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Streaking, the practice of running naked through a public gathering, has been around for many years, but it attained full-fledged craze status only in the 1970s when, it seemed, all manner of strange behavior was soaring into public consciousness. Some historians have tagged Lady Godiva as the world's first streaker, but she rode—not ran—while deliberately concealing her nudity under her long, flowing hair. Not to be confused with simple nudism, streaking is an inherently exhibitionist act and thus the perfect public gesture for an exhibitionist age.

The spring of 1974 represented the high moment of modern streaking. In March of that year, the University of Missouri endured a mass streaking by more than 600 students. The nude collegians paraded past the campus's Ionic columns as a crowd estimated at 1,500 watched and cheered. In April, hayseed comedian Ray Stevens's single "The Streak" rocketed to number one on the pop charts. "He ain't rude. He ain't rude. He's just in the mood to run in the nude," crooned Stevens of the eponymous nudist. Full national exposure came that same month. During the broadcast of the Academy Awards ceremony, streaker Robert Opal shocked the crowd of Hollywood swells by letting it fly during David Niven's introduction of Elizabeth Taylor. "The only way he could get a laugh was by showing his shortcomings," quipped an unruffled Niven. Undeterred, the 33-year-old streaker managed to extract his full fifteen minutes of fame from the situation. As a result of the Oscar publicity, he pursued a brief career as a stand-up comic and was hired as a "guest streaker" for Hollywood parties. When the streaking craze died down, Opal moved to San Francisco, where he was found murdered in 1979.

Not surprisingly, academics and opinion writers tried to explain the streaking craze. In 1974, a psychology professor at the University of South Carolina did one of the first studies on the phenomenon. After much research, he concluded that the average male streaker was "a tall Protestant male weighing 170 pounds with a B grade average [who] dated regularly, came from a town with a population less than 50,000 and a family where the father is a business or professional man and the mother is a housewife." Female streakers, the study found, "tended to be small, 5 feet 3 inches and 117 pounds."

Others tried a more sociological approach. At the low end, streaking was dismissed as little more than an outrageous fad on the order of swallowing goldfish or packing phone booths. At the high end, it was touted as a lifestyle choice, a non-violent form of protest, and even a type of therapy. E. Paul Bindrim, the so-called "father of nude psychotherapy," coached more than 3000 people through their first experience of public nudity. Explaining his philosophy to the Los Angeles Times, Bindrim declared: "Clothing is kind of a mask. So there are reasons to think if you remove clothing, you get a freer atmosphere where people would talk more openly."

When streaking became a national craze, Bindrim wrote an oped piece for the Los Angeles Times in which he commented more specifically on the trend: "Streaking is healthy, and I predict that it is here to stay," he wrote. "It may change form, but its essential ingredient, the tacit sanctioning of public nudity, will remain.… Running is the only aspect of streaking that will die out." Belying Bindrim's prediction, scampering in the nude enjoyed something of a revival in the 1990's. It even briefly gained front-page status again when it invaded the pristine world of lawn tennis. In 1996, Melissa Johnson, a 23-year-old London student, streaked across Centre Court moments before the men's Wimbledon final. The topless woman, wearing only a tiny maid's apron, pranced momentarily in front of finalists Richard Krajicek and MaliVai Washington as they posed near the net for photographs. She was quickly escorted off the court by two policemen as both players and most of the 14,000 fans broke into laughter.

—Robert E. Schnakenberg

Further Reading:

Pleasant, George. The Joy of Streaking. New York, Ballantine, 1974.