Confronting the Public Nudity Taboo

By Layng, Anthony | USA TODAY, March 1998 | Go to article overview

Confronting the Public Nudity Taboo


Layng, Anthony, USA TODAY


"... It seems inevitable that we will become increasingly comfortable with nudity so that, some day, pictures of naked models and actors and the presence of nude bathers on public beaches no longer will shock the moral sensitivities of most Americans."

During the last 50 years, there has been a tremendous liberalization in American attitudes concerning sexual behavior, but public nudity continues to evoke disgust and ridicule. Even though legal restrictions have been relaxed and clothing-optional beaches are more numerous than ever before, as are the sunbathers who frequent them, most Americans continue to disapprove of nudity no less than their grandparents did. In spite of the fact that it now is quite acceptable to display nearly all of one's body poolside or at the beach, total nudity continues to make Americans very uncomfortable.

Proponents of nudity usually maintain a low profile, not wishing to invite what seems to be inevitable hostility. Given the present concern with "family values," it is likely that such attitudes will persist for some time. However, there is a gradual trend in American attitudes about the human body which suggests that the public nudity taboo may be abandoned one day.

Why have prudish attitudes toward nudity been so tenacious in the U.S.? Those who are middle age or older certainly are aware how other American taboos have declined or even disappeared. For most, masturbation no longer is equated with self-mutilation and premarital sex has become a nearly universal norm. Like many other sexual activities, they have lost their immoral status. Even homosexuality increasingly is regarded as merely an alternative sexual orientation.

Remember how risque it used to be to read about sexual encounters in a novel or to watch an impassioned love scene on the movie screen? Today, this is the stuff of day-time TV, considered quite tame by present standards. Modern literature and motion pictures, intent on titillating and shocking audiences, now must resort to creative violence and psychopathic horror. Scenes of urban cannibalism. serial murder, and mass destruction are rampant. Yet, even as our tolerance of and appetite for depictions of violence have increased greatly, a majority of us still find public nudity intolerable.

While Americans are much more sophisticated today on many subjects, nudity continues to induce very charged reactions. Even among scholars, the mere mention of nudity is likely to degenerate into wisecracks and old-fashioned moralizing. Commercial television programming, prime time or not, still avoids nudity, though ABC's "NYPD Blue" does show partial nudity. Occasionally, topless women and mothers nursing babies may appear in a documentary.

Most of us are highly ambivalent when it comes to nudity. Privately, we have an appetite for reading about it or looking at pictures of nudes. Numerous successful novels contain explicit descriptions of sexual anatomy, and Playboy has 3,400,000 subscribers. Since commercial films are designed for public viewing, though, on-screen nudity is subject to strictures. Paintings of nudes by European masters and classical nude statues from Egypt, Greece, and Rome are exhibited to the public without much complaint. Yet, those who openly express tolerance of public nudity in the U.S. are likely to make themselves very unpopular.

Ironically, some Americans associate nudity with purity and innocence, having Adam and Eve in mind perhaps. From this perspective, primitive tribes that lack clothing may be seen as exemplifying some sort of pristine nobility. Others attribute tribal nudity to cultural backwardness. Both views are fully compatible with condemnation of nudity among "civilized" men and women. Although television documentaries that include pictures of minimally clothed or even entirely naked natives of Australia, Africa, the Pacific islands, and South America do not seem to offend mainstream audiences, any prime-time images of bare Caucasian breasts and buttocks are likely to cause a great deal of trepidation. …

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