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A Sexless* Paradise
The Conflicted, Connected Plight of Sexual Liberation and the Nudist Movement
In 1996, Weird Al Yankovic released his music video for “Amish Paradise,” a parody of Coolio’s 1995 hit “Gangsta’s Paradise,” in which Weird Al swaps lyrics and visuals to fit the theme of life in Amish country. In one brief scene in the music video, two teenage Amish boys can be seen ogling a copy of “Amish Babes,” a fictional dirty magazine for the Amish set, unfurling a centerfold that showcases a fully-clothed young Amish woman lifting the folds of her dress to expose her bare calves to the lyrics, “There’s no time for sin and vice, living in an Amish paradise.” Without the accompanying music video, the lyrics are pretty benign but, much like many of the other visual gags in the video, the imagery adds a comedic touch that twists our initial understanding of the words. In this case, Weird Al pokes fun at the modesty culture of the Amish by playing into the old-timey ankle taboo, a fairly common trope in comedy which, despite being perhaps a little exaggerated here, hits on some truth in the correlation between sexual repression in society and heightened fetishization of the exposed body, turning the plain into pornography.
For the sake of making an historical comparison that hits on the long, entwined relationship between exposed flesh and sexuality, it is arguably this same “ankle taboo” effect that has both plagued and benefitted the nudist movement and community for almost as long as nudists have been taking off their clothes and gathering in clandestine corners of society, a roughly century-old tradition now. No sooner had the word “nudism” settled comfortably into scandalous newspaper headlines and hushed vernacular in the 1930’s than pornographers, burlesque shows, and other sexually oriented media and businesses began co-opting the term, perhaps both to seize upon a cultural trend and to grasp at legitimacy, avoiding scrutiny by hiding behind a purportedly non-sexual practice. This inevitably fomented animosity among nudists against an industry they believed to be damaging their harmless but already misunderstood appreciation for nudity, but pornographers weren’t the only ones capitalizing on the the conflation of sexual and non-sexual nudity brought on by a culture of sexual repression, and the idea that all nudists were always necessarily at odds with human sexuality is simply untrue.
The Birth of the American Nudist Movement
In Brian Hoffman’s Naked: A Cultural History of American Nudism, the author describes the early days of the American nudist movement as being quite conflicted and unsettled. Disruptive cultural shifts were taking place in the early twentieth century that set in place fertile ground for the nudist movement to take root, notably the cultural shifts towards sexual openness and personal liberty, however slight they may have been by modern standards. American nudists of the 1920’s and 1930’s benefitted from this progressive trend while simultaneously having to desperately present themselves and their philosophy as moral, conservative, and family-oriented to guard against accusations of obscenity and impropriety, said backlash being the expected response to a society in flux. Meanwhile, this same conflict played out between the leaders and thinkers of the burgeoning nudist movement, many of whom supported a nudist philosophy that included sexual openness and eroticism. Maurice Parmelee, author of 1931’s Nudism in Modern Life: The New Gymnosophy, and Jan Gay, author of 1932’s On Going Naked, were two such leaders.
Parmelee envisioned a nudist movement that encouraged sexual experimentation, embraced eroticism, and advocated for radical social justice, economic, and political change. In addition, Jan Gay, a lesbian journalist who assisted several sex researchers studying homosexuality in the 1930’s, also spoke to the prominent gay and lesbian communities in Greenwich Village in her book On Going Naked… The willingness to incorporate advocates of sexual freedom, political radicals, and sex researchers, despite the risks they posed to the nudist movement’s respectability, signaled that many nudists identified with the cause of sexual liberation.
Brian Hoffman, Naked: A Cultural History of American Nudism, 2015
In contrast to these leaders, however, were financially vulnerable club owners, many of whom took a much more protective approach: to avoid association with sex and sexuality at all costs. To further complicate the relationship between nudists and the increasingly sexually liberated world they occupied, respected nudist magazines at the time leaned into the moment, featuring sexually suggestive photography and themes to sell the movement to a public that was perhaps both body-curious and seeking sexual stimulation. The opportunity was not lost on nudist publishers:
The sales of Sunshine & Health, however, grew as soldiers wrote to the magazine praising its pictures, while other readers scanned classified advertisements looking for companions or offering “physique photos.” Rather than object to the new interest in the flagship nudist magazine on moral grounds, Rev. Ilsley Boone saw an opportunity to sell more magazines and support his struggling movement.
