The Science of Sustainability

The Science of Nudity: The Skinny on Showing Skin

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The Science of Nudity

News flash – as of February 1st, 2013, public nudity is illegal in San Francisco. But well before the law went into effect, it generated a tremendous amount of debate. Lines were drawn between freedom of expression and freedom from someone else’s expression, with abundant moral, cultural, and legal arguments on both sides. That is all well and good, but in our data and research-driven culture, how might a scientific perspective bear on the debate over baring oneself?

One important thing science tells us is that humans are hyper-tuned to the sight of bare skin. We recognize nude images quicker than almost anything–faster than cars, clothed people, or faces–and we do it within 0.2 seconds. From 0.3 seconds onwards, studies show a range of emotional reactions, some of them perhaps counter-intuitive: men actually become less aggressive subsequent to seeing images of nude women. And then there are obvious results: nudity causes arousal.

But even predictable reactions such as sexual interest vary according to sex and sexual orientation. For example: female arousal depends much more on the depiction of some sexual activity rather than simple portrayals of nudity. And homosexual women are generally more aroused by images of nude women than men, whereas heterosexual women respond equally to both sexes.

Such findings may pique our interest, but more relevant to the San Francisco nudity debate is the potential effect of nudity exposure upon children. “There is the problem of the inadvertent viewer,” explains Paul Abramson, a psychology professor at UCLA and expert witness in over three decades of sex-related litigation, “And you have to consider them [kids] as inadvertent viewers in public.”

Until the late 1980s, however, little research had been done on the effects of nudity exposure upon children. Without empirical evidence, professionals were left to offer opinions based on common societal beliefs regarding nudity. “At that time,” says Abramson, “there were exaggerated horrors about the consequences of exposure to parental nudity; parents sleeping in the same bed with kids or sharing hot tubs.” Many psychologists assumed such exposure would be detrimental to children, and could even constitute subtle forms of sexual abuse.


Yet more recent evidence has challenged this assumption. An 18 year study followed children from birth until adolescence and tracked rates of exposure to parental nudity. Abramson, who co-authored an analysis of the data, concluded there was no evidence of harm associated with the exposure.

Instead, Abramson’s and other studies have generally found nudity to be associated with beneficial outcomes, including increased self-esteem, sexual knowledge, and comfort with physical contact and affection. Exposure to nudity in the home was also associated with lower rates of theft and drug use in adolescence as well as improved relations with adults outside of the family.

Yet despite these findings, Abramson thinks public nudity should still be regulated.

“I would use zoning to make it [nudity] legal in certain more secluded areas. But you would have to signal it very clearly, just like they do with strip clubs, so you don’t get the ‘inadvertent viewer’ problem. And I would also leave the option open for nudity as a conduit for certain critical free speech issues.”

Why the need for restrictions? Within one’s home, the people and settings are familiar. In public, Abramson says, “it becomes difficult to separate the nudists from the exhibitionists.”

Of course, no one expects the results of scientific studies to translate directly into law; our moral, legal, and cultural beliefs will always play an important role in shaping public policy. But what science can do is help guide our beliefs away from “exaggerated horrors” and towards evidence-based decision making. While science will rarely resolve our arguments, it can serve to inform them; and for that reason it deserves to be included in the debate.

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Category: Biology, Blog, Health

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Peter Lollo

About the Author ()

Peter graduated with a BA in Political Economy and BS in Conservation & Resource Studies from UC Berkeley in 2010. He has since worked within a number of environmental organizations throughout the Bay Area as well as founded a Berkeley recycling program aimed at reducing municipal waste. Peter has also done environmental reporting for the East Bay Express as well as the non profit organization Food & Water Watch. Off the job, he plays ping pong at his home--a skill for which he is residentially-renowned.
  • Jeffrey Miller

    "People call me rude / I wish we all were nude / I wish there was no black and white / I wish there were no rules." – Prince '81

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/B5TWMONJYPN2MUNFRSTAKQUDGA StuartY

    This law shows that even the ultra liberal city council of SF realizes that the public is disgusted by a bunch of boring gay men parading around nude and pretending that their behavior is edgy. The article might have told the truth and pointed out that the nudists are all gay men and not give the reader the false idea that this is similar to the French Riviera.

    • xyshom

      Not all the nudists in SF are gay, and not all of them are men – one of the most outspoken was a straight woman. The cultural horror of nudity in the USA is absolute silliness. How can we claim to be a free people when we allow every little nuisance to be criminalized? And, of all the things to get upset about, why mere nudity? It's far more offensive to me that people use the bathroom without washing their hands, or sneeze all over everyone else, or spit on the sidewalk, etc.

      • CCCrazyPannda

        Ill be quite honest that I'm one of those people that becomes desensitized to something I experience in abundance. Half the fun of sex is nudity, and if everyone is walking around naked, it becomes old hat and less interesting – takes the fun out of it. So I'm glad we live in a culture that nudity is sexualized, rare, and therefore has value.

