THERE’S a lot of buzz surrounding Terri Sue Webb these days.
On the phone, she sounds like any average woman of college age. On the street, her manner is casual, engaging, and refreshing. One might never suspect she is one of a small number of international activists who are aggressively rousing the sleeping giant of public body freedom and celebration. She challenges the rest of us to reassess our level of commitment to the public expression of our naturist beliefs.
In Oregon, where she lives, Webb has appeared nude in public on several occasions to promote body freedom. Her actions have made her the topic of press reports around the world. She has gained support from significant players in the Freedom To Be Yourself (FTBY) movement, and was recently the subject of an Advisory issued by the Naturist Action Committee.
People have been using their nude bodies more and more at organized public events, and it is generally perceived that there is a greater tolerance now for bare skin. Webb is not the first to appear naked in a U.S. courtroom, and certainly not the first activist to walk the streets nude. She is, however, a newly prominent figure among a small group of people who assert a belief in body freedom outside the relatively safe haven of artistic expression and into a more public arena.
Webb started off with little public support from nudists in Oregon, but she has since caught the attention of both the international media and national naturist groups like The Naturist Society and NAC. She has shown what one individual committed to a cause can accomplish.
Webb is taking her beliefs to the streets to challenge society’s urge to control and persecute people who believe in body freedom. She believes we all should be able to be naked whenever we feel like it; she is naked whenever she feels she can be, and she actively encourages others to join her.
When you first meet her, Webb is likely to put a question to you straight up: “Hey, this action is coming up and I’m thinking it would be a cool opportunity to protest or celebrate. How about it?” She does what others talk about doing…the difference is, she follows through with it.
Propose a nude public protest to naturists, and most will probably subordinate their beliefs to their fears. They fear that appearing nude in public could backfire on the cause, that the wrong people might find out about their beliefs, or that incarceration could impede their careers. A fundamental expression of one’s being is thus still difficult for many to express openly.
Body freedom, some will say, must exist only in controlled places where nobody is likely to be offended. But whose idea of timely and appropriate nudity are we conforming to? The list of appropriate times and places in which most naturists consider themselves safe is embarrassingly short.
Webb, on the other hand, sees the issue of public nudity in terms of personal expression and basic freedom. “To be offended by the visual appearance of another person is prejudice, akin to racism,” she says. “The right to exist, uncovered, should hold precedence over the right not to view [nudity], for the objection is irrational.”
Sound familiar? N readers may recognize her thinking as similar to that behind the Freedom To Be Yourself campaign of Britain (see N 20.4 and 21.2). Vincent Bethell, FTBY’s most vocal activist, has noticed Webb’s actions and has provided encouragement and suggestions based on his own experiences with nudity in the British courts.
It was because of my own interest in FTBY and from participating in discussions with Bethell’s discussion group aimed at organizing mass nude protests that I became more aware of Webb’s activities. When I learned that we both live in the Pacific Northwest, I decided to pay her a visit.
We met in Portland, where we talked over her goals and her approach to activism, and walked naked on the streets on a particularly stormy afternoon. I learned that we have a lot in common in terms of our ideas about body freedom.
Both of us stay away from labels such as “nudist” or “naturist,” preferring to identify with the principles and values of body freedom rather than with any one group. We seek support from people who are resourceful and motivated to act. We want to go beyond the search for safe havens for social nudity, such as nudist clubs, special events and other getaways, to open expression of freedom for every body.
We seek recognition that the body freedom all people are born with must not be withheld. Individuals who express themselves in this manner must not be subjected to persecution or be otherwise limited by the authorities. The human body is not offensive and therefore there is no good reason for the state or society to demand its systematic coverup.
Most of Webb’s activist work began after she earned a degree in biology from Portland’s Reed College in 1998. Some might describe her political orientation as anarchist and progressive. She believes that people should be able to do whatever they want as long as no one is harmed. Her frustrations manifest themselves with action; her activism reflects her own hopes and aspirations for society.
Webb believes that if we looked at the ways other animals live we could have a higher quality of life. She believes we can learn many valuable things by looking at our own natural form and those of other species, and that we can communicate more fundamentally with animals if they see our natural form. She suggests we go out and study nature instead of watching television.
Many of Webb’s earliest actions were to promote environmental awareness. In 1998 she became involved in Critical Mass, an international pro-bicycle movement that takes riders to the streets en masse once a month. She began participating in these events topfree, and continues to advocate bicycling as a primary mode of transportation.
In the summer of 1999, Webb attempted another form of direct action in Eugene. Her goal was to address the environmental problem of reliance on automobiles and to calm the traffic flow in the vicinity. She moved some construction barricades out into the street and ran around the area in a bright orange safety vest, meeting cars head on and delivering messages to the drivers.
An action such as this may have had, at best, limited success in changing the world for the better, but it came across as thoughtful and genuine. People seeing this street theater might have chuckled at the time, then later given the issues she raised some thought. Unfortunately, the police response was pepper spray and jail time, the first of several negative responses to her actions from law enforcement.
More ominously, authorities have responded to her activist efforts by forcing Webb to undergo psychiatric evaluation on at least two occasions. According to Webb, her psychiatrists and case workers have told her that while she does have a minor bipolar condition, it is unrelated to her behavior involving nudity.
