Most people would think that twenty naked adults living together in a mountain hut for a week would lead to some kind of sexual something or other. A bit of hanky-panky. Maybe an orgy. At least a furtive booty call out by the barn. But if anything happened, aside from some minor flirting, it was incredibly discreet. Maybe that’s because most everyone was married or had a significant other, or perhaps everyone was too exhausted from hiking. Whatever the reason, the only sound I heard at night was in my room, and that was the sound of two very tired men swatting at the long-nosed Austrian mosquitos called mücken while trying to sleep.
People didn’t even talk about sex. Maybe bringing the subject up might, you know, bring the subject up, so it was best left unspoken. But I can’t really say, because nobody really said. Although on our last evening at the hut, Harry and I were standing outside watching the sunset when Maria-Grazia came out dragging her suitcase. She was driving back to Italy that night, but that’s not why I did a double take. She appeared to be transformed. I almost didn’t recognize her. Harry laughed and said, “You see someone naked for a week and you don’t think anything of it, and then she puts on a cute dress and some makeup and you think, ‘What an attractive girl!’”
And he was right. Here was someone I had eaten dinner with in the nude, whom I had hiked with in the nude, watched doing naked yoga on the grass outside, and I never once thought of her as a sexual being. Which is odd because she is a very nice-looking woman. But something had changed and it wasn’t her. Maria-Grazia was still Maria-Grazia; she’d just put on some clothes. What changed was my perception of her. Naked she was just another naked person among a group of naked people, but in a sundress and sandals, she was suddenly sexy.
How did this happen? Was it the clothes that suddenly made her attractive?
Diana Crane, a sociology professor emerita at the University of Pennsylvania, writes, “Clothes as artifacts ‘create’ behavior through their capacity to impose social identities and empower people to assert latent social identities.”
Which is true. We all know that “clothes make the man.” We send a message to the world about who we are, what we desire, and what we aspire to be by what we wear, whether it’s a uniform, a business suit, or a backward baseball cap. But asserting latent social identities is one thing; going from naked and irrelevant to sexually attractive by putting on clothes is another. It seems counterintuitive.
Italian philosopher Mario Perniola, in his essay “The Glorious Garment and the Naked Truth,” writes, “In the figurative arts, eroticism appears as a relationship between clothing and nudity. Therefore, it is conditional on the possibility of movement—transit—from one state to the other. If either of these poles takes on a primary or essential significance to the exclusion of the other, then the possibility for this transit is sacrificed, and with it the conditions for eroticism.”
That’s more like it. The act of taking off your clothes is erotic because it is the “transit” between one state of being and another. Which probably explains the enduring popularity of the striptease: it excites the imagination. It’s not what you wear but what we imagine you look like in the act of taking it off and what we’ll be doing once you do take it off that is arousing. In other words: it’s all in our head. Maria-Grazia’s transformation wasn’t something she did; it was Harry and my imaginations being sparked by her wearing clothes.
Dr. Gloria G. Brame, a clinical sexologist, says pretty much the same thing in a Cosmopolitan article titled “How Clothes Make Sex Hotter” when she states, “Staying partially clad builds anticipation and makes sex feel spontaneous.”*
Which could explain why the swingers at Cap d’Agde got dressed up in the evening. When it’s time to swing, you slip into your sluttiest clothes, whereas if you’re standing around with a bunch of naked people, the mystery is gone. If there’s nothing to take off, no erotic “transit” to spark the imagination, well, the whole thing goes limp.
When the week of free hiking was finally over and we’d cleaned up the hut, Pascal and his wife were kind enough to offer me a ride to Salzburg in their Chrysler minivan. There was construction on some of the tracks through the mountains and the railroad had contracted a bus company to link the stations, but the idea of a long bus ride to a short train ride to a taxi to the hotel seemed less appealing than door-to-door delivery in the relative luxury of Pascal’s minivan. Conxita, the Spanish documentarian, was also catching a ride. She had a flight back to Edinburgh that evening, while I had a whole day to hang out in Salzburg before going back to Los Angeles via Berlin.
Conxita and I dumped our luggage at my hotel—the hip and friendly Hotel Auersperg—and then strolled downtown in search of lunch.
I think Walt Disney was thinking of Salzburg when he built Disneyland. The city center straddles the Salzach River and is clean and quiet and beautiful in a way that’s almost a cliché of a picturesque European town. It could be the well-preserved baroque architecture or the narrow cobbled alleyways or the overall greenness of the valley and surrounding mountains, but whatever the reason, I got the sense that I was on a Euro-fantasia movie set: manicured, quaint, and unreal. No wonder it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.
Preternaturally gifted composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart lived here and they don’t let you forget it. They’ve got a Mozart museum, the house where Mozart lived, the house where Mozart was born, and Mozart’s face on chocolate bonbons, T-shirts, key chains, rubber bathtub duckies, and multiple statues around the city. I’m surprised they don’t pipe Mozart through the streets twenty-four hours a day.
