Before launching off into this post, this would be a good time to reiterate a few basic tenants of the meandering naturist’s ideological and philosophical perspectives, which I might add, speaks to that of his wife as well – who has been an enthusiastic “co-conspirator” in the campaign for family naturism and everything we believe that stands for.
We have been naturists since our mid 20s, at which time we were just starting a family and came to embrace the underlying qualities of the honesty and vulnerability of being comfortable in our own skin. Neither of us had a particularly positive body image when we were adolescents, and naturism provided an opportunity to simply be real – with ourselves and with each other. This was a great source of energy in the early years of our marriage, and something we really wanted to instill in our own children. We have always been 100% monogamous and faithful to one another, and while we have a general awareness and understanding of those who are seeking sexual alternatives (Lifestylers, if you will) we typically feel uncomfortable in places where that kind of dynamic is at play. It seems to us that the general public is quite willing to jump to the conclusion that any place that sanctions social nudity implicitly (or explicitly) invites a sexual free-for-all, which makes it very difficult to broadcast a positive message about family naturism in an era when paranoia about all dimensions of child safety is at a feverish pitch. We like to think of ourselves as “live and let live” kind of people, but at the same time, we hope that the right to take a naturist vacation won’t be legislated out of existence, simply because people are just bewildered and confused about what’s going on when the clothes come off, behind the six foot walls of the “nudist colony” down the road.
It is from this perspective that my eyebrows went up while reading this excellent trip report by Felicity Jones, who has taken an assertive and enthusiastic role in her leadership of the YNA – Young Naturists America – a group of 20/30-somethings who are eager to revitalize a holistic and body-positive resurgence for the naturist cause! If you don’t know the YNA website, you should click through and explore around a bit before reading the rest of my meanderings here. You will find the writing to be intelligent and reflective of great optimism for the many healthy aspects that could easily be traced back to the original naturist movements of the post WWII era. But at the same time, Felicity and her crew seem well connected to what’s hip within their own demographic. Yoga, meditation, the Arts scene, fitness… you get the drift.
She and her friend Jordan made a tour of several naturist venues in California a few months ago, and again, I think you will find her reviews to be thoughtful and incredibly helpful to anyone who is seriously considering taking the plunge into social nudity. It was her review of Harbin Hot Springs near the Napa Valley that caught my eye. Her review collaborated with many of the inferences (or in some cases, straight out allegations) on social media sites like Trip Advisor that “thar be SEX in them dar pools!” She is quite ‘matter of fact’ about it all, noting that Harbin Hot Springs does not advertise as a naturist place (It is, in fact, a New Age Retreat with clothing optional pools) but they do, however, have a sign in the dressing room that expressly implores, “Don’t have sex in the pool!”
I know this to be true because I have seen this sign… on many, many occasions. In fact, Harbin Hot Springs was one of our first introductions to social nudity, as we lived about an hour away when our children were young, and we would escape to Harbin now and again on a Friday night to soak away the weariness of the work week and parental stress. Today, we live three thousand miles away from Harbin, but we do return every couple of years; as a sort of homage to the years that have passed since we “learned how to get naked.” And in fact, there may indeed be amorous people in the warm pool after dark, (as Felicity has observed) and in fact, they may well be pushing the envelope under the guise of meditative breathing, but quite frankly, it’s a difficult to tell… for sure… in the darkness… when people are being discreet.
Which brings to mind another one of our favorite naked places in the world, located in the heart of Bavaria. Therme Erding bills itself as the world’s largest spa, with three distinct areas to guarantee fun for the whole family: the waterslide area (swimsuits required), the therme world (swimsuits required), and the sauna world (swimsuits forbidden!) I will eventually get around to writing a more extensive post about the spa culture in Germany, but to be sure, this place is the mother of all spas, with a huge indoor/outdoor warm pool (36°C), that includes swim-up bars inside and outside, an impressive array of water features that soothe, tickle, and massage, and a lazy river that is magical at night – when steam is rising off the water as people are floating around in perpetual motion, often with fruity drinks in their hands. You have to be at least 16 years of age to be admitted to Sauna World, and as it happens, the crowd you will find there is similar to the people you would sit with at the screening of the latest rom-com movie; a perfect date-night outing with an even distribution of people ranging from 20 years of age to … older.
Here, also, the rules are articulated quite clearly. So clearly, in fact, that the literature actually says that kissing is good, but please do not have sex in the pools! But here again, when the sun goes down, as is the case at Harbin Hot Springs, everyone becomes a duck! Floating calmly and peacefully enough, but below the surface…?
