CW: extensive discussion of kink(s), brief mention of some pretty problematic -philias
Nudism is not a kink, but just saying it like that won’t make anyone else believe that this statement is factual. That’s because there is something in this world that is frequently called “nudism”—that maybe even overlaps with a holistic practice of nudism to some degree—bu which isn’t actually the same thing as nudism. This nudism-which-is-not-nudism can fairly be characterized, I think, as a kink, a fetish, a sexual fantasy, a paraphilia, etc., however you may want to call it.
This goes beyond the online porn industry’s usage of words like “nudism” —and even the originally euphemistic term “naturism”—in marketing, e.g. something that only exists on the level of representation. There is definitely something more real, more embodied, than all that. Although many Reddit and Twitter accounts are operated by software, plenty of others are operated by real people who—it can be surmised from a quick glance at the account’s history—are not particularly interested in philosophical matters, news pertaining to the legal status of public nudity in different parts of the world, or even just a practical discussion about different aspects of living as a nudist in the context of modern civilization. Instead, what they are interested in is seeing pictures of people who are naked. More often than not, too, only certain kinds of naked people (e.g. attractive ones, perhaps of a particular gender or race), perhaps doing certain kinds of activities while naked (e.g. meditating under a waterfall, wrestling heroically) to the exclusion of other kinds of people (e.g. low-hanging boobs, flabby ass) doing other kinds of things (e.g. pissing on a memorial to a British colonizer).
In other words, these “nudists” are horny people (who, in many cases, may not have even participated in any form of social nudism yet). Some of them may also be nudists—but for now, insofar as we are discussing them as operators of social media accounts, and integrating them as a somewhat abstract “population” into a social analysis, they are horny people first and foremost.
I think it is fair to speak of (at least some of) these people as having a “nudism fetish” insofar as their exhibitionistic and/or voyeuristic and/or no-boundaries-between-sexy-time-and-non-sexy-time erotic fantasies express themselves, in part, as an apparently honest affinity for nudity and/or nudism (by which I mean, something that at first glance looks like social nudism as it has usually been practised in nudist-naturist spaces).
I am not particularly mad at any of these people, to the extent that what they are doing is just horny and not harmful. It’s none of these folks’ fault that Big Tech, and its subsidiary Big Porn, profits off of misuse and abuse of the word term “nudism” (and even “naturism” at times), and that the whole smartphone-using world’s habits of sexual ideation have been, in part, moulded by instantaneously accessible hardcore pornography of all genres. We all live in this stupid world and we all get affected by it.
But it needs to be said that, well, they—the horny people—do represent a sort of problem for the perception of real nudists and real nudism by wider society.
Ugh. Let me just say, right now, that I really do hate this sort of verbiage. Talking about “realness” in order to do away with the bogeyman of a sexually unhinged Other—it is a trope that I am all too familiar with, in all sorts of social movements throughout history. But if the word “nudist” is going to be applied to “people” in any practically useful way, than it needs to exclude people for whom the desire to be naked is entirely tied up with sexual desire.
Because a nudist, in the context of the prevailing anti-nudist society, is probably someone who wants there to be more nudity-optional spaces—whether a little bit more or a lot more—then there is currently. A nudist is probably someone who also wants there to be more situations in which it is acceptable to be naked than is the case at present. Yet, critically, sex is actually not a situation in which it is unacceptable to be naked. Mileage may vary, depending on one’s specific cultural background and context, but in terms of North American or even global society writ large, sex is one of the only situations in which it is broadly acceptable for humans to be naked, no ifs ands or buts.
It’s not out of any animosity towards “kinky” people as a group, then, that I insist that nudism is not a kink. It’s just that, “kinks” are sexual, and nudism—which is to say, again, social nudism as it has usually been practised, and how it continues to be practised, in established nudist-naturist spaces—is not sexual, by definition. The moment that it becomes sexual is the moment that it stops being nudism, and becomes... sex. We are hovering close to tautology here, but I would argue that, if we’re going to put all of this into question, we might as well throw up our hands, decide philosophy and language are dead, and just all start grunting and grinding on each other non-stop. That would obviously be a great set-up for a porn movie, but it’s not at all practical for real life.
In other words, this is a semantic hill worth metaphorically dying on. (I can’t recommend actually dying over a semantic issue.)
Personally, I would like it if the porn industry as a whole was, by one means or another, prevented from misusing the words “nudism” and “nudist” (and sometimes “naturism” and “naturist”, too) for marketing any of its stuff.
