A More Sex Positive Conception of Nudism

Nudists are inadvertently very sex negative. But they shouldn’t be.

Nudism¹, simply defined, is the practice of nonsexual social and recreational nudity.

The phrase “nudism is not sexual”² is found on every legitimate source of information concerning the topic of nudism. It’s a fact stated in every article written about the lifestyle. It’s in the rules posted for every clothing optional venue. It’s practically the mantra of all nudist organizations, large and small. By far and away, it’s the most common rhetorical defense of nude recreation.

Before going any further, I’d like to take a moment to establish that this claim is one hundred percent true. I want to be totally clear about that: nudism is not a sexual activity. Absolutely nothing written here should be interpreted in any way as being in opposition to that premise.

Nudists typically enjoy things like skinny dipping, sunbathing, and potlucks. Nudist resorts host events like 5k runs, volleyball tournaments, and karaoke nights. None of these activities are even remotely sexual in nature. The reason that nudists do these and other activities in the nude is simply that they enjoy the comfort and sense of freedom that comes from being without clothes. They’re not participating in clothing optional activities in order to see or be seen. Nudists do nothing in public view that one normally would not with the exception of being nude. Normal, every day, non-sexual activities don’t become sexual just because they’re being done sans clothing.

Sex is a behavior, not a state of dress. It’s an intentional act with the purpose of arousing and pleasuring oneself or others. Nudists lack any such intent.

So why do nudists feel like they have to repeatedly state this simple axiom about our lifestyle?

The answer is because no matter the reality of what nudism is and what nudists do, it’s still very common misunderstanding among the general public. Most people only experience nudity around others in sexual contexts, such as between a couple in their bedroom, or in pornography, or at a strip club where it’s clearly meant to tease and entice. This leads many to the mistaken belief that social nudity always has a sexual purpose.

Consequently many people form an objection against social nude recreation which goes like this:

“Nudism is wrong because you’re all a bunch of sexual deviants!”

To which nudists answer:

“Actually, nudism isn’t sexual at all, so it’s not wrong.”

Hence why the phrase is so common across nudist media; it’s an attempt to address the most likely objection someone might have to nudism.

Let’s break down the argument in a little more detail. The objection is based on the premise that sexual activity is wrong, offers a proposition that nudity is sexual activity, and concludes therefore nudity is wrong.

By answering with “nudism isn’t sexual”, nudists challenge the argument’s proposition. Nudism is not sexual activity, they argue, and therefore the conclusion doesn’t follow. Which it’s worth noting is a perfectly valid logical challenge.

However, it’s worth thinking through the implications of relying on this particular response to that objection. By only challenging the proposition “nudism is sexual activity”, it leaves completely unchallenged the premise: “Sexual expression is wrong”. And by implicitly accepting that premise, it positions nudists as accepting the sex negative view of the world on which that premise is based.

Sex negativity is defined as hostility towards sexual expression. It’s a belief that sexual activity is always wrong — or at most, it’s only acceptable in narrowly proscribed circumstances, such as between a married opposite-sex couple in private for the purposes of procreation. It’s the belief that sexual pleasure should not be pursued. Sex negativity is the notion that sexuality itself is inherently immoral, even in the absence of any demonstrable harm.

Perhaps many nudists are in fact sex negative and agree with those ideas, but I don’t believe that’s actually the case. I think most nudists simply want to defend their freedom to enjoy non-sexual nudity from both mainstream society that would prohibit it as well as from those that would seek to sexualize it based on the mistaken belief it already is. The argument “nudism is not sexual” seemingly accomplishes both these ends.

The problem is that by failing to address the sex negativity of the original criticism, the argument is ultimately counterproductive.

Sex negativity is premised on a type of moral philosophy where things are arbitrarily declared either “good” or “bad”, mostly based on existing social norms rather than any kind of consistent philosophical reasoning. Sexual expression is viewed as one of the bad things simply because social norms treat it as a bad thing.

