Discover more from Revitalizing Naturism
What explains the way participation in naturism rose from 1930 until around 1990, but has declined since then?
Searching for answers, in order to make plans for naturism's revival
Please read the following, if you haven’t already:
The first and third of those articles discuss reasons for thinking that the decline is real and substantial. The third article noted that participation in naturism in the U.S. grew from 1930 for about 60 years. The growth became faster in the 1960s, but flattened towards 1990, when it reached a plateau - and then began to decline.
Thanks for reading Revitalizing Naturism! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
One reason likely stands out for both the increase and the subsequent decline. That reason is the popularity of naturism among the generation of “Baby Boomers”, the first of whom reached adulthood in the middle of the 1960s. To be clear about the dates, “Boomers” are considered (at least according to Wikipedia) to be people born from 1946 to 1964 (inclusive). So let’s just settle on those dates. That means people of that generation now range in age from 59 to 77. That’s not quite 20 years, but for simplicity let’s assume a “generation” is about 20 years.
Isn’t it interesting that so many of the people who visit naturist clubs and resorts these days are in that 60+ age range? Of course, there are also many visitors who are about 20 years younger. Roughly speaking, this generation is known as “Gen X”. (Wikipedia puts the birth years from 1965 to 1980, meaning people now from 43 to 58, but that’s close enough.) Wikipedia gives the dates of the next younger generation (“Millennials”) as 1981 to 1996 - people whose ages now are 27 to 42.
We shouldn’t be too finicky about the precise ages, because the dates are somewhat arbitrary. In any case, estimating someone’s age by sight alone is difficult. And besides that, when you visit different naturist places, you’ll find a lot of variation from place to place. But in general, it’s common to see considerably fewer Millennials (and others younger) in most places than either Gen Xers or Boomers. In some places, Gen Xers will outnumber Boomers, while it will be the opposite in other places. Also, many Boomers who have participated in naturism previously no longer participate, either because they just feel “too old”, or are already deceased. So the number of Boomers (aged 59 to 77) who still participate in naturism is almost certainly smaller than the number at the peak.
Taking these considerations together, it’s very understandable why there are meaningfully fewer active U. S. naturists now than 25 years ago. That is the decline we’re concerned about. But there’s yet another factor to consider. People from different generations have had significantly different experiences when they were young. My observation, as a “Boomer” myself, is that there was considerably more enthusiasm for nudity and clothesfree activities as a young person than has been the case for later generations. The period from 1965 to 1985 was the heyday of hippies, “flower power”, questioning “authority”, nudity on college campuses (not widespread, but definitely a thing), and the greatest popularity of clothing-optional beaches.
And there’s more. Economic factors were different for Boomers than for later generations. In particular, automobiles, college tuition, apartment rentals, home prices, and food were considerably more affordable then than later. More affordability of such things means less economic stress and more leisure time to participate in things like naturism. The world in general was simply different and in various ways less stressful for Boomers than later generations. (And also less stressful than for the preceding generation, whose members were young during the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II.)
Yes, I know there’s quite a lot of generalization in the details above. Pick random members of each generation and the differences could be minimal or reversed. But it’s the averages that really matter for attitudes, preferences, and life experiences. And that’s where the differences in naturist participation between generations show up.
One of the most important points Robert Putnam makes in his book is a quote he uses from another source: “The key question to ask about generational differences is not how old are people now, but when were they young.” (His italics.) The point is that people tend to retain many of the interests, attitudes, and opinions they had when they were young, roughly when they were from 20 to 35 years old. That’s when they’re most strongly affected as adults by their experiences of the adult world. In this context that simply means that if they find naturist nudity enjoyable in that time period, it’s most likely they’ll continue to feel that way.
This explains a misconception many younger people have about older naturists. The fact is not that people become more interested and active in naturism as they get older. That is not why there are more older people than younger ones at naturist places or engaged in naturist activities. The difference is because older naturists had different experiences when they were young compared to the experiences of people who are young now. This is what Putnam means when he identifies “generational differences” as the main factor behind the different preferences for social activities in many cases, not just naturist activities.
It makes sense to ask: exactly why do successive generations tend to have attitudes and experiences different from their predecessors? A related question is why the length of each generation is about 20 years, or a bit less. Is it just coincidental that 18 to 21 is the age range that someone starts being considered an adult? Although I’m not either a social psychologist or a sociologist, I suspect this isn’t a coincidence. I don’t know of scientific evidence for that, but if it’s not a coincidence, the evidence probably exists.
Just think about it. In the U.S., most students graduate from high school when they’re 18. Many of them go on to college, often somewhere distant from home. Others take a full-time job and/or get married in the 18-21 age range. So in many if not most cases, young adults no longer live with their parents. They’re thus free to experiment with a different lifestyle.
Obviously, young adults often make choices different in various respects from those of their parents. They may change their religion, or give up religion entirely. They may try different types of food. They will have different preferences in styles of music, entertainment, or clothing. They’ll use novel slang. So the choices and preferences of young adults will differ from those of their parents, who’ll usually be at least 20 years older. Their choices and preferences will be more similar to people of about their own age.
Such differences may occur abruptly, which can happen with music or clothing styles, as creators of such things strive to innovate. But the changes may also be more gradual if additional time is needed for a new trend to develop due to the nature of a particular change. Still, whatever the rate of change, there will be clear differences on average between the choices and preferences of successive generations.