Although I was only spending the night in Salzburg, my visit coincided with the Salzburger Festspiele, an annual music and theater festival. There was a full slate of concerts, performances, and parties that weekend and it brought the people of Salzburg out into the streets. That these hearty Austrians showed their civic pride by wearing traditional clothing struck me as charming and more than a little goofy—I can’t imagine that a modern Salzburger would normally wear a dirndl or lederhosen when going out on the town. But there they were, imposing latent social identities en masse.
Conxita and I strolled across the river, ending up at an old cinema that had been converted into a restaurant and scenester hangout called Republic Café. We ordered a couple of Aperol Spritzes and leaned back to check out the scene. Coming from the hipster epicenter of Eastside Los Angeles, I have to say that Austrian hipsters are pretty conservative-looking. No tattoos or obvious body modification were evident, but there were a lot of polo shirts tucked into lederhosen and Timberland loafers without socks.
Conxita has an effervescent and distinctly Catalan personality—she’s open, friendly. She sports a pixieish haircut and is undeniably good-looking, and her voluptuous naked body attracted a lot of attention on the trail. Like me, she was not a naturist or nudist—her first day on the trail was her first day being naked in a nonsexual social nude environment—but unlike me, she seemed to take to it with real gusto and surprised herself in the process.
“Are you going to start running around Edinburgh naked?”
She laughed. “You’ve obviously never been there.” Which is true.“You don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to, but I was curious if anyone hit on you while we were in the hut.” She looked at me, slightly perplexed. “Hit on me?”
“You know . . . made sexual advances?”
She burst out laughing and shook her head. “I have a boyfriend.”
“That doesn’t always stop people.”
“No.” She shook her head. “They were all gentlemen.” Although I knew she was shooting a documentary film,
I wondered what made her go on the hike in the first place. Conxita thought about it and said, “It was like an anthropological experiment because I’m fed up of this kind of desk life we are supposed to have, you know, under these little fluorescents, eight hours and go home. And I hate that. So I’m really supportive of people like Richard.”
“But you’d never done anything like this before. Weren’t you nervous?”
She nodded. “Once in the plane I realized where I was going and then I start to have the tachycardia, but it was too late. And once I was there, it’s like okay there’s no way back; I have to do it. And I was very impressed at how nice they were. I didn’t feel pressure at all.”
Which I have to say was pretty much my experience of the Naked European Walking Tour. I was very apprehensive when I first arrived and left feeling like I’d made a bunch of friends.
“And what was it like the first time you undressed in front of everyone?”
“I felt shy, you know, because I didn’t know anyone and there’s the body thing, but then I think the attitude was so relaxed and everybody was so friendly and it was hot as well. So once I jumped in the lake I thought, ‘Look, they’ve seen me now, so no way back.’”
“Did you have conflicting emotions about it or did it make you happy?”
“I feel really happy that I did that actually, because I think it was beautiful. It was a very challenge experience. I will recommend it even to my mother-in-law, you know, because I think people live ignoring the body. And if you have your belly, your double chin, you’re big, you’re small, it’s fine. Be friends with that. So for me it was an opportunity to be friends with my body.”
We encountered a lot of different people on the trail and I had noticed that Conxita had gotten a lot of long looks from men and women, so I asked her, “Did you ever feel like you were being looked at or treated as a sexual object?”
She shook her head and laughed. “I never had the thought of I’m going to be raped in the shower. No, thank you.”
“Did you find the experience had changed you in some way?”
“Yes. I felt really kind of proud and kind of sexy, like, ‘Yeah, I can do this.’ For some days I felt really empowered.” Which is pretty much what I thought. Even if they were attracted to Conxita, no one could act aggressively sexual, as it would’ve made all the women in the hut—and possibly some of the men—uncomfortable. Except for Cap d’Agde and its swinger scene, this has been my experience of non-sexual social nudism. Sitting around the pool at the Desert Sun Resort or the Hotel Vera Playa Club is like being in one of those Victorian drawing room comedies and sex is the elephant in the room that no one wants to mention for fear of spilling their tea.
But why shouldn’t they? Aren’t humans sexual animals? I think Ruth Barcan gets it exactly right when she says, “In a kind of circular logic, nudism had to seem non-sexual in order to attract women and it needed women in order to prove it had nothing to do with sex.”
Because if nudism isn’t about sex, if it’s just about personal freedom or positive body image or not having a tan line, then it’s somehow safe for men and women to enjoy being naked together in a social situation and that makes it somewhat more palatable to the public at large.
