see also: 'the ecstasies of eros'


Chapter VII of 'the erotic eye and its nude'

It will be superfluous to remind of the many other factors that lead to the introduction of clothes. To begin with, there is the necessity to protect the body against extreme temperatures. Also increasing wealth induces man to cover his body with ever more layers of fabric, or to wear jewellery and attributes testifying to his wealth. Thus, social stratification is often expressed in erotic terms: infringement of all kinds of rules and the adoption of an appearance that is irreconcilable with hard labour (long nails, white skin...) are often signs of power or wealth. And the flaunting of wealth is only a special case of the general propensity to adorn the body with signs of all kinds of identity. In this book we should focus, however, on clothes as an expression of modesty.

Pictures of nudity can be seen on the following pages.
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‘Sous aucun tropique ne persiste la nudité intégrale offerte par la naissance’
F. Borel

When stumbling on a loving couple, most people have the feeling of having crossed a threshold. Conversely, many lovers feel disturbed when they know they are being observed. The concomitant feeling in the lovers as well as in the onlookers is shame. Shame is the feeling of having exhibited or witnessed something that is not meant to be exhibited or witnessed.

Shameful is not sexual behaviour as such, but the fact that it has been witnessed by outsiders. The same lovers that indulge in relishing each others beauty, feel inhibited when strangers are around. And the same witnesses that feel embarrassed when stumbling on a loving couple, feel completely at ease when they admire the beauty of their beloved in the private sphere.

Since shame is an unpleasant feeling, we avoid behaving sexually in the presence of others. The feeling of shame elicits an attitude: modesty and reserve. Such attitude induces lovers to withdraw in private and outsiders to grant them their privacy. Thus, a natural feeling of shame is not a hindrance, but rather a guarantee for the undisturbed unfolding of reciprocal seduction and the surrender of lovers, as parents with children know all too well.

Other factors come to endorse such natural modesty. Just like we stop working and talking when proceeding to intercourse, just so do we stop making love when proceeding to every day business: we neutralise our appeal and avoid looking at the erotically charged parts of the body. Conversely, for most kinds of work or non-erotic commerce, we only need the eyes and the hands. That is why work attire or apparel for normal commerce mostly leave only the hand and the face uncovered.

Add to this that sexual seduction is a process that unfolds in many phases: the strongest assets are only played off when first the tip of the veil has been lifted, and precisely such postponement makes the whole process exciting. Such unfolding is unthinkable if modesty were not the starting point: Conversely, we already mentioned the deterring effect of unexpected exposure, not only of the genitals, but also of the breasts. That is why, also in milder climates, the genitals are always somehow covered or neutralised.

That holds also true of sculpture: the Greeks provided their sculptures of males with a rather minute penis, which especially catches the eye with the giant Hercules. In erotic pictures, conversely, the emphasis is on an often oversized penis:

hercules farnese

The archaic sight of the genitals only enhances the propensity to hide them from view. Clothes, or other props like penis-shafts or bows around the foreskin, help to spare the eye this repulsive sight. That holds by extension also for other parts of the body: the lips, the nipples. Even the completely nude Greek boys in the palaestra wore a bow around their foreskin, and they withdrew in private when proceeding to making love.

Finally, sexual seduction is selective. When lovers engage in an enduring bond, they only proceed to seduction when they want to renew their bond. As long as they love each other, they do not flaunt their charms before the eyes of strangers.

Thus, the natural taboo on sexual display is not so much the enemy of pleasure, as rather a guarantee for its undisturbed unfolding. A furtive glance on sexual behaviour all over the world and throughout history suffices to convince oneself of the fact that shame is a universal phenomenon that does not at all increase with the degree of civilisation (Duerr). No doubt, religious or political authorities may enhance and generalise the feeling of shame, to the extent that sexuality itself comes to be considered as shameful. But that does not prevent the original shame from being a natural and useful feeling. Although there is a considerable variability as to the extent in which sexual seduction is experienced as shameful, the feeling that sexual commerce has somehow to be hidden is nowhere totally absent.

