Nakedness, Fellowship, and Chilling Social Climes
Saunas are an integral part of celebrations, an arena for conducting business and a space for political discourse. They are places where people congregate, engage and communicate, where the barriers of hierarchy melt away in the heat of the “löyly.”
-“The art of Finnish sauna: a guide to heat, steam and “löyly,” The Nordic Nomad
Though the sauna’s use, construction, and place in society have evolved over the centuries, its cultural significance in Nordic countries and, more recently, across much of Europe and North America is fairly well established as an intimate place to gather year-round but particularly during the chilling winter months as a refuge from the cold. It offers warmth, yes, but also a place of community, rest, and care for each other and oneself, and is one of the few places in modern society where nudity amongst friends, family, and strangers is not just allowed but expected—required, even. The long tradition of sauna in Finland is one of communal sweat bathing, gathering tightly together and sharing in the warmth of the steam and hot stones while an icy, perhaps deadly winter looms just outside. The nudity is not the point, of course. Rather, the point of it all is the sense of kinship and vulnerability fostered therein, the cleansing of the body, and the heightened sensory experience, all of which are amplified by the nudity, absolutely, but each is valuable in its own right and for its own sake.
The practice does not disappear in the summer, of course, but it is hard to deny that the sauna holds a special significance in the winter months, given its stark contrast to the cold, inhospitable climes from which the sauna provides respite and revitalization. It is with this in mind that I have been pondering the social and cultural shifts that have taken place around the human body recently, especially in my own backyard of California but also across the United States and Canada.
If the algorithms feed you niche news articles related to nudity, naked bike rides, and body-positive activism—as they do me, thanks to years of careful commitment to the cause—then your attention has likely already been piqued to the precarious position of nudity in America today. If you’re not already up to date on the goings-on of the unclothed world, then I recommend following Planet Nude for consistent and reliable reporting. Otherwise, take these recent events as your season recap: In Wisconsin, the moral panic in response to a World Naked Bike Ride event in Madison has spawned two pieces of quickly advancing legislation targeting spaces and gatherings where nudity may occur, pushing nudity and, more specifically, nude gatherings into dangerous legal territory. In California, a wave of disruptions has threatened access to nudist resorts and parks across the state, with the conversion of San Diego’s DeAnza Springs into a clothing-mandatory resort, the listing of the Bay Area’s Lupin Lodge and the Los Angeles area’s Olive Dell Ranch for sale, and the pending sale of Palm Springs’ Desert Sun Resort. Nude beaches from Toronto’s Hanlan’s Point, to Hawaii’s Little Beach, to Seattle’s Denny Blaine Park have also experienced—or are actively experiencing—viable threats to their continued traditional use as nude gathering spaces.
Not unlike similar waves of anti-nude trends in the past, such as the wave of nude beach closures in the late 1970s and early 1980s, these hits to nude recreation and rights come in the wake of a rise in moral panic around the human body, especially—but not uniquely—the bodies of women and LGBTQ folks, and as a response to a highly politicized, supposedly widespread threat of indoctrination and child grooming. The aforementioned threats impacting nude recreation and the nudist community, however, are certainly exacerbated by other factors such as the rising cost—and resale value—of land, declining memberships to nudist organizations, an aging nudist community with fewer and fewer eligible candidates to whom to pass the baton, and, on some level, the failure of the American nudist community to effectively advocate for themselves and win over the hearts and minds of their fellow Americans.
While sensationalized headlines and exposés decrying supposed threats of nudity, sex, and scandal have not been uncommon at any point in the past century, this particular suite of stories shines a light on the state of nudity and body politics in today’s society and paints a grim picture for those who value what little legal space they may have left to experience their own nude body and commune with like-minded others, be that at the beach, at a permitted gathering, on gated resort grounds, or elsewhere. These trends constitute more than just a loss for nude enthusiasts, but are also a loss for the collective value we hold for self-determination, freedom of expression, and individual pursuit of happiness.
