I’ve gotta admit . . . I am a man who used to love me some public nudity. Some of my friends used to joke that you didn’t graduate from Earlham College if you didn’t see Jamie Utt naked. It started just after high school when my friends Zach, Jeff, and I just couldn’t hang out without a little bit of nudity. In college, some buddies and I had a tradition every semester during finals where we would stop studying, get naked, and streak the library. Weren’t we just HILARIOUS!? We would go to parties . . . NAKED! AAAhahahahahahaha.
I didn’t just find my antics hilarious, though. I honestly thought them a progressive redefinition of masculinity, one that challenged aggressive homophobia and that celebrated bodies. After all, all those homophobic dudes would cringe and “Uhhhhhh” when my dudebros and I would run around with our things flapping in the wind. And weren’t we just loving the masculine form that we had been taught from a young age to feel ashamed of and to hide? Plus, most people found it hilarious (or so it seemed)… so why not keep doing it?
A few different times, women approached me to talk about how it bothered them that I (and my friends) were always getting naked in public. Sadly (especially considering that I would have called myself a “feminist”), I never listened, simply attributing their concern to “prudishness” and their strange desire to control my free expression.
It took me a long time (and lots of times of being told) to realize what was actually going on: a simple recreation of oppressive, privileged, hegemonic, normative masculinity.
Now, I know some of my readership is saying, “What on earth do you mean by ‘normative masculinity’ and a ‘redefinition of masculinity?'” So let’s back up.
The crux of the issue is that normative masculinity is (most often) destructive and restrictive. Normative masculinity tends to reflect traditional values of Western patriarchy: physical strength, stoicism, dominance, self-reliance, control, heterosexual virility, violence, and power over. Perhaps most importantly, normative masculinity tends to devalue traditionally feminine traits like emotive expression, collaboration, non-violence, community, and power with and through (particularly when men display these traits). As such, normative masculinity restricts both men and women into roles that do not allow either to be fully realized as human beings. As such, it’s also often called hegemonic masculinity for the ways that it forces normative masculinity on everyone, even those who actively try to resist it.
One aspect of feminist theory and thought encourages a redefinition of traditional gender roles and understanding, and as part of that, normative masculinity ought to be challenged and changed.
Growing up steeped in many aspects of normative masculinity (as most men in the U.S. are), when I discovered the liberated feeling of public nudity and noticed the ways that other men condemned male public nudity as “gay,” I immediately assumed that this was part of the “liberation” I had learned about in my elementary understanding of feminism. Hence, the “progressive redefinition of masculinity” farce that I lived under for a number of years.
I’m ashamed to say that it wasn’t until about a year ago that I truly began to question how problematic my getting naked in public actually was. I’ve always found it a little strange when women streaked (though I never bothered to interrogate deeply why). I generally just hated the way that many men took it as an opportunity to “ogle some boobies,” and I felt a paternalistic desire to “protect” the women from the male gaze. Plus, it was never quite as “funny.”
A year ago I was at an ultimate frisbee tournament, and a couple of dudes and a woman streaked through the party. Of course, I laughed. Then one of the naked dudes asked me to help him “land shark” the party, an absurd display of public nudity where four folks hold up a naked person face down and with a frisbee wedged into his ass while carrying him through the party. Get it . . . the disc’s a fin! HILARIOUS!
Well, I agreed, but as I was carrying him around, I couldn’t help but wonder, “How many of these people really want this dick wagging in their face while they enjoy their drink?”
There, in that moment, I realized what so many women had been trying to tell me but hadn’t heard because I’m a privilege denying, traditionally masculine asshole who must figure things out for himself rather than listen to a woman. Every time that I ran naked through the library, I was saying to everyone there, “This space is mine. It is so much mine, that I can force my nudity on you, whether or not you like it or whether or not it makes you uncomfortable.”
I refused to consider the ways that my act of public nudity could be triggering for survivors of sexual violence. I refused to consider the ways that my act of public nudity claimed all space as mine rather than as egalitarian and public. I refused to consider the incredible amounts of privilege that it took for me to so brazenly strip down and flap in the wind.
And therein lies why I was never quite comfortable when women streaked. Rather than being a redefinition of traditional masculinity, I was simply enacting hegemonic masculinity, forcing my nudity on every person in whatever space I streaked. When women did it, though, it was actually subversive, as women’s bodies were claiming space that is traditionally masculine (since all space is masculine in a patriarchy unless we construct it as otherwise). Such an act of subversion made me uncomfortable because it exposed my act as really just another act of masculine assholery.
Dudes, we need to wake up. I recently was hanging with some folks who were discussing the wonderful trend of unsolicited dick pics. One of the guys, a known streaker, was describing how “creepy” he found this phenomenon, and I couldn’t help but wonder: how is an unsolicited dick pic any different from land sharking a party? In both cases, a man is forcing his penis into the space of those who did not ask for it. In both cases, consent is FAR from present, and in both cases, it’s a gross abuse of male privilege that, when we get down to it, is little more than sexual harassment.
To close, I want to tell you about my friend Margot. I’ve known Margot since high school, and for a long time (until she got married and learned of the wonders of consensual, committed, crazy sexy time), she wore her innocence with pride. She waited to have sex until marriage, and though I’ve taken a different route in life, I respect her decision and her commitment. Recently, though, we were hanging out, and she said, “You know, the first penis I ever saw was yours.” We laughed, but then I got sad. She didn’t have a choice in that. She didn’t have agency. Maybe she wanted the first penis she saw to be her husband’s, but because of my “hilarious” antics, I took away her agency.
And for that I am profoundly sorry.