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What Lies Between Nudism and Exhibitionism?

I found this piece by Delisha Keane, "Is it wrong to be an exhibitionist? What's the difference between nudism and exhibitionism?", discussing the perceptions and definitions of nudism and exhibitionism quite thought-provoking. So here are some of the thoughts it provoked:


As someone used to nudist discourse, and someone that often seeks to actively desexualise nudity as part of nudism and art, this rather nudges me to open my mind somewhat. I think Delisha is right that there surely is something that lies between nudism (completely devoid of sexuality) and exhibitionism (flaunting the body only for sexual gratification), and that middle something is probably more healthy and real than either concept alone, without necessarily compromising either as well.


Because humans do have sexuality even when it isn’t necessarily always active. And many humans are just pretty vain, and there’s nothing wrong with loving yourself and enjoying the confidence and pleasure sharing that can bring personally.


But finding some sense of balance is a hard task, especially in a world where sexualised nudity is so prevalent. Many who might wish to “normalise nudity” have a strong rationale for wanting to completely decouple any sense of sexuality from nudity as a result.


I have myself been accused of exhibitionism, both in relation to my nudism and my art. Not I believe because either are exhibitionist in nature, but because many people simply cannot comprehend of nudity that doesn’t have a sexual element, and so project their sexualisations onto non-sexual nudity. But for me, my nude self-portraits, and my nudity in general, are not sexual acts at all, they are self-expression, self-exploration, and an expression of my comfort with who I am as a person physically, and from that, freedom mentally too. I think it’s a wonderful thing to share being natural, real, and confident in who you are, which is exactly what nudism and nude art can do.


A nude self-portrait from my series Dawn.

But that doesn’t mean I do not have sexuality. Nor that I do not find flattery from someone appreciating my physicality, nor that I cannot enjoy the sight of another person I consider attractive. That’s not even an issue of nudity; every day we see and are seen, find other people physically attractive, and are in turn considered attractive by others. These silent indirect interactions are a completely normal part of society, and a delightful element of humanity; that we care about even the little details of others. We can and do do that without sexuality ever interfering, even if our perceptions of beauty are often driven by our sexual preferences.

For some this way we view each other can have negative consequences: Some people are judgemental, some people are bullied, and as a result there’s also a lot of body insecurity and non-confidence out there. But for the most part, I honestly believe people notice what they find positive about others, and largely ignore what they’re not interested in; only a few go out of their way to be cruel.

But when this sort of judgement or praise of others’ physicality intersects with nudity that surely doesn’t have to mean that moment of nudity is automatically sexual, is exhibitionist. As Delisha describes:

If I walk naked on a nude beach, nobody will assume that I get gratification from it, and therefore, it will be seen as nudism, not exhibitionism. Yet, I feel great about every inch of my body being seen.

And why shouldn’t you feel great about yourself? Is it exhibitionist to have a positive body image? Is it exhibitionist to enjoy that people notice you and appreciate you for however you are? It’s vain maybe, but unless it’s specifically an act of showing yourself off for sexual pleasure, I don’t think vanity is automatically exhibitionist.

Because attractiveness is so deeply linked to sexuality, I think it’s easy for this to then create a sense of sexual satisfaction also, in being found attractive. But that feeling of sexual desirability still doesn’t mean the act of nudity itself is a sexual act, merely that it is part of being a sexual being, which (save any asexual readers) we all are.

I certainly don’t think people should feel anything other than positive about themselves; they should be proud of their physicality, and confident to be them. The alternative is such a horribly self-negative and self-ignorant world.

 

I think there is definitely space within the concept of nudism for sex-positivity. That is, that sex should not be something shameful. You can make sex non-taboo, without bringing the acts themselves it into non-sexual spaces. I think if you have a sex-positive attitude, then concepts of shame vanish, and then you can start to explore new mental spaces where ideas of beauty, of self-confidence, of vanity, all allow us to enjoy being ourselves, to appreciate we are beautiful beings, and take comfort in others being exposed to and appreciating that beauty, without anyone needing to act out sexually to that exposure of bodily confidence — Unless and until both parties make it known they are entering a sexual context, and consent to doing so, just as in the “textile” world.

That is still a very different reality to someone who seeks out nudity purely for sexual gratification. That can be quite innocent sexual fulfilment, a sexual act as valid as any other, and for those who get off that way and do so consensually, no harm is done, with both viewer and viewee enjoying the interaction for the wholly sexual act it is. But enjoying being seen as a confident naked person, and enjoying being seen because it turns you on, are still rather different things.

Of course there is also a darker side to exhibitionism. When it strays into the realm of people who flash, or commit sexual acts in public. That is far beyond anything in the nudist space, or consensual exhibitionist space. I wonder if, given the chance, this sort of exhibitionist might actually find more joy in life from learning to love and share their bodies more openly and honestly, than committing what are aggressive acts in violation of unwilling victims; acts that seem steeped in shame about their own sexuality.

 

There is a danger in expressing nudism as a completely asexual place that such piety can alienate a lot of people who might otherwise enjoy the nudist world. Not because they are not capable of desexualising nudity in non-sexual situations, but because it feels uncomfortably in denial of how sexual people just are.

There can be an approach to nudism that is more open and honest about sexuality. In that openness, we can see that sexuality does pervade our society, including nudist society, but that it doesn’t have to dominate or distract as it tends to in wider society. Nudists do have sex, and have sexual feelings, but so long as they act with respect and consent that doesn’t make nudist spaces any more vulnerable to sexuality overriding them than any other space.

In fact, I think such feelings are easier to manage in a nudist space, because nudists are inherently more open-minded, and more respectful of boundaries — We take away the normal armour of society, and in turn are much better able to handle the nuance of feelings and physicality. As Delisha described, those can be really positive feelings, which might intersect with sexual attraction in some way, but are not fundamentality sexual themselves, just uplifting and self-affirming.

So what lies between nudism and exhibitionism? Well, I think really just better nudism that doesn’t fear sexuality, but also doesn’t let it override nudist spaces. Sex-positive, body-positive, self-confidence boosting freedom to enjoy being you.