Comes Naturally #92 (January 14, 2000):
With the Intent to Sexually Arouse

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January 14, 2000
Copyright © 1999 David Steinberg


The Difference Between Nude and Nude

The city of Erie, Pennsylvania, is unhappy about its strip clubs. Of course, Erie is not alone in this regard. Lots of municipalities are unhappy about their strip clubs, ranging from small towns in Iowa to the Big Apple itself. If you're of a mind to keep track of such things, you'll discover that there is a complicated, unceasing game of cat-and-mouse litigation being played out in every corner of this grand nation of ours, all about what to do about the long-standing national pastime of enjoying nude and semi-nude erotic entertainment. Public erotic entertainment is, as it has been for some 200 years, a substantial industry offering what is at once a pleasurable erotic staple to millions of Americans, and a cause of virulent upset and anger to millions of others.

According to one industry source, there are some 3000 strip and lap-dancing clubs nationwide, most of which have people who would love to shut them down. Sometimes these oppositional efforts involve the imposition of impossibly strict zoning requirements on erotic clubs, requirements that restrict them to a few, usually highly marginal, parts of town. Sometimes the regulatory efforts focus on what dancers may do while they're on-stage, how they interact with customers, or what they wear.

Laws of various kinds are continuously being passed, and continuously being challenged in court. Arguments emphasizing freedom of expression are weighed against arguments that defend society's right to regulate what it considers lewd and obscene behavior. Over and over and over again.

Since these battles are fought in the peculiarly choreographed circumstances of various courts of law, the issue often comes down to that annoying legal need to draw a definable, if highly convoluted, line between whatever "improper" behavior some law wants to prohibit and the more "proper" forms of behavior it wants to leave alone.

Now, try to think about this from the point of view of the people who get so upset by things like nude erotic dancing that they want to find ways to make it illegal in their town or neighborhood. How would you go about legally defining what makes one dance movement artfully sensual but another morally repugnant? What is it about displaying one part of the human body that makes that act morally, aesthetically, or psychologically different from displaying another part of the anatomy? Is there something objectionable about revealing or intentionally drawing attention to a part of the body in a particular way? Is it the part of the body that's at issue, or the nature of the attention being called to it? Can an erotic dancer touch her (or, more rarely, his) body -- clothed or unclothed -- in any way she likes, or are some forms of touch categorically different from others? Can a dancer have physical contact with members of the audience? Where can she touch them, and in what way? If a dancer touches the shoulder of someone in the audience, is that in itself some kind of sexual act? What if she touches his arm? His chest? His knee? His thigh? What if she leans up against him? Rubs against him? The nuances are infinite.

Hundreds of court cases rise and fall on hairs split as finely as these. Ultimately, if the parties concerned have the will and the money to pursue all the available channels of appeal, it becomes up the nine men and women who sit on the Court of Courts in Washington, D.C. to say what is permissible and what is not. (Remember that when you vote next November....)

* * * * *

Let Me Turn You On

Erie, Pennsylvania, decided that what it found objectionable had something to do with nudity. Not all nudity, however -- just the kind practiced in nude dance clubs like the one called Kandyland (now defunct). But just what was it about the nudity at Kandyland that made it different from nudity, say on one of the town beaches? A difficult question, but one that the lawmakers of Erie were obliged to address. Erie may have the right to ban certain kinds of public nudity, but it most definitely does not have the right to enforce laws against public nudity in some cases while not enforcing it in others. That kind of selective enforcement is prejudicial and unquestionably unconstitutional, whether we're talking about public nudity, racketeering, serving alcohol to minors, or illegal parking. Obviously, you can't be in the business of letting white people go nude but not black people. You can't let men go nude but not women. You can't let churchgoers go nude but not heathens. And you can't let beachcombers go nude but not strippers -- unless you can explain why those nasty strippers should be treated differently from all the nice sunbathers on the beach.

Which is exactly what the lawyers for the City of Erie tried to do when they found their law up for ultimate review before the United States Supreme Court in November.

