The 7 Rules of Public-Nudity Etiquette

I’m so tired of San Francisco’s public-nudity controversy. Our once-charming provincial city has been rocked by a series of angry protests and silly political proclamations. I’m tired of hearing about it, of talking about it, and of having debates on the subject escalate into arguments that destroy dinner parties. It’s like San Francisco’s foie gras ban all over again: brother against brother, friend against friend, neighbor against neighbor.

And really it all comes down to just a few square feet of asphalt: the minuscule Jane Warner Plaza, a tiny parklet in the Castro, which a slowly growing cadre of naturists has made a hangout—and not all neighborhood residents are enjoying the view (even blocked, as it often is, but hordes of picture-taking European tourists in double-decker buses).

The primary reason that the debate has gotten so out of hand is that both the nudists and the non-nudists are making valid points. Both sides are right—a situation that historically makes compromise very difficult. But in such a case, good manners can really help. To that end, here are seven etiquette rules for public nudity.

Rule #1 (for Non-Nudists): If you don’t want to see it, just don’t look at it. For the average person, a short walk in any populated area will provide a number of things to not look at. A walk in the Castro will likely find you averting your eyes from street garbage, dog poop, graphic “barebacking” pornography on display in shop windows, very questionable fashion choices, and worse. What’s a little skin in the wind after all that?

Rule #2 (for Nudists): Allow those who want to avoid looking at you to do so. You have to play your part in the “live and let live” game. That means not heckling hurried, embarrassed-looking passersby.

Rule #3 (for Non-Nudists): Stop the jokes about how “it’s always the wrong people getting naked.” Someone makes this joke in just about every nudity discussion I’ve heard. It’s not that funny, and it’s offensive. Nudity is not only enjoyable for the young and genetically blessed.

Rule #4 (for Nudists): Overtly sexual behavior is inappropriate in everyday public spaces. It’s true that San Francisco is cherished as a place of freedom and safety for sexuality adventurers and nonconformists. But it’s also true that even the most liberal society promotes rules and laws for the comfort and safety of its population as a whole. One of society’s rules forbids involving other people, against their will, in a sexual act with you—even through sexual exhibitionism and masturbation. You know who you are, and you’re ruining nudity for everyone.

Rule #5 (for Non-Nudes): Don’t stare at, mock, or photograph the nudists. It’s not nice, and it just encourages the attention-seeking element.

Rule #6 (for Nudes): Avoid large crowds. Your right to be nude in public should end several inches from where your penis brushes against my arm.

Rule #7 (for Nudes): Carry a towel. It’s the polite thing to do. Even the totally relaxed nudists of Finland sit on towels in all-nude settings like saunas; you can certainly follow the same etiquette while using our city’s public seating.

What do you think of San Francisco’s public-nudity debate? Share your thoughts in the Comments section.

Charles Purdy is the author of the book Urban Etiquette: Modern Manners for the Modern Metropolis and a longtime manners-advice columnist. In his Queerty column, he addresses issues related to social behavior.





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  • kayakriver

    I’ll just say it, why do people feel the need to be naked in public? If you are in the jungle ok, but in the city??
    And yes, it’s always the wrong people getting naked. Gay men getting naked on the streets then we get a rapport for being sexually deviated, thanks!

  • Aidan8

    I don’t live in SF… but I wonder if the real complaints (and the whole debate) arose not because of simple nudity, but rather because some pervs feel the need to walk around with a hard on? For those who live in SF, is there some truth to this? I agree with Charles Purdy on this… both sides have valid points. Personally, I love nudity, being naked, even hiking naked, but I wouldn’t walk around a city naked or sit in a restaurant naked. I also don’t mind other people being naked in public. But guys walking around with a hard-on? Not really. Seems like an example of some adults not being able to conduct themselves within limited bounds of civility… thus ruining it for everyone who enjoyed public nudity but had the wits and decency not to get hard or wack-off in public. A few bad apples……