With that, I go back to Felicity’s main point in her review about Harbin Hot Springs, which was essentially, “tell people what is acceptable, and enforce your own rules so people know what to expect!” A timely and valid point that cuts to the core of the marketing mayhem that surrounds clothing-optional recreation. But what about that category one might label as “amorous, but discreet” – is that kind of behavior accepted here? And what about people with latent tendencies toward voyeurism and exhibitionism? Are they allowed too?
According to Phillip Carr-Gomm, who recently authored a book called A Brief History of Nakedness (Reaktion, 2010), it appears that pretty much every human would “FAIL” that last test related to voyeurism and exhibitionism. His research teases out the roots of naturism, or more accurately, how we have been conditioned to fear nakedness as influenced by religion, politics, and ancient pagan rituals. Turns out there are very few straight lines, even to a single or specific religion, that don’t become entangled with Greek gods, witch-hunts, and celebrations of the solstice.
But what really intrigued me was his observation that voyeurism and exhibitionism are essentially hardwired into every human being. It’s part of biology in the cause of perpetuating the human race! Most exhibitionism in today’s society actually takes place when we’re fully clothed, in an effort to say, “Hey! Look at me! Admire my human form and maybe we’ll be friends.” And, of course, an exhibitionist has nothing to show off, if there are no voyeurs looking on.
So there it is… Maybe that motto on every nudist club bulletin board that reads, “Nudity is NOT about SEX” is not – shall we say – in the true spirit of… full disclosure. Humans are sexual. Clothing can accentuate or diminish one’s sexual presence, and nudity can do very much the same. Interestingly, in each case, (clothed or naked) it has much to do with one’s posture and attitude as to what he is or is not wearing. But I think naturists are doing their own cause a disservice when denying the nakedness-sexuality correlation. It seems people simply don’t believe that. The advertising industry most definitely doesn’t believe that. And I suspect many naturists don’t believe that either, but simply respect the unspoken rules for civil interaction and discretion – when they are naked, and when they are clothed.
So, as I tried to reconcile Felicity’s trip reviews with Mr. Carr-Gomm’s matter-of-fact explanation of why people have such varied and bizarre interpretations of the nakedness thing, I had an epiphany. There’s a big difference between being naked alone, and being naked with other people, even if you call yourself a naturist. Naturism (as best I can understand it) is a social phenomenon that involves seeing other naked people, and being seen by other naked people. And as in the case in any social environment, (clothed, or not) most of us spend a lot of energy trying to figure out the rules, the limits, and if you will, the prerequisites for social acceptance any time we enter a new group, naked or otherwise.
Imagine a summer BBQ on the back porch of your neighbor’s house – a party for a group of middle-aged friends who might earn the badge of frumpy when you see them at the grocery store and it’s pretty easy to say it’s not so much about the looking (voyeurism) part. (Though that spawns another rant about perceptions of beauty and aging!) But invite another dozen people from the 20/30-something age-group, and suddenly there’s a different energy about the place.
“Wow! That’s a good looking couple.”
If that couple sequesters themselves in the evening shadows for a few moments – even for quiet conversation – everyone senses the intimacy. If the party ramps up, and innuendo is crossing the threshold of typical social decorum, some may become aroused, while others are completely incensed.
“Honey, we should go home now!”
Turns out that given enough variables, naked people behave just like clothed people, except there are a finite number of places to go if you are truly comfortable socializing naked. Which also explains to me why naturism is so much more successful in Europe than in the United States.
Europe has SO many choices.
Are you a party person who likes it when things get a little edgy? Go to Cap d’Agde.
Are you going on holiday with the children, hoping your kids will take to naturist ways? Go to one of the big family resorts on the Atlantic coast.
Can you tolerate other people being a little amorous, as long as they’re being discreet, and you don’t have to worry about somebody getting amorous with you? Visit a spa in Germany.
When it comes down to the simple math of it all, there are more places to get naked in a single district (think county or small state in the US) in France than that in all of the United States combined.
Considering the sheer expanse and diversity of cities like New York and San Francisco, you’ll be hard pressed to find a sauna that allows coed participation like you’d find in any sizable town in Germany or Austria. When the options are so limited, we all try to make the local place into our own personal naked nirvana. Even if naked people are inherently more open-minded, I’m still pretty sure somebody at the party is going to be… uncomfortable…
If you find this topic as intriguing as I do, you might be interested in a few recent developments, like Naked Yoga in New York City or Archimedes Sauna in San Francisco which appears to be modeled after the sans-clothing saunas in Europe. You might also want to check out the aforementioned Young Naturists America and read about their efforts to have regularly scheduled naturist days at a New Jersey Health Club. Maybe there’s hope for naked America yet.