How and why most people misinterpret nudity

Do you consider the picture above to be concerning or problematic in any way? If you’re a naturist, the answer is “no, not at all”. It’s simply a man and a woman enjoying themselves in a natural setting. So what if they’re naked? How could that be objectionable in any way? [If you’re reading this on Facebook, you’ll have to follow the link to see the picture.]

But for most people who aren’t naturists, the picture could be somewhat or very disturbing, alarming, or even “offensive”. For sure, showing that picture on Facebook or most other social media would not be tolerated and would probably cause the account of whoever posted it to be canceled. And most people (at least in the U.S.) would contend it could be harmful for children (especially younger ones) to see it. What can account for such extreme and ridiculous attitudes?

If nothing else, wouldn’t such attitudes clearly explain why such a large percentage of the population almost anywhere are deeply skeptical of the practice of naturism?

Suppose a person is shown a picture of a naked man. What is the person most likely to infer about the man’s intentions in the picture? Possibilities include the man (1) is intending to have sex, (2) is an exhibitionist, (3) is about to take a shower, (4) is uncomfortably hot and wants to stay cool, (5) is uncomfortable wearing restrictive clothes, (6) is a nudist who prefers to be naked. (It would make little difference if the picture is of a woman instead of a man, except for additional possibilities such as a woman who’s a professional stripper or artist’s model.)

The truth is that it’s unreasonable to decide among these possibilities (or others) without additional clues. If the naked man is shown against a blank background and has a neutral expression on his face, there simply isn’t enough information to make any logical conclusion, except perhaps that the man is relatively comfortable being naked.

But people are inclined to make inferences about what they see even when there is very little good information. In our society and probably in most others, people who view such an image are likely to be uncomfortable, especially if the man is facing the viewer and his genitals are visible. Even though there’s no actual reason to choose any of the possible interpretations, the most probable inference they make must be one that causes them to feel uncomfortable. Specifically, the inference is (1) or (2), because the other possibilities don’t justify feeling discomfort.

What this situation indicates is that there’s an irrational bias in society that accounts for the unjustifiable interpretation of the picture. The existence of this situation is what makes naturism so difficult in our society. So the question is: What can naturists do about it?

Young children who see such a picture (or even a live person who’s naked) won’t feel discomfort, because their parents have often seen them naked, and they’re unaware of any reason to consider nudity a problem. It’s only when they’ve learned from their parents or other social influences that nudity is problematical that they start to become uncomfortable when seeing nudity (or being seen naked themselves).

Incidentally, did you notice that both words “problematic” and “problematical” are used above? Both have the exact same meaning and are correctly used in English. But some grammatical purists will insist one or the other is “ungrammatical”. The point here is that opinions about many things can be arbitrary and capricious – merely the result of what a person has been taught to believe.

This raises the question of how a line between what is “acceptable” and what isn’t gets established in the first place. Why is one alternative favored (or is it “favoured”?) over the other? Why are skimpy bathing suits OK (or at least legal) at most beaches, but no suit isn’t OK? Why couldn’t the line fall instead between naturist nudity and salacious nudity?

In fact, the latter possibility is exactly what exists at most clothing-optional beaches. I’ve visited many C-O beaches, but at hardly any is only full nudity acceptable. C-O beaches often restrict nudity to certain areas. Yet “textiles” are generally welcome in such areas – and don’t appear to be bothered by the nudity. They may simply enjoy that part of the beach if it happens to be less crowded.

Likewise, in my experience, most naturist parks and resorts these days are clothing-optional and don’t require nudity (except around pools, to deter voyeurs). This sort of arrangement, where naturists and non-naturists freely mingle seems ideal. There’s a benefit to naturists, in fact, since people who start off as “textile” may easily become comfortable going naked themselves.

The only plausible solution to this situation, from a naturist point of view, is to let people see images of nudity, or even live nudity, where there’s no justification for feeling discomfort. Or better yet, allow people who prefer being naked to do so in appropriate public places (like parks and beaches) where others will see them. That’s basically what “normalizing nudity” means.

Of course, even in the U.S., there actually are such places (beaches especially) and occasions where naked and clothed people can intermingle without any problem. In such circumstances, people who remain clothed understand why others are naked and aren’t threatening. The only differences involved are matters of mere habit or personal preference. You say “toe-may-toe” and others say “toe-mah-toe”. But so what?

