What is nudity

Love and Sex: The Invention of Shame

Man hides during sex and hides his body under clothing. Researchers only began to understand the peculiar fear of nakedness late.

When chimpanzees have sex in the zoo, according to the primatologist Frans de Waal, “many visitors turn away in shock and pull their children away from the enclosure”. Some male monkeys sit upright before copulation, spread their legs and flaunt their erect penis. The genitals of females ready to mate turn pink and swell to such an extent that they gain up to a quarter in weight.

“Visitors find the buttocks repulsive,” says de Waal. Especially when females ready to mate triumphantly turn upside down so that their genitals are even more conspicuous.

Shame distinguishes people from other living beings

Since the evolutionary paths of chimpanzees and humans separated around seven million years ago, humans have evidently developed a feeling that all other living beings on earth lack: shame. When we undress in front of strangers, our pulse speeds up, and nobody would go to work, on the street or to the supermarket uninhibitedly naked.

As soon as people come out in public, shame moves between mind and body. And yet the strange impulse has long been neglected among researchers. Scientists have only been wondering for about 15 years what advantage the development of shame brought to our ancestors. And whether, for example, naked shame actually occurs in all cultures. After all, many indigenous peoples still live naked to this day.

Behavioral researchers suspect that, unlike animals, humans have not had public sexual intercourse for several hundred thousand years. They usually retire to have sex. In any case, scientists are not aware of any society without genital shame.

Some indigenous peoples appear to be very revealing. For example the South American Yanomami: the women only wear a thin cord around the middle of their body. But if you ask them to take them off, they react as embarrassed as most European women when they have to bare themselves in front of strangers. Yanomami men tie their penis up by the foreskin. But they too are embarrassed when the tape slips down.

The Kwoma in New Guinea live completely naked, but also not free from shame: They maintain strict taboos. Men should not look at women 's genitals or breasts. When a man and woman meet, for example on a path, they talk back to back.

Free movement is not necessarily a question of upbringing

Even supporters of free physical culture mainly look one another in the eye. Talking about sex is taboo in most nudist camps. “Human body shame does not seem to be culture-specific,” writes the Heidelberg ethnologist Hans Peter Duerr in his five-volume work on the “myth of the civilization process”. Rather, it is characteristic of the human form of life in general.

At least from a certain age: Children usually have no problem showing themselves naked. Often they have to be asked by adults to put on clothes. Only in elementary school age does the view change. Nudists then find their offspring prudish: the offspring suddenly even covers their genitals in the nudist milieu.

Members of an Israeli kibbutz who wanted to raise their children to treat the opposite sex in a shameless way had a similar experience: the boys and girls rebelled against sharing bedrooms, showers and toilets until the kibbutz authorities gave in.

The well-known behavioral researcher Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt sees the fact that shame develops against educational pressure as an indication of an adaptation to ancestral history. He assumes that, over the course of millions of years, a complex of genes has established itself in the genome of our ancestors, which promoted shame behavior. These hereditary dispositions possibly controlled certain processes in the brain that evoked that peculiar emotional excitement.

A “primal shame” that later developed further. Even today we can still guess what a pre-form of human shame may have looked like in our closest relatives, the chimpanzees: low-ranking monkeys sometimes withdraw to sexual intercourse. Otherwise, they may be disturbed and chased away by those of higher rank in the middle of the act.

When weaker males approach a female ready to mate and notice that they are being watched by a more powerful male, they also respond with a reassuring gesture: They avert their gaze, look at the ground and grimace in a "full closed grin", a human one Smile comparable expression of embarrassment.

The higher-ranking chimpanzees immediately recognize the signal - and refrain from attacking. “The desire for seclusion probably also has something to do with sexual competition for us,” says Frans de Waal.

Without the feeling of shame, people would think about sex all the time

In this way, it could be explained in terms of evolutionary biology why primordial shame developed further in the course of human incarnation: Hiding sexual intercourse and genitals ensures undisturbed coexistence, says Eibl-Eibesfeldt. And that was beneficial for a being for whom the group, social coexistence, served as life insurance. The shameful behavior prevented constant rivalries among the early hominids.

In addition, the secret sex could have saved from danger. "During the act, the person is so devoted to his partner that he no longer clearly perceives the environment and is therefore vulnerable," says Eibl-Eibesfeldt. If he constantly saw exposed genital organs, it would constantly arouse desire. And that in turn would distract people from other activities.

So it was shame that made the process of civilization possible? In any case, the Tübingen evolutionary biologist Thomas Junker believes that cultural achievements such as agriculture, animal husbandry, urban planning and science developed because humans - without sexual distraction - could muster the necessary time and concentration for them.

Amazingly, body shame, at least in women, relates not only to the genitals but also to the breasts. The British zoologist Desmond Morris attributes this to the upright gait: early hominids - like chimpanzees - were still fixated on the buttocks of the females. When our ancestors started walking on two legs, the sexually stimulating areas of the body may have shifted to the front.

Hominid women with fuller breasts, reminding male partners of buttocks, may have been particularly sought after and could inherit the new trait. As the breasts became a sexual signal, the feeling of shame shifted to them as well.

Since people of all races are familiar with naked shame, researchers assume that it is one of the essential characteristics of Homo sapiens and that humans have covered their genitals for at least 100,000 years. First probably with plants, then with leather, later with textiles. The clothing also gave people the ability to control their charisma.

The long, wide robes of medieval nuns and monks, for example, disembodied people and rendered them sexless. Quite different in the early modern age from around the 15th century, when this worldly pleasures were no longer completely taboo: fashion-conscious European men wore huge pubic capsules that highlighted their penis and gave the impression of a constant erection. The feminine curves gradually emerged in women's clothing.

The nudity business presupposes shame

And since the 1970s “we experience public nudity as an everyday occurrence”, according to the philosopher Michael Raub. Advertising, films and mass media celebrate playing with nakedness. Everywhere people present skin, billions of dollars are turned over with the freedom of movement. But that in no way means that we live in a society free from shame, notes Raub. Because the business with sexual stimuli does not require shamelessness. But the shame itself.

While chimpanzees were satisfied with just looking at the genitals of their conspecifics, Homo sapiens also focused on completely different areas of the body. "Since humans covered their genitals, their entire bodies were sexualized in the course of evolution," says Thomas Junker.

Playing with nakedness only works because people can perceive the delicate skin of an earlobe or the soft curve of a knee as erotic. Shining eyes, full lips, well-formed limbs were decisive for the choice of partner and thus a selection factor.

As much as shame seems to distract from the body, it may well have brought about the beauty of the human body in the first place.