During Seattle’s huge anti-World Trade Organization protest in November 1999, Webb was detained and questioned by the FBI. Later, during the protest’s aftermath, she was stopped for jaywalking and charged with providing false information to a police officer for failing to immediately provide them with her name. She spent three days in jail, joining dozens of other women booked as “Jane WTO.” Eventually she was released without charge.
Webb’s other activities have included involvement in Buy Nothing Day street theater events and participation in anti-Gulf War protests in Portland. She participated in protests against police brutality, a rally for the freedom of Mumia Abu-Jamal and the Carnival Against Capital in Eugene.
Her style is to provoke people by engaging them directly. She likes to pass out her own hand-drawn freeform literature on the street and in random places like bookstores and cafés.
It is this type of engagement that separates her from streakers. The joy that she experiences from being nude in public is more educational and political and goes further than any sudden, short-lived burst of freedom. She likes the idea of the clothed and unclothed being able to coexist happily.
Webb feels comfortable delivering her message despite the strong association sometimes made between the unclothed body and sexuality. Webb is not opposed to sexuality openly expressed. She sees it as a healthy aspect of a sexual being. But, she argues, the issue of sexuality should be separated from that of nudity.
“There is nothing inherently sexual about being without clothes,” she says. “To say [there is] presents an extremely limited view on the function of our bodies, our selves.” Webb believes it is repressive to limit the exposure of our bodies to try to control the expression of sexuality. She thinks that clothing is merely cumbersome for any number of normal non-sexual activities.
Her first experiences with public nudity included streaking during her college years, going to clothing-optional places in and near Portland, and being naked with friends. But aside from some of those activities, all her public actions have been solo.
In the summer of 2000, Webb went without clothes in a Portland park water fountain. A crowd gathered, and when the police came they covered her and dragged her from the park. Authorities threatened to place her on “mental hold,” but she was released after an hour or so at the station, charged with violation of park rules.
She later ran into some people who had witnessed the incident and began a discussion about it. One woman commented that “nudity is all right, but not around children.” Upon further questioning, the woman admitted that what she objected to was having to explain to her child “why the police were taking the naked lady away.”
Police response to Webb’s nude appearances has been mixed. She tells of one nude bike ride that was particularly unappreciated by Portland’s finest. “The day before the eve of the millennium I was up on Alberta Street and I had this urge for a life-affirming experience,” she says. “So I stripped, got on this little silver BMX and rode down the hill towards my house, wielding a gray plastic sword that I had for some reason.
“Police were on high alert because of New Year’s Eve. A motorcycle officer followed me and cut me off, and no less than four, possibly five, squad cars responded to the scene. My initial reaction was to yell for help, to attract the attention of passersby. ‘Help! I’m just trying to go home! This guy’s harassing me!’ This response was enough to piss the police off.
“I volunteered to put my clothes on, but they wouldn’t let me. I was handcuffed and left lying on my back on the sidewalk, naked, while the group of male officers conferenced in a sort of gloating manner.
“They at first made it evident that they intended to take me in, but I talked my way out of it. I was wrapped in an emergency blanket and driven home, but it was actually a slightly traumatic experience.”
Some law enforcement officials seem more tolerant. Even in Portland, Webb’s right to topfreedom is usually upheld as long as the police believe she is avoiding bringing unnecessary attention to herself. In Eugene, she has been able to walk right past the police station without a shirt and no one says a word.
On another occasion, late last October, Webb spent half a day running around Eugene nude on bicycle trails, talking to people, leafleting. At the end of the day a squad car drove by and one of the officers rolled down the window to speak to her. “Do you know how many calls we’ve gotten about you today?” he laughed.
Much of Webb’s notoriety has come from her most recent nude court appearance, which stems from an arrest for bicycling without clothing in the city of Bend last July 18.
“I disrobed before entering the courtroom with the intention of receiving a fair trial,” she says. “My right to a fair trial has been denied, as the holding of nakedness as unacceptable in the court prior to the admission of evidence constitutes prejudgment concerning the issue at hand.”
Webb was charged with contempt of court for her naked appearance, a charge that she will appeal. Judge Barbara Haslinger placed her on supervised probation for a year, ordered a psychiatric evaluation, and made it a condition of probation that she appear at future court proceedings “appropriately dressed.”
“If I am pushed into clothing for the sake of a trial, this aids the prosecution in its designation of my ‘appearing naked’ as a deed in itself, an act with intent, when it’s not an act; it’s simply what I am, what we all are,” Webb says. “The judge has ordered that I appear appropriately dressed in court or face jail time. I was appropriately dressed for the occasion the first time!” As of this writing, Webb is weighing whether or not she will appear naked in court a second time.
While Webb is optimistic about the future and thankful for the support she’s received, she wishes that her actions would motivate others to become involved themselves. With the exception of one naked man riding his bike, she has never encountered anyone else openly expressing themselves by going nude in public.
So how might naturists help? There are many ways to show support for Webb and for non-sexual public nudity. Vincent Bethell, for example, has called for a mass nude protest to take place around Webb’s upcoming court date. Webb herself is seeking supporters to come to Bend to show support in the courtroom for “her existence in an unclothed state upon a bicycle.”
At this writing, Webb’s January trial date had been changed at the request of the prosecutor. The new trial date is set for May 2 at 9:30 a.m., in the Deschutes County Courthouse in Bend.
Anyone interested in planning or getting involved in nude protests globally can send a message to email@example.com in order, as Webb urges, to “make it happen!”
Cover of Nude and Natural Vol 21.3, Spring 2002.