The main problem is that in general people are usually most comfortable in a lifestyle they grew up in. It’s hardly surprising that “different” lifestyles can be scary – probably more so for women than for men. So it’s good for non-naturists to have opportunities to interact with naturists and get a better understanding of them. Of course, some lifestyles are “safer” than others, and certain lifestyles that aren’t uncommon (e. g. drug users) are definitely not safe. A lifestyle enjoyed by “real” naturists, however, genuinely is safe (except for factors unrelated to nudity). People just need opportunities to learn that.

But our society (like most others) goes to great lengths to prevent exactly such things. It doesn’t even matter at all if the nudity isn’t physically present. No physical presence means no direct possibility of physical harm. Yet almost all online social media, for example, very adamantly prevent anyone (including children especially) from seeing photos containing full nudity or even just visible genitals or female nipples. (Yet, quite illogically, artworks – either pictorial or in sculpture – are much more often allowed, even if they are just as “explicit” as photos.) The reason for such measures (however inconsistent) isn’t to keep people “safe”. The reason is to enforce particular beliefs – beliefs that are widely held exactly because contrary beliefs are strongly suppressed.

Naturism seemingly has almost no chance of success in promoting itself as long as this situation prevails. So what can naturists realistically do to change how their lifestyle is perceived by most of society?

A few enlightened societies, such as those in some Nordic countries, have taken steps to ameliorate the problem. For instance, “sex education” (a misnomer to begin with, since nudity and sexuality are different though related topics) includes allowing children to see what normal people of all ages look like naked. Some cultural features, such as the sauna, encourage communal nudity. Even in England, children have been encouraged to participate in art classes involving nude models. (Almost a hundred years ago, there were efforts to establish schools (e. g. Summerhill) where some nudity was allowed and considered “normal”.)

Even in the U.S. – up until about 50 years ago – children and adolescents often experienced swimming pools and communal showering where open nudity was actually required. (Albeit, without mixing of the sexes.)

One has to wonder why open-minded (and “libertarian”) billionaires don’t provide endowments for the establishment of places where naturist (nonsexual) nudity is permitted or even encouraged. Such people very likely have few if any reservations about nudity in their private lives and on their private yachts. What’s stopping them from establishing schools, parks, recreational facilities, and even entire communities where nonsexual nudity is allowed or even encouraged as entirely “normal”?

Of course, there will always be parts of the country where such things are strictly illegal. But everywhere? Why is it so hard to establish places that welcome a naturist lifestyle? The answer, perhaps, is that people with sufficient wealth can enjoy whatever lifestyle suits them and have no interest in whether that’s available to anyone else. Although they could easily fund political candidates who have favorable attitudes toward naturism, the general feeling must be that would be a waste of some small part of their wealth.

I don’t really know what conclusion there is here for naturists to draw, except that we’re facing a massive wall of ignorance. It’s up to naturists themselves to do something about this, if at all possible. A good place to start would be much more cooperation among naturists, their organizations, and their preferred venues. At present, at least in the U.S., disorganization and learned helplessness seem to rule the day for naturists.

18 thoughts on “How and why most people misinterpret nudity”

  1. Why can’t the line fall between naturist nudity and salacious nudity? The problem here is telling the difference. We often hear about Muslims who feel they have been unfairly ostracised because of the actions of Muslim extremists, such as Islamic State. But to non-Muslims, the only difference between a peaceful Muslim and a jihadist is when the latter pulls a gun or explodes a bomb – so everyone is wary of all Muslims. In the U.K. the same problem was experienced by anyone with an Irish accent during the days of the IRA bombing campaign – no one walked around with a sign saying “I’m a bomber” round their neck.
    And the same applies to your dividing line for naturists – to the onlooker with a set opinion the difference between an innocent naked person and a “salacious” one is when something bad happens, so better safe than sorry.

    1. The examples you cite are excellent illustrations of the problem. It is simply that people are used to making decisions about other people (in fact, about almost anything) based on conventional assumptions and inadequate information. This is surely an evolutionary effect that exists in almost all animals. When decisions have to be made quickly, definitive information is usually unavailable. So decisions are made based on whatever information happens to be available. If you see a skunk while you’re out for a walk, you’re careful to keep your distance, because who knows what the skunk’s reactions might be? (Skunks are also disposed to react reflexively.)

