This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.
“Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.” Genesis 3:7
In what the Baptist Press has called the “most significant broadcast indecency case since 1978”, the Supreme Court has been in the process of deciding how much autonomy to allow the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) when regulating displays of nudity and indecency in films.
As things currently stand, the FCC has legal power to penalize broadcast companies that violate federal indecency standards. However, many broadcast companies are not happy with this, and have objected to FCC’s findings against ABC’s NYPD Blue program, following complaints from viewers that the program contained far more nudity than is normally allowed on broadcast television.
Since television broadcasts are considered public spaces, many believe the government has a responsibility to protect us from indecent content in much the same way the authorities can intervene if someone decides to walk naked through the middle of town. The broadcast companies, on the other hand, have gone to the courts in a bid for more freedom, decrying the imposition of ‘censorship.’
Behind the surface issues relating to the balance between federal responsibility and broadcast freedom, a deeper question has been percolating: what’s wrong with nudity in public spaces anyway?
We all instinctively know that there is something inappropriate about nudity in public or the Supreme Court wouldn’t be having this debate in the first place. Significantly, even the broadcast companies who are pushing for more freedom are not advocating the elimination of all restrictions. But again, why not?
The reason I ask is not because I have a perverse desire to defend public nudity. Rather, I wish to point out that within a purely evolutionary narrative it is hard to justify the universal squeamishness we have about nakedness. (Yes, I know, there are tribes where the people go completely naked. Yet as Wendy Shalit has shown, even these people groups have their own standards of modesty.) While evolutionary ethics may be able to explain why humans developed the impulse not to go around naked like our quadruped ancestors, the evolutionary story cannot maintain that public nudity is wrong in any objective sense. While evolutionary ethics may be able to give many pragmatic reasons for remaining dressed in public (including the public spaces of the airwaves), it cannot appeal to any ultimate ethical standard for people any more than it can for apes.
Nudity and the Fall of Man
Christians, on the other hand, do understand why it is important that our nakedness be kept private. In Genesis 3 we learn that the awareness of nakedness came at the time of the fall as one of the necessary consequences of the loss of innocence (Gen 3:7). In fact, God Himself even made garments for Adam and Eve so that they could be covered up (Gen. 3:21), something He evidently considered to be important.
Nudity and the Christian Community
Given the premium the Bible places on modesty, one would expect Christians to reject public displays of nudity on television. Sadly, however, millions of Christians have come to treat sex scenes as a normal and accepted part of their viewing habits, especially if it is only one scene in an otherwise good movie. They will often justify watching these scenes in the same way they will justify watching gratuitous violence, by claiming that it does not affect them.
When I hear Christians say that watching sex scenes in movies does not affect them, I sometimes wonder if the shoe isn’t actually on the other foot. If someone can honestly claim that viewing erotic nudity does not affect him, then this seems the clearest evidence that such content has already had a marked effect. This is because such a person is admitting to having become so desensitized that viewing a body that is bare, or partially bare, has become merely commonplace like looking at someone’s elbow. It is not a sign of maturity to be unaffected by cinematic sex, or even plain nudity, since there is a hardening up process that must occur before a person can view such scenes detached and non-sexually. The same applies, of course, to scenes containing graphic violence.
A Brief Glimpse of Nudist Colonies
Those who have decided to go the whole hog and embrace a nudist lifestyle have testified to experiencing a similar type of desensitization. In 2003 the New York Times ran an article about one of the many youth nudist camps that are becoming increasingly popular in the United States. Kate Zernike quoted a 15-year old camper as saying, “It makes me a bit freaked out that people would think of nudity as a sexual thing.” These words are significant since frequent exposure to nudity does tend to trivialize the human body, emptying it of its implicit eroticism and making public nakedness seem merely common and non-sexual.
In their book Sexual Attitudes, Myths and Realities, Vern and Bonnie Bullough have similarly testified to the desexualisation process that occurred among the early advocates of nudism. “Early advocates of nudism put high on their list of goals the demystifying of the human body and the reintegration of the sex organs with the rest of the body. The emphasis, however, lay not so much on sexuality as on desexualization. Nudists of the time never tired of pointing out that the complete and unabashed practice of nudism was not an erotic experience…”
Demystifying the Human Body
We do not need to travel to nudist colonies to see this process of demystification at work. All we need to do is to listen to some of the common defences women give for wearing skimpy swimsuits. In discussing modesty with young people, I often get a response that goes something like this: “Women who wear bikinis are not trying to be provocative. This is just what women wear for swimming suits these days, and you shouldn’t import sexual connotations onto it.” Although I think this is often naïve and wishful thinking, my response is to take the young people at their word and to assume, for the sake of argument, that there really is nothing sexual in the minds of those women who strip down to a bikini, or those men who defend the practice as “not having anything sexual about it.” I then point out that if the female body can be almost entirely revealed without the presence of erotic overtones than this only shows how desexualized we have become. Indeed, if a woman can strip down to a bikini in the presence of men without having any thought of the sexual overtones, then this only shows that she has let her body become demystified, that her God-given barriers have been lowered, and that her bare flesh has been evacuated of its inherent eroticism. And this is exactly what early advocates of nudism hoped would happen. (Incidentally, it is also what early advocates of sex education desire to occur, a topic I have explored in the latest edition of Salvo magazine.)
I suggest that we are drifting towards being neuter when the signals of our sexuality are treated as anything less. If we reach the point where attire which conceals less than underwear (e.g. contemporary beachwear) is anything short of utterly erotic, disarmingly sexual and totally provocative, then we have actually repressed an important part of our sexuality. Being in a condition of undress has been unnaturally disengaged from the sexual connotations that ought to accompany it. It follows that the line “there’s nothing sexual about this” is as much an indictment against immodesty as it is a defence of it.
Perhaps God never intended for the naked body to be demystified like this. Perhaps seeing someone of the opposite sex in a state of undress (whether on the beach or on television), was never meant to be disengaged from its sexual connotations and to become merely ‘ordinary’ so that we can say ‘Oh, that doesn’t affect me.’ Perhaps we were never meant to become so detached that seeing someone genitals becomes like looking at their elbow. Perhaps it is for this very reason that we are supposed to protect our eyes, to make responsible decisions about how we dress and what we watch on television. Perhaps it is for this very reason that the Bible places such a premium on modesty (see 1 Timothy 2:9–10 and 1 Peter 3:3 for starters), restricting nudity between the sexes to the marriage bed.
If we are Christians there is no ‘perhaps’ about it. The Bible makes clear that ever since the fall of man, nudity was meant to be associated with sexuality. After our innocence was lost, trying to regularize nudity can only happen through demystifying the human body and repressing our sexuality. And that is precisely what is occurring today. If we reach the point where nothing fazes us, where we can enjoy a beach party with virtually unclad men and women, or think that we can watch various stages of nudity in movies without it affecting us, then we are the losers. What have we lost? We have lost the ability to be naturally sexual as God originally designed. We have in effect let ourselves become functionally neutered in one crucially important area.
If the Supreme Court decides to let the airwaves be flooded with even more nudity, the viewing public may ironically not become more sexualized but less. Those things which ought to signify sexuality, and therefore kept private, will be increasingly emptied of their God-given meaning, and the naked body will continue to become increasingly commonplace, trivial, benign, demystified and disenchanted.