How Nude Beaches Work

By: Nathan Chandler
Exploring the coastal nature outdoors.
A sign alerts beachgoers in Dorset, England, that a nude beach lies ahead. Oxford Scientific/Getty Images

Beaches, for many sand-loving humans, are glorious paradises. Ideal areas to sunbathe, swim, play volleyball or simply hang out — and in some places, let it all hang out. We're referring, of course, to nude beaches.

Nude beaches are exactly what you think. They're places where people congregate for typical recreational beach activities, but instead of covering up with bathing suits and towels, everything is on full display.


Let's settle one critical point straight right away — nude beaches aren't typically a pornographic hodgepodge of hedonism or voyeurism. They are, quite simply, a lot like regular beaches, only some people are naked instead of clothed.

Local authorities formally regulate some nude beaches. Others are unofficial hot spots familiar only to locals. Some require that you doff all your garb when you enter. Others allow you to leave on some of your clothing [source: Huffington Post].

All nude beaches are, at least somewhat, connected to the nudism (also called naturism) lifestyle. Nudism is a common cultural practice in many parts of the world, one in which people embrace the idea that public nudity is a natural and healthy concept.

Nudists often believe that communal nudity is a way to foster self-respect (and respect for others) while achieving a fundamental connection and harmony with the environment. For some, it's a way to reclaim their bodies in an era when we're bombarded with pictures of naked people, most of whom seem to set an unnaturally high standard of beauty. Or maybe it's just humbling to have some sand jammed in your privates occasionally.

For the purposes of our story, we'll be focusing solely on the phenomena of nude beaches, which are the aspect of naturism that often garners the biggest (and to the chagrin of many proponents), most salacious headlines.


In the Flesh: Types of Nude Beaches

Haulover Beach
Two nude beachgoers survey the scene at Haulover Beach, Miami. Shepard Sherbell/CORBIS SABA/Corbis via Getty Images

Before you drop everything and drive straight to the local beach to, well, drop everything, understand that there are some distinct categories of nude beaches. They vary by region and by country, so what's totally acceptable in one place might get you a hot date with a police officer in another.

A topless beach is not technically a nude beach. At topless beaches, women (and obviously, men) can wander the premises without clothing covering their nipples. Both sexes, though, must wear bottoms, unless they want to face potential legal consequences.


Nude beaches (often called clothing-optional) beaches are different in that men, women and children can ditch all their clothes for maximum Vitamin D potential.

They tend to be set apart from regular beaches where patrons must wear bikinis and clothes. The spots may be miles away from areas with high foot or vehicle traffic and may be harder to get to than more popular beaches. That is, of course, part of their appeal.

However, the terms "nude beach" and "clothing-optional beach" are not synonymous. A nude beach may feature compulsory nudity. That is, if you're there, you're naked — no hiding behind a towel, bikini or burka. A clothing-optional beach means you don't have to be naked, but you can be if you please [source: Mize].

Some nude beaches are official, while others are off the books. In the case of the latter, the acceptance of nudity might depend on the mood of patrons or law enforcement personnel on that particular day. Awareness to social cues is key.

Just like any other recreational area, many nude beaches are known as family-friendly environments, some more so than traditional beaches. Some nude beaches have lifeguards and concessions; others may not even have a pit toilet, much less modern amenities, like showers. Others allow alcohol and tolerate its sometimes raucous consequences.

No matter the type of beach, public sex is, how shall we put this — just too much. Overly sexual behavior (with another person or by yourself) is not only frowned upon, but it may end with you being escorted from the area and perhaps arrested. If sex is what you're looking for, you're better off at a swingers' resort, not a nude beach [source: Mize].


Legislating Beach Nudity

Black's Beach, California
Black's Beach near San Diego, California, was the first nude beach in the U.S.
Sandy Huffaker/Corbis via Getty Images

People have been stripping and jumping into the water since prehistory. Gotta get that grime off somehow, right? Specifically designated nude beaches are a newer concept.

Nude beaches arose in France following World War II. One of the first was the Centre Helio-Marin, near Bordeaux, which became nudist-friendly in the 1950s. It's now a popular resort area filled with bungalows, surf school, crafts, movie nights and you —guessed it — a nude beach and swimming pool [source: Nudist Living Now].


America has numerous nude beaches, too. The first public nude beach in the U.S. was Black's Beach, near San Diego. The hard-to-reach location is on a beach near steep cliffs, and its inaccessibility is a big part of its appeal. Nude surfing is OK though there are strong currents. You can also try nude snorkeling or nude bird watching [source: Gentile].

The northern section of Haulover Park in Miami is the largest nude beach in America and one of the most popular in the world. The county recreation department operates the beach, which has everything from organized sports leagues to concessions to lifeguards. The park is frequented by naturists and gawkers alike, although the latter is obviously discouraged.

But nude beaches don't always have an easy time in the U.S. For example, the Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts became the site of headline-making confrontations in the 1970s when the National Park Service (NPS) outlawed public nudity (following a rash of naked vacationers), and the matter escalated to lawsuits. In the end, the nude ban was upheld [source: Milton]. This seashore is the only national park with a specific ban on nudity. There is no federal law against public nudity in federal parks but if "unacceptable visitor conflicts occur because of public nudity" (as the NPS put it in a memo), park employees will attempt to resolve the situation informally. If the conduct becomes disorderly, there is a regulation to address that.