Brian Hoffman, Naked: A Cultural History of American Nudism, 2015
To the credit of Boone and early nudist publishers, the plan sort of worked. In an interview with the CBC on the subject of his new book, Naked at Lunch: A Reluctant Nudist’s Adventures in the Clothing Optional World, Mark Haskell Smith offers a succinct, three-sentence history of the impact of this strategy on the nudist movement: “The original birth of the nudist movement, particularly in North America, came after WWII. During the war, the Pentagon gave the soldiers nudist magazines to keep them happy because they couldn't give them pornography. And when they came back from the war, there was a boom in nudist resorts.” In Naked, Brian Hoffman would, however, also go on to admit that, following WWII, the increasing backlash against open sexuality and nudity would eventually bring about some challenges to the distribution of these nudist publications, in particular, Ilsley Boone’s own Sunshine & Health, the March 1947 issue of which the US Post Office refused to deliver, leading to a decade-long legal battle between nudist publishers and the US Government, by way of the Post Office.
Sex, Nudity, and Shame
As distinct as sexual and non-sexual nudity are from one another, it is also impossible to deny that the two walk on interwoven paths, face interwoven hurdles, and enjoy interwoven liberties. When one suffers stigma or censorship, so does the other, sooner or later. Nudists may begrudge the strides made to legalize and legitimize erotic art, sexual literature, and many forms of sex work because they experience the societal backlash to sexual liberation manifesting as a backlash to nudity and the human form, but studies would suggest that a sexually liberated society is also one with a healthier view of the human body as a whole. Conversely, a sexually repressed society is also one with a negative and intolerant view of the human body. What we are experiencing are the symptoms of a broken cultural perspective unable to distinguish between sexual and non-sexual nudity because both have been conflated and stigmatized. We cannot achieve body liberation without sexual liberation, nor sexual liberation without body liberation. This does not mean that the two must necessarily be commingled, only that their trajectories are necessarily coupled.
From a more scientific perspective, studies have also shown a very tight connection between sexual health and mental wellbeing, with the impacts of sexual shame having implications that extend well beyond sexuality and begin to impact the very way that we view ourselves and our bodies:
Internalized shame involves feelings of humiliation, disgust, abnormality, and inferiority which can be exemplified by being ashamed by one’s own body. Sexual inferiority refers to feelings of not fulfilling the self-experienced expectancies, often derived from societal norms and expectations and culture. Sexual shame has been found to be related to self-hostility, sexual and relational dysfunctions, body-shaming, aggression, hypersexuality and sexual addiction.
K. W. Sævik and C. Konijnenberg, “The effects of sexual shame, emotion regulation and gender on sexual desire”, National Library of Medicine, 2023
These symptoms of internalized sexual shame, notably body-shaming, relational dysfunctions, and hypersexuality, are curiously the same ills that the nudist community has long sought to cure. Could it be, then, that movements toward sexual openness and positivity are actually working towards the same goals as the nudist movement, just from a different angle? Could it be that both sexual and non-sexual nudity are important for a healthy, body-accepting world? That legitimizing space in society for sexual expression, desire, and activity may also serve the goals of the nudist community? Is it not the same shame that we seek to dismantle?
Repression of sexual desires and expressions can contribute to a negative body image and low self-esteem. Internalizing societal judgments or feeling ashamed of natural desires can create a sense of inadequacy or self-criticism, negatively affecting self-confidence and overall well-being.
Zia Sherrell, MPH, “Sexual repression: Definition, signs, and more”, Medical News Today, 2023
Addressing a lack of healthy sexual outlets may not seem like a top priority for a nudist community intent on promoting the benefits of embracing the non-sexual side of nudity, and nudists cannot be blamed for keeping clear of that conversation given the circumstances. That lack of sexual outlets, however, contributes to the frustration that nudists often express over the public seeking or expecting sexual gratification within the nudist community. Similar can surely be said for a lack of healthy non-sexual outlets to enjoy nudity. If access to one, the other, or both is limited, it would track that confusion about what constitutes sexuality and what is simple nudity would also set in, further blurring those lines. With no outlet for sexual needs or curiosity, we may have to settle for viewing all nudity as sexual. Conversely, with no outlet for non-sexual appreciation and acceptance of our bodies, we may only be able to find validation and worth in our bodies through sexual expression and experiences. It stands to reason that the resulting stigma around nudity and sex would lead to confusion like conflating nudity with consent or mistaking sexual appeal for personal worth, when we should be able to accept both as part of a healthy human experience.