Bearing in mind that some of my readers are nudists or naturists, that some likely adopt no such label or philosophy but still advocate for body freedom, and that others may just be a random person on the internet who stumbled across this piece, I want you, reader, whoever you are, to set aside any preconceived idea of nudists or nudist clubs or nudity itself. I would just like you to simply picture a world where there’s no place left for you as a human being to legally exist nude outside of your own home. I realize that that might not seem like a big deal to you if you don’t ever spend time nude, but I ask that you take into consideration that humans have spent much (most?) of our history wandering, hunting, gathering, and communing in varying states of dress and undress, that the nude body is one of our most widely revered and respected artistic subjects, that regardless of how you feel about nudity, something is unsettling about criminalizing the most human thing we have left. I’m not suggesting that naked people should be everywhere with no consequence or condition, but I am suggesting that a total lack of remaining spaces for human beings to occupy space without wearing clothing, to experience their own bodies, is a dystopian step backward for humanity, even as we can agree that clothing serves an important role in much of modern human society.
The current trends aren’t ideal for nudity-loving folks losing access to their spaces. While I would strongly advise against anyone referring to nudists, naturists, and those who promote the acceptance of nudity as refugees, I do recognize that there’s a long and documented history of nomadic and migratory behavior amongst those who enjoy recreational and social nudity, from the beaches they frequent to the online spaces where they gather. Nudists have long been accustomed to relocating grounds, buying new land to develop, gathering in different homes and venues, or claiming new beaches following police raids and government intervention, not to mention the heliophilous pilgrimage of an entire subset of nude enthusiasts who travel great distances to get some sun on their skin year-round. Beyond just nudists, those who create, sell, or distribute nude art and literature—regardless of its sexual or non-sexual nature—have long fought for their right to do so, risking social standing, their livelihood, and their financial stability in the process, and have long been faced with the need to uproot, retreat, or restart altogether.
I point all of this out for one very specific reason: I am inclined to believe that our current social and economic climate will be particularly difficult to weather for nudists, body positivity activists, artists, and, frankly, anyone whose path crosses with human nudity, gender, or sexuality. Because of this, and in light of the spate of recent scrutiny of nude spaces and gatherings, I am also inclined to believe that there may be a need for some redirection toward a more intimate, communal, and localized form of nude recreation. There may be some… wintering in store for this community of nudity advocates and a need to find respite and revitalize on a more personal level.
This is not to say that the nudist resort is a thing of the past or that the World Naked Bike Ride is doomed. Not at all. From my experience volunteering in and adjacent to our national nudist organizations, it is very clear to me that some of the established nudist clubs in North America are indeed seeing declining membership, and some of them have been lost in recent years for a variety of reasons without swift replacement. Others, however, are thriving, expanding, and embracing cooperative structures that secure their longevity. It is also clear, though, that we’re seeing a shift in how and where people are engaging with nudity, how and where people are interacting with the larger nudist community and with other like-minded folks. Change has already been afoot amongst nude enthusiasts, well in advance of that necessitated by current social and economic climes.
Hunker Down, Huddle Up
In December of 1931, an event that would become quite historic for the American nudist movement took place: A group of New York City nudists—accustomed to organizing indoor meetings in various private spaces in the city during the winter months when trips to the countryside were impractical—were arrested while using a rented gymnasium for one of their nude gatherings1. If there is a lesson to be gleaned from that instance, it’s that Americans2 have been finding places to gather and disrobe for as long as the nudist idea has been rattling around in modern American discourse, and have long adapted those gatherings to their seasonal and social contexts. American nudists are already familiar with the concept of wintering. When it’s cold, they retreat indoors. When the city is inhospitable, they retreat to the countryside. It makes sense that, not long after the 1931 incident, the first nudist clubs with actual grounds, gates, and structures were established in remote stretches of American forests, plains, and deserts to escape the scrutiny of the nosy masses and also to foster a connection with those more natural landscapes and settings.
Since those days, the disparate nudist community committed its attention to those established, grounded, more-or-less permanent spaces, and understandably so. For decades, nudists were successful in attracting newcomers to a dedicated space, advertising and operating a space that interested parties could stumble across at their own pace, that they could find an ad for in a nudist magazine and plan a trip around, that could be visited according to their convenience and comfort.
