Familial and societal attitudes toward nudity, and the effects on children's development
William D. Peckenpaugh
California State University, Sacramento
School of Education
The study of children's sexuality is similar to a trip through the desert in California: long stretches of nothing, interrupted by brief flurries of activity and interesting sights. Alayne Yates (1979) cites the sparse and confusing history of scholarly study of the general subject of children's sexuality, and specifically the lack of any concise reference materials for parents and educators. In the United States, as well as most other English-speaking countries, research of this nature has historically been seen as unnecessary (the mildest reaction), intrusive (a common belief among educators: children's sexuality is seen as the purview of the parents alone), or evil (especially among individuals and groups subscribing to certain religious codes and dogma). The impediments to research present a special problem for families and groups that do not share the prevalent views regarding sexuality in general, and nudity/modesty in particular. Smith and Sparks (1986) give numerous examples of families who are nudists, either "social" or "at home," who routinely hide that aspect of their lives for fear that others will find out and disapprove. They fear disapproval because they do not have any well-developed base of scholarly research to support their beliefs that the body is a normal and healthy entity, and that non-sexual nudity is not harmful for children (and is actually beneficial). [Nudists are generally classified as follows: "social nudists" participate in nude recreation and lifestyles in the company of others, such as at beaches, clubs, or other gatherings; "at home nudists" might not participate in group activities, but do not habitually wear clothes at home when circumstances do not require them, such as when sleeping, relaxing in the yard, or simply when in the home alone.]
Fortunately for nudist families, several researchers have taken an interest in the subject of nudity and children's development. Unfortunately, few others have chosen to replicate their research, possibly due to the reasons outlined previously (Yates, 1978). Following are four summaries of recent and relevant studies.
Aquilino and Ely (1985) studied the attitudes of parents toward the normal sexual development of preschool children. Eighty-one parents with children three to five years old were surveyed regarding the sexual activity and curiosity of preschool children. Subjects were parents whose children attended day-care centers in North Carolina towns. An author-designed questionnaire was used, containing questions relating to parental knowledge, responses to children's sexuality, and comfort with children's sexuality. Subjects also gave information about their age, sex, marital status, religious affiliation, and education, as these factors were seen as potential influences on response outcomes. After individually completing the questionnaires, the subjects were encouraged to participate in group and/or individual question-and-answer sessions. The authors did not state whether any of the subjects were nudists, and it is doubtful that they considered this a potential influence on responses [as it was not included].
Childhood influences on adult adjustment
The next study again queried adult subjects. Lewis and Janda (1988) examined the relationship between adult sexual adjustment and childhood exposure to nudity, sleeping in the parental bed, and parental attitudes toward sexuality. Two-hundred ten undergraduate university students were recruited as subjects. All subjects completed an extensive retrospective questionnaire measuring three basic experiences during childhood (operationally defined as the period from birth to eleven years): sleeping in bed with the parents; parental attitudes toward and comfort with sexuality; and viewing parents, siblings, and friends nude. Information on current sexual comfort and adjustment was also obtained using an extensive questionnaire.
Children's perceptions of nudity
Goldman and Goldman (1981) chose children as their subjects, as opposed to the previous two studies. Research involving children can be problematic, but can also be quite revealing. The Goldmans interviewed 838 subjects from North America, England, Australia, and Sweden. Subjects' ages ranged from five to 15 years old. Each child was individually interviewed and asked questions designed to elicit responses indicating the child's understanding of wearing clothing, nudity (as viewed by society as a whole), and modesty. The responses were coded and scored according to the Kohlberg scale of moral thinking, in order to assess each subject's level of cognitive reasoning for the answers given. No references were made to the family nudity status, although this again may have been an influential factor.
Nudist and non-nudist perceptions
The last study may be the most useful resource for nudist families. Story (1979) interviewed 264 three- to five-year-old children and their parents. These subjects were chosen and matched based on family nudity status: "social nudist," "at-home- only nudist," or non-nudist. Subjects were all North Americans, with approximately equal numbers sampled from all geographic regions in the United States. The parents were given individually administered interviews to determine the children's ages, sexes, weights, and birth order. The children were interviewed separately; they were asked to tell whether they liked certain body parts, using as references line drawings of nude children of the same sex and race as the child being interviewed. The children were also asked to identify the most- and least-liked body parts, with an explanation for each.
The studies' summaries are presented in the order above.
Aquilino and Ely (1985) found that most parents were knowledgeable about the normal sexuality and curiosity of preschool children. Subjects reported that they would have mostly positive responses to children's sexual behaviors, although some behaviors were tolerated less depending on sex (self-stimulation of genitals more tolerated in females than males), and some were not tolerated at all (children of opposite sexes "playing doctor"). Most parents, in spite of their high degree of knowledge, were still uncomfortable as the sole arbiters of their children's sexual development. Most wanted reassurance and validation from both the researchers and the other parents that their attitudes were within the societal norms.
