Friday, 19 May 2017

Nudity: ethics and etiquette

In March I went with a local naturist group on an overnight retreat to Quarantine Island, in the middle of Otago Harbour. True to Dunedin’s weather – or maybe my life, I’m not sure – it was cloudy and cold all weekend and it was only comfortable to get naked in the lodge in the evening with the fire going. After we’d come home it was sunny every day for a week, of course.

I am a naturist, or nudist to use the more common word. I have two main reasons for this, both of them about equally important in my own life. One is purely personal. Presumably because I’m on the autistic spectrum, I suffer from a mild hyperaesthesia which makes clothes slightly but permanently uncomfortable. I’m told other people stop feeling their clothes after wearing them for a while; I don’t. Shoes in particular – conditions underfoot have to be very unpleasant indeed before it’s worse than squelching around in my own sweat, so I don’t wear shoes much. But there are no such things as comfortable clothes, not for me.

The other reason is ethical. A human body is a human being and vice versa. Everyone has one; indeed, everyone is one. It isn’t good for people to revile themselves as obscenities, and it’s worse to enforce that revulsion with the power of the state. And it’s dehumanizing to treat another person as an object for the purpose of sexual gratification. Human beings have the moral right to be treated as human beings regardless of what they wear, including if it’s nothing at all – which means not being arrested, fined, locked up, or subjected to any other legal penalty, if they’re not hurting anyone. In short, public nudity morally ought to be both legal and acceptable.

The word “naturism” obviously implies that the value of nudity lies in its naturalness, which is problematic in several different ways. Not all natural things are good, so being natural doesn’t automatically make nudity good. Also, it is arguably natural for humans to adorn themselves, since every culture does it. Naturists shave, style their hair, and wear jewellery, tattoos and piercings just like clothed people. But “naturism” is the name of the movement now, and there’s no point complaining about it. “Nudism” is a broader word; anyone who chooses not to wear clothes can call themselves a “nudist”, whereas to be a “naturist” implies alignment with the naturist ethos. Back in the early 2000s an Altavista search for naturis* would mostly filter out the voyeur sites that nudis* tended to dredge up, and that may have helped the spread of the term. Unfortunately the porn peddlers have gotten wise to this now.

Naturism is one of the more marginalized alternative lifestyles out there. Unlike those “lifestyles” which consist of opting out of various public health measures (like vaccines or water fluoridation), it doesn’t cause actual harm; yet it’s illegal to practise it in public almost everywhere in the world. I suppose we can at least be naturists in our own homes without police harassment, which makes us more fortunate than pot-smokers. On the other hand, there’s less restrictions on sharing pictures of pot-smoking than on sharing pictures of nudity. And ours is surely, bar none, the one lifestyle that is most sexualized by outsiders.

What does “sexualization” mean, and what’s wrong with it? I’m tempted to say “Ask any woman,” and leave it at that. I’ve seen confusion about this in other contexts as well. Does it make sense, for instance, to ask casual bloggers not to “sexualize” particular sexual orientations? Bisexuality is sexual, isn’t it? It’s right there in the name! How can you help “sexualizing” it if it’s already sexual? The answer is that “sexualizing” something doesn’t mean connecting it to sex as a topic; it means making it sexy (or trying to), which is not the same thing at all.

A medical lecture on the physiology of fertilization in humans will discuss sex in some detail, which makes it “sexual” in a reasonable, if technical, sense of the word. But it isn’t remotely sexy – trust me on this. That’s not sexualization. Conversely, I’m sure you’ve seen advertisements that associate all kinds of completely non-sexual things with revealingly-clad yet concealingly-posed women looking suggestively at the camera. I used to regularly walk past a local fish-shop van (I haven’t seen it in a few months now and I’m not inquiring after it) which was adorned with a head-and-shoulders photo of a young woman, apparently topless, caressing a dead fish whilst assuming what was admittedly a more successful attempt at a come-hither expression than I would have been able to muster in her position. That’s sexualization.

