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Some Thoughts on Women and Nudism

Why aren’t there more women in nudism? And what can we do about it?

Consider the following scene which might take place in a nudist setting:

This could very easily be the opening scene to a porn movie. Most people would view that scene and assume she wanted to have sex, and was inviting that young man to have sex with her. Most young men would certainly assume that’s what it was and react accordingly.

But at a nudist club or resort? None of those assumptions get made, not least because none of those assumptions are true. That young woman wasn’t thinking anything sexual as she dove into the pool, and she wasn’t inviting the young man to anything sexual when she invited him in. She doesn’t worry that the young man will think he can have sex with her, even though she’s attractive and completely nude. And in fact the young man doesn’t think anything of the sort. He’d probably get in the pool with her to cool off, and they’d share an amicable conversation there and nothing more.

In a nudist setting her nudity is not seen as an invitation to be ogled or groped. She’s certainly not nude for the sexual benefit of the young man in question. She’s nude because she wants to be nude, for herself and no one else. And having made the choice to be nude, she’ll be treated the same as if she were fully dressed. Anyone who encounters her at a nudist venue will make no assumptions about her sexual availability just because of her state of undress.

This is the power of consent, discussed at length in a previous essay.

The only winning move is not to play.

Meanwhile in the outside world, women are still routinely cat called on the street for wearing… well, pretty much anything. Their nipples are deemed too obscene to be displayed in public or on social media. If their outfit is deemed too immodest at school they’ll be sent home for distracting the boys. If they show too much skin they’ll be shamed as sluts. Women are still disgustingly asked what they were wearing when they were sexually assaulted, as if certain articles of clothing mean she was “asking for it”.

Nudists understand that by disrobing, a woman is not consenting to anything other than enjoying a nice day. They don’t think a woman is asking for it by showing skin, they don’t think a woman should be treated differently based on what she’s wearing, they don’t hold ridiculous notions that a woman should dress modestly to avoid tempting men into raping them.

Men in a nudist setting are held accountable for their own behavior, and are expected to control whatever urges they might feel at all times. And countless nudist men do this every day without thinking about it.

Further, the scene above described the woman as young and beautiful. What if she weren’t? What if she were instead overweight? Old? Scarred? Transgendered? Mainstream society deems some bodies too ugly to wear revealing clothes, let alone be completely nude. Women with those body types are regularly mocked and derided and called gross.

An entire industry exists trying to convince even the beautiful woman described at the beginning that her body isn’t perfect enough and can only be made so by buying their products. Regardless of a woman’s body type, she’s made to feel bad for it. She’s too short or too tall, too fat or too skinny, her breasts aren’t big enough, or they sag too much, or they’re so perky they must be fake.

Yet any woman in a nudist environment can expect but one reaction to her nude body no matter what she looks like: acceptance.

Her mere presence in that setting is a powerful rejection of the sociocultural messages that she’s failing to meet an impossible standard of beauty. The acceptance of all ages and body types by nudists is a clear repudiation of the idea that only the young and beautiful should be valued.

In few other environments is a woman’s autonomy so highly respected and her physical appearance so irrelevant. Social nudism is the antithesis of the sexist bullshit that most women face in their day to day life. It’s hard to imagine anything that could be more woman friendly than that, and the appeal of it should hardly need selling: “Here’s a place where you’ll be valued no matter what you look like and respected no matter what you’re wearing.”

And yet the nudist world has trouble attracting and retaining women. Men are simply far more likely than women to become active nudists. Resort owners and managers are mostly male. Club members and visitors are mostly male. Our leaders are mostly male. I, the author of this essay, am a male. As a result of all this, the gender ratio at most clothing optional venues range from having men as the majority to having men as the overwhelming majority. In light of everything I just wrote that seems a little weird, doesn’t it?

Before I go much further, I’d like to add a disclaimer. I’m a man. As a general matter, I don’t like to speak on what women want, or need, or feel, because I believe they’re more than capable of speaking for themselves. This essay is based in large part on many conversations with numerous smart and capable woman who have been good enough to share their thoughts and opinions with me, and I’ll strive here to represent their views as accurately as I can. Nevertheless I’m still a man speaking about women’s thoughts and feelings. So let me be the first to observe that any accusations of hypocrisy that might get lobbed my way are at least somewhat accurate.