And it is not because in many cultures people unabashedly walk around in the nude, that they do not have a feeling of shame. The feeling often appears only when they proceed to kissing, embracing or copulating. They do not hide their body, but sexual intercourse itself (Lévi-Strauss). There is, finally, a difference between leaving parts of the body uncovered - being naked - and seductively exhibiting the body - being nude. The reports of anthropologists are often biased in both directions, and many a photographer arranged his photos to please the Westerner (Duerr).


To assert that shame is a universal phenomenon does not mean that beauty is never displayed in public, quite the contrary. Already with animals, potential partners often meet on a common 'arena' or 'lek' so that all the possible partners are within reach and easily comparable. Also man has special places and times when foremost younger people are meeting: the village square, dance halls, beaches and baths (Helene Riefenstahl, Nuba). Comparison rather than seduction is the aim of the performance. And, in so far as seduction comes into play, it is not really public, but aimed at a specific addressee: stealthy looks and the initial phases of seduction are only meant for a chosen partner.

When the partners have selected each other, they withdraw from the public sphere, although things might change sooner or later. For, as a consequence of the differences in beauty, not all the partners can obtain the partner of their choice. A majority has to content themselves with a less appropriate candidate. Or the position of the partner might change in the course of the relation, so that many a partner begins to look out for a better partner and resumes his seductive efforts. That cannot fail to provoke a corresponding reaction. The excluded partner might try to deter his competitors. But it is far more effective to curtail one's partner: to claim rights of ownership or to impose modesty. Here originates the widespread ambivalent attitude towards sexual display. Everybody is inclined to enjoy erotic display, not only of his own partner, but also of strangers. At the same time, one objects to the display of one's beloved before strangers, and tries to prevent strangers from enjoying it. That can amount to imposing the wearing of a veil or enclosure in a harem.

The less attractive partners are caught in a further ambivalence. On the one hand, they are all too eager to relish the beauty of the chosen ones. But, since they themselves are not attractive enough, their admiration will never be reciprocated. They are doomed to merely admire. Such reduction to the status of a mere voyeur hurts their feelings of self-esteem. That calls forth feelings of revenge against beauty, in the rejected men as well as in the eclipsed women. The widespread indifference of woman for male beauty only enhances the feeling of rejection in men.

The rejected men can retire in the hermaphrodite opposition and become indifferent to female beauty. Another common reaction, with males as well with females, is the rejection of erotic beauty as 'mere titillation of the senses', which is said to reduce the loving partnership to a mere sexual relation. Or the rejected majority can turn its back on love as such, and devote itself to some ascetic ideal - making a career or earning as much money as possible. In chapter XI we will demonstrate how it can also lead to an urge to destroy the beauty of the other sex. Religious and political authorities can easily capitalise on such widespread feelings of resentment.


The very behaviour that is meant to teasingly conceal the charms for the eyes of the beloved, can also serve to not raise false hope with strangers. That is why every natural or artificial gesture of withdrawal is from the beginning ambivalent. With natural gestures, the ambivalence is rather low. When the beloved runs away, the stealthy looks over the shoulder betray the intention of teasing. Clothes, on the other hand, cannot be disposed of at will. When the mistress is getting ready for receiving her lover, she cannot help strangers to join in the feast, how discouraging the accompanying behaviour might be.

A solution is a strict separation of the public and the private sphere. Men can forbid access to the outer world through enclosure, the imposition of ascetic dress or a veil. This method is rather contra-productive because of the unintended, but therefore no less considerable increase in the attractiveness of the hidden treasures. It also bereaves the lovers of their natural pride. A better compromise is using one and the same concealing dress, now as a means to be reticent, and then as a means of stirring desire.

Such compromise paves the way for a new kind of deception: instead of displaying readiness masking insufficient or absent arousal, clothes can also hide real arousal or seduction behind a seemingly modest appearance. Under the regime of difference in beauty and wealth - the regime of erotic scarcity - such is the rule rather than the exception. Modesty is merely imposed, and the concomitant feeling of modesty is only pretended. The whole undertaking cannot but shortcut itself. Every encounter with a potential lover suffices to make it clear that the seeming modesty is only feigned. Whence the rather ridiculous effect of fascinating eyes looking from behind the fissure of a veil, or the shimmering through of seductive devices under seemingly decent apparel:

giorgio rigon

In the end, the whole system collapses. Enters the free market of love, where everybody is everybody's supply and demand. It is as if modesty has disappearedand has become obsolete altogether, since nobody belongs to somebody and everybody to everybody. In the meantime, the justified rejection of artificially imposed modesty often leads to a radical denouncement of modesty as artificial. That only prevents a right understanding of the universality of natural shame.


