"This public nudity nonsense is at best bad manners and at worst child abuse. What purpose does it serve to warn children about sexual predators when we allow a naked man to exhibit himself near a school?"
— June 4 Tidings letter to the editor
I still don't get it. I didn't last year, when Gen the Naked Lady was all over the front page, and I still don't. I come back to the issue now with just one goal. It's not to put down or degrade anyone else's beliefs. It's not to argue that the constitution guarantees our right to walk around naked. It's simpler than that. I just want to understand this one thing: What is it about the human body that we should be sure our young children don't see?
I don't think the letter writer I quote above is the right person to ask, because she sounds pretty locked in to what belongs in this conversation and what doesn't. "Please don't give me any bull-pucky," she says, "about being proud of our God-given bodies." I know, I know, she said "please." That's good. But I can't oblige. Neither can others more religious than me. In an effort to get a clue, I googled "Why the human body is obscene" (435,000 entries in 0.23 of a second). One of the top listings was rejectshame.com (tagline: "Helping to Free Christians from the Deception of Bodily Shame"), which brims with scriptural quotes celebrating the body as God's creation, worthy only of admiration, praise and gratitude. That reminded me that branding this outrage about the displayed human body as purely Christian silliness would be a mistake.
And if it's not silliness, help me understand it.
Here are the limits to what I think I understand: Some people connect nudity with sexuality at a fundamental level and believe that exposure to sexuality can warp children. Let's leave the second piece alone today and focus on the first. Where I get lost is somewhere in the premise that a naked man walking down the street is doing something sexual. I'd like to know from anyone with the letter-writer's perspective where that notion comes from, and if you're willing to consider the possibility you've made it up out of thin air.
When the letter-writer talks about "bad manners" I think she's on to something. I don't need to understand the thinking of people offended by the sight of the human body to know that they are. I've come to place a much higher value than I did when I was 20 (and fired up with the urgent, '50s-defying cause of self-expression) on respecting other people's sensibilities when it's easy to do. Wearing clothes in public is easy, and I do it. But I can't work up aggravation about the few people who don't, because — again — I can't get into my head that what they're doing is even a little bit nasty, perverse or damaging to children, unless some other adult works hard to convince the child that they should be damaged. While we're here, I also may as well admit to hearing at least a portion of this indignation "for the children" as a cover for deep discomfort with the human body that some grown-ups don't want to own or examine.
It happened that the lead story of the very same Tidings edition that carried this letter featured a prominent Ashland man accused of watching and possessing child pornography (Sidebar: Could we have waited for this front-page story and mugshot until the man was convicted, or at least indicted, since his life in this community is now demolished whether he's guilty or not?). It was a pathetic story. Reading it just after the letter, I couldn't help wondering which childhood memory would be more likely to twist someone into that shape: seeing a naked man in public, or hearing your parents' disgusted outrage at seeing a naked man in public. Just wondering.
If you're one who would like to see this naked man jailed, or at least sent very far away, it's not likely that anything you read here will change your mind. And I appreciate people with strong convictions. But please tell me, in words so specific and clear that I have a chance to finally understand: Where does this one come from?
Jeff Golden is the author of "Forest Blood," "As If We Were Grownups" and the novel "Unafraid," with excerpts available at www.unafraidthebook.com.