Statement on the Controversy at the Anarchist Congress in Berlin

On Sunday, April 12, the Anarchist Congress in Berlin was disbanded early. The organizers felt they could no longer ensure an antisexist environment. The discussions that followed often reduced the problem to a small group of people taking off their clothes. Accordingly, many commentators thought it their right to mock "prude anarchists" and "hysterical women". This completely disregards what actually happened. To reduce the conflict to an argument about nakedness is ludicrous. The following comments hope to contribute to a little more clarity.

To begin with: Personally, I have no problem whatsoever if people wanna be naked, whether it is at an anarchist congress, a city beach or on Berlin's shopping streets. People can also have consensual sex with as many partners as they want, and I have no objections to the graphic depiction of sexual activities, whether we call this porn or not. Furthermore, the group Fuck For Forest does not interest me very much and I feel no desire to download their website and inspect its contents. In other words, the following is no general discussion of nakedness, polyamory, porn, or Fuck For Forest. All I wanna talk about is what I experienced at the anarchist congress.

The conflict around Fuck For Forest started on Saturday night in connection with an "Anarchy and Sex" workshop. I was only there for the beginning, mainly because I felt that the self-presentation of Fuck For Forest (whose members obviously wanted to use the occasion to propagate their project) was extremely shallow. A man – with a women at his side who did not say anything and whose role wasn't very clear – hailed the liberating wonders of nakedness, public sex and free love as if the late 1960s had just been invented. It seemed as if the last thirty years had been bereft of radical experiments and critical reflections based on these beliefs. I was surprised that about two thirds of the audience applauded (and partly cheered) the vanity displayed on stage – especially since the speaker's apparent conviction of his enlightenment and liberation seemed offensive to any anarchist sensitivities. Not to even mention the clearly heteronormative dimensions of the presentation. But well. At that point I simply thought that the whole thing was kind of weird – and left.

This means that I missed the incident that was mainly responsible for the ensuing arguments, and have to rely on the reports from comrades I trust. According to these, at one point the handful of Fuck For Forest activists started to undress. Consequently, some women voiced discomfort about being near the naked Fuck For Forest men. I do not know how this was phrased and expressed exactly and it is certainly of some significance. However, everyone seems to agree that one comment was met by a Fuck For Forest man asking whether the woman was "one of those hardcore lesbians". When I first heard this, my immediate reaction was to wonder why the guy wasn't thrown out right away. (I do understand that it is often difficult to handle behavior that is as idiotic as it is unexpected, and I would have probably not taken the initiative either – but this was my first thought.) The reason was that this clearly crossed the line of what is acceptable in a space of solidarity and mutual respect and what is not.

The claim that it poses a contradiction to kick people out of an anarchist space because anarchy means to do what you want is nonsense. Anarchy can only work if the notion of individual freedom is accompanied by the notion of individual responsibility. Where the latter is missing, "individual freedom" only becomes a pretext for bourgeois egoism, capitalist greed or – as in this case – disrespectful and self-centered conduct. That was the problem – not nakedness.

On a side note: In San Francisco there is a group of politically radical nudists. They appear on Pride events as well as on anti-war protests or at the anarchist bookfair. I never experienced this to be a problem. The reason seems that the politics of the group are clear and that they act respectfully towards other comrades. I would think (and wish!) that there would have been space for such a group at the anarchist congress in Berlin as well. Even if their nakedness had made some people feel uncomfortable (I cannot tell) I would assume that a solution could have been found on the basis of respectful common discussion.

The Fuck For Forest people had no interest in any such discussion. It never seemed as if they had come to an anarchist event as comrades to begin with. They did not seem interested in the event's political dimensions or in reflections on anarchy and anarchism. At least on Sunday they came – and this is an original quote I overheard – "to show this scene how stupid it is". It seems self-explanatory that finding agreeable solutions is next to impossible on such grounds. I myself witnessed one of the organizers suggesting that the Fuck For Forest crew could be naked in a certain part of the area but at a distance to the workshops. The Fuck For Forest folks didn't even consider this.

In this context it is important to note that being naked does indeed not equal being naked. I read online commentaries in which people thought they could ridicule an article in which the author stated that "the problem was not that they [Fuck For Forest] were naked, the problem was how they were naked". There is no reason to ridicule anything here. In regard to what happened at the congress, this statement is certainly apt. To illustrate that nakedness can have very different connotations it should suffice to compare a naked sunbath on your balcony to exposing yourself in a public elevator. These are extremes of course but these extremes demonstrate the wide range of possible meanings of nakedness in our society.

