January/February 2008 -- The town of Brattleboro, Vermont is a self-proclaimed avant-garde mecca. The busy downtown business district is rife with a self-conscious multiculturalism: flowing batik garments and earth-friendly sandals; creaky-floored bookstores and dimly-lit coffee shops sponsoring poetry readings; funky novelty stores specializing in everything from handmade paper products to hempen clothing and recycled shoes. If you saunter along Main Street during a popular event known as Gallery Walk, you will not fail to see (or smell) numerous bobbing heads covered with thick, pseudo-Rastafarian spirals.
You might also stumble upon a nudist or two.
Yes, Brattleboro, Vermont welcomes them all. At least it used to. During the past few years, a controversy has erupted over the town’s historically non-existent public nudity policy. Citizens are reevaluating their traditional position of live-and-let-live toleration.
It is a balmy evening in August 2006. So balmy that clothing seems superfluous. In response to the Brattleboro Selectboard’s consideration of a possible anti-public nudity ordinance, a group of young people strip in protest, setting up camp in a Brattleboro parking area known as Harmony Lot. The protesters are not in violation of any law, state or local. There are no Vermont statutes prohibiting public nudity.
Nonetheless, public reactions to the incident are plentiful, ranging from outrage to out-and-out applause. Several letters to the editor of the Brattleboro Reformer illustrate the divide. Guilford resident Steve Smith voiced “thanks to the public nudists” and declared that he was “proud that Vermonters are free to be nude in public.” Brattleboro native Sue Driscoll did not agree. Her conclusion was that “the normal, law-abiding, tax-paying citizens of this town need to step up and demand that the law enforcement of Brattleboro step up and take responsibility for maintaining the dignity and reputation of this town.”
The Brattleboro Selectboard deferred any official decision about a public nudity ordinance in that summer, preferring to let the issue hibernate for the winter. When nudists reemerged into the sunlight of summer 2007, the controversy reemerged with them. It seemed that Brattleboro had become a pilgrimage destination for practitioners of public nudity.
Sixty-eight-year-old Arizona resident Clayton Crowe journeyed to Brattleboro after looking at internet material that highlighted the town’s reputation as a nudist-friendly community. During his July 6 downtown tour, Crowe took in the sights. Donning nothing but a fanny pack and sandals for his excursion, he became something of a sight himself.
On July 10, fifty-year-old Whately, Massachusetts resident George Koeber preferred to view Brattleboro on wheels. He brought his bicycle, his skateboard and, oops, no clothes. Many area residents and business owners did not enjoy the view.
The Selectboard reacted on July 17 by passing a temporary town anti-nudity ordinance by a vote of 3-2. In hearings designed to consider the possibility of a permanent ordinance, citizens, business owners, and public figures debated the issue.
To clothe or not to clothe: That is the town question.
Opponents cited the threat to “freedom of expression.” Selectboard member Dora Bouboulis framed the issue in terms of rights, claiming that anti-nudity ordinances are the beginnings of a slippery slope leading to loss of rights and cultural intolerance. “It wouldn’t matter if even 99.9 percent of residents supported it [the ordinance prohibiting public nudity],” she declared, “it is not up to the board to restrict those rights.”
Others emphatically supported the proposed ordinance. In a letter to the newspaper stating that she would never shop in nudist-friendly Brattleboro again, Massachusetts resident Marsha Sessions asked, “Do you really want to be known as the town that is full of exhibitionists, perverts, and voyeurs? What about your children?” She concluded: “May God give those in your town, who are opposed to this deviant behavior, the strength to take a stand against those who are allowing this.”
On August 21, the Selectboard voted down any permanent prohibition on public nudity. However, the issue remains unresolved to many. For every voice in favor of a community au naturel, there is another in favor of mandatory textiles. To clothe or not to clothe: That is the town question.
But what principles are truly at stake here?