Sex, Nudity, and Human History
The temptation for nudists when discussing and contemplating human sexuality within the context of the nudist community is to separate the two so completely that we assume they are enemies, that they are mutually exclusive, or at least that non-sexual nudity is at risk of being wholly subsumed by sexual nudity if nudists don’t fight to defend it. I believe, however, that this line of thinking is unhelpful and counterproductive to achieving the goal of body liberation and legitimizing non-sexual nudity. It should not be a discussion of “either or” but of “when and where.” We have demonstrated throughout history the capacity to understand this. Prior to our modern, Western fixation with mandating clothing choices and regulating body exposure, humans have demonstrated an innate ability to handle both sexual and non-sexual nudity. Some Ancient Greek philosophers, such as the famed nudist and public masturbator Diogenes, were noted for their borderline obnoxious state of undress, and athletes at the time were known to train and compete nude, for example. Yet we also have a proliferation of pornographic (by modern standards, anyway) graffiti and fine art stemming from the same period of time.
In the case of Ancient Greek nudity, there are of course considerations to be made around class, wealth, and status when it came to one’s ability and inclination to participate in social, artistic, and athletic nudity (perhaps not dissimilar to today), and the distinction between sexual and non-sexual nudity was of seemingly little import. In an enlightening academic essay by Sarah Murray on nudity in Greek art and society, Murray examines these connections, and comes to the conclusion that at least part of the appeal of nudity in Ancient Greek art and athletics may very well have been its sex appeal:
It is difficult to deny the elegance of a simple explanation for the prevalence of nude dudes in Greek art: they were the ultimate, high-class sex symbol and – then as now – sex always sells.
-Sarah Murray, “All those naked Greeks…”
Given this admission, I am certain that some—if not many—citizens who witnessed the various forms of artistic and athletic nudity common in Ancient Greece had sexual thoughts run through their head. That’s human nature and, I suppose, human tradition. I do not personally subscribe to the idea that the goal of increasing acceptance of the nude body is to eradicate sexual thoughts, but to see each other as human first, to understand situational social contexts, and to respect one another’s bodily autonomy, body diversity, and personhood. None of that precludes sexual attraction, having sexual thoughts about a nude body, or engaging in consensual sexual acts with other people. And let’s be very honest: Human beings also regularly have sexual thoughts about one another when fully clothed, even when we feel like we are looking our absolute worst, or when we’re dressed in furry costumes or shapeless robes. Neither nudism nor an increased tolerance of nudity is going to change any of that and it should not be expected it to.
The case of the Ancient Greeks is just one of many historical and present-day examples of societies where nudity is or has been more accepted than what we experience in modern Western society, but it serves as a poignant example given modern nudists’ tendency to highlight Greek-inspired concepts like “gymnosophy” (from the Greek “gymnos,” meaning nude, and “-osophy,” meaning belief or doctrine), and historical nudists’ interest in the celebration and pursuit of Olympics-style health and physique. From what I can tell, there is not much historical basis to suggest that the Ancient Greeks were interested in separating sex and nudity, let alone promoting nudity at the expense of sexuality.
Anti-Sex Messaging in Nudism
The modern nudist movement has long struggled with what to do about sexual nudity, especially the manifestations of a sexually repressed society seeking sexual gratification within nudism’s non-sexual philosophy. In the pursuit of highlighting the distinction between sexual and non-sexual nudity, nudists have often leaned on framing their philosophy and worldview in opposition—or at least in stark contrast—to sex and sexuality, in an attempt to distance themselves from those who may arrive to the community with sexual motives. This may work to deter some, but I don’t think this approach is healthy for anyone—not for the general public but also not for nudists. Hitching nudism’s purported “goodness” to its non-sexual nature only further stigmatizes sex and paints sexual feelings and expression as inherently bad. Nudism can be great for lots of reasons, but nudism is not great because sex is bad. Nudity itself is not inherently good or bad, and neither is sex. Neither needs to be bad in order for the other to be good. These are just parts of life that we can choose to derive joy and meaning and pleasure from if we wish. We don’t need to denigrate one to justify the other, and I would argue that making room for both to exist in a healthy way is a more productive strategy to appreciate them each separately.
As tempting as it may be in moments of desperation, painting ordinary nudity and the nudist movement in opposition to sexual liberation or forms of media like pornography is not the answer to, say, declining memberships at nudist clubs as I have seen expressed within the nudist sphere. Is the end goal of the nudist movement to reduce access to sexual experiences to such a degree that the sex-starved public will be forced to seek out sexual gratification through our community of social nudism? This type of stoking of the flames of moral panic around sexual expression can only further diminish our collective ability to accept, understand, and appreciate sexual and non-sexual forms of nudity. The sex-negative nudist is indeed unwittingly upholding and perpetuating the very conditions that they vocally oppose, that they blame on a gymnophobic society, that they believe only they can solve through further crusades against sex.
