I committed a sex-crime on the morning of Saturday 26 July, in public, on Brighton beach. I would turn myself in, if I could bring myself to feel shame. But I read this week of two men in Northern Ireland who were threatened with prosecution, and I realised that I’d committed the same sin, on those sun-kissed pebbles, in full view of anyone who’d cared to look.
When is a sex-crime not a sex-crime? Surely, we might agree, when it involves neither sex, nor the intention of sex, nor even the idea of sex. When it’s no crime at all? Apparently not.
The two Northern Irishmen were threatened with having their names added to the Register of Sexual Offenders, for taking off their clothes, and swimming in a lake. Whatever else the act of swimming while naked entails, it doesn’t entail sexual intercourse. It seems odd to have to spell this out to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, but almost no swim ends in what the dear Reverend Paisley would likely have cursed as “fornication”.
I wonder about the home lives of the officers concerned: if they see sex as the inexorable endpoint of a swim, then I hope never to share a lane of their local pool, regardless of clothing. People who wear clothes, after all, often have sex: are they all perverts too? Perhaps we should add everyone’s name to the sex offenders register, just to be sure.
It’s unfair to poke fun at the PSNI, and accuse them of swimming-related perversions (but then, they had no such qualms in accusing the Ulster swimmers of precisely that), because the one thing this country is guaranteed to be demented about is clothing, or its occasional lack. This isn’t the first time I’ve been moved to write about this subject, and for as long as we’re blessed with a naked rambler or the fetishists of full-face covering for some women, I doubt it will be the last.
My own crime? I can assure the Sussex constabulary that I didn’t swim naked in the sea that Saturday morning (but not, I fear, that I’ve never done so.) But in between removing clothes, and donning trunks, there came a point, as indeed there must, of unsullied flesh. I did my best with the beach towel, but, well, as your granny nearly said: there’s many a slip twixt towel and hip. My opinion has always been that if you deliberately stare at a man wriggling from clothing into trunks, on a beach, in the middle of the summer, then you see everything you deserve.
Which is, actually, written into the law. Nudity is an offence only if it is designed to cause offence (I’m paraphrasing a little, but this would be my defence if the PSNI anti-flesh fervour ever reaches the Sussex coast.) In practice, this means it becomes an offence where others take it. We’ll come back to this.
Now I’m going to sound like an alien, and a political one at that. But sometimes our cultural practice deserves the cold light of reason, and – no? – there’s nothing inherently offensive about nudity. It’s not possible to construct an argument which says “Fleshly bit X is not offensive, fleshly bit Y is“, not one which I can follow, anyway. For sure, perhaps bit Y is often employed for multiple different activities, some of them to do with the body’s plumbing, others more sexually joyful. My own “Y” bits are indeed, at times, used for such reasons, though not when I’m swimming.
But I also employ my hands in those practices, and we don’t insist that our hands are kept covered, or suggest that to glimpse a well-turned thumb would cause the well-heeled matrons of Hove to cover their children’s eyes and rush them from the handy temptations of Kemptown.
Some people do, of course, insist that all body-parts – if they belong to a female, anyway – be kept completely covered in public, which takes us to the other extreme of demented behaviour. Where do these clothing rules come from?
The answer, which puzzles the alien within, but pleases its outer Tory shell, is we do these things – wear clothes, wriggle under towels, show our faces in public – because of custom. There’s no defence beyond custom, but then, none is needed. We can leave the construction of reasons to our legalistic liberal friends.
Of course, it was once also custom for police officers not to threaten nude swimmers with the sex offender register. It was once the custom not to insist on the taking of offence, or, at least, not to attempt to derive a law from any offence-taking. (Last week’s column featured “offence-taking” too, I remember.) This offence-taking-therefore-a-law does far more damage than a glimpse of a swimmer’s behind.
Ironically, in fact, this – the conflation of the taking of offence with the criminalisation of the offending activity – makes me feel like staging a one-man naked protest, to run starkers from one end of Brighton beach to the other, before plunging into the liberating water as naked as God intended. Take your pointless law and solipsistic offence away from my entirely natural body.
That’s what happens if you push the law to over-ride custom, and insist that any potential offence be actionable. That outer Tory shell is not impregnable, you see. I doubt it’s even water-resistant.