Web standards alert

Account: log in (or sign up)
onebee Writing Photos Reviews About

Anti-Fun Laws

Today at lunch a man drove by who was naked in his car. From our table on the upstairs balcony, we could see though his sunroof that he was unclothed and, if not masturbating, at least fondling himself a little. My lunch companions were shocked and disgusted, as is their right. I certainly don't defend the guy, but I was considerably less horrified. I wasn't interested in watching him or anything, but neither did I see it as the worst thing ever. I am generally very difficult to offend, especially in situations involving nudity. (For me, there's no direct connection between nakedness and sexuality or perversion. But for me there are plenty of things more disturbing than sexuality, and few of those could really qualify as "offending" me.) The others (I should mention they were all women) wanted to do something about it. I think their concern stemmed from the man's suspicious appearance, which pointed at the possibility that perhaps he was on his way to perpetrate some act of perversion against an innocent victim, which certainly was possible. I would not presume to tell anyone how they should feel or react to a naked stranger in public, but it got me thinking.

When Paul Reubens was arrested for indecent exposure in an adult theatre in Sarasota, Florida, I was at the time still receiving the Mofo Knows newsletter (or they were still generating it; I forget which has ceased), circulated by the irreverent, ingenious comic illusionists Penn & Teller. Teller wrote a piece in the newsletter about how to talk to children about the news stories they'd surely be hearing about their playmate and pal Pee-Wee Herman, the alter ego by which Reubens is exponentially better known. Teller's tack was that Reubens was the innocent victim of what he called "Anti-Fun Laws," laws which restrict our personal freedoms for purely puritanical purposes. Teller dismissed such laws as ridiculous, or asserted that at least they should not be enforced in situations where no harm is being done. (The entrapment case of George Michael marks a more recent and more extreme example.) Because Reubens was in an adult theatre, Teller argued that it was really an unnecessary interpretation of public exposure laws to enforce them there. Wagging his penis at children in the park, of course, but in an adult theatre, in the dark? Why wouldn't he have his penis out?

I guess what I'm getting at is that being offended is in the eye of the offended. If you asked around, I bet nobody in the theatre with Reubens was offended by his actions as long as he didn't involve them. The skittish types who the laws are protecting would never go near the theatre in the first place. (Since the arrest, Reubens and fellow Tim Burton regular Jeffrey Jones have been brought up on charges of possessing child pornography. The argument could be raised that one behavior is an indicator of the other, which is sometimes true. But, some guys who quietly keep to themselves possess mountains of kiddy porn, and plenty of people who get a kick out of public nudity do nothing to endanger children, so arresting someone for a related behavior is preposterous.) These regulations of our baser instincts are silly and they counteract the basic freedoms on which America was founded. Laws against obscenity or pornography are designed to protect us from being offended in public by strangers. Well, pardon me, but I'm greatly more offended if the guy next to me on the plane is reading Anne Coulter than Hustler. You can't go around legally restricting anything one person does that might annoy another, especially if they do it privately. People are just annoyed by too many things. Sodomy laws which target the activities of homosexuals (and more adventuresome heterosexuals) in their own homes are just plain wrong. Our freedoms should not be restricted until they begin to impinge upon the freedoms of others. (I'm a big fan of the old saying, "Your freedom to swing your fist ends at my face.") Kiddy porn laws, obviously, are a different issue, because they aim to protect children who can't protect themselves. But laws which intend to prevent adults from being specifically offended by certain acts as they go about their lives are positively preposterous. It's like hate crime legislation. It's more of an offense to kill someone because of his religious beliefs, skin color, or sexuality than to just plain kill someone? I think a murder is a murder and all murderers should be treated with equal severity. It's worse to offend someone with your penis than with your middle finger or your fist or your voice? If something a stranger does to you is offensive or unfair or annoying, you ask him to stop. If he still crosses the line, I believe you should have recourse within reason. (Our current litigious culture seeks, and usually wins, recourse well beyond reason.) But our lawmakers have no right to decide ahead of time that certain types of offended people deserve more protection than others.