  • ScottinSFCA

    This is the perfect case of a few bad apples ruining it for all. Every time I’ve been down to the Castro, which is not often, it’s always the same 5 to 7 men hanging out in the plaza. 3 of these men, who seem to have a 3 way partnership, which is fine, are standing in the plaza or across the street up against the wall by the bus stop and Harvey Milk Plaza. They’re in their sneakers and cockrings. I question if these 3 men nudists. I say they’re exhibitionists out for their sexual kicks and not living their lives as a true nudist would. If they were just nudists, they wouldn’t be wearing their cockrings and standing around and cruising with semi-erect or erect cocks. Not only do these few bad apples ruin it for the nudists, but they also help perpetrate the myth the gay community is oversexed and only out sex 24-7. Also, the majority of the other men do not use towels when they sit and seem to be doing it out of anger or only out for seeking for attention.

    I love my city and the freedom my city has always offered. Ever since the installation of the plaza, the nudity in the Castro skyrocketed, but mostly by these same 5 to 7 men. If these men had had at least one ounce of etiquette, we would not be having this discussion. Instead, they decided to be in your face with it and some with a really bad attitude. Just as with anything else, there is a time and place for anything. Plus, if you’re out in nude, wearing your cockring, semi-hard to hard & cruising, you’re NOT a nudist – you’re an EXHIBITIONIST.

    I’m ready for all the angry comments now. I have a thick skin.

  • ScottinSFCA

    @Aidan8: Yes, you hit the nail on the head – a few bad apples. Plus, an overly obsessed city supervisor and a large part of a neighborhood & businesses who are pissed off after having dealt with for last 2 years.

  • SFHarry

    I have always been a strong advocate for the Castro nudists even though they do bug me a little. Their presence in the Castro pushes what is acceptable behavior further to the left allowing other behaviors, like two me kissing, to the center and thus even more normal than it is now. I went to eat lunch at the plaza where they hang out and they just sucked the energy out of the whole space. It was as if they had a sign on them saying “look at me, look at me” and you couldn’t avoid it. As annoyed as I was, I knew their presence served a greater purpose. I still don’t really like them but I love what they represent.

  • petensfo

    I’ve seen the nudists for years and never saw anyone aroused. Personally, I think it’s a shame. Fly your freak flag San Fran, it’s what put you on the map after all…

    I also find it really offensive when people accuse the ‘wrong’ people of getting naked. F-you, & your body issues. If people can’t see something beautiful in every human body, the problem is entirely theirs.

    I used to love the beach in Miami. It was filled with 80 year old, overly tan, guys in teeny-tiny speedos, standing in the surf, enjoying the sun & absolutely lovin’ it. There’s always someone that will object to anything, but if these guys aren’t hurting anyone, what real difference did it make??

  • EManhattan

    My main objection to nudists is that they often sit down. We all know that a lot of men and women do not keep their butts clean. We know this because they leave behind filthy toilet seats in office restrooms and gas station toilets.

    I don’t want nudists sitting on buses or park benches without some cloth between them and the seat.

    Carrying a towel, preferably a white towel, to sit on is fairly reasonable – not as clean as keeping one’s butt in pants or a skirt, since any side of the towel may end up against the seat, but better than nothing. And a white towel will start to show a dirty butt before any other color, alerting the nudist to the fact that he or she needs to wash and wipe more carefully.

    I think the article’s etiquette suggestions all make sense.

  • the other Greg

    “Don’t stare at, mock, or photograph the nudists. It’s not nice, and it just encourages the attention-seeking element.”

    The attention-seeking element? Isn’t that ALL of them?

  • Jaroslaw

    Aidan8 – I’m not even sure walking about with a hardon is inappropriate. I mean, a man can’t always help these things. And I don’t think it is a whole lot different than women with huge breasts showing 80% or more “legally” with low cut tops etc. Our society is negatively obsessed with sex and an involuntary boner is as natural as breathing. I remember getting one in high school for no particular reason and of course, I was called on to do a math problem on the board. I had to hurry up and untuck my shirt. Thank goodness the tails were not skimpy!

