"When a person's or society's qualms are no longer aligned with the observable, a far more serious condition exists than that which is itself feared. It has become an irrational phobia that can no longer be addressed with reasoned arguments or indisputable facts."
It's an undeniable fact that most people have a problem with nudity -- if not, why are there laws against it? The exposure of certain parts of the human body is proscribed in many societies throughout the world. Those who concoct or uphold such laws do so out of a sense that somehow the unadorned epidermis is a threat to the common welfare. Those laws, in most cases, insinuate that when specific portions of the anatomy are visible, it's considered a form of sexual activity.
Let's face it: The fundamental resistance to and reaction against nudity by a great many people involves discomfort regarding the sexual aspects of those body parts which according to custom must be concealed. For the most part most of the human body is considered fairly neutral in the Western secular societies. While Islamic cultures still require women to cover a great deal of themselves, this generally goes against a trend throughout the rest of the world. At one time Europe and European offshoots (such as the US, Canada, Australia, and Latin America) were nearly as fastidious about keeping women under wraps but this has changed radically through the course of the 20th century. The last frontier of human exposure, however, are those components which clearly demarcate the differences between the genders. While many countries in Europe have relaxed these requirements and nudity on beaches throughout the continent has become more commonplace, a certain stigma remains, particularly in the US, which limits those who would accept and practice public nudity to a small, beleaguered minority.
Why does this resistance continue? Is the exposure of sexual differences really the same thing as acting upon them? There is a fear, no doubt, that public nudity is a precursor to public debauchery, even though such behavior is fairly rare at beaches where nudity is permitted. Yet in the hearts of those who are apprehensive about such nudity lurks a deeper anxiety, I suspect, that the constant interaction of nude people of the opposite sex will cause a certain level of tension or excitement to build which will result in an increase of promiscuity and the ultimate collapse of morality throughout our culture. While such fears are understandable and even arguable, they seem to be well out of proportion to the actual conditions which prevail in societies that are more tolerant of nudity. When a person's or society's qualms are no longer aligned with what is observable, a far more serious condition exists than that which is itself feared. It has become an irrational phobia that can no longer be addressed with reasoned arguments or indisputable facts.
Though the phobia itself directly deals with nudity, the attitude appears to spring mainly from a fear of sex -- or more specifically a fear of the ramifications of sex and society's reaction to it. There are many understandable causes for this fear. Sexuality is a powerful drive with serious consequences. Because of the potential implications and the central role it serves both in our instinctual and social lives, sexuality has come to be ritualized and regulated with powerful and often sensible taboos. But as with anything that is restricted and reined in, the struggle to control and curb sexuality yields a variety of reactions, most of which carry a great deal of negative baggage. On the one hand there are those who effectively repress their sexuality but do so at the cost of becoming aggressively oppressive of any outward sign of sexual expression. And then there are those who are compelled to rebel, thumbing their noses at the established order and submerging themselves in a kind of sexual abandon.
These extremes work off each other and play themselves out in a kind of perpetual battle of wills. The prudes and the libertines need each other to justify or energize their respective positions. Caught in the middle are those who would reasonably suggest that sexuality is an integral aspect of human experience but at the same time shouldn't be treated as a hobby or a form of recreation. Most importantly it should not become such an obsession that it colors every aspect of our lives in stark and garish hues one way or the other. Both the prude and the libertine tend to see it everywhere in a form that is crude and simplistic. A more natural, relaxed way of dealing with it would reveal it to be something that should neither be completely repressed nor exploited. It is a force that must be respected and even valued for what it means to us personally and as part of our lineage as living beings. When it is enjoyed privately between two people it is fulfilling its highest purpose since that purpose is both procreative and interpersonally bonding. When it is made public and coarsened by those who suffer from compulsions which emerge from undue repression, it becomes ugly and toxic.
The great difficulty of dealing with sex is its private nature coupled with the enforcement of this privacy. Children can be taught to appreciate the importance of retaining the intimate element of sexuality without branding it with the label of sin. Adults can see how special a relationship which expresses the tenderness of their sexuality can be without banning it to the oblivion of "one of those things we just don't talk about." Part of a more relaxed approach that doesn't lurch into total abandon ought to include an acceptance of our bodies for what they are and our ability to be what we are in a variety of settings. Simply being nude doesn't mean acting out the potential sexual behavior which too many people assume nudity to be a prelude to.
The attitudes which prevail in our culture regarding sex and nudity seem fairly intractable, and yet human history is replete with examples of different approaches to these conditions. The current error of automatically viewing nudity as a component of the sexual experience, however -- which overlooks how we might be nude in a variety of settings which are non-sexual in nature (doctor's offices, same-sex changing rooms, etc.) -- unfairly tars the nude body with a stigma of provocative promiscuity. To change these attitudes we must learn to look deeper into these things and into our own hearts. In the process we may discover the unexpected.