I recently attended a fun day at a factory celebrating its 100th anniversary. Among the events at the fun day was a small circus featuring a variety of skilled acts. The ringmaster, an Australian called Steve, performed the world’s most difficult trick involving toothbrushes. Two Kenyan brothers did an extraordinary hat juggling act. But the most striking act was a young lady called Miss Freya, a master of the relatively new circus discipline of aerial silk.

Aerial silk performers in skimpy costumes—usually, though not exclusively, female—dangle from fabric ‘ropes’ and perform acrobatics in mid-air. It is a skillful and dangerous art, made all the more impressive by occurring high up in a dark circus tent. Like the can-can, the key moments of an aerial silk routine are the moments when the artist spreads their legs the widest. In aerial silk they slowly circle in the spotlight, revealing themselves to the audience.

Like the can-can, the key moments of an aerial silk routine are the moments when the artist spreads their legs the widest

What surprises about aerial silk is that it violates the general rule that public displays of the genitals are socially undesirable. This prohibition dates from around 6,000 years ago when, as documented by Steve Taylor (a psychology lecturer at Leeds Beckett University) in The Fall1, scattered societies with a relatively equal division of power between genders gave way to patriarchy, leading to the rise of the earliest city-states in the Middle East. Ever since, displays of the human body—particularly its sexual parts—have been taboo; to this day public nudity is illegal in most of the world. (For a fuller explanation of this critical shift, please see A brief history of shame.)

Enforced public nudity

Consequently, enforced public nudity has historically been used to shame perceived wrongdoers, often for sexually related misdeeds such as adultery or having sex across social barriers such as race, class or political lines. This practice reached epidemic proportions during the European witch-hunting mania of the late medieval period. Supposed witches—often accused on the slightest of petty pretexts—were routinely stripped naked in public before being subjected to inhumane tortures and, often, death. The practice of stripping accused witches continues to this day in the remote highlands of Papua New Guinea.

The practice of publicly enforced nudity has three objectives. Firstly, it punishes supposed transgressors. Secondly, it warns others to behave along socially accepted lines. Finally, it gives the community a socially legitimate mechanism for viewing that which is taboo: the naked human body; in particular the female genitals, the magical opening from which new life springs. Because viewing the genitals of others is taboo, this mechanism acquires a ritualistic aspect. The ritual gives form to the taboo activity by delineating the conditions under which it can take place. It provides an environment in which the supposed upholders of public decency can ‘cleanse’ society without themselves being infected by the perceived impurity of sex.

From can-can to aerial silk

The growing recognition of human rights in recent centuries saw a decline in publicly enforced nudity, but the desire to see that which is taboo remained. This led to the rise of various alternative means of displaying the genitals. During the 1840’s in France the can-can became popular. In this dance the dancers raise their legs or bend over at the waist, backsides to the audience, to display their thinly veiled sexual parts. The darkened dance hall thus became the ritual space where audiences could legitimately view—or almost view—the taboo.

More recently, another socially legitimate forum for viewing the genitals has arisen: aerial silk. It is reputed to have originated in a French circus school in the late 1950’s. Popularized by Isabelle Vaudelle and Isabelle Chasse of the Cirque du Soleilin the 1990’s, it is now a widely performed circus act. Some aerial silk artists—such as the lady below—wear skin-coloured bodysuits to enhance the appearance of nudity. This clearly indicates that the underlying purpose—and appeal—of aerial silk is as a legitimate means of displaying what is normally taboo.


With aerial silk, modern society stands on the very brink of breaking the taboo on public displays of the genitals. It can only be a matter of time before that barrier is broken. A socially accepted means of displaying the genitals will inevitably emerge. Like the can-can and aerial silk, it will probably come via the arts. The slow journey to repeal 6,000 years of sexual repression is nearing a major milestone.

  1. Taylor writes: “New levels of technology and civilisation, intense warfare, patriarchy, social inequality… the oppression of children, theistic religion… hostility to sex, to the body and to nature… all of these happened at the same time to the same peoples from the same area of central Asia and the Middle East.”