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How serious has U.S. naturism's decline been in the past several decades?
Here's what naturists should be worried about
We need to look at historical trends of naturism in the U.S. in order to gain a perspective on how naturism gradually grew in popularity from its earlier days in the U.S. (about 3 decades after it arose in Germany) and achieved some degree of success up through the 1960s and for several subsequent decades. Unfortunately, after that, a period of decline set in during the 1990s and has continued to the present day. However, being very specific about the exact dates is difficult, since the naturist organizations AANR and TNS have tended to be vague about their actual membership numbers. And, of course, there isn’t any way to keep reasonable track of how many people visit nude beaches (and actually get naked).
It’s possible, however, to get some idea of what’s been going in a general way. Unfortunately, the details presented below are rather discouraging. But the situation probably isn’t as bad as it may seem. At the end of this article I’ll explain why very good reasons exist to think there’s actually a distinct pattern of decline in the number of people who participate in group activities of any kind - not just naturism.
Shrinking membership of U.S. naturist organizations
As readers probably know, the U.S. actually has two national naturist organizations: the American Association for Nude Recreation (AANR) and The Naturist Society (TNS). AANR was reconstituted in the early 1950s from the American Sunbathing Association, which had its roots in the early 1930s. In those early years, there were no places for naturists (or “nudists”) to enjoy clothesfree activities except on private property (and even then some states made that illegal). Consequently, AANR has been mainly a trade association for naturist clubs. However, individual naturists can join AANR to receive their publications, attend events held by AANR and their regional organizations, and receive discounts at AANR member clubs.
Lee Baxandall became a nude beach activist around 1975. In 1980 he founded TNS to work for naturist rights in suitable public places - mainly beaches. He published a World Guide to Nude Beaches and Recreation in 1981, based on information collected over the preceding 6 years. Besides listing clothing-optional beaches, the Guide also included hot springs and skinny-dipping places, and just a small number of commercial naturist resorts. Listings of U. S. places occupied more than half of the Guide’s 212 pages. Lee retired from TNS in 2000 due to ill health, and he died in 2008. The most recent edition of the Gude - retitled The World’s Best Nude Beaches and Resorts - appeared in 2007. Only 56 of its 300 pages dealt with U.S. places. In 2017 TNS reorganized itself into The Naturist Society Foundation (TNSF) in order to obtain 501c3 IRS tax status and accept tax-deductible donations.
It’s not easy to give somewhat precise membership numbers for either AANR or TNS. To the best of my recollection, around 2000 AANR was claiming about 65,000 members. The most recent number I’m aware of is 30,000. That’s clearly not much to brag about. Also around 2000 I think TNS claimed about 25,000 members. As a 501c3 organization, TNSF publishes a summary of its finances. TNS reported yearly income from membership fees as $224,082 for the year 2020. Assuming an average yearly membership fee of $60, that implies about 3700 members. (Since a married couple counts as one member, the number of individuals might be closer to 5000.)
If these numbers for AANR and TNS are anywhere close to accurate, you can figure a membership decline for AANR of at least 50%. And for TNS it’s more like 80%. Not very encouraging, is it? Of course, the number of “actual” U.S. naturists is far larger than AANR or TNS memberships. But it’s also very speculative, because who actually counts as a “naturist”? There are no realistic figures for how many people each year visit a U.S. clothing-optional beach or naturist resort and get naked. Should just one visit a year count? In my own experience with naturist beaches, I’ve seen the number of visitors way down from the numbers 20 or 30 years ago.
Loss of landed naturist clubs and resorts
The latest newsletter of the U. S. Naturist Action Committee (NAC) has just appeared and began with a report of a talk given by the organization’s Chairman that stressed the fact that since 1985 “the landscape of naturism has shifted dramatically and not for the better. We have lost over a dozen nudist resorts.” Three resorts were mentioned - Sun Meadow (Idaho), Juniper Woods (New York), and Sunshine Gardens (Michigan). Plus “many others”. Incidentally, NAC was formerly part of The Naturist Society, but it split off for reasons that weren’t made clear - another troubling sign for U.S. naturism.
