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Modern Sexuality: A Case Study on Nudity:
Sex

Modern Sexuality: A Case Study on Nudity

I suppose it was only a matter of time before Playboy decided to stop running nude photos, but now that it’s happening it’s still a reminder of how far we’ve evolved—or devolved, some may argue—in terms of our notions about female nudity and how sexual liberation is portrayed in the culture. For a generation of boomer men, Playboy was a liberator, and certainly for me as a member of Gen X, finding my father’s stash of Playboy’s in the bottom cabinet of his nightstand was my gateway to the world of nudity and sexual imagery. Despite my preferences, the nudity in Playboy was fascinating because there was nothing to compare it to; the illustrations in the copy of The Joy of Sex my parents kept hidden in their closet were powerfully erotic, but they were only drawings. The photographs in Playboy were tactile and alive with the color of flesh, and sometimes nude men appeared in the layouts (merely decorative and never the main attraction) and in the stills from the annual Sex in Cinema rundown. Playboy and, later, other magazines were my introduction to the idea of the male gaze as I lay on the green shag carpet next to the water bed in the groovy San Fernando Valley of the mid-1970s.

As 1970s kids we had no helicopter parents—we navigated the world more or less alone, our explorations unaided by parental authority. In fact, my parents and the parents of my friends seem, in retrospect, incredibly permissive in comparison with today’s parents, who document their kids’ every move on Facebook, keep them in safe spaces and award them ribbons, trophies and gold stars just for trying. Our parents were not around all that much, or more accurately, they left us to our own devices.

That meant our parents were fairly lenient about the entertainment we consumed. Sometimes R-rated movies were fine and sometimes they weren’t, depending on what they contained and how far they went. This laissez-faire attitude about content would not be acceptable for today’s snowflake kids, but in the 1970s it was not unusual for an 11- or 12-year-old to have seen multiple screenings of The Omen in the summer of 1976 (brought in by a friend’s older sibling) or Saturday Night Fever in the early winter of 1978 (my mom took me because she had a crush on Travolta) or to listen to the racy original cast recording of A Chorus Line or flip through Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins novels or hear adults openly talk about drugs or watch sketches about people doing cocaine on Saturday Night Live or be drawn to the allure of disco culture and unironic horror movies. We consumed all this, and nothing ever triggered us. We never freaked, even though the darkness and the bad mood of the era were everywhere. In the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, pessimism was the national language—pessimism as a badge of hipness and cool. And in a pre-AIDS society, sexuality was discussed casually, without anxiety or menace. The body was free of all signifiers except pleasure. There was no fear or dread in sexual imagery. It was, I’ve increasingly realized as I’ve gotten older, an incredibly innocent time even though we decidedly felt it wasn’t as we were living through it.

What happens when sexuality is available to us without investment?

It was an era when magazines were the only place to find sustained images of nudity. There was nudity in American movies in the 1970s, but you had to first watch the movie on cable and then time it in order to catch the nudity or soft-core sex scene you wanted to watch again when you were, um, alone. (This happened many times with me and the sex scene between Diane Keaton and Richard Gere in Looking for Mr. Goodbar.) We were a long way from the advent of the DVR, and VHS cassettes were not yet ubiquitous. Porn was still shown in theaters. The only way you could see images of naked people was by getting your hands on a magazine, and for many boys and girls the portal into the world of nudity was Playboy. It’s hard to remember in this era of nude selfies, porn spam and phones with every kind of sex act available on them within seconds that nudity was still taboo, a secret thing, something private, and that pictures with posed models were actually exciting. They raised the temperature; they got things going. These photos were our introduction to a deeper world of actual sexuality.

I saw my first pornographic film in ninth grade when a wealthy friend who lived in Bel Air had a sleepover. It felt incredibly taboo, and even though I knew it was terrible porn—unattractive performers, poorly shot—it still offered a jolt. I understood I had crossed into another world with no looking back. As southern California kids, it wasn’t until we were mobile with cars at 15 and 16 that we began to obtain and trade cassettes like contraband. I use that word because at a certain point the availability was so fraught with difficulty and there were so many impasses that the films were still surprisingly hard to come by. Our needs demanded an incredible amount of sheer will and planning, but the testosterone-crazed energy of adolescent-male sexuality aided us in getting what we desired. Added note: In its own way the hunt was part of the fun.

