Sexuality and Naturism 

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(© Jeffrey S. Bowman, all rights reserved, use by permission only)


By Michael C.


From the rise of the modern naturist movement in Germany over a hundred years ago to the present day, opponents of social nudity have consistently advanced the notion that mixed gender nudity will unleash rampant lust and unrestrained sexual activity.  This objection comes as no surprise, given our heritage of body and sex inhibited Victorian mores.  Regardless of the consistent testimony of naturists for over one hundred years, the persistence of these unsubstantiated beliefs remains a source of consternation to naturists everywhere.

Over the course of the past century, naturists have advocated and practiced a high degree of moral rectitude, so much so that some have accused them of denying sexuality.  Despite the consistent practice of non-sexual, family oriented social nudity, a dismissive, “I don’t believe it,” is all opponents feel is necessary for continuing their attacks.  Patiently, those that have discovered that sexual behavior and nudity are not intrinsically connected, continue to rebut critics both by practice and argument.


Americans are both inconsistent and ambivalent toward the body and our sexual nature.  Shifting back and forth betweens periods of inhibition and license, society tries to come to terms with these aspects of the self, often stressing one extreme or the other.  The question arises is there a way to end this continual tug-of-war of either-or thinking offered by partisans of these two choices?


It would seem that what is needed is a broader context in which our bodies and sexuality are valued and integrated within a whole person.  Exemplifying this broader context for understanding our human nature, of which sexual behavior is but a part, is the following quotation from Relationships in Marriage and Family, (Stinnett and Walters, 1977, p. 222):


   sexuality, in contrast with sex, is much more than physical attraction and contact.  Sexuality

    begins at conception when maleness or femaleness of the fertilized ovum is determined by the

    chromosome content of the fertilizing sperm cell.  Sexuality even involves such factors as

    traditional cultural expectations that baby girls are dressed in pink and boys in blue as well as the

    sex-appropriate toys and education each receives.  Sexuality involves all that it means to be a man

    or a woman; it is a part of a person’s total being.  Our sexuality includes emotions, values, moral

    and ethical makeup, social relations, ability to use good judgment and make decisions, physical

    desires and fulfillment (emphasis added).  Sexuality cannot be separated from a person’s total life.

    It is not a separate, exclusive component of an individual.  It interrelates with every other part of life.


Sexuality is here integrated within the whole of who we are as persons.  Notice the italicized sentence above.  Intelligence, will, and moral character operationalize in society how our sexuality will be used.  Importantly, sex as a behavior is to be distinguished from sexuality in general.  These aspects of the self co-exist within the same person at all times, but sex is not activated or acted on at all times.  As far as can be determined, this is a universal human experience.  This is why naturists can with all sincerity maintain that nude is not lewd and does not equate with sex, nor necessarily be an invitation to sex.


In Nude and Natural issue 17.1, French naturist Marc-Alain Descamps addresses the issue of naturism and sexuality in terms of the polarities of pure lust vs. Puritanism.  He proposed that the tension between these extremes is resolved with the synthesis advocated by naturists of full body acceptance.  According to Descamps, the main difference naturists have from others seeking to live in harmony with nature is that naturists frankly admit their sexuality through reciprocal sharing the view of their genitals.  This is in keeping with the fundamental principal that the body in all its parts and functions are valued, normal, and natural.


Descamps distinguishes naturism from pornography.  He notes that naturism involves the practice of nudity for the habitual activities of everyday life.  It is the acknowledgment of sexuality as defined above, in all life’s activities that produces a reunification of the person, and the reintegrated relationship between the person and society.  Pornography on the other hand, is centered totally on the sexual organs, and reflects on them only for the purpose of genital activities.  Naturism fosters the unity of the body, where sex is put into its proper place within the body and social relationships as a whole.  Pornography dismembers the body showing only pieces of it, while making sex a public consumer commodity.  Naturist’s sexual practices are neither public nor collective and are done in respect of oneself, and others.


Having said all the above, there are those that will still accusingly object, “But, there HAVE to be sexual undertones.”  This is an old canard involving the discomfort felt about the sexual aspects of certain body parts which by custom must be concealed.  The author of the website “Naked Spirit,” speculates that for many there is a fear that public nudity is a precursor to public debauchery.  This fear consists of a deep anxiety that the constant interaction of nude people of opposite gender will cause a certain level of tension or excitement to build which will result in an increase of promiscuity and the ultimate collapse of morality throughout our culture.  The author concludes by saying that while such fears are arguable, “…they seem to be well out of proportion to the actual conditions which prevail in societies that are more tolerant of nudity.”


In addition, there are numerous anthropological studies of peoples that traditionally wore little or no clothing prior to Western contact.  Quite a few retain their clothes freedom as chronicled in the pages of National Geographic.  Several Amazon basin Indian tribes, both male and female, still roam the jungle entirely nude, or perhaps with a small string around women’s waists.  Many remote Papua New Guinea tribespeople continue to dress in the traditional penis sheath for men, and leafy apron for women.  The women of Yap Island continue to proudly maintain their top freedom.  Historically, nudity or minimal clothing has been common by both sexes for a number of tribes in Africa, not to mention top freedom for women in much of Sub Saharan Africa.  These and other examples not referenced, provide ample objective evidence that the mere presence of bare skin does not cause the disintegration of society, nor acting out the potential sexual behavior for which too many people assume nudity is an inevitable prelude. 