I can provide some personal observations on what I’ve seen in California since about 1980. The basic facts are that early in 1995 California had ten landed naturist clubs. Seven were in the state's southern half, while three were in the northern half. (It’s possible I’ve missed some smaller places and I’m excluding things like hot-spring places (in which there usually are restrictions on where nudity is OK) and smaller boutique resorts and B&Bs.)
This problem is restricted to Southern California
Sadly, only three landed clubs remain in Southern California. Four (at least) of the places existing in 1994 are now defunct. Those are Elysium (d. 1995), Treehouse Fun Ranch (d. 1996), Mystic Oaks (d. 2007), and Swallows Sun Island (d. 2008). I visited Elysium several years before its demise. It was a nice place, but small - just an upscale estate in a pricey neighborhood. I was the only one there (as far as I could tell), except for the receptionist. Swallows was mostly destroyed by a wildfire in 2003. It was partially rebuilt, but it wasn’t really viable after the fire. When I visited before the fire it was OK, but not especially impressive.
Nothing’s changed in Northern California
By contrast, there have been just three landed naturist clubs in Northern California. All are still in operation. One (Lupin) was established in 1935 near Los Gatos. Today it’s the second oldest surviving naturist club in the entire country. (The oldest is Sky Farm in New Jersey.) The Sequoians, up a narrow canyon road in Castro Valley, was established in 1947. Laguna del Sol, about 25 miles from central Sacramento, was established in 1961. All three of these places are still popular with naturists. The Sequoians is somewhat retro and small, but pleasant enough. Lupin, on the edge of Silicon Valley, is active and vibrant, but somewhat new-agey.
In my opinion, Laguna del Sol is the best landed club in the whole state. It’s modern and large (250 acres), with plenty of grassy space, 4 swimming pools, upscale motel-class “luxury” rooms, and a picturesque lake in the center (what you see in the newsletter banner image). I was just there a week ago. It was good to notice many (hetero) couples, although most were middle-aged or older. Still, the gender balance was pretty reasonable.
So, how can the viability differences of landed naturist clubs be explained? A lot of the differences are probably due to the differences between Northern and Southern California. The latter has generally been a socially conservative region, and in the early years local naturist clubs were under vigorous attack from politicians and law enforcement. These factors haven’t been a problem up North. Besides that, Southern California has a milder climate and several accessible clothing-optional beaches close to metropolitan areas. In Northern California the outdoor season is shorter, and the nude beaches are colder most of the year and more remote from population centers. Because of these differences, naturists in the North have limited dedicated places to go naked, except for the clubs. Naturists in the South have more alternatives to landed clubs.
What, then, is the point? To me, it seems that naturist places in general have a somewhat tenuous existence. And when the actual popularity of naturism is in decline, the more marginal places can’t survive. It’s a canary-in-the-coalmine effect.
Loss of clothing-optional beaches
As described in this recent article in The Atlantic, many clothing-optional beaches in Europe and elsewhere have experienced declining numbers of visitors in recent years. However, the decline seems to be steeper in U.S. nude beaches that have been around for decades.
The NAC newsletter mentioned above also lists several such beaches that have been used by naturists (either officially or not) but now have been lost, or are at significant risk of being lost. The U.S. actually has very few “official” clothing-optional beaches that have been designated as such by relevant authorities. Most of these beaches are unofficial but have portions where nudity for some time - even decades - has not been actively challenged. Even in those cases, actual nude use has often declined significantly. Because of such unofficial status, it can be difficult to know whether nude use is actually “safe”.
In a number of states, including California, public nudity is not illegal by statute law unless it’s deemed intentionally “lewd”, “indecent”, etc. Nevertheless, various jurisdictions (cities, counties, park services, and so on) may have explicit laws or regulations against nudity on local beaches. As the NAC newsletter states,
Bureaucrats around the country are doing an “end run” around the law by implementing “administrative rules” that prohibit nudity in spite of there being no law to prohibit it. This is occurring in national forests and in places like Florida where there is a “swimsuit rule” that demands bathers wear a swimsuit irrespective of any law permitting nudity.
