Or perhaps that should read, what is naturism? Over two issues of H&E Naturist, starting in March 2017, Rayner Otter has given us the benefit of his and his Fräulein’s extensive travels and casual observations around naturist Europe and the world. If he has been understood correctly, the premise of his essay is that most young people are not bothered by labels and prefer to be naked among friends, even if those friends decide not to undress themselves and with nudity depending on multiple factors. That organised naturism is either dead or dying and eventually organisations like British Naturism or the INF will disappear. And let’s not omit Naturist Action Group out of this equation either, we are history. The future of naturism is the individual, social nudity is all in the past.
I consider that to be a very bleak prospect, but perhaps Rayner is right. We have seen a massive shift in social attitudes since the 1960s, away from doing things collectively with others to the self. From we to I. Something made more observable by the use of mobile devices connected to the internet via wifi and social media, which in reality is anti-social. You can test this theory yourselves the next time you are on a bus or train. Put away your own mobile device and look around you, what do you see?
So where does this leave naturism, commonly defined as non-sexual social nudity? Exactly where Rayner said it was! Martin Warrilow (H&E Naturist, Opinion, April 2017) seems to think so and, seven years ago, Charlie Simmonds wrote along similar lines when NAG launched itself upon the world, so maybe there is something in it. My problem is that they are observations, made over many months if not years, and unless the observer is omnipresent, they can only see the conditions being observed at that single point in time and place. What occurred in one place on a specific day may not be true for the same place the next day or for a different location, even if it’s the other end of the same beach, on the same day. Casual observations have only limited uses, but people do put great store by them. After all is there not a saying: ‘seen with my own eyes’? We in NAG have supported the idea of academic research in order to further our understanding of the effects of nudity on young minds. Does it corrupt and destabilise it in later life, as so many people seem to think, or does it enhance the mind, creating a body positive image reducing incidents of body dysmorphia? I have no idea, but I await the results of Dr Keon West’s and others research with interest. If we are prepared to do that, why should we not use the same rigour to understand naturism itself?
Ah, you will say, but we have. Hasn’t British Naturism commissioned two surveys, one in 2001 and the other in 2013, done by commercial research companies. They did, the problem is that neither report has been published, and privately, I have been told they never will. So the figure of four million naturists in the UK quoted by Rayner and many others is the result of a leak and has never been substantiated. I have even seen (observation again) someone trying to use it as part of their defence in a magistrate’s court, only to have it dismissed because court officials could not go to a report in the public domain to verify the claim. So, basically, British Naturism has wasted its money.
But lets not be too hasty and dismiss what has been observed by Rayner, Martin and Charlie without consideration. We all know, even if its just a ‘gut feeling’ naturism in the UK has changed as society has changed. People are far more accepting of nudity or being nude, with protests like the World Naked Bike Ride, or those by Femen and PETA attesting to that, but does that really show a greater interest or participation in a clothes free lifestyle. (BTW, Rayner used the term Clothes Unnecessary, abbreviated to CUN; not a good idea because I can see some wag adding a letter to it leading to all kinds of trouble.) We just can’t say, not without asking each and every participant. Even then the answers of one person to a question may not be the same as someone else; the old problem ‘ask 100 x the same question and you get 100 answers’. What we need is not a survey, but two surveys. First one built along similar lines to the surveys commissioned by British Naturism but with more rigorous control over the way its conducted. That doesn’t mean it has to use the Gold Standard of academic research, a commercial researcher like YouGov or Ipsos Mori would be fitting for the project but it will cost more than the £5,000 I believe quoted for the last survey commissioned by British Naturism. It needs to get under the skin of British society and its attitudes to nudity, social or otherwise? It could also tell us, with a moderate degree of accuracy, just how many people in the United Kingdom have a clothes optional attitude to life (not necessarily naturist) and act upon it.
The second survey stems from Stéphane Deschênes’ letter to the INF dated 24 Feb 2016, when he wrote: ‘The INF-FNI needs to remember that naturism is an ideology or philosophy, not an activity.’ It is the question about naturism being an ideology or a philosophy that the second survey will try to answer. We cannot possibly organise a worldwide survey but we can look at doing our corner of it, directing a survey towards UK naturists as a single community, to find out what it thinks. I suspect that it will throw up a lot of contradictions but could also show areas of commonality. It could show if naturism is akin to an article of faith (ideology), something that might be of interest to Christian Naturists, or something different. Such a survey would be helpful to British Naturism (and NAG of course) to understand just who they represent, to H&E Naturist in defining its readership, to existing naturist clubs and to anyone wishing to set one up or perhaps any other type business catering to a niche clientele. It will in effect be a census but one that will be aimed at a specific group of people, those who participate in, and enjoy the clothes free lifestyle.
It sounds, and probably is, a lot of work organising two closely related but very different surveys, and I’m sure there will be a lot of objections to this suggestion. Not least from the ‘it’s too hard’ or ‘why bother’ brigades. From his observations, Rayner has put forward a hypothesis that as a concept clothes free living will loose its distinction in society and be individualistic. Another so called ‘given’ is that children’s psychological development is harmed by seeing adults in the nude, often with the unsubstantiated refrain “but what about the children” heard in court and treated as though it ends all arguments. NAG has been instrumental in persuading British Naturism, and through them the INF, to support research that will either prove or disprove the statement. If, as we suspect, it is nonsense then we shall have in the public domain research that will counter any such statement made in court or elsewhere. In the same manner, we must test Rayner’s hypothesis with research and not blithely accept it as a given fact. If that’s what you want, the bleakness of Rayner’s hypothesis, then what is the point of INF, of British Naturism, of NAG, of club, of H&E Naturist? We might as well pack up now.
Only why should we accept anything without question. Naturists and naturist organisations have used the example of the remarkable journey taken over the last 20 years or so by the LGBT community. Does anyone think that that journey was made possible through just an annual get-together in Gay Pride? Without doubt, organisations like Stonewall also did boring stuff like gather evidence and used the language of politics and business to persuade those with the power to bring about a change in social attitude. Naturists need to do the same, if we want to follow the same path.