The sad passing of the naked exhibitionist: Keith Elliott charts the rise and demise of the streakers

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WHO remembers streakers? Twenty years ago, a young window-dresser from Kingston upon Thames called Sally Cooper streaked across Kingston bridge with four friends. Her streak, and the arrest that followed, won her brief media fame. It also earned her a bite on the bottom from an eager police dog. But, apart from the occasional sports enthusiast, streakers have now disappeared.

Back in the Seventies, though, such was the vogue for streaking that learned articles appeared on the subject. The Listener, Economist, Observer and New Society all had their say.

The history of streaking was solemnly plotted from the late Middle Ages onwards. Adamites in Bohemia protested against church corruption in 1419. Quakers in 17th- century England, 'spirit wrestlers' in 18th-century Russia and 'sons of freedom' in 19th-century Canada were all cited as forerunners.

Some might think that Lady Godiva was the first streaker. But quite aside from the historical doubts about the story - the ride through Coventry was ascribed to her 200 years after the 11th-century event - she did not actually streak. A streaker wants to be seen; she did not. Her hair covered most of her and she asked all the men to stay indoors; their womenfolk probably enforced this.

Another possible streaker from earlier days was a certain Solomon Eccles, who stood nude in London's square mile in the 17th century and cried 'Woe unto the bloody city'. Perhaps some Lloyd's names might be tempted to follow his example.

Honest nudism apart, hypocrisy has always required there to be an excuse, however transparent, for displays of nudity. Artists have ceaselessly painted Venus; Caravaggio and Derek Jarman found 'religious' reasons to paint or film figures which they found exciting.

Streaking, like the painting of nudes, found its excuse in religion. Naked dancing was linked with hymn-singing. The Quakers were demonstrating the 'naked truth of the Gospel'.

But all that was then; this is now - or rather not any longer, since streakers rarely strike any more. Religious nudity worked only if society condemned it. A society that permits the staging of the nude show Oh Calcutta] and allows a nudist beach not too far from a city centre removes the point about breaking the rules.

There had to be other reasons, therefore, for modern streaking. There were those who did it for a bet, for a dare, or, in the case of Sally Cooper and later Erica Roe (1982), as a route to a lucrative magazine photo-set. If you are not sure of making it by looks alone, a little publicity might just tip the scales. To be interviewed by a Sunday magazine must have seemed the pinnacle of respectability. Perhaps in 1974 the Sixties had not really ended and the serious part of society still thought it needed street-cred. If Harold Wilson was photographed with the Beatles, then the Observer could interview Sally, the window-dresser who dreamed of fame.

The thread that joins the religious streakers of the past with the phenomenon of the Seventies was protest. A more restrained form, called mooning, had been around for some time. This was a mainly female practice of displaying the bottom and took place in certain American universities.

The protest was against the freedom which male students enjoyed to come and go as they pleased, whereas the women were locked in 'for their own safety'. To be effective, the mooning had to take place when men were known to be watching. Another purpose of mooning, employed by men and women alike, was to display contempt to somebody who had offended them. This gesture has been used in 'primitive' societies, as well as sophisticated ones.

The advantage of streaking as a form of protest is that it is non-violent and does no damage. The laws it notionally breaks are those against vagrancy and decency. Yet the streakers are hardly vagrants, and decency is difficult to define. There is a world of difference between the middle-aged, raincoated flasher and high-spirited young men or women whose bodies are not unpleasing.

Nudists, however, did not think much of streaking in Seventies America. One nudist community in Florida threatened to demonstrate its disapproval by marching through the neighbouring town fully clad . . . .

No doubt streaking is a form of exhibitionism, for which splendid opportunities exist today at raves and parties. It is a harmless and safe occupation, since the very crowdedness of the venue is a form of protection. But the young seem to have stopped protesting and no cause today seems worth streaking for. Even American academics no longer feel obliged to say, as one did 20 years ago, that 'the students are trying to tell us something about themselves. Such stark creativity should command our silent awe.' Does anyone out there in the remaining summer days of 1994 feel like being creatively starkers?

(Photograph omitted)

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