Theoretically, naturists could challenge local laws and regulations (or how those are interpreted). But usually there aren’t enough naturists willing to make the effort to do so. Consequently, nude use of traditional beaches - and also many other places where skinny-dipping has been common - can’t be assumed free from legal problems.
In various Western European countries - such as Spain, Germany, Denmark, etc. - public nudity is accepted in many places where it’s considered “appropriate”. Even in England, since 2003, the law is tolerant of nudity if it’s not intended to cause “alarm” or “distress”. And just this week the Federation of Canadian Naturists (FCN) has begun to challenge a section of the country’s Criminal Code that generally makes public nudity illegal.
It’s almost impossible to imagine that the U.S. Congress would pass a law permitting public nudity in some reasonable circumstances, analogous to what is the case in England and many European countries, and is being pursued by the FCN in Canada. As a result, the only recourse for U.S. naturists is to fight for naturist rights on public beaches and other locations in hundreds or possibly thousands of separate jurisdictions. And unfortunately, U.S. naturist organizations don’t have sufficient support from naturists themselves almost anywhere in the country to seriously consider making the effort.
Loss of non-landed naturist clubs
As the name implies, a non-landed club is simply one that doesn’t own land that its members can visit for naturist activities. Some clubs of this sort have been around for a long time, while others are transitory. Club members may enjoy naturist activities at landed clubs and resorts, private homes, clothing-optional beaches, or other suitable places. Many of the clubs are loosely affiliated with landed naturist clubs or resorts, but some simply comprise individual naturists who enjoy a variety of naturist activities. A club also may be affiliated with AANR, TNS, both, or neither.
Clubs affiliated with AANR can be located from the organization’s website. Unfortunately, the TNS website doesn’t currently have a list of affiliated non-landed clubs. Both landed and non-landed clubs affiliated with TNS are listed in its quarterly magazine. The listings include website addresses, if any. However, some of the websites are unavailable or inactive - an indication that the club itself is inactive.
Since the clubs are often informal and may be led by only one or two individuals, it often happens that the club becomes inactive or ceases to exist at all. I was for many years a member of the Bay Area Naturists, which served the San Francisco Bay area. Most of the operation of the club during its existence was handled by one person, Rich Pasco. He collected membership dues, planned various club events, kept a list online of news related to naturism, and published a very informative monthly newsletter. Sadly, Rich died of a stroke at a relatively young age in 2020 - a few months after he was profiled in a prominent Guardian article. Given that the San Francisco Bay area has a population of almost 8 million people, half a dozen nude beaches, 2 landed naturist resorts, and that the Bay Area Naturists had many active members, you’d think that someone would have taken over Rich’s responsibilities. Nobody did, and the club simply ceased to exist. (I wasn’t living in the area at the time.)
Many other non-landed naturist clubs have suffered a similar fate over the years. Since many special-interest and hobby clubs of all types often depend on the work of a dedicated leader, it’s not surprising that they don’t survive if the leader loses interest or becomes unavailable. However, it’s not a good sign for naturism if other club members don’t find it worth their time to keep the club going even in one of the best areas for naturism in the country.
Other ominous signs
Here are a few other indications that naturism’s best days may be in the past.
Blogging in general seems to be regarded as passé these days, what with many other ways for individuals who want to communicate about what interests them. For example: Substack (of course), Medium, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and less popular instances of each of these. I started the original Naturistplace blog in 2005, and started the latest version almost exactly 4 years ago. Since beginning, I’ve seen over 500 naturist blogs come and go - mostly go. Evidently, most would-be naturist bloggers seem to run out of something new to say fairly soon.
Blogging has changed considerably during the more than 20 years it’s been a thing. The trend now seems to be a snazzy appearance with lots of artsy layouts. It used to be that blogs would maintain a “blogroll” of other blogs with similar subject matter that seemed worth recommending. That’s now a thing of the past. I still have a blogroll with more than 20 entries of blogs that have seemed to be worthwhile. But most of those aren’t really very active, with perhaps only 5 or fewer posts in an entire year. What does it say about naturism if bloggers can’t think of much new to write about?