Of course, the covering of the body can also serve to ban eroticism as such. In principle, it suffices to be merely naked. But, since even a naked body does not fail to remind of a potentially aroused body, every ascetic project resorts to clothes, or, as in Hinduism, to the destruction of bodily beauty as such. Henceforth, clothes have to completely hide the body from view, to utterly desexualise bodily appearance, to eradicate every reminder of what goes hidden beneath the clothes, and the clothes themselves are made of textile that is utterly anti-erotic (rough surface and erotically neutral or repellent colours): think of the sight of the habits of hermits, priests and monks, nuns, aged or married women.

Neutralising the erotic spell, though, is not an easy task. The contrast between the repellent attire and the beautiful body that goes hidden behind it, only enhances the tension between revealing and concealing, as is apparent from the theme of Joan the Baptist and Salomé, or of the sexy sister.

And, in chapter VIII, we will see how even a body smeared with dirt can exert an unusual attraction.


‘Not to whither away in the arms of an individual, has nature adorned woman with all her charms’ (Bachofen)

Sexual love is not the only form of love. There is also love between parents and children and especially 'communal love': love between members of the same community (tribe, village, state, language, religion...). Just as sexual love expresses itself in copulation, just so is the community celebrated in some form of communal activity: collectively indulging in excessive eating, drinking, fighting, but foremost in behaviour borrowed from sexual love: from collectively singing, over displaying beauty, to dancing,

virgil brill

and even collective copulation in all its forms.

justin blische

While lovers withdraw from the group in the private sphere, members of the community gather in a public place. The intention is that everybody gets involved. The desire to engage in sexual behaviour is contagious and involves every member of the community.

Not every form of sexual behaviour is equally appropriate for the sexual feast. Copulation has some inbuilt shortcomings. To begin with, only the preparatory stages can be collectively performed. As soon as the couples proceed to copulation, they threaten to dissolve into single pairs and to lose the - foremost visual - contact with the group
. A solution is to collectively make love to one single partner. Either all the members of the community perform the same action successively, as with group rape (Sabbat Guillot). Or the emphasis is on simultaneity, which means that all the partners have to perform a different kind of behaviour, so that they are no longer identical (Baldung Grien, Hexenszene):

karsten beumler

As can be seen on the images above, that is not precisely a subject becoming to the image, even when the number of partners is reduced to three. The problem may be solved by showing a preparatory phase of the proceedings:

henning von herg

richard de chazal

By far the most important handicap is the rather poor orgasmic potential of men: male orgies tend to be rather short.

For all these reasons, most orgies join the perverse move. The collective indulging in masturbation can be communicated on a rather large scale, especially with women. Also dancing provides ample opportunities for diverse forms of tactile and visual contact within a broad array of social patterns. Most appropriate for orgiastic purposes, though, are voyeurism and exhibitionism: the erotic appearance is public by nature.

bogdan zwir

A most cherished form is 'girl watching': the visual orgy on beaches, market places, theatres, operas, churches, boulevards, terraces, stations and metros (Ruth Orkin).

A particular form of collective girl-watching is that of the photographers on the photo below:

walo thoenen

Although all the members of the community may flaunt their charms, more often only the most beautiful ones exhibit themselves before the eyes of the lesser endowed. These adopt a voyeuristic stance and communicate their collective enjoyment. The transformation of erotic seduction in a purely exhibitionistic performance guarantees an enduring arousal, which is channelled in communal love. It suffices to refer to the mannequin and the stripper, not to mention the belly-dancers, bayaderes and actresses (Jean-Louis Gérôme, Phryne remettant ses voiles).

