The origins of “prude” can be found in the Latin verb “prōdesse” meaning “to be good” which then became the Late Latin “prōde” meaning “advantageous” which then became “prōdis” in Vulgar Latin meaning “wise, prudent.” Vulgar Latin was, of course, the basis for French and thus “prōdis” became “prod.”
From “prod,” French developed “preudomme” which meant “a man of experience and integrity.” From this came “prode femme” (later “prude femme”) and this was eventually shortened to “prude” which indicated “wise woman.” This is the “prude” which came into English in 1704. In English, “prude” came to indicate a woman who was too wise, too observant of decorum and propriety. From a term that had been a compliment, “prude” became a term of reproach.
Today, “prude” suggests unusual modesty associated with a negative view of sexuality. It implies a fear and contempt of human sexuality. One of the places it manifests itself can be seen in response to nudity, partial nudity, and potential nudity. Prudes advocate the censorship of nudity whether that be in the form of a brief exposure of a female nipple in the media or the portrayal of nude figures in classical art.
By 1530, prudes offended by the realistic portrayal of male genitalia in classical art were altering this art. In some cases, the offending features were covered and in others they were simply hacked off.
Once recent example of a prude attempting to censor public nudity can be seen in North Carolina where a bill was introduced which would make it a Class H felony to expose:
“external organs of sex and of excretion, including the nipple, or any portion of the areola, of the human female breast.”The bill was introduced in part as a response to a demonstration in which about a dozen women took off their shirts to promote women’s equality. Many of those who promote the censorship of nudity often claim that they are doing so in order to “protect” women.
With regard to nudity, Alabama has a law which prohibits lobbying on behalf of nudism. The law is probably unconstitutional and probably could not withstand a court challenge, but the law is still there to appease some Alabama prudes. I could find no evidence that the law is actually enforced.
Native Americans began to encounter prudes when the Europeans arrived on this continent. Europeans were shocked and offended by what they perceived as Indian nudity—most notably, Indian women were unconcerned about their exposed breasts (and, of course, their nipples). In addition, Indian women controlled their own sexuality, they selected their own sexual partners, and were open about their enjoyment of sexual relations. The prudish attitudes of the Protestant missionaries and the celibacy of the Catholic priests was both puzzling and strange to the Indians—both seemed to be aberrant behaviors, perhaps indicators of insanity.
Non-Indian prudes are not just a thing of the distant past. In 1920, the non-Indian principal of the Oraibi (Arizona) School interrupted a Hopi ceremony when he saw a clown dancer with a huge artificial penis. The Hopi were astounded that anyone could be offended by this.