The 11th Annual World Naked Bike Ride kicked off last weekend in Portland, Oregon. Nearly 8,000 activists stripped and cycled through the city streets to promote clean energy, cyclists’ rights, and body empowerment. Instead of clothes, riders sported colorful helmets, fabric wings, or slogans like “more ass, less gas” painted on their backs.
The fun-loving nature and creativity of the protest has made it a huge success. Since its inception in 2004, the World Naked Bike Ride has expanded to over a hundred cities in dozens of countries. It has garnered quite a bit of press coverage and generated thousands of fans worldwide.
However, these freewheeling bare butts haven’t gone unnoticed by puritanical locals. Several Portlanders plan to petition against next year’s ride. Seattle Parks and Recreation tried to ban the ride and prosecute any nude cyclists for criminal trespass. Critics fret over the “sexual” nature of the ride and worry that children might unwittingly happen to glance upon the unfettered human form as bikers ride past.
In reality, the protest is not in the least bit sexual. Obviously, watching riders sweat in the summer heat while struggling to cycle up steep hills isn’t a huge turn-on for most. More importantly, the ride has a carefree and almost innocent atmosphere. The cyclists don’t do anything to enhance their sexuality but, instead, celebrate their natural physique. If anything, the Naked Bike Ride is one of the more juvenile and benign protests. Protesters don goofy accessories like top hats, capes or neon knee socks.
The allure of the naked protest has nothing to do with sexuality. Exhibitionism engages onlookers in a much more powerful and intuitive way. The act is a physical manifestation of separating oneself from traditional expectations. Public nudity is able to attract the attention of so many because it is so defiant and unconventional. Whether activists are promoting positive body image directly or fostering support for other causes like oil independence, animal rights or marriage equality, stripping automatically makes their message much more compelling.
Whereas most other protesters have to resort to aggressive mob tactics to get their message across, naked protests can be light-hearted and free-spirited. Although nudity might be the most shocking approach to activism, it has proven to be the least destructive. The Occupy sit-ins encamped public space for months and cost cities and local businesses millions of dollars in clean-up costs. “Trolling activism” is often belligerent and launches attacks against individuals instead of ideas.
Activists don’t need to use scare tactics or rally a mob to promote their cause. They just need to get creative. A few cyclists who are willing to brave criticism and bear their bodies for a few hours can launch a global discussion about car dependency. As if anyone needed a good reason to go streaking.