Of course, some 1970s feminists complained about Playboy and porn in general. As males, we were confused: What was wrong with looking at beautiful women? Or beautiful men? What was wrong with the gender-based instinct to stare and covet? Why shouldn’t this be made more easily available to horny boys? And what was wrong with the idea of the male gaze? No ideology was going to change these basic facts ingrained by biological imperatives. For example, we learned that a man’s orgasm is a very different thing from a woman’s orgasm, so, like, what’s up? Why should we be turning away from our maleness? This is a question we still ask today. My male friends often wondered, Who is empowered here? “It’s certainly not me. I’m staring at this beautiful woman I desperately want and will probably never meet”—which intensified the fantasy of it all. It left a slight sense of punishment and disdain overlaying the enjoyment, which probably added to the experience. Doesn’t it always?

In retrospect the 1970s feminist reaction to Playboy seemed unfair to us because a man’s options pre-internet were so severely limited, especially if he were given only one or two issues of a magazine per month as a sexual aid. To add criticism to our desires seemed cruel. Today the idea of actually going to a store and renting or buying porn and having that as your only go-to source for a month is unthinkable. And yet, in a world now long gone, that’s how many men obtained sexual images. Because they were rare, we imbued them with a deeper meaning and made them more powerful than perhaps they actually were. Later, DVDs led to the incredible array of pornography on the internet, and I marveled at the amount of choice that was so effortlessly available.

And yet, this availability changed my relationship to nudity: It made it more commonplace. It felt less exciting, like ordering a book from Amazon instead of walking to a bookstore and browsing for an hour, or purchasing shoes from Zappos instead of heading to the mall and trying them on while interacting with a salesperson. And I think this cooling of excitement in all levels of the culture has to do with the disappearing notion of investment.

When you went to a record store or a bookstore or a movie theater or a newsstand, you took the time to place a certain amount of investment in buying the record or purchasing the book or watching the movie or hunting for sexual images. This investment was involved in a deeper attempt to connect with the album cover, the book jacket, the film, the porn. You had a rooting interest in enjoying the experience because you had invested effort and time, and you were more likely to find gratification because of this. The idea of dismissing a book after five pages on your Kindle, turning off a Netflix movie in its first 10 minutes or not listening all the way through a track on iTunes was not an option, because of your investment. Why would you do that when you had driven to a theater, a bookstore, Tower Records, the newsstand on Laurel Canyon Boulevard?

But what happens when sexuality is automatically available to us without investment? When a book or a record or a movie or a naked woman or five naked women or a naked woman engaged in a gangbang with five hung men is only a click away? When nudity and the idea of sexual gratification become so commonplace that you can instantly hook up with someone and see naked pics of that incoming sex partner within seconds, where the casualness of the exchange is on the same wavelength as ordering a book online or downloading a new movie on Apple TV? The lack of investment renders everything on the same level: Everything is available to you with no effort or dramatic narrative, so who cares if you like it or you don’t?

I don’t miss the awkwardness of having to buy or rent porn in person and feeling the attendant’s (imagined) judgment and shame, just as the idea of a hookup app makes things easier and more efficient for some people. But what does this efficiency do to the idea of investing in your desires and your fantasies and your ultimate gratification? When everything is just a tap away on your screen, what does this do to the idea of actually working hard and procuring something through effort? The pulse-pounding excitement—the suspense!—of the investment you once put into seeing erotic imagery is now replaced by a ho-hum and easy accessibility. This has changed our relationship to nudity and our expectations for it, as well as for watching sexual acts. There was a romance to nudity in the early days of Playboy, an ardency, an otherness and a specialness that are missing in the age of Tinder, with its speedy and Darwinian confirmation that men like only conventionally hot women and hunt for sex everywhere at all times. By comparison Playboy seems like a gentle and soothing fantasy.

So some things change and some things don’t change—even though liberal and ideological sentimental narratives wish they would. Nudity doesn’t mean as much as it used to, because it is ubiquitous in the culture now. Young women and men celebrating their bodies are free of the insecurities of previous generations. This could be seen as healthy self-empowerment or as an example of corporate narcissistic flaunting for Instagram.

Playboy has evolved. There is no reason to be a nostalgist about this, because in some ways we’re much better off. The opportunity for sexual gratification is now a tap away for many people, and nudity is no big deal. Playboy helped shape this moment. Playboy began these conversations—a revolution—so many years ago with its images of beautiful naked women. And even without nudity each month, we continue to conform to one aspect of it that will never go away: Fashions change, as does the way we access images of nudity and sex, but beauty, no matter in what form or on what screen, will always be idealized.