[A post I put up on Medium archived here in October 2015]
I consider myself lucky to have been born when I was, in 1965, and thus to have experienced the 1970s and early 1980s at the age I did.
It was different than it is now. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately; thinking that it changed and wondering why.
Oddly, what drew my attention to it this week was a video of some elephants. In it a baby elephant is climbing up some steps with that charmingly awkward way of toddlers of other mammal species. At one point the baby turns and heads away and I noticed that its penis happened to be hanging down out of its sheath — and I was suddenly surprised that the video had been posted online by the African vacation lodge where it had been shot. Then I immediately wondered at my reaction. It’s just an elephant. It’s just a penis. It’s not erect; there’s nothing inherently sexual going on; it’s just a naked body. And no surprise about that nudity. This isn’t Babar after all.
But that’s what draws my attention to the difference between my pre-and post-college years.
The attitude toward nakedness changed in America.
Even where it had been separated in the decades before the mid-1980s, nudity and sexuality then seem to have slammed back together into one inseparable lump.
To some degree that lump has long been a well-known American attitude. It’s best exemplified by the wonderful Marlene Dietrich quote (from 1962, I think):
“Sex: In America an obsession.
In other parts of the world a fact.”
For a lot of the country that attitude never changed, but in the world where I grew up, among a certain liberal, educated, inquisitive, adaptive, open kind of people — enough of whom could be found in the greater San Francisco Bay Area to make it if not the dominant culture then a strong contender for it — it did change in the middle of the twentieth century.
I grew up not finding nudity abnormal or shame-inducing. There were naked people around, adults and children, and nudity distinctly did not automatically imply sexuality. Sure, sexuality almost always involves nudity, and I was taught about sex through books like Where Did I Come From? but sex was different from ordinary, everyday being naked.
The later change in my attitude toward nudity happened so gradually to me that I don’t know when it sunk in. Sometime between that ease of my youth with being nude and this century I became the kind of person who is wary of being seen naked by other people. It was after college, definitely, because I remember going to the Kiva Retreat House and laughing over the funny social conundrum of our group running into our regular pizza delivery guy. That encounter was odd for the first few minutes but we quickly recovered in conversation in the big hot tub.
I don’t have social experiences like that anymore. I’m not socially nude anymore. But I’m also rarely nude around anyone who isn’t the person I sleep with. Even sharing a hotel room with my mother this summer involved a little silent negotiating of comfort levels to regain some of that childhood unconscious ease with changing clothes together. It’s not just a change in me. I constantly run up against social cues against nudity, or equating nudity with sexuality. America got prudish. Why?
Partly perhaps the general conservatism of the 1980s. Cue images of Nancy Reagan in her high collars and Tipper Gore in her PMRC days trying to protect America from ‘Darling Nikki’. But if it was only a normal social pendulum swing, why hasn’t it swung back?
The Clinton presidency blew the doors off pretending people don’t get creatively sexual in private and it was influential, along with the growth of information online, in helping create acceptance or at least awareness of an enormous variety of sexual expression. But with all that, though we’ve got the titillation and naughtiness, we haven’t got the same kind of normalcy of non-sexual nakedness that was part of the 1970s.
Why are Americans once again so ill at ease with their own naked selves?
What happened to that accepting mood of the late 1970s? Even men’s fashion has not regained the acceptance of wildly diverse options they had then. Acceptable manliness is still constrained, not as tightly as it was in the late 1980s and the 1990s, but far from the blossoming range of expression of the 1970s.
I do have one theory. I think we lost an enormous number of teachers of that openness and self-acceptance. One by one, AIDS took away many of those who had propped ajar the door to another way of relating to the world.
Hand in hand with the sexual revolution there had been created the option for that quieter shift away from American obsession with sex to it merely being a fact. When that most deadly and horrible sexually transmitted disease inspired fear of sex and the sticky reality of bodies, it brought with it rejection of the flesh in general.
Children were taught that fear. Sex can kill you. Fluids are danger. Contact is a threat. Stay pure to stay alive. Abstain and avoid.
The realities of protecting against AIDS transmission were a sadly perfect opportunity for conservatives to resurge against the freedoms of that open door and to slam it shut, barring it with Puritanical anti-sex and body shaming messages.
So here we are in 2015 and I’m thinking about the world I got to see, which so many of my younger friends didn’t. I’m thinking about how tightly intertwined sex and nakedness are in the American psyche and wondering how to unravel that before we export it to the world with so much of the rest of our culture.
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A good companion piece to my writing above is this article from March 1987: “One By One” by Michael Shnayerson. Vanity Fair.