Stephen Gough, the Naked Rambler. Screenshot via this video
The Naked Rambler has never hurt anyone, but he'll be in prison for longer than Oscar Pistorius. In fact, Stephen Gough has already served twice Pistorius' sentence, not for the crime of culpable homicide, but for neglecting to cover his dick up while wandering around in public. The 54-year-old has boomeranged in and out of jail since 2003, when he served four months for breach of the peace. Each time he's locked up for being naked, Stephen insists on leaving the prison naked. Which, on one occasion, saw him arrested and sent back inside almost immediately.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decided on Tuesday that, in being continually convicted (he's spent about seven years behind bars overall), Stephen has had neither his freedom of expression violated, nor his right to private and family life. They were, in other words, sentencing a nudist to theoretical life imprisonment. In non-theoretical real life, he's currently one month into two-and-a-half years for disobeying an ASBO [an anti-social behavior order] that forbade him from—no surprises here—walking around naked.
In a Guardian interview from 2012, Stephen reveals himself to be rational and polite, capable of eloquently justifying his actions. I spoke to Neil Forsyth, who wrote the profile. “I can't see him backing down,” he said, before explaining his frustration about the “conservative interpretation” of the offense—breach of the peace—that Stephen keeps getting locked up for. “There has to be a more humanistic approach,” he sighed. “Who's the victim?”
Imprisonment, release; imprisonment, release; imprisonment. Stephen's routine is a ludicrous charade that serves to perfectly underline his philosophy: society's attitude towards the human body in public needs to be re-wired.
I also spoke to Mike Schwarz, Stephen's lawyer, who argues that “criminalizing his activity on whatever test is disproportionate and intolerant.” The ECHR ruling affects Stephen's predicament in a significant way, said Mike, because a change in the law will be harder to affect as a result. “But we need to work out if there is any wiggle room within that judgment.”
Rigidly puritanical, the restrictions on Stephen seem to serve the best interests of absolutely nobody: not Stephen, who is unaffected by their supposedly rehabilitative intent because he sees no immorality in his actions; not the state, which spends thousands of pounds keeping him in prison; and not the public, to whom Stephen is absolutely harmless. The responses to a Guardian poll indicate that 51 percent of its readers deem "naked rambling" not to be a human right. But 69 percent of the public believe we should retain the monarchy, and 45 percent that the death penalty ought to be reinstated. Stupidity finds a comfy home in crowds.
Stephen with some clothes on. Screenshot via this video
It's in Scotland, where nudity is condemned more harshly, that Stephen's rambles have caused him most pain. Like many offenses, the wording of Scotland's "breach of the peace" is vague enough to be almost meaningless: It is "conduct severe enough to cause alarm to ordinary people and threaten serious disturbance to the community."
That his cock and balls have caused some minor alarm is very likely, but then so do fireworks and car alarms. “Think about how many people saw him each day,” said Neil, referring to Stephen's well publicized walks from Land's End to John o' Groats. “For every person who phoned the police up and said, 'Oh, there's a naked guy walking past the house,' there'd have been ten, 20 people who saw him and went about their day. If they're saying that it causes offense to the ordinary person, the facts of the case don't back that up.”
Perhaps the most pressing question is why exactly Stephen keeps doing it. Why he doesn't just put some pants on before he goes for a walk.
Stephen's devotion to nudity is best framed as a religious obligation. Despite being non-religious, he's as wedded to his beliefs as most of this country's faithful. Religious freedoms must be protected at all costs on condition that they don't impinge upon the rights of others. This means, for example, that if you're religious you can wear whatever the hell you like—even if your dress does offend "ordinary people"—as long as you aren't compromising another person's freedoms. Seeing Stephen's pasty ass, while maybe not all that desirable, is hardly an infringement on one's personal liberty.
Stephen having a wash in a stream. Screenshot via this video
As British Naturism ("the UK's representative organization for all naturists") points out, the ECHR proffered no evidence on the actual or potential offense caused by Stephen's nude state, which is apparently liable to be “morally and otherwise offensive” to “unwarned members of the public.” Stephen isn't a naked ghoul jumping out from the bushes, or a handsy creep assaulting people in the street. As Neil says, “It's not exactly provocative, walking about with a flaccid penis.” British Naturism also correctly mentions that “the World Naked Bike Ride is encountered by tens of thousands of people, most of them 'unwarned,' and is enthusiastically received.”
Mike bolsters this view, pointing out how small a proportion of the public complain about Stephen's nudity. He also said, “We've had, throughout the legal proceedings, expert evidence from psychologists saying that children—and, in fact, adults—aren't adversely affected by seeing non-sexual public nudity, male or female..
Cases about the human body matter. They matter because when the state adjudicates over the body it reveals a tremendous amount. Embedded in every case about abortion is the implicit assumption that women cannot be allowed full autonomy over their bodies; within rulings over assisted dying lies the insidious notion that life must be preserved not for the sake of the subject but for a mysterious higher cause. At the heart of every Gough conviction has been the pernicious belief that the human form is either something to be ashamed of, or a potential weapon.
That Stephen disputes this premise is something that deserves championing, not castigating. He's got balls, and they ought to be seen more often.
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