The Moral Lives of Animals

Inside the hearts and minds of other creatures.

Clothes and Nudity, Sex and Power

Why Wear Clothes? Let's Ask the Animals

In central Paris, a certain calculated and sometimes bold exposure of the feminine form is one ordinary aspect of everyday fashion. In parts of the Middle East, we discover another extreme, a seemingly more traditional one where a woman in public must be covered head to toe: no exposed hair, no displayed ankle, the face invisible except at a functional opening where two shadowed eyes peer out.

In spite of all the wide diversity that characterizes human body-covering practices, however, women are still sexually covered, to some degree, in every part of the world. Even in those regions where tropical heat and humidity should for utilitarian reasons discourage any body covering, women still conceal those special parts that we describe euphemistically as the "private parts." Euphemisms, come to think of it, are a verbal version of sexual concealment. Even with the words we use, we are inclined to cover. We call the emotions that drive this covering practice shame and modesty.

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It is possible to think of instances where, at first glance, modesty seems readily discarded. Nudist beaches, for example. But nudist beaches are themselves concealed: by a fence, a screen, a screening process to keep out the licentious and the indiscreet. And the trick, the difficult balancing act at nudist beaches, is to display one's body carefully enough to reveal its wondrous qualities while concealing and inhibiting one's own sexual interests, and, simultaneously, to avoid provoking any unwanted sexual interest among others.

One distinctive thing about sexual morality, compared to morality in general, is that the rules are often made and enforced by one sex or the other; and they can affect the general welfare, and ultimately the reproductive success, of the two sexes differently. So when we wonder about the evolutionary logic of concealment, we might begin by asking ourselves which sex makes and enforces the rules. The answer to that question will also tell us which sex benefits the most.

With women's clothing, various human cultures superficially may appear to offer two different versions of who makes and benefits from the rules. For women kept under the strict control of men within highly patriarchal societies, the public covering of women demonstrates not the power of women but that of men, who use covering as one more way to keep their own women under control while blocking the curious gaze and developing interests of other men. In a culture where they can chose their own clothes, women are closer to being the rule makers and beneficiaries, and they benefit by increasing their control over the sexual interests of men. They do this not so much by manipulating clothes for concealment as by doing almost the opposite: using clothes to challenge concealment, an act one might call strategic revealment. The ultimate rule of sexual concealment is still in force, to be sure. There are limits to what any human society will allow, and it may be that even the most liberated human social systems are still fundamentally patriarchal. But clothing enables a woman to respect that final limit while at the same time testing or teasing it, and, perhaps, manipulating her own level of sexual attractiveness. She does this in order to get what she wants, and her reasonable goals might range from gaining a useful ally in the office to attracting a desirable mate for the home. That's real power, but to use it requires a culture where women are able to choose their own clothes.

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Animals are patently unable to avail themselves of such magic; but they can nevertheless create and enforce strategic concealment. Take chimpanzees, for example.

You might imagine chimpanzees lack all privacy. You might be thinking that all of chimpanzee life takes place in the open, in full view of all other members of the community. That's the elephant way, not the chimpanzee way. Chimpanzees ordinarily inhabit the dark and leafy maze of a tropical forest, and they live (like bonobos and humans) in a fission-fusion society. While it's true that chimpanzee social life is circumscribed by a single community (altogether a few dozen to several dozen individuals inhabiting the same territory), community individuals are virtually never all in full contact with each other simultaneously.

Of course, certain events will draw a noisy crowd. Some chimp catches a monkey, and everyone else in the vicinity moves in to beg, squabble, or connive for a piece. Another exciting event happens when a female approaches ovulation. No chimp knows a thing about fertility, of course, but they all notice when a female's body reveals fertility's approach and arrival. It's when the skin around her external genitalia turns bright pink and becomes markedly swollen. The males seem to find such a development irresistibly pornographic. The female becomes sexually active and attractive in the extreme, and she will soon be followed by a noisy scrum of aroused males. This is social excitement verging on chaos, with the males posturing, displaying, sometimes openly fighting over the matter of who and when. Ultimately, this seemingly chaotic situation favors the alpha male and his political supporters, since they have the social power to insist on mating when the female is maximally swollen and most sexually attractive . . . and most likely to conceive. In other words, their social power translates directly into reproductive power.

Meanwhile, less dominant males can sometimes arrange a second scenario for their benefit. Sometimes a male will happen to find himself near a female who is at the start of her fertile period but has not yet attracted the usual crowd. It's just him and her, two ordinary chimps foraging alone together in the woods, and he arranges--through communicative gestures, threats, and, if all else fails, a pummeling--for them to slip away from the usual haunts and find a more remote part of the forest. In this fashion, they enter into a consortship, where the sex is quieter and less frantic, and where this one male has exclusive access to this one female.

Chimpanzee consortships might appear to offer a better deal for the female than the more standard variety of sex. There is less potential for her and any of her dependent offspring to be hurt by the occasional fights that break out. On the other hand, a female's ideal sexual partner would probably be the alpha male, the one who predictably wins that promiscuous competition--and probably not the crafty but lower-ranking male who has drawn her away from the competition altogether. The alpha is the one most likely to give her a son who grows up to become alpha in the next generation; and that evolutionary goal, for her, will have been translated into an emotional goal. Think high school: She spontaneously finds she would rather go to the prom with the swaggering, self-confident football team captain than with the manipulative and secretive second-string member of the drama club. In any event, like much of what happens in the patriarchal world of chimpanzees, this consortship has been predominately arranged by a male for his own benefit. He has created and enforced a temporary state of quiet monogamy by strategically concealing her, and her fertile condition, from the other males.


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If our clever male finds his advantage in concealment, however, this fertile female may seek her own advantage in revealment. The social benefits temporarily accruing to females when their private parts become decidedly un-private--turning bright pink and swelling up like a balloon--are well-established. She becomes more popular. Males become temporarily more attentive and even deferential. But perhaps the most critical aspect of that power becomes evident during early adolescence, at the critical moment when a female is likely to emigrate from her birth community and try integrating herself into the society of the neighboring community.

This amounts to running away from home, and it's only possible because the female's vivid flag of sexual receptivity also serves, for the neighboring males, as a compelling flag of peace. No male would ever think of making this same difficult journey by himself. Nor would an older female. But this early-adolescent female seems to recognize that her state of attractive availability has temporarily changed the rules. And indeed, as she soon discovers, the more typically hostile responses of neighboring males soon turn in kinder and gentler directions. Yes, she is welcome.

Would chimpanzees wear clothes if they had the intellectual ability to design and manufacture them? It's a bizarre idea, of course . . . but if they had and did, I predict they would use their clothes--as we do--as an artificial means of manipulating the sexuality of self and others.

This post has been adapted from my latest book The Moral Lives of Animals.

 

 

Dale Peterson, Ph.D., has written nearly a dozen books about conservation, natural history, and animal science and scientists.

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