Why exactly are some New Yorkers so exercised over the fact that a small group of women are choosing to go topless in Times Square? Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post finds objections to the presence of these self-described entertainers in one of America’s busiest pedestrian thoroughfares, a magnet for tourists from around the country and around the world, simply bizarre. Rampell maintains that these women are acting lawfully, as the New York Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that it is discriminatory to prohibit women from going topless but not men, and I have no reason to doubt her. But the legality of going topless is not the only issue at stake here.
To Rampell, concerns over toplessness are a silly distraction from the more pressing challenges New York City faces. What is so awful about exposed breasts, she asks? Noting that it is women who are more likely to object to exposed breasts than men, Rampell hypothesizes that these objections are rooted in a kind of self-hatred: “Women are taught — it’s not innate, as clearly evidenced by the many unfazed young children who ambled by the desnudas on Sunday — to hate women’s bodies,” and so she sees the controversy over female nudity in Times Square as a teachable moment. Rampell seems to believe that by being indifferent to the toplessness in Times Square, or indeed by affirming its value, we could strike a blow against this hatred of women’s bodies.
Though I can’t speak for everyone who objects to public toplessness, I have a different view. Far from being rooted in a hatred of women’s bodies, or of men’s bodies, for that matter, such objections are rooted in reverence for a certain culturally specific understanding of sexual intimacy.
In his 2005 book Interaction Ritual Chains, the University of Pennsylvania sociologist Randall Collins offers a fascinating theory of why we crave sex and what exactly we get out of it. While Sigmund Freud maintained that sexual drive is a naturally given quantity, and that erotic life is shaped by the ways in which we repress and otherwise shape it, Collins makes the case that in fact the amount of sexual pleasure-seeking varies from one society to another, and that it varies over time. To suggest that societies in which people engage in quite modest amounts of sexual behavior are necessarily more “repressed” or otherwise pathological than others is to ignore the possibility that they’ve simply hit upon a different equilibrium.
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Sexual behavior of some kind is all but universal across human societies. Short of radical breakthroughs in cloning, sexual reproduction is and will almost certainly continue to be the way we propagate the species. It is also true, however, that much of the sexual activity that takes place in modern societies is of the non-reproductive variety. Collins offers a theory as to why this is the case.
The highest form of sexual intimacy is that which deepens solidarity and commitment between two people. Taboos designed to protect this form of intimacy strike me as valuable.
According to Collins, humans engage in sexual intercourse not just, and not primarily, out of a selfish desire for genital pleasure. Rather, we crave sex because we crave the intense sense of solidarity that it can create, and this is true for women and men alike. One can seek genital pleasure independently, but to do so is to miss out on the excitement that is generated by the rhythm of sexual interaction, in which people share an intense mutual focus, and coordinate their physical movements to great effect. While the immediate outcome of successful sex might be orgasm, the deeper outcome is a strong sense of intimate solidarity — a more clinical term for what most of us call love. Though sex and love are not the same thing, Collins describes sexual intercourse as the ritual of love, which “stands as a marker announcing both to participants, and to nonparticipant outsiders, that this is a very strong personal tie.”
So what does any of this have to do with exposed breasts? Collins observes that though breasts are not the primary sources of sexual pleasure, they serve as a symbol of the sexual intimacy that is so central to love. “For that reason,” Collins writes, “they are both taboo to outsiders, and a special emblem of being an insider, hence targets for sexual possession.”
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One perfectly coherent view is that the symbolic importance of breasts is in fact a terrible thing that we ought to work against. When Rampell dismisses the totemic significance of exposed breasts by writing, “I mean, they’re just breasts,” and noting that most adults have them, she is taking something like this view.
I don’t find this view distasteful, exactly. Rather, I find it awfully limited. “Puritanical” attitudes toward exposed breasts are not puritanical at all, if by puritanical we mean “anti-sex.” They are the outcroppings of deeply held cultural beliefs that have been badly undermined by a market-driven sexual culture, in which the symbols of intimate solidarity have been commodified and devalued. What are the beliefs I have in mind? The most important one is that the highest form of sexual intimacy is that which deepens solidarity and commitment between two people. Taboos designed to protect this form of intimacy strike me as valuable and worthy of respect.
That so many New Yorkers are bothered by nudity in Times Square is to me a hopeful sign. Despite all of the cultural and institutional forces that push us toward believing that nothing is sacred, or that nothing belongs solely to the intimate sphere, we are seeing a gut-level rejection of the notion that sex is just another physical recreation.
— Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review.