The first time Jordan Blum met his fiancée, Felicity Jones, both were naked. But don’t get too excited: Before Jordan met Felicity, he met her mother — also naked. 38-year-old Blum and 26-year-old Jones met at Rock Lodge, the family-oriented nudist co-op in New Jersey that both of their families frequented. Soon thereafter, they founded Young Naturists of America, an organization for twenty- and thirtysomething nudists that, Felicity says, is New York’s greatest untapped resource for sweet, sensitive, respectful men. As long as you’re willing to take your clothes off.
Sexed-up dating gimmicks like VH1’s Dating Naked — and its Dutch progenitor Adam Zoekt Eva Aflevering — present nudity as an eroticized setup for unyielding social panic. But what happens when everyone is naked not out of sexual desperation (or the naked pursuit of fame) but simply because they, well, feel like being naked? On a clothed beach, relative degrees of nudity carry complicated sexual meaning. (Could a skimpy bikini suggest an interest in attention or simply an aversion to tan lines?) But nude society disrupts that logic. When everyone is equally naked — and equally vulnerable — social dynamics change. What’s the naked social scene like? Can you talk to strangers on a nude beach? Can you flirt? To find out, I contacted America’s foremost nudist organizers for a lesson in naked etiquette.
“Of course it’s possible,” said Rick Johnson, executive director of Gay Naturists International. “The same rules apply as in any textiled environment: no means no. Nude is not lewd; people don’t go to naturist functions for the sole purpose of hooking up. And if they do, those people are easy to spot.”
“We just tell people, don’t gawk,” Blum says. “Of course people look. If you’re on the subway or on the street, you’re looking at people. What’s the difference between a creep and a regular person? A creep stares, makes you feel uncomfortable. A regular person looks and then looks away. It’s no different in nude society.”
Paradoxically enough, every nudist I spoke to said that socializing in the buff is less sexual than socializing in clothes. Complete nudity, Jones points out, prevents a person from emphasizing any one part. Or as her fiancé puts it: “Everything just flops into place. There’s nothing to hold this up or accentuate that — you’re just you.” Meanwhile, pickup lines and overtly sexual come-ons feel unacceptably aggressive (and even more cringe-worthy) when both parties are nude. “It’s not like in Friends, ‘How you doin?’” Blum said, doing a baritone impression of Matt LeBlanc. “If you do that, you’re going to get kicked out.” Since nude beaches are often targets for local shut-downs, Blum explains, nude-beach regulars and “beach ambassadors” routinely volunteer to police the pervs, personal-space invaders, and creep-shot picture-takers. Jones thinks this heightened awareness to social dynamics makes nude settings a dream for sensitive singles: “Guys cannot be sexually aggressive whatsoever.”
In other words: How do nudists flirt? The same way porcupines have sex: Very carefully.
Meanwhile, Jones and every other nudist I spoke to argued that nudism inspires less superficiality, not more. As a lifelong member of textiled society, this claim seemed counterintuitive — would a man really be less superficial if he saw my face and nipples at the same time? And yet, naturists point out, nudity breaks down barriers. Without clothing or ornamentation from the material world, class and social status disappear. “You don’t know if a person is blue-collar or white-collar if they’re not wearing one,” says Carolyn Hawkin, press liaison for American Association for Nude Recreation. “I find that people can go a long time without knowing what the other person does for a living,” Blum says of nude meet-cutes. “When people stop you in the street to talk, they glance you up and down. They’re trying to size you up, see where you come from and what you do.” In naked society, little information can be gleaned from the body — other than the facts of a body, in all its unique, idiosyncratic, special-snowflake banality.
Still, for most people, the only thing scarier than meeting a bunch of new people is having to be naked in front of them, too. For a first-time nudist, Blum estimates that it takes “about 30 seconds of sheer, utter panic” before acclimation begins. “And they look really intently at your face and are afraid to look down,” Jones laughs. “Or they look at their toes!” Blum adds. (They have a tendency to finish each other’s sentences.) Is not knowing where to look a faux pas, I ask? “Nah,” Jones replies. The point of nudism, she argues, is that the human body and its fluctuations are nothing to be embarrassed about. And that includes sweaty palms and red faces.
But isn’t having nowhere to hide awful, I ask? How do nude flirters maintain an air of confidence, or a sense of mystery? “I hate when people say ‘our sex life is going to be less exciting if we see each other naked all the time,’” Felicity Jones says. “That’s such an inadequate view of sexuality. The most sexual part of your body is your brain. Your sexuality is not just your body. It’s energy, and physical touch, and intimacy. There’s more to it than ‘She takes her shirt off and I see her boobs.’” I get the feeling that Felicity hangs out with a different set of men than I do — maybe naturists really are more sensitive?
“It does change the dynamic in a relationship,” Jordan Blum concedes. “A lot of couples don’t even walk around nude at home. There are kids who have never seen their parents nude.” (He says this in a tone of dismay.) “Those kind of sterile environments create a different approach: If you’re in bed and you’re naked, that means you want to have sex. That’s the signal; you use your body as the signal. Whereas I think it’s more beneficial to communicate in other ways, whether it’s talking, or the way you touch, or the way you look at each other.”
And as for that classic nudist question, the first one Blum says he is always asked: “What do you do if you get an erection?” You do the same thing you do in clothed society: Deal with it, and trust that mature people won’t judge you. For all the conversations about respect and consent, the No. 1 rule of nudism — the most ironclad element of in-group etiquette that must never be broken — is that a nudist must always be armed with a towel. (Plopping your naked butt on a shared surface is just as rude among nudes as it is among textileds.) Hide your boner behind the towel. Parading a full-on erection in mixed company is unacceptable: “That’s a major no-no. You’ll get kicked out.” Nude beaches, I realized, may be one of the few places where male sexuality is policed more strictly than the female — according to proponents who hang out at self-policed beaches, at least.
Even though nudism has always been central to Blum and Jones’s relationship — they were nude activist collaborators before the romance began — when I asked about their naked courtship, details about who was undressed when barely registered to them. “We grew up like this,” Blum explains. “Clothed or not clothed — there wasn’t an epiphany there.” Accounting for precisely who saw which body part when and from what angle is possible, but comparable to me trying to recall which pair of jeans I was wearing the third time I hung out with a guy I ended up dating six months later. In other words, tedious. For most of us, the first glimpse of a partner’s naked form tends to be a momentous occasion that occurs simultaneously with a relationship turning point: the first sex act. For nudists, though, the big reveal is not the body but its actions.
Still, Blum and Jones concede, nudism is not for everyone. When I ask about their wedding, Felicity starts the sentence and Jordan delivers the punch line: “We joke that having a nude wedding would be a good way to —”
“Limit the guest list.”