Changing Social Norms On Public Expressions of Nudity and Sexuality

Updated: Jul 3, 2020



Back in about 2010 when I was working on my Ph.D. at Clemson University, I was walking between the building in which my office was housed and the Student Union and noticed a young guy smoking between the buildings.

Smoking on a college campus when I began college in 1981 was nothing of note, and a generation before that it was the rule. But even at Clemson University, in the heart of the deep-south, smoking was so rare as to get my attention. After thinking about it I could not remember ever seeing a student smoking at Clemson since I began to work on campus nearly two years before.

In terms of social norms, twenty-five years is not a long time, even fifty years is barely consequential, yet, tobacco use has gone from being ubiquitous to so rare it garners attention. A steady progression of social norms has remade how tobacco use is perceived.

At Clemson, students of African heritage were not allowed to attend until 1963. A short 50 years ago. Yet today one would be hard pressed to find anyone on their campus who would suggest that racial segregation was anything less than unmitigated evil; again a complete transition from one norm of right and normal to another.

When my mother went to college in the 1950’s “moral” character (a euphemism for sexual abstinence) was expected as a prerequisite for both attendance at the college and for gaining employment after graduation. Her nursing school had strict rules about interaction with men and early curfews. As late as the mid 1980’s courts were upholding moral (sexual) rules on female teacher’s in their private life. Pregnancy out of marriage was the end of a teaching career as was “a public reputation of moral turpitude”

Today, public school’s moral codes are exclusively tied to issues of criminal activity, academic ethics and sexual contact with students. Even in the rural southern school district where I worked (as a social worker) prior to leaving for academia, I had a friend who was an unmarried female kindergarten teacher who had a baby and then return after her maternity leave. This would not have happened a generation ago.

And certainly one can look to the normalization of same-sex relationships as a sea change in cultural norms. US society has come through a rapid sequence of attitudes toward homosexuals. From persecuting them, to tolerating their relationships and to today were homosexuality is part of mainstream culture. All of this within one lifetime.

What’s the point of what I am saying?

I began blogging for three reasons. One was to help me organize my thoughts in a coherent form, and writing makes me do so, a public journal of sorts. The second was to provide myself with a soap box for the oft neglected moderate position in the public sphere. It has been said that traditional liberalism is all but dead in the US and has been since the mid 1970’s. I contend most Americans believe in the enlightenment vision of political liberalism espoused by Locke, Rousseau and Jefferson, and so I try to voice those views. And finally I sought to preach the gospel of what I call “The Final Freedom”.

I believe that freedom to openly express ones sexuality is as basic to ones humanity as all the other human rights spelled out in our constitution and the UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights. I believe it deserves a place right next to freedom of conscience and religion. The final freedom refers to the right to express ones sexual nature openly in the community. The LGBTQ community have effectively pushed this for their members; however, that still leaves around 95% of the population in the closet, forced to hide their sexuality in private. Would it be freedom of speech if you could say whatever you wanted, but only in the privacy of a closed room? No it would not. Would it be freedom of religion if I could not ever talk about it or express my religious life in public? No it would not. Similarly, we do not have freedom of sexual expression while it is shuttered behind closed doors.

Nudity and consensual sexual activities are more prevalent in the media than ever; however, it is still ghettoized and kept safely behind the screen. In a truly free society our bodies and our sexuality is only limited by our infringement on others. Just being in someone’s sight is not infringing on their liberty for nudity or sexuality any more than it is for speech or peaceful assembly .

No one claims the right to demand a freedom from seeing others joyful, silly, or even rude in public by banning such behavior to one’s home. Just because someone’s behavior makes me uncomfortable about myself or violates my personal moral code, does not inherently give me the right to stop their behavior. I don’t automatically have the right to demand they “get a room” to do what annoys me in some other place.

If they are naked or engaged in sexual behavior in a closed environment where the passage of pathogens is likely, then the society has a just reason to act to ensure public health. However; that is not the case with current societal restrictions on nudity and sexual expression.

There are powerful forces on both the right and left who collude to prevent sexual freedoms, but I believe that if the vast center had the courage to stand up and challenge the extremists this freedom is possible.

Here is an interesting video, by a tenured George Mason Law School professor expressing her horror at calls for declaring sexuality and sexual expression to be considered a human right. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wlXUSfkwcY She is openly espousing the Catholic position that sex should not be about self-actualization, but solely about procreation and that birth control is evil because it separates sex and babies. Sexualityism is the word now given to this concept and a search on the word clearly shows this concept has strong support in the Catholic press.

I however, do not believe such a position is where most Americans live. Most Americans, even religious Americans, even Catholic Americans, see sexuality as a intrinsic part of their everyday life. For the vast majority of us, having sex with the intent of making a child is the very rare exception. That is the true mainstream, or center, of American culture. However, I think that many people who live their lives in this manner are easily bullied by powerful figures into publicly espousing something different than what they actually believe or do.

Thus we find many, many people who would like to live their sexuality openly and honestly, live a life of secrecy and hypocrisy. They do not do this willingly, but do so out of fear of being attacked by both the religious right and elements of the sex-negative feminist left. If they do speak out and are attacked, they will find no allies because their friends and colleagues are also afraid of being “outed”.

Thus the minority of true believers in the sex-negative position, act as a kind of mafia, using fear to keep the majority silent. Why were the moral white people of the south not coming to the aid of the civil rights movement? They saw the blood on the faces of the white kids who marched. They knew they would be outcasts if they acted on their convictions. Just like we see on the news how people's lives are destroyed by a leaked nude photo or do you recall how a young Barach Obama ran virtually unopposed for the US Senate after someone leaked that his opponent had once suggested to his ex-wife they go to a sex club in Holland? The mere suggestion of attending a sex club ended that man’s political career. So, yes, the sex-negative forces are powerful, but their power only comes from the majority who live sex-positive, but publicly espouse sex-negative.

Thus we, the majority, must provide one another the mutual support and defense so that we might all own our true beliefs in the face of the threats.

I also believe that we in the majority must make ourselves as accepting of other’s sexuality as we are of our own. It is too easy to define “normal” sexual behavior by what I do (or what the media presents as normal), but human sexual expression is a broad canvas. As with freedom of religion or speech, my freedom to do what I think is normal and right is contingent on my willingness to defend my neighbor’s freedom to practice what he/she believes is normal or right. We must demand that those who cite beliefs about potential harms of public nudity and/or open sexuality, whether it be from the neo-Freudian left or the religious right, back such claims up with empirical, scientific fact. We must make it clear that just to rely on their "professional opinion" is not good enough to impinge others freedoms. If we press them into this corner, we will expose that there is no empirical, scientific evidence to justify their claims.

I've done a review of the literature, and find that the only "proof" they offer is when sexuality is linked with exploitation and/or violence. Yes, nudity and sexuality can be part of violence, as can freedom of speech or press or conscience. However, there is no inherent link between sex and violence, only a construct that serves political purposes. One could justify curtailing nearly all human freedoms by linking it to violence and exploitation. Sadly some would-be totalitarians on both the left and right do just that, but that violates the very bedrock of liberalism.

I write this to suggest that over the next fifty years, societal change of the magnitude we have seen in smoking or race relations is entirely possible in the arena of sexual freedom. It is just a question of when will we begin the journey and who will lead?

My hope would be someone who reads this little blog of mine will take up the cause of the Final Freedom.

198 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All