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Naked Protesters on Parade
by Shayla Pandava
Right now and until the end of April, a Lady Godiva protester named Deborah Wales is riding bareback, or bare-assed, through English towns from Cheshire to Whitehall on her horse, Moomin. In naught but a blond wig, Wales is protesting a European legislation that allows cruelty to horses while in transit. She hopes to start a wave of Lady Godivas all across England so that publicity and public pressure will get England's rural affairs minister to take action. In the past two years, people have protested against fur, cruelty to animals, genetically modified food, the war in Iraq, the World Trade Organization, George Bush, and even the right to go topless, all by stripping off for the cause -- they're also getting major news coverage.
Mike Grenville, whose Sussex England organization BareWitness staged a protest last summer against genetically modified food (GM), feels it's perfectly fair for the disenfranchised to resort to nakedness in order to get their point across. He claims that in protesting something like GM, he and his fellow protestors are up against wealthy bio-tech interests that have millions to spend. And the tactics serve him well. The photographs of the "No GM" sign the protesters spelled in an open meadow with their naked bodies, June 2003, were soon splattered over the internet, newspapers, and TV. And since every good pic needs a context, Grenville got to sound off about GM for every news piece.
The protests are usually of mixed gender (like the anti-GM protest), and there have been a few male-dominated turnouts, like a protest near Gainsville FL last winter where naked men formed a peace sign. And then there was the penis protest of New Zealand's National Penis Day, in which demonstrators let all hang out to protest a ban on health ads that showed the penis. But overall, the numbers in the world of naked protesting lean more heavily towards women.
Last February when the Bush administration was leading up to the War in Iraq, 12 women went to Central Park, got naked, and lied down in 20 degree weather to spell out "No Bush" in the snow. This group was deliberately all women, and the organizer Wendy Tremayne explained that naked women bring vulnerability to the equation. She feels that this brings out people's compassion (which might also explain pulling the stunt in the snow). In fact, in the lead up to war in Iraq, naked protesting burst onto the political scene in protests all over the world. Australia, England, Hong Kong, South Africa, all have had their naked protests.
In some respects, the idea of naked women sounds suspiciously like a holdover from the 'chicks up front' protest tactic of the '60s. But these days, the women organizing naked anti-war protests have sophisticated theories about what it means to bare the female body in protest. They cite that it brings up issues of vulnerability or embarrassment, that it takes advantage of female charm, but above all, they feel that it can make people rethink their war-like strategies.
The group that may have started this latest spate of naked protests across the globe is out of Marin County, California. Started by 72 year-old Donna Sheehan, the group, made up mostly of women, refers to itself as Unreasonable Women Baring Witness. Their protest photos on the internet actually inspired Grenville, all the way over in England, to start his own protest organization, Bare Witness. And the two groups support each others' protests.
The way Sheehan sees it, protests by naked women are about "restoring the power of the feminine to its rightful place as the protector of life." One of the group's core activists, Suzanne Hart, thinks the advantage of predominantly female naked protestors provides a contrast -- say, against a man with a gun. And that contrast is persuasive. In the title of her upcoming book on the group, Hart puts it this way: "Naked Vulnerability in The Face of Naked Aggression."
If you look over the photos of the naked protests over the past couple of years, you'll see nude bodies, toe to toe, or enfolded into each other, or curled around each other, to form symbols or words, like "peace," "No WTO," "SOS" (in the Fairbanks Alaskan snow) or the clever "Buck Fush." Of course the spelling choices are limited by the number of people in these protests, which is often in the range of 20 or 30 bold strippers (just about right to spell "No War"). When the early spring protests of 2003 brought out record numbers of naked protestors against the Iraq War, a couple hundred in Montana and a whopping 700 naked women in Byron Bay, Australia.
The hopeful flower-child energy of these protesters and their strategies seems almost a world apart from the slick glamour, media magnetic hard sell of the well-oiled PETA machine. These People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) choreograph elaborate events calculated to get them maximum media attention. "PETA learned early that if you take it off, the press will come running," says PETA spokesman Dan Shannon. A recent PETA campaign to protest cruelty to zoo animals features near-naked, very attractive girls painted in animal stripes. These activists spend an hour at a time sitting in a zoo cage while visitors at the zoo watch and sometimes make lewd comments. The latest PETA campaign, called "Live Make-out Tour," puts an attractive half dressed (guy wears under shorts) couple in a bed along a well-traveled street, and they make out. And they make out some more. The caption for this campaign is "Vegetarians Make Better Lovers." PETA wants people to make a connection between virility and healthy sex life and vegetarianism.
"We've had to think of creative, upbeat, and sexy ways to get attention for the animals," Lisa Lange of PETA says. Ten years before Bearing Witness came on the scene, PETA was running their first naked campaign (a campaign usually comes complete with celebrity sponsors and national events that might capture media attention). And their first campaign, in 1990 featured the singing group, the Go-Gos, in the buff, but hiding behind a banner imprinted with the slogan "I'd rather Be Naked than Wear Fur."
Protesting the fur industry, PETA garnered even more media attention by smuggling activists past the heavy security of major fashion shows. Once inside, the protesters would get naked (often with slogans painted on their bodies), and streak naked across the runway, until Security pulled them down. Those acts sure spiced up the nightly news.
Perhaps one of PETA's most successful campaigns in that vein is what they call the "Human Race," where naked PETA activists streak naked down the streets of Pamplona with the stampeding bulls and throngs of men in machismo during the annual "Running of the Bulls" event. Talk about your vulnerability. "The running of the nudes . . . got the type of attention we'd been trying to get for years," says PETA's Lisa Lange.
Most of the PETA activists meet the challenges and risks because they feel drastic measures are called for (fueled by their horrific video ads). Dan Shannon insists that PETA only brings out the heavy guns of nakedness, costumes, and good placement when letter-writing or other reasonable channels fail. "Sometimes the low key approach just doesn't work," Shannon says. Afterwards out come your naked-without-fur posters, your naked-zoo-animal impersonators, and other naked artillery.
Though they may seem more militant, the naked PETA protesters experience the same embarrassment and vulnerability as the Peace activists. "Personally it can be very uncomfortable; people gawk at you," says one activist after she sat naked with pasties and body paint in a cage for an hour. For many of the women in Baring Witness, getting naked gives them a way of working through personal issues surrounding their bodies. They report things such as learning to be more open or accepting of themselves or of vulnerability or of their female nature. Donna Sheehan has even had to deal with hate mail on the Baring Witness web site. But PETA's naked protesters cite the cause as their cure for inhibition, and will likely address the embarrassment issue by saying, "This is nothing compared to what the animal goes through."
Who knows? Maybe all this devotion to causes will coincidentally usher in a new era of openness about the human body and sexuality. At least, judging from the success of groups like BaringWitness, Bare Witness, and PETA, we'll be seeing a lot of nakedness in the upcoming protest season. And that's a good thing.
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