Nonetheless, I’m choosing to write about this because it’s an important topic for the nudist community, as well as one of the most commonly discussed questions among nudists themselves. “How do we attract more women to the lifestyle?” And it’s a good question to ask, regardless of our gender.

The first answer most nudists will commonly come up with is a fairly obvious one. Women face much greater pressure with regards to body image and sexual objectification than men do. The fact is there are an array of sociocultural factors lined up to make women feel insecure about their bodies and less than enthused about the prospect of spending a day nude around other people. Men simply aren’t subjected to this to nearly the same degree. They have less to fear from being objectified, and there’s much less pressure on them to look a certain way.

This explanation has the benefit of being completely true. And nudists do their part to address these issues. The nudist community promotes messages of body acceptance and against objectification at every opportunity. These efforts are important, and good for nudists to talk about. While negative body image is indeed a barrier to trying nudism, nudism itself offers a cure to the men and women who are made miserable by this culture of body shaming. It’s one of the great things about this lifestyle and one of the best reasons to participate and support it.

But I think that because these societal factors offer such a powerful answer to the question “Why aren’t there more women?”, many nudists basically stop there and assume that’s the entire explanation. However, I don’t believe that’s the the case.

At issue, we’re not just failing to get women who feel too insecure with their bodies to try social nudity. We’re also failing to attract many women who’d otherwise be open to the idea to try it, and we’re failing to make sure the women who do try it want to come back. Which suggests that the nudist community itself isn’t living up to the ideal described above.

While there are undoubtedly a great many powerful social factors that stop women from considering social nudism, those factors are completely external to nudism itself. We as nudists can and should do our part to change that, but it’s ultimately something we have no real control over. What we do have complete control over is what women experience within our clubs and resorts, and we should ask ourselves if that experience is as inviting and welcoming as it possibly can be. So before we try to change the culture outside the gates of clubs and resorts, we should first take a hard look at the culture within them.

So let’s ask the question. Why don’t more women participate in nudism?

The first answer is nearly universally agreed upon by every woman I’ve ever discussed this with. It’s the men. It takes just one uncomfortable encounter to ruin a day, and a single uncomfortable encounter can even be enough to sour a woman to the lifestyle entirely.

Thankfully, the men who do something overtly creepy are few and far between. Clubs and resorts by and large do a good job of keeping such men out. As a result women don’t have much to fear from being groped, secretly filmed, or masturbated to within the gates of a nudist venue.

The problem is that “don’t be a totally creepy pervert” is a really low bar to clear, and it still leaves plenty of room for encounters that would make a woman feel uncomfortable. And those encounters are just as likely to come from men who are long time club members in good standing as they are from men visiting for the first time and new to the lifestyle.

It’s not that they act especially pervy or creepy towards women, but they might say things that are mildly inappropriate or sexist and are oblivious to how their remarks are being perceived. For example, they might make casual use of infantilizing pet names to refer to a woman — “babe”, “honey”, “sweetie”, etc. Or they might make a tasteless joke or comment based on gender stereotypes — “Women! Am I right?”. There’s no ill intent, but it’s not a way a woman wants to be talked to.

This happened to appear at the top of /r/TwoXChromosomes as I was writing this.

Too commonly they’ll comment on her body or looks, such as by telling her she’s beautiful, telling her her boyfriend is lucky to have such a gorgeous woman, or expressing disbelief she’s still single if she doesn’t have one. These remarks are intended as compliments, but they’re focused how she looks or her relationship status when she mentioned neither.

Sometimes if she’s not fully naked they’ll extoll the virtues of full nudity and encourage her to take off what she’s wearing. They do this without showing much interest in why she might be wearing what she’s wearing, or worse still dismissing any reasoning she might give for wearing what she is. They’re trying to be encouraging, but such conversation always boils down to telling her “I want to to see you nude,” when she’s most certainly not there to show her nude body to men.

