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Is the practice of open nudity deviant?

Sociologists use the term deviance to refer to any behavior that violates social norms, beliefs held by the majority in a society about how members should behave in a given context. Deviance exists in all societies.

Viloation of established social norms is deemed deviant behavior.
By Rcragun (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

When sociologists use the term deviance it does not mean they necessarily see an act as bad or wrong but only that the majority in a society judges the act negatively and views it with disapproval, condemnation or hostility.

As sociologist Howard S. Becker observed, it is not the act itself but the reactions to the act that makes it deviant (Henslin, 1999:192).

Deviance is a label used by the dominant group, the majority in a society, to maintain the power, control, and position of a dominant group. Thus labeling is a form of social control by which members of a society attempt to influence each other's behavior.

Deviance is relative in that behavior considered deviant in one society may not be in another. As an example, in North American culture and society, public nudity is largely considered deviant while it other societies it is not.

[LEARN MORE: Petition for more clothing optional access to federally-managed park lands, forests and beaches]

The majority in this society view public nudity as so inappropriate the prohibition against it has in most states been codified into written law. A person violating this particular social norm then places himself at risk not only of disapproval and condemnation but also potential criminal prosecution.

While public nudity in the public square is unlawful and subject to sanction, public nudity within the confines of a nudist club or resort or a designated clothing optional area isn't. Still it is generally considered deviant behavior by majority society. In other words majority society who holds the power to set and enforce social norms doesn't condone public nudity even in those circumstances but merely tolerates it.

Deviance is generally considered negative since society is judgmental and views behavior deemed deviant as improper and anti-social. No one likes to be labeled deviant even when they don't agree with a social norm and don't view their behavior as wrong.

[More from Dallas Nudist Culture: Barriers to development of a nudist social movement]

Since nudists/naturists see nudity as natural and normal for human beings, they reject the notion that social nudity is immoral, indecent or inappropriate and may be offended that larger society deems them deviant. Yet consider this comment appended to a web article that discussed public nudity, "Noncomformity/Nudity = mental illness. Conformity/Shame = mental health"

It must be remembered of course that it isn't the act but the reactions to it that make it deviant. Clearly the person who made the above comment rejects the nudist/naturist perspective on nudity. It actually boggles the mind that in modern times a person would hold the feeling that shame over nudity is evidence of mental health. Especially so when psychologists say that we are not born with a shame of nudity but instead we learn it, conditioned from childhood to believe that it is a vital behavioral code we must adopt if we are to operate in human society.

[Have you signed the clothing optional access petition?]

While society at large may deem nudists/naturists deviant, deviance and willingness by people to reject conformity with absurd artificial social constructs is a healthy and positive part of society and culture. The rejection of the culture of body shame by being openly nude is an example of what sociologists term functional deviance.

A few positive things that functional deviance accomplishes include;

  • It helps to clarifies moral boundaries and illuminates needed change,
  • It encourages social change by offering an alternative,
  • Deviant acts as rebellions against group norms provide a means through which individuality and identity can be asserted.

Were it not for the willingness of some members of society to rebel against restrictive social norms that cannot be logically or rationally defended, things would be unlikely to change. When considered deviant by many in society, nudists and naturists are in good company.

In the 1950s and 1960s, civil rights activists were considered deviants. In the 1980s and 1990s, women's rights advocates were considered deviants. In 1967, the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village was routinely raided by police officers trying to clean up the neighborhood of "sexual deviants" and until 1973 homosexuality was on the list of mental illnesses promulgated by the American Psychiatric Association (PBS, 2013).

Today it is almost difficult to imagine that in the history of a nation that has almost from inception championed the idea of "freedom and justice for all" that there have been times when large segments of its society were disenfranchised and the idea of extending equal rights to all was derided as deviant. But now most embrace equality for all irrespective of race, sex or sexual identification without even thinking about it. Those changes came about because some were willing to deviate from established social norms and to bear the deviant label because they believed the cause was important enough.

Social change comes about slowly, sometimes painfully so, but functional deviance is an important part of achieving it. Those who hold the power in society to set social norms, the majority, do not relinquish power and control easily. Like other groups and subcultures nudists and naturists must continue to deviate from the established social norms that dictate standards of decency and modesty until minds are changed. Some minds will never be changed but that isn't necessary. Only the minds of most must be changed for open nudity to be seen as normal rather than deviant.


Henslin, James M. Sociology : A Down-to-earth Approach - 4th Ed. Boston: MA Allyn and Bacon, 1999. Print.

"American Experience: TV's Most-watched History Series." PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 06 Jan. 2014.


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PETITION UPDATE: When this article went to publication, 218 awesome people had signed the petition asking policy makers in Washington to designate more clothing optional recreational areas on federally-owned public lands. Please stand with them and help make a difference by signing the petition for those who enjoy clothing optional recreation.

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