Monthly column from author/activist
David Steinberg

Comes Naturally #114

Silencing the Body Electric

"The more things change, the more they stay the same."
-- French adage

You'd think we were back in the stagnant '50s, the way people still get all worked up whenever a little playful nudity shows up on the landscape of daily life. After fifty years of radical confrontation and expanded social consciousness around a thousand different aspects of sex, sexual orientation, and gender, it would seem that something as harmless a little bare skin would simply be too insignificant to show up on social crisis radar screens, even among folks a good deal more conservative than you and I.

Well, nice thought, but for all our real progress on these fronts over the years, plain old nudity still seems to be as real an issue as ever, out there in what passes for the Real World. The shift from Clinton to Bush as icon of national leader doesn't help, even if the shift is as much about image and style as anything else. As the White Picket Fence reality of the new administration seeps inevitably into the national subconscious, it's taking less and less to ruffle the feathers of people who want to see nothing but Pleasantville wherever they turn. Among people who have fused fear of the body and fear of sex into one bubbling cauldron of moralistic anxiety, it doesn't take much for them to feel like the devil is at their door, waiting to infect them and theirs with some rapidly mutating virus of moral turpitude.

I'm not even talking, this time, about stories that put sexual deviance or sexual diversity up for discussion on the current events chopping block. Let's ignore, for the moment, the lawsuit by Indiana state legislators to block performance of "Corpus Christi," a play about a guy named Joshua growing up gay with his twelve close buddies in modern-day Texas, and attempts by The Promise Keepers and The American Family Organization to keep a record album with the song "Jesus Christ, Homosexual" from ever reaching retail stores. Let's also skip over the story of how Leilani Rios had to go to court to hold onto her place on the Cal State Fullerton track team after she refused to quit her job as an erotic dancer. These are important stories too, but they are about something a little more loaded than simple nudity.

We know how tightly people can get tied in knots about sex that's outside their personal sense of what's mainstream. But what's been piling up in my folder of clips for possible future columns are stories about nothing more controversial than the reality of the naked human body, about the inclusion of the naked human body in some rather straightforward works of art, theater, and advertising. These are naked images that have nothing to do with sex at all. But plenty of people are steaming about them nonetheless.

Provincetown, Massachusetts, is not what you'd call a conservative town. It's best known as an artist colony and as a specifically gay-friendly resort. In the nakedness department, it's even got its very own delightful, publicly-sanctioned, clothing-optional beach. Nonetheless, the Crown and Anchor Inn, which has been showing a local production of Off-Broadway's biggest hit, "Naked Boys Singing," has been twice ordered to "cease-and-desist" showing the play by P-town's erstwhile building
commissioner, Warren Alexander. Alexander has classified the show as adult entertainment because it includes full, frontal (male) nudity, and in P-town, adult entertainment is not allowed within 500 feet of churches and municipal buildings. Both the local Town Hall and its Unitarian Church are closer than that to the Crown and Anchor.

Now, you should understand that "Naked Boys Singing" is no live sex show. It describes itself as "a musical revue celebrating the joys of male nudity in song, comedy and dance." According to reviewer Martin Denton, "the material is, by turns, gentle, humorous, sentimental, and--very occasionally--slightly raunchy." Aside from New York and P-town, "Naked Boys Singing" is being produced in London, Rome, Tokyo, Sydney, Houston, Chicago, South Florida, and San Francisco. "Seeing eight men with their members flinging around in all directions on stage while they sing and dance is just funny," Australian Director Jeremy Cumpston says of the play. "It's all about nothing more substantial than silliness and fun."

So what's the big deal? Once upon a long, long time ago (1968), there was big fuss over nudity in a Broadway play. The play was "Hair," a celebratory musical about the then-new hippie phenomenon. A year later, there was more controversy when nudity showed up in another Broadway play, "Oh, Calcutta," which went on to become a movie with John Lennon. Nudity in legit theater was groundbreaking back then. It had never happened before. Hippies, acid, free love, and the Haight-Ashbury were sweeping all sorts of traditions out to sea. People were struggling to catch up with the times. But that was over thirty years ago. The world has changed from bottom to top fourteen times since then. Have we entered some kind of time warp? Maybe Dwight Eisenhower isn't really dead; maybe he's been face-lifted into Dubya. Maybe the fact that Dubya can claim the title of Leader of the Free World encourages people like Commissioner Alexander to stand up and let their outrage at penises bobbing around on stage be known. Unfortunately, Warren Alexander is not the only bodyphobe feeling his oats these days.

Jim Kearns is a 25-year-old photographer and student at Glendale (Arizona) Community College. His photo, "Self-Portrait: Desire as Penitence," shows him standing naked with (among other things) clothespins on his genitals. The photo was published in GCC's literary magazine, The Traveler. As a result, state legislators are threatening to cut funding to the college unless GCC President Teresa Martinez Pollack, who has defended both Kearns and "The Traveler," either resigns or redefines her position on freedom of speech.

