Changing How the World Thinks

An online magazine of big ideas

On Being Naked and Having Sex

Nakedness the concept has vanished – it disappeared behind the American fear of nudity

On being naked

Even though it may cause embarrassment, nudity is frequently easier to discuss than gender. Nudity might seem to reveal gender, in so far as clothed men and women can sometimes confuse onlookers about their gender. It used to be thought that nudity undoes that confusion, but now we know better: seeing a person’s genitals does not tell us his or her gender.  Such simplistic correspondence is a thing of the past. Of course, social conservatives can and often do disagree with this new view.

A society unevenly committed to the idea of gay equality might pretend to fight nudity when in fact it is blocking a political crusade. A society with a puritanical inheritance can insist it is only being true to itself when it punishes some instances of nudity. A predominantly Christian society in which women regularly expose décolleté, arms and legs might look askance at non-Christian women who refuse to.

An old topic indeed, nudity befuddled Americans anew at the outset of the 21rst century. Rest rooms especially but locker rooms as well became the new battleground in an ongoing culture war. As Americans were trying to prevent or veil the nudity –or partial nudity—of their school age children, the Internet was dousing them with ever more plentiful images of naked men, women and even post-op transgendered people. Heated bathroom debates in North Carolina, Virginia, and Pennsylvania (among other places) sometimes suggest that being naked will lead to unwanted sex. A person from a distant culture might struggle to understand how Americans decide which sorts of nudity to allow and which to condemn. It is not enough to say that mutual, consensual adult nudity is moral and adolescent nudity is not

The importance of covering up one’s body has spawned a special regard for modesty, which is sometimes taken as a synonym for chastity. Of course, modesty extends beyond dress: students, employees and politicians are expected to show modesty in speech (the 1986 court decision Bethel School District v. Fraser compelled it in public schools). Many Westerners will report they feel it immodest to gaze openly at strangers or at familiars who are changing clothes. And so on.

Chastity exhortations have tended to overlook same-sex experiences, particularly communal showering, which American public schools for decades required after gym class. This oversight stems from a missed step in thinking through chastity, specifically the possibility that men may on occasion admire and or even corporally desire members of their own sex.

Two separate fears are in play here: The first is that naked people will probably end up having sex with one another. We might call that one puritanical, which is not to say wrong. The second is that naked people are more vulnerable to sexual assault. We can call that one practical, which is not to say necessarily correct. While sympathetic to the second fear, I focus on the first.

___

"Nakedness the concept has vanished – it disappeared behind the American fear of nudity."

___

The excruciatingly painful scandal of Roman Catholic priests molesting and raping children is not at base about homosexuality. And yet, the scandal dragged homosexuality back into awkward public discussion in the early twenty-first century. The idea that gay and straight boys (to the extent we can use such old-fashioned categories) shower together at school was bound to ruffle feathers. The priestly pedophile scandal may have contributed to anxiety young men may have about being seen naked in locker rooms: You just never know who may be fantasizing about you.

Being gay is not like being blind or wheelchair bound: people can’t always tell that a man is gay (or bisexual). Frequently, no one knows. And so public showers pose a moral problem for a minority that in theory does not occur for heterosexual men: You don’t want to exploit your institutional access to bodies which may arouse you.  It could be that those viewed grant you tacit permission on a mistaken belief you will not desire them. In December 2018 the New York Times detailed the struggle of an Indiana boy, a star football player, who came out to his entire high school during senior year. The next year that player, Jake Bain, would join an NCAA Division I team, at Indiana State. The young player praised the openness of his teammates but regarded the showers as a bridge too far:  He avoided showering with his teammates out of concern for what they might think, and he kept his gay pride tees on a shelf and quit wearing his rainbow-splashed “love is love” hat on campus because, he said, “you get stared at.” Just a few years earlier the international media had widely reported on the alleged homophobia of Russian society. President Putin was widely assumed to be himself homophobic, and President Obama had rebuked Russia for condoning violence against lesbian and gay people. Putin joked that he would not like to shower with a gay man at the gym. Many a serious word is said in jest.

The thorniness of talking about Jake Bain, the gay football player, showering with his teammates, President Putin, or an innocent bystander allowed in the men’s shower will be familiar to many schoolkids, some of whom have been wounded by the familiar playground retort, “It takes one to know one.” Anyone who brings up the suspicion another man is desiring him may find himself suspected of having had desire on his mind in the first place. When men come out of the closet, it may seem obvious that they are desiring others in the locker room. This, however, is wrong: The fact that Jake Bain desires some men doesn’t mean he desires all men.