Now the foundation of the naturist platform is the proposition that nudity can, and should, be desexualized. I’ve seen a few blogs now – pretty much all on Tumblr, for some reason – claiming that naturist environments feature unrestrained public sex. If you find one of these, you should know it’s lying to you. It’s somebody’s sexual fantasy. There’s nothing wrong with having sexual fantasies, but there’s everything wrong with slandering a worldwide category of people in the course of expressing them. Again, ask any woman.

Less blatantly and far more often, what you see is nudist blogs that talk the naturist talk about freedom and naturalness and the feel of the sun and wind on one’s skin or whatever, but when you look through their photos they’re all of slim young abled cisgender women with an implausibly high proportion of crotch shots. Those, and middle-aged white men who’ve just happened to strike a stance that emphasizes their genitals. This does not advance the cause of desexualization.

Mind you, I’m not convinced that the usual naturist sell for the benefits of our lifestyle – the patter about freedom and sun and wind and so on – is especially helpful either. It might not be explicitly erotic, but the emphasis on the sense of touch and the attempts at lyrical phrasing tend to make it read like the opening paragraph of a sex scene in a novel. What can I say? Outdoor nudity just feels right in a way you can’t appreciate without experiencing it. Perhaps we have an evolved dislike for the feeling of being tangled in things. Perhaps the innate body-map monitor in all our brains, the one that tells amputees they still have their missing limb, knows that clothes don’t really belong and grumbles away at a subconscious level until they’re gone. Of course, in my case the hyperaesthesia I mentioned before might have a lot to do with it as well.

Desexualization is absolutely necessary to making naturism acceptable. In case you were wondering, yes, we naturists have all heard the line about “The people who go nude are always the people who shouldn’t go nude.” This body-shaming is exactly what we stand against. The “ick!” response that naked human bodies elicit in clothed cultures is due entirely to the sexualization of nudity. It’s always icky when someone you’re not attracted to invites you to have sex with them – ask any woman – but (speaking from experience) the moment you realize the nudity is not a sexual invitation, the “ick!” response evaporates.

Quite apart from the question of whether we’re accepted by outsiders, naturism cannot achieve its core ethical goals without desexualization. We’re about body acceptance. Naturist environments are supposed to be the one place people can feel completely safe in their bodies. No-one should be made to feel inadequate among us because they’re fat, aging, disabled, or transgender. And they should certainly not have to fear that they’re going to be ogled and objectified. The one kind of nudist photo blog that’s worse than the crotch-shot model kind is the “candid” kind where someone’s hidden a camera on a naturist beach and photographed people without their consent.

And if your naturism is more about personal relaxation and freedom than ethical activism, desexualization is the only way it’ll stay relaxed or free. On the Quarantine Island trip I was wakened shortly after sunrise by the sound of some children a couple of rooms away daring each other to run right around the outside of the lodge with no clothes on. Such innocence is destroyed, beyond the age of about four, by shaming and sexualization alike.


Public nudity ought to be both legal and acceptable, but it’s going to be a while before that happens. The current legal trend is in the right direction – more jurisdictions in the Western world have legalized public nudity in the last twenty years than have banned it – but unless things speed up quite a bit I won’t live to see it get where it needs to be. And on the acceptability front it’s pretty much static; genital nudity is if anything less acceptable now than it was in the 1960s, though admittedly topfreedom for women has advanced considerably.

In the meantime, a more pressing concern is how to deal with the way the world we actually live in treats nudity; and since that world doesn’t tolerate nudity in daily public life, we’re mainly talking about depictions of nudity; and nowadays that basically means nude photos on the internet. What content should we promote, what should we tolerate, what should we exclude from our own viewing, and what should we actively try to get removed? These questions, you may notice, run parallel to those currently being debated by social-justice progressives on one side versus self-described liberals on the other, although that debate tends to focus on expression of divergent political opinions rather than nudity.

I\ll be brief, since this is too big a topic to tackle in an aside. Enlightenment liberalism was a great moral advance in its time, but it’s not the last word on political ethics. Certain characteristic features unsuit it for the modern world. Its adherents today can be distinguished from social-justice progressives by (among other things) their suspicion of safe spaces, which is ironic because one of Enlightenment liberalism’s foundational institutions is a great big safe space called “the private sphere”. In the classical liberal private sphere, a man could do as he liked and expect to remain free from interference either by the government or by other private individuals. This particular liberal institution is now ingrained into Western societies the world over.