It used to be that, entering the word “nudism” into Google, one of the top results was a website that had the word “nudism” in the name, and that featured galleries of photos taken, seemingly, from public nude beaches. I will admit to having clicked on it long ago, when I was still a teenager. Years later, while relaxing on such a beach in Barcelona as an adult, a drone whizzed by overhead, stalled for a minute, and then continued on into the distance. I was left wondering if it had taken my picture, and annoyed that I would not be getting any portion of the profits generated, if so, should my dick—and the bare skin of everyone else on the beach, including some kids with their families—end up on such a website. Not great stuff!
But honestly, I have no practical answers about how to deal with this sort of thing, beyond some kind of comprehensive social revolution that would also fundamentally change the nature (and/or the existence) of the internet, probably in a way that is worse than the already pretty bad present.
As both an anarchist and a nudist, the challenge, I think, is figuring out a way to articulate that nudism is not a “kink” without abhorring the category of “kink” as a whole.
Unless we are to take a very conservative view of the larger category of sex (which some non-anarchist nudist-naturists do, being broadly socially conservative in other matters), the subcategory of kink—which is to say, any of several sexual subcultures and/or the activities and aesthetics they concern themselves with—is something that exists beyond good and evil. It just is what it is, and overall, that’s something neutral and, for the most part, not even worthy of extensive commentary. The vocabulary is tricky here, but I think it is important to oppose the legitimization of certain kinds of sexual ideation as just one more variety of kink among many interchangeable ones (specifically zoophilia, e.g. bestiality, and pedophilia) without denying that, in the grand scheme of things, most other sexual practices, as bizarre or occasionally even dangerous to the practitioner(s) as they may be, aren’t really anyone else’s business so long as all parties consent (something that, incidentally, is categorically impossible in the attempted realization of zoophilic and pedophilic ideation, for reasons that don’t need to distract us).
Threading this needle, of distinguishing nudism from kink without opposing kink writ large (nor supporting it either, mind you) without also providing unwitting affirmation of actually dangerous forms of sexual ideation (like the aforementioned) won’t necessarily be easy, never mind elegantly articulated, in off-the-cuff, sometimes quite emotionally charged conversation. It should be said that I don’t think that any kink that passes basic muster—that isn’t detestable at a fundamental level, in other words—is, at that point, beyond critique either. As far as I’m concerned, nothing is beyond critique, least of all ideology; and if we’re talking about kink, that also always means the set of political ideas (and whether anyone recognizes these ideas as political or not is irrelevant) there are in play about (whichever given) kink. For some practical examples of what I’m talking about, and stuff that has in the past challenged my own perspectives on such issues, see this critique of BDSM from Yggdrasil Distro, as well as basically anything from the Bandana Blog project.
Personally speaking, I’m neither especially interested in BDSM nor in critiques thereof, but I have appreciated these perspectives, just as I appreciate critical perspectives on all sorts of other topics that don’t necessarily have much to do with my life in the first person. I live in the world with other people, after all, and despite the taboo nature of sexual practices that are, perhaps, attractive to the practitioners precisely because they are taboo, BDSM certainly does come up when chatting with friends (or sometimes complete strangers) about their relationships, the sex they like to have or want to have, the sort of work they do, and so on. The personal is political, and vice versa, and so political ideas (as well as moral values, analysis of how society works, etc.) are going to come up in these conversations, so all the better if the participants are actually well-informed about the complexities of whatever issue.
I think it’s worth saying—and I am hardly the first to say it—that humans are by and large sexual beings, and sexuality as an embodied experience cannot be cleanly cut off from the rest of personhood. But sexuality is not the same as sex, and cannot be. I am probably not prepared, at this time, to provide a tidy definition of “sex” that all readers will be satisfied with, but I shall insist that it’s a rather different thing than nudism is. It is, in point of fact, a whole other kind of thing, pertaining more to a person’s chosen activity, to “doing something”, rather than to a passive and continuous condition or state that is, in a sense, agnostic to activity. There is only the faintest echo of “doing something” in nudism; what a person is “doing” is sustaining their naked condition, rather than “returning to” dress (bearing in mind that all humans were born naked, not clothed, so really it is always to nudity that we return, but of course we all live in a clothes-are-understood-as-the-default society).
Apart from the obvious negative effects on the plans and aspirations of people more or less like me—people who want nudity to be (understood as) normal and indeed unremarkable, rather than (understood as) sexual and/or inherently provocative—I have also always thought it a curious thing to understand nudism as a “kink” because nudity is, in fact, sort of the “default uniform” for sex. People can have sex in all sorts of states of dress and partial undress, of course, but it’s rather odd to think of simple nudity as particularly kinky, even setting aside that we might be talking about a person writing an essay for their nudism blog while naked or making breakfast by themselves naked rather than engaging in any kind of sexual activity with another person.
