Skip to main content

What's Up With America's Fear of Sex and Nudity?

M. T. Dremer is the author of four novels and received a Bachelor's Degree in Creative Writing from Grand Valley State University.

When writing this article, I scared the heck out of the content filters, which is why the ads may not be visible on this hub.

When writing this article, I scared the heck out of the content filters, which is why the ads may not be visible on this hub.

Nudity in America

Imagine the following scenario: You’re a 10-year-old kid watching a movie with your parents. You’re enjoying the movie, and everything is going fine until suddenly your parents leap from their chairs to cover the TV screen or your eyes and find the remote in order to fast-forward.

What happened during that brief blackout is going to be of great interest to 10-year-old you—heck, it would still be of interest to present you if such a strange thing were to happen. What was it that your parents didn’t want you to see? Maybe it was a violent murder or a character getting high on drugs.

In my case, more often than not, it was nudity. It didn’t matter if it was a man or a woman, a butt or a boob—it all got censored. Like anyone else, this only helped develop my curiosity for that which cannot be seen.

Why do Americans overreact to nudity?

Why do Americans overreact to nudity?

Why Do Americans Overreact to Nudity?

As I got older, the need to censor these things became less apparent, and when I turned 18, I was able to see an R-rated movie without having to worry about my mom jumping in front of the screen (though it is still awkward to watch those movies with her). Now that these worlds were open to me, I began to notice an entirely different form of censorship—one that was perpetuated not just by those people making the movies and television shows but also by most of us watching them.

The Super Bowl Scandal

You can blame the rating companies all you want— but just look at the old Super Bowl scandal as evidence of why nobody will touch certain material. For those of you who don’t remember: During a past Super Bowl, Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake performed during the half-time show. For whatever reason, Justin decided at the end of the song to rip off part of Janet Jackson’s outfit, exposing one of her breasts (though her nipple was covered . . . because that makes sense).

I was watching that Super Bowl, and the exposure couldn’t have lasted more than one second before the camera switched away. But the damage was done, and the ensuing uproar was completely out of hand. For one thing, many people didn’t even know it had happened because it was so quick. For another, it was one boob with the nipple covered; there is more scandalous stuff on basic cable every day.

Katy Perry and More

But the Super Bowl incident was neither the first nor the last time America freaked out about nudity (or suggested nudity). Katy Perry’s appearance on Sesame Street caused a similar uproar. There was no boob exposure in that one, and people still freaked out about it. And if you’re reading this article when it is horribly outdated, just fill in the blanks: “Remember when ______ wore that ______ on the ______ show, and everyone freaked out?”

The Hierarchy of Nudity Types

Different aspects of our media are in different stages of nudity denial. R-rated movies can show full-frontal, but generally, it is quick and does not involve full-frontal sex scenes. If a character is nude for too long, a movie will probably get an NC-17 rating. Watch the movie This Film Is Not Yet Rated for a greater exploration of the movie rating system.

There also seems to be a hierarchy of nudity no-nos. For example, showing butts is pretty acceptable, followed by every part of the breast except the nipple. For some reason, a tiny circle of darkened flesh is more offensive than the rest of the boob. After the nipple comes the vagina and the penis, in that order. Those last two rarely make it into R-rated movies, but it does happen. However, prolonged camera time of said genitals will quickly shift the rating.

Gay Sex

Why this hierarchy of nudity exists is a mystery to me, and the only parts that make any sense are the last two because those are actual sex organs. There is also the hierarchy of gay sex scenes, which by default are more offensive to the public than straight sex scenes. And within the gay sex scene category, lesbian sex is less offensive than two men having sex.

For example, the movie Gia depicts two women having sex, and it is regarded as a teen boy’s holy grail. But when Brokeback Mountain even hinted at two men having sex, there was a whole debate about whether or not it should be in there. Granted, those two movies might not be the best to compare, but these hierarchies exist, and they’re visible in almost every form of media.

Violence vs. Sexual Content

Premium cable channels tend to follow in the film industry’s footsteps, allowing for R-rated material on their original shows. Video games seem to be lagging behind. You can depict countless bloody decapitations, disembowelments, and murders, but you’re going to have to jump through hoops to get a pair of boobs in there. I would say that this is because people still think video games are for kids, but that argument doesn’t hold up—why is graphic violence okay for kids while nudity is not?

Violence vs. Nudity: Which Is Worse?

That brings me to my next question. Which is worse—violence versus nudity? Let’s ask ourselves this: Why don’t we want our children to watch violent shows or play violent video games? The answer, I assume, is that we don’t want our children to perform violent acts.

