Darrell Turner: Nudists folk-devils for moral panic

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Nude bathing is not illegal in areas where it is known to occur, but may be prosecutable on mainstream beaches where it may cause offence. Photo / Thinkstock
Nude bathing is not illegal in areas where it is known to occur, but may be prosecutable on mainstream beaches where it may cause offence. Photo / Thinkstock

Naked swimmers are proving an easy target for those with their own hang-ups and prejudices, writes Darrell Turner.

There are a few things worth raising in the coverage of the issue of nudists at Ladies Bay. Declaration of interest: I am a nudist and beach user who has used beaches here and overseas. I'm also about to embark on a PhD studying this topic and the ongoing perception of nudism as a form of deviance.

The editorial in Saturday's Weekend Herald is problematic. Contrary to what your paper and many of your correspondents believe, it is not illegal to be simply naked on a beach where nudity is commonly known to occur. At least two landmark court cases to this effect have established the definitional boundaries of offensive behaviour and the benchmark of legally defensible public nudity in specific locations, Ladies Bay and Uretiti being such places.

Thus, nudity that would be legally defensible on Ladies Bay would most likely be indefensible on a mainstream beach such as St Heliers or Mission Bay, or on a street (a situation that has been tested in law).

Many of the problems described come under the bounds of offensive behaviour and legal mechanisms exist to deal with them.

Additionally, the Free Beach group sought a legal opinion regarding the legality of bylaws aimed at banning beach nudity. That opinion stated that such bylaws would be legally shaky as they seek to illegalise an activity that statute law has declared to be not illegal.

My understanding is that this led to Kapiti District Council's decision to expunge its beach nudity bylaw.

The editorial also fails to distinguish between people who simply want to swim and sunbathe nude versus the various forms of perverse behaviour. I find it offensive that a person in authority, such as an editor, should ignore this distinction and give an impression that tars all naked beach-goers with the same brush.

There are beach nudity advocacy groups that have been trying to deal with the problems highlighted.

In Tauranga, a partnership between the police, local authority, beach users and the owners of the dunes behind Papamoa has helped keep a lid on similar problems but it has been very difficult to achieve a similar outcome or working relationship in Auckland because of difficulties in dealing with the relevant authorities.

Nudists also pay rates and taxes but use (or are consigned to) the dreg beaches that nobody else wants and, as a proportion of the total coastline, the stretch used by nudists is minuscule.

I agree that warning signs would help reduce misunderstandings but a live-and-let-live attitude, rather than Victorian-style control-freakery, is needed in Auckland. There seems to be very little support from the authorities in Auckland to recognise this aspect of cultural diversity.

I think the call for residents to reclaim Ladies Bay is misplaced. They would have done so already if they had wanted to. Perhaps they choose not to go to there for the same reason I stopped using it as a nudist: it is very difficult to access, unswimmable at low tide, lacks shade, lacks the sorts of facilities that ordinary people want (toilets, running water, shops), is covered in rubbish left by (non-nudist) drunks and troublemakers, and is covered in rock oyster shells that leave weeping sores if you cut yourself on them. Unfortunately, this same inaccessibility makes it difficult to police so such beaches attract the sorts of troublemakers who go down there knowing they can cause mischief with relative impunity.

Concerning Chinese tourist Zhang Ke-Wen: His children would have gone to quite some effort to get to the beach. My experience from being at Ladies Bay was that tour groups (predominantly but not exclusively Asian) come out to Achilles Point. They would then come down to get a close look at the nudists. It seems to be a feature of mass organised tourism to treat locals like zoo exhibits and it sounds to me that whoever chased Zhang's kids were sick of being treated that way.

My advice would be that it is the responsibility of the tour guides to warn about nudity. They are supposed to have some local knowledge and enough discretion to discern whether their customers are likely to be offended or not.

It is probably a subtle point but I think if we look back in history, ladies did not swim nude at Ladies Bay. Women in the Victorian era were often expected to swim (or take the waters) clothed while men had the privilege of swimming nude away from the prying eyes of women, which would explain why Gentleman's Bay is further around the point from St Heliers. This prohibition against swimming naked was later extended to men. There is a whole history behind this and it is my job to unpack it, but it goes a long way toward explaining why nude beaches are predominantly male-dominated and why some New Zealanders have an aversion to public nudity.

Finally, regarding the general discourse that kids shouldn't see nudity. Kids don't care - it's their parents who have the hang-ups and they inherited them from their parents and so forth. There is plenty of research to show that nudism is not harmful. Much of this debate is, I think, driven by a moral panic over paedophilia, and nudists are a particular type of convenient folk-devil.

Darrell Turner MA (Hons) is a mentor in the Tuakana Stage 2 and 3 Postgraduate Pathways Programme at Auckland University's Department of Sociology.

- NZ Herald

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