Stephen Gough has been rearrested again after having spent most of the last six years in solitary confinement in prison. This is far longer than many muggers, burglars or even rapists will serve and yet he has harmed nobody. His only crime is to be naked.
In this, he is not alone. We are all naked beneath our clothes. Nobody came into the world complete with underpants. I am naked as I write this. It is, unusually for this summer, warm in my flat and I like the lack of constriction and the feeling of air against my skin. It is not in itself sexual, although it could be in certain situations. But, then again, so could a meal or a trip to the cinema. Context is important in this as in most human activity.
If I were, however, to walk outside into the small garden, in order to feel the warmth of the sun and the cool of the breeze, then I could find myself in court for the garden is overlooked by others. Although my intention would be to enjoy the sensations felt by my body, I would be accused of an offence against public decency, or behaviour likely to cause a breach of the peace, or some other circumlocution. Those who saw me could, if they were offended, simply look the other way. That is their freedom. I am no Adonis and would not expect anyone to be so overcome with desire that they find it hard to unglue their gaze. I would not be thrusting my genitals in their face. They would simply remain where they always have been - and in a condition of flaccidity.
It is easy to look away if we don't like what we see. No-one can force us to look, short of taping our eyelids open and holding our heads in a fixed position. Daily, I am assaulted by noise I find unpleasant, traffic, police sirens, car alarms, piped music in shops, the ranting of street preachers - the list can go on forever. I cannot close my ears nor does turning away from the sound have much effect. But there is little regulation of any of this. The owner of the burglar alarm that goes off, for no apparent reason, in the middle of the night, keeping me from sleep is not prosecuted for causing a public nuisance. Nor is the shopkeeper whose music spills out into the public space or the chain store that bellows its advertising by loudspeakers. They breach my peace and I have had to learn to live with them.
Appearing naked where it is possible for others to see you is, however, deemed serious enough for someone's liberty to be denied. Gough is not a flasher; he shows no desire to cause alarm; he does not use his nakedness as a weapon. He is simply asserting his right not to be coerced into wearing clothes.
The question is simply this: why is the human body unfit to be seen by others? Why does the wrath of the state descend on someone who is doing no tangible harm? It is as if civilisation would collapse were it to allow people to reveal themselves as human beings, genitalia and all. And this leads to a further question: if this is true, does such a civilisation deserve to survive?