Is Naked Sunbathing Legal in England and Wales?

World Naked Bike Ride Around London

 Rune Hellestad/Corbis/Getty Images

Have you ever wondered whether you could be arrested for public nudity (or having sex in a public place) in England, Scotland or Wales? The question is not as random as you may think. Lots of people like to sunbathe in the nude. So, is public nudity illegal in the UK?

Well yes and no.

Technically, there is no law against being nude in public in the United Kingdom. Simple nudity is not illegal. Even performing what someone might consider to be an obscene act in a public place may not be against the law. It all depends on the circumstances.

Intention and Context

There are three laws that apply and all of them are open to interpretation depending on why the nudity is happening and where.

1.The Public Order Act of 1986 prohibits behavior that is "threatening, abusive or insulting within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress".

In practice, this means that if you are nude, minding your own business and practicing good nude beach etiquette on a beach that is unofficial but, by common consent, considered to be a nude beach, you are unlikely to have any problem. In England and Wales, if someone—a policeman or a member of the public—asks you to cover up, you should do so or you could be arrested. You probably would not be charged because someone would have to prove that you were deliberately trying to cause offense. But refusing to cover up when asked could cause you a great deal of inconvenience and, at the very least, ruin a good day out.

It's a misconception that the laws about this are stricter in Scotland, In fact, the very same laws apply in Scotland as in England and Wales. But "intention" is only part of the story. "Context" is the other and in Scotland, where people are less tolerant of public nudity, you are much more likely to end up in the slammer.

2. The Sex Offences Act of 2003: Indecent Exposure relates to sexually motivated exposure of one's genitals, with the specific intention that someone will see them. Again, sunbathing, or naked cycling, like participating in the annual World Naked Bike Ride, isn't likely to get you into trouble. But hop off your bike or up from your beach blanket and deliberately wave your wobbly bits at someone and you're in trouble.

3.Outraging Public Decency is a common law offense that makes it a crime to perform actions or displays in public places that "outrage generally accepted standards of decency" and that are witnessed by at least two people. Since June 2015 the interpretation of this has become stricter. A Law Commission report recommended that this offense be moved from the common law to the statute books and that the requirement that two people be present be removed. Under the proposed statute, the person committing the act must be aware that he or she might be in a public place and that "the act or display was of such a nature as to cause outrage to ordinary people." So if you are thinking of going off into the dunes for a bit of rumpy pumpy in private, forget it. Things like this take forever to work their way through Parliament and onto the statute books and as of January 2020, this was still in various committees.

What It All Means

Tolerance of unofficial nude beaches tends to be very local and rather changeable. It's a good idea to check the latest information with a naturist website like The National Naturist Information Centre (UK), and, at the very least, to have some kind of cover-up within easy reach. It's also a good idea to be aware that when it comes to interpreting what will "cause outrage to ordinary people," the authorities in Scotland may take a much stricter view than elsewhere in the UK.

Testing the Law

During 2003-2004, a Hampshire man named Stephen Gough, who became known as The Naked Rambler, began putting the UK law to the test by attempting to walk nude from Land's End, Cornwall, to John O'Groats, in Scotland. It took him seven months to complete the 900-mile walk - much of that time spent in jail. He was arrested 14 times and served two short jail sentences that year. He tried to repeat the walk with a companion in 2005, was arrested for a breach of the peace and spent two weeks in jail in Scotland. The local sheriff said, as Gough appeared in court naked, "I have no doubt in my mind that walking naked through a Scottish town and along a busy road is not something which the Scottish public should be expected to deal with."

What started out as an amusing bit of weird news has turned into something of an obsessive's tragedy. As of August 2015, when Gough was released from prison after serving half a 30-month sentence (spent in solitary confinement because he insisted on being naked in jail), he had lost count of how many times he had been arrested and had spent about 10 years in jail to prove his point. See his interview with the BBC.

In 2016 he announced he was going to cut back on his public nudity because he was looking after his 89-year-old mother. He has dropped from public attention since then.

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