Imagine you are a gay man or woman happily married to someone of the same sex. To celebrate your love, you post a vacation photo with your significant other, kissing on the beach. None of your friends or family members object to the image, because they have known you and your spouse for many years, and they are accepting of your relationship. Except, of course, for Uncle Fred. Uncle Fred is a Bible-thumping evangelical, and he strongly opposes gay unions. For him, homosexuality is wrong. What’s more, Fred believes that the sight of two men kissing is harmful to his children. They might get the wrong idea, he argues. God forbid, his kids might even turn gay! So Fred contacts Facebook, marking your content as inappropriate. You are hence banned from Facebook for a week. In addition, you are told that if you post such an offensive image again, your account may be suspended for life. The message this sends is clear. Being homosexual is wrong, and for the “good” of the community, you must hide your perverse lifestyle from the public eye.
In today’s enlightened world, Fred’s complaint would go unheeded. We now recognize that anti-gay rhetoric is discriminatory. We accept the LGBT community because we know that different forms of sexual identity are not the result of mental illness, and that the sight of two men kissing will not harm our children. We have sufficient evidence that children born to gay parents turn out to be upstanding and productive members of society. Whatever harmful beliefs were once directed at the LGBT community were largely based on the Book of Leviticus, and early Judaism, and have no place in our modern world.
And yet, Facebook continues to discriminate against a minority group. Naturists were once treated with the same level of condemnation and hostility as the LGBT community. Like social lepers, early nudists lived as outcasts, in the most isolated parts of the country, and were subject to police raids and arrests, even when their activities were hidden behind closed doors. Most naturists I know do not tell people what they do on weekends. Many of us live in a state of anxiety (I know I do) over how we might be judged. I have met people who traveled outside the country just to be free of clothing, yet refuse to visit the club a mile from their house for fear of being discovered. I have known people who have lost their jobs because of their online naturist profiles. But while acceptance of the LGBT community continues to grow, naturists remain marginalized and misrepresented. By acting on our beliefs, we risk placement on the Sex Offender Registry List, to be forever associated with rapists and pedophiles. While nudists are permitted to promote their ideology in writing, we are never allowed to act upon that ideology. In being censored, we are silenced, and our arguments made ineffectual. There is no greater proof of nudism than to see whole families, on the beach, at campgrounds or in family pools, naked and innocent.
I have heard the argument that the nudist movement cannot be equated to the LGBT movement, because people decide whether or not to become nudists. But a similar point was made against homosexuals. Because they are not a race, it was argued, they could not be afforded civil protections. But what mattered to the courts, ultimately, isn’t whether someone chooses to be gay, but whether a person has the right to make that choice. Just as we have a right to choose how we live our lives, whether to be Christian, Jew, Muslim or atheist, we have the right to live without shame. But while many will contend that we have that right already—nobody is arresting nudists in their homes anymore—how can we say we are free, when we are banned from social media for expressing what we believe, or arrested in public for acting on it? Would we say that a Christian was free to be Christian, if we were to ban photos of him at church? Or arrest anyone wearing a cross in public on the grounds that it was indecent and offensive?
Disapproval of naturism stems from the same archaic traditions that once stigmatized homosexuality. After eating from the Fruit of Knowledge of Good and Evil, man realized that he was naked, and that he should not be so. To challenge this view is to challenge the story in Genesis, and by extension, a belief in God. Fortunately, we no longer base our ethical intuitions on the writings of sheep herders who lived thousands of years ago. In the study of social science, we concluded that the LGBT community poses no harm to others, but this same methodology is neglected with regards to nudism. It is assumed—on no evidence whatsoever—that the sight of nudity must be harmful to children. On the contrary, statistics show that greater censorship is detrimental to our youth. Compare teen pregnancy rates in the United States to countries where nudity laws are lax or nonexistent. According to the CDC, teens in America are six times more likely to become pregnant than in The Netherlands, four times more likely than in Germany, and three times more than in France. Clearly, our beliefs regarding nudity, children and censorship does not stand up to scrutiny.