Back in 1994, as the city's attorneys explained to the assembled justices considering the case of City of Erie v. Pap's A.M. (dba Kandyland), lawmakers in Erie were not interested in banning all public nudity in their questionably fair city. (Why Erie didn't ban public nudity outright is not clear. Perhaps there are more than a few naturists who enjoy sunning themselves au naturel on the shores of the Great Lake best known for its rampant pollution -- chemical, not moral.) According to attorney Gregory Karle, the eerie Erie ordinance was written with the goal of prohibiting only that public nudity -- pay attention, class -- that had the explicit intent of sexually arousing someone. What's more (lest the ordinance take the fun out of the sex lives of every married couple in town), the law only prohibits nudity designed to sexually arouse someone other than the nude person's spouse. Thus, when Justice John Paul Stevens inquired as to whether the law would apply to someone simply walking down the streets of Erie nude, Attorney Karle responded that law would only apply if that person were intending to sexually arouse someone other than their spouse.

"All right!" I smiled to myself when I read this particular news clip. "Now we're down to the heart of the matter." This is, after all, what lies at the crux of all the less straightforward legal maneuverings of a hundred similar cases presently working their way through the courts. It's not really nudity that offends those who find nude erotic entertainment objectionable, it's what they experience as the insult of sexual arousal -- the blatant, unapologetic intent to be sexually arousing, to be sexually arousing to people they don't even know, to be sexually arousing to people who pay money for the privilege of being sexually aroused. What's getting all the Good People's dander up is the intrusion of deliberate, somewhat impersonal, mercantile sexual arousal across the supposedly sacred erotic boundary of the martial threshold. Amen.

It appears that, thanks to the efforts and, indeed, the honesty, of the casemakers from Erie, it has become time for the white-haired ultimate arbiters of American legal standards to take this particular judicial bull by the horns. The justices are expected to issue their ruling this Spring.

* * * * *

Devil Desire

Thus does the city of Erie, Pennsylvania, proudly stake its moral standing on the classic American attitude toward sexual desire, the one that so consistently ends up with everyone tied up in knots of guilt and self-hatred. In all likelihood, Attorney Karle will bring an obscene amount of antisexual grief into the world before he dies, but we can be thankful to him for being such a true believer in his cause that he forces the rest of us look his issue directly in the eye.

Stated simply, Attorney Karle and the aldermen of the City of Erie believe that enjoying being sexual aroused by anyone other than one's spouse (which means, among others, being aroused by one's unmarried mate, mate-to-be, adolescent boyfriend, or girlfriend -- but that's another story), is (choose your language) sinful, wrong, or at least a social problem severe enough to require society's intervention through the power of law. These people believe that extramarital sexual arousal of any form, regardless of whether it leads to any sexual acts that could be called marital "infidelity," is the devil at the door, the destroyer of homes and families, the heart of darkness, a root cause of the very moral chaos that we all know is destroying the fabric of our society even as we speak. Being sexually aroused by someone other than one's spouse, say these people, is something to be resisted, denied, eliminated when possible, strictly controlled when not. It is certainly not something that we should allow to be embraced, encouraged, and enjoyed at the 3000 Kandylands that open for business night after night from sea to shining sea in this great nation of ours.

Now, ridicule and moral imperatives aside, I believe that Attorney Karle and the self-declared Good Citizens of Erie have a point of legitimate concern, however inappropriately they focus their consternation on the owners of Klub Kandyland. Uncontrolled or badly managed sexual arousal does have the potential to cause a great deal of personal and social misery and confusion. Sexual arousal, like any other important aspect of being alive, needs to be taken seriously and pursued with intelligence, maturity, and responsibility, as well as with imagination and passionate enthusiasm. But before we can exercise this complicated balance of passion and responsibility, we must first understand, honor, and appreciate sexual desire clearly, which means taking it on its own terms. Unfortunately, this is precisely what the Attorney Karles of the world consistently refuse to do, and there -- in my humble opinion -- lies the rub.