Example: as someone who believes strongly in the power and beauty of sensuality, I am a fan of – among other things – skinny-dipping. As I said, I'm not the type to consider any unclothed activity automatically sexual, although certainly some elements are sexually gratifying. As an experience, though, it goes beyond that. It's an absolutely peaceful pursuit, and the sensation of the powerful surf enveloping your naked body is invigorating and (this sounds uncharacteristically new-agey but it's true) affirms your oneness with the power and enormity of nature and the universe. (Also, there are these amazing bioluminescent plankton which sparkle and glow as they impact your body. It's really quite breathtaking on a moonless night.) But mostly, like any American in our media-dominated culture, I'm self-conscious about certain aspects of my body. It's tremendously freeing to just let go of all that for a few minutes and live in the moment. Still, swimming naked is a passion I rarely indulge, because of anti-fun laws. On my own, I work hard to be sensitive to the hair-trigger hang-ups of others whenever I can. I close my window when undressing not because I'm modest but because the guy across the alley might peep in through no fault of my own and I'm considerate of his sensitivities. So, I generally don't swim naked because I'm not able to find anyplace nearby that's secluded enough to guarantee leaving others undisturbed. "Nightswimming," as Michael Stipe says, "deserves a quiet night." But what frustrates me is that I'm not avoiding it chiefly to be polite; I'm avoiding it because I don't want to be arrested. I'm reasonably certain – especially in California – that if I were to encounter the errant late-night beachcomber during the brief moments when my nudity is not safely underwater, they would accept my apology. As a matter of fact, California sports a number of "clothing optional" public beaches (which are still occasionally "stung" by police officers, even though everyone there is familiar with the "clothing optional" policy and nobody's offended). So, I'm forced to account for legal obstacles to my innocent fun. This weekend, for example, when I went for a late-night naked swim for the first time in years, I had to park illegally on the right of way (numerous "no parking" signs are placed solely to scold anyone who wishes to visit the beach after dark, when the public parking lots are closed and chained) and always keep one eye on the beach in case of some law enforcement sweep. Fortunately I've been able to select an isolated area, so the risks are few, but it distracts from the peaceful mood nonetheless. Certainly, the rigamarole limits the duration and the frequency of such visits, which are innocent, solitary, and peaceful. Is this something from which we really need protection? If someone forcibly exposes himself to you, that's wrong. But if he's minding his own business and keeping to himself as much as possible, should he really be in fear of being hauled away if you should glance his way? Err on the side of freedom, I say.

The argument against might sound something like, "Yeah, as an adult I can avert my eyes if I'm offended and probably put the whole thing behind me. But what of the innocent children??" Well, yes, I agree. On a case-by-case basis where the behavior is unexpected, it makes sense for there to be consequences no matter who's involved. But why are certain vices singled out among so many others? Is it really worse for a stranger to walk by your child with his penis in view than for him to walk by the same child with a cigarette in his hand? The extremely unlikely worst-case scenario with the penis is that the kid can't forget it and needs therapy later in life. But science and medicine can do nothing to remove those second-hand carcinogens from his innocent, developing lungs. What if the stranger makes a racist remark? Who arbitrarily decides that one public annoyance is more offensive than another? What offends you may or may not offend the next guy. Does intent even come into it? If I murder you by accident, the consequences are very different from those when I murder you on purpose. But if you accidentally see my penis while I'm changing in my car, the consequences are the same as if I jump out of the bushes and thrust it at you.

Puritanical "anti-fun laws" are arbitrary restrictions on behaviors that in most cases cause no one any harm. Their construction and their enforcement make no consideration for context. By that, I am finally offended.

Your Comments
Name: OR Log in / Register to comment

Comments: (show/hide formatting tips)

send me e-mail when new comments are posted