Nudism, vis-à-vis a sexual situation, could almost be said to be the opposite of kinky insofar as many kinks ideate about specific outfits or worn articles (fursuits, gear associated with the leather subculture, the sexy French maid uniform, etc.) during sex, in contrast to the always readily accessible, and frankly quite unimaginative, option of nudity.
All of the above words won’t stop people from viewing nudism through a “kink” lens or presenting nudism as “kinky” in conversation with others. After all, if one is opposed to nudism on ideological or simply aesthetic grounds, and wants to rally others to the same sort of opposition, then a lens that casts nudism as an abnormal sexual compulsion does a great deal to delegitimize nudism at large, suggesting that nudism belongs in the same limited space of “only behind closed doors” where our culture also places sex and using the toilet. In this way, the nudism-as-kink idea serves a similar rhetorical function for anti-nudists as “autogynephilia” does for transphobes. It is also of a piece with campaigns to remove the capacity of queer people to express their queerness in public in any way whatsoever, whether in art or in how they dress. The implication of the nudism-as-kink idea is that nothing less than the total non-presence of nudity in all public space is acceptable, even if there could be some grudging leeway about certain situations and settings (and even this is a hard sell these days). It's a logic of pathologizing some forms of expression as inappropriately sexual and therefore in need of regulation, something that mostly amounts to punishing some people simply for being themselves.
To the extent that there is a “normative practice” of nudism, it is to get out into the Sun and the air naked—to recreate while nude—and otherwise to simply be unburdened by clothes, that may be as unnecessary as they are uncomfortable, when engaged in daily chores and activities.
Nudism is, in other words, both an ideal philosophy about how to live life and the imperfect way that people try to live it in the world as it is (to prefigure it, in the anarchist vocabulary). Inasmuch as the people involved do not wish to become hermits, it is about something social, that involves multiple people to do... whatever. We can understand the word “nudism”, then, as denoting a social proposal, one that concerns itself with matters like work, philosophy, and how we think future people might want to live.
When people reduce this proposal to the nudity (and really to the image of the nudity that they have in their heads and however they think it will factor into sociality, because in most cases, they are not familiar with the history of nudity or the reality of different cultures and subcultures), they are being both profoundly unimaginative and profoundly paranoid in understanding what is being said. It is a projection of their own ideas about the world when they understand “nudism” as denoting nothing but a sexual fantasy gone wild, a way for a bunch of freaks to get onto their sometimes merely disgusting, occasionally actively evil sexual undertakings, in other words a “kink” (derogatory).
Nudism is not a kink, it is not sex, and it isn’t only for adults, unlike the former two items. The word “nudism” has certainly been misused by people who sell pornography, and there are plenty of stories in this world, if you care to go looking, about creeps who use a rhetoric of “nudism” (alongside a host of other manipulative tricks, like presenting as an authority and living up to the name) as a means of accomplishing some pretty fucked-up stuff around kids. But this has no bearing on the merits and faults of nudism itself, however, nor does it speak to the reality of nudist individuals, nudist families, nudist communities, and people who otherwise have a broadly more casual and unanxious relationship to simple nudity, whether their own or others'.
This miscategorization reduces the whole texture of a way of life and its philosophy to an all-motivating “sexuality”; in this regard, it owes a great deal both to Freud and to the terrible mainstream of Christian theology.
At some point in the future, I may wish to consider, in another essay, the issue of “kink at Pride” from a nudist-comfortist and anarchist perspective. Kyle Kingsbury’s “A History of Leather at Pride: 1965-1995” provides a great deal of context about debates, both historic and relatively contemporary, about this broad subject matter—one that has included, for better or worse, the issue of nudity at Pride. As I have written before, nudity is a sexualized subject matter, and the presence of nudists acting like nudists at Pride, or anywhere else for that matter, is representative of an excess of what is normally appropriate (or what relatively conservative Pride organizers and participants want and expect) in much the same way that kinksters acting like kinksters might be. There’s no guarantee that I’ll get around to it, but I feel as though engaging with the perennial “kink at Pride” debate could offer some insight with regards to some of my favourite subjects: what practical solidarity with other “freaks” ought to look like, how nudists should relate to LGBT+ coalitional politics, and strategic questions about expanding the availability of an option of nudity in society. But these topics will have to wait for another day.