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.

Whose Photo Is It Anyway?

As a nudist, you probably know at least a handful or two of real-life nudists and you probably follow even more on social media. You may also have noticed that some of the nudists you follow prefer to post photos of other people rather than photos of themselves, rather than updates about their own lives. Maybe you have gone to someone’s online profile to try to learn more about them and wondered, “Well, which one of these photos is them? Are any of these photos of them?”

Literally, who knows? And does it matter?

It is something I have mulled over this past year, which has left me with three questions: Where do these images come from and why is no credit being given to the sources? Do the people in these photos know that their photos are being passed around the Internet as nudist promotional material? Why post images of people you don’t know rather than posting photos of yourself?

Perhaps it’s the smoldering embers of academia left in me, but the first question here seems the most troubling simply because of how widespread the “copy-and-paste-and-pass-off-as-my-own” trend is online. It’s not new, and nudists are not exempt. When I first became interested in nudism as a teenager, I took my first steps by doing research online, browsing site after site with images of people who most likely had not written the articles. I eventually joined a now-defunct forum where there were loads of genuine nudists and where it was accepted and even encouraged to scour the Internet to find “nudist” and “naturist” images to share to the gallery. It never occurred to me until recently that it might not be entirely ethical to take content that did not belong to me and share it with no credit given to the photographer or the people in the image, especially when these are images that many would consider to be very personal or sensitive. It is also worth noting that just because an image contains nudity, it doesn’t mean that it is nudist or naturist.

In the 21st century, crediting the content that you share online should be easier than ever, especially if you are following sources directly. “Retweet with comment” is available in one form or another across almost every platform, allowing you to provide your own caption or personal commentary while retaining the information of the original source, the creator’s profile and website just one click away. This does not just apply to images, but any content you can find and share online can be linked back to its source. It’s easy.

Also, context matters. An image is just an image, until it’s not. A nudist friend of mine once posted an image featuring a nude man and an innocuous quote relating to nudism. The man in the image I recognized as a well-known gay adult film actor who had been causing a bit of a buzz at the time due to his problematic political views. I considered sharing that information with my friend, but I decided against it. If nobody else recognizes the actor in the image, does it really matter that he is not a nudist or that he works in the adult film industry? Does it diminish the intentions of the image and quote? For most viewers, probably not, but I would argue that it is worth choosing images carefully, being aware of what baggage an image might carry before using it to promote nudism.

John Lennon & Yoko Ono: Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins

If context matters, so does consent. Nudists tend to be painstakingly careful with our own identities online and in real life. We respect each individual’s choice of whether or not to disclose our nudism, to whom we disclose, and to what extent we want our personal information and images to be shared. And yet, while we all understand the basic principles of consent regarding our own exposure, we don’t think twice before disseminating images of people we do not know at all, people who have very likely not consented to their images being trafficked across the Internet. The simple fact that a nude photo of a person exists online does not mean that they consent to it being shared. If I, for example, share a nude photo of myself within a closed group of trusted nudist friends, I am certainly not consenting to that image being taken and posted online where literally anyone might find it, where it might be used for purposes that are not in line with my own values. I should have control over my own image and you should have control of yours. Now, if I ever use a nude image of myself as an album cover, à la John Lennon and Yoko Ono, please feel free to share it far and wide and help me sell some records. In any case, be it album art or a personal photo, “retweet” and “retweet with comment” give the source of the material a heads up that you are sharing it, and a chance to have a say.

That brings me to my last question. Why would you want to post photos of people you don’t know, anyway? I like to play video games: Would I ever post photos of people I don’t know playing video games? No, probably not… but for nudists, sharing photos of other people enjoying nudism is basically part of our community’s culture. It is one of the quirky yet quaint things about nudism, and I do not expect to convince anyone to end that age-old tradition dating all the way back to the first quarterly and monthly nudist publications and documentary films. The difference between those mid-century magazines and the situation at hand, though, is that publications and filmmakers operate under more stringent expectations to credit their contributors. We are a community, after all, so boosting visibility and exposure for those of us who want our work to be shared has the potential to advance our cause. Also be aware that, just like those original quarterly magazines and documentaries about nudism, anything you share online might be consumed by non-nudists as sexual content.

Finally, circling back to an earlier point, many nudists are either not comfortable or not in a position to share nude photos of themselves online. Others of us may simply choose a life of less disclosure, and that’s perfectly fine. We all have that choice, and the quantity of images we post of ourselves online is not a reflection of how much of a nudist we are in real life. For many nudists, especially those who do not have the luxury of being able to post their own photos and share their own experiences online, sharing photos of others enjoying nudism may be one of the only ways they feel they are able to connect with the community, and that seems a perfectly valid reason continue the tradition. We do, after all, value the freedom of nudity, so it feels right to celebrate that however we can.

All things considered, I think there is room for improvement when it comes to giving credit where credit is due and respecting others’ right to decide how and with whom their images are shared. We can build a better community by promoting one another, and a more respectful community by being considerate of one another’s preferred degree of disclosure (and that of complete strangers who probably have no idea their image is circulating the internet). It also costs nothing to decide to share images of real people, real nudists, and give them credit, or to share images of yourself for that matter, if you are able to do so.

Thank you for coming to my Ted Talk.