On the academic “literature” of social nudity… and why nudity may be “offensive”

Since we’d just mentioned this topic…

There is a well-curated list of the academic literature on social nudity at the TNS site: Academic Studies on Social Nudity. (It spills onto a second page, when one would have sufficed, so don’t miss the second half.)

The list contains about 80 items when last checked. All but about 9 of them are more than 10 years old (2003 or earlier). The most recent item is from 2011. The oldest is from 1899: “The Psychology of Modesty and Clothing”. Ironically, this is one of the few on the list that are available online for free: here. It’s an amusing read, if you have the time.

It’s actually quite an interesting article. If you can manage to navigate the extremely quaint 19th century language, the thesis of the author (William I. Thomas) makes some sense. It is that the connection between clothing and modesty is somewhat incidental. He cites examples of pre-modern societies in which people were usually naked, yet still exhibit “modesty” behavior related to their genitals on occasion. And this is not necessarily because of the genitals’ sexual function or because they are “disgusting” on account of fluids they discharge. Thomas seems to be saying, if I’ve got him right, that modesty is basically a matter of people not wanting to violate social norms and invite social disapproval, regardless of any rationale for the norms. The notion that genitals are inherently disgusting is merely a convenient rationalization for the social norm. Thomas even cites examples which have familiar analogies today, such as the way that very brief coverings of the genitals (e. g. string bikinis) are worn more to draw attention to the genital area than to cover it.

The way I’m inclined to put the whole matter is that social norms are often arbitrary and have no valid purpose other than to act as tests of an individual’s willingness to act predictably and observe social rules, no matter how arbitrary they may be. In fact, the more some rule is lacking in a sensible rationale, the better it is as a test of a person’s predictability and social compliance. And since being naked in front of others violates such a strong taboo in our society, people who like to be naked must be very unpredictable and untrustworthy indeed. This also explains much of the imperative to wear “proper business attire” in many work situations.

More generally, violating any social rule or taboo, maybe even wearing the wrong color of tie at the office, can cause a feeling of “having lost the respect of others because of improper behavior” – which is one definition of “shame”. (See the discussion of this in Question 5 here.) Shame and embarrassment are tools that society uses, both properly and improperly, to control people.

Unfortunately, most of the other articles in the list are not available online at all, unless they’re behind a paywall. (Use Google Scholar if you want to hunt around.)

Further, although most of the articles appear to be authored by academics, not all were published in peer-reviewed journals. (However, peer reviewing isn’t always worth very much in the social sciences.)

So that’s at best about 80 articles on nudism or nudity in over 100 years. And that’s under a loose standard of relevance. For instance, many deal with topics such as body image – e. g. “Reclaiming Body Image: The Hidden Burn,” which appeared in the Journal of Burn Care Rehabilitation (1992).

Not surprisingly, either, a number of other articles delve into issues of sexual attitudes or behavior of naturists and nudists – a topic of perennial concern, of course. (Much of the scant research on nudity is done by sexologists, which is actually an academically respectable field.) And some of the more academically-oriented articles are written in the turgid patois of post-modern social science. Good luck trying to decipher them.

Here’s a randomly-selected (and very recent, as it happens) example of what you’re up against. This is the abstract of “Theorising Nudist Equality: An Encounter Between Political Fantasy and Public Appearance”. It was published in 2011 in Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography.

This paper approaches in/equality theorising through the lens of social nudism. Its starting point is a left conception of inequality where systemic power and the politics of oppression displace liberal concerns with immutability, offence, and the removal of impediments. But if undoing inequality involves more than clearing away obstacles, what else is at stake? Refracted through nudist subordination, response takes two forms. The first addresses the criteria through which discrimination gets converted into illegitimate inequality. The second considers the manifold character of equality’s ambition. Reading equality as an open-ended fantasy, with material effects, that guides and is shaped by moments of political unsettling, the paper focuses on nudism’s eruption in non-nude publics. Through these non-normative moments of public appearance, the paper addresses the relationship between equality, contact, and “lines of undoing” subordination, and asks whether the nudist/textile divide highlights the limits to group-based understandings of inequality.


So, all in all, the academic literature that’s deemed even loosely relevant to naturism leaves a very great deal to be desired.

This entry was posted in Naturist philosophy, Nudity, Psychology of nudity and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to On the academic “literature” of social nudity… and why nudity may be “offensive”

  1. Pingback: On the academic “literature” of social nudity… and why nudity may be “offensive” | simplenaturist

  2. British Naturism has for several years had a policy of encouraging and supporting research. That is beginning to bear fruit, and the results are good for Naturism, as expected, but I can’t say much more than that at present.

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