The debate over public nudity in Brattleboro has been framed by two opposing points of view: by those clamoring for so-called “decency” laws and a community of bodily concealment, and by those desiring “toleration” and boundless “freedom of expression.” The former represents a type of Puritanism that associates shame and sinfulness with presentations of the naked human body. The latter represents a type of freewheeling licentiousness, a morally relativistic reaction against Puritanism that seeks to counter notions of bodily shame by encouraging public displays that are literally shameless.
In current legal language (as distilled by Wikipedia), “indecent exposure” is defined as “exposure of the genitals and/or the female breast in a public place and may in some states require evidence of intent to shock, arouse, or offend other persons.” The specific language may vary; the prohibited acts may be titled “indecent exposure,” “sexual misconduct,” or “public indecency”; nevertheless, indecent exposure, variously named, is a criminal offense in all fifty states, punishable by fines or imprisonment, even possible mandatory registration as a sex offender. Some states require a sexual element, such as visible arousal or masturbation, to demarcate crime; some do not: Mere exposure of the genitals suffices. (Vermont, which does not prohibit nudity per se, does forbid acts of “lewd and lascivious behavior.” Such acts must include a sexual element and are punishable by imprisonment of up to five years or a $300 fine,) In short, the legal system seeks to shield citizens from public displays of certain human body parts.
While public exhibitionism is frowned upon in the United States, private viewing of the acts of exhibitionists has become a booming, nearly ubiquitous industry. By 2003, Americans were estimated to spend as much as eight to ten billion dollars annually on pornography. In fact, the porn-film industry produces more titles per year than Hollywood. Given this, it is not too far-fetched to speculate that some writers and enforcers of “indecent exposure laws” are probably going home after work and helping themselves to an eyeful of indecent exposure and sexual misconduct via Internet Explorer or DVD.
Not only does the United States frown upon public displays of flesh-and-blood nudity, it also in certain cases frowns upon nudity in publicly displayed works of fine art—the naked human body immortalized with paintbrush strokes or a sculptor’s tools. Vermont Governor Jim Douglas wanted a lamp, a $2,500 replica of a famous nineteenth-century nude statue, removed from the Statehouse office prior to the January 2005 legislative session. Created by Vermont sculptor Hiram Powers in 1843, the original statue, entitled “The Greek Slave,” features a nude woman looking downward, a chain attached to her wrists. As reported in the Burlington Free Press, Governor Douglas’s spokesman Jason Gibbs claimed that “It may, frankly, be awkward to explain why there is a nude Greek slave on the governor’s desk to a third-grader.”
Couldn’t the governor just explain to young visitors that the statue represents a woman captured by Turks during Greece’s war for independence? That it became an icon of the abolitionist movement before the Civil War? That it is a replica of a sculpture created by a celebrated nineteenth-century Vermont artist?
It seems that many people are every bit as squeamish about private displays of fine art containing nudity. An artist and graphic-designer friend of mine had a gorgeous original painting above her sliding glass door that featured a nude woman reclining in the snow. When I complimented her on the piece, she said that “most people don’t react that way.” She told me that a male friend took one look at the painting and blurted, “You’d better be careful with that.”
While Americans are often embarrassed and/or hostile toward fine art with nude content, the same cannot be said of photography with nude content. In fact, nude photography is a veritable gold mine. Playboy, the most popular men’s magazine, sells over three million copies per month in the United States. A popular web site called “Mr. Skin,” which boasts over 175,000 revealing pictures and video clips of roughly 15,000 naked actresses, enjoyed a revenue of $5.3 million last year, with 2.9 million visitors in June 2007 alone.
Our national ambivalence about public nudity even manifests itself in situations devoid of any sexual element. For example, despite increased awareness about the health benefits to both mother and child of breastfeeding, and despite the activities of advocacy groups pressing for legal protections for breastfeeding mothers, instances of intolerance to and indignation over public breastfeeding abound. Consider the incident in the fall of 2006, in which Emily Gillette, her husband, and her 22-month-old daughter were kicked off a Delta commuter flight after the mother refused to cover her daughter’s head with a blanket while breastfeeding. Recall the Victoria’s Secret stores in Massachusetts and Wisconsin last summer that demonstrated intolerance toward breastfeeding mothers among their employees, culminating in employee dismissal. Then there was the November 2006 Boston Globe article discussing the controversy, which noted Barbara Walters’s comment on the ABC program “The View” to the effect that a breastfeeding woman on a flight that she had taken made her feel awkward.
