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.