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Understanding moral conservative arguments against nudism

Until relatively recently, the chief opposition to nudism came from Judeo-Christian religious moralists who argued that public nudity should be banned because it is inherently sexual, evil, sinful and morally corrupting. Moral conservatives today are more motivated by a defense of secular social norms than religious standards of morality and modesty yet they cling just as tenaciously to the notion that nudity outside narrowly delineated approved settings is repulsive and obscene.

Beach modesty standards circa 1930
By Mr. Benton Hickok (Public domain) via Wikimedia Commons

According to moral conservatives, exposure of the genitals particularly is intrinsically sexual since that is the context in which they are most operative. Since public sex is inappropriate, open nudity by association is also inappropriate. Public nudity is an affront to decent family and religious values and deeply offensive to a significant portion of society who hold these values.

Permitting public nudity outside of private, privacy-fenced nudist clubs and resorts where general society grudgingly tolerates it is simply bad for society. It undermines and destabilizes the moral fabric of a decent and stable society by encouraging sexual promiscuity, deviant sexual practices and other unsavory behavior that pose a real and present danger to traditional family and religious institutions like marriage and monogamous relationships.

[More from Dallas Nudist Culture: Cultivating a culture of offense]

While the moral conservatives regard social nudity as morally wrong even for consenting adults, they particularly condemn the notion of children being present at nudist landed clubs and resorts since they believe exposure to naked adults will at best corrupt their character and prevent them from growing up to lead good upright lives in accordance with social decency norms and proper family values.

According to the moral conservative view, the state is justified in using its coercive authority and police powers to uphold and enforce a community's moral convictions and to prevent citizens from engaging in activities that offend contemporary community standards of morality and decency. This view is termed legal moralism which says that the state has an interest and a responsibility to prevent citizens from engaging in harmful behavior.

Moral conservatives believe it appropriate for the state to prohibit certain activities even in circumstances where a mature adult voluntarily engages in an activity which they consider desirable and that causes no harm to themselves or others. This view that the state is entitled to interfere with the freedom of mentally competent adults against their will and for their own good is termed legal paternalism. Moral conservatives therefore think that it is completely reasonable for the state to prohibit consenting adults from appearing nude in public in order to protect society as a whole from moral corruption.

[Normalizing nude: What's your petition signature number?]

Most laws are predicated on the harm principle where certain activities are prohibited and punished because they tangibly harm others. Examples include things like laws prohibiting sexual assault, murder, physical assault, robbery and theft. All of those activities involve either bodily harm to others or harms them through misappropriation of their legal property.

There are however many who consider any conduct which they have distaste for and find offensive as a personal injury or harm and resent such as an outrage to their sensibilities. This is termed the "offense principle," the rule of law on which laws prohibiting public nudity are based. The state believes it has a legitimate interest in preventing individuals from engaging in activities that others in society find shocking, upsetting or offensive. See the embedded video for a new law proposal aimed at remedying a situation that many people in Indianapolis find offensive.

The truly bizarre aspect of laws that are based on the offense principle that seek to defend and uphold social norms is that were the social norm that all be nude in public when practical, there would be a law that would prohibit people from wearing clothes in public when clothing wasn't needed to protect them from cold, inclement weather or perhaps while engaged in an occupation where clothing was deemed necessary to protect one from injury. General society in such an imagined circumstance would then of course find it offensive if people clothed themselves without good reason.

In the next column we will explore the nudist and naturist argument for why the practice of nudism should not be criminalized and examine some established philosophical concepts that support the position that nudity laws based on the "offense principle" are unnecessarily burdensome and the antithesis of a free democratic society.


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