Opening speech for Free Willie: free the sexually naked

The history of humans is a history of nakedness, both on an individual level (we’re all born naked) and as a species. We lost our fur about a million years ago, but clothes are fairly recent: approximately 170.000 years young. That had to do with migration: when we spread across the world, we needed protection from the elements.

Clothes protect us, but clothes are also a burden. This automatically becomes clear when the weather is nice. Clothing sticks, we sweat more, plus our garments prevent the sun from hitting our skin. When the sun’s out, many of us try to be as naked as possible.

The first nude beaches in the Netherlands were secret sites of a silent subculture. Naked people would fence off quiet bits of beach, to protect themselves against the wind and the prying eyes of moralists. It was the beach where nudists had their first victory: in 1973 the flag of the naturists was raised on Callantsoog beach. A judge had decided that, “Engaging in nude recreation in quiet beach areas is not an act offensive to a normally developing sense of shame”. (Interesting phrase, a normally developing sense of shame.)

Nude recreation is now a policy term, naaktrecreatie. There is an organization NFN that lobbies for the interests of those that want to swim naked, camp naked and play badminton naked. That seems likeable, but my argument today will be that the naaktrecreanten are not our friends.

But I’m going too fast. It’s difficult to reconstruct how people historically treated nakedness. We know that the old Greeks had a taste for naked bodies. They were invested in beauty, physical beauty, and we can still see this today in their art that has been preserved. We also know that ancient athletes went to the gym naked: the Greek gymnasion stems from the word gymnos, meaning naked. And rightly so: nothing stinks as much as smelly gym clothes.

The Romans build massive bath houses, where thousands of people could bathe simultaneously. Europe kept enjoying a public culture of naked bathing all the way through medieval times. The Catholic Church might not have liked it, but the people did. It wasn’t until the Reformation that we started to hide our bodies. We were taught to be ashamed. So ashamed that we even stopped bathing for a while. Why clean what you can cover up?

At the beginning of the 20th century people wanted to get naked again. A new movement sprouted, where nakedness was part of a bigger philosophy of life. Their members are called the naturists, de naturisten, and their roots lie in Germany. One of the pioneers was Heinrich Pudor, who published a book called Nacktheit in 1906. Naaktheid in Dutch, nakedness. That word naked, however, was taboo. He therefore invented another term: Frei-K örper-Kultur, Free Body Culture.

Now I don’t know much about the naturists. Although I was born in the 70s, my parents were very boring people. I had friends who’d go to naturist campings, but at home we considered that kind of weird. Well, really weird.

I read up on naturism for this talk and I got drawn in. Not by a desire to be naked, but by the politics of this movement. Naturism is much more than playing tennis in the nude. It is a way of life in harmony with nature, a re-evaluation of how to live. I spent all week with my head in this book: Het Naakte Bestaan, published in 1964.

The first 150 pages are an analysis of everything that is wrong with society. People want to much, have become slaves of the clock. They escape in popular culture: film and television have “psychologically replaced the buzz of alcohol”. The book goes on and on how radio is spoiling young people. It has rules against drinking, smoking, eating meat. These people are not my allies, I thought.

Within naturism, being naked is just one way of being more aligned with nature, it is not the primary goal. And naturists are keen to refute any connection between sex and the naked body. The book has a chapter on sexuality, which is all about how clothes invite shame and voyeurism. With clothes comes moral decline. A voyeuristic mentality, writes the author, is unthinkable in the naturist circles. A place like Free Willie would be an affront.

Naturists still do not like sex. The NFN has developed a label, a quality mark, called Pleasantly Nude, in Dutch Prettig Bloot. Gemutlich Nackt. Outsiders may not be confronted with naked naturists, nakedness may only occur when ‘appropriate’. Bloot should be gewoon, bloot should be normal and normal means non-sexual. Those that like to be naked for sexual pleasure are unwanted at these sites, or should keep their desires hidden.

Calls for the normalization of nakedness are in fashion nowadays. We see it amongst young feminists and the Instagram related ‘Free the nipple’ movement. The goal is to desexualize the nipple, to desexualize nakedness. In concerns about the Netherlands becoming more prudish resonates the same morality. Fears about Verpreutsing, or Prudification, are about people going to the sauna in their bathing suit and about teenagers showering in their underwear. Arguments against Verpreutsing are never a call to have more sex, to free sluts from stigma or to celebrate gay cruising culture.

That’s interesting when you think about it. The proponents of Prudification turn out to be prudes themselves. Sex is the big no-go, it remains a taboo subject. In Dutch: Zelfs in verzuchtingen over Verpreutsing is seks taboe. In the naturalist utopia, sexual bodies are not free, they are not welcome.

Free Willie goes against these trends and against the grain. It invites naked bodies to come together without renouncing sex. That is a radical act, in these times where anything related to sex is made suspicious, even sex education. I want to congratulate the founders, the staff and the customers with this new addition to Amsterdam nightlife. Go naked people, re-sexualize your nude bodies, make some history!

Introduction written for the opening of Free Willie Amsterdam.