American culture, especially on the more conservative side, has borrowed a lot from the example of the Puritans and other intense religious groups in how they treat the human body. I think the core ideas of such an ideology are closely related to issues like body shaming, sexual obsession and violence, and the fear of nudity. It all comes down to how we treat sexuality, which has been unfairly linked to the natural state of having no clothing on.
One of the inspirations for this article was a comment by a woman who was upset about the push to allow transgender students in school to use the restroom matching their identified gender. She made one statement that made me laugh and then feel kind of sorry for her kids. She was talking about how she didn’t want a transgender guy (physically female) using the same locker room as her son, and freaking out that her son might get “an image of a girl that he will struggle with for the rest of his life.”
I was reminded of how my father talked to me about pornography when I was twelve or thirteen. He pretty much had the same approach, that he’d looked at porn when he was a teen and ever since then he’s “struggled” with sinful images in his mind. I think if you obsess over it and thoroughly convince yourself that it’s evil to see someone without clothes on, of course you’re going to keep yourself trapped in guilt. Of course you’re going to keep remembering.
Or as one of my atheist friends likes to say in response to Christians asking him if he struggles with lust, “It’s only a struggle if you resist.”
There’s a better way to think about sexuality and the human body. Rather than buying into unnatural religious ideologies that focus on fearing, denigrating, or exploiting sexuality, look at it from a natural perspective. We seem to be the only animal with such an intense embarrassment about our natural bodies, and with layers upon layers of misguided beliefs and traditions we’ve sort of trapped ourselves in a suffocating burrito of fear.
The common social attitude toward nudity in America is based on nothing but superstition and the historical success of religious people who forced others to adopt their own beliefs and values. When a society treats the unclothed human body as something embarrassing or sinful, people tend to internalize it and develop an unhealthy view of their own body and sexuality. The result is bullying that perpetuates negative ideas, guilty obsessions, sexual violence, and the aforementioned “struggling” with mental images.
I’ve been on both sides of this. Before I left conservative Christianity, my relationship with my sexuality was severely dysfunctional. Fortunately I learned that the solution to those problems is not strict avoidance of “sinful images”, but rather the rejection of the entire concept of sin, at least as it’s presented by most Christians. I’ve written a little about this before; people assume that seeing nudity will always cause sexual obsession, but it’s the assumption itself that is really responsible. Most believe it’s impossible not to sin, and thus trap themselves in a self-fulfilling prophecy that produces nothing but failure and guilt.
Oddly enough, early Christians being baptized were often nude, as portrayed in plenty of religious art from the time and explained in several ancient writings. As you might expect, the same was true of Jewish baptism which the Christians merely copied. If Jesus existed and really was baptized, it’s likely he was fully nude for it, and he also would’ve been naked while being crucified. Much of the bible isn’t shy at all about nudity; in some cases it even has God commanding prophets to strip naked when delivering his message to the people.
Over time, western Christianity has adopted a very repressed view of nudity (likely tracing back to old Gnostic teachings about the physical world being evil), and due to their strong obsession with sex they’ve popularized the erroneous assumption that nudity is always sexual. Contrary to the popular belief that acceptance of nudity results in terrible consequences like sexual violence, European countries which are much more liberal on the issue of nudity have lower rates of rape and sexual assault than the USA. As I detailed in this article, there is a correlation between higher rates of crime and more religious societies. In this other article, I wrote about why I think conservative religious organizations have problems with adultery and child molesting.
All the indications are that secular liberalism results in lower crime, more prosperous societies, and happier people than any theistic religion does. There’s no indication that greater acceptance of social nudity will cause more sexual assault. What a surprise…taking a rational humanistic approach to morality and respecting human life and liberty produces people who feel valued and content with who they are, rather than the self-loathing messes of guilt and fear created by conservative Christianity.
Image: Art Renewal Center