03 June 2011

Why is Nudity Shocking?

What follows is the text of another article I discovered while clearing out the study, first published in BN (the magazine of British Naturism), issue 107, Spring 1991. I trust I will be forgiven for reproducing here the whole of the short article for posterity as otherwise it has doubtless long since sunk from sight. The author posits an interesting evolutionary perspective on nudity and society's reactions to it. I make no comment on whether the author's ideas are correct or not; simply that they are interesting.
Why Do They Find Nudity Shocking?

Browsing one day in a second-hand bookshop, I found a copy of Kinsey's Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female. In a section on sex and nudity, Kinsey remarked The fear of observing the nude human body constitutes one of the most curious phenomena in human history.' He cited the example that, in strict Judaism, man and wife are forbidden to copulate in the nude. Religious objections have often been raised against nudity in art. And almost all naturists will have encountered the 'textile' reaction 'Oh, I couldn't possibly do that!'

Fear or horror of nudity is obviously an extraordinary perversion. How could an animal have been brought to the point of responding with revulsion towards the bodies of members of its own species? In animal evolution, what could be more unnatural? Social behaviour — responses to other members of the same species — has evolved by sexual and natural selection. To mate or to attempt to mate with another species is obviously a response with very low fitness: few or no offspring are produced for the next generation. To be fit in this Darwinian sense, any animal must, at the very least, have evolved favourable responses to the bodies of the opposite sex. A social animal also lives in a group with others and must be able to cooperate with them to survive. So how could animals develop fear or horror of other bodies — the exact opposite of which must have evolved by sexual and natural selection? Nobody would suppose that a peahen or female pheasant might respond with fear or revulsion towards the brilliant plumage of the males: the tail of the peacock, the collar and crest of the golden pheasant exist — they evolved by sexual selection — precisely in order to attract the females. Humans must have evolved as naked animals, just as chimps and gorillas, are naked now.

From an evolutionist's point of view, therefore, fear or horror of observing nude bodies is indeed most curious. Yet when, for example, a naturist beach is proposed, it is normal for local councillors to react with a 'shock horror' response. Of course this may be merely conventional — what is thought to be socially acceptable — for political or religious reasons. Even so, we should still have to explain why it should be thought to be socially acceptable to express horror at nudism. Most people may not really object to nudity, but a vociferous minority does appear to respond with genuine outrage. So we must ask how the normal evolutionary response should have become perverted to fear or even revulsion. I believe the general behavioural phenomenon of imprinting may be the answer.

Many people who follow natural history programmes on the television will have seen film of young goslings swimming behind the ethologist Konrad Lorenz just as if he were their mother. They had been reared by him from hatching; he had been imprinted on them as their parent. Many hand-reared animals show this behaviour. A hand-reared ram will attack humans as sexual rivals. Exposure to other species early in development can override the normal sexual preference for one's own.

Cross-fostering experiments provide a scientific basis for this explanation. Birds will readily incubate the eggs of other species. Putting the eggs of one species in another's nest produces chicks reared from hatching by the other species. Herring gulls and lesser black-backed gulls have been cross-fostered in this way. The cross-fostering males were as ready to mate with the fostering species as with their own. Females mated almost exclusively with the fostering species. This is consistent with observations that females are more discriminating in choice of mate and usually initiate pair formation. The females, and to a lesser extent the males, had been imprinted by the fostering species.

Imprinting of different forms of the same species can also occur. The lesser snow goose exists in one of two forms - a white form or a blue-grey form. The white snow goose is pure white except for grey wing tips. The blue snow goose is mostly grey tinged with blue and marked with black. Only the head, foreneck and rear underparts are white. Both forms are found together in the same population and freely interbreed. Snow geese show mating preferences imprinted by their parents' colour. A snow goose reared by blue parents tends to choose a blue mate; reared by white parents, it would choose a white mate. Offspring of white and blue parents choose white or blue equally.

Imprinting can thus strongly influence sexual preference in animals. It can produce a preference for particular forms and colours, and even preference for completely different species. Mating with the wrong species is unlikely to happen in nature, of course, though it can be produced by experimental manipulation.

Humans are great manipulators of their own appearance, particularly in their variety of dress. Even naked, they manipulate their appearance to some extent - by shaving or dieting or exercise for example. Fashionable dress or body form might easily become imprinted on babies as the standard human type. This might explain periods of conservatism in dress, especially men's dress if females are responsible for the final choice of mating. Great variety in dress would presumably break down the previous effects on imprinting, just as snow geese show no preference if one parent is white and the other is blue.

If a baby only ever sees its parents clothed, it will have the clothed human form imprinted upon it. To such a child, when it grows up, being clothed is how humans 'should' look. An aversion to nudity will have thus been imprinted. This could be further reinforced if the parents themselves had also been imprinted. Some parents react with shock and horror if they are encountered naked by their children. A parent's reactions affect children strongly, and presumably will imprint a horror of being observed nude as well as a horror of observing nudity.

If fear or horror of nudity is indeed a product of imprinting, this would explain its persistent as 'one of the most curious phenomena in human history'. Parents who may have avoided nudity on account of some religious prohibition, for example, will pass on an imprinted fear or horror of nudity to their children. This now more deep-seated fear will be passed on in turn and thus perpetuated over many generations. It is like the passing on of a gene from parents to offspring; yet it is non-genetic — an example of the cultural transmission of an highly aberrant behaviour; and it affects all the offspring, not just those who happen to receive a gene.

Does this theory have practical applications? The first is obvious: get 'em young — from birth. Babies who have always seen their parents naked may be expected to become imprinted with nudity as a normal human form. Perhaps they will then be less likely to become the 'disappearing teenagers' we hear about in BN. The second is, don't bother to argue with those who have a deep-seated emotional bias against naturism. But local councillors, whose opposition is merely conventional and whose main concern is re-election, may be more amenable, particularly to arguments based on surveys of constituents; what their constituents want, they can usually be persuaded to want too!

Peter O'Donald
Fellow and Director of Studies in Biology
Emmanuel College


  1. Found your article while researching a letter I am writing in response to having my paintings (of nudes-not sexual/exploitative) censored at a recent exhibit. Love your take on it.

  2. one shemale detected, lol :D