It is again worth considering the definition of human sexuality previously given.  Even

if there is some undefined “sexual undercurrent” when people are together nude, it is part of the human condition.  This presumed “sexual undercurrent” is unavoidably present in all people in all settings, including clothed ones, whether at work, the mall, or church.  It seems that those insisting on clothing make the assumption that their clothing eliminates the presence of a “sexual undercurrent,” and prevents or at least minimizes the possibility of sexual misbehavior.  However, given the near universal presence of clothed people in daily life, one must wonder what then accounts for all the pre marital and extra marital sex going on in this country, plus astonishingly high rates of STD’s, and unwed births.  In fact, if association or correlation is looked at, then it is reasonable to consider that the presence of clothing of various types has a more powerful relationship with lust and inappropriate sexual behavior than has simple nudity.  However, correlation does not prove causation.  Human behavior is never so easily determined.  Additional variables have to be considered.  Whatever the reasons, one thing is certain, naturists are not the cause. 


All human societies recognize that sexual urges have the potential to be very destructive and they devise ways to channel them through various customs and taboos.  Social norms attempt to curb jealousy and lust which if unchecked, have the potential to lead to discord, violence, and even murder.  In much of the world the dominant culture has responded to our sexual nature with the demand that our sexual anatomy always be covered in order to avoid unseemly behavior.  This demand for covering has included the female breast, a secondary sexual characteristic.  The unfortunate unintended consequence of defining the sight of the body as shameful is to foster a dehumanizing obsession with just those parts of the body deemed the most in need of covering. 


Lust is a concern that we have to be clear in what we are talking about so as not to lead to confusion.  Lust is not natural interest in another person, nor simple appreciation for beauty, nor the body’s feelings of arousal related to sexuality, and not even the sexual passion we feel with the person we love.  These reactions are all a combination of how we are created, plus social conditioning.  Lust is a self centered objectifying of a person strictly on a sexual basis for self gratification.  In Love and Responsibility, Pope John Paul II clearly articulates this same understanding:


there is a difference between immodesty in feelings on the one hand and reflex sensual reaction to the body and sex as a ‘possible object of enjoyment’ on the other.  The human body is not in itself shameful, nor for the same reasons are sensual reactions, and human sensuality in general.    Shamelessness…is a function of the interior of a person, and specifically of the will, which too easily accepts the sensual reaction and reduces another person, because of the person’s ‘body and sex,’ to the role of an object for enjoyment.


The author of “Naked Spirit” argues that naturists recognize the importance of an orderly and safe society.  However, naturism provides a different way to deal with our sexuality.  Instead of relying on clothing to enable a polite denial of what we all know is really there, there is an open acknowledgment of our sexuality without obsession over it.  This is done in the belief that as humans, we have the capacity to act in a civilized manner even when our sexual identity is plainly out in the open.  The author adds, “We can be what we are without having to act on it in ways that dredge up the darker side of our animal passions.”


This “middle ground” approach is not to err on the side of recklessness.  Naturism is a sub-culture whose norms allow people to interact with each other in normal everyday activities without the mere exposure of the genitals inciting a mass orgy.  Mutual participation by both genders ends the voyeur factor, normalizing the experience, and creating a new equilibrium out of which body acceptance, that is, the belief in the essential goodness of the body in all its parts and functions, can emerge.


Body acceptance is the rejection of the age old dualism of body and spirit, in which the body is viewed with disgust and abhorrence at worst, and suspicion at best.  Naturism calls for the healing integration of self, both body and spirit.  It calls for dealing with sexuality as a force that is respected and valued, revealing it to be something that should neither be completely repressed nor exploited.  When sex is enjoyed privately between two people who love each other it is enriching, fulfilling its highest purpose both for procreation and bonding. 


Developing proper respect for the body is a moral good in and of itself in that it properly orients us toward ourselves and to others.  Naturist can whole heartedly endorse the moral position espoused by Pope John Paul II in chapter III of Love and Responsibility, where he writes the following:


Dress can, of course, help to accentuate the sexual values in different ways on different occasions,  irrespective of the congenital or acquired dispositions of a particular individual.  The accentuation of sexual values by dress is inevitable, and is not necessarily incompatible with sexual modesty. What is truly immodest in dress is that which frankly contributes to the deliberate displacement of the true value of the person by sexual values, that which is bound to elicit a reaction to the person as to a ‘possible means of obtaining sexual enjoyment’ and not ‘a possible object of love by reason of his or her personal value.


This does not, however, mean that physical shamelessness is to be simply and exclusively identified  with complete or partial nakedness.  There are circumstances in which nakedness is not immodest.  If someone takes advantange of such an occasion to treat the person as an object of enjoyment, (even if his action is purely internal) it is only he who is guilty of shamelessness (immodesty of feeling), not the other….  Immodesty is present only when nakedness plays a negative role with regard to the value of the person, when its aim is to arouse concupiscence, as a result of which the person is put in the position of an object for enjoyment.  What happens then may be called depersonalization by sexualization.  But this is not inevitable. 


Naturism asserts that it is possible to enjoy a greater non-sexual intimacy with those around us without that relationship becoming erotic.  This reality has been a part of our world for as long as humanity has walked the earth.  As the writer of “Naked Spirit” contends, the recognition of this type of closeness is a very important part of our development and sustenance, deepening our experience of life, enhancing our appreciation of whom and what we are.  

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