Charity and Nudity: What’s the Connection?

Well, we were born nude, so what’s all the fuss?

Raising money for charitable purposes has been a long-time practice of most societies. And the techniques to solicit funds have been many and varied. For instance, there are currently in the Western world a plethora of yearly wall calendars showing the months and days, but in which nude, or partially nude (but provocative enough) men and women, are pictured above each month. These are often group photos of firefighters, police officers, sports teams, feminists, gays & lesbians, media folks, cancer victims, and so forth. These calendars are sold freely across the country, and for some, are ‘prized’ possessions. Many raise millions of dollars.

So why do people undress to raise funds?

There’s a peculiar panache associated here, in which normal persons believe the risks of exposing themselves are outweighed through forgiveness, by the power of the cause at hand. And in the knowledge that nakedness attracts interest. Also, if I took my clothes off and walked down a busy urban street carrying a sign saying “Support Prostate Cancer Cures”, I would most likely get arrested, or at least detained by the police. If a large crowd of us did this, we may not get detained at all, as long as we had a permit to engage in a “protest” or “march”. Pluralism in this case, vindicates. There is safety in numbers. This phenomenon is in itself an interesting topic for political science to address.

Like the separation of church and state, the separation of the body from morality is difficult, if not impossible, to completely achieve. Humans (unlike other animals) have created modesty, for reasons which aren’t clear, but which nonetheless controls among other things, body exposure in public. Being immodest in the wrong social place or in the wrong social circumstance, can bring down moral sanctions upon the person, from ridicule, to arrest. BUT, what separates out the act from moral sanctions is intent. Hence, our marchers and protesters wearing nothing but shoes and carrying only signs, may get away with it.

So, raising money for charity while one is nude, may be not only permitted, but also may attract more donations than otherwise. Nudity is OK in these settings, as determined by the law. Anyone is of course, able to scoff at, scream at, or write vitriolic letters to the editor, about public nudity. The Dukhobors know all about it from the receiving end. And the Luddites. But their exhibitions were not for charity; rather, for injustices they experienced. The intent was quite different, and they were not comfortable doing it.

It has been said that being publicly nude should be a ‘permissible instinct’, much like how parents at the beach with pre-school children let them play in the water without clothes on. The “Innocence” of children is recognized by most open-minded people. Not so, as children approach puberty. And then there are adult pool parties where after a few hours into the night someone suggests “let’s go skinny-dipping!”. Most of my friends sleep in the nude, but don’t appear with others in the nude unless they are attending a nudist/naturist resort, a private house, or are hiking or swimming at a remote lake.

Some claim raising money for charity through nudity denotes a ‘warped sexualized mind’, bereft of a sense of decency or propriety. Others see it as a fantastic way to help others and achieve a certain level of body liberation (from Victorian norms) at the same time. So this circumstance of raising money for charity and being nude publicly (in the media or in the street) presents a moral dilemma: When is the use of public nudity ‘good’ and when is it ‘bad’?

The province of Ontario in Canada passed a law 20+ years ago, making it not a crime for women to appear topless in public, unless their actions were sexually provocative. It followed from the famous Gwen Jacobs case, where she challenged the double standard (i.e., men can do it, why can’t women?) by walking down main-street in Guelph, Ontario. Since then, using partial or complete nudity for charity got a real boost in the arm. Even famous actresses got into the act, e.g., Emma Thompson.

If and when nudity becomes publicly acceptable as normal, devoid of sexual overtones at every turn, charities will have to turn to other means for raising dollars since nudity will be a yawning affair. Repetition produces normalcy and eventual acceptance, as the confronting of moral dilemmas similar to this one unwinds in society. Essentially, the more people do it, the more it will be done. Intervening variables prior to complete acceptance are especially religious and legal road-blocks.

As Mark Hauser, in his Moral Minds: The Nature of Right and Wrong (2006, p. 5) says, “To capture the pull of a moral dilemma, we at least need conflict between different obligations.” But morality is not like physics, with laws that govern empirical reality; rather, morality is socially contrived, often emotional, always polemical, and a powerful source for understanding human psychology.

Yet, we were born nude. Neither moral nor immoral. Body repression is a learned behaviour. And therefore for the enlightened there is something celebratory, joyous, and freeing, about being nude with other people, in a condition of trust, non-judgment, and community. The thirty-three million practicing nudists/naturists around the world could raise a lot of charitable donations, given the present level of body acceptance and respect for the risk-takers.

T. Hill, PhD  December, 2014

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