Saturday, 12 January 2019

Why nudity is worth defending

Riders in the 2009 World Naked Bike Ride pause in front of the White House

Nudity ought to be legal and accepted everywhere it is physically safe. The fact that it is not is a societal injustice. I know most of you aren’t going to agree straight off the bat, so let me lay out my reasoning and see what you think.

Admittedly, it’s not a major societal injustice. There are other injustices with more dire consequences for more people, that more deeply undermine our ability to trust each other and are more urgent priorities. Relatively few people share my autistic sensory aversions to clothing, and those aversions don’t usually rise above the level of mild discomfort unless it gets very hot or the clothing in question is wet. (Swimming-togs feel like knives cutting me.) But most of the time, I think, struggles against different injustices help rather than hinder one another. Raising people’s awareness of one injustice makes them more alert to other injustices, not less. It isn’t a competition.

First point: People deserve a degree of respect simply on account of being people. That includes being able to go about one’s daily business without harassment from one’s fellow citizens. There is no amount of clothing one might wear or not wear that would make one deserve to be yelled at, ogled, pelted with rubbish, or chased off the streets. It is therefore unfair to yell at someone, ogle them, throw things at them, or chase them away because of what they might choose to wear or not to wear.

Second point: Injustice is fundamentally the same thing as unfairness. We just tend to reserve the weightier word for when there are graver consequences, such as when discrimination is enforced by the police or when it prevents people from participating fully in society. Therefore, if people are threatened with arrest or prevented from participating in society due to what they are wearing or not wearing, that is an injustice. If the law allows or prescribes for it, the law is unjust.

Third point: People are in fact harassed, arrested, and ejected from public places if they go nude. We’ve just agreed that this would be an injustice if it happened; well, it does happen, and therefore it is an injustice.

Finally, this particular injustice is enforced by society as a whole, not just by officers of the law. That makes it a societal injustice. The fact that nudity is not legal or acceptable is a societal injustice. There you go.

Somehow this is easier to see when the body taboo in question is that of a culture that isn’t our own – when it’s Arab police forcing women into hijab or French police forcing them out of it, Victorian missionaries imposing Western clothing on Pacific Islanders or that one group of Pacific Islanders (the Kwaio on Malaita in the Solomons) who impose toplessness on Western visitors. But an injustice is an injustice, and it is in the nature of societal injustices that they feel like ordinary common sense to enculturated members of the societies that enforce them. Which would include ours. Which means that just because wearing clothes feels like ordinary common sense to us, doesn’t mean that it’s not a societal injustice.

Now, how serious an injustice is it? Is anyone seriously hurt by having to wear clothes (obviously not counting us autistics and our autistic sensory issues which make us, as we are reminded daily, such a nuisance to normal people)? Well, there are a couple of problems that I think are bound up with it.

One concerns body image. Many people hate their bodies and live with misery over their perceived bodily flaws. Negative body image has been plausibly implicated in potentially life-threatening eating disorders. And negative body image appears to be connected with the fact that we only get to see a narrow range of highly idealized human bodies in the media – the ever-encroaching and ever more visually flamboyant media, as it becomes ever defter at Photoshopping out the imperfect. It’s reasonable to suppose that if we were able to see what real, non-idealized bodies actually look like, it would take a lot of the pressure off.

Except we don’t have to suppose it any more, because it’s been confirmed by research. A 2018 study in the Journal of Happiness Studies found that participation in naturist activities had a significant positive effect on body image, which in turn had strong positive effects on self-esteem and life satisfaction. In line with the hypothesis we’ve just proposed, it appears to be seeing other people naked, rather than being naked oneself, that produces the positive effect.

It’s hardly news, of course, that body image is a problem in our society. For decades we’ve had public health campaigns and inspirational memes trying to counteract the problem by telling us to “Love your body, it’s beautiful!” I must point out that when you add in the societal prejudice against nudity, you get the composite message “Love your body, it’s beautiful, but wrap it in cloth because it’s disgusting!” – the inconsistency of which, I can’t help thinking, probably has a lot to do with why the idea isn’t catching on as well as we’d have hoped.

