LEADING ARTICLE: The naked truth about America

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The Independent Online
In the long history of American conmen, WH Sheldon last weekend emerged as the most triumphant. It was revealed that, in the course of his career, this discredited academic had amassed a collection of 27,000 nude photographs of Ivy League students . The snapshots, which presently lie in dust in the vaults of the National Anthropological Archive in Washington, were taken during the Fifties and Sixties and include compromising studies of some of the greatest and best of American society.

At the time, Sheldon reckoned his pictures would unlock the secret of American genetic development. And indeed they still hold the answer to many pertinent questions about the country's leading names: was George Bush ever young, for instance; or what is Hillary Clin-ton's real hair colour; or did Meryl Streep have to prepare for the session by posing in the nude for six weeks beforehand?

For decades the posture project, as it was known, remained a secret: the photographer convinced the authorities he was involved in work of national sensitivity; the subjects, humiliated that they had allowed themselves to be compromised, kept quiet through shame. Now it is in the open, the secret blown initially by the novelist Naomi Wolf, many commentators have expressed astonishment that Sheldon got away with it for so long: the youth of today, goes the thinking, would not stand for it.

But it is easy to see how he did it. College freshmen, away from home for the first time, are uniquely vulnerable. It is part of the first-week experience to be conned. Salesmen of every hue stalk the corridors of halls of residence, seeking out new recruits: insurance company reps, Moonies, membership secretaries of the SWP, kindly folk in sandals who invite you into their room for coffee and, before Coffeemate has hit water, ask if you have heard the good news yet. They are all at it. Faced with that competition, it is no surprise that Sheldon thrived. After all, for less refined undergraduates, the whole point of university was to get your kit off in front of a stranger as soon as you arrived.