      Most people probably assume that someone who’s naked could be a sexual deviant instead of a harmless naturist. People simply have no reason to think that almost all naturists are harmless (at least as far as sexual behavior is concerned). In most societies, nudity in public just isn’t associated with anything except sexual deviance (exhibitionism in particular). That’s illogical and irrational, but nothing in most people’s experience would incline them to think otherwise. They never pause to realize that an actual exhibitionist isn’t necessarily a physical threat. And a rapist or child molester (for instance) wouldn’t in fact be walking around naked. (Too obvious!) Even in a swingers resort, although most people may be naked, nonconsensual sex is probably as unlikely as it is anywhere else. (Although I don’t have first-hand knowledge of that.)

      So the conclusion here for naturists must be that they should do their part to help the public understand naturism by being much more open about their preferences. There are different ways to do that. Certainly they should tell others they trust that they are naturists (to whatever extent that may be). So they also should be prepared to explain why they are naturists and what naturism really means to them. And once they have persuaded (at least some) family and friends that naturism is reasonable and not an aberration, they should follow through and be naked with others who seem understanding – so those others will begin to think of nudity as “normal” (for people who choose it).

      A certain amount of courage and effort is required, of course, but it really needs to happen. LGBTQ people have faced the same problem, but they’re further along in making their case (in spite of the ugly prejudices they’re up against). It really should be much easier for naturists to make their own case, but they seem very reluctant to do that. After all, naturism is just a particular preference for (not) wearing clothes. It isn’t about physically interacting with others. This distinction isn’t as clear as it should be. I mean, what’s really so problematic about a preference for being naked in a private swimming pool or hot tub? And if nudity’s OK there, why not other private or suitable public places?

      Ultimately, the only way to correct the illogical and irrational assumptions most people have about naturist nudity is for naturists to just be naked with people who’ve acquired some understanding that simple nudity isn’t a problem. It’s an incremental process. Simply start with one or two others, and more will eventually follow. A long journey begins with a single step.

  2. Here in Los Angeles, unless you are at a resort or a special event, seeing a nude male is almost always seeing a sexual exhibitionist. I think actual nudists are greatly outnumbered here so it is impossible to control the popular image.

    Even during the WNBR, there was a group of guys hanging out together at the far end of the parking lot. I went over to see what was up. There was a very busy road that went right past and they were “posing” there for drivers to see. Looked like a bunch of artists’ models. Definitely not nudists but without an obvious erection or lewd activity, there was no objective way to say they were doing anything wrong. I can but wonder what the drivers thought as they whizzed by.

    1. I’ve spent very little time in downtown LA, so don’t know what that’s all about. Although San Francisco adopted an anti-nudity ordinance a few years ago, my understanding is it’s seldom enforced in areas where certain men like to go naked non-lewdly. There are also various “street fairs” during the summer in SF where quite open lewdness is allowed. I guess most San Franciscans just shrug such things off. I suspect that in nearly all smaller cities and towns, police would take action against open nudity of any sort if there are any complaints. But in any case, there’s something wrong with the general public if they automatically assume any and all public nudity that may occur is by “exhibitionists”. This is simply a mistake that our society allows to exist because of negative attitudes towards nudity in general. If lewd behavior happens at nude beaches, naturists themselves should take action. But absent such behavior, objections to nudity are wrong.

  3. I am going to throw a very large spanner into the works here, and say that the public have EVERY reason to automatically associate nudity with sexual behaviour, and are totally justified in doing so!

    The problem we have is the huge number of people – mostly males, but some females too – who call themselves Naturists, but are, in fact, interested mostly in sexually charged activities. Why do I say this? Just go online to Naturist sites such as FCN, for example (Federation of Canadian Naturists) and check out their MeWe timeline, membership, emojis, etc. It will only take you one or two clicks of the mouse to deliver hard-core pornography onto your screen, posted by their “Naturist” members! The disappointing thing about this is that the FCN moderators / admins do nothing to filter out these deviants. The FCN timeline is just one example – there are many more naturist groups that have been infiltrated by porn content.

    https://mewe.com/group/5bee10d524502f0beefb7919

    Until Naturist groups clean up their own backyard, trying to convince the public that nudity can be an innocent state of being will be like pushing shit uphill.

    1. I will certainly grant you that FCN should clean up or even delete that MeWe group. MeWe was designed NOT to be moderated by bots the way Facebook, et al, do. And as a result, it’s mostly a cesspool. Human dregs migrate to places that have no reliable custodians.