Rosea Lake’s 2012 photograph “Judgments”: a woman’s leg marked with skirt length labels from “matronly” and “prudish” on the calf up to “asking for it”, “slut”, and “whore” at the buttock

Second, there’s the excuse we still continue to make for sexual assault and rape. “She was asking for it, dressed like that.” “What did she expect, going out with practically nothing on?” “You can’t blame him, she wasn’t leaving much to the imagination.” “Sexually assaulted, you say. What were you wearing?” ...and on and on and on. There is no evidence to support any connection between one’s choice of attire and one’s risk of being attacked, and yet the myth persists.

Why? If there’s no connection in reality, what fools people into thinking there is one? Consider what girls get told from their pre-teen years on: “Don’t wear your skirt too high or your neck-line too low or your leggings too tight or your sundress too loose or your crop-top too brief or your shoulders too exposed, because it’s ‘distracting’ to men.” Let’s be clear on this. The problem isn’t that men think women’s bodies are nice, which is just as well because there’s no way to change that (no, covering them up doesn’t work). The problem is that men think women’s bodies are permission.

Why do men think women’s bodies are permission? There are several contributing factors, such as that many more men still see women as lesser beings than will admit it. But it can’t be helpful that our culture considers some parts of the human body to be inherently sexual regardless of the intentions of their owner. Once you accept that, the rest is just quibbling over where to draw the boundaries.

After grumbling on Facebook recently about having been unable to cool off at a summer music festival because of families with kids using both swimming-holes, I had a friend earnestly explain (thereby inspiring me to write this article) that it was an issue of social norms, however outmoded those social norms might be. I mean, I know social norms do go over my head quite often, but this particular one forces me into discomfort every day of my life, and even I can’t miss that. In any case, it kind of proves my point. It is a social norm. An unjust social norm is a societal injustice. That’s exactly the problem.

The question at issue was: how does social nudity sit with the consent ethic? Sexual activity morally requires the continuing consent of all participants, including any onlookers. Nudity is widely perceived as sexual even when it isn’t intended sexually. Does it follow that nudity therefore requires consent from every onlooker who perceives it as sexual?

Before you answer “yes,” consider what that implies in the light of what we were just discussing a moment ago. Short skirts, visible cleavage, skin-tight clothing, and bare midriffs are all perceived as sexual by some people. For that matter, existing while young and female is perceived as sexual by some people. If being perceived as sexual is our standard for seeking consent, then logically we’re going to end up requiring all young women to ask people’s permission to enter public spaces while lightly dressed. That would contradict the principle of bodily autonomy which is the foundation of the consent ethic.

Which was where social norms came in. I don’t imagine that my friend meant that consent is required before you deviate from any social norm, because in that case I’d be in serious trouble. I think the idea was that you’re supposed to seek people’s consent for things that are generally perceived, according to prevailing social norms, to be sexual – including nudity.

There’s nothing unreasonable, given the current state of society, about asking consent before taking your clothes off. But remember, the consent ethic is founded upon bodily autonomy, and bodily autonomy should not wait upon social norms. Imagine a society where it is the norm for young women to stay cloistered indoors because their presence is deemed too provocative for public spaces. If a young woman in that society defies the norm and walks down the main street visibly female, many of the men who see her will unfortunately have sexual thoughts about her. The society in question may well respond by arresting her or worse. Is she doing anything morally wrong?

Now by focusing on women and on issues that disproportionately affect women, you may feel that I’m evading a significant point. Male nudity is a bit different. The way our society sees it, female nudity is an invitation, but male nudity is a threat. And not an entirely imaginary threat either, I’m afraid. Some men use it as a form of sexual harassment. But there’s every difference between merely having visibly ungloved hands and actively shaking your fist in someone’s face, and that distinction applies equally to other body parts.

Or it would, if those body parts were a common sight. As it is, indecent exposure owes its power to the shock value of the naked body. Take that shock value away by normalizing nudity, and these men have lost their biggest weapon. Even in the law (though the law is an ass) what’s forbidden, in New Zealand at least, is to display one’s genitals “intentionally and obscenely”. Which implies, since every word in the law is there for a reason, that it is possible to display one’s genitals not obscenely.

