Is nudity harmful?

In the previous week, two short videos were deleted by Tumblr staff from my secondary blog as “sexually explicit”. Troubles never comes alone. A few days later my Vine account was suspended, due to “sexually explicit content”, I suppose. Those videos were related to my personal naturist lifestyle and I was ready for something like that. So I’ve decided to close Vine account and undertake my own investigation into the dark world of forbidden and obscenity. What content should be allowable? Or, much more widely, what restrictions may society impose on the individual? May society impose lifestyle rules? I’ve started from the theory of law.

In 1859, John Stuart Mill wrote the classical essay On Liberty. The object was “to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control”. Mill has come to conclusion that “the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign” [1]. This point of view is known as so-called harm principle. In contrast to Mill, paternalists (from the Latin pater – father) want to “protect people from themselves, as if their safety were more important than their liberty”, having in mind not only to prevent doing harm to other people, but also to prevent self-harm [2].

In both approaches, the main issue remains unsolved: What is harm? In our context, is nudity to be restricted on grounds of harm [3]? Is public nudity harmful? Or does it represent an act “often criminally prohibited”, but, in fact, victimless and harmless?

Whilst it may be questioned whether “violations of good manners” (such as going nude in public place) are genuine harms, Mill “appears to take the view of some contemporary writers that they may be banned because they cause avoidable distress or embarrassment” [4]. In some sense, Mill contradicts his own statement that “we cannot expect to be protected against things which offend us but do us no actual harm”. You may dislike someone’s habits, political beliefs, or clothes he or she wears (or does not wear), but the problem is with you and not him or her. You have no right to insist that someone change lifestyle to make your life more comfortable.

This is not just a theoretical problem about good and bad manners. “For decades, the US courts have struggled with how the law should treat materials that may be offensive to the general public” [5]. According to the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court, “nudity alone is not enough to make material legally obscene”. The Court’s 1973 guidelines for defining obscenity, laid out in the case of Miller v. California, are still being used today as the basic test to determine if something is obscene [5,6]:

  • the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest
  • the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law
  • the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

Law experts explain that “in simple terms, it’s not obscenity unless is shows “hard core” sexual conduct that’s clearly and plainly offensive. There’s no national standard or rule about what’s obscene and what’s not. It’s up to you and other members of your community to determine that. What you and your neighbors consider obscene may not be so to people in another state or city” [5].

Since, on the one hand, “nudity alone is not enough”, while, on the other hand, the only more or less unbiased criteria of obscenity is “patently offensive” sexual conduct, we can propose our very simple principle that may be helpful in solving the problem. Imagine you observe nude people on the beach, or that you see a photo or video depicting people in the nude. Then, in your mind, cover the nudity with some clothes. If, after that mental procedure, you decide that you are observing a conduct which is definitely non-sexual, it was non-sexual even before the addition of that imaginary clothes.

A few words in conclusion. “The Netherlands instituted a policy in 2006 of showing prospective immigrants an official educational video on Dutch culture that includes scenes of the country’s nude beaches” [3]. Maybe educational videos that include scenes of nudist living should be shown to a wider audience.

References
[1] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, London: Longman, Roberts, & Green Co. 4th edition, 1869.
[2] Christopher B. Gray, The Philosophy of Law: An Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, Taylor & Francis, 1999.
[3] Anita Allen, Unpopular Privacy: What Must We Hide? Oxford University Press, 2011.
[4] Geoffrey Scarre, Mill’s ‘On Liberty’: A Reader’s Guide, A&C Black, 2007.
[5] Pornography, Obscenity and the Law BY LAWYERS.COM
[6] Art on Trial: Obscenity and Art

6 comments
  1. IceBreaker said:

    I think the central question of your essay (which is very well written, by the way), is whether or not a person has the right to be offended by the behavior of another person in society, when such behavior is not actually an assault on or direct interference with the offended person’s activity.

    You seem to lean towards the belief that public nudity may be offensive but is ultimately not harmful because it doesn’t actually impact anyone else. I contend that it may indeed be harmful because it violate’s many peoples’ reasonably held moral beliefs besides being viewed as disgusting by many others. But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that the behavior itself is not actually harmful, because it’s not a direct attack on a person’s well-being… I believe that the logic you’re using to justify public nudity is itself harmful to society.

    If you argue that we should not be able to ban someone else’s behavior/lifestyle merely on the ground that it is offensive to us, and that this is why public nudity should be allowed, you could also summarily justify:

    -The unrestricted use of profane language in public
    -The playing of loud music in areas where it is not normally appropriate or sanctioned
    -Sexually-oriented displays of nudity (such as masturbation) AS WELL as non-sexual nudity

    Using your logic that “You may dislike someone’s habits, political beliefs, or clothes he or she wears (or does not wear), but the problem is with you and not him or her”, this means that a person should have the right to call me the dreaded “n-word” in passing without repercussion since, after all, it IS only a verbal insult.

    This all being said, I disagree with Mill’s assertions of the scope of society’s rules as you present them. While you represent them as a justification for innocent public nudity, if this logic were broadly applied across the rules governing society, it would substantially harm society itself. In this vain, I agree with the conclusion that public nudity should (with caveats) generally be illegal.

    Basically, I don’t think that walking down the street naked should ever be legal. As much time as I spend being naked around people, and with naked people, I really want a choice on the terms for when I’ll encounter nudity. I’m completely fine hanging out naked with someone at a nudist resort or a nude beach, or standing up naked on a podium for two hours for artists to create art, but that does not mean that I will tolerate being stuck next to a naked person on a subway, behind them in line at the Applebees Salad Bar, across from them on a crowded bus, etc.

    Themes of nudity that I think should be tolerated in American society:

    -Nude beaches
    -Changing into/out of swimsuits on non-nude beaches
    -Legal toplessness for females anywhere it is acceptable for a man to be topless
    -Anything depicting artistic (non-erotic) nudity
    -Nudity on one’s own private property that does not involve sexual behavior
    -Public breastfeeding

    I’m very surprised that your tumblr account had videos deleted nudity, based on the hundreds of tumblr blogs I’ve seen that are very sexually explicit (my own tumblr is http://artofnudes.tumblr.com/).

    Lastly, you look good naked, keep up the good work!

    • Thank you for a well-founded and thought-out comment. In my post, I rather pose questions than attempt to answer them. I cite Mill and his commentators. All the text in quotation marks belongs to them (references are given at the end). I personally do not consider harm only as a physical assault. I agree with you that insult (an act that cannot be called victimless and harmless) or profane language in public might be harmful. I don’t like obtrusive sexually-oriented displays of nudity and I’m not sure that I want to see crowds of naked people under my windows. The most important for me is that the legal system does not put a sign of equality between nudity and obscenity. Also I believe that people in the world should be better informed about naturist lifestyle.

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