“Many churches tell the congregation, ‘Come as you are’” we read in a News Report from last year. “For a chapel in Ivor, VA, that’s especially true. People come without even bothering to get dressed. It’s a church at a nudist colony. Members say it’s nice to worship in a place where there is total freedom and where everyone is equal.” (See also the ABC news report ‘Church welcomes nude parishioners’)
Reading about that got me thinking about nudist colonies in general. We need to someday do a fake add for a nudist camp that is “guaranteed to desexualize the human body” after only two weeks. Because that is exactly what public nudity does, and when we look into it we find a very good pragmatic argument for being modest.
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. A 15-year old camper was quoted 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.
At least, that is what I argued in an article I wrote earlier this year for the Colson Center, titled ‘Nudity and the Christian Worldview.’ I quoted from Vern and Bonnie Bullough book Sexual Attitudes, Myths and Realities, in which the authors testify 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…”
In fact 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 defenses some women give for wearing skimpy swimwear or who go about in public only minimally covered. We often hear come-backs like, “It’s ok because they’re not trying to be provocative. There is nothing sexual in this. This is just what women wear these days, and so you shouldn’t import sexual connotations onto it.” Commenting on this line of argument in ‘Nudity and the Christian Worldview’, I wrote
Although I think this is often naive 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.
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 defense 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’s 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.
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.