These incidents stand in stark contrast to the breast-hungry culture of topless bars. “Gentlemen’s” and strip clubs are a five-billion-dollar industry in America, generating approximately 22 percent of the gross revenue in U.S. adult entertainment. It is impossible to take a road trip along Interstate 95 without encountering numerous billboards inviting lonely truck drivers to seedy joints proclaiming, “We Bare All.” Such facts reveal far more than any display of naked flesh.
At first glance, these conflicting sets of cultural attitudes and behaviors—the Puritanical and the licentious—appear antithetical. Paradoxical as it may seem, however, Puritanism and licentiousness are really two sides of the same philosophical and psychological coin.
Puritanism declares that the human mind and body are in conflict or opposition—and that while the mind is the source of the good, ideal, and holy, our bodies impel us toward the immoral, degrading, and profane Licentiousness accepts this mind/body opposition as valid—but chooses the flip side of the coin. It declares: Forget talk of ideals and higher things; go ahead and mindlessly indulge your physical senses and animal desires.
We are thus offered an impossible alternative. Puritanism enjoins us to suppress our natural physical desires for sensual pleasure. Licentiousness would have us to indulge our physical, sensuous desires mindlessly, without reference to our spiritual needs. Both cultural forces sever our souls from our bodies and ask that we choose one at the expense of the other.
We are offered an impossible alternative between Puritanism and licentiousness.
The proper alternative to the false mindl/body dichotomy would reject both Puritanism and licentiousness and embrace their opposite: a conception of humans as integrated spiritual and material creatures, beings of both mind and matter, with no division between the two. The creation of a culture based on this conception of human nature cannot be achieved by passing laws or by rejecting standards as such. It will require nothing less than a radical alteration of our present understanding of what it means to be human.
Envision a culture in which the human body is welcomed into the warm sunlight of day, rather than relegated to the sunless dens and dingy backrooms of the flesh industry. Envision a culture in which the naked human body is celebrated and immortalized in priceless works of beautiful art, rather than positioned in front of flashing bulbs and sold for $3.50 from behind a grimy gas station countertop. Envision a culture in which a woman’s body is regarded as the vessel and nurturer of life, rather than as flesh to be slit open and stuffed with silicone, then shoved in the faces of unshaven truck drivers along Interstate 95.
Our response to a rigid Puritanism must not embrace a publicly promiscuous, indiscriminate parade of meaningless anatomical images. The proper response to moral dogma is not moral relativism. Many would-be defenders of sexual liberation confuse liberty with license; in so doing, they surrender our conception of the sacred to those who would frame it in religious terms, granting an exclusive monopoly where such should not exist. Puritan attitudes toward sensuousness and physical pleasure are wrong—not because humans are amoral animals without the capacity to value, but because humans are material as well as spiritual creatures capable of choosing, seeking, and cherishing values. It is this valuing element that must be redeemed from those who despise human nature.
That said, there is a rationale for insisting upon the privacy of expressions of sexuality. That rationale does not rest upon the depravity of sexuality; to the contrary, it rests upon the profound importance—dare I say the “sanctity”?—of human sexual intimacy. Sex is inherently the most intimate of human activities, but intimacy requires privacy: It cannot be achieved under a public spotlight. We cheapen the potential meaning and erode the potential power of sexuality by laying it bare in the public arena. Individuals have the right to be shielded from unchosen, unwanted encounters with intrusive sexual acts and displays in social settings.
A valid challenge to Puritanism will not entail an endless (polluted) stream of value-less body imagery. Rather, it will entail the creation of a culture in which attitudes toward the human body and its greatest physical joys are conveyed with such words as reverence, beauty, passion, ecstasy, harmony, goodness, and bliss.
And in such a culture, the most intimate quests for and fulfilling expressions of those joys will occur between individuals behind closed doors.