These kinds of comments aren’t anything that rises to the level of harassment or full on creepiness. In fact, these men probably think they’re being friendly. They see a too rare woman participating and they want to encourage and support her. They believe she might feel insecurity about her body, so they tell her she’s beautiful. They think she might feel apprehensive about being nude, so they reassure her it’s fine for her to do so.

But for women, and especially from the perspective of a younger woman, it’s just a man who might be twice her age giving her unsolicited comments about her nude body. Which reminds her that the men are paying attention to her body, contributes to an overall sense of objectification, and makes the environment less appealing. Women fight a daily battle to be acknowledged for something other than their looks. Nudist settings need to be an escape from that, not a reinforcement of it. It should be the one place she can go where her looks are completely irrelevant. Every time she hears some variation of “you look beautiful”, that gets undermined.

Many women have a high tolerance for this sort of thing. They experience it constantly, and have learned to accept and deal with it. But they shouldn’t have to deal with it at all, and they absolutely shouldn’t have to in a nudist environment.

What should nudists do to fix this?

One suggestion I have is that clubs should take the lead in educating their members and guests. Simple flyers and handouts given to each visitor with guidelines for “what not to say” would be a good start. If possible they might host communication workshops to help teach the “why” of it. Everyone can benefit from these, and it might help men who are inadvertently guilty of this to become aware of how their good intentions might be perceived by women.

For the rest of us, a simple test is to ask yourself “Would I be saying this if I were talking to another man?” If the answer is no, then perhaps it’s best left unsaid.

Another pretty good rule of thumb, if it came out of a certain person’s mouth, it was probably inappropriate.

A woman goes through life constantly vigilant for her own safety. The risk of being assaulted is palpable and ever present. It’s something most men can’t really relate to (and I’ll certainly include myself in that .) We simply have no idea how many conscious and unconscious things a woman does in her daily life to be safe and feel safe.

Nudity brings with it a heightened sense of vulnerability. Philosophy, values, and ideals about nude recreation aside, a woman has real reason to feel that by being nude, she’s more exposed to danger and is taking a risk by taking her clothes off. For a woman, stripping down is an act of courage, and a leap of faith that those she’ll encounter while undressed can be trusted.

So above all, the job of a nudist venue should be to make the women inside feel safe. Above almost all else, for a woman to feel comfortable nude she has to feel safe being nude. As noted above, it’s very unlikely a woman will actually be harassed at a nudist club. But the possibility always remains, and it’s a concern for many women.

As such, it’s amazing how many nudist venues find room in their rules for things like “No glass bottles in the pool area!” but can’t be bothered to have a rule that says “Don’t harass women”, or have in place an explicit anti-harassment policy and procedure for addressing incidents. The absence of such a policy suggests the venue has its head in the sand regarding this very real fear of many women. To women, it’s the difference between “I have to rely on my male friends that I know and trust to protect me” vs “This is a safe environment and I can rely on management to protect me.”

Simply, every club ought to have an anti-harassment policy in place; it’s frankly inexcusable that the overwhelming majority do not. There needs to be rules that make clear that actions and comments that make others uncomfortable will not be tolerated. Every visitor should know exactly where to go and who to speak to should they need to report someone bothering them. And management needs to take these complaints seriously, no matter how long the accused has been coming or how well liked they might be. The message needs to be loud and clear — “We won’t tolerate harassment of any sort, and we’ll be on your side should you encounter any.”

This is also another area where sex positive messaging helps a great deal. Talking more about consent sends a message that you value consent, and a woman can be confident that her autonomy will be held sacrosanct in this environment.

Geeks are another subculture that’s struggled to attract women and make them feel welcome. These signs have been popping up at comic con in recent years as part of that effort. Nudist venues would benefit from putting similar signs right at the entrance.

So once more, it’s the absence of something that’s telling. What about concerns unique to women? I’ve never seen a single club or resort post a FAQ or guideline which makes any mention of menstruation. It’s something that every woman has to deal with on a monthly basis for most of their lives, and is a real concern when it comes to nude recreation. How does a woman deal with having a period while being socially nude? How should she deal with it if it comes earlier than expected, while she’s at a club? Are visible tampon strings okay? Does the venue have sanitary products available should they be needed? These are reasonable questions a woman considering nude recreation might have, and there’s little to no guidance from most nudist information sources to help answer them.

