Nudity doesn't shock us anymore

Story highlights

  • Peggy Drexler: Male models at Rick Owens' Paris runway show wore clothes that exposed their penises
  • She says as we become harder to shock, the culture keeps going lower and lower. The bottom is in sight

Peggy Drexler is the author of "Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family" and "Raising Boys Without Men." She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

(CNN)In Paris on Thursday, fashion designer Rick Owens gave audiences quite a show when he sent male models down the runway wearing clothes with peepholes that offered a glimpse of the guys' formerly private parts.

"Nudity is the most simple and primal gesture -- it packs a punch," Owens said of his decision to have his models bare all. "It's powerful. ... Who else can really get away with this stuff? It's a corporate world!"
The looks were simply for shock and awe and the attention such reactions generate -- after all, they can't be worn out in public and won't be sold in stores. But let's be honest: Were we even shocked? After all, female models have been asked to sashay down runways in states of near nakedness for years.
    Meanwhile, more and more films are featuring full frontal male nudity. There was Michael Fassbender in "Shame," of course. And who can forget the uproar over the cameo of Ben Affleck's penis in "Gone Girl," albeit so brief one had to know the precise moment to look for it? And if we've seen Ben Affleck's penis, who cares about some male model's?
    Of course, women have been going full frontal in films for years.
    Perhaps the onslaught of nakedness is a sign that public nudity is becoming an equal opportunity endeavor; that women are no longer required to do all the showing. That's not a bad thing. Maybe the "Free the Nipple" people are finally getting their way, and women will be able to parade topless around town, or at the gym, or wherever they please, without stares or stigma (or arrest), as men have done for ages.
    More likely, it's a clear sign that we're a culture so overexposed that we've got no other choice but to up the stakes at every turn. We are becoming -- have become -- immune to that which was previously surprising/revolting/ awe-inspiring. It's amazing how quickly Lady Gaga went from outre to passe, isn't it? Meanwhile, Madonna is a faint middle-aged voice from the past who in a time long ago made news with pointy bras -- positively puritanical compared to the starlets of today.
    Consider their norms: Going commando -- that's "without underwear," because, yes, there's even a phrase for it. Giving birth on TV. Posing naked for mainstream magazines. The Kardashian sisters spent the fall one-upping each other -- first Kim's naked backside on the cover of Paper (a sight credited with "breaking the Internet") and then Kourtney's naked pregnant belly (and backside) online at DuJour, because if one reality sister does it, so, too, must the other.
    Miley Cyrus, meanwhile, continues to one-up herself, graduating from foam fingers and lewd gestures to her recent full frontal magazine spread in V magazine, the release of which she celebrated with a crude shoutout on social media.
    But what's next? What does she, or any of these women, do for an encore? Where does a jaded culture go from here for kicks? The envelope has already been pushed beyond what we once thought were the limits. What is left?
    Perhaps they'll think of something. You just know those "Most Shocking" shows are trying to figure out how to show somebody actually die. You know that some starlet on the verge will go beyond a private sex tape (yawn) to arrange to be caught in the act.
    Or maybe we'll grow up and become more European in our sensibilities, and react less like middle school boys at the sight of a breast. Maybe we'll learn that hitting bottom culturally reveals a whole new bottom underneath. Whatever the impetus, the bottom is in sight. After all, being outrageous today is hard work, and only getting harder. The payoff, meanwhile, has nowhere to go but down.