Online naturist forums and discussion sites
Long ago, like the 1980s, when computer enthusiasts started using modems and ordinary telephone lines to communicate with each other they had something called “computer bulletin boards”. That was software that ran on PCs and allowed other PC users to dial in (if they knew the phone number) and carry on written discussions with anyone else who had access to the system. Such things gradually became more sophisticated and were hosted on commercial services even before the Web existed -The Well, The Source, CompuServe, BIX, Prodigy, and AOL, for example.
Similar things still exist on the Web and are now usually called “discussion forums”. Some are provided for use by naturists. In fact, British Naturism (which I belong to and recommend) runs a very good one for its members. There are others like it, with the best run by national naturist organizations (in English and other languages). Facebook groups are somewhat similar, but the few naturist ones are rather disappointing.
AANR at one time a few years ago had a discussion forum for its members. And the organization abandoned it pretty quickly. (I don’t know why.) I did try - without any success - to interest TNS in hosting one as well. The lack of interest, I think, was concern about legal liability if anyone posted scurrilous material or images. Evidently they didn’t feel they could sufficiently trust their members, weren’t prepared to moderate discussions, and didn’t want to face possible legal expenses.
Is it possible there simply aren’t enough U.S. naturists who could be expected to make good use of an online discussion forum? In that regard, it’s certainly worth mentioning that The Guardian just ran a prominent story entitled Nearly 7m people in UK identify as naturists or nudists, survey suggests. That would be 14% of British people who describe themselves as naturists or nudists! I’m a little skeptical of that figure, but even if considerably lower, it must far exceed what would be found in the U.S.
Disinterest in naturism of young adults (under 35)
Most U.S. naturists are well aware of the fact that there are very few young (under 35) people who visit naturist clubs, resorts, and nude beaches. The age imbalance is pretty serious, and there are understandable reasons it exists. Indeed, the imbalance is one factor (but not the only one) that deters young people from getting involved in naturism. The 1950s and 1960s were before my time in naturism, but my sense is that most naturists in those days were under 35. Of course, naturists who were under 35 as late as 1980 are now in their 60s or older, and they still represent a large percentage of active naturists.
In spite of all this, the situation may not be nearly as bad as it seems
There are still quite valid reasons for optimism. The book Bowling Alone, by sociologist Robert Putnam and first published in 2000, documents in great detail how in the U.S. during the last third of the 20th century participation in almost every form of social activity declined drastically, sometimes by as much as 50% or more. Activities as diverse as bowling leagues, PTAs, service organizations, and religious services were affected. Since naturism itself didn’t blossom until the second half of the century, it was somewhat later to experience a significant decline. But decline it definitely did, along with most other social activities. And it seems that in many of these cases, the decline is still ongoing.
Because so many types of social activities have experienced declines together, there must be factors that all have in common to account for the decline. An analysis of those factors make up most of Putnam’s book. The point is that there are a number of reasons for the declines that aren’t intrinsic to naturism itself. And therefore, if naturists can understand the underlying factors and deal with them, revitalization of naturism is quite possible.
Putnam uses the term “social capital” to describe the value that exists when people engaged in any activity cooperate and build connections with each other. It should be pretty clear from the political polarization that’s found now in the U.S. that one important type of social capital is quite weak these days. Naturists can’t do much about that general problem. But they’ll certainly benefit by working on building social capital among themselves.
Putnam’s book is thoroughly academic and certainly not light reading. There are 440 dense pages in the text itself, and another hundred in the footnotes and appendices. I wouldn’t recommend buying it unless you’re prepared for some work. But in future articles I’ll try to explain the basic concepts and how they apply to naturism. So stay tuned. Good reasons exist to think there’s actually a distinct pattern of decline in the number of people who participate in group activities of any kind - not just naturism. And understanding that should help reverse the decline.