Conor Friedersdorf is a California-based staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.
Why blanket prohibitions are misguided.
A new ban on public nudity will go into effect in San Francisco next week, assuming it isn't blocked by a federal judge. Said Deputy City Attorney Tara Steeley, arguing in favor of the law, "Government has a duty to protect the public that does not wish to be exposed to nudity on the streets."
In dozens of trips to the Bay Area, I've wandered widely and never seen a single naked person, but if I'd stumbled across someone in the buff, I can't imagine it would've harmed me, or that there are many San Franciscans so delicate that they've suffered from these encounters:
There are rational public health reasons to prohibit nudity in restaurants or on buses. Naked kids in public schools would be a distraction that harmed the learning environment. But a blanket ban that extends to all city streets, parks and beaches? People who value freedom and pluralism ought to oppose it, especially if the given rationale is a government duty to "protect" the public from what it "does not wish" to see. I do not wish to see pigeons. I do not wish to see advertisements. I do not wish to see the subset of tattoos that depict dolphins leaping from the ocean. Tough luck for me! I'd rather not see a naked, obese octogenarian tanning in Golden Gate Park either, but if it makes her happy I can get over my shallow aesthetic preference. Like the cities that ticket youths whose sagging pants leave their underwear exposed, blanket bans on nudity are motivated mostly by a majority's desire to enforce its aesthetic preference on a minority, and to establish in law certain notions of what is moral and proper.
The aesthetic enforcers almost all offend against good taste themselves. Maybe it's their house that has an ugly paint job, or their bad haircut, or the color of the car they drive on city streets.
Few would pass muster on The Sartorialist.
It takes but a moment's reflection to see a flaw in the moralist's argument. In San Francisco next week, it will remain perfectly legal for a 50-year-old man to seduce an 18-year-old, impregnate her, ridicule her physical appearance until she is brought to tears, walk out on her, seek out her mother, seduce that mother for no other reason than to further hurt the jilted daughter, draw a graphic novel of the whole sordid chain of events, and publish in on the Internet.
But it'll be illegal for him to be naked outside.
Does anyone think the resulting moral signal is desirable?
I've never grokked the mindset of people who understand and acknowledge how unwise it would be to pass laws against many types of immoral acts, including behavior as abhorrent as what is outlined in the hypothetical above, but who insist that public nudity must be banned for moral reasons. Why do they feel compelled to ban even innocent nudity but not acts they find much more immoral?
Of course, there are people who are generally comfortable with codifying morality into law and creating victimless crimes, Dennis Prager among them. Last month, he dedicated a column to the San Francisco law. As is his habit, he began with sweeping generalizations about "Leftism" and the agenda of its adherents that bear little resemblance to the beliefs of the vast majority of actual people on the American left. That characterization flows directly into his argument:
Two of the many areas of conflict between Judeo-Christian values and leftism concern the separation between the holy and the profane and separation between humans and animals. The essence of the Hebrew Bible -- as transmitted by Christianity -- is separation: between life and death, nature and God, good and evil, man and woman and between the holy and the profane. The reasons to oppose public nudity emanate from this Judeo-Christian list of separations.
When human beings walk around with their genitals uncovered, they are behaving in a manner indistinguishable from animals. A major difference between humans and animals is clothing; clothing separates us from -- and in the biblical view, elevates us above -- the animal kingdom. Seeing any animal's genitals is normal. Anyone who demanded that animals' genitals be covered would be regarded as a nut by the most religious Jew or Christian. But one of our human tasks is to elevate us above the animal. And covering our genitals is one important way to do that. The world of the left generally finds this animal-human distinction unnecessary.
The last sentence is especially absurd, but let's set it aside in favor of addressing a larger point. This idea that people are behaving in a manner indistinguishable from animals when they're naked in public is close to the opposite of my limited experience. Visit a nude beach in Spain or Italy, a sauna in Germany, or a co-ed hot springs in Oregon or Northern California, and you'll find a lot of men and women with ideological notions of how civilized naked people ought to behave.
As one clothing optional spa in Portland puts it, they are "a place where we try to model the change we want to see in the world. Most of our bathhouse hours are open to people of all genders. We also offer men's night and women's night weekly, plus a monthly trans and gender queer night." Typical patrons range in age from young adults to octogenarians. The rules:
Respect and uphold your own privacy and the privacy of others. All wellness sessions and services you receive... are strictly non-sexual. We encourage patrons to focus on their own experience, enjoying the calm atmosphere and quiet company of friends who came with them. By respecting privacy we create a space where people are able to relax, with or without bathing attire, and be free from sexual issues or innuendos.
That spa is about as far removed from a state of nature as is imaginable. Everyone is expected to exercise their higher brain functions and to keep their "animal impulses" tightly under control. And they do! In contrast, there are communities where people believe that if the women do not cover up their whole bodies, the men will be unable to control themselves sexually.
I find the Portland spa far more elevating and humanizing than extremist societies with enforced modesty.
Says Prager, later in his column:
The San Francisco Examiner reported about one of the protesters at the San Francisco Supervisors vote: "As he pulled his pants up, a nudist named Stardust said the legislation sent the wrong message. 'It's telling people they should be ashamed to be naked, and that's totally wrong,' he said."
But to those who believe in Judeo-Christian values, telling people to be ashamed about being naked in public is not totally wrong. It's the whole point. The first thing Adam and Eve discovered after eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was that they were naked. And the first emotion they ever experienced was shame over their nudity. San Francisco, America and the west are going to have to choose whether Stardust or the Bible is right.
Actually, I see nothing in the 10 Commandments that suggests public nudity ought to be prohibited, and I think Stardust's view is not at all inconsistent with the New Testament verses, "Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." As for Adam and Eve, it was God that put them on earth without clothes, distinguishing them as human, distinct from all other creatures, before they bit the apple and thought to cover themselves. Prager's biblical arguments fail even in biblical terms. (The Bible actually seems more concerned with fancy clothing and accessories than nudity.)
I know a lot of people have a visceral reaction to the idea of public nudity, and that they're inclined to trust their gut, even after they concede that none of their arguments are quite persuasive. I know people worry about their kids having to encounter naked creeps, though we'd all be immeasurably better off if creeps really did all walk around naked. (It's people who blend into trusted positions like priest, step-father and coach that prey on children, not eccentrics knowingly making themselves the most highly visible person on any street they're occupying.)
It saddens me that Americans sometimes put so little value on the preferences of cultural minorities, even when they aren't doing any harm. So I've one final argument to make on behalf of making space for some public nudity: it really improves way clothed people conceive of their own bodies. Talk to someone who has been to a nude beach, or read the Yelp reviews for spas where people are naked together, and you'll keep coming across comments like this one:
Odd as it may sound, it's really refreshing to spend an hour being naked amongst other naked women. I don't spend a lot of time looking at nude female bodies aside from my own, so it's a nice reminder that we're all essentially the same, yet unique. By the time I leave, I've seen so much variety that I don't even care that I have a mole on my butt.
Americans are bombarded with images of semi-clothed people all the time. It just happens that they're all beautiful actors and actresses, magazine cover girls, television underwear models, and porn stars. The average person sees lots of naked bodies, but very little real variety. While that may be more aesthetically pleasant, it skewers our notion of what a normal human body looks like. In an age of Victoria's Secrets in the mall, substantial nudity on prime time television, and ubiquitous You Porn, a ban on nonsexual street nudity begins to seem absurd. Society needs some relatively unattractive people to be naked in public now more than ever before.
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.