As I said, I wasn't present when things came to a head on Saturday night. However, the impression I got from the Fuck For Forest self-presentation was enough to link their ostentatious nakedness to sentiments that have no place at egalitarian events: self-righteousness ("We are liberated – you are repressed!"), aggressiveness ("If you have a problem with that, that's YOUR problem!") and sexual importunity (after all the self-presentation ended with the liberated male expressing his hopes to find a "nice girl" in the audience). It seems more than understandable that some women weren't keen on having naked Fuck For Forest men strutting next to them.

To rephrase a little more academically: The context in which the Fuck For Forest folks were naked cannot be separated from the heteronormative reality in which we live: the crossroads of gender relations, physical intimacy and sexuality can not only evoke discomfort but also fear and trauma. This seems self-evident. "Being naked" (as such) is not the issue.

However, we must not focus on intellectual understanding alone. It is not enough to only show solidarity with people who find themselves in an uncomfortable situation – or even feel threatened – if their reactions are intellectually comprehensible to us. In other words, even those who did not immediately understand the concerns expressed by women at the workshop had the responsibility to listen and to try to get a grasp on the situation. This is what solidarity among comrades means. Everything else is the projection of our own norms onto others – this has little to do with anarchism.

The fact that in the midst of a situation as emotionally loaded as the one on Saturday it was predominantly men who disputed the perceptions of women is yet another – very unfortunate – chapter. Essentially, one need (to be naked) was ranked higher than another (not wanting to be confronted with naked Fuck For Forest men under the given circumstances). The explanation that the former stands for liberation and progressiveness while the latter represents chastity and conservatism is way too simple. It is plainly wrong to only equate discomfort with nakedness with "bourgeois sexual repression" and "Christian morality". There exists a concept of modesty in all cultures and the covering of genitals is an almost universal phenomenon. This does not mean that a liberated society should not provide a space for those who want to be naked as often as possible – of course it should. But it means that certain restrictions to an unconditional "right to nakedness" are not merely the result of bourgeois culture and Christian tradition; such restrictions have been socially imposed by basically all societies. This brings us back to the trivial observation that being naked is okay at certain times – and not at others.

I am still of the opinion that the conflict at the congress could have been resolved if everyone had sat down and discussed the matter in proper spirit and with good will. However, instead of good will the Fuck For Forest crew only had sexist comments to offer. That was the real problem – not the nakedness.

At the bottom of it all might of course lie the fact that the Fuck For Forest activists' desperate need to be naked at the Berlin Anarchist Congress seems questionable. As stated above, the Fuck For Forest crew did not seem particularly interested in the congress itself. Besides, they could have spent a naked weekend in many places in Berlin with considerably less trouble. Their presence seemed mainly motivated by narcissism and the need to draw attention appeared much stronger than the need to be naked right there and right then. This is just another reason why the need for a comfort zone that some women voiced at the workshop should have weighed much more.

It is difficult to say what should have been done differently. Obviously, no one was prepared for what happened. Had the group been kicked out after the sexist remarks on Saturday night, damage control would have been possible. But this didn't happen. The responsibility lies with the collective and not with certain individuals. It was no one's specific task to act as an anarchist bouncer.

On Sunday I think the problems could have only been avoided if the group had strictly been refused access to the site – based on Saturday's offensive remarks, not on the nakedness. Again, this didn't happen. As soon as the group sat down naked, the problem seemed once more reduced to "throwing naked people out of an anarchist congress", which sounds as shitty as it looks. I think this was the point when Fuck For Forest actually succeeded in breaking up the congress. I cannot comment on the degree of responsibility that lies with those who openly supported them because I didn't stick around. The only thing that made sense to me at this point was not to give Fuck For Forest the attention it was obviously craving, and so I went to attend a talk.

Given the ever diminishing possibilities to interfere, I understand the decision of the organizers to end the congress early. Autonomous spaces depend on certain standards of communication. When these are categorically denied, there is no basis for collective sharing and experiencing.

The whole story made a sad end to an otherwise in many ways uplifting congress. What remains important is that this end doesn't enter the annals of history as a fairy tale about a horde of prudish anarchists threatening to chase innocent naked elves from a leafy garden.

Gabriel Kuhn
(April 2009)