About that article on nude beaches in The Atlantic

It’s about the magazine, not the ocean of the same name. In case you missed it, this is the article: Is the Internet Killing the Nude Beach? The opening blurb is a pretty good summary:

Clothing-optional public spaces seem to be declining in popularity, especially among young people, whose relationship with nudity has been shaped by a lifetime online.

The article suggests that this is a worldwide trend (among most countries that have even had clothing-optional beaches). But the main focus is on the U.S., where the trend may be more pronounced. However that may be, the outlook isn’t especially positive for the future of naturism. Of course, the article’s emphasis is on beaches, so it’s possible that naturist nudity has simply moved away from popular public places in the direction of private clubs or even individual homes.

The article’s author, Stephanie H. Murray, considers several ideas that might account for it. She seems to favor the idea that the Internet has been a major factor. The argument is that cell phones with cameras and online posting of unauthorized nude photos strongly deter women from visiting clothing-optional beaches. Personally, I think a lot of other factors are also involved, and economics is probably a big one. In particular, young people these days seem to find it considerably more difficult than it was a few decades ago to earn enough money to pay off college debts, start a family, purchase a home, etc. This article – Facts that deter young people from participating in naturism – explores that possibility (and others) in detail.

Stephanie contacted me for my take on the situation. Some of the information I shared, based on my own experience over the years, helps support some of her conclusions. (She even gave me credit by name in the article.) So it seems apposite to include here much of what I told Stephanie (lightly edited). That’s what follows.

In general, it’s important to understand how the U.S. is different from most European countries as far as naturism is concerned. The continental U.S. has about 3.12 million square miles and a population of 330 million. So about 106 people per square mile. England has about 1100 people per square mile – population density is 10 times as high in England. Other Western European countries (except for Scandinavia) have similar densities.

Population density is very important, because low density means it’s difficult to find and socialize with naturist friends. So most naturists in the U.S. are able to enjoy naturism mainly at home in their own families. On top of that, the U.S. has (relative to its area) much less coastline (even counting the Great Lakes) than countries in Western Europe (except for Germany) where naturism is popular. So it’s much harder for U.S. naturists to access even the few nude beaches that exist.

Here are some answers to specific questions:

1. Popularity of nude beaches in the U.S. has declined drastically since the 1980s, with perhaps about half a dozen exceptions, such as Haulover in Miami. Several nude beaches relatively close to where I lived were very popular on summer weekends in the 80s. They were also well-balanced in age and gender. Whole families, including young children, weren’t uncommon. All that’s different now. A number of the beaches are still there and have nude use. Just not nearly as much.

There has, though, been one new beach established recently – in Florida on the East coast. (There still are none on Florida’s West coast.) It’s named Blind Creek Beach and is near Fort Pierce. Naturists there achieved this by persuading local officials that such a beach would be good for tourist business. That same approach was successful in France during the 1920s and later. But, of course, tourism is very important in Florida. This approach doesn’t work well in California, because some beaches are remote from tourist areas or in less sunny places on the coast, while others (notably Black’s Beach near San Diego) are very difficult to access.

For a coastal state the size of California, there aren’t really many clothing-optional beaches, and I don’t live close to any now. So I visit them less often than I used to. Summer weather on beaches in California is often cold and foggy, especially in Northern California, so that hasn’t helped matters at all. The declines are undoubtedly due also to the trends in naturism generally. Most of the nude beach usage now is by older men (based on my infrequent samples).

I should also mention that naturist clubs and resorts have likewise gradually closed or been forced out of business in the same time span. There have been three major ones in Northern California since the 1960s, and all are still operating. But in Southern California, four have disappeared since 1990, and of the three that remain, one is sort of on the edge. Perhaps this is because beaches are a better option in the south, as compared to northern beaches.

2. Naturist participation by Millennials and Gen-Zers is low, and participation by young people has been declining for decades. There are many sociological factors involved here. One is simply that the larger the age differential, the less people feel they have in common with others. In the 1960s and 1970s most naturists were young, as their elders were born long before naturism was well-established in the U.S. Few of the older generation were even aware of naturism. But those who were probably considered it rather scandalous.

Many of the old people in naturism now are the same individuals who enjoyed it 50-some years ago. Most probably are now retired and have the time and wherewithal to visit naturist resorts – often in large, expensive RVs. So economics is a very big factor here. Yearly tuition at a top private college is now about 30 times what it was in the 60s (but “only” about 2.5 times, adjusting for inflation). Young people simply don’t have the time or money to participate in organized naturism. That and various other reasons are covered in the post mentioned above on what deters young people. I’ve also written a whole series of posts about “how to get started in naturism if you’re under 30” (some listed as recent posts in the right-hand column). But they don’t help much if motivation is low.

