On "Prudishness"

[Content Note: Rape culture narratives; violations of personal boundaries.]

My earlier post about the Sandusky trial contained an aside about communal/mandatory showering in schools and/or athletic programs upon which I wanted to expand with respect to a broader rape culture narrative.

Although, as I noted, many people report, as adults, having been deeply uncomfortable or traumatized by being forced to disrobe in front of peers and/or teachers, there is nonetheless a strong cultural bias against viewing those people as anything other than oversensitive and, quite commonly, prudish.

Charges of prudishness are one of the most valuable, and oft-wielded, weapons of the rape culture, and they are extremely effective, because to be a prude is to be uncool, frigid, a hater of sex—a charge that only works because "sex" and "sexual violence" are so routinely conflated.

In reality, prudishness is often a charge leveled against someone who simply wants the right to consent.

Accusations of prudishness, especially as a silencing strategy, are particularly pernicious among Western progressives, where an enthusiasm for sexual libertinism is considered central to the political ideology.

And of course there is good reason for that emphasis on broadmindedness about sex—racial equality, women's liberation, reproductive rights, marriage equality, gay rights, gender equality, anti-rape advocacy, age of consent laws, and all sorts of intersecting civil rights issues centered around sex, gender, and reproduction are dependent on recognizing and respecting the sexual agency of individuals across a diverse spectrum of sexual orientations, preferences, and practices.

It is also on the left where one most readily finds arguments countering deeply religious and conservative arguments that promote shame about sexuality, reproduction, and the human body itself. There is value to these arguments: To treat parts of the human body as inherently "evil," or gross, or less than is problematic, especially since those valuations inevitably entrench privilege.

But. In spaces where there is quite understandable contempt for treating nude bodies as shameful or dirty, reactions often swing wildly in the other direction, where any desire for privacy is treated as something of which to be ashamed—as prudishness.

This pattern is enacted within families, too: A generation raised by parents who are genuinely prudish, who treat nudity as something disgraceful, may raise their children in an environment in which there are no boundaries around nudity or privacy at all, and request for such is belittled or shamed.

Somewhere in the middle there exists a balance in which it is communicated that it's okay to be open about your body and accepting of all bodies, while also retaining control over who sees your body and, crucially, whose body you see.

To feel uncomfortable at the unbidden sight of another naked human body is not necessarily about prudishness. It is often about having not been given the opportunity to consent to see that body, even if one would have consented given the chance.

"It's just a human body," admonishes the Prude Policers, in defense of their right to display their bodies to anyone without solicitation of consent. But there's a lot of hostility to consent operating behind "it's just a human body" arguments. Further, that dismissive judgment elides the realities that we live in a culture in which bodies are highly sexualized; that most adults have sexual responses to some other adult naked bodies; that we don't live in a culture in which nudity is the norm; and that most survivors have had naked body parts used as vessels of sexual violence.

Even in middle school gym classes, there are survivors of sexual violence. To steal away their right to consent to reveal their naked bodies, or to view naked bodies, is cruel. To then mock them as "prudish" for what is really an expressed desire for control over their sexual agency and bodily autonomy is crueler still.

And it is a cruelty whether directed at an uncomfortable child, or an adult recalling hir discomfort in years hence.

I am not a person who is squeamish around naked human bodies, of any nature. I am also not particularly squeamish about showing my body. But I am a person who wants the right of refusal to be naked in front of someone else, and to have other adults be naked in front of me. (With the notable exception of breastfeeding mothers.*) That doesn't make me a square. That makes me a person with eminently reasonable boundaries.

No one has to share my particular boundaries in order to respect them.

And when such boundaries are held up as evidence of prudishness—oh those sex-hating feminists!—that empowers the rape culture.

(So, by the way, does treating antipathy toward sex as A Problem, instead of one of many viable opinions about it.)

Central to the dismantling of the rape culture will have to be a solid rejection of the idea that anyone who expresses any kind of discomfort about nudity is a prude. It is absolutely possible to reject narratives of shaming around human bodies while simultaneously embracing the idea that there should be boundaries around our bodies and other bodies, which need to be respected.

Boundaries around access to human bodies honors those bodies. Respect elevates their value.

If you doubt the truth of those statements, consider that nothing regards the human body with more hostility, contempt, and intent to harm than the rape culture, which has little truck with boundaries or respect.


* A subject not on-topic for this thread.

[Commenting Guidelines: Please take care to use "I" language in this thread, especially as its intent is to subvert the culture of judgment around others' boundaries.]

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