What is most hypocritical is the fact that, even if we were to ignore the evidence in favor of religious dogma, we cannot truly shield our children from nudity. The question is not whether they will see it, but when, and in what form. Will it be natural and wholesome, or perverse and degrading? Your child is going to run across a penis or a vagina at a friend’s house, or when they become curious enough to search Google. Whenever it happens, they are more than likely to learn the wrong things about themselves and their bodies. If they watch porn, they are going to develop unrealistic and harmful conceptions about intercourse. With a partner, they may be told, at some point in the relationship, that they are too fat or too skinny, or that they don’t measure up in some way. Without reference, they may begin to hate themselves. By censoring all nudity, no matter the context, social media platforms like Facebook rob its patrons from learning what humans look like, and by extension, perpetuate the very unnatural, unrealistic and unhealthy depictions of nudity permeating the Internet. Some people will counter that it is not up to social media to teach kids values, but studies show that parents have a small influence on their children’s lives, as little as 20%. Kids are smarter and more curious than we give them credit for, and they will seek answers on their own. So just what are we teaching them, when the only nudity they are ever exposed to is a Google search? All the while, my children are subject to scenes of violence, drug use and torture, none of which Facebook chooses to censor.
I was told by a close friend that Facebook has the right to ban me, because I agreed to their TOS (Terms of Service). In the same way, African Americans acquiesced to “Colored” restrooms at their place of work, and gays in the armed forces agreed to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. “If you don’t like it,” my friend told me, “don’t use it.” But with over a billion customers, Facebook has become more than a business. It is an essential part of modern life, a crucial way to connect to friends and family, a virtual space for people of every background and belief system to meet and exchange ideas. It is a place where everyone is free to express his or her identities. Except nudists.
To be fair, Facebook has rewritten their TOS policy dozens of times as a response to public outrage. Breastfeeding mothers were the first to win the battle against censorship, followed by women who have undergone mastectomies. Frederic Durand-Baissas, a 57-year-old Parisian teacher and art lover, had his account suspended without warning, for posting Gustave Courbet’s 1866 “The Origin of the World,” a painting Parisian schoolchildren can see on field trips to the museum. Since then, Facebook has included special concessions for paintings.
Now a case can be made, that if Facebook can censor pornography, why not nudity? Where does one draw the line? But acts of sex, by and large, are private matters. To my knowledge, there are no social movements advocating for public sex. While exhibitions may put their sexual activities on display, their intent is to shock and offend. There is also an element of sexual gratification to exposing oneself. Nudists, by contrast, do not care to be seen—and most nudists I know are shy, abhorring attention altogether. For a nudist, nakedness is a non-issue. We wake up naked, eat breakfast naked, watch TV naked, and go to bed naked. It is a way of life.
Facebook bans two things outright: hate speech and nudity. And yet, it is utterly absurd to equate those things in any way. Hate speech incites hatred, which in turn causes harm to others. But how does censoring nudity help anyone? The only thing nudity can inspire is confidence, the confidence to love and accept oneself. By equating nudity with hate, Facebook places nudists, the KKK, Nazis, and other White Supremacist groups, into the same camp.
There was a time when people were offended by the sight of a black man dating a white woman, or in seeing two men or two women kissing. In both cases, offense was used as a justification for discrimination. Even when offense is justified—I am offended, for instance, by the Confederate flag—I do not insist that my eyes be protected from it. I respect those who disagree with me. If Fred the evangelist hates nudists, he has the option to block my account, or to curse me out. To live in a free and just society, is to allow both the exchange and rejection of ideas. Only in this way can we find what is true and do away with misconceptions. But when expression is censored outright, understanding is censored, and acceptance is censored, and then censorship becomes the very thing it purports to defend. To censor expressions of identity is to censor the people who hold and cherish those identities, and in doing so, marks those individuals as something lesser, immoral. It is to discriminate and ultimately, to hate.
Fighting censorship and discrimination is a recurring theme in my work. Ironically, the nudist heroes in my book, Xandr and Thelana, are often confronted by the same kind of prejudice as their portrayals in real life. Time and again, I have had to fight Facebook for the right to advertise even the most innocent depiction of them. Not a nipple, butt-crack, or genital orifice is visible, and yet they reject it on the grounds that it is “implied nudity”—whatever the hell that means. This makes promoting nudism, and by extension, healthy depictions of the human body, all the more challenging.
The only way to fight censorship is exposure. The sight of the human body must become commonplace in all of our media, on TV, in games and in movies. And yes, in storytelling, which has a time honored tradition of challenging and reversing the status-quo.