Where the Nudists Roam Free*

Four years ago, I published my very first entry to this blog. It was titled “Goodbye Tumblr” and was a nauseatingly longwinded farewell to a social media platform that had once been a refuge for nudists, artists, queer thinkers, sex workers, and all sorts of fringe communities and fandoms. When Tumblr abruptly changed its use policies in 2018 to exclude wholesale all sexual content and nudity, many of those thinkers and bloggers had to relocate, while many others gave up altogether, losing a community of followers and friends and fellow fans. In that same initial post, I waxed curious about the spaces nudists might come to occupy in the months and years to follow, suggesting alternatives like TrueNudists, Ello, and, of course, Twitter. It turns out Twitter was the winning alternative for nudists, offering the kind of liberal content moderation policies that would make room for discussing and sharing nude experiences within a tight-knit community but alongside a whole wide world of other users congregating around their own niche hobbies and interests and fandoms and oddities. Twitter became the de facto new nudist refuge and, arguably, may have had more to offer nudists in terms of exposure (no pun intended) and reputability than Tumblr ever did, but the charm and warmth of Tumblr was unmatched.

And here we are again. Recent events surrounding ownership and operation of Twitter, insecurity about the platform’s future, and the safety of the platform for its users have the whole world—nudists included—wondering if they’ll need to leave the platform, where they’ll go, how they’ll have to adapt their message to fit a new medium… or if perhaps Twitter will be fine after all. I don’t have the answers to any of those things, but I’m watching just as intently as the rest of you, with bated curiosity about the platform and with an evolving reluctant pessimism about social media in general. Alas, the whole scenario also has me reflecting on the long history of nudists shuffling from dark corner to dark corner, from private urban apartment to private suburban home, remote forest retreat to remote desert retreat… and now, from unstable social media platform to unstable social media platform.

All of this has me wondering: Where do the nudists roam free? One might be fooled into believing that there was once a time when nudists did roam free: By cursory glance at nudist photography, literature, and nostalgic remembrances of the early days of nudism, of mid-century pageantry and magazines, the aesthetic is one of peace, beauty, freedom… a carefree community of sun-kissed young lovers frolicking in the field, balancing balls on their fingertips, stretching toward the sky. That was all excellent marketing for the nudist movement, but nudists at the time faced ongoing legal and cultural battles that threatened their spaces, their community, and their livelihoods. The world looks different today for nudists, but in some ways not much has actually changed.

Brooklyn Times Union, December 8, 1931: Police raid Manhattan nudist gathering.

It’s generally accepted that “gymnosophy” or nudism as a movement and philosophy—as opposed to, say, more routine acts of nudity like Benjamin Franklin taking “air baths” or children skinny-dipping in streams—began to settle in North America in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, after a few decades of fermenting in Europe, particularly in Germany. No sooner had the concept of nudism landed stateside than the backlash against its practice began. In December of 1931, a group of mixed-gender nudists who had gathered in a New York City gymnasium were arrested in a police raid and charged with public indecency. Fortunately, the charges were quickly overturned, the Court determining that the nudists’ acts had not been committed in public and were, notably, not indecent. While this was a win for the group of New York nudists, it would be just the beginning of many, many police raids, incarcerations, indecent exposure charges, state and local nudity bans, harassment campaigns, forced park closures, seizures of print media, and court battles… some of which the nudists would overcome, but many others they would not.

New York Daily News, December 15, 1931: Court dismisses the charges of public indecency levied against the nudists caught gathering in a Manhattan gymnasium. (Special thanks to Evan Nix of Naked Age Podcast for sourcing and identifying)

And so American nudists got very accustomed to operating in the shadows, only spreading their philosophy and literature carefully, only extending invitations discreetly. They got used to police raids and paddy wagons. They got used to setting up new community grounds only to be shuttered by local ordinances and bogus zoning laws, having to pick up and start over somewhere new. They got used to establishing regular nude use of local beaches only to be harangued and detained by police, outlawed by the city. Like sand castles washing away in the tide, American nudists got used to not getting too used to what they’d built, to restarting, recoiling, relocating, retreating, rebuilding, rethinking, and rededicating themselves to their cause and community. Many nudist clubs, resorts, and publications have come and gone over the nearly a century of North American nudism, leaving behind a trail of ephemeral histories and few lasting legacies.

