If you had the misfortune to be caught driving in Center City on Aug. 25, you probably had to deal with the traffic congestion created by hordes of scantily clad cyclists, rollerbladers, and skateboarders. I am of course talking about the fifth Annual Philly Naked Bike Ride.
The ride is one of the greatest public spectacles in Philadelphia culture. A recurring event since 2009, the bike ride exists to raise awareness for two major causes. The first – in no particular order – is to promote eco-friendly transit, mainly through bicycling, but their message really encompasses any mode of transport that doesn’t produce pollution. The second is to advance positive body image and bodily health messages in a world that perpetuates aggressively high standards of personal beauty and declining standards in health and fitness. Or, to put it bluntly, “less gas, more ass.”
The PNBR accomplishes both of these goals by sending entirely nude bicyclists of all genders on a harrowing journey through five Philadelphia neighborhoods. Data on the ride is intentionally kept scarce, but in 2012, roughly 2,600 riders – many of them Temple students – participated.
Many people think a sea of exposed humanity cavorting around and clogging traffic is an offensive sight. Philadelphia Magazine blogger Joel Mathis even went so far as to claim that the event contains enough nudity to “kill your libido dead.” The ride isn’t exactly permitted by the city code either.
According to Chapter 10-1102 of Title 10 of the Code of General Ordinances of the City of Philadelphia, the “lewd exhibition of the genitals” is defined as obscene. Now, let’s multiply that by about a few hundred people on a single afternoon and throw in the disruption of street traffic along many major thoroughfares in Center City. It doesn’t get much lewder than this.
But, due to the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in the case of Miller v. California, all instances of alleged obscenity must pass three qualifications to actually be regarded in court as obscene. Specifically, the third and final rule can be applied to save the Philly Naked Bike Ride from the jaws of the city judiciary: “The work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”
It is this third rule that validates the bike ride as a protected form of free speech under the First Amendment. Also, because the bike ride advocates for greater support and participation in green transit and for improving the bike infrastructure of the city, it can have real political impact.
For many years, the city of Philadelphia has been adapting its transit systems to become more bike-friendly. Many arterial streets, like 12thStreet, 13th Street, Pine Street, have had their lanes redrawn to include bicycle lanes. Many SEPTA buses now come with bike racks for commuters who need a little extra help getting to work. These are all political issues at heart, in that they had to be approved by city government to come to fruition.
Philadelphia’s bike community needs to shore up support, and what better way to bring their cause to light than to do it en masse, and in the buff? You can’t exactly ignore the ride when it passes you in the street. In fact, thousands of onlookers responded not with jeers, but with iPhones and various other recording devices to preserve this day for uhh… posterity?
Genitals exist, everyone possesses them, we might as well not waste time and energy denying it. The demonstrators are not having sex in public, and moreover I don’t believe there to be a very sexual overtone to the event at all and I wholeheartedly believe that the ride does a great job of drumming up support for an otherwise stale topic.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but greener modes of transit don’t exactly sound like titillating conversation to me.
Luke Harrington can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.