I have to imagine that this is because of how male dominated nudism is to begin with. A man drawing from his own experience and concerns might think to reassure visitors about erections but isn’t going to think about periods. Men don’t like to think about them, and by and large they just don’t think about them. Consequently nudist communities seem totally oblivious to this biological reality of half the human population.

Many women with periods in nudist environments choose to deal with it by wearing bikini bottoms to guard against leakage. But this runs afoul of various “nudity required” policies that many venues maintain in pool areas, or while taking tours, or sometimes throughout the entire premises. Which means that on several occasions I’ve personally witnessed an older man telling a young girl she has to take her bottoms off, only to have her awkwardly explain to him she has her period. Such a scene should never happen, but I’ve seen it play out more than once in nudist settings.

The existence of these rules and the blind enforcement of them tells any visiting woman that her autonomy and comfort simply isn’t prioritized. It says a man’s desire to maintain an environment where everyone is nude is more important than her bodily autonomy.

So strict enforcement of “nudity required” means some women can’t participate up to 25% of the time, the seven out of every twenty-eight days she’s menstruating. And some of those women will decide they may as well not participate 100% of the time.

Worse still are the men who insist their “nude only” policy is reasonable and proceed to mansplain alternative ways that she might manage it. In one of the incidents I alluded to a moment ago, the man scolding her actually told her she just use a diva cup rather than a bottom and pad if she wanted to use the hot tub. I know many women use and like diva cups, but it’s really not anyone else’s place to tell her what should be in her body. Thankfully that’s just an anecdotal incident and not at all typical, but it does perfectly illustrates the deeper problem.

Periods happen. Let’s not pretend they don’t. And if you’re a man you probably don’t know as much about dealing with them as the women who have them, so maybe don’t go telling a woman she’s dealing with it the wrong way. She knows better than you do how to deal with her own body.

The way that some nudists clubs try to solve the gender imbalance problem is frankly baffling.

Let’s consider how night clubs work for a moment. Commonly they’ll have a “ladies’ night”, where they’ll offer discounts to women or even make it entirely free for them, while continuing to charge the same regular price for men. It’s attractive to women because it’s cheaper for them to go on these nights, and attractive to men because, well, there are more women on these nights. So despite paying a higher price, more men will come on these nights than on normal nights because they want the chance to meet, flirt, and hook up with a greater number of women. In a sense women aren’t the customers on these nights, they’re the product being sold to these men. This works for night clubs because everyone understands that’s what’s going on. A woman goes to a ladies’ night because she wants to flirt, be hit on, and hook up. At the very least, she’s fully aware of this dynamic and accepts it for the sake of paying a little less money to go out.

Nudist venues will occasionally apply the same economic logic to entice more women to come. Sometimes they’ll simply charge women lower rates than men. Other times they’ll offer a discounted couples rate, which is effectively a discount for men who bring a woman. The most extreme version of this are the resorts that sharply limit or outright prohibit single men from attending, which is unfortunately a too common approach that many nudist clubs and resorts still take.

Now imagine yourself a woman looking at the rates of a nudist resort that employs these tactics, and keep in mind night clubs. It sure looks like they’re trying to get as many women in the door as possible (which it true)… and the men are paying more to have more (nude!) women there. But unlike at a night club, women aren’t going to nude resorts for the opportunity to flirt and hook up or be ogled by men; this kind of scheme actually cuts against the entire premise of nudism.

It’s not like men paying to see nude women is unheard of.

It begs the question of why exactly clubs and resorts are concerned with the number of women who come in the first place. After all, if nudism is nonsexual, why would the sex ratio matter? For a community that’s as opposed to swinging as nudists generally are, it seems rather odd to restrict visitors to male-female couples and single women, doesn’t it?

My thesis is that the gender imbalance is an issue because it points to issues in the nudist community which can and ought to be addressed. But these sorts of policies imply that women are desirable in their own right, simply because they’re women, and the men who own and run these resorts want more nude women around.

