A while ago I blogged about a trip up the river Dart on a sweltering summer’s day, during which we encountered male nudity in the form of two opportunistic skinny dippers and a yogi in the tree pose. I jokingly entitled the post Hot Naked Men and Cool Dartmoor Water. Adverts for Russian Brides suddenly appeared on my blog, which my iPhone blocked owing to ‘unsuitable content’. On checking the stats I discovered the most frequent search terms are ‘naked swimming’ and ‘skinny dipping’.
Last summer in Northern Ireland a couple of men were threatened with arrest for skinny dipping.
“There are young children in these areas too…You could end up with a criminal record and placed on the sex offender register (sic)” said a police spokesperson.
Meanwhile a couple were arrested for skinny dipping, in East Lothian. Nudists can be prosecuted under the Public Order Act for ‘outraging public decency’ (Telegraph, 30 July 14), although rules vary by country in the UK. But how is this anything other than subjective?
Place these incidents in the context of the relentless sexualisation of our culture. Without even mentioning Miley Cyrus, pre-pubescent girls can be seen twerking and slut-dropping on TV (Big Fat Gypsy Weddings for example). Even an X-Factor judge commented on the inappropriateness of twerking women surrounding a 16 year old male contestant.
We’ve certainly lost the art of seduction and become entangled in the snake lock weeds of confused representation. Here hip thrusts represent female sexual empowerment packaged for the male gaze through the iconography of shagging dogs. Meanwhile, careless nudity by people swimming outdoors can be deemed offensive. Even swimming groups are not immune to the controversy. Why is this so when the context is so clearly not sexualised? In Scandinavia, naked adults routinely share saunas with naked children. So why do we inculcate our children with our cultural confusion surrounding nudity and sex?
Men have penises (shock!), whether or not they’re exposed. As an 18 year-old art student in life-drawing class I was barred from drawing male nudes (till age 21), while 16 year old boys legally drew female nudes. Presumably this was to protect my girlish sensibilities, while Gary Glitter and Jimmy Savile leered and pawed young girls on prime-time tv. The times I’ve been flashed in a sexual way (a few, out of the very, very many men who have treated me with respect and kindness) the perpetrators have been fully-clothed, furtively exposing a penis and on one occasion forcing it into my hand. They weren’t swimming; in fact one was on a tube train. The water temperature in Britain mostly militates against confident flashing in any case.
Is the presence or otherwise of clothing really the issue? Of course clothing is about far more than simple protection from the weather. What we wear is a cultural statement of status and wealth, and of more nebulous values such as identity. We can use clothing to outrage as Lady Gaga knows. Why then does the law attempt to enforce Victorian, table-leg-covering mores over us when we’re naked?
Like every activity in our consumerist culture, wild swimming has become a lifestyle choice. It’s aspirational, and visually suited to glossy magazines luring city-folk with a country-living wet-dream. Can nudity possibly be a part of this? Skinny dipping is subversive in a more complex way than that of being cheeky and rebellious, not least in that you can’t sell kit to people who aren’t wearing anything. Once you’ve plunged yourself into a moorland brook on a sunny day, skinny-dipping becomes almost inevitable. What does this represent but the exposure of one’s body and soul to nature, a baptism, a metaphorical sloughing of the skin?
As a wild swimmer I know that a friendly covering of blubber helps me to withstand the nip of cold water. I can forget to shave my legs (or shave one and lose interest as a friend did recently). I can strip and leap in with alacrity, knowing that the chill will be thrilling and that the men and women I’m with are too busy enjoying themselves to judge my physique. The temperature of the water and the context is about as far from hot as you can get.
Perhaps the flagrant exposure of flesh that might be sagging, and wet hair, conspire to engender horror both at the thought of one’s own mortality and the lack of concomitant marketing opportunities. While confusion reigns over nudity, I wonder whether what our culture finds truly naughty is the joyous display of bodies in all their glorious diversity, bulging un-choreographed from the triumvirate of religion, advertising and the gym. We can revel both in youthful beauty and in ageing flesh without concealing the evidence. We plunge into waves and waterfalls and gorge on life and cake made with (gasp!) real butter. It’s far better than sex.