Saturday, February 7, 2009

Yawn...they bared to be different

Feb 5, 2009

By Andy Ho

NEARLY two weeks ago, on a Saturday night, two wildcat nudists took a leisurely stroll up and down Lorong Mambong in Holland Village. The couple - an Asian woman and her Caucasian male friend - both twenty-somethings, stopped to chat with diners while a crowd gathered to cheer them on and snap pictures. Some families dining at Holland Village with their teenagers laughed it off. But others were offended enough to call the police. The couple were arrested nearby, dressed.

Forum writer Lawrence Seow decried the applause as proof that 'our morals...have been subtly eroded over the years'. Another Forum writer, Dr Tan Chek Wee, responded by telling Mr Seow to keep his morals to himself.

Those who cheered might say nudity is natural and pre-cultural. In 1967, when psychologist Paul Bindrim introduced group nude psychotherapy, it was premised on the notion that clothes symbolised repression. By that logic, being nude 'unveiled' those repressions, thus enabling one to confront one's 'authentic' self. Nudity, in other words, is real, an expression of true individuality.

The offended folk might counter instead that nudity is merely staged authenticity. For them, nudity is always adjacent to and a euphemism for sexuality. Nakedness is inseparable from sexuality, which is highly private. So public nudity flaunts sexuality inappropriately.

But the lines separating public from private are becoming increasingly blurred in today's matrix of technologies, markets and cultural forms. Straight and gay locals make private sex videos of themselves, which have been spread 'virally' online and over 3G networks. Intimacy has already leaked out of the private sphere.

Local women's magazines are cluttered with sexual content - whether it's women who haven't had an orgasm or women who have had too many. In the women's television talk show hosted by Quan Yifeng on Channel U, Singapore has had many 'a great sexual sermon', to lift French philosopher Michel Foucault's expression in The History Of Sexuality.

Our sexual sermonisers or our intrepid nudists might say perhaps that such airing is needed because the culture is sexually repressed. But denouncing that repression makes no sense. As Foucault asked when noting the shift of sex talk from religion to psychology, why do we say 'ostentatiously, that sex is something we hide...something we silence?'

In reality, as he shows, we have always talked about sex. It is just that now, televisual voyeurism can reach more people all at once.

No, we are not sexually repressed. Take a walk along Orchard Road or venture onto any of our university campuses and see the vast expanse of skin that greets you. See the young showing their affection quite publicly.

From ancient times, Chinese culture has always been tolerant of brothels, polygamy (so long as women remained subordinate) and even homoeroticism (among the elite classes and the performing arts subculture). Even so, some would say that repressive Christian attitudes towards sex have been remorselessly transmitted to us through Victorian attitudes enshrined in the laws we inherited from the British.

Yet even the Bible talks about sex in explicit terms. In the Song of Songs, the various parts of the anatomy are described colourfully - breasts are like pomegranates, for example - while sexual love is presented lyrically thus:

The woman or 'Beloved' says: 'Awake, north wind, and come, south wind! Blow on my garden, that its fragrance may spread abroad. Let my lover come into his garden and taste its choice fruits.'

The man or 'Lover' replies: 'I have come into my garden...I have gathered my myrrh with my spice. I have eaten my honeycomb and my honey; I have drunk my wine and my milk.'

No, our cultural heritage - Sinicised or Christianised, Islamised or Hindu-ised - does not cry out for sexual manumission. It is just that we are used to keeping sexual intimacy private.

Perhaps the young couple just wanted to do something different. Maybe it was a cri de coeur expressing the hopeless hope of escaping the social order or mass culture.

Nudity which all of us face every day in our own homes - but which the elite associate with fine art - is the perfect foil for expressing such a desire. Because it is two ordinary people who let it all hang out publicly, it seemed extraordinary. In fact, it was a rather trite expression of the desire to somehow be different in a mass culture from which no escape is possible.

That Saturday's spectacle - which took place in a bourgeois enclave, appropriately enough - did not subvert culture. Instead, it was merely banal.

[While I agree that it was insignificant and mildly interesting at best, writing a whole article about it just to conclude that it is banal is... banal. :-)]

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