* * * * *

Desire for Desire's Sake

Sexual arousal, whether we like it or not -- whether we admit it or not -- is one of the fundamental facts of life, something that inevitably makes its presence felt early and often -- frequently at socially inconvenient times, and more than occasionally involving objects of desire that are both inconvenient and discomfiting (some would even say inappropriate). Being horrified by this is something akin to being horrified every time we drop our shoe and it falls on our toe. Gravity is a fact of nature. Get used to it. The freewheeling nature of sexual desire is also a fact of nature. Get used to that, too. The only way to keep sexual arousal confined to home and marriage is to prevent people from encountering the world. Indeed, this is one of the prime reasons that men for so long insisted on isolating women from the world at large. looking back to a hundred years ago, we can perhaps think of this condescending antisexualism as a quaint, if entirely debilitating, form of sexual censorship, but it is certainly not a very practical path to social order as we enter the 21st century.

Whenever and wherever people interact with each other, sexual desire and arousal are part of the picture. Contrary to popular belief, acknowledging this fact does not necessarily mean the end of a world that is ordered and ethical. Being sexually aroused -- by friends, acquaintances, and strangers -- can be quite a rich and pleasurable aspect of being alive, if we just stop treating this simple fact of sociosexual existence as if it were a problem, a form of relational betrayal, or something implicitly immoral. Once we adopt those kinds of attitudes about desire and arousal, as we have all been culturally programmed to do, we do indeed have problems, and very serious problems indeed. But the problems are the consequences of the antisexual twist we give personal and social reality, not a result of the nature of sexual desire itself. As the early psychotherapist Wilhelm Reich might have sloganeered, if he had ever been so foolish as to run for some political office, "It's the repression, stupid!"

Moralists and erotophobes notwithstanding, there is nothing wrong with feeling aroused by an acquaintance at work, an aunt at Thanksgiving dinner, or an exotic stranger at a strip club. There is nothing wrong with specifically seeking out certain kinds of interaction -- whether it's cocktail party conversation or taking in a strip show -- because you like the feeling of being sexually aroused. It does not mean you don't love, or are insufficiently attracted to, your wife, husband, sweetheart, girlfriend, or boyfriend. It does not mean you are pathologically obsessed with sex. It just means you enjoy being sexually turned on, not as a step toward the completion of some sexual act, but for its own sake, for the way it makes you feel, for the pleasure of the moment. The desire to be sexually aroused -- like the desire to be sexually arousing -- needs no more justification than any other form of sensory, emotional, or interpersonal experience. Being fully alive is both its own explanation and its own reward.

Insisting on seeing the unbounded nature of sexual arousal, and those who maintain public venues for the unbounded enjoyment of sexual arousal, as enemies of social order and decency is perhaps the ultimate exercise in futility. Any dispassionate look at the history of sexual entertainment makes this abundantly clear. Bawdy public entertainment was not invented by Hugh Hefner when he opened the first Playboy Club in 1960. Public sexual enjoyment has a long and illustrious history, tracing back not only to the popularity, exuberance, and undeniable creativity of vaudeville and burlesque, but before that to more ancient traditions that include everything from raunchy traveling minstrel shows to the theater of the common masses -- institutions that have provided outlets for great artists like Shakespeare and Mozart, as well as for untold numbers of far less ambitious, less complicated, and certainly less talented celebrators of carnal joy.

The long tradition of sexual arousal, publicly offered and publicly received, testifies to the simple fact that Eros is simply not a monotheistic sort of guy. Various levels of sexual stimulation go on between people all the time. Sexual arousal is an ongoing aspect of relating to the world at large, one that is perfectly compatible with a meaningful life well lived, including the profound states of interpersonal connection and intimacy that only long-term, committed relationships can sustain. It is a friend, not a threat -- an expression of life, not of death -- an exaltation, not a debasement -- a sacrament, not a sin -- even if the powers-that-be in towns like Erie, Pennsylvania, and perhaps the Supreme Court as well, rule otherwise.

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see Three books by David Steinberg -- "Photo Sex," "Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies," and "The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self," are available from David by mail order at If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
P.O. Box 2992
Santa Cruz, CA 95063
(831) 426-7082
(831) 425-8825 (FAX)

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