This process is apparent in the increasing popularity of naturism in the 1960s. In 1957 a judicial decision made it possible to send naturist publications through the mail. So such publications began to appear in bookstores and newsstands. That didn’t happen immediately, since most store owners were probably reluctant to carry such things. But once they realized that having naturist publications in stock meant more store traffic and more revenue they gradually changed their minds.
Of course, naturist clubs had existed in various parts of the U.S. since the 1930s. But they tended to be secretive to avoid legal harassment and the pervasive social disapproval of people getting naked together. So young people in the 1960s - the earliest Boomers - looked for alternatives. Beaches were an obvious choice, as bathing attire already covered much less of a body than normal clothing - and was entirely unnecessary (detrimental in fact) for sunbathing or entering the water. Nude use of certain beaches began soon after 1960. The problem was that the best U.S. beaches are mostly on the coasts, and even those were suitable for nude use only if they were secluded enough.
Once the existence of nude beaches became known, most young people to whom the idea appealed had to look for alternatives. Young people attending some colleges and universities - especially private and more elite ones - discovered opportunities to dispense with clothing, such as sunbathing on rooftops or by “streaking”. On a few campuses there were one or more student residences with clothing-optional policies, at least de facto. Such things were precursors to the spreading popularity of naturist activities from about 1965 to 1985. This snowball effect is how naturism really took off in the Boomer generation. Of course, many of them who’re still around are the older people who are so evident these days at most U.S. naturist clubs and resorts.
Naturism got a further significant boost in 1980 when the first World Guide to Nude Beaches and Recreation was published by the Free Beaches Documentation Center, and by the founding of The Naturist Society (TNS). Lee Baxandall was mainly responsible for both developments. He was born in 1935, so he wasn’t actually a Boomer himself. As a young man he was involved in anti-war causes. However, after the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam in 1975, Lee’s activism turned to defense of nude beaches, such as one on Cape Cod, where his family has vacationed in earlier years.
Although the first edition of the Guide was called a World Guide, somewhat more than half of it was devoted to nude beaches, hot springs, and swimming holes in the U.S. Unfortunately, as an indication of the declining popularity of naturism since 1990, some of those beaches and most of the other places are increasingly less used by naturists. Even the beaches that remain clothing-optional have considerably fewer visitors than they had at their peak.
TNS last published a new edition of the Guide over 15 years ago in 2007. It had been renamed The World’s Best Nude Beaches and Resorts, and only half as many pages were devoted to U.S. naturist places as in the 1980 edition. Hardly any hot springs or skinny-dipping places were still listed. The implications are clear, at least for the U.S.
A number of other indications of U.S. naturist trends in the past 25 years are discussed in the newsletter edition referenced as the first item at the top of this edition. But some additional indicators should be mentioned. In the first World Guide, the section on Black’s Beach notes that “Attendance at Black’s/Torrey Pines is upwards of 10,000 on a sunny, warm day.” My first visit to Black’s was later in the 1980s. Nude use was still prevalent, but nothing like 10,000 people, even on a sunny day. Much closer to where I lived, there were (and still are) smaller nude beaches north of Santa Cruz. On sunny weekend days, the parking areas were always full, and nudity was the norm. But over the years that gradually diminished.
As far as membership in U.S. naturist organizations is concerned, long-time naturist activist Gary Mussell last year wrote that “At AANR, there has been a steady decline in membership over the past decade from a 50,000 peak in 1998 to under 30,000 in 2015. The average age of nudist club members is rapidly climbing into the mid-50s. The number of affiliated clubs has dropped from 270 to around 200 in the same time.” (Currently, there are just 180.) The trends of naturist activity in nude beaches and naturist organizations are, unfortunately, obvious enough.
Interest and participation in naturism have clearly been declining for 25 years or more. What can be said about the reasons for this? In his book, Robert Putnam attempts to identify general causes of decline in many different types of “civic engagement”. Here’s his list of possible causes, with an estimate of their approximate importance:
Pressures on available time and money, especially on two-career families (10%)
Suburbanization, commuting, and population sprawl (10%)
Time spent on electronic entertainment, especially television (and now online activities) (25%)
Generational changes, as explained above, other than home-based electronic entertainment (35%)
Everything else (20%)
Not all factors are equally relevant to specific types of social activities. The importance of different factors would vary over time. And the estimates, which I’ve adjusted slightly from Putnam’s, are quite rough anyhow.
So, what factors would be most relevant to naturism? Since participation in naturism peaked and declined 2 or 3 decades later than other social activities, the first two factors probably are less important. The Internet and other forms of electronic engagement are more recent than the others, and they may have had a larger effect on people who reached adulthood about 20 years ago. That means younger Millennials and all Gen Z adults - in other words, young people - the cohort that’s now least likely to participate in naturism.
The non-generational factors are society-wide and mainly affected by broad social, economic, and technological trends. Naturists can’t do much about them. But the generational factors involve choices and preferences that are alterable by individuals and others they interact with. These factors are what have to be addressed in order to revitalize naturism. Importantly, it’s usually younger people who are open to new ideas and experiences.
Social nudity in the U.S. really took off to the extent it did among young people in the later 1960s. There’s no obvious reason it couldn’t do so again with young people now. A strong reason to attract young people to naturism is that they’ll usually continue participating for the longest time - perhaps 50 years or more. That’s certainly in the best interest of existing naturist clubs and resorts. Hopefully, the legacy naturist organizations (AANR and TNS) will help by making this a priority.
Thanks for reading Revitalizing Naturism! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.