Fortunately we’ve moved past those days! Nudists have nestled themselves quietly into safe, out-of-the-way, inoffensive… hard to find… often poorly maintained… remote… practically invisible… corners of society. Wait. OK, so perhaps we didn’t really come out on top, but at least we don’t have to scurry from shadow to shadow anymore like… cockroaches. Right? Indeed, nudists did find some amount of security and reprieve from the constant displacement of their clubs and gatherings, from the onslaught of charges and seizures, through a blend of legal headway, growing societal ambivalence, compromise, and kind of just… disappearing out of the public eye. To a degree, that stability and privacy has allowed nudists to more or less continue peacefully gathering and practicing their way of life, their way of recreation. That being said, physical space is not the only kind of space that nudists might hope to occupy anymore, and it is increasingly apparent that the nudist struggle to take up space has shifted—or at least expanded—to online spaces.

For nudists online, the same struggles seem to be arising that nudists of decades past also had to confront. Instead of police raids and incarceration, modern-day nudists are confronted with random social media crack-downs on nude content, impacting established nudist leaders such as the Naturist Living Show and Nudist History (f.k.a. Naturist Vintage), both of whom permanently lost their Twitter accounts this past year. Rather than city council members outlawing nudity on beaches or public places to appease offended neighbors, there are social media platforms bending their terms of use to appease advertisers and app stores, changing regulations and their enforcement thereof with little to no notice. In place of court battles over the right to print and distribute media, there are account reinstatement petitions that go completely unanswered, ignored, with no course of remediation or accountability. Perhaps these scenarios are preferable to being thrown in the back of a paddy wagon, but in a world in which communication and community are so heavily reliant on social media, barring the dissemination of certain ideas, images, and philosophies from the largest platforms has a similar silencing effect.

Just like the nudists of yore, it’s not that the people who practice nudism are unwelcome, it’s not that a person whose beliefs and values include body freedom and social nudity is barred from gathering with others who share the same values, per se, and it’s not that nudists can’t occupy space. It’s the ideas and the practice that aren’t welcome. It’s laws and regulations, perhaps sometimes written specifically to exclude the practice of nudism but more often written with the intention of reducing lewd and lascivious behavior, which become over-applied to such a degree that all nudity or discussion of nudity is an offense. It’s a landscape—both cultural and virtual—that has never been stable enough to allow nudist ideas to get too comfortable, to be able to rely on any kind of firm footing or lasting foundation, to exist beyond fleeting, throwaway accounts and glimpses of community, to build a reputable and longterm presence.

Regardless of what happens with Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, or where nudists end up congregating online in a year or five years or ten years, these recurring situations are a good reminder that the nudist idea still lives in the margins in the 21st century, that nudists still do not roam free—not in the real world, and not online either. Nudists have a lot of work to do if we intend to be a force for good in the world, if we want to stay connected to one another and raise awareness about the nudist movement. I hate the idea that nudists today should continue to be comfortable with the nudist philosophy and its community living in the shadows and moving from dark corner to dark corner, that nudist ideas and experiences and joys should be excluded from the communication platforms that the entire world uses to stay connected. For now, perhaps that’s the struggle that nudists must endure, in hopes that we can carve out some private corners of the Internet where—like our remote clubs and private gatherings—we can go unnoticed and unbothered. But I hope we can do better than that, that we can find space for our ideas and experiences and values to share a platform with a whole wide world of other overlapping and intersecting philosophies and thoughts and communities, as part of a colorful, diverse, and vibrant world… Perhaps then the nudists can roam free. Or free enough.

If you pick up a book on the history of nudism, of which there are a good handful or two, much of the book is likely to be a timeline of the legal and cultural battles that nudists have fought to maintain their communities and share their philosophy. The seemingly endless anti-nudity and anti-obscenity crusades that nudists have endured might feel exhausting and disheartening. Is this what nudists have to look forward to forever? Perhaps… but in those struggles there is also triumph and collaboration and a great many passionate leaders and thinkers and community members and families. And in any struggles that may come, the same will be true. Take heart, carry on.

Special thanks to Evan Nix of Naked Age Podcast for providing and identifying the historical photos used in this piece.

2 thoughts on “Where the Nudists Roam Free*”

  1. This is the best discussion of the nudism issue I have read in many years.  I suggest you contact the Naturist Society and have this article published in their N Magazine. I’m 73 and grateful for the naked opportunities I’ve had in my lifetime, but it has always been a challenge. I’m looking forward to reading your future posts. Ray SmithLutz, FL

    Liked by 1 person

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