Lewis and Janda (1988) found a positive correlation between childhood exposure to nudity and adult sexual comfort. The authors point out, however, that some would see this as a reason to prevent childhood exposure to nudity, as their measures on comfort included acceptance of lifestyles that many would consider immoral or undesirable (such as premarital sex, or acceptance of homosexuality). The other factors (sleeping in the parental bed and parental comfort/acceptance of sexuality), while not germane to the narrow scope of this review, also demonstrate a positive correlation with childhood exposure and adult sexual adjustment and comfort.
Goldman and Goldman (1981) found that English-speaking children were the most adamant that clothes were necessary, even in hot climates; North American children were the most insistent. English-speakers were also less likely to advance to the highest level of moral thinking with regard to reasons for embarrassment when nude, and reasons for wearing or not wearing clothes. The Swedish children seemed to score consistently higher, and seem to be much less clothes-insistent, although they live in a colder climate and would have more reason to expect that clothing should be worn. The Goldmans point out that sex education in the schools is compulsory after age eight, and the northern European traditions of sauna and FKK ("freikorperkultur," or "free body culture") are well established in Sweden.
Last, Story (1979) found that while non-nudist children most often disliked their genitals, nudist children were the opposite, most often naming the genitals as the most-liked body part. In addition, nudist children did not identify any particular body parts they disliked (the only possible exception being the skin--not because of racial coloration or deformity, but because of sunburn or too little tan). Family nudism was found to have a higher correlation to body self-concept than did sex, race, or geographical area. Nudist children consistently scored higher than non-nudist children in all areas of body acceptance, self- concept, and self-image.
The results of the research presented would seem to speak clearly and with force: children's exposure to nudity is not only not harmful, it appears to be beneficial. Children who are thus raised grow up to be adults who are comfortable with their bodies and their sexuality. However, this seemingly clear relationship is not at all clear to most parents, nudist or non-nudist. Yates (1978) theorizes that most parents are unaware of these studies for two reasons. First, nudists are still widely (and erroneously) perceived in our society as sexual deviants: people who obtain sexual stimulation by engaging in nude recreation. Those who are not nudists generally have no direct personal experiences to disprove this fallacy, and many nudists are afraid to reveal their status for fear of being ridiculed, prosecuted, and persecuted. Second, the study of human sexuality has made amazing advances in the knowledge of adult sexuality in the last one-hundred years--this is seen as appropriate, as adults are clearly sexual beings. The same research with regard to children has advanced much more slowly, as researchers are loath to study in this area that is still seen by many as unnecessary, intrusive, or evil. The research that has been done has been sparse, and generally has not been replicated. This lack of replication has led to a general lack of credence by those who rely on the literature for their professional opinions, and these people are the ones who directly advise parents. Thus, we are left with the advice of Dr. Spock [warning us of dire consequences], who performed no research of his own and apparently bases his conclusions on children's exposure to nudity on one anecdotal incident involving his own son, and Dr. Joyce Brothers [warning us of "terrible guilts and frustrations"], who performed no research of her own and apparently bases her conclusions on normal children's exposure to nudity on her work with emotionally disturbed children (Smith and Sparks, 1986).
We see from Aquilino and Ely that parents generally do not trust their own judgment regarding questions of children's sexuality. We see from Smith and Sparks that many widely published "experts" are not experts at all, but rather individuals with personal opinions who also happen to be widely read by naive and insecure parents. Last, we see from Yates, Story, Lewis and Janda, and the Goldmans that there is convincing evidence that children's exposure to nudity is actually beneficial in a social setting. It should therefore be quite clear that the answer to the question, "Is children's exposure to nudity harmful?" should be, "No," and the burden of proof is upon the so-called "experts" to perform and replicate the research already offered in support of their opinions to the contrary.
Aquilino, M.L., & Ely, J. (1985). Parents and the sexuality of preschool children. Pediatric Nursing. 11(4), 41-46.
Goldman, R.J., & Goldman, J.D. (1981). Children's perceptions of clothes and nakedness: a cross-national study. Genetic Psychology Monographs. 104, 163-185.
Lewis, R.J., & Janda, L.H. (1988). The relationship between adult sexual adjustment and childhood experiences regarding exposure to nudity, sleeping in the parental bed, and parental attitudes toward sexuality. Archives of Sexual Behavior. 17(4), 349-362.
Smith, D.C., & Sparks, W. (1986). The Naked Child: Growing Up Without Shame. Los Angeles: Elysium Growth Press.
Story, M.D. (1979). Factors associated with more positive body self-concepts in preschool children. The Journal of Social Psychology. 108, 49-56.
Yates, A. (1978). Sex Without Shame: Encouraging the Child's Healthy Sexual Development. New York: William Morrow and Company.
©1996 W.D. Peckenpaugh. All rights reserved.