Laws regarding nudity and nude beaches vary from state to state and region to region — in America and throughout the world. Certain cultures are more likely to embrace nude beaches. One 2016 report says 28 percent of Austrians have stripped on the sand — the highest percentage — while only 18 percent of Americans and 2 percent of Malaysians and Koreans have done so. Further, a clear majority of U.S. residents (62 percent) really don't like the concept. Europeans in general are more accepting of nudity in public places.


Nude Beach Behavior

Please, please don't be creepy. That's probably the No. 1 rule of nude beach etiquette. In short, just because other people choose to bare their bodies on the beach doesn't necessarily mean that they want to be stared at, harassed or photographed, particularly by a guy in a hooded sweatshirt wearing dark sunglasses. We see you, weird guy, and we want you to go away.

The Haulover Beach website has other some good tips for "nudetiquette" (they should know): Given the nature of the environment, a lot of people don't actively engage in conversations with strangers, and if they're nice enough to say hello, consider making only eye contact — nothing below the waist.


Don't be surprised if people are tight-lipped about their full names or professions. No one wants to feel judged, on the beach or later, when they return to their professional lives.

Try not to bring out your smartphone or camera. Nude beachgoers are leery of "selfies" that "accidentally" have images of naked people in the background. It's not OK to shoot and share, unless you want to be the pariah of the party. Some private resorts ban cameras altogether. Public beaches may not be able to do this, so never take a picture of someone without their permission.

It should go without saying either, that you never take pictures of naked children, whether you post them online or not. You can expect repercussions ranging from verbal assault to prosecution, or worse, if you do so.

It's rude to plop yourself down right next to another person, particularly if there's plenty of empty beach. People like to have a little space, and nude beaches often amplify that desire.

Be sure to bring a towel, not for covering up, but for sitting on. Using a towel on chairs and stools prevents the spread of bacteria and keeps you from getting sand in your butt. Many people bring two towels: one to sit on and one to dry off with.

Finally, refrain from sexual activity and sexual displays of affection. On a public beach, these could be grounds for arrest.

Even though social pressure strongly discourages voyeurism and curious onlookers, shady-looking folks (typically men) routinely show up to peek at nude beaches. If you try to do so, don't be surprised if someone confronts you and asks you to either disrobe and join the fun — or leave the area.


What's It Like at a Nude Beach?

You might never personally visit a nude beach. So what's it like? We asked a few people about their sun-kissed experiences. For privacy reasons, we've altered or omitted their names.

"The first time was a little scary," says Scott, who was "decidedly nervous" when he tried a nude beach. But he and his wife were immediately hooked. "It's the sensations of the warm sun on your skin, the breezes moving across your body, the movement of the water. It's an indescribably sensual experience."


"I've never been embarrassed on a nude beach or any other social nude gathering," Scott says. "There are people of every age, size, shape, color and background there. Every-day, average, open-minded, non-judgmental, not supermodel people. There's no reason to be embarrassed." Scott just cleared up another misconception about nude beaches: Not everyone on them has a specific body type. There are plenty of folks with flabby or wrinkly skin or big potbellies.

Matt says his first nude beach conversation was, well, weird. "The strangeness of the situation was a bit difficult to process, and I was worried that I would do or say something rude," he says. "But after chatting for a bit I moved on and realized that it was no scarier than any other conversation. There's just an assumed, shared trust among nudists."

Most people admitted to feeling anxious before stripping. One experienced woman respondent tells us, "Even now I sometimes need a little liquid courage to bare all," in part because she fears gawkers and the judgment of others. "The funny thing is, all that stress tends to dissipate once my suit is off." She waxed poetic about her lack of tan lines and said she's never had any scary experiences. "As a female, you do tend to catch some glances but I've never had someone outright make me feel uncomfortable."

A common refrain with men is that they're worried about having erections. The reality is that nude beaches aren't sexually charged environments, so erections are rare. And in the event that they do occur, you're expected to cover up with that useful towel or at least make some effort to conceal the condition, by turning over on your stomach or dipping into the sea. If anything, bodily movement might become more anxiety-provoking, because as Edwin tells us, "as a guy I was very aware of the now-unrestricted motion of my genitals."


Don't Forget the 50 SPF

North East Skinny Dip, England
Nudists take part in the annual North East Skinny Dip at sunrise at Druridge Bay, near Ashington, Northumberland, England, on Sept. 25, 2016.

There is one item you must never forget to bring to the nude beach (besides your towel): sunblock. Remember, unless you are a regular nude sunbather, your privates have not seen the UV light of day since you were a toddler. And they're very sensitive to sun.

If it's extremely hot, and you're prone to burning, consider adding a hat, and yes, we're aware of the irony. But melanoma is a horrible way to die, and this type of skin cancer can take root and spread to other parts of your body fast [source: Skin Cancer Foundation]. You'll want to use a sunscreen of at least SPF30 and apply it liberally all over your body. Also, bring flip-flops to keep your feet from getting burned on the sand.


Malignancies aside, be generally cautious, particularly if you're new to nudism. Fleshy bits tend to snag on objects. Don't let that happen to you.

Nude beaches often initially draw curiosity seekers and exhibitionists but wind up as family-friendly and liberating ways for modern humans to connect with a fundamental — and bikini-free — state of mind. So if you can afford the prodigious amounts of necessary sunblock, and you think you're ready to commit to sand not only between your toes, but also your, well, you know, maybe it's time to take a stroll on a nude beach.


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Nude Beaches Work

I'm gonna pass on this one.

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More Great Links

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  • Milton, Susan. "Nudity a Defining Seashore Issue." Cape Cod Times. Aug. 7, 2011. (July 17, 2017). 
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