How did we lose the simple fact?

[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.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

A good companion piece to my writing above is this article from March 1987: “One By One” by Michael Shnayerson. Vanity Fair.



media I’ve enjoyed recently

Advertising and Selling

Morgan Spurlock: The greatest TED Talk ever sold (TEDtalks)

Full Price Beats Penny Saved for Selling Some Items (60-second Science)

Candidates Affect Viewer Reactions to Ads in Debates (60-second Science)


Michael Pawlyn: Using nature's genius in architecture (TEDtalks)

Jacqueline Novogratz: Inspiring a life of immersion (TEDtalks)

100,000-Year-Old Art Studio Discovered (60-second Science)


Bill Gates: How state budgets are breaking US schools (TEDtalks)

Patricia Kuhl: The linguistic genius of babies (TEDtalks)

Science Grad Students Who Teach Write Better Proposals (60-second Science)

Doodles and Drawings Help Cement Concepts (60-second Science)

Food and Drink

Student Researchers Find Secret Tea Ingredients (60-second Science)

Molars Say Cooking Is Almost 2 Million Years Old (60-second Science)

High-Pressure Food Treatment Can Kill Microbes And Up Nutrients (60-second Science)

Health and Growth

Charity Tilleman-Dick: Singing after a double lung transplant (TEDtalks)

Molly Stevens: A new way to grow bone (TEDtalks)

Gamekeeper's Thumb Condition Outlives the Occupation (60-second Science)

Test Tells Viral and Bacterial Infections Apart (60-second Science)

Poultry Farms That Stop Antibiotics See Resistance Fall (60-second Science)

Endurance Exercise Has Stem Cells Make Bone Over Fat (60-second Science)

Carbon Nanotubes Impale Compulsive Cells (60-second Science)

Online Gamers Help Solve Protein Structure (60-second Science)

Health Data Could Spot Genocide Risk (60-second Science)

City Cyclists Suck In Soot (60-second Science)

Rapid PCR Could Bring Quick Diagnoses (60-second Science)

Pathogen Genomics Has Become Dirt Cheap (60-second Science)

Kid Scientists Show Medicines Can Be Mistaken For Candy (60-second Science)

Fever Increases Numbers of Immune Cells (60-second Science)

Nature and Sexuality

Christopher Ryan: Are we designed to be sexual omnivores? (TEDtalks)

Mole's Extra Finger Is Wrist Bone-us (60-second Science)

Full Moon May Signal Rise in Lion Attacks (60-second Science)

Send Ants to College (60-second Science)

Sea Lampreys Flee Death Smells (60-second Science)

Toxoplasma Infected Rats Love Their Enemies (60-second Science)

Modern Rivers Shaped By Trees (60-second Science)

Upright and Hairless Make Better Long-Distance Hunters (60-second Science)

Electrolyte Balancers Set Stage for Multicellularity (60-second Science)

Flesh-Tearing Piranhas Communicate with Sound (60-second Science)

Politics and Philosophy

Jody Williams: A realistic vision for world peace (TEDtalks)

Martin Jacques: Understanding the rise of China (TEDtalks)

El Nino Ups Conflict Odds (TEDtalks)

David Puttnam: What happens when the media's priority is profit? (TEDtalks)

Steven Pinker: Violence Is Lower Than Ever (60-second Science)

Technology and Physics

Johanna Blakley: Social media and the end of gender (TEDtalks)

Leyla Acaroglu: Paper beats plastic? How to rethink environmental folklore (TEDtalks)

Dan Berkenstock: The world is one big dataset. Now, how to photograph it… (TEDtalks)

Medieval Armor: Was It Worth the Weight? (60-second Science)

Traffic Cameras Save Millions in Canceled Crashes (60-second Science)

Juno Mission Gets Goes for Launch (60-second Science)

Channeled Chips Can Spot Substances (60-second Science)

Smartphone System Saves Gas (60-second Science)

Sound Sends Electron to Specific Location (60-second Science)

Moon Not Made of Cheese, Physicist Explains (60-second Science)

Friendship is not a business transaction.

