Recently there has been a lot of public debate about what constitutes “decency.” The topic isn’t new, but it regains popularity now and then. In the past mothers exposed their breasts to feed their babies in public, even in church, and still do in many parts of the world. The history of Western art contains a lot of nudity, especially exposed breasts, but even some genital nudity, even of children. Much of that art is on public display, e.g. in museums, libraries and bookshops, available to a general audience, including children. But in recent years there has been an attack against any public display of nudity or images of nudity, especially nude children, especially to an under-18 audience. The problem of “nudity” isn’t the exposure of all parts of the body; the issue is exposing sexual anatomy.
In some cases the attack against nudity is sincere. Some people are misinformed with pseudo-scientific psycho-babble about the supposed health dangers of “overstimulation,” a belief unsupported by any valid scientific evidence, and inherited from old discredited medical claims that masturbation causes insanity, which in turn were inherited from the much more ancient belief that God wants people to focus on spirituality not bodily pleasure. Such individuals attack nudity in the belief that they are heroic defenders of children’s safety and salvation.
Other people who attack nudity are not sincere: they have political or financial interests; they hope to profit by attacking nudity, and would change their tune in an instant if they found an easier way to achieve their political or financial goals. The laws of most states originated for those embarrassing reasons: misinformed individuals or dishonest opportunists and profiteers have defined and proscribed “pornography” as any images depicting sexual activity or focusing on the sexual organs, and are especially strict, if not fanatical, when minors are involved. The critics of nudity use rhetoric like decency, community standards, etc., but the fundamental assumption is that nudity=sex, and any sexual arousal or sexual activity outside the privacy of marriage is claimed to be harmful to health and/or is evil.
The traditional naturist (nudist) response is not to defend sexuality outside the privacy of marriage, but to deny that nudity is necessarily sexually arousing, and there is certainly some truth in that. People who experience public nudity on a daily basis, especially from early childhood, are desensitized to the sight of naked bodies. There is experimental research that shows obsession results from deprivation, not satisfaction. Covering the “private parts” eroticizes them rather than protecting you or other people from arousal. But a flaw in the naturist response is that it doesn’t dispute, and seems to acknowledge, that sexual arousal or activity outside the privacy of marriage is harmful to health or is evil. Unfortunately, most people seem unconvinced by the naturist response; they feel certain that nudity is always and necessarily arousing, and worse, the traditional naturist response only reinforces the old belief that any sex outside the privacy of marriage is harmful to health and/or is evil.
The behavior of those who oppose nudity is sometimes embarrassing to themselves. I know an unmarried young woman who strongly opposes nudity, sex outside marriage, and even kissing outside marriage. Yet she buys and wears super-sexy panties with see-through mesh and frilly borders. How can we explain that? Sociologists claim that cultures have “display rules,” which allow or require that people express certain behavior in public even if you don’t really feel any such thing. It may be that in some cases, such as the young woman I know, what they claim publicly is a result of what they perceive as required by their culture, rather than what they sincerely feel.
There are broader issues involved here. In contrast to the ancient belief that parents have unlimited power over their children, we now have state laws to protect minors from abuse and neglect. Children in most states are required to receive medical care, and must attend schools to study a prescribed curriculum. Such modern limitations on traditional parental privilege are a good thing, in theory. Some parents are dangerous, and even deadly, to children. But on the same token, some government employees are likewise dangerous, and even deadly, to children. There is a growing literature on the damage done to children by government employees.
In her book “The Politics of Child Sexual Abuse: Emotion, Social Movements, and the State,” Nancy Whittier describes how some radical feminists discovered they could get more sympathy by focusing on violence against women, but they got even more sympathy (and funding) when they focused on violence against little girls. However, some of that funding got diverted to support other parts of the feminist agenda that had nothing to do with children. Violence against little girls was used as a propaganda tool for feminism and eventually as an excuse for traditionalists to attack sex education. The inordinate attention focused on child sex abuse and child nudity (compared to the much more frequent and more deadly dangers kids face in everyday life) are merely excuses to promote the feminist-religious agenda. (Exception: some feminists today call themselves pro-sex.)
The lesson here, I think, is to realize that modern governments should not be allowed to take the place of the ancient omnipotent parent, even when children’s safety and salvation are trumpeted as the excuse. Parents and government employees aren’t the only interested parties. Children have their own desires and needs, and if educated about the alternatives of different choices and the possible consequences of their decisions, they can make reasonable choices in their own best self-interest. At least one survey indicated that among children’s interests in learning, despite cultural taboos, sex education is at the top of the list. Why arrogantly assume that children will inevitably misuse sex education (and the inherent power in knowledge), while naively assuming that adults – whether parents or government employees – are incorruptible? I think that disapproving of nudity in your family or your groups is a mistake, but it’s your family and your group. What is outrageous is the attempt to use the government to force your views on other families and other groups, as well as on children.
I think we can go a long way in defusing the sex bomb if we stop trying to hide the subject of human sexuality. Accurate, balanced and comprehensive sex education is a dangerous threat only to ignorance and the special interests that exploit ignorance. Decency is often merely a euphemism for body shame, which is toxic (read “Shame: the Exposed Self” by Michael Lewis) and is often promoted at the expense of other values. For example, in my personal experience I’ve seen that in some of the very same homes where children are required to keep the bedroom and bathroom doors closed while changing clothes, the same-sex parent nonetheless barges in without knocking. From the distorted perspective of shame-training, what matters most to some people is that a child isn’t seen nude or even partially nude by a member of the opposite sex, not that children’s autonomy and privacy be respected. In my opinion that is a damning indictment of many crusaders who falsely claim their quest for “decency” is an attempt to protect or respect children.