  • CivicMinded

    I agree that both sides have legitimate arguments. For me it’s a question of public health. I’ve picked up crabs several times in my adult life from public toilet seats as well as athlete’s foot from locker room floors. If someone wants to sunbathe nude in the park while lying on their own towel I’m ok. I am not ok with people sitting nude on some public place I may want to sit such as a park bench or bus seat. Besides the passing of parasites I don’t want my clothes picking up unsightly stains left by unclean butts. I have similar issues with people in the gym who sweat all over a machine and don’t wipe it afterwards. Like I want to lie in your sweat or use my towel to clean up after you. Once in a great while when I pass wind a little something more than wind unexpectedly comes out. Really, nudists? You want to risk doing that in public?

  • SteveMD2

    @SFHarry: you have a real problem with two men kissing? If you dont like it dont participate.

    My gay friends do it all the time, I will to but only on the neck or side of the face. And they have to be the first.

    And to me its simply a mark of respect to kiss them. Sexual – give me a break.

    Anyway, this phobia will be endind. Look up “boys kissing boys” on Utube – its

  • Mjl-428

    @SteveMD2: I think he meant he has a problem with the nudists but if they can be allowed to walk around frequent areas in San Fran, then that can be a gateway for guys kissing and not getting weird looks for once.

  • Mjl-428

    Those rules pretty much sums what needs to be done. this all seems like a non-issue that could’ve been a non-issue if the two types of people who have NO respect for everyone around them would just get a life and go away. these two types of people are (A) the NON-nudists a.k.a exhibitionists who abuse the law and can’t simply save it for events and places where it’s appropriate to have hard-ons and be sexual. and (B) the social conservatives (if there are any hanging around San Fran) who need to keep their asses out of everyone else’s lives and worry about themselves instead of falling out every time they see things that are out of THEIR comfort zone.

  • Aidan8

    @Jaroslaw: Hey, haven’t seen you here in a while. And, I agree American society is puritanically obsessed with sex and the body in general. Also agree that a hard-on can be “involuntary.” I only wish I had been there with you on that fateful day at the blackboard….. I could have helped with those shirt-tails… or, perhaps, provided another type of “solution.” ;)

  • timelord89

    I just say carry a towel, when I’m in the Castro eating my creme brulee from the Creme Brulee truck I always have a temporary moment of horror when I realize that chances are good that someone’s naked butt sat on the seat I am sitting on.

  • Randal Oulton

    >> Stop the jokes about how “it’s always the wrong people getting naked.”


    We won’t.

    Because it’s true.

  • pickles

    When we had a home-invasion at our home in the Castro from a psycho nut a few years back, it was NOT a nude person.
    When our car was broken into it was very certainly NOT by a nude person.
    When a woman was assaulted on our street it was NOT by a nude person.
    When my transexual friend was mugged, it was NOT by a nude person.
    When I was very nearly fag-bashed ( I ran fast) it was definitely NOT by 5 nude men.

    When I next call the police, it will certainly not be because I saw a nude person. It will be because crime matters, not skin. Our SF stupidvisor, Scott Weiner isn’t a bad person, but he badly wasted months of time and energy towards something that hurts nobody while violent crimes were commited and unsolved and people were hungry. Pity the judgement.

  • Kasnar

    @EManhattan: This reminds me of one of my pet peeves when going to the gym: guys who sit on the locker room bench butt naked with nary a towel or piece of paper between their butts and the bench. For any of you who do this, there’s a reason they invented disposable paper toilet seats, you guys!!

  • Kasnar

    I don’t know how large the Castro district is — I haven’t yet had the pleasure of visiting – but maybe they should designate a section of town as nudist friendly and have a buffer zone around it. Just a thought!

Comments are closed.