The first breasts I remember seeing as an adolescent child belonged to a Finnish woman who was sitting across from my brother and me in a sauna in the bowels of a Swedish ferry that was carrying us across the Gulf of Bothnia.
Though I was raised in Europe until the age of 7, my parents had moved our family back to the United States, where nudity was relegated to hidden colonies and Playboy magazines.
We visited friends in Austria on that same trip, and they invited us down to the local swimming pool for an afternoon in the water.
To our astonishment, the two teenage girls in the group disrobed in front of us, quickly pulling on swimsuits in a practiced and efficient manner.
They were not the least bit ashamed, but my brother and I, red-faced with eyes cast directly at the ground for fear of getting caught looking, took the time to find the bathrooms, where we changed into swimsuits as modestly as we could.
What was natural and normal to me in Europe had become a great mystery to me in the United States.
After reading a recent blog post by a woman who gave up wearing leggings because she doesn’t want to contribute to men thinking lustful thoughts about her body, I started thinking about the idea of what is really at fault in our society when it comes to nudity and sex.
The pervasive idea that men are visual creatures with no ability to control their base functions when faced with nudity or form-fitting leggings is ludicrous.
I know this, because I have observed it in nature.
Disclaimer: I cannot be inside another human’s mind, of course, so my observations are made by observing how people interact in certain situations involving nudity.
After the awkwardness of my adolescent years faded away, I was left with a realization that exposure to a certain amount of nudity did not produce an overabundance of lustful feelings in me.
If anything, it had the opposite effect.
You see, real-life nudity is nothing like the photoshopped nudity most American men are likely to encounter at some point as they traverse the minefield of puberty.
My wife and I visited the island of Maui for our 10th wedding anniversary, where we spent a week recovering from running the Honolulu Marathon.
Our goal was to find a beach and lounge around until our bodies healed from the race.
I wanted to find Little Beach, a small, hidden crescent of sand that had served as a great surfing location for my friends and I when I had lived on the island many years before.
Little Beach was a nude beach.
My wife didn’t seem adverse to the idea, so we packed our cooler, swimsuits and towels and made for the other side of the island.
The beach was packed with people, like a colony of bronze sea lions, as we hiked over the hill that divides Little Beach from Big Beach in Makena State Park.
We walked straight across the beach as if we had done this before, neither looking to the left nor the right. Just straight ahead.
We found a spot at the north end of the beach, and I removed my shirt but not my shorts. My wife, who is infinitely braver than I, removed the top piece of her two piece but not the bottoms.
We sunbathed for a while, before the December sun and lack of trade winds got to us, and we dashed for the water.
I body surfed in the shore break, while my wife floated in the waves just beyond me.
At first you noticed the details. It was impossible not to. The people who stood out were like me. They wore some article of clothing.
The people who blended in were completely naked.
After an afternoon at the beach, you stopped seeing any physical differences. It all ran together in one big, flesh-colored scene against a sea-blue tropical backdrop.
Men were not cruising up and down the beach gawking openly at women, and women were not gawking openly at the men. Were they gawking in secret behind their sunglasses? I can’t help but think they were all experiencing the same thing I was.
In a sea of nudity, physical differences fade away in the sameness of it all.
A few years before this, my wife and I had taken a youth group from our church to Eastern Europe.
We spent time in Budapest, Hungary and then Sarajevo, Bosnia before driving up the Dalmatian Coast to the Croatian town of Pula.
We took a couple of days off to enjoy the beautiful beaches of the north Adriatic Sea.
Like most of southern Europe, tourists come from all over to enjoy the beach either nude or semi nude, something we hadn’t anticipated with the teenage boys in our group.
These were church boys, many of whom hadn’t been exposed to nudity in any form at this point, or so their parents wanted us to believe.
Within a few minutes of our arrival at our campground, our neighbors came over to welcome us.
They were a stout little East German couple, and the wife, who wasn’t wearing a top, had the largest, most unavoidable breasts I had ever seen.
The pastor who was traveling with us greeted them bashfully yet cordially, and he tried to shield the boys in our group from the very comfortable couple who were extolling the virtues of the area boisterously.
Not wanting to just let the opportunity go, the pastor decided to pull the boys in for a talk that evening.
In the discussion, it was revealed that during the day on the beach, they had seen all manner of nudity. Old men, young women, old women, young men.
And after seeing the variety of the human form on display, they had decided that it was neither gross nor attractive. It was just what it was – a lot of flesh in various stages of being cooked by the hot summer sun.
My point in all this is that we can go in the direction that Veronica Partridge suggests in her post. We can dress more modestly to help men overcome their lust.
If that is indeed the issue.
It strikes me that it seems to have worked so well in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries where women are never raped for covering up from head to toe.
Or we can realize that human sexuality is far more complex than simply covering up what our mothers gave us.
Modesty is certainly an aspect of it, and I begrudge no one their desire to dress themselves and their daughters modestly.
But as a father of two sons, I don’t want them to view sexuality through the veiled idea that they are monsters with no ability to control their base appetites, and that for them, women must suppress their own identity for fear of waking the beast inside each man.
While my wife and I don’t intentionally expose our kids to nudity, we’ve never shied away from it when we find it in the wild.
We’ve taken our kids to hot springs around the world where nudity is common. Our purpose was to enjoy these beautiful spaces, not necessarily to seek out places that happen to appeal to people who enjoy the same places without their clothes on.
It’s safe to say, at the teenage stage, this is far more uncomfortable for them than it was a few years ago. And I understand that from my own traumatizing exposure to Scandinavian breasts on a ferry in the Gulf of Bothnia many years ago.
But I would far rather teach my sons to see women as unique counterparts rather than sexual objects. I would rather they see the sea of flesh and its sameness than have it hidden away where they have to deal with their own desires feeling as if they are unnatural and evil.
None of this is to take away from the idea that we have a problem in this country where men objectify women and act on their desires in heinous ways.
Men certainly do act like monsters at times, and it’s not difficult to see why they are portrayed that way by media.
I personally don’t believe it’s something women can fix by what they wear or say or do. I believe men are responsible to fix this by the way they act around women, the way they treat women and the way they model those things for younger men.
If you are raised in a society that views sex and the naked body as shameful, then you will believe that your feelings about those subjects are shameful and wrong, and yet you will have to deal with those feelings just the same, because they are as natural to us as any other part of our humanity.
Schools are doing a better job of taking the shame out of sex education. Teenage pregnancies are down, because information is better today than it was when I was a kid.
Still, we laugh and giggle when it is brought up at the dinner table or when there is an awkward moment on a movie, rather than addressing it and demystifying it.
Wear leggings, don’t wear leggings, it’s not what we see that will make us better men. Exposure to a lot of nudity won’t make us better men either. The porn industry worldwide is destroying healthy notions about sex for millions of men every day.
But getting further from what is natural to us, from what we were born with, what we once lived like, with how some societies still freely interact, won’t solve the problems either.
Sex is sacred to the core of our being, and yet we cover it up and pretend like it’s not. Which confuses and confounds us.
Especially the kids.
We call it dirty and profane, and yet we can no more rip out that part of our lives than we can laughter or sorrow or empathy.
So rather than watch my boys turn into men who carry the same mysteries and stigmas hanging over them, I want to empower them to own that part of their lives, to nurture it, to carefully maintain it and to model the care and affection for the people they will eventually love, for their own sons and daughters one day.