I think the situation might be somewhat better in England and Western Europe, but don’t really know. Cultural differences probably are an important factor. Naturism has been around in Europe for several more decades than in the U.S. And general cultural features (such as religion) are also involved. Across California in general, local authorities discouraged or outlawed nude use at a number of beaches.

Another cultural difference between the U.S. and Western Europe is in the mainstream media. While I can’t speak with experience except on the U.S. media, it certainly doesn’t seem to be helping much. The term “nudist” is used much more often than “naturist”, and that’s at odds with almost the whole rest of the world. In general, only elite print media seem to take naturism seriously. But then young people hardly read much of anything these days apart from what’s assigned in school or college. And the ever-changing “social media” landscape hardly deals with naturism at all (except to punish any examples of “explicit” photos). So exactly how are young people supposed to even have much accurate information about naturism? Is it really mysterious that they participate so little?

It’s important to recognize that nude beaches and “nude sunbathing” are just one facet of naturism. As already noted, there are too few nude beaches to matter very much. People these days who enjoy naturism mostly do so at naturist parks and resorts, at home or in small local groups, or in outdoor activities such as hiking and camping off the beaten track. In England and other Western European countries there are indoor facilities (swimming pools, saunas, spas) where nudity is possible (sometimes). There’s very little of that in most parts of the U.S. So, really, where can young people go to participate in naturism? If there were much demand for such things, there would be more supply, but the demand’s not there. Young people might enjoy nude sunbathing if they have a sufficiently private place, but how would anyone know the extent of that?

3. Concerning gender imbalance. From the 1960s until now the gender ratio has gone from nearly 50-50 to more than 95% males in some places, although it may be more like 70-30 at established naturist parks and resorts (which are usually very protective of women). A female naturist discusses the issue here: Why Aren’t There More Female Nudists?. I’ve also covered it in 2 posts: The gender imbalance problem in naturism and Gender balance in naturism. Also check this one: Here’s something naturists need to think hard about. My posts have most of what I can say about the issue.

In the most general terms, I think that the various waves of feminism during the past 50+ years have had an effect. To be clear, I support most feminist ideas, with few exceptions. I also think that naturism in general makes an effort to be as comfortable for women as possible, and many naturist leaders are actually women. However, the increasing gender imbalance is a major deterrent by itself. There’s a definite negative feedback loop here. Most women probably hesitate to socialize where 90% or more of the people are men – especially if nudity is involved.

Note again that “nude beaches” are a relatively minor part of the issue, especially as there are so few in the U.S. Naturism as a whole needs to be considered. There are very complicated sociological and economic issues here. Check out a great 2019 book by historian Sarah Schrank. It’s entitled “Free and Natural: Nudity and the American Cult of the Body”. Although it misses a lot of the history, it does treat important issues. And – very significantly – the historical account mostly peters out around 1990. In my experience, U.S. naturism generally had plateaued about then and has been in gradual decline since then. Not a very cheerful judgment, but probably realistic. And quite possibly in parallel with general trends for the worse in U.S. society.

4 thoughts on “About that article on nude beaches in The Atlantic”

  1. Hey friend. Thanks for the new post.

    I’ve been following your series on advice for new naturists, and I totally agree, nude beaches are suffering both here and abroad. But there are two notable exceptions we seen, at least in Europe.
    1. There are more and more spa complexes all over Germany and Holland where nudity is the norm and the demographics are evenly distributed from 20-somethings on up. These are not people who consider themselves naturists, but certainly aren’t wary about getting naked.
    2. We’ve also seen an uptick of young families at the larger naturist resorts in Europe, suggesting there’s a new generation coming up through the ranks, though they’re likely to seek out places where there are some protections in place against voyeurs and digital photography. Definitely a different vibe than the Bay Area beaches of the 80s, but encouraging, nonetheless.

    Thanks for your continued advocacy of social nudity. Your writing is most informative. 🙂

  2. Perfect analysis about the reasons behind the decline in naturism in California and the US, in general. As I live in India, I am unaware of the ground situations about naturism in the US & in Europe. Anyways, the situation here in India is very challenging to practice naturism because of harsh laws & as society is not favoring the naturism.

  3. Great insight!

    Your comparison of US and British population densities hooked me. Geoffrey West of the Santa Fe Institute has observed that doubling city size increases things like art, patents, and communicable disease by 115% while increasing energy consumption by 85%. Seems to hold for naturism.

    1. The reason population density has this effect in cases like this is pretty simple. The higher the density, the more people a typical individual will have in his/her social network – i. e. people the individual communicates with at least somewhat often. With artists or inventors, for example, people get ideas from others they know. For naturists, there are more opportunities to do naturist things together. I’ll be writing a lot more about social networks in the newsletter.

      I wrote a lot about this issue in this post: Where is social naturism popular – and why?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.