But it is above all the nude in the image that is predestined to bring the visual orgy to its apogee. An early example is Praxiteles' Aphrodite in Cnidus (Knidos), a painted sculpture modelled after the widely admired hetaire Phryne:

Not only the seductive body is relished collectively, but also the body entwined. For a long time, it has been a good custom to collectively peep through secret peep-holes. Nowadays, the secret peep-holes of olden times are replaced with peep-shows. Under the cover of art, even the walls that separate the voyeur from the exhibitionist in the peep-show, disappear, as in the vernissage below:

charles gatewood

Foremost the fetishised body lends itself for orgiastic purposes. On a print of Hogarth we witness the collective enjoyment of the sight of the fetish or orgasm (see chapter III). In the Japanese whorehouse, members of the 'community of the Lotus' used to uncover the feet of their chosen concubine. While one shoe was going around as a goblet, the other was placed in the middle of a circle. With the thumb and the index, lotus seeds were propelled in the shoe. The winner was rewarded by the concubine. Granted: that lasts longer than a mere orgasm...

This kind of profane community gradually replaces the religious and ritual orgies. Today, the orgy is above all performed in mega-dancings. Increasingly, the partners communicate their erotic pleasures privately. Images tend to replace real partners: think of the pin-ups in barracks and workshops, and above all of the collective enjoyment of performances of films, videos and images on the internet.

We should remind that the collective enjoyment of the image often goes hidden in the guise of sexual education: it suffices to refer to the amply illustrated erotic manuals of the East.

Only against such orgiastic background are we able to understand the often irresistible urge to share erotic transport with the whole world, and the equally irresistible urge of many a beauty to display her charms before the eyes of the entire community.

A heavy taboo weighs on the orgy. That is why it often resurfaces under a repressed form: the irresistible urge to denudate oneself on desolate places, where one is in principle visible for secret eyes. The desolation is the reversal of the countless onlookers for whose eyes the exhibition is meant: that betrays itself in the nearly contained anxiety that someone might look on nevertheless (see the dream of nakedness with Freud). Most cherished are desolate places in nature:

claus rose

or the ruins of public places - churches or cloisters, where the kick of the orgy is joined with the kick of transgression:

walo thönen

naushér banaji

The sensation increases in proportion with the chance of being caught, which is above all the case in an urban context:

ernesto timor


The potential onlookers are often represented by houses in the distance:

naushér banaji

or by windows through which they might peep:

austin feld

naushér banaji

A very enchanting version is the greenhouse in which Anne Arden Mcdonald is floating:

anne arden mcdonald

Public space and sacrality of the orgy are combined in the photo of Nausher Banaji below. The blind windows replace the community that is supposed to witness the sacrifice:

naushér banaji

In essence, the orgy is not a sexual happening. Sexuality is here only a means of communicating each other's pleasure. Also banquets and drinking bouts are not meant to satiate hunger or to quench thirst. The theoretical confusion of orgy and sexuality mirrors the generalised confusion - if not replacement - of the collective enjoyment of communal behaviour through the enjoyment of the sexual act itself and of what, precisely as a consequence thereof, is turned into a transgression. That holds in the first place of the already mentioned pleasure with which the body frees itself from the fetters of clothing. In a culture of exaggerated shame, the joy of exhibitionism regained is joined by the pleasure in the transgression of the taboo on exhibitionism. And under the regime of differential beauty and wealth, orgiastic contagiousness all too often serves the purpose of summoning up the energies that fails with waning love, if not to escape from the confines of loveless relations. The transgression of the taboo on infidelity can also be reinforced with the transgression of the taboo on forbidden forms of sexual intercourse.

The sexualisation of the orgy is probably responsible for the often vehement rejection of public sexual behaviour, foremost the production and exhibition of erotic images: not entirely unjustified, the excluded often regard the orgy as a kind of infidelity and depravity. That does not prevent the genuine communion of sexual arousal to enhance and maintain the sexual receptiveness and to effectively check every endeavour to bereave life of its real - erotic - charms.

© Stefan Beyst, April 2004

See also: 'Spencer Tunick's body sculptures'

From the same author:
'the ecstasies of eros'

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see also:

waclaw wantuch gabriele rigon craig morey
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