover up; this basically meant wearing pants and then putting tape over their nipples. If Scotland do go ahead with their independence, I suspect that their laws will diverge further from the rest of the UK (for better or worse).

Q: But the BBC said that the Brighton police were telling people to cover up this year.

A: Don't believe everything you read in the news! That particularly applies to the tabloids, and the BBC are generally reliable, but they still make mistakes sometimes. In this case, The Argus (a local newspaper in Brighton) posted an article on 5th June: Naked bike riders should cover up. This included some comments from Chief Superintendent Nev Kemp, who apparently said that: "Our police liaison officers will, therefore, be encouraging anyone who is completely naked to cover their most intimate body parts from full public view." The ride took place on the afternoon of 9th June. I was there, and I saw several police officers (they actually escorted the ride), but none of them asked me to cover up and I didn't hear them ask anyone else to cover up either. The BBC article was posted on the evening of 9th June, and said: "Hundreds of nude cyclists took to the streets of Brighton, ignoring advice from police to "cover intimate" areas." My guess is that the (unnamed) BBC reporter didn't actually attend the ride, so they just read the Argus article before the ride and assumed that the predicted events would come to pass rather than actually checking their facts before publication.

That said, things were slightly different in Southampton. I was acting as rear marshall, and we did our best to keep the group together, but one person at the back was struggling to keep up. He said that it was the first time he'd been on a bike in 20 years, so this may not have been the best event to resume cycling... He stopped behind me at a traffic light (it was green when I went through), so I positioned myself so that I could see him and also see the rest of the group in the distance. After a few minutes he didn't catch up, so I went back to talk to him. He said that he was going to drop out, so he got dressed, which was probably for the best. Once I was satisfied that he was ok, I was about to move off, but then a police car pulled up next to me. Two officers got out, and observed that I was naked. They didn't ask me to get dressed, or say that I was breaking any laws, but I took the initiative and explained the situation. They hadn't heard of the WNBR (although it's been taking place in Southampton each year since 2007), but I mentioned that there was a PCSO riding with the main group, so they contacted him over the radio to confirm what I was saying. It may also have helped that I had protest signs attached to my bike, so I could point to them to demonstrate my "credentials". After they spoke to their colleague, their attitude became a lot more friendly; one of them asked whether I was cold, but I told her that this was significantly warmer than the last couple of years. Anyway, they said I was free to go. The rest of the group was long gone by this point, but they were travelling fairly slowly, so I was able to catch up. I will say that it's a bit easier to be naked in public when there are lots of other people doing the same thing, rather than being alone!

Q: But won't it hurt if you fall off?

A: Yes. However, it's going to hurt just as much if I'm wearing my normal cycling clothes: a couple of millimetres of cotton or lycra aren't going to offer any meaningful protection, particularly if I get hit by a car going at 30 mph. So, that's one of the reasons that we're naked; we want to draw attention to how vulnerable we are, and remind drivers to pay attention to us.

Personally, I was knocked off my bike by car drivers twice in 2011, and I've had a few other close calls. In a situation like that, it's a cliche for the driver to say "Sorry mate, I didn't see you there!" So, another reason for nudity is to attract attention; if there are hundreds of naked cyclists riding together, can you see us now?

Q: But do you have to be naked for that? Couldn't you wear fancy dress instead?

A: Sure, and people do that. For instance, a couple of years ago the CTC organised a publicity event where people cycled around London in Santa costumes. There are different ways to achieve the same goal, and taking part in one event doesn't preclude any others.

Q: I've seen people in London riding Boris bikes. Isn't that a bit unhygienic? I wouldn't want to be the next person using that saddle!

A: Yes, a lot of people do hire those bikes, although I advise against it; they're good for short hops but they get significantly more expensive after that, so you could easily pay £37 if you use one for a few hours (prices).

As for the hygiene issue, I'm not sure how significant that is; after all, I'm happy to sit on the same toilet seat that other people have used. However, I do sympathise with concerns about this. So, this year we started selling waterproof seat covers for £2 each; these are a fundraiser, and people can use them after the ride (so that your saddle doesn't get wet if it rains). They also have a slogan to help promote our goals: "Burn fat, not oil." If anyone would like to buy one, just let me know. There are also other options, e.g. putting your shorts over the bike seat.

Q: But what about the children?

A: What about them?

Q: How am I supposed to explain to them why you're all naked?

A: Quoting from SMBC: "Got it. So your code of ethics is to oppose things that are hard to explain to kids."

Q: But I don't want them to see that.

A: Fair enough. You can tell them to close their eyes or turn away as we go past. However, is it really going to do them any harm? I've seen very young children (up to the age of 5) who will happily run around without clothing on, so I don't think they'd be embarrassed by this. Teenagers will probably be embarrassed, but then again they get embarrassed by lots of things that adults do, e.g. the type of music that their parents listen to. If we stopped doing anything that would embarrass teenagers, society would grind to a halt!

As for the middle group (e.g. 10 year olds), it may actually be good for them to see what normal human bodies look like. Personally, I lost my nudity taboo at boarding school: the facilities were fairly basic, so I spent a few years sleeping in an open dormitory (a bit like an aircraft hanger) and using a communal changing room. Similarly, there weren't any cubicles for the showers or baths, so I had a fairly good idea of how my body compared to other boys'. By contrast, I think that a lot of people grow up with more privacy, so they only see their own body and photos of celebrities on magazine covers (after Photoshop manipulation). This may then lead to eating disorders or cosmetic surgery, as people try to measure up to an impossible ideal. On the flipside, it may also create unrealistic expectations for their future partners. Also, I often get spam emails which advertise penis enlargement pills; if there is a market for them, I wonder whether it's because some men compare themselves to the actors in porn videos?