        Besides, given the obesity problem in this country, this law is for the best…

        And of course there are public health concerns. If you're a hippie nudist, you probably don't have the best hygiene, so if you sit on stools/chairs/benches/buses, who the hell knows how sick you're going to make other people…

      • old soldier

        or say, invade other countries based on lying to your own people. nude. so bad.

      • Max Spencer

        Surely you mean instead, one of the more outspoken was a straight woman. Unless you have a facility for arbitrarily grouping the most outspoken, whoever they might be.

    • Russell Mills

      StuartY, like most prudish know-nothings, broadcasts his delusions as if they were facts. As one of San Francisco's urban nudists I am acquainted with most of the others, and I know for a fact that most of them are heterosexuals. This has little bearing on the nudism controversy itself, but the pervasive disregard which neurotic prudes have for truth and rationality should make us suspicious of everything they say and think.

  • Brian

    “it becomes difficult to separate the nudists from the exhibitionists.” ??

    What exhibitionists? Nude amongst the nude? Rather an anti/ … hm, er, letdown for them I should think?

  • erin805

    There was a 10-yr study done in 1986 * 1996 on the effects of nudity on children by Dennis Craig Smith, published as "Growing UP Without Shame." In looked at kids over time and found no harmful effects and some good ones (fewer divorces, stronger tolerances for persons different from themselves.

  • johnwerneken

    What a totally bizarre example of the idiotic belief in society. Sure there are a lot of people but there is no society, only a mixture of cultures and competing institutions, virtually none of which institutions deserve the least bit of loyalty or obedience. My God next thing you know they will be passing laws just because everyone agrees on something. So why not make Pi 3.0 it would be easier to remember….WHO CARE what people wear, or don't wear? F. the law. In fact, law is supposed to make my life easier and more convenient. To the extent that it does not, it is not law but someone else assaulting me, and I respond accordingly – with however much violence is required to remain in defiance of such a law.
    This would be a good excuse for a civil war. Where did I put my nukes anyway?

  • castro street resident

    i live in the castro and i am sick of hearing about the "nudists." what nudists? what i saw every weekend until recently walking around my neighborhood was mostly a group of exhibitionists – who don't live in my neighborhood – in silly wigs, dark sunglasses, genitals adorned some kind of jewelery or fabric and strategic body parts oiled for maximum exposure. i don' t call them nudists. they are exhibitionists or perverts. as for that "straight female" named gypsy who became their poster child – she lives in the east bay. why doesn't she try walking around naked in her own neighborhood!

  • http://twitter.com/nonnald don

    thankfully they included a map to show us where San Francisco is.

  • bluepearlgirl

    Arent there bigger issues in our society that we should be focusing on and putting our tax dollars towards? In fact, dont answer that. THERE ARE MANY! however, our media and corporate run society says that we must not talk about sex and we must be ashamed of the bodies that we were born into. Yet at the same time, using these things to promote and sell.. well.. everything. No wonder we are such a confused era of human beings here in America. It truly is becoming a place that is so ass-backwards and clearly into brain-washing its public so to control them, that the common sense of our complex minds gets tossed aside. Our society has truly turned into nothing but big brother telling us who and what it is ok to be and who and what it is ok to hate. GROW UP AND PAY ATTENTION PEOPLE!! YOU ARE BEING HAD!!!

    • Max Spencer

      You are the first commenter ever who interrupted a question, correctly, to ask for no answer. You ought not to have asked a question if you wanted no answer, and that would have been relieving.The rest of your comment seems sensible.

      • bluepearlgirl

        I am so proud to have broken the mould! Haha. All kidding aside, the question i asked was an important part of my overall statement, however, i did not want to open this up and take the focus off the subject at hand.

        And, in regards to interrupting anything at all… I think personally, it is very difficult to interrupt anything that had already been written and posted and i was just leaving a comment after MANY others. Does that mean that all of us have interrupted something that has already been said in print? I did not know the rules…. Sorry.

  • Enrico Uva

    Just wearing baggy shorts, I get them stuck in all sorts of things. If I went around naked I'd lose a vital part of my anatomy.

  • ColderThan-aWitches

    It's so damn cold in SF most of the time. Who wants to walk around nude and worse sit on something even colder. Brrrrr!

  • Realist

    San Francisco has lots of homeless drug addicts. People who end up dying quietly on the street in the Tenderloin or SOMA. The City politicians seem fine with ignoring that. To me that is a much more pressing issue to deal with as a society.

    But nudity – I guess it touch's some evolutionary instinct that forces a reaction? While I do not enjoy nudity, and think most of the people practicing it are exhibitionists – the nudists are not doing themselves or others harm. The same can not be said of the City's homeless or its politicians.