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There’s a Decades-Old Boner War Raging Inside Nudist Camps

Some naturists argue there’s nothing more natural than the occasional accidental arousal.

Although only a tiny percent of Americans admit to ever having gone nude in public, and a likely even smaller portion regularly mingle in the buff, "social nudism" holds an enduring utopian allure. Nudism (or naturism) bills itself, fairly convincingly, as liberation, helping people to escape body shame and the stress of self-presentation or to reconnect with nature and a sense of their unmodified place in it. The appeal of this pitch has allowed organized social nudism, as a sporadic practice for some or a lifestyle for others, to endure in America for about 90 years, slowly growing until it now sustains more than 200 nudist beaches, camps, or resorts nationwide.

A host of social factors stand in the way of the spread of nudism in the US, many quite lofty and abstract. But as some nudist publications acknowledge, for many men, one of their most visceral concerns about getting involved in these mostly wholesome, sometimes family friendly spaces is what to do if they suddenly pop a big ol’ boner. Most American nudist groups have a common, easy answer for the issue, which they argue rarely actually pops up. But for all their nonchalance, (sorry about this) stiffies have actually been a historically hard problem for American nudism to get a hold on.

Based on studies of American nudists and cultures in which nudity is the norm going back years and years, as well as their own observations and analyses, nudists argue that erections just don’t happen all that often in nude spaces. "The first time a man is in a nude social environment, he is usually a bit too nervous to have an erection," Nicky Hoffman of the Naturist Society and managing editor of its Nude and Natural magazine, told me. "After [that], he realizes that being nude is not a sexual happening, [but] rather a way to live… therefore no erection would occur."

While Hoffman recognizes that sometimes a little wood may make an unexpected appearance, and while many groups offer men a bit of leeway with them, "we certainly don’t want a bunch of men walking around sporting erections," she said. A boisterous, bobbing boner could be taken as a sign of unwanted sexual attention, or the result of sexualized gawking that could make others feel uncomfortable. So, Hoffman said, the usual protocol is for a man with persistent peckerwood to just put on a towel or some other cover-up. Nudists typically always carry around a towel to put on bare surfaces before they sit down and keep some garments handy to deal with weather realities.

This seems simple and fair enough. But not every nudist is down with the idea. On lifestyle forums, young men complain about how these mainstream nudist rules still force them to view a natural bodily function as taboo, even shameful and inconveniencing to others. Critics point out that many men get rigid as a matter of reflex (rather than sexual desire) several times a day, sometimes because of the rushes of blood associated with emotions like stress and sometimes due to automatic hormonal fluctuations, especially in young men. Taking all erections as potentially unwanted sexual attention and seeking to hide them, in their eyes, betrays the core philosophies of nudism.

"It creates this weird space whereby you have some repression in some spaces but not in others," Brian Hoffman (no relation to Nicky), the author of 2015’s Naked: A Cultural History of American Nudism, told me. Going beyond reflex erections, Brian thinks it’s also odd that nudist culture attempts to erase any sign of eroticism. As he sees it, even if nudism breaks the one-to-one connection between nudity and arousal, it doesn’t mean people won’t still get aroused at times, and that is also natural. "Like, clothes are optional, but you’d better watch what you do when your clothes are off."

Image by Lia Kantrowitz for VICE

I asked Nicky about reflex boners and criticisms about having to suppress a natural bodily function in naturist spaces in a follow-up email. She did not respond.

Mainstream nudist rules on erections and criticisms of them reflect a division running back to American nudism’s 1930s origins, Brian said. Even then, some groups and thinkers held that nudism ought to be used to claw back stigmas about eroticism and other natural bodily functions, including those that can be misread as erotic, baked into American culture. In their eyes, walking around with a boner ought to be no big deal, so long as no one is a total creep about it.

But overall, Brian said, "organized nudism was able to survive in the United States by clinging to respectability wherever it could." That often meant hyping up wholesomeness and downplaying the risk of anything that could be read as an erotic or virile response. The imperative to hide hard-ons grew all the more important in the 1950s, as American soldiers returning from WWII (where Brian notes many had used nudist lifestyle magazines for thrills in lieu of porn) decided to check out their own nation’s naturist camps, often on their own. "This raises the issue of what the intentions of these single men are," said Brian. A single man’s erection, especially a stranger in these formerly insular groups, raised "the specter of homosexuality or adultery" in an era when those things were unacceptable, as well as pedophilia, which remains a deep social concern. "The human body without clothes can be seen in any number of ways," added Brian. "You don’t know the origin of that erection—you can see it as the best or the worst."

The result of the problems were a series of rules. Not only were erections frowned upon, and possibly a cause for ejection if uncovered long or frequently enough, but some settings restricted single men’s entry. Many also banned outward displays of affection beyond hugs or handholding and banned erotic clothing when it was worn.

One might expect that society’s slow acceptance and normalization of sexuality would have outmoded some of these rules. Brian does note that there was a strong pushback on nudism’s perceived sexual conservatism in the 1960s counterculture and that there always has been and still is a strain of nudism that rejects the mainstream view on erections as hypocritical, stuck in the past, and limiting. But fears about pedophilic gazes, unwanted sexual advances, or triggering memories of assault and other negative experiences of aggressive male sexual norms are all still relevant and legitimate—especially in communities where everyone might not know each other. And for spaces that might not be able to take the fiscal or PR hit of a scandal, minimizing the risk of any unwanted or unfortunate erotic exchange, misread or otherwise, is just plain prudent.

As modern forum chatter will attest, the great American nudist dick debate still rages on. Even within the mainstream, Brian believes, many camps or resorts probably show a fair deal of tolerance after hours, or when it’s just the regulars or lifers who know each other there. "There’s always the public face and then what can actually happen," he said. "But is the [major] American Association for Nude Recreation going to go out pro-erection? No."

Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.

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