RT @mortari: “Friendzoning is bullshit because girls are not machines that you put Kindness Coins into until sex falls out.


Brilliant essay. Here’s another bit:

I cannot state this clearly enough: if you really believe in equality, then you have to acknowledge the fact that women have a right to say no. That no matter how pure and true your feelings, your ladylove is under no obligation whatever to reciprocate them, because friendship is not a business transaction, and women are allowed to want male friends. Yes, it is difficult and sad and heartbreaking to love someone who doesn’t love you back, and doubly so when that person is a friend. Believe me; I speak from experience. This is not a fun thing to endure! But discounting the woman as a bitch, a user, a timewaster, a whore with no taste who only wants to sleep with arseholes instead of Nice Guys like you is not on. It is pure, unadulterated sexism: the attitude that friendship with a woman is only ever a stepping-stone to getting into her pants, such that if the pants-getting is off the table, then so too is the friendship.

Which, frankly, is bullshit. If you don’t care enough about someone to enjoy their company and respect their decisions when sex is off the table, then that person is right not to sleep with you, because enjoying someone’s company and respecting their decisions is pretty much how sex gets on the table to start with.

Saturday Discardia

Need a little chest freezer?


5.3 cubic feet. Nice for those who make soups or like to minimize their shopping trips to Trader Joe's.

$90 and you pick it up at my place in the Castro, SF. It's not heavy.

Still under 5 more years warranty against compressor failure. Have manual, warranty & receipt.


Inside view of freezer with 7oz mac & cheese boxes for scale

Selling the catsuit. *sigh*


Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 10.57.41 AM

Most unfortunate.


From the 2003 work Xmas party. Of course someone gave me two copies.

Nice folks at Nirvana on Castro St


When I first moved into this apartment I got a nice welcome from Brent-Dawg at Nirvana.

Another cool receipt doodle from Brent-Dawg at Nirvana



I'd forgotten how damn cool our cards were at SoftDevices


And that my old title was "Mission Commander".

Ah, the good ol' startup days…

Cool Halcyon sketch on the front of the awards book from 3 years ago


Why yes, I am one of those stinking liberals


(The joint membership is with my grandfather, who died at the end of 2001 but inspires me still)

gone now, but I always liked the business card for Friendly Spirits


Can't knock that phone number either.

Mysterious to-do list from my former housemate, Chris P.


Screen Shot 2015-03-05 at 11.07.05 AM

disappointing 16th St restaurant


walked by there for years, finally tried it this past year, underwhelmed

old shopping list found among other papers


vintage probably ~2004-2005

Christmas Revels, 2004, 18th Century Scotland theme


Dance-Along Nutcracker, 2004


Good advice when you want to focus


Working/playing hard today


Amazing how much you can done when you just sit down and finally start doing it (and when you decide that a mobile phone just sent straight to Flickr is good enough photo quality instead of thinking you need to scan everything).

Good restaurant I went to a few years ago with family


Pleasure-inducing map received on first visit to the mighty Powells Books




The logo of my friend Ron Pottol's old employer Appaloosa Interactive always reminded me of the Playboy character Femlin

Juan Muñoz sculptures


from the December 2001 issue of Smithsonian. I'd really like to see these someday.

Almost filled up recycling bag #1 today



old self portrait by my friend B.J. West


Probably from 1992 since this is, I believe in the St. John St. apartment building we were living in in San Jose then.

Pictures from [a certain person] of a visit to the walrus pool at the zoo


Happy walrus

Another friendly walrus comes to visit


cuddly walruses


VERY happy walrus!


Lest you think that masturbation is some hominid-only sort of thing…

Title portion of an article by Chris Hudak


Can't remember when this was from. First half of the 1990's I'd guess.

My favorite Heifer Project picture


copyright Heifer/photo by Darcy Kiefel

The most intense illustration of the work Doctors Without Borders does


The mailings with the bracelet and the hole card just shake you to realize how extreme the situation is. Children are starving to death. Still. Despite all our worldwide wealth, we still let children starve to death. And it's a slow, painful process for child and parent. And it's preventable.


The wonderful look of the first Lord Loves A Working Man demo album


Which is a CD, not a record, of course.