Do We Really Need A Naturist Martyr?
Consider this: You have been a prisoner for six years and have been naked all that time in protest and as a statement of principle, and as a consequence you do not have any normal interaction with your fellow prisoners. You are not in solitary but your life is being led segregated from the rest of the prison, which means every time you are moved, the other 133 inmates on your wing are temporarily locked into their cells. Every morning, a prison officer enters your cell and asks if you will get dressed. You know if you say yes, you can have a normal life again – normal as far as a prison can provide anyway – and if you remain clothed, you could go home to your friends and family. What would your answer be?
This is a description of the life being led by Steve Gough – aka the naked rambler indeed, the first naked rambler – given in an interview with Neil Forsyth of The Guardian. Over the years, Gough has given a number of interviews from prison, of which this is the latest and if he keeps to his word then I suspect it will not be his last.
Gough divides opinion among naturists, never mind the rest of the population, and they find it hard to understand why a man now in his 50s would want to potentially spend the rest of his life in goal, when he could so easily be released. He explained to Forsyth that in 2000, he and his then wife was living in Vancouver, British Columbia when he had an epiphany. “I realised I was good. Being British, buried in our upbringing is that we’re not good or have to watch ourselves – maybe it comes from religion, or school. I realised that at a fundamental level I’m good, we’re all good, and you can trust that one part of yourself.’ Adding, “The human body isn’t offensive. If that’s what we’re saying, as human beings, then it’s not rational.”
This doesn’t sound a million miles away from what Richard Ungewitter wrote in his 1905 book Nakedness: “Only the artificially nourished ‘fear of nakedness’ the ‘hidden’ human body, the mark of the ‘sinful’ flesh could produce concepts like morality and decency which fly in the face of reason.” And yet, the last thing that Gough will ever call himself is a naturist.
Every time Gough attempts to leave prison naked, he finds himself back there for another stretch, for breach of the peace and contempt of court. He believes that he must keep doing this, in order to uphold his principle that the naked body is not offensive and for his desire to return home to Eastleigh, Sussex, naked. In many ways I agree with Gough. The human body is not offensive, neither is it shameful nor sinful, nor immodest. These concepts act as external behavioural controls so we humans can live in large groups, but wouldn’t it be better if that discipline could come from within through self-discipline. We admire someone who is self-disciplined in the workplace, why not in the social sense too?
Some people might call Gough stubborn (he describes himself as “hardcore”), yet…. And yet, I cannot help wondering if Gough is standing in a hole and digging deeper? No matter how stubborn (principled and high-minded, if you like) Gough can be, the justice system can be more so, especially when it comes to upholding the right of the court to dispense justice on society’s behalf and for its orders to be obeyed. Neither Gough nor the Scottish judiciary want to give up it seems, so we have come to a stalemate. In order for that to end, a compromise must be reached but Gough will brook no such thing. He even refused to cover his penis with his hands when The Guardian‘s photographer asked him to, as it was another form of “covering up” and somehow undermines the purity of the human body. As a consequence, both Gough and the justice system in Scotland are paying a huge price, maybe too high. Gough in terms of his relationships with loved ones, and the legal system in the cost of keeping a man in prison, whom many already agree should not be there.
What this standoff reminds me of are the stories of martyrdom, whereby through an act of stubbornness over a principle (others might say act of faith), a person leads a life of deprivation, even unto death. So is Gough a martyr? I don’t think so, nor do I think we want one.
In another Guardian article about Gough, this time in 2010, journalist Andrew Anthony asked: “What is it about Britain and nudity? Even in saunas we hold onto towels as though they were lifelines. Yet bare breasts are the wallpaper of tabloid culture, lap-dancing bars litter the nation’s high streets and the most forensic pornography is available at the click of a mouse.
“It’s as though we can only accept nudity if it’s sexualised. Nudity for nudity’s sake – well, that deeply suspect.”
To my mind, Gough is trying to bludgeon the Scottish legal system into submission when he needs to be subtle. The justice system is the servant of society as a whole. If the legal system is to be changed then society needs changing before it. That is the fight that Steve Gough – and the rest of naturism – should be fighting, not languishing inside HMP Perth contemplating his next release and re-arrest.
An edited version of this is blog will appear in the May issue of H&E Naturist.