Nudism is the practice of total nudity, usually as part of a group, in public spaces (beaches, parks such as the Tiergarten in Berlin, and riversides such as the Isar in Munich) or private spaces (clubs, saunas or among family or friends). A person is considered totally nude if their genitals are visible. If their genitals are concealed from other people by the smallest piece of fabric or other object, the person is not nude. In the public sphere, nudism has become most widespread on beaches, where it has been authorised in some cases to promote tourism development. Indeed, nudism has become partially integrated in Western societies as a segment of the tourism industry (Jaurand, 2011).
The origins of nudism, and nudism as a subject of study
Nudism as a leisure and tourism practice has been virtually overlooked in tourism-related research. However, the relevance of nudism as an area of study has been evidenced from a historical, sociological, and geographical point of view.
While public nudity has existed since ancient times, the origins of contemporary nudism date back to the late 19th century and early 20th century in Germany and France. At that time, collective total nudity or “gymnité” was being advocated by various movements for hygienic, medical, aesthetic, or moral reasons (the Freikörperkultur or “free body culture” movement in Germany).
It was in the 1920s that social nudism, viewed as an alternative way of life, first became popular in certain European countries, especially Germany. In that period, nudism became a culturally entrenched leisure practice enjoyed primarily by married couples and families. Despite its existence in the public sphere, nudism remains to this day a subject of social disapproval.
Nudism, particularly on beaches
The few studies on the relationship between tourism and public nudity have focused on either the local (Barrère and Cassou-Mounat, 1998) or national in scope (Jaurand, 2011) and on the dissemination of nudism on public beaches linked to international tourism flows (Jaurand, 2008). Thus, while most beaches were initially locations for reckless (illegal) nudism, some, mainly in Europe and North America, some had been granted an administrative authorisation for tourism purposes. The more accommodating attitudes of certain communities and local authorities have also allowed nudism to become tolerated on certain beaches, such as Les Pierres Tombées in one of Marseilles’ rocky inlets, a site at high risk of landslides (Ill. 1).
Beaches where nudism is simply tolerated and where nudists mingle with other beach users are referred to as ‘clothing-optional’ in the United States.
There are many reasons for the growing popularity of nudist beaches since the 1960s. Within the naturist movement, the nudist beach is the perfect place for communion between the human body and natural elements (sea, sun, sand, air) (Barthe-Deloizy, 2003). In addition, the practice of beach nudism is closely linked to a certain individual and family experience of relaxation, recreation and socialisation among like-minded people.
Beaches are also associated with health, adventure, seduction, and the possibility of sexual interaction (Douglas et al. 1977). In particular, public nudist beaches offer many sexual opportunities for nudists, from voyeurism and exhibitionism to actual sexual intercourse. Counter-culture movements promoting the sexual revolution advocate for so-called “groovy nudism” (reckless nudity) on beaches or among living communities, as practised by the Jaybird generation in California, for example. This kind of nudism can also serve as an escape from social norms or social exclusion and as a means to validate sexual identity, particularly among male homosexuals (Jaurand, 2015).
Nudism, societies and spaces
Although nudism has become tolerated or even formalised on certain beaches, public nudity can cause a culture shock within host societies, or at least those that have retained traditional moral codes. Nevertheless, given the local economic importance of tourism, there may be some tolerance among inhabitants towards nudist tourists, as is the case in Mexico (Monterrubio and Jaurand, 2009).
The possible conflict between nudist practice and the mores of the majority of the population is generally resolved by distancing areas where nudism is practised from family beaches, popular coastal access points and resorts and coastal towns. In this way, nudism has helped extend coastal leisure and tourism practices further from the centres, towards the margins.
The global distribution of nudist beaches is overwhelmingly skewed to the West, from Europe to the American continent (Jaurand, 2008). In France, there are about forty official nudist beaches on the coast, and many others where it is tolerated or where reckless nudism is practised (Jaurand, 2011). A number of nudist beaches have been identified in a minority of Southern countries in Asia (reckless nudism in Turkey; Hainan, China) and Africa (South Africa), and it may be possible in many countries to discretely enjoy nude bathing along rivers or around lakes. These practices may be part of tourism activities and/or concern inhabitants of the territories concerned.
- Barrère Pierre et Cassou-Mounat Micheline, 1998, «La fréquentation des plages sauvages du Nord-Médoc», Sud-Ouest européen. n°1, p. 81-90, en ligne.
- Barthe-Deloizy Francine, 2003, Géographie de la nudité. Paris, Bréal, coll. «D’autre part», 239p.
- Douglas Jack D. Douglas, Rasmussen Paul K. et Flanagan Carol Ann, 1977, The nude beach. Beverly Hills, Sage Publications, 244 p.
- Jaurand Emmanuel, 2008, «Les plages nudistes, une exception occidentale?», Géographie et cultures. n°67, p. 47-64, en ligne.
- Jaurand Emmanuel, 2011, «Pratiques nudistes et territoires touristiques sur le littoral français», dans Bleton-Ruget Annie, Commerçon Nicole et Lefort Isabelle (dir.), Tourismes et territoires. Mâcon, Institut de recherche du Val de Saône-Macônnais, p. 27-34.
- Jaurand Emmanuel, 2015, «Le nudisme gay: une expérience touristique identitaire», dans Decroly Jean-Michel (dir.), Le tourisme comme expérience. Regards interdisciplinaires sur le vécu touristique. Québec, Presses de l’Université du Québec, p. 163-174.
- Monterrubio Juan Carlos et Jaurand Emmanuel, 2009, «Les sociétés locales face au tourisme nudiste. Résultats d’une enquête qualitative sur la côte pacifique du Mexique», Téoros. n°28-2, p. 83-92, en ligne.