After all that talk about injustice and morals and principles I imagine you’re expecting me to come out with some dramatic call to arms, but you can relax. I mean, if you want to do big nude protests and so on I will support you all the way, of course. But there’s a thing that happens on the internet when people set out to combat societal or political injustices, where you can get accused of being in favour of the injustice if you don’t oppose it enthusiastically enough. I promise I won’t start that. If you, unlike me, are comfortable wearing clothes, and social nudity is not practical or not safe for you or you just don’t feel like doing it, then don’t.

That mentality is not at all restricted to the social justice crowd. It’s also how social norms, including unjust ones, get enforced. In extreme cases you can find groups where every single member privately admits that the norm is stupid, but publicly maintains it – and helps enforce it on other group members – because everyone thinks that everyone else believes in it. I don’t think the nudity taboo is quite at that point yet. But if you bring the topic up in private conversation, many more people than you’d think will admit that of course there’s nothing wrong with human bodies really, it’s just that they don’t want “that” sort of reputation.

Things are changing. Given that it was Europe that imposed the nudity taboo on so much of the world, there’s an irony in the fact that Europe is now the most nudity-friendly region. In America Christianity remains largely a force for conservatism, yet the American Christian naturist movement is much bigger than anyone would suspect who is a Christian or a naturist but not both. (I’ve been both, but not at the same time.)

The bad news is that norms don’t change by themselves; they change when people who realize that they need to change, do something about it. And while they’re changing, anyone who was enculturated to the old norm – that is, anyone who thought “This is normality, this is the way things are supposed to be” – feels uncomfortable about it because now things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be any more.

Which is understandable and I’m sure we can all find it in our hearts to ease the way for them; but when all is said and done, it isn’t a good enough reason to preserve societal injustices. Lots of people were very uncomfortable when the gay rights movement started becoming mainstream for much the same reason that they’re uncomfortable now about nudity; gayness was inappropriately sexual, something that could be tolerated behind closed doors and exploited for risqué comedy but needed to be kept off the public streets and away from children. That wasn’t a good reason to oppose gay rights and it isn’t a good reason to oppose social nudity.

So while I’m not asking you to defy the anti-nudity norm yourself and get naked and march in the streets unless you want to, I am asking you to stop enforcing the norm unless I have completely failed to convince you and you still genuinely believe that nudity is a bad thing. Don’t report nude photos on Facebook. Don’t tut over celebrities wearing revealing outfits to big public events. Don’t react with disgust, or prurience either, if someone has a wardrobe malfunction and shows more skin than is conventionally acceptable. And if someone tries to shock you with gossip about a mutual acquaintance doing life modelling or going to a nude beach or whatever, ask them straight out “What’s wrong with that?”

Let me leave you with this Petrarchan sonnet I wrote to sum up my feelings on the subject:

Naked I came into this world of flesh at the same door that’s common to all birth, to find I could not walk upon the earth untrammelled by this clinging textile mesh. Reveal a human body, show afresh its ordinariness in all its worth – society’s horror, lust, and scornful mirth make an obscenity of guiltless flesh. No, I do not accept their useless shroud, upheld by, and upholding, that old stern deception whereby skin for sin is blamed. I’ll push the boundaries of what’s allowed, so future generations in their turn may then go naked and go unashamed.

1 comment:

  1. Nudity, in and of itself, is not illegal in New Zealand. You are quite correct that there has to be an element of 'obscenity' or 'indecency' for it to be illegal. The legal problem is one of interpretation. Apparently the human person has inherent dignity and worth, the whole of it, not just certain bits of it. 1990 Bill of rights act: the average reasonably person cannot be "offended" or "disordered" by any part of the human form. As Daniel says it depends on what you are doing with it. Angry face, clenched fist, these are uses of parts of the human form. Sadly, Social change lags behind legal change and not much has happened in the last 29 years to sanctify naked skin. Nude is not rude in my presence.