The dichotomy that exists between overly prudish attitudes towards nudity and the simultaneous aggressive sexualizing of the larger culture goes a long ways toward explaining why so many insist on linking nudity to sex. In our culture sex has become virtually unavoidable in nearly every conceivable context to such a degree that almost everything seems focused on what's going on below the waist.
Sex is used to sell just about everything. During commercials broadcast during Super Bowl XLVIII sex and sexual innuendo were used to advertise yogurt, web hosting, automobiles, floral delivery, fast food and beer, products that incidentally have nothing to do with sexuality. Thanks to the media and Madison Avenue, like Sigmund Freud, Americans see sex everywhere in everything which isn't surprising when you consider that advertisers have conditioned us to acquiring all of our goods motivated by the primal directive for procreation, the desire for pleasure or a combination of the two.
Though not everyone today shares Freud's contention that sex surrounds almost every human action and emotion even from infancy, looking at our society it is hard to argue against his assertion that sexual repression is "the chief psychological problem of mankind" (Freud, 2011). Freud concluded that repression and constriction of sexual behavior in youth would become manifest in adulthood and there is a good deal of psychological studies that support his assumption.
The discussion here is limited only to nudity, simple nakedness and the lack of clothing which has nothing whatsoever to do with sexuality, sexual practices or anything connected in any way to the sexual. But understanding prudish, repressive attitudes towards nudity requires an understanding of sexual repression and its prevalence in the larger culture because in our society the two go hand in hand. It's undeniable that in our society the majority view is that in most instances nudity is an invitation to if not an outright prelude to sexual activity.
In our sexually repressed society fear of genitals (and to only a tiny lesser except female nipples) and nudity has become institutionalized and systemic in the form of hyper-moralistic modesty norms. As proof of that consider the example of female swimming attire commonly worn to public beaches. The fabric of the swim suits so minimally covers the strategic areas, genitals and nipples, that society deems inappropriate for public exposure that the suits are practically superfluous.
Many fashionable swim suits today are little more than "dress" underwear which is why society would not tolerate them being worn to the supermarket or mall, but generally speaking no one gives a second thought to women wearing them on a public beach. It is also useful to note that the cut of many of the popular bikini bottom styles produced the practice of waxing or shaving public hair (the bikini line) because of course exposing public hair in public is also taboo.
When you think about the fact that many popular bikini styles are thong type affairs that completely reveal the buttocks and the tops reveal substantial breast cleavage it is evident that society, at least at the beach, doesn't have an issue with those body parts being exposed. What's left? The genitals, anus and nipples which prove the point that these specific body parts alone are society's definition of "nude." It should also be noted that it is not at all coincidental that swim suit designers are careful to comply with nudity laws in that they provide coverage of the genitals, anus and nipples which are of course the three female body parts that most every nudity law specifically mentions as being unlawful to expose in public. It should be quite evident then that a pervasive fear of genitals (and nipples to a lesser extent) explains the widespread discomfort with nudity.
The pervasive parenting style today is the attempt to protect one's children from any and every conceivable potential harm. Many in fact are so overprotective that the term "helicopter parent" was invented to describe a parent with the tendency to hover close to their child at all times, ready to come to the rescue at the first sign of difficulty or disappointment. Since the majority of society accepts the notion that nudity equals sex and sex can lead to things like unintended pregnancies, STD infections and the potential for emotional hurt from failed intimate relationships, overprotective parents feel they have a legitimate interest in steeping their offspring in a healthy dose of a culture of body shame by conditioning them to believe that even the naked body is dirty and grotesque.
Every image of nudity is censored. Children are never permitted to see one positive image of nudity. This quite effectively sends them the message that nudity is obscene and dirty and that by extension sex is also obscene and dirty. Oddly these same parents evidently assume that once young people reach the age and circumstance where sex is permissible, the sexual repression and prudish attitudes towards nudity that they have been conditioned with will magically disappear and they will grow into well-adjusted, normal adults capable of having successful relationships. But the evidence indicates this is not the case.
Far from accomplishing what parents intend, false shame and prudery creates rather that prevents harm. While young people need help in learning how to come to terms with and to manage their desires, false shame and prudery creates a barrier between parents and their children that makes certain the needed support is not there leaving inexperienced adolescents to deal with very difficult and complex adult issues on their own. As a consequence instilling false shame and prudery reaps the opposite results; unintended pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, disrespect for the opposite sex, dysfunctional adult relationships and sexual violence.
False shame and prudery takes a serious toll on the psychological well-being of young people. America is excessively sexualized, yet generations of people are being raised who are clueless about their feelings, their bodies and their sexuality. We want authentic, rich, wholesome human relations but that does not require the morality norms of a cloister. The better parents are in tackling the issues of sexuality and nakedness in open, healthy ways the greater chance their children will grow into healthy, well-adjusted adults.
It isn't suggested that learning to be more comfortable with nudity is a panacea for all societal ills but it is a necessary part of it. As noted by Dr. Helga Fleischhauer-Hardt in her book, Show Me, "A child who has never been allowed to see his parents and brothers and sisters naked sees nudity as something shocking" (Fleischhauer-Hardt, 1975).
Respected child psychiatrist, Dr. Lee Salk, in a column published in the June 1976 issue of McCall's Magazine observed, "Being natural and matter-of-fact about nudity prevents your children from developing an attitude of shame or disgust about the human body. If parents are very secretive about their bodies and go to great lengths to prevent their children from ever seeing a buttock or breast, children will wonder what is so unusual, and even alarming, about human nudity" (Salk, 1976).
Returning to Freud once again, he made some compelling arguments that the rampant sexual repression in our society and culture is unhealthy and at least an indirect cause of much crime, illness and misery. Prudery under the guise of morality that treats sex and nudity as a taboo and shameful provides our society with endless aphrodisiacs. It is prudery that is responsible for things like the proliferation of pornography and the marginalization and sexual objectification of women.
In European countries where there is less sexual repression, less fear of genitals and nipples, nudity is commonplace on television and in films. Do these countries have more rapes and sexual assaults? No, they have less. Nudity in itself does not provoke rape but repression and the fetishizing of nudity does. There is a strong correlation between prudery and higher rates of teen pregnancy, abortion and incidence of sexually transmitted diseases. All of those things are more common in our society than in less sexually repressed societies.
Allowing people to be free, allowing them to be nude in appropriate places and circumstances would produce a healthier society. In some situations and circumstances it is appropriate to be clothed, but nudity should be more widely accepted. People shouldn't be obsessed with being nude but neither should they be obsessed about continuously hiding the body with clothing. If nudity became normalized and was viewed as natural in larger society, pornography would disappear. There would be no purpose for it.
Those who organize to oppose clothing optional use of public beaches and lands never offer any cogent arguments that nudity causes any harm or social problems. They smugly point to the general acceptance of the idea that nudity is indecent and lewd and then offer two salient points; "we don't like nudity" and "think of the children." The substance of these arguments represents "preaching to the choir" in that this column will predominantly be read by nudists and naturists who embrace nudism but the arguments can still be relevant and useful.
Prude is not necessarily prudent because prudery facilitates and perpetuates the very things that social moral conservatism seeks to prevent. The next time you attend a public meeting or write a letter or email in support of some clothing optional beach that is under attack, you might use these arguments in making your points. Normalizing nude may not be a panacea for all of society's ills but it would certainly be a good start.
Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Oxford: Benediction, 2011.
Fleischhauer-Hardt, Helga. Show Me. New York: St. Martin`s Press, 1975.
Salk, Lee. "You and Your Family." McCall's Magazine June 1976.
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