Ostensibly, such policies are being pursued for the comfort of the women themselves, many of whom report that they’re uncomfortable being significantly outnumbered by men. From my own conversations, I don’t believe this is really the case. Most women don’t really mind being in a group with some extra men as long as the men are behaving respectfully. In other words it’s mens behavior, not the number of men, which is the problem. That holds true whether there are more men, an equal number of men, or even if women are the majority.

Most women do dislike the disproportionate amount of attention comes with being the only woman present, but that too returns back to the same problem. If there’s one woman and fifty men, the biggest problem is if all fifty men decide they’d rather try to get the attention of the one woman rather than treat her as they would every other man in the room.

Sometimes you’ll see an explanation that prohibiting single men is really an anti-creep policy, but this logic falls completely flat. After all, not all single men are creeps, and for that matter not all attached men aren’t creeps. If this is really the reasoning for the policy, it says that the management has no idea what creepy behavior looks like, and only trusts men to not be creeps if their wife or girlfriend is around. It’s honestly hard to say who that’s the most insulting to.

Further, many women like having men around. Men are their friends, they get along with them, and sometimes women might be single and would like the opportunity to meet single men. This policy discounts that possibility and essentially takes that option out of a woman’s hands. The resort is saying it knows best what she wants.

But I also believe in taking women’s words at face value; so if some women say they’re simply uncomfortable in a situation where there’s not an equal gender ratio, I’ll believe them. The thing is, I’m not sure how “no single male” policies achieve that. Even if you do have an equal number of men and women in a resort at any given time, that doesn’t mean a woman will never find herself in a situation with more men than women. Say a man wants to go in the pool while his female partner takes a nap back in their room. At the same time, two women leave the pool together to get a snack, and another man hops in the pool while his wife prefers to stay dry. The ratio in the pool will now be off, and women there stand to be outnumbered. Is a club to police that there will always be an equal gender ratio where people socialize? If not, what’s really being achieved?

A more cynical explanation starts with the observation that many men themselves dislike being socially nude exclusively with other men. So when you see men using their positions as organizers, owners and managers to keep out other men, it’s entirely plausible that preserving an equal ratio of men to women is more about their comfort than the comfort of women.

Hysterical movie, by the way.

This idea gains credibility when one considers another consequence of “no single men” policies. It ignores the existence of LGBT individuals, and makes it incredibly hostile to their participation.

LGBT representation in the nudist world is its own issue; while some clubs and resorts in the nudist world do mention LGBT individuals to make it a point to include them, most resorts simply don’t mention them at all. This is a topic worthy of separate discussion, so for now let’s keep it focused on how it relates to the gender ratio and women.

Most of the resorts that ban single men are very explicit that their definition of a couple is one male and one female, and thus a committed gay male couple who tried to visit would be treated as two single men and neither would be allowed on premises. Meanwhile, a lesbian couple would be treated as two single women, making room in the quota for more single men to visit. Who is this policy benefitting, really?

A no single men policy also assumes that all men can be correctly identified by their genitals. Which is a weird idea, given that transpeople and intersex people exist. One obvious way to attract more women to the nudist community is to be accepting of all women, including those whose biological sex doesn’t match their gender.

The concept is especially problematic to any woman who might live a life that doesn’t conform to the expectations of her gender (like, for example, by participating in social nudity). But even if you’re a woman who’s fully comfortable with her gender and the roles that normally come with it, it can still be off putting. Buried in heteronormativity is a lot of disturbing gender norms, such men as the aggressor and an expectation women are submissive. A heteronormative culture is one where a woman might rightly be concerned her safety and fear her autonomy won’t be taken seriously. Heteronormativity is what fuels sexual harassment in many workplaces and schools, it’s what excuses rape and abuse, and women are right to be wary of any environment that embraces it.

Thankfully that doesn’t describe any nudist venue I’ve ever visited, nor any I’ve even heard of. But that just makes it all the more puzzling why nudist clubs would base themselves so strongly upon heteronormativity.

