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Opening Arguments

Shame, shame

Slate has the most fascinating question of the day: Why is public nudity illegal?

Because it’s so difficult to ignore. The late political philosopher Joel Feinberg’s “offense principle” offers one persuasive theory for why nudity is illegal. Feinberg argued that an act need not be objectively harmful to merit prohibition—it need only produce an unpleasant mental state such as shame, disgust, or anxiety in observers. Plenty of obnoxious but legal behaviors, like chewing with an open mouth or failure to bathe, can create the same reaction, but Feinberg claimed that nudity has a unique ability to demand our attention. He wrote, “The unresolved conflict between instinctual desires and cultural taboos leaves many people in a state of unstable equilibrium and a readiness to be wholly fascinated, in an ambivalent sort of way, by any suggestion of sexuality in their perceptual fields.” We are drawn ineluctably toward the sexual suggestiveness of the naked body, Feinberg argued, then ashamed of our own reaction.

[. . .]

It’s difficult to say why nudity makes us so uneasy, but it’s clear that our aversion to nakedness is longstanding and probably religious in nature. When upholding anti-indecency laws, several judges have pointed to the Bible. In 1877, for example, the Indiana Supreme Court noted that “the first exercise of mechanical ingenuity was in the manufacture of fig-leaf aprons by Adam and Eve, by which to conceal from the public gaze of each other their, now, but not then, called, privates.”

Whew. Pardon me while I go take a cold shower. The mere thought of entering into a state of "unstable equilibrium" brought on a readiness to be fascinated "in an ambivalent sort of way" has me positively quivery with repressed sexual tension.

Certainly our aversion to nakedness is longstanding, but I'm no so sure about the "religious in nature" part. Certainly religion has played a strong role in  perpetuating the taboo, as the story notes, but its origins may be a bit more Darwinian. Those engaged in vigorously pursing their unstable equilibrium might be too distracted to notice the beastly predators sneaking up on them and thus are removed from the gene pool. Those clever enough to cover up discovered modesty as a survival tool.

And of course there is the issue of aesthetics. The phrase I grew up hearing -- "The human body is a beautiful thing, man" -- is not, you may be shocked to know, universally true.


Harl Delos
Thu, 11/29/2012 - 2:19pm

If people were always standing, I'd have no problem with public nudity, but I don't know that I'd want to sit on a park bench recently vacated by someone with vd, genital herpes, a yeast infection, genital lice, hemorrhoids, or simply someone who doesn't wipe well.