One problem noted as early as the 18th century was that each man shared his private sphere with other individuals, typically a wife and children. Should his freedom to do as he liked extend to treating those people as he liked – including sexual coercion or violent abuse? Because if not, then the state might sometimes need to break into the private sphere to defend their rights. But if domestic abuse measures opened cracks in the institution, modern technology has torn gaping holes in it. I don’t just mean how eagerly supposedly liberal governments nowadays adopt instruments of mass surveillance. More fundamentally still, there is no private sphere on the internet.

You can see how this complicates the practicalities of nudity. If someone wants to hang a nude photo on their bedroom wall, it’s nobody else’s business. Maybe they themselves are the model, and they are prone to negative feelings about their body and they want something they can look at that shows them they’re beautiful. Or maybe the model is someone from a different continent who there is zero chance they will ever meet, and they’ve put the photo up because they find that person sexy. No harm done, right? Nobody’s business but theirs, either way. But if these are both the same photo, on the internet, then the two bedrooms effectively collapse into one insufferably intimate space, exposing the first person’s deepest vulnerability to scrutiny of the most humiliating kind.

It is always a safe assumption that if you think you can solve someone else’s problem with a wave of your hand you are missing something vital, and this is nowhere truer than of the precept “If you don’t want your nude photos stolen, don’t put them on the internet.” Quite apart from the fact that most photographic devices are online now and hackable by anyone with the skills and motivation to do it, there are many reasons why someone might want to upload nude photos. You might be a naturist like me and want to connect with other naturists. You might be trying to stay connected with a partner who you can’t be with physically. You might have joined in a public demonstration such as the World Naked Bike Ride. You might be trying to desensitize deep anxieties about your body, and a nude selfie might be the next step. In some parts of the world, you might be part of a ceremonial event where the traditional costume covers less of your body than the Western norm.

The difficulty here isn’t the ethics. Sharing pictures of other people naked falls under the principle of bodily autonomy: you do it only with that person’s consent. Yes, bodily autonomy trumps freedom of speech on this, morally if not yet legally. If you take a photo of someone naked, their consent as to where and when it gets shared over-rules yours. If something that wasn’t intended sexually gives you sexual feelings, keep them to yourself. And if your nudity (or any other form of expression) is intended sexually, put it where people won’t see it unless they want to. That means don’t surprise people with dick pics. That means you.

That just about covers it for any one nude picture, but if your whole blog is dedicated to nudes you also need to watch out for things like gender balance and representation. I’ve seen far too many naturist Tumblrs which consist of the occasional “Every body is beautiful!” or “Love your perfect imperfections!” text post interspersed among photos of slim young woman after slim young woman after slim young woman. Guys, this is exactly what the beauty magazines and fashion ads do that we claim to despise. It undermines and destroys our anti-body-shame message. Don’t do it. If you say you support diversity, don’t tell me – show me.

None of this should be hard to grasp. The difficulty is implementation. Most social media platforms take the simpler route of censoring nudity regardless of context. Funnily enough, they don’t do the same with the near-nudity or posed nudity in the ads that pay their bills, with the result that they contribute just as much to the perpetuation of harmful body stereotypes as every other form of media. But if some bloggers themselves have trouble telling whether their blog is body positivity or porn, you can imagine what a nuisance it is for the host websites to enforce rules that make any sense. Instead of “Sex blogs may not reblog positivity pictures,” which is reasonable but not enforceable, you end up with “No-one can post pictures of female nipples,” which is enforceable but not reasonable.

On the social media and blogging platforms that do allow nudity, such as Tumblr, this has the unfortunate consequence that it’s hard to be certain whether or not a photo that comes across your feed is there with the consent of the people in it. Some people caption their photos with “Porn blogs please don’t reblog this,” but it’s always possible to remove a previous poster’s caption, and you can bet it’s the bloggers without a conscience (human and algorithmic) that do that. For voyeur photos, there are tells: if it’s a beach scene, and no-one’s smiling at the photographer, and it’s from a low angle, and especially if there’s a blurry shadow around the edges indicative of the towel or bag the camera was hidden under, don’t touch it with a ten-foot selfie stick except to report it.


