Mark Haskell Smith is a good time. His daughter Olivia Taylor Smith, Executive Editor and Marketing Director at Unnamed Press, could whip a few photos out of her wallet to show you a young, long-haired Haskell Smith back when he was the guitarist and “singer” for the art-punk band The Beakers. Some thirty-five years later, he’s a professor (and my colleague) at UC-Riverside Palm Desert’s MFA program and the author of five novels: Moist, Delicious, Salty, Baked, and Raw: A Love Story. The release of his most recent book of nonfiction, Naked at Lunch: A Reluctant Nudist’s Adventures in the Clothing-Optional World, in which he embarks on a no-holds-barred personal and investigative journey into nudist culture, cements his willingness to go more than the extra mile for a good story. (His previous book of nonfiction, Heart of Dankness: Underground Botanists, Outlaw Farmers, and the Race for the Cannabis Cup, was as wild a ride, if one involving more textiles.) While sweltering in Dallas, he took the time to answer a few questions about all things nude, though you will need to stalk him in the comments section if you’d like to know whether he was dressed while he did his research…
The Rumpus: One of the first notable things about the world of nudism is the fact that a majority of its practitioners are “of a certain age.” Did this surprise you initially, and what conclusions did you ultimately draw, historically and personally, about why “nonsexual social nudism” might—it could seem paradoxically—appeal more to an older set than a younger one?
Mark Haskell Smith: I saw a lot of naked retirees, it’s true. There are historical reasons for it, the boom in American nudist clubs came after World War II when G.I.s were exposed to naturist magazines because the Pentagon didn’t want them visiting prostitutes and nudism seemed more wholesome than porn. But I think the older set enjoys being naked and they just don’t give a fuck. You know? They paid their dues, they like the way it feels to be clothes free. It’s just their thing. Seeing all those naked retirees gave me a glimpse into the future and I think we should all immediately stop eating fried foods and begin exercising. But the older set is mostly in the US and mostly at nudist resorts.
In Europe there were families, little kids, teenagers, people of all ages being naked together. I know this is going to sound weird to Americans, but it was completely normal to see a mother and her 12-year-old son playing ping-pong in the nude or to see bands of teenage boys and girls kicking soccer balls around on the sand naked. No one freaked out.
There is a movement of younger naturists who are into social nudism, but don’t want to have to join a club or pay expensive resort fees if they can just go to a nude beach or go camping somewhere. I don’t think the nudist movement is dying out, but I think the model is changing as more and more young people try it out.
Rumpus: Your descriptions of your time at Cap d’Adge are simply priceless and run a wild gamut. A naked old man being pushed in his wheelchair by his naked old wife, as they take their dog for a walk. A woman rubbing a man’s genitals with a scarf on the balcony across the way from you as you Skype with your wife. A fetish fashion show. You describe the scene there as naturists vs. libertines, more or less … or maybe not “vs.” but that clearly there are two distinct “brands” of nudist at play. Can you talk about how getting your kink on functions in a community mostly defined by “nonsexual” social nudism?
Haskell Smith: Imagine a small city (about 60,000 residents), with grocery stores and restaurants, bars and pharmacies, bakeries and wine stores, but everyone’s naked. During the day, it’s very much nonsexual, but I think for some people the freedom they feel living life without clothes makes them want to try other “freedoms.” It used to be a major scene, with mutual masturbation, group sex, and consensual gangbangs taking place on the beach or in the dunes near the beach. There was a big crackdown on that kind of behavior and now most of the swinging takes place in nightclubs and in private apartments. But the pure naturists really don’t like the swinging and a couple of “wife swapping clubs” were firebombed in recent years.
Rumpus: A woman you meet, Conxita, who happens to be extremely attractive and gets many admiring looks from the others around her, makes it clear that she is not being hit on, not afraid she is “going to be raped in the shower,” and that, if anything, her fledgling experiences with nudism made her feel happy, empowered, and that she had recommended the experience even to her mother-in-law, because so many people “live ignoring the body,” and the nudist community embraces those of all sizes and ages. How would you describe the level of comfort, safety, and body-positivity in the nudist world compared with that of the world at large?