You just never know.

Chastity was not the issue with Putin, to be clear, and he never called himself homophobic. How interesting that in the twenty-first century American media, it seemed to be more natural to discuss homophobia than sexual purity. Contemporary Americans may not be accustomed to hearing discussions about male chastity, but they are familiar with related topics, such as sexting, “revenge porn” and sexual harassment. A chaste man would have no part of any of these activities.

Whether public showers amount to a prima facie threat to a young man’s chastity may invite moral debate which parallels whether entering an online erotic chat room amounts to sexual activity (that is, adultery for married persons).  The Anthony Wiener controversy puzzled many: this married American politician apparently did not penetrate any of his female interlocutors, but he did expose himself to them. In the traditional American locker room, men routinely expose themselves to one another – albeit in a non-sexual way.

Several decades ago, the influential British scholar Kenneth Clark argued persuasively that we should distinguish between a naked person (wearing no clothes and not in seduction mode) and a nude one (wearing no clothes and in seduction mode). Nakedness the concept has vanished – it disappeared behind the American fear of nudity.

One point of exploring the evolution of popular conceptions of chastity is to argue for the end of locker rooms. You could either make the argument that merely being seen naked by someone who may find you sexually attractive is no chastity threat, in which case there would be no need for separate locker rooms, male and female. You could also make the argument that since we can never tell who finds our naked body attractive, no one should ever be naked in front of others (excepting spouses). In the latter case, a university or public sports facility would no longer need a men’s locker room and a woman’s locker room – we would only need a number of private changing rooms, where individuals get naked away from the view of anyone.

The larger and more important issue is how we could have been blind to the threat to chastity (or masculinity) that gazes posed for so long. In the past, everyone was heterosexual (or so it was believed). It’s almost as though men were chaste if they thought they were – if they thought that none of the men who had seen them naked had desired them secretly or if they thought that such gazes had no power to taint them -- to contaminate them morally, to detract from their chastity or masculinity.

___

"The net effect of unisex bathrooms and locker rooms might be to banish nudity, to push it even further into private spaces. It will take more time to tell."

___

Consider finally the locker room in Zaha Hadid’s celebrated natatorium, constructed for the 2012 Olympics in London. Immediately adjacent to the spectacular pool is an innovative unisex locker room. Men and women use the same room and may take lockers right beside one another. Behind every locker is a small closet in which patrons change into their suits. Men and women use separate restrooms within the same locker room; men and women shower together. Nudity may not be explicitly prohibited there (as in a posted sign) but probably is prohibited in effect (that is the impression I myself was left with in a 2018 visit).

This unisex set-up could become normative in the United Kingdom and the United States in years to come: the arrangement would seem to swipe away the problem in North Carolina in a snap (except for those who believe it is healthy for men to be naked around one another, an argument that surfaced in the debate over VMI going co-ed in 1997). A 2015 article in the New York Times indicated that architects engaged to construct health club locker rooms felt compelled to respond to the rising fear of nudity in younger Americans.

The net effect of unisex bathrooms and locker rooms might be to banish nudity, to push it even further into private spaces. It will take more time to tell. In the meanwhile, scholars and journalists will listen carefully to on-the-ground reportage from people who use locker rooms and bathrooms. It could be that some transgressive individuals will choose to be naked in unisex locker rooms, perhaps even to walk naked through them (“parade naked” sounds unduly partisan, disapproving). According to an influential British newspaper in 2019, women had begun complaining about men who chose to be naked in unisex changing rooms. The issue is not frivolous, as unisex locker rooms seem to encourage sexual assault and voyeurism. The BBC has considered the matter important enough to address it on television.

American culture appears generally to be moving backward in time, in so far as Americans are becoming more Victorian, puritanical. To glimpse naked people in the future, you will have to resort to the Internet. That problem, if we want to call it that, pales in comparison to the dilemma of trans students and adults. It also risks distracting us from the important anxiety of women who do not want men walking naked through a unisex locker room. As for the reluctance of men and women to be seen naked by gays and lesbians in same-sex locker rooms, we will likely continue to debate for some time the extent to which reasonable people should be expected to live and let live. We will also understand perhaps a bit better the tenuous link between being naked and having sex.

Latest Releases
Join the conversation

Sign in to post comments or join now (only takes a moment). Don't have an account? Sign in with Facebook, Twitter or Google to get started: