Ken Thomas is fed up with lewd behavior on the county’s beaches, and he wants to do something about it.
Thomas is a nudist and founder of The Suncoast Naturists, an incorporated company with about 80 members from Tampa to Fort Myers.
“(Lewd behavior) reflects poorly on us,” said Thomas, who believes that sunning in the nude on a public beach is not lewd.
Recent area arrests have focused media attention on improper sexual activity on county beaches.
In September, a man was charged for exposing himself to women at Siesta Key beach-access points.
Two months later, six men were arrested for illegal sexual activity near Venice’s Caspersen Beach.
Thomas said he’s tired of nudists being lumped in with those arrested for sex crimes. He doesn’t believe what he’s doing is illegal, but the Sheriff’s Office disagrees (see box Page 2A).
“The most common misconception is that we’re exhibitionists,” he said. “We’re not flashy, loud or boisterous. Nobody should feel threatened.”
He doesn’t consider nudists part of the problem, saying they have a strict code of conduct that prohibits sexual activity at their functions.
“We tell people to treat others like you’d treat your parents,” Thomas said.
Caspersen Beach is known for nudists on its less populated south side, but it and parts of Lido Beach are infamous for illegal sexual activity.
The Suncoast Naturists say they want to help the Sheriff’s Office rid beaches of that problem.
To do so, Thomas has asked Sarasota County if it would set aside a portion of a county beach as clothing-optional.
First, nudists would have an official place to gather on a county beach. And, second, they would create a type of court-watch program.
Residents fed up with drug dealers taking over their neighborhoods originally created the court-watch system. Homeowners call police about the criminals, then follow them through the justice system, showing up in the courtroom when they are charged and sentenced.
The Suncoast Naturists propose doing the same thing for sex crimes.
“If a tourist sees someone in a thong and says it’s inappropriate, an officer has to respond,” said Thomas.
“But the complainant usually does not want to take the time to be a witness in court, and the case gets dropped.”
Thomas said his group wants to maintain dignity on the beach, so its members would not only report incidents to the Sheriff’s Office, they would also serve as witnesses in court.
“We could patrol the beach on a daily basis,” Thomas said. “You might laugh at this, but we would provide a healthier, more wholesome atmosphere.”
Thomas approached Commissioner Jon Thaxton about his proposal. Thaxton’s response was not what he had hoped.
“I’m all for the (court-watch) program,” the commissioner said. “I would encourage them to do that … with their clothes on.”
Pursuing such a plan is not what Thaxton wants to do right now.
“I’ve got to worry about people getting into jobs, instead of out of their clothes,” he said.
Asked his reasons for becoming a nudist, Ken Thomas, founder of The Suncoast Naturists, said it’s so he can see the real person with whom he’s interacting.
“When I interact with people without clothes, I don’t have to deal with anything other than the real person,” he said. “I don’t have to deal with the type of car they drive or expensive clothes they wear. It’s just them.”
Nudists and the Law
The Suncoast Naturists maintain that lying on a beach nude is not a violation of the law. Group founder Ken Thomas believes that an officer cannot arrest, ticket or ask a nude sunbather to put his clothes on, unless there’s been a complaint from the public.
Sarasota County does not have an ordinance against public nudity. It relies on state statute 800.03, which states:
“It is unlawful to expose or exhibit one’s sexual organs in public or on the private premises of another, or so near thereto as to be seen from such private premises, in a vulgar or indecent manner, or to be naked in public except in any place provided or set apart for that purpose.”
The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office believes that wording is clear. Spokeswoman Wendy Rose said anyone who is exposing their sexual organs can be issued a citation, without a complaint from the public.
In most cases, though, a deputy will exercise his judgment, Rose said, and could just ask that person to cover up himself.
However, a Florida circuit court ruling on the 1996 arrest of a topless woman in the Osceola National Forest said that juries hearing such cases have to consider whether the exposure “was in a vulgar, indecent, lewd or lascivious manner. Proof of mere nudity or exposure is not sufficient to sustain a conviction.”
Contact Robin Roy at [email protected]