      However, it’s a travesty of logic to conclude that the public has “EVERY reason to automatically associate nudity with sexual behaviour, and are totally justified in doing so!”

      You might just as well argue that porn sites containing nudity cause people to associate naturist nudity with sexual behavior. Unless such people have already decided that naturism is just a front for porn, and certainly there are people like that – but I don’t think most people are that stupid.

      In the first place, only a tiny fraction of people actually use MeWe – certainly not 99.99% of the public. I have a MeWe account, but haven’t tried to use it much, and I don’t accept connection requests from people I don’t know (so I have almost no connections there). For what purpose, Sir, are you using MeWe?

      Second, even if someone stumbles into MeWe and bases his/her opinion of naturism on what goes on there… well, there’s a sucker born every minute.

      Can you come up with any place where naturist representatives who’re doing their job allow stuff like this? In real life, you know, responsible naturist clubs and resorts screen out known sexual devaints, and don’t tolerate any lowlifes who sneak in. Surely you do that in your own group, yes?

  4. I think my logic is correct. The problem we have is that Western culture has a long puritan history, particularly from the Victorian era, but with its roots going back long before that, even. And the Christian church is responsible for allowing much of the false teaching that links “nudity” with “sin”. Here in New Zealand that connection is not nearly as prevalent as in some countries – U.S.A is a prime example. The paradox between it’s conservative laws on public nudity and it’s world-leading status on being the biggest producer of pornography is striking!

    Put yourself into the shoes of Joe and Jane Public for just a moment. They know all about pornography. They’ve seen the playboy and penthouse mags, they know the internet is full of it, and they do their best to protect their kids from it. But how much do you think they know about naturism? They probably know a little about “nudist colonies” but probably almost zero about Naturist clubs and resorts – unless they’ve done some active research of their own. Face it – pornography is rife and invasive. They manifest onto your screen with the most innocent search words. According to one estimate, there are at least 4 million adult websites on the Internet, which constitute approximately 12% of all websites. It has also been reported that adult websites have more monthly unique visitors than Netflix, Twitter, and Amazon combined. How does that compare with the number of genuine Naturist sites? Add into the equation the fact that many porn sites use naturism to promote their content and that many Naturist sites allow pornographic content. Try True Nudists, Oh Naturist, Naturist Go, and more. It won’t take much effort to find deviant content on those and many more supposed “Naturist” sites! They start out with good intentions, but they grow in membership numbers exponentially to the point where moderation and screening becomes too big a task to be done properly. So how can you possibly expect our Joe and Jane, with their limited knowledge, to understand that Naturism really isn’t connected to sex? Such an expectation is naive, to say the least! You say, “Unless such people have already decided that naturism is just a front for porn, and certainly there are people like that – but I don’t think most people are that stupid.” It’s not a matter of them being stupid – it’s what they observe!

    Yes, FCN – a reputable Canadian Naturist organisation, should certainly either clean up or delete that MeWe account. But that is just one example; they are not the only ones. Even here in New Zealand I’ve had to draw this matter to the attention to various clubs on MeWe. Yes, our group, Hauraki Naturally has a presence on MeWe and Facebook, as well as our own dedicated website. Because of MeWe’s relatively relaxed attitude to nudity, it can be a good tool to promote genuine Naturism. But, as you rightly say, it can also be a cesspool of deviancy. No social media platform I know of can get that balance correct. The onus falls on the owner of any MeWe group to screen out inappropriate content. And we have a pretty strict system for doing so.

    Your last paragraph asks about real life naturist situations. Yes, of course responsible Naturist organisations screen out deviant behaviour. But the public know very little about these clubs, hidden away behind locked security gates and tall hedges as though their activities are questionable. Instead, they get fed stories in the news about naked people seen on beaches – possibly committing some sex act – and yet once again society’s association of nudity with sex is strengthened in their minds.

    1. Yes, it’s possible to find almost anything at all on the Internet – from the best to the worst. Most people who actually go looking for information on naturism can find both accurate and deliberately inaccurate information. Before the Internet (and other online things) came along, about the only way to learn about naturism was from professional journalism (including some trashy tabloids and porn mags). Unfortunately, naturist/nudist parks were almost always referred to as “nudist colonies”.