Haskell Smith: For most of us the only people we see naked (besides our lovers) are movie stars and supermodels. It’s a very warped impression of what the human body is supposed to look like. So when someone goes to a place with other naked people they get this realization that the images the “cosmetic/fashion/diet industrial complex” feeds us are completely perverse. When you’re surrounded by people of all shapes and sizes you start to feel normal, less alienated and insecure about your body and for a lot of people this realization is profound. Like Conxita said, she “made friends with her body.” Imagine if everyone suddenly got over their insecurities, anxieties and fears about who they were and how they looked. It would cause a revolution.
Rumpus: One of the funniest parts of the book is your convincing your highly skeptical wife, Diana, to accompany you on a nude cruise. Do you feel either of you carried a different attitude towards nudity back to your relationship in any way, after all of your “research” for this book was over?
Haskell Smith: For sure. We’re both way more tolerant and understanding of who nudists are and why they do it. It’s not some deviant behavior. It feels good to be naked, especially if you’re swimming or on the beach. And while we’re not nudists, we hang out around the house naked more than we used to and I’m sure that if the opportunity arises, we will skinny-dip.
Rumpus: Nudity also intersects with wider political movements. You trace both PETA and FEMEN as having histories of naked activism that has been turned into an art. However, in these cases, the naked body is being used as a kind of attention-getting shocker, as opposed to being treated as completely natural, right? I guess what I mean is: in a world where nonsexual social nudism became fully accepted as a normal and given right of individuals, a lot of power would be taken away from the human body to “shock” or to titillate. If it was no longer a sexual or shocking thing for a man to be naked while shopping for groceries, then activism in the nude wouldn’t draw any particular attention … nor, of course, would, for example, strippers, one might extrapolate. We would have to redefine ideas of what’s “shocking” and perhaps what’s “sexy.” Which on the one hand is appealing because we live in a culture where a glimpse of a nipple on prime time TV is cause for national alarm, but violence both on television and in real life is epidemic and greeted with almost blasé indifference. On the other hand…if the naked human body was no longer precisely a “sexual” thing, I can imagine a whole new agitation growing among those who feel their bodies “aren’t enough” and that the necessity of self-adornment and performing sexuality could be ratcheted up even higher in a society where they are arguably already too high. It’s all complex…I’m not sure there’s a clear question here, or maybe my question is: is it as complex as I’m imagining it could be, or would you say it’s much simpler?
Haskell Smith: I think this Puritanical idea of shame is part of a patriarchal system that oppresses women. Conservatives are always trying to take control of women’s bodies away from them, from public breast-feeding bans, abortion rights, slut shaming, or that ridiculous fine for a nipple slip, it’s all about shame and disempowerment. I mean look at the fucking ISIS. They cover every inch of a woman’s body and then sell them as sex slaves. Sex and shame get linked and I think PETA and FEMEN are playing with that dissonance. But really? We need to demolish this idea of the naked body as shameful. We need to grow up about sex and sexuality. We live in a perverted society that chases “nipple slips” so that they can put them in magazines to shame and punish the person for profit. It’s so deeply immature.
Rumpus: You have a history of immersive journalism, having also covered the Cannabis Cup for a previous book…any plans on the horizon for your next area of research?
Haskell Smith: I’m fascinated by people who do things that are quasi-legal or risk some kind of social stigma, they are the true believers, the fanatics, the passionate ones. And, while I love writing nonfiction and definitely want to do another book, I have no idea what I’ll do next.
Rumpus: What was the most surprising historical fact you learned about nudism during all your explorations?
Haskell Smith: That nudism was, at one time, a hugely popular activity. After World War I, during the Weimar Republic era, German society experienced a very liberal and open-minded moment that spawned all kinds of new art, sexual freedom, literary experimentation, and found millions of people going to nudist clubs, nude beaches, and naked hikes in the forest. Nudists were everywhere and it was considered a normal, healthy thing for people to do. Of course economic depression and Hitler put an end to all that. But I think that kind of connection to the body and nature is deeply imbedded in German culture, which is why you almost always find Germans at nude beaches.