Now I can’t really leave this topic without addressing the question that will have arisen in many readers’ minds. If nudity is OK, why isn’t sex OK? Sex is natural, isn’t it? Sex between consenting adults doesn’t hurt anyone, so by my own logic shouldn’t it be permissible in public? Naturism aims to remedy the shame that many people feel about their bodies, but at least as many people feel ashamed of their sexual thoughts, and often for very similar reasons. Isn’t reviling sex as an obscenity just as bad as reviling nudity? While we’re at it, why does nearly every state in the world restrict sex work and pornography? Do such restrictions do any good?

Patriarchal values hold sway over scarily large proportions of the population even in the most progressive democracies. Women who express their sexuality outside of possession by one man are seen as damaged property – used tissues, half-chewed chocolates, dirty sticking-tape. Men who defy the patriarchal order are seen as threats to other men’s ownership of women’s bodies. Though these values are gradually ceasing to be enshrined in law, they are still enforced socially in the form of disdain, exclusion, threats, and sometimes criminal violence. In high-profile cases this is more than enough to ruin lives. In consequence many people try and squelch their feelings by force, out of shame – an enterprise with a very low ratio of successful outcomes to suffering caused.

Different cultures sit on a sliding scale as to how shocked they are by sex, and their position on that scale correlates approximately with their degree of patriarchal control. In the West, the first two major waves of feminism each followed a decade of new sexual permissiveness – respectively the 1920s and 1960s. But while the top end of that scale is “Kill your family members if they transgress,” the bottom end is “Talk casually about sex with your friends,” not “Copulate openly in public with anyone.” People in every society seek privacy for sex and recoil in embarrassment if they catch others at it. The entanglement between sex and disgust seems to be an evolved feature of the human mind that patriarchy has found and exploited, rather than something it’s created. Even proudly sex-positive progressives use genital words as insults and “fuck” as a curse.

I’m sorry to say I have no idea what this evolved for. It’s a human universal, but extremely rare among animals generally and in particular 180° removed from how our nearest relatives in the genus Pan manage things. Things do go reliably wrong with human cultural movements that do advocate open public sex; every known one has been taken over by a dominant man and ended up collapsing from his subordinates’ resentment. But why this should happen every time is still a mystery, given Homo sapiens’ adeptness in other contexts both at resisting dominance and at tolerating it. I’ve seen very few people even attempt to answer these questions, and none at all produce satisfactory hypotheses. Most theorists simply take sexual privacy as a given.

But though it’s frustrating, this ignorance doesn’t have to boggle our ethical reasoning. Above I noted that sex between consenting adults doesn’t hurt anyone; the phrase between consenting adults has fortunately become such a commonplace on this topic that it may very well have slipped under your radar. Sex that is not between consenting adults is called rape, and it does hurt people – so badly indeed that many argue it shouldn’t be called “sex” at all. I’m not sure if this clarifies or obscures the critical point, which is that an absence of free, willing, present, undeceived consent in any one party is all it takes to turn sex into rape.

Ethics always comes back sooner or later to trust. It’s not enough to decide in the privacy of your own head that you will never violate another person’s consent. You have to take care not to give them any reason to fear that you might violate their consent – before they know the first thing about you. Sexual activity in public, including online except in clearly delineated sexual spaces, violates that principle. (Unfortunately, and this to my shame I learned from experience, so do most forms of direct action you can think of in aid of advancing the cause of naturism.)

The principle of consent gives us an answer to the question about restrictions on sex work and pornography. Forcing someone into sex work is rape. Using the services of a sex worker is rape unless you know they were not forced into it. Stealing someone’s nude photos is abuse. Publishing someone’s nude photos without their agreement, even if they showed them to you, is abuse. It is not harmless, given what patriarchy does to people who transgress sexual boundaries. The question is not whether you still respect the person in the photo; it’s whether everyone respects the person in the photo, and in a patriarchal culture the answer is a loud and clear “no”.