To be fair here, I also want to mention that it is not only the nudist community who has leaned into sex negativity as a salve for grander societal ills. A small but vocal minority of young people have taken to social media in the past couple of years to decry the inclusion of nudity and sex in films made for an adult audience, claiming that they are gratuitous and denying any valuable contribution that these scenes may have towards the overall story. Politicians across the country have made similar strides against sex, nudity, and gender, conflating these concepts in their crusades against drag performances and the LGBTQ community. Confusion abounds around what makes us human, which parts of our humanity are an abomination, and which parts we are allowed to embrace. Anxiety around sex and sexuality are not unique to the nudist community, but the nudist community does offer a very clear parable of the interconnectedness of sex negativity and body negativity.
If we zoom out a bit to get a look at the bigger picture, at the landscape of societal views on the body and their relation to sexual liberation and pornography, this interconnectedness makes itself quite clear. Worldwide, there’s not much evidence to support the idea that banning or limiting pornography or stigmatizing sex improve a society’s healthy view of the human body… more likely, the human body becomes all the more fetishized. A look at the map of the legality of pornography, for example, bears a striking resemblance to maps showing the legality of nudity and nude recreation. It seems clear that a world where nudity can be freely appreciated and can fit into normal life is necessarily going to be one where sex and sexuality are destigmatized as well.
Extreme examples can be found on either end of the spectrum, such as in the Netherlands where sex work is famously legal and even protected and where nudists may enjoy some of the most progressive legal protections. At the far opposite end of this spectrum are countries like China, Iran, and India, with heightened degrees of censorship applied to sexual and pornographic materials and similarly strict laws and attitudes against nudity itself, many of these countries claiming that access to pornography increases instances of sexual violence. Research into that particular claim, however, has shown no such correlation between pornography and sexual violence, and conversely suggests that the availability of pornography actually reduces instances of sexual violence.
Sex in the Modern Nudist Movement
Awareness of the interconnectedness between nudity and healthy views of sexuality have been present within nudist thinking for probably as long as nudists have been fighting allegations of the same, and it is acceptance and reconciliation with this interconnectedness that I believe should inform the nudist movement in its complicated path forward.
Social nudism does not in any way foster eroticism—that it tends if anything to promote a saner outlook and more natural relations between men and women, even during the early years of sexual maturity
Howard C. Warren, “Social Nudism and the Body Taboo”, 1933
Despite struggles in grappling with the realities of sexual nudity and the symptoms of a society with conflicting views on sex, the nudist movement can and should find a way to promote body acceptance and more tolerant views of non-sexual nudity without demonizing sexual nudity, sex work, or pornography in the process. The fear so often is that any tolerance, recognition, or discussion of sex and sexuality within the nudist community will invariably invite said behavior into the very spaces that nudists have set aside for non-sexual nudity, but fear of abuse of our tolerance should never scare us away from being tolerant. I would argue, also, that the nudist community does not have to incorporate sexuality into its spaces and practices, does not need to sexualize its publications or start adding monthly orgies to the club calendar, in order to refrain from further stigmatizing sexuality and inadvertently fueling conditions of societal body-negativity. We can create safe, non-sexual spaces and also refrain from using language and practices that induce sexual shame, exclude sexual minorities, or encourage the repression of sexual desire. Rather than shaming those who come to nudism with sexual motives, we should be redirecting them, encouraging them to instead seek out safe spaces where sexual activity is consensual and contextually appropriate. Those spaces do exist and can be just as much a healthy part of human life as the nudist club can be.
As for me and my own experience of nudity, I have no interest living in a sexless paradise under the banner of nudism. Just as in Weird Al’s “Amish Paradise,” I don’t believe any such place exists: Only a guise of sexlessness atop a frustrated populace with stunted views of the body and sexuality. I do, however, have great interest in a world where there can be safe and welcoming spaces for both sexual and non-sexual nudity, where people are free to choose to accept and appreciate their bodies and also embrace their sexuality if that is what they want. I enjoy the nudist community for the space it creates to feel relief from sexual gazes and expectations, for the ability to connect with others without prejudice or social barriers or sexual pretense. Nudism, to me, however, is “part of a balanced breakfast,” so to speak: An important and healthy part of human life, but not a replacement for all the other important and healthy parts of life.