In short, policies that forcefully try to maintain an even sex ratio are grotesquely unfair to many, have suspicious purpose, and don’t serve to make nudism any more appealing to women. What they do accomplish is broadcast a pretty clear message about the nudist community. They say that clubs and resorts don’t know how to attract women or foster an environment that women will feel comfortable in. That’s not a message nudists want to be sending.

Think about the kind of woman who might be most attracted to what nudism has to offer. She probably believes that what she wears shouldn’t matter; she gets angry at school dress codes that hold girls accountable for how boys look at them. She gets mad at a justice system that always wants to know what rape victims were wearing, and a culture that always manages to find a way to blame the victim for being victimized. She’s sex positive and believes strongly in the necessity of consent. She wants to be valued for her abilities and her achievements, not what she looks likes.

In short, the kind of woman most likely to be attracted to nudism probably identifies as a feminist.

Although I haven’t used the word up until this point, feminism has been the running theme of this article. If I were to try to condense down everything I’ve so far written into a single point, it would be this. “Nudism needs to be more feminist”.

Unfortunately much of the nudist world harkens back to a pre-feminist era. So much about most nudist clubs — from their marketing to their facilities to the vocabulary they use to the average age of their members and guests — absolutely screams “We’re stuck in the 1960's”. And the 60’s weren’t exactly a great time to be a woman.

We’ve made a great deal of progress in how society treats women since then (though not nearly enough), but you wouldn’t know it by walking around the average nudist club or resort. They not only fail to project feminist values, but they often project the opposite. All of the points raised thus far are illustrations this.

The notion “be more feminist” is admittedly very abstract and therefore can be hard to put into practice. While I’ve so far suggested some specific and concrete ways nudists might go about it, it’s more than just changing some policies and checking off boxes. It’s a question of mindset and language. When speaking, making policies, or crafting advertisements, ask yourself — does this work as well for women as it does for men? Am I assuming everyone this is reaching is heterosexual? Am I making assumptions about their gender roles, desires and needs based on their sex?

This often manifests itself in very small ways, not just big obvious ones. But enough small things add up to a big thing, so they’re no less important to pay attention to.

One example of a small thing is that you can’t read any club’s web site without tripping over the phrase “family friendly”, where a “family” in this context is always and can only be one man, one women, and 2.3 children. There’s certainly nothing wrong with marketing to married men and women with children, and there’s no reason for nudists to stop doing that. But in being so welcoming to people who do fit comfortably in that category, it may make it feel less welcoming to those who don’t.

A family, after all, can be many things. Maybe the couple is married, maybe they’re not. There might be step-parents or step-children. There might be no children at all. The parents might be all male or all female. It might be a single parent household, or it might be a polyamorous household with three or more co-parents. Merely acknowledging these other possible family configurations goes a long way towards making all families feel like they’ll be welcomed.

For nudism to be all inclusive it truly needs to be all inclusive, and feminism has a lot to teach us about how to achieve that. It means being aware of language and social frameworks that would exclude groups of people or anyone who falls outside a given norm. Doing this consistently will go a long way towards making it more attractive for women. And everyone else, for that matter.

I believe strongly in the premise I opened this with. Social nudity is profoundly empowering, not just for women but for all who participate. It has the potential to be a strong feminist statement, and at its best that’s exactly what it is. I don’t think it can be overstated how radical it is for a woman to be as respected as she is in nudist settings while being as immodestly dressed as she can physically be. So if anything in this essay comes across as overly critical, it’s because I want the community to live up to the ideal if what it could and should be.

It’s important not just to care about this issue, but to keep in mind why we should all care. We should strive to be as welcoming and inclusive as possible, and an imbalanced gender ratio suggests we can do better. If nudists simply try to get more women to participate without first grappling with why they’re not, the problem is as likely as not to get worse instead of better.

I’ve made a few suggestions here, but I don’t imagine it’s the last word on the subject. The most important thing the nudist community can do is simply have an honest conversation about it. More of us need to talk to women and actually listen to them. We need to account for women’s experiences and take their needs and concerns seriously. Let’s all work together together to build a more inclusive community that everyone can enjoy to its fullest.

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