Posted at 19:38 on 8 Jul 2014 by Pandora Blake
I am basically a naturist at heart. One of my favourite things to do in London is visit Rio's, the nudist sauna in Kentish Town. Sitting with friends in the hot tub, chatting with a random cross-section of other Londoners in a completely diverse, body-positive environment. Working up a sweat in a the sauna, then taking a skinny dip in the plunge pool to cool down. If it's nice out, naked sunbathing in the garden with a cuppa tea and a biscuit - and even better, the tea and biscuits are free.
I love fetish clubs not only because of the handy dungeon furniture, cool outfits and interesting people, but because they are one of the few nightclubs where I'm allowed to indulge myself and get naked when I start getting hot and sweaty on the dancefloor. The other weekend Ivy and I enjoyed a topless dance at Club Decadence and the grins on our faces told the whole story. It's not just about feeling sexy or getting attention - although I'd be lying ifI claimed that wasn't at least part of it. But it's mostly about the liberated feeling of being able to enjoy my body without shame, without being told to cover up, to "put it away".
Last week I had a new experience: my first trip to a naturist club. This particular one was like a small village of chalets and cottages surrounded by little gardens, mostly occupied by retired hippies, with a clubhouse, swimming pool and communal lawns in the middle, including a kids' playground. I didn't realise it when we were planning the trip, but it happened to be the place fellow spanking blogger Fred is staying at the moment, so I got the insider tour complete with gossip and secluded little pathways (although we missed the naked beekeepers). There is something so freeing about walking around outdoors wearing only a pair of flipflops, feeling the sun and the wind on your skin, naked sunbathing and swimming. On a nice warm day in summer, that is. I imagine it's less fun during the winter.
I recently had a little midsummer party at my house and at one point (no idea how that happened) I ended up totally nude with everyone drawing on me with washable markers. I started it - actually thinking back, I believe I announced that everyone had to sign my body, much in the manner of a bossy child.
For some reason nudity just feels right at festivals like the solstice. I was delighted when I glimpsed one of my guests - a certain Seani - indulging in some solo naturism in the garden under cover of darkness. I joined him briefly, but it was chilly out there at 3am.
When a group of us went back outside for a ritual after the sun had risen, we were all fully dressed. My garden is overlooked and I don't want neighbours to start phoning the police and complaining about public indecency.
That's the thing - in the UK, nudity (or even toplessness, if you're female) is illegal in public, and "public" includes private property if it is visible to others. Indoor private spaces are fine, and outdoor private spaces are fine if no-one can see you - like the high-walled city garden at Rio's, or a five-acre privately owned space like the naturist club. But most people in the crowded UK can't afford gardens like that - or if we can, the necessary high walls mean they barely get any sun - and so outdoor nudity is a risky business.
It's not only the risk of being caught. Consent is important. My whole lifestyle pushes against the edges of social acceptability, all the time -as a queer, a pervert, a relationship anarchist, a pornographer, a sex worker. I'm constantly trying to judge when I should do what I want (if my kissing a woman in public makes you uncomfortable then you can fuck off and take your homophobia with you) and when I should be discreet (if you'd rather I didn't talk about sex in front of your kid/boss/vanilla friend, well, that's fair enough).
The way I see it, if you have voluntarily entered a body-positive, sex-positive or kink-positive space, that implies consent to be exposed to a certain amount of bodies, sex or kink. However, if you are simply going about your business in public, you have not consented to be exposed to those things. Generally speaking, I want to be polite to strangers I pass in the street, and not make them uncomfortable by being overtly kinky, sexy or naked in front of them. When someone's taking their kids to school or just trying to get home from work I it would be the height of rudeness for me to intrude on their boundaries by being overtly sexual in public.
Even within naturist spaces, there are boundaries. The outdoor nudist club had a posters up at reception saying "no overt sexuality", and if you just want to hang out and be naked at Rio's, you're continually having to defend your space against guys trying ineptly to sex it up. Whether being naked is innately sexual or not is a hugely messy question, and even for naturists the lines are often blurred.
So it's a conundrum. I wish public nudity was more acceptable in our culture, and that exposed flesh wasn't interpreted as being inherently sexualised. But I also have to live in this society and not be an ass, so since nudity isn't generally acceptable I don't want to be totally selfish about it and make people uncomfortable.
This is my big theme at the moment as a gender and sexuality activist - those little judgements we constantly make about the comfort levels of others. If you are made uncomfortable by gender non-conformism I don't feel the need to take your comfort into account, but if you are made uncomfortable by displays of public kink, well, maybe that's fair enough, you know? I don't want to indulge in sexy or kinky behaviour in front of you unless you've consented. Everyone draws that line in a different place and I get it wrong more often than I like. But when you live on the edge, making choices - and art - that seek to expand the boundaries of social acceptability, it sort of comes with the territory.
When D and I laid out blankets in my garden for a blissful afternoon nap in the sun, we carefully covered up the areas of our bodies deemed unacceptable for public exposure by society and the law. That's just the way it has to be. I'd rather sunbathe naked, but it is what it is.
And then a campaign like #FreetheNipple comes along, demonstrating how arbitrary, sexist and ludicrous the taboo against female nipples is, and I remember that it doesn't have to be this way. In some countries female toplessness is perfectly legal, nudist beaches and baths are common. Cultural mores are not carved in stone. Perhaps legalising female toplessness is within our grasp. Perhaps we can change this, after all.