The opposition to social nude recreation should be understood this way. I believe nudists are making a fundamental mistake about their critics reasoning — people by and large don’t actually believe “Sex is wrong, nudity is sexual, therefore nudism is wrong.” By and large they believe “Nudity is wrong, and therefore nudists must be involved in other things I think are wrong, like sex.” Even if nudists could successfully completely disassociate nudity from sex in the minds of the public at large, we would still see opposition to nudist activities on the basis of “people just shouldn’t do that”.

Nudists argue that social recreational nudity should be one of the “good” things, while being content to let sexuality remain as a “bad” thing. But if the argument is simply which things are good or bad, with no greater foundation than we’re okay with some social norms (like sex negativity) but disagree with others (like the nudity taboo), then nudists will always lose that argument. There are simply too many people who associate sex and nudity and believe that both are wrong for nudists to have a real chance at convincing a critical mass of people otherwise.

So when nudists fail to challenge sex negativity, they implicitly accept the framework under which nudism is categorized as wrong and fail to forward a convincing argument as to why it’s not. They undermine their own cause by accepting the validity of this moral philosophy.

Semantic pedantry aside, there are practical consequence to this too. By conceding there’s something wrong with sexuality and accepting the legitimacy of attitudes and policies based on that, nudists wind up being on the same side of a larger cultural debate as ultra-conservative types who aren’t likely to support nude recreation no matter what. It aligns nudists with sex negative elements of society — religious social conservatives, mainstream NIMBY’s, homophobes, et al — for whom preserving the social status quo is of primary concern. Nudists wind up rhetorically supporting the people who are fundamentally opposed to nudism and who would seek to shut down the beaches and clubs we enjoy.

While there’s an argument that “We’re just like you except for this one thing” could ultimately lead to acceptance of that “one thing” (nudity in this case), I believe such a strategy is ultimately doomed to failure. Nudity is such a strong taboo that there is simply no amount of appeasement, puritanical behavior, or admonitions of innocence that will convince someone who strongly believes it is wrong that it should instead be allowed. I see no convincing evidence otherwise.

So what should nudists do then? Luckily, there’s an alternative to being sex negative. Somewhat predictably, that alternative is to be sex positive.

Sex positivity is the notion that consensual sexual activity is fun, healthy, okay to engage in and importantly, there’s nothing morally wrong with it.

To be clear about what it isn’t — being sex positive does not mean you believe everyone should have sex with everyone else all the time. It doesn’t imply any participation in sexual activities at all. In this context, it certainly does not mean nudists have to change what they are or suddenly start accepting sexual behavior at nudist venues. It’s simply having a different attitude towards sex.

Beneficially, being sex positive would mean nudists would be aligning themselves with those most likely to be our allies rather than our most likely opponents. It would put nudists on the same side of the cultural conversation as other communities that are sex positive. It means sharing common cause with people and groups who are likely to support the right to nude recreation even if they don’t themselves choose to participate in it, such as the LGBT community, feminists, social liberals, the polyamorous, swingers, kinksters, and many others.

Any given sex positive community might be fairly small, but in the aggregate it’s a large number of people with the same general goals. They all seek greater social understanding and acceptance for who they are, the freedom to practice their lifestyles without interference, and appropriate venues where relevant activities can take place. Mutual support of one another in these goals means all are more likely to succeed, and nudists should be a part of that.

I imagine many nudists reading this are feeling uneasy at this point, if not already prepping angry responses fiercely asserting “we’re not like them!”. Nudists have historically been reluctant to talk positively about sex or to associate themselves with groups that are explicitly about sexual activity. So many people already think nudism is somehow sexual that nudists worry about reinforcing those misconceptions, which makes many skeptical of adopting any position that might further associate sex with nudism.

But this concern is unfounded, because of the most important word in the definition of sex positivity that I provided above. I’ll repeat it here, with that word highlighted:

Sex positivity is the notion that consensual sexual activity is fun, healthy, okay to explore and importantly, there’s nothing wrong with it.

What ultimately links all sex positive communities to one another and to the practice of nudism is emphatically not sexual expression — it’s consent. These communities and all who share the sex positive philosophy are united in the belief that sex is okay when it’s consensual, and decidedly wrong when it is not. It holds that the morality of an activity is independent of the activity itself — what matters is that everyone involved has consented to their participation.

