Public Nudity: Why’s It Considered So Shameful in the United States?

Published: JUNE 11, 2015 | Updated: JUNE 16, 2022
Whether it's ritual lovemaking outside or pole dancing during a funeral, Americans fail to embrace the worldwide love of public nudity.

If you've never been to a Taiwanese funeral, and I'm guessing most of you haven't, it's full of music and spectacle. The deceased is celebrated with a large procession that can include an all-female marching band, colorful dragons, and even exotic dancers. These funerals can cost upwards of $20,000 U.S. dollars. That is more than 10 months' worth of wages for the average Taiwanese citizen. Why throw such an awesome party for someone who can't enjoy it? Tradition dictates that a lavish, loud, and sexy funeral is the ultimate sign of both respect and affection.


With rare exception, most Americans would be appalled - even horrified - at the idea of strippers at a funeral. Many would likely couch their outrage in protestations that children must be protected from gyrating body parts. Really, the puritanical beginnings of America have never quite dissipated. Generational "decency" standards and residual shame keep many Americans from enjoying, or even tolerating, nudity in public places. It doesn't have to be this way. In fact, in most of the world, it isn't.

Haiti and Public Sex

In Haiti, practitioners of Voudoun engage in fertility rituals that include public sex. Is this done for some minor deity Americans have never heard of? Nope, it occurs on the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi. Yes, the guy who loved animals and helped end the Crusades. America has hundreds of churches that bear St. Francis' name, but I've yet to see any of them encourage public giggity on the lawn during Sunday service. If they did, you can bet that the police would be called. That's how seriously we take public displays of of our bodies and sexuality.

So, Why Are We So Afraid of Our Bodies?

It's no secret that the rest of the developed world has more relaxed standards about nudity in general. Nude beaches span most of the world, but are a rarity in the U.S. If you should happen upon a clothing-optional beach, there will literally be warning signs letting you know you may see *gasp* naked people.


In the U.K., France, Italy, Canada and Australia, seeing naked breasts on prime time TV is common. Ukrainian television features full-frontal nudity after 9 p.m. In America, you have to pay extra for that. Should a so-called "wardrobe malfunction" reveal one of the forbidden body parts, Americans prepare for pearl-clutching spectacle that is sure to follow. What is it that leads modern adults to think that public nudity is somehow damaging to children? After all, toddlers love being naked. It's only when adults impress upon them concepts like "shame" and "decency" that they come to equate nudity with discomfort and learn that keeping covered is the only correct thing to do in most circumstances.

One problem with public nudity in the United States is that it's so rare that when it does happen, it's immediately sexualized. Attempts to exploit the nudity are, unfortunately, common. The University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) used to hold an event near graduation called The Naked Mile. Every April, mostly nude students would run a mile or so to celebrate the end of the semester. I say "mostly nude" because participants often wore running shoes and wore backpacks. Officially, the event was discontinued in 2004 after police threatened to arrest anyone who ran. While that seems like an absurd use of tax dollars, it's worth noting that low-level pornographers flocked to the event in the hopes of getting footage of what they called hot naked co-eds.

In America, some people are outraged by partial nudity even when it's obviously not sexual. Breastfeeding mothers have been fighting for widespread rights to discretely pump breast milk or feed their children in public places like restaurants. It's hard to imagine anyone being upset at a baby eating in a restaurant, but nursing mothers have been chastised, asked to leave, and even threatened with arrest. Increasingly, laws are being enacted to protect these women, allowing them to feed their children wherever they need to be fed. Why is that even necessary? Are we so sensitive about public nudity that we object to women using their breasts for their main purpose?


Maybe pole dancing at a funeral is not the best place for Americans to begin embracing public nudity. But shouldn't we start somewhere - other than Burning Man, I mean? We'd love to hear your ideas for removing the social stigma from nakedness and embracing our inner nudist.

Wednesday Lee Friday

Wednesday Lee Friday is an eclectic writer of fact and fiction. She has worked as a reptile wrangler, phone sex operator, radio personality, concierge, editor, fast food manager, horror novelist, and she owns a soap shop. She prefers jobs that let her sleep during the day. Everybody knows all the best art and literature happen at night! Wednesday's work has appeared in Women's Health Interactive, Alternet, Screen Rant, The Roots of Loneliness Project and Authority...

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