I should also clarify that we're staying on our bikes, in the road, not running up to people on the pavement. So, you may not see much "detail" from a particular cyclist anyway, particularly while we're in motion. For instance, some professional cyclists (athletes) have posed for naked photos; you can tell that they're naked, but their arms/legs are blocking the view to particular parts of their body. Those pictures have obviously been carefully posed, but there's a similar effect at the WNBR, e.g. here's a photo of me from this year's London ride. Again, you can see that I'm not wearing much, but the bag on my handlebars is blocking the view of my groin.

Q: I'm just saying that sex should be kept in private.

A: Nudity and sex are two separate things; they can overlap, but they don't have to. For instance, if I cycle in bib tights then I pretty much have to strip naked each time I go to the toilet.

More importantly, there's a safety issue here. There have been cases where women were sexually assaulted, and then they were blamed for dressing provocatively. The Slutwalk was a reaction to that, and I think the WNBR takes it a step further: even if someone is completely naked, that still doesn't mean that it's ok to start groping them (or worse).

This is also about equality. As a man, I can walk around with a bare chest on a hot day, and nobody would suggest that I'm breaking any laws. So, I think that everyone is entitled to the same choice, regardless of sex/gender. Over in New York, The Outdoor Co-ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society take advantage of this: they are mostly women, who meet up to read books topless in public. Their post from September (On Modesty) explains why they do it: basically because it is legal there, whereas Egypt (for instance) is far more restrictive.

Q: Isn't it selfish to force this on other people?

A: This was my main concern before I took part; I don't want to make anyone else uncomfortable. Fortunately, the vast majority of people who see us don't have a problem with it. I know that some people don't like it, but then again there are also people who would say it's indecent to walk around with bare arms (typically based on religious or cultural traditions). Similarly, I've heard some people say that men over 40 shouldn't be allowed to wear Speedos at the beach, or that fat people shouldn't be allowed to wear skin-tight lycra. They're entitled to those views, but I don't share them.

If I'm going into someone else's private space then I'll abide by their rules. For instance, I've seen some shops that say "No shirt, no shoes, no service." That's fair enough, and I'll follow their dress code. However, if I'm in public then I think we all need a "live and let live" attitude. Again, as I said above, I'm not running up to anyone or forcing them to look at me.

Q: I still don't think that children should be exposed to that.

A: So how do you feel about them being exposed to cars? Cars are even more dangerous to children than they are to adults. For instance, if a car hits me (as a pedestrian) then the bonnet would be at knee height, so I'd roll up over the roof and land behind it. If a car hits a small child then the bonnet is at chest height, so the child will absorb the full force of the impact in the part of the body that holds vital organs.

Similarly, exhaust fumes can cause problems for people with asthma. The New England Journal of Medicine published a paper in 2007: Respiratory Effects of Exposure to Diesel Traffic in Persons with Asthma. The research was carried out in London (Oxford Street), in collaboration with Imperial College. Also, Asthma UK "believes that pollution plays a role in causing asthma in children and adults, as well as being a trigger that can make people's asthma symptoms worse."

Q: But it's normal to drive a car.

A: That's true nowadays, but it hasn't always been that way; this is a relatively recent phenomenon, which only goes back about 100 years. Hopefully trends will shift, and it will become less common.

Q: So you're saying that cars are evil?

A: No, not at all. I think that there are circumstances where it makes sense to drive, e.g. if you're going a long distance or carrying a lot of people/luggage. However, I used to have a car and it then became my default choice for any journey, even if I was only going a couple of miles. According to Sustrans: "Only two out of five short journeys (under 5 miles) are currently made by foot, bike or public transport." In a situation like that, it makes far more sense to cycle, and you don't need to be a super-athlete.

Aside from any environmental or financial concerns, I think that cycling is also more fun than driving, particularly in central London; I'm not asking anyone to wear a hair-shirt for the greater good. So, hopefully when drivers see us going past on the WNBR some of them will think "They look a lot happier than me; maybe I should give it a go."

Q: You mentioned the environment, but you use oil too; where do you think your bike tyres come from?

A: Yes, that's absolutely true. However, the "miles per gallon" on bike tyres is far more efficient than putting diesel or petrol into a car engine. Looking at my Brompton, I get about 10,000 km out of each tyre before I have to replace it. I don't know how much oil it takes to make a single tyre, but I'd guess that it's less than a full tank of fuel, if only because of the price.

Also, even if you don't believe that humans are responsible for climate change, the simple fact is that oil is running out. It took millions of years for the reserves to accumulate, and we've burnt through them in a couple of centuries. Leaving aside the debate about peak oil, there's only a finite amount of it in the ground. So, the faster we use it, the sooner we'll run out; the less we use, the longer it will last.

Q: So, when's the next ride taking place?

A: The UK is all done for 2013 now. The first ride of 2014 will be in Portsmouth on 24th May, then there will be rides in various other cities during June and July, although not all the dates have been fixed yet. Keep an eye on our website for updates, then you'll be either to participate, watch, or avoid the area as you choose. At the very least, hopefully you'll now understand why we're all doing it.
Tags: cycling, journalism, lejog, nudity, police, wnbr

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