Earlier this week, this post at Eschaton about a girl being prosecuted for “sexting” made me recall an event that used to take place every year at this time – the Ann Arbor Naked Mile.
As a freshman at the University of Michigan in 1993-94, my roommate was a junior on the crew team. According to his version of events, the crew team started the Naked Mile in the late 80s by streaking across campus at midnight after the last night of class. In the years following, the event grew significantly larger. Throughout the school year, my roommate tried convincing everyone in our hall to run with him. I had a pretty strong anti-authoritarian streak in me by then, but it still took a little bit of coaxing to get me on board.
On the night of the event, there were four of us assembled in our room downing shots (my roommate was over 21 by then, so that was only partially against dorm rules) and drinking Mountain Dews. The route of the Naked Mile went across campus from east to west, basically taking us back to our dorms. Despite it only being in the 40s, I headed across campus wearing only a pair of soccer shorts and sneakers. When I got to the starting area, though, much of the nervousness about doing this was going away. There were hundreds of people there milling about naked, waiting for midnight. It was like a giant co-ed locker room outside in the cold. I took off my shorts and waited for everyone to start running.
The weird thing about the run is that you don’t get to do it as a herd. Because of the massive amounts of people who were now showing up for the event, the runners end up doing much of the race in a single-file line through the crowd on the main part of campus. The run began somewhat uneventfully at first, but as we approached the arch that separates the shops on South University from the campus diag, the route got blocked by the crowd. My roommate, cool as a fucking cucumber, yells out “anybody got a cigarette!” Someone in the crowd hands him a cigarette. He yells out “anybody got a light!” An outstretched hand held a lighter. He smoked it as we all stood around waiting for the path to clear.
We weren’t at the very end of the runners, but we were pretty close. My roommate’s smoke break separated us from the rest of the runners enough so that people in the crowd ahead thought that the run was over. As we finally made our way through the arch and into the diag, we were even more enmeshed in the crowd. By the time we got across the diag to State Street, we were way off course. In order to get to where we knew the end point was, we decided to cut through a small landscaped area just across State Street. After we jumped in, though, we realized that the ground inside that area was lower than the sidewalk we’d just jumped from. After we’d climbed up through a tall hedge to get back onto the sidewalk, I still vividly remember hearing my friend behind me saying, “Damn, I think I scratched my scrotum.” Still makes me laugh to this day.
When we arrived at the Cube sculpture where the “Mile” (it’s not even close to an actual mile) ends, we met up with some of the clothed members of our co-ed hall. And despite the fact that the run was over and I was hanging out with the girls from the room next door, I didn’t even feel the need to get dressed again. It’s something that you’d never expect, but once you’re naked in public with a good excuse, you can begin to feel very comfortable with your nakedness very quickly.
I wound up running it all four years I was in Ann Arbor, but I never had as much fun as I did that first year. In subsequent years, I began to notice the things that would eventually bring an end to the city’s and the University’s tolerance of the event. The major problem was that despite there being about 8 to 10 male runners for every female one, the event brought out the perverts in full force. Even in that first year, the size of the crowds amazed me. Then, with each year, the amount of video cameras just multiplied. One year (I believe my junior year), I let my drunkenness get the best of me and got thrown to the ground by a man whose very expensive video camera I’d just broken.
In my senior year run, some runners around me ran while also chanting “PER-VERTS” to the assembled gawkers. Unfortunately, gawking wasn’t the only thing going on. My girlfriend ran with me that year and said that she nearly got groped by some guys along the way. Several other girls who ran said the same thing, and some had actually been grabbed and pulled to the ground. We tried to find a police officer (Ann Arbor police tolerated the event and even did crowd control), but couldn’t find one interested in helping. Within a few years after that, the University tried to shut the whole event down.
I was thinking back on this history when I read the original post above, where a young girl who’d taken revealing pictures of herself with her phone found herself in a courtroom where a bunch of old men were planning to review the evidence and potentially punish her for doing so. On the one hand, I recognize the desire to keep teenage girls from doing this, as many of them have no fucking clue how populated this country is with sexually repressed and psychologically disturbed individuals who might do them harm. On the other hand, though, attempting to charge them with a crime is arguably the dumbest possible way to dissuade them from doing so. As the girl in the article realized, the biggest punishment that could occur is for creepy old men to see her naked.
It’s been tempting to conclude that the overeager prosecutor in this case, George Skumanick Jr., is focusing on these cases simply because of his own perverted desire to see revealing pictures of teenage girls. It’s certainly possible. But it’s also possible that he’s just another product of a justice system that far too often sees its role as moral nanny, and refuses to acknowledge the dangers of taking a heavy handed approach to getting teens not to make risky personal choices. It’s also kind of interesting that this case is happening so close to where the recent scandal over funneling young people to jail for money took place.
Another major concern here is that unless we clearly push back against the idea that anyone who doesn’t guard their own nakedness with sufficient zeal as a child pornographer, we’ll continue to expand the ranks of “sex offenders” beyond the point where it makes sense. The term sex offender should refer to actual dangerous people, who have victimized other people in a sexual way (like the perverts who grabbed and assaulted female runners at the Naked Mile). When we start trying to label people as sex offenders who make moral choices that sexually repressed members of our justice system are offended by, we completely undermine the purpose of having that distinction in the first place.
A few years after the Naked Mile was shut down, they made an American Pie movie that was based on the tradition. Not surprisingly, it was the same kind of idiotic overly-sexualized view of the event that wound up bringing hundreds of perverts out of the woodwork to line the streets of Ann Arbor every April. Back in the early-to-mid 90s, pictures posted from the Naked Mile on University of Michigan student websites were some of the first instances of web porn out there (which probably didn’t stay up for very long). On today’s internet, it probably wouldn’t even pass for porn, just blurry pictures of naked people running.
Today, the trend of “sexting” is the new thing, and a lot of kids simply haven’t been smart enough to realize that when they send a photo to their friends, it’s a short journey to the internet where the whole world can see it. As cases like that become more and more common, more and more kids will be smarter about not doing it. It doesn’t require that law enforcement officials spy on our teenagers’ phone traffic. It doesn’t require that District Attorneys threaten them with a “sex offender” tag that would haunt them their whole lives. It just requires explaining that there are a lot of freaking weirdos out there and expecting kids to be smarter.