Some social critics, however, go further. There still exist strands within feminism, though less prevalent than in past decades, maintaining that sex work and pornography are always by nature degrading to women, consenting or no. Obviously I can’t speak on women’s behalf, but what I’ve heard from women mostly speaks against it. The one person I know who’s worked in the industry is quite firm that she was not degraded by it. That’s not a big sample size, but comments I’ve seen by other sex workers online and in print bear her out. (I presume I know more than one person who is or has been a sex worker, but only one of them has disclosed it to me.) The situation with pornography is similarly ambiguous.

What’s the difference between degrading and non-degrading? Those of you who follow Game of Thrones on TV will recognise these two images. (For those who don’t, I’ve made each one a link to an excerpt of the scene it appears in.)

Cersei’s nudity is enforced, a punishment imposed by her enemies. The people of King’s Landing respond to it with scorn, sexual harassment, and attempts at violence. That’s the definition of degrading, and if Cersei were a real person instead of a fictional character it would be unethical for me to use this photo or link the video. Daenerys’s nudity is willed, a demonstration of the mysterious power that protects her body but not her clothes from fire. The people of Vaes Dothrak respond to it by kneeling down and worshipping her. It is the polar opposite of degrading. I am quite certain the parallels between the two scenes are deliberate on the show-makers’ part; they serve to demonstrate that degradation is something that happens in the absence of respect, of power, and of consent.

Now if you’re looking for degrading porn, you will find it – whether you’re looking for gratification purposes or in the name of research. But if you’re not specifically after degrading material, most of what you find is just, well, pictures and video of people having sex. Anti-porn activists laudably oppose the degradation of women, but in their zeal are often found to make sweeping statements that can be disproved with five minutes’ private Googling. Examples: “You never see women wielding power over men.” “You never see a man giving a woman oral sex.” “You never see body hair or saggy flesh.” “Male viewers can’t possibly empathize with the women in porn.” (Ask a bisexual man about that last one.)

Online pornography is frequently held responsible for sexual predation by men, up to and including Donald Trump. I have my doubts. Sexual predation long predates the internet, and photography, and indeed printing, or premodern patriarchies would never have chastised women for “provoking” it. The idea seems to be that sexualized media are the root cause of male-typical sexuality – so fixated on anatomy and physical sensation, so detached from empathy or personal connection. I haven’t done any quantitative analysis on these claims, but they don’t fit my experience. Between my disability and my religious upbringing I was protected from sexual content so successfully that one favourite game in my high-school peer group was Ask Daniel What a Sex Word Means and Laugh When He Gets It Wrong; but my sexual desires are, alas, as anatomical and physical as the next man’s.

But while male-typical sexuality – which I’ve elsewhere termed “Shallow” sexuality – presumably makes it much easier to be sexually predatory, it doesn’t make it anything like inevitable. It doesn’t make sense to ask whether Shallow sex desire, or any other desire, is “inherently predatory”. Any desire is “predatory” if it’s pursued without regard to the harm it does to some other living thing. The critical element in sexual predation is not a desire but a belief: a belief that the well-being of the person you prey upon doesn’t matter compared to the strength of your desire for them. Any pornography which encourages this belief can be justly condemned as degrading.

Meanwhile, restrictions on sex work and pornography have a serious weakness as measures to protect women’s dignity. They may well push back against the idea of women as objects for male consumption, but they align nicely with the mandate to restrict sexuality to patriarchally-approved forms and contexts. Even Andrea Dworkin, probably the most famous anti-porn feminist of all time, maintained that “Obscenity laws are... woman-hating in their very construction. Their basic presumption is that it’s women’s bodies that are dirty.” But lawmakers face the same problem as the social media platforms we noted above – the gap between what’s reasonable and what’s enforceable. How do you draw a line around “degrading” that some pimp’s defence lawyer can’t just waltz right over?

Speaking as one of the gender whose behaviour most needs to change, I suggest the solution might lie in a different direction. Instead of banning depictions of the human body, let’s take care to remind each other that every human body is a human being. Instead of banning sexual content, let’s emphasize the personhood of the participants. Let’s do what we can to make people feel that they are safe in their bodies. Let’s celebrate diversity and protect bodily autonomy.

Who knows? Maybe those weird nudist people might even be able to help.

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