And this, whether most nudists realize it or not, is the core rationale of nudism.

A nudist environment is one in which everyone has consented to being nude and being around other nude people. The activity is fully consensual, that’s what makes it okay. I would hope that most nudists would agree it’s wrong to strip someone against their will, or to flash non-participating strangers. Without consent, what you’re doing is not nudism.

Critically, nudists are not consenting to any sexual activity when they practice nudism. There are clear boundaries concerning what’s being consented to and what is not. Simply, there is absolutely no consent given to engaging in sexuality or participating in a sexual display.

By this logic, a man who shows up to a nude beach and starts masturbating isn’t wrong to do so because “nudism isn’t sexual”. He’s wrong because none of the people on that beach consented to being sexualized by him. Secretly taking photos of nudists for later sexual gratification isn’t wrong because nude photography is wrong. It’s wrong simply because the subjects have not consented to having their photos taken, and certainly not for that purpose. A pair of swingers having oral sex on the side of a hot tub isn’t wrong because there’s something wrong with being swingers or performing public sex, it’s wrong because others around them have not consented to being voyeurs to their exhibitionism. Simply being nude does not excuse or justify any of these behaviors towards the nude person. Or to put it another way:

Nudity is not consent.

Importantly, this framing removes the moral judgment from these activities. They’re not wrong in of themselves, and in fact any of those activities are perfectly ethical in other contexts. A blow job at the hot tub is acceptable in swinger resorts that where such activity is permitted and where everyone present understands that it’s allowed and they might expect it. Nude photography is fine when you have a model or subject that’s agreed to be photographed. A person can go to a strip club where the performers are consenting to being sexualized by their audience.

So let’s re-frame what nudism is using these idea:

Nudism is a social or recreational activity where people are consensually nude, but are not consenting to sexual activity.

In a nudist environment, people are nude, and it is nonsexual. The environment is not nonsexual because sex is wrong, or because nudity itself is magically nonsexual. It’s nonsexual because nudists have not consented to be part of anything sexual. They’re not consenting to sex by entering the environment, and they’re not consenting to it by removing their clothes.

That means any sexual activity taking place there would be nonconsensual. It would be harassment, or in the worst cases rape. Such behavior ought to be condemned in the strongest possible terms, both inside and outside of nudist contexts.

So a sex positive conception of nudism is one that is more logically consistent as well as a clearer statement of what nudists value. Perhaps most importantly, it can win us new allies and lead to more people trying and enjoying nudism.

That just leaves the question of how might nudists adopt sex positivity. The first step is simply awareness, which I hope this article helps to accomplish. Hostility towards sexuality is so pervasive in our culture that it’s easy to be reflexively sex negative. Questioning why one feels the way they do towards certain behaviors is a good exercise, and catching oneself being negative is a good start.

Beyond that, it’s mostly a matter of communication, messaging and vocabulary. It’s certainly good to tell the world that nudism is nonsexual; but this factual statement shouldn’t be presented as an argument. Consent, both the word itself and the idea behind it, needs to feature much more frequently in nudist media. Nudists need to be unafraid to identify as sex positive, and support others who are sex positive.

The more nudists who do so, the better it will be for our lifestyle and all those who enjoy it.

¹ For the purposes of this essay and throughout this publication, the terms “nudism” and “naturism” are synonymous and can be used interchangeably. Many practitioners of the lifestyle refer to themselves as “naturists”, but it remains that “nudist” is the more general and widely known term, at least in the USA. So that’s the terminology I’m using here.

² You’ll also see it phrased as “nudity isn’t sexual”, as is the case in the protest sign pictured at the introduction to this article. I believe that formulation is simply wrong; softcore pornography and strip clubs demonstrate that nudity can in fact be sexual in some contexts. It will sometimes also be phrased as “nudity isn’t inherently sexual” which is designed to account for that and thus is more correct. But I feel it’s most correct to speak specifically about nudity as practiced by nudists, which is emphatically and inarguably nonsexual.