Times have changed a bit since then. It is much easier today to advertise an impromptu gathering, to connect with a core group of friends to plan a get-together, to publicize one-off and recurring events online, and to notify attendees of changes in timing and venue. It’s also much easier to find and reach out to like-minded folks, thanks to the Internet and social media. From this perspective, considering the spotty decline in (often remote) nudist club attendance, rising costs of club operation, the increasing moral panic against anything bordering on nudity or hinting at sexuality, and the continued trend of the youngest generations moving to urban areas, it seems a renewed appreciation for these types of private group gatherings in urban and suburban areas—not unlike the aforementioned early twentieth-century New York gymnasium nudists—is one that offers a promising, albeit less grand, path forward for today’s American embracers of nude recreation.
What many in the nudist community and established nudist organizations often refer to as “non-landed” or “travel” clubs—any organized group of people who gather at different locations throughout the year for the purpose of nude recreation—have been around for ages, so this concept of ad hoc nude rec isn’t new by any means. Where I think opportunity lies for the larger spectrum of folks who enjoy nude recreation, who create and celebrate nudity in art, who provoke thought and discussion around our shared humanity, and who challenge negative views of the body is in the types of grassroots groups and events that have popped up over the past few years. Take, for example, the Füde Experience, which offers elevated, curated, women-centered nude dining and wellness experiences in Los Angeles and New York City, or Natural Pursuits, which hosts creative and social gatherings primarily for queer men in Brooklyn and other cities around the US, in addition to publishing an occasional issue of their artistic, photographic, and literary magazine.
And there are plenty other groups and recurring events, like GO NAQED, Pants Off Dance Off, Florida Young Naturists, Sentient Festival, AANR Meet & Greets, and The Naked Trainers, among countless others focusing on any and every flavor of recreation, communion, creativity, and physical, mental, or sexual health that might suit you. Many such options are indeed affiliated with national nudist organizations, while many others are just free-spirited groups of friends, independent yoga studios, wellness centers, or recurring parties. Some are three friends and a stack of board games, some are closed servers on Discord, and some are monthly virtual meetings. Perhaps it’s the comfort of a group chat with some naked hiking buddies, or a nudism-centric committee you serve on. These options won’t all be everyone’s cup of tea or fit every person’s path in life, but they all offer an invaluable opportunity to engage with nudity in a safe and secure social setting, to incorporate that passion and sense of community into one’s life in small ways.
What I think is special about these more intimate, often localized gatherings and connections is that they offer an accessible alternative to the often geographically distant clubs. They serve as a refuge from the public attention and exposure garnered by larger, more public gatherings of naked people like the World Naked Bike Ride while also allowing greater frequency of connection and greater flexibility of timing, venue, and form of contact. From a growth and longevity perspective, they also constitute an investment in outreach, inclusivity, and adaptability, a way to connect with people where they already are, tapping into the often younger, often more diverse populations of, for example, urban and suburban America, and connecting a myriad of nudity enthusiasts and body positivity advocates who may otherwise feel disconnected from a larger community.
Again, I am not saying any of this to imply that traditional nudist clubs, naked bike rides, or body freedom and rights advocacy should be abandoned. They should be fostered, too, but there is good reason to treat that exposure and advocacy carefully while the cold winds of moral panic rage, and to perhaps also take advantage of an opportunity for introspection and restoration.
Entering the Sauna
I’ll be the first to admit it: I don’t know the future and I don’t know for certain where this current trajectory of nude panic in America will lead, where this collective anxiety will take us. I would like to channel my concern, though, into something hopeful and helpful by focusing on the path forward. That path, I believe, is one where those who value connecting with others through vulnerability and celebrating the body can focus on gathering and connecting. They can spend some time focusing inward, caring for themselves and one another, revitalizing those shared values, and emerging with renewed vigor.
For we naked folks, I would love to see us creating new ways and new places to meet. I would love to see cities and suburbs with vibrant clothes-free events, services, and spaces. I would love to see us appreciate the different paths we may be on, the different ways we engage with and learn from nakedness. I would love to see us spending time together where we already are, wintering together.
No matter what happens, no matter what path we are all on, I think we could all do with a little more of that sauna energy, anyway. And when summer comes again, think of all the connections we will have made and friendships we will have strengthened in the process.
Read more on the subject of this police raid in Brian Hoffman’s Naked: A Cultural History of American Nudism.
And that’s not to mention, of course, the precolonial Native American populations who had entirely different and less oppressive views of nudity and sexuality. Read more on this subject in Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America by authors John D'Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman.