New book looks at history of nude protests


On Sunday, the Toronto Star ran an interesting review of Philip Carr-Gomm’s new book, A Brief History of Nakedness, in which he offers “a sustained mediation on the spiritual, cultural and political implications of being naked in public.” The book includes numerous photos, including this image of 50 women posing nude as part of Baring Witness, a group in West Marin County, California, that used nudity to protest the impending Iraq war in November 2002.

As Carr-Gomm argues, “Nakedness makes a human being particularly vulnerable but in certain circumstances strangely powerful, which is why it has become so popular as a vehicle for political protest.” According to Carr-Gomm, by disrobing, protestors demonstrate that they are both fearless and have nothing to hide.At least, that’s the ideal situation. Sometimes the political intentions of being in the buff can get lost, as happened during the recent expressions of G20 activism. “There’s a naked guy at Queen and Peter,” @one_more_night tweeted. “I think he’s protesting clothes.”

Contrary to what you might first think, it is not only hippie types that have used their naked bodies to protest. Carr-Gomm tells the story of one religious group that employed this tactic:

A radical sect of Ukrainian Christians, the Doukhobors (which translates into “spirit wrestlers”) were considered heretics by the Orthodox Church and generally irritated the Russian government. So in 1899 the Doukhobors were encouraged to move their troublemaking to Canada, where they were promised 65 hectares of free land, a bracing climate, equitable laws, peace and prosperity. More than a third of the population (nearly 8,000) said yes, but by 1903 they were unhappy, and an extremist faction called the Sons of Freedom emerged, inspired by the Quakers and Leo Tolstoy. As Carr-Gomm notes, the Sons of Freedom “decided to mount a sustained campaign of protest against the government, whom they believed had reneged on their promises regarding land rights and were enforcing compulsory education in government schools.”

In May of 1903 over 45 Doukhobors protested by marching naked, were charged with “nudism” and sentenced to jail. Naked skirmishes between the Canadian government and the Doukhobors continued into the 1970s.

As I have argued on this site before, I still question the efficacy of nude protests. While taking off your clothes definitely can draw a crowd and the attention of the media, the focus generally seems to be on the fact that the protesters are naked rather than the issue they are campaigning around. And as a rule of thumb, activists want to avoid tactics that deflect attention from the cause they are fighting for.