As it turns out, state legislators can't fire Pollack outright, but they do hold the college's purse strings. "If [GCC] is misappropriating taxpayer dollars and rewarding questionable art," proclaims Republican State Senator Scott Bundegaard, "I believe we should take some sort of action."

Far from anything pornographic, Kearns sees his photo as a commentary on Jesuits who practice self-flagellation and the Buddhist notion that desire is the root of all suffering. "The clothespins are attacking the most notorious organ of desire," he explains. Hardly a proclamation of free love, but the legislators are not interested in the philosophical nuances of life, suffering, or the nature of desire. They just want the picture that shows Kearns's genitals to disappear.

There's more. The University of Southern Florida recently coughed up $25,000 to settle a lawsuit by one of the school's art students, Nicole Ferry. Ferry claims she was sexually harassed by a photo that was shown by graduate assistant Derek Washington in one of her classes. The subject of the class was controversial art. The photo was a shadowy image of two torsos, male and female, embracing. I guess you could say that sex is part of the story here, but if this is sex it's neither graphic nor outside the mainstream. (You can check the photo out for yourself at It is, believe me, both tasteful and tame.)

The 250 students in instructor Diane Elmeer's class were warned that some images to be shown in class that day might offend some people. They were given the option of skipping the class without penalty. Nicole Ferry chose to stay, then sued. Her father felt she had been "exposed to crude and disgusting pornography." USF, while denying that either Washington or Elmeer had done anything wrong, decided to settle with Ferry rather than take the issue to court. As the president of the faculty Senate explained, after a recent overhaul of the state university system, "I'm not entirely sure where we stand in terms of academic freedom." USF thought it best to just make the whole issue go away as quickly and quietly as possible.

And then there's the whole brouhaha about the Summer 2001 Abercrombie & Fitch clothing catalog, which shows fun-loving, college-age men and women cavorting in the nude -- playing touch football, splashing in the pool, laughing, flirting, kissing, showering, generally having a good time -- boys, girls, alone, together. Rather lovely, really.

Illinois Lieutenant Governor Corinne Wood (Republican) is not amused. She has mounted a "Stop A&F" boycott campaign to protest the nudity. Never mind that A&F only sells the catalog to people over 18 and has it shrink-wrapped so it can't be flipped through by impressionable children. Wood claims that the A&F catalog has "35% more nudity" than its previous edition. (One has to wonder whether this supposedly precise calculation is based on number, size, or graphic impact of the photos in question.) Her website ( offers no fewer than 22 (discretely censored) pictures from the catalog ("click on photos below to enlarge") to make her point, allowing her to both capitalize on the visual appeal of A&F's nude young bodies and condemn it at the same time.

"Abercrombie and Fitch is glamorizing indiscriminate sexual behavior that unsophisticated teenagers are not equipped to weigh against the dangers of date rape, unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, Wood declares." She has rallied not only the Council on Islamic Relations, the Illinois Catholic Conference, Concerned Christian Americans, and the Chicago Rabbinical Council to her cause, but also (I'm embarrassed to say) the Chicago and Illinois chapters of NOW.

A&F spokesman Hampton Carney seems to be taking Wood's campaign in stride, perhaps even welcoming the publicity her campaign is bringing to A&F. Appreciation of nudity, says Carney, is simply a part of college experience, pointing to both UC Berkeley's famous nude activist, Andrew Martinez, and the "overwhelmingly positive" response he says the catalog has generated from A&F customers.

All of which is nothing new, but the flash point at which controversy rears its head seems to be moving backward all of a sudden. It's no longer questions of breaking obscenity laws that are at issue. Rather, people who are offended by speech and images that are clearly legal are feeling that they have the right, even the duty, to speak up and have those images and ideas beaten down by the force of public pressure. It's not coincidental that many of these people are politicians looking to make political hay from other people's biases and fears. I think it's also not coincidental that Image of Propriety George W. Bush demonstrated last November that his version of gee-gosh old-fashioned propriety could be parlayed into occupying the White House.

For a bit of cross-cultural perspective, try this on for size: New Zealand's Auckland Museum recently rejected an opportunity to exhibit the original Dead Sea Scrolls, deciding instead to go with an exhibit of body art that includes nude paintings, photographs of genital piercings, and mannequins wearing bondage equipment. The museum board decided that the Dead Sea Scrolls were "too esoteric" and that the body art exhibit would be more of a popular and commercial success. As the Australian director of "Naked Boys Singing" noted wryly, we are "much more open to [nudity] than the Americans, more laissez-faire that way, a bit more relaxed, you know."


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