      In the 1960s, after U.S. laws actually allowed naturist publications to be sent through the mail and sold at newsstands and 7-11s, there was a profusion of the things. Most weren’t simply porn sources. They had many pictures of men, women, and families that generally weren’t overtly sexual. There were also some low-budget movies portraying naturism. (Google “Doris Wishman”.) Partly as a result, in the 60s and 70s naturism actually became popular to a limited extent. There were more naturist beaches at the time and many more people at them than today.

      The main overt opposition to nudity and naturism was from religion in general (as you suggest), and the worst Bible thumpers in particular. But rather than obtaining information on nudity and naturism from specific sources, most people probably picked it up from family, friends, casual acquaintances, and others – that in turn had similarly poor sources.

      The bottom line here is that the signal-to-noise ratio on almost any subject you can think of is rather low. These days there’s a huge amount of deliberate misinformation on global warming, vaccines, LGBTQ people, etc, etc. Naturism is just one of many topics that it’s difficult to find accurate information about. That’s just the world we live in.

      SUPPOSEDLY, trustworthy search engines like Google should be able to put the most accurate information about anything at the top of their list. But SEO has a big effect, and there’s paid advertising besides that. Then there’s the problem that “nudism” is still much more commonly used term in the U.S., especially in the media, instead of “naturism”. And “naturism” is often confused with “naturalism”. Even a trusted dictionary (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/naturism) makes this blunder. So it’s not clear that search engines provide a much better signal-to-noise ratio.

      I don’t know about New Zealand, but U.S. naturist organizations aren’t very good about getting their story out to the general public, so they tend to be drowned out by the noise. And U.S. media generally do a poor job of providing good information on naturism – or any information at all. Naturism tends to be treated – if at all – as a sort of a joke wrapped up in a bunch of clichés. Oh, and of course the media show naturists only from the back side or heavily covered with opaque stuff. Or they use metonymy with an image of bare feet. How can ordinary people really expect to get an accurate perspective on naturism?

      Admittedly, the blog post about misunderstandings of nudity in general (not just naturism) didn’t go into the misinformation problem. It was mostly about the default psychology and cultural milieu before people deliberately go looking for information.

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  6. As a student after teen years, between colleges and grown up around seriously prudish badults, thanks for keeping this nudist site active.
    Just tell me something,If you truly communicate with other 21st century websites, Like clothesfree.com, why aren’t visitors allowed to send your website staff emailed stories about Public nudity stories. We can’t even upload article links in this Reply -Section. Is this a long instituted RULE?thank you.

    1. Thanks for bringing up some interesting issues.

      Like clothesfree.com, why aren’t visitors allowed to send your website staff emailed stories about Public nudity stories. We can’t even upload article links in this Reply -Section. Is this a long instituted RULE?thank you

      To begin with, this site is a “blog” and uses software specialized for that purpose. That limits what’s possible for readers to do. For example, AFAIK there’s no way to submit stories via email. Blogs originated a little over 20 years ago, but long after there were other Internet-based ways to use email as you suggest. For instance, there was (and still is) Usenet and things called “mailing lists”. More recently, other online services like Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, Twitter, etc. have provided both discussion forums and places for individuals to distribute their own stories and other content (like pictures and videos). They just don’t accept content via email. Although blogs are a lot less popular now, they have a similar structure: Some people provide “content” and others are able to respond to it.

      Blogs may have content from a limited number of individuals, while others (like this one) are operated by a single person. So I have no “staff” to process submitted stories. But just as you’ve done, you’re free to reply to any articles here that seem appropriate. If you want to mention your own naturist experiences, that’s fine too. Of course, I reserve the right to decide what’s appropriate. Except that the software can flag malicious links, there are no general restrictions on them. Just look for the link button at the top of the comment area. (You need to type the URL first, then highlight it.) So that’s one way to submit something. You can also do it by using the feedback link near the top of the right-hand column.

      Please just understand that this isn’t an open forum like Facebook, etc. A blog is like a single Facebook account. It’s for one person (usually) to write what’s on their mind, and accept comments and feedback from readers. By all means, feel free to submit stories that are relevant to naturism. Statements of personal opinion are usually OK if they’re relevant to an article – but expect feedback from myself and other readers.

  7. It’s not only ignorance we’re up against; it’s conditioning, and that starts when we’re children (unless we grew up in a naked household). All the logic, reasoning and lived experience is on our side! But it’s hard to consider that something we don’t even remember being taught is a lie.

    We need perseverance! And more boldness. (looks in mirror)

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