Now let’s ask ourselves the other question. Why don’t we want our children to watch shows or play video games with nudity or sex in them? The answer here is probably that we don’t want our kids to run out and have lots of meaningless sex and risk STDs and pregnancy.

Children's Television

So how are these two doing in practice? Kids have access to shows like Power Rangers, Ninja Turtles, Danny Phantom, and Avatar: The Last Airbender. What do these shows have in common? Violence. Now, I’m not saying they are bad shows. I’m actually a huge fan of Avatar and Danny Phantom, but it is clear to me that violence is a part of those shows, and no one is shocked to see it; it’s just part of the story.

Video Games

The same is true of video games. One of my nephew’s favorite video games was Super Smash Bros, where Nintendo’s famous mascots beat the snot out of each other. It is important to note here that violence doesn’t necessarily mean blood—just any sort of hostile attack/battle between two parties (though kids certainly find a way to get their hands on the newest Mortal Kombat game).

I’ll often point out to my brother that my nephew probably shouldn’t be playing or watching certain things because of the violence factor, and his only argument is that we played or watched the same things when we were kids, and we turned out fine. I hate that argument because it ignores the problem, but the consensus among my family is that even with violence, kids turn out okay. I doubt every family feels this way, but the very fact that violence is allowed to have a debate shows how it is separate from nudity.

With nudity, there is no debate; the answer is always no. There is never a speck of nudity in children’s shows, and the mere thought of it sends a nation of parents gasping. What is it that is so offensive about nudity—specifically, human nudity? Non-human animals have been appearing nude on television for ages.

Why hide nudity from kids?

Why hide nudity from kids?

Why Hide Nudity From Kids?

I remember a time in elementary school that a lot of us probably experienced. It’s when you find that medical book in the library that shows pictures of naked people. It’s always so scandalous and exciting. But the only reason these medical pictures have any power is because of how much emphasis censorship has put on them. If children had already been exposed to naked people prior to seeing the book in the library, would that book ever get picked up? Do kids hide in corners looking at books about martial arts, or do they just run home to play Ninja Punch-Fest 4?

Despite how much people try to avoid letting their children see nudity, teen sex and pregnancy still exist. Part of that is just that all teenagers are horny, but hiding that stuff from them has only seemed to make it more appealing. Other countries are more lenient with sex and nudity in the media, and as far as I know, they aren’t churning out sex-crazed adults.

Nudity and Shame

That brings me to my next point; though I talk a lot about the effects of violence and nudity on children, the truth is that this censorship doesn’t stop at age 18. As I mentioned above, a movie can be filled from start to finish with violence and only get an R rating, but if you fill it from start to finish with nudity, you’re looking at an NC-17. Television shows like Dexter glorify serial killers, and that’s seen as okay, but if a show glorified a prostitute, would it ever get green-lit?

The biggest thing that gets me about the violence-versus-nudity debate is that violence represents pain, anger, and hostility towards someone or something else. Nudity represents the truth of the human body and sometimes sexual pleasure and (hopefully) love.

Now, I understand that not every sex scene is about love, but at least it has the potential to be, whereas violence is never about love. So why is it that the human body, without any coverings, is so offensive to the American people? Why is sex viewed as more dangerous than stabbing someone with a knife? It’s no wonder so many of us are self-conscious; we’re told to hide and be ashamed of everything vulnerable and natural about ourselves. And don’t even get me started about masturbation; you might as well be punching a puppy because that’s how guilty America thinks you should feel about it.

Now, out of all of this, my message is not that we should run porno on TV 24 hours a day to get everyone used to it. But maybe we could freak out a little less if a boob happens to cross the screen. Sex and nudity are a part of human culture, but you wouldn’t know it by watching our movies and television shows or playing our video games. We treat it like it is something to be hidden and ashamed of.

I understand that our media is more sexually graphic today than it was years ago, and I also understand that sex is often used to sell products, but there has always been some threshold of explicitness, and I suspect there always will be. There will always be something that is "too far." One can make the argument that we need this threshold in order to maintain a functioning society—but if that is the case, why is there such a double standard compared to other forms of offensive content? And why do sex and nudity seem to be singled out as the worst of the bunch in America?

Fun Facts

  • When posting an article about America’s fear of sex and nudity, the advertisements were blocked by the automatic content filter (which kind of proves my point).
  • Though it was completely unintentional, this was my 69th article.
  • When suggesting tags for this article, “Ninja Punch-Fest 4” (a made-up title) was listed above “Super Smash Bros” and “Danny Phantom,” the latter two of which are real products.