Why do men seem more comfortable with nudity?
Some thoughts on social attitudes to nudity and the social expectations on women which seem to make men more at ease with nudity. The short version: slut shaming and rape culture are not conducive to women being able to be naked nearly as comfortably.
This is written in response to a question (the same wording as the title above) on the Q&A website Quora. It reflects something I have certainly observed in person at various nudist venues and events, which is that typically men vastly outnumber women.
There are many potential reasons, but I think most of them boil down to sexualisation and sexism, which means women’s bodies or often highly objectified, and slut shaming is rampant. In this context, nudity can feel like a potential vulnerability to both a woman’s social standing and physical well-being.
There is a widespread (misplaced!) idea that nudity and sex are more-or-less interchangeable states of being. So in many cultures and for many generations, nudity, or even being less comprehensively dressed, is often assumed to mean the naked or partially-concealed person might be more sexually open and available. As many cultures also seek to make sex itself a shameful act, and put most of the responsibility for maintaining limitations on sexual acts on women, it therefore becomes a widespread assumption that a naked or minimally-dressed woman is more likely to want to have sex, thus is a bad person, and their presence in society will therefore reduce the overall agreeableness of said society.
This is true of nudity in general, but particularly for women who are expected to gatekeep sex from men who apparently (per every excuse for rape and every time a woman is slut shamed) have no control over their own desires or actions. This social conditioning means women are then blamed for the encouragement of sex, irrespective of the fact that it is (at least) a two-person function! That guardianship is conceptually enforced by seeking to be pure, modest, and virginal — If nudity equals sex, then to be naked means you are impure and immodest.
This feeds into a general state of slut shaming, whereby any women who are actually highly sexually active, or indeed just give the perception they might be due to not being shameful about dressing in a way that exposes their body (being naked being the most exposed option), is looked down upon for the mere suggestion that having sex is something that should be anything other than completely private and limited to long term monogamous relationships.
In contrast, male nudity can be seen as a means of displaying sexual prowess and confidence, in both positive and negative contexts (ie showing off to a willing viewer vs flashing to an unwilling victim), but in either context is not seen as shameful in the same way it is for a women, because a naked man has not given away some concept of purity that women are meant to guard dearly. Men who have lots of sex, or are merely open about having sex at all, are less likely to be judged poorly for it than women living the exact same life.
The same set of cultural ideas also means that the act of being naked with others gives a sense of vulnerability. Clothing can feel like armour when in almost all cultures women’s sexuality is viewed as something men can take and use as they please. Rape and violence against women for not satisfying the sexual desires of men is a constant threat. So being dressed can feel like a way to protect from that threat, a barrier that can delay an attack, and a way to become less visible, and less inviting to sexual advances.
It doesn’t work of course, fully dressed women get raped all the time, and rape is prevalent in liberal and conservative cultures alike. Naked doesn’t mean consent any more than it means sex, but likewise being dressed doesn’t mean consent is automatically sought, nor does it preclude sex. But in a world with little protection from sexual violence, even the hope of a chance of deflecting a potential rapist or abuser is a powerful thing to resist.
These social attitudes feed more broadly into fashion and how people react to other’s state of dress: Depending on the cultural circumstances, showing a face might be shameful and unacceptable, showing legs, showing cleavage, showing nipples, showing everything? The precise cultural standard varies from place to place and time to time, but there is always a line, and when someone crosses it (and then some) into full nudity there is an expectation that they are a shameful unacceptable person. As above, this puts more pressure on women than men generally too because women’s bodies are more sexualised and controlled. The most basic everyday example being the complete disinterest in male nipples in most contexts, and the absolute unacceptability of female ones in almost all the exact same places.
Because women’s bodies in particular are so controlled, and so objectified, it also feeds into a widespread sense of perfectly ordinary bodies not being adequate. Women’s bodies are perceived to be expected to meet the current trend for an acceptable and desirable form, because they are above all objects of sexual desire. Deviating from those beauty standards makes many women feel extremely uncomfortable with their body being seen at all. Not enough to simply control women’s bodies, the media and social trends conspire to make many women feel their bodies are not good enough to exist in the public domain at all.
Too fat, too thin, too curvy here, but not curvy enough there, skin not smooth enough (and certainly no sort of stretch mark, scar, birthmark, etc could possibly be seen as anything other than a flaw), too hairy (or hair in the “wrong” place despite it just growing where it grows), breasts or nipples the wrong shape or size, etc etc. Any one of these concerns (often many bundled together), makes the idea of other people seeing them naked completely unimaginable for many women. How could the world cope with such a monstrous sight as an ordinary woman not perfectly conforming to a model of sexual desirability?
Sure men share some of the issues above. Male nudity is also highly sexualised, and many men face their own body confidence issues. But the main difference is that men are not in most contexts assumed to have to be a perfect object, not assumed to be responsible for the actions of others around them, and not assumed to be at constant risk from others around them either. So men can as a result get away with being completely naked in situations where many women would not feel able to do so without compromising their reputation, or their safety, or exposing themselves as being less than some idea of perfect.
As a nudist, I surely want to live in a world where nudity is an ordinary everyday thing for everyone. Where everyone has the body confidence to love their body exactly as it comes and feels no pressure to be anything else. As a nudist, I find it plenty frustrating that nudity and sex are so often perceived as inseparable ideas. But bigger than that, as a human, I find the sexual inequality of the world disgusting and inexcusable, especially the sexual violence many women suffer. Nudist or not, that’s something we can all strive to make better!