A good illustration of the conflict between our animal impulse to be sexual and the rigid nonsexual rules of social nudism is the battle between longtime nudist Catherine Holmes and the Maryland Health Society (MaHeSo), a nudist resort and campground in Davidsonville, Maryland. Holmes had a long-term lease on a cabin at the rustic resort and became concerned about reports of swinging activity. Blow jobs were rumored to have been administered in the pool—although I’d imagine that would require some kind of snorkel or scuba gear—and people were allegedly hooking up in the woods. Although Holmes hadn’t seen any of these activities herself, the hearsay was enough for her to seek a restraining order and unspecified damages against the resort, claiming that the nature of the club had changed. “It used to be sexuality and nudity were two totally different things,” she said.
I’m not saying she didn’t have a case. After all, in its list of rules the resort states clearly that “Violence, overt sexual behavior, questionable conduct with children or any other behavior that offends or embarrasses others is not permitted.” But the club revoked her membership and Paul Blumenthal, the attorney for the resort, argued that the complaint was “completely and utterly devoid of any specific facts.”
Apparently the judge agreed and her claims were denied.
And so Catherine Holmes did what any red-blooded anti-swinger pro-nonsexual social nudist would do: she barricaded herself in her cabin and posted anti-swinger signs on her windows.
The standoff lasted five months before the resort got a court order to evict her and she was forced to move.
One of Holmes’s complaints about the perceived sexualization of the resort was that many of the men wore cock rings. Vicky Jarboe, president of the board of directors for MaHeSo, responded by saying, “Yes, my husband wears a cock ring, along with probably 16–20 other men here. What’s wrong with that? We’ve got 80-year-old men here wearing cock rings. She’s pulling at straws.”
There’s a joke in there somewhere.
Historically, positioning nudism as nonsexual is a way to short-circuit any morality police or politicians who might try to quash a group of consenting adults from enjoying themselves without clothes. It eases the fevered imaginations of the funwreckers who want to enforce their idea of what’s appropriate or inappropriate. Why shouldn’t a group of adults do whatever they want with whomever they want as long as no one gets hurt? I mean, seriously. But even Gay Naturists International, a men-only homosexual nudist organization, has nonsexual codes of conduct on its website: “Our goal is to promote healthy, legal, non-sexual nude recreation. While GNI knows sex is natural, sex is not equated with naturism.”
The opposite of this, and definitely unsafe for your average nonsexual social nudist, is the erotic, nonprofit ecological organization started in Norway called Fuck for Forest (FFF). Modern-day merry pranksters, the dreadlocked and tattooed members of FFF are eco-activists who use sex and pornography to promote an ideal of nudity and free love in harmony with nature. “Sex is often shown to attract us to buy all kind of bullshit products and ideas, so why not for a good cause? We think it is important to show a more liberal relationship to our bodies, as a contrast to the suppressed world we live in.”
FFF engages in nudity and public sex acts to bring attention to its point of view, which is summed up in its manifesto as “War and nature destruction is normalized, while public lovemaking and nudity is considered offensive and criminalized.”
Unlike the nonsexual social nudist activism of the Naktivists, FFF’s version of free hiking includes having group sex in trees and filming it. Or oral sex in parks. Or a three-way in the streets of Berlin. Basically they have sex just about anywhere you can get two or three or four naked bodies together. As they say, “It is a nature [sic] right to be naked and have sex, anywhere.”
I admire the sense of playful in-your-faceness that FFF exhibits, but its members are also environmentalists with an organization involved in projects in Brazil, Peru, Costa Rica, Slovakia, and Ecuador. As they say, “Sex has in this world become a tool for marketing. But usually it is just used to sell us crappy products and ideas, not giving the true honor to sexual energy at all.”
Organized social nudism isn’t really in a position to honor sexual energy. Throughout its history too many nudists have been arrested or stigmatized, clubs shut down, and nude beaches closed. Nudists have a tenuous relationship with society and one that might break down if nudists were suddenly fucking in the trees. That’s why they have so many rules about nonsexual behavior; they don’t want to give their enemies any ammunition to shut them down for being immoral or obscene or a threat to public decency.
David Wraith is a writer and founder of Sex Positive St. Louis, who sometimes organizes events like nude bowling night. Because he is a self-described voyeur and exhibitionist, he had a slightly different take on nudism than your average AANR member. “There are those that say that nudism is absolutely not about sex, and I think that’s kind of bullshit, honestly. I don’t think it’s all about sex, but I don’t think you can say that anything is absolutely, 100 percent not about sex.”
While I agree with Wraith that it’s difficult to have anything in the modern world that is “100 percent not about sex,” I have to say that my experience so far has shown me that, while they might not be celibate, nudists are trying really hard not to be sexy. But then I wonder if they’re not overthinking it. Can you spark the erotic imagination without clothes?
Excerpted from "NAKED AT LUNCH: A RELUCTANT NUDIST’S ADVENTURES IN THE CLOTHING-OPTIONAL WORLD" by Mark Haskell Smith. Copyright © 2015 by Mark Haskell Smith; reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press. All rights reserved.