This article originally appeared on VICE France
After spending the last few years trying to figure out where I fit within the queer scene, I feel I've finally started to develop a solid relationship with my body, gender and sexuality. So to test out this newfound sense of self, I decided the logical next step would be to get completely naked in a nightclub full of strangers.
France's first public nudist club night was organised earlier this month by Point Ephémère – a multipurpose arts centre in Paris. The event was titled "222-32" – after the criminal code that outlaws indecent exposure in public. For me, the concept was intriguing not just because of the mass nudity. I was curious to see how social rules play out in a space where everyone is naked and drinking, but, as the organisers dictated, "behaviour of a sexual nature is strictly prohibited". If you're naked and you can't flirt in a traditionally sexually charged environment, will you feel more liberated or more constrained than usual?
On the afternoon ahead of 222-32, the organisers put on a series of workshops and lectures on the concept of nudism and naturism as a lifestyle, offering anyone who'd be attending that evening a chance to meet the organisers and get a better sense of why the world could do with more nudist club nights. And just as for the late night festivities, nudity was encouraged for the afternoon sessions too.
I arrived feeling really nervous about getting naked on a Saturday afternoon, and having to do so right by Paris' popular Canal St-Martin. But we were told that we could keep our clothes on for the workshop and lectures if we wanted, which I did – though I felt a bit embarrassed by my reticence to strip down.
After the lecture, I caught up with one of the organisers, Jérémie Lapeyre, who explained that he and his colleagues had debated at length over what role sex should play at the club night, and whether they should allow attendees to hook up. Eventually, they decided that it should be prohibited entirely. "We wanted to host an event where people felt free, while maintaining all the values associated with nudism," Lapeyre told me. "We didn't want people turning up just for sex. And I didn't want to have to spend the entire evening policing the event."
I mentioned to Lapeyre how open and welcoming the event feels, and he pointed out that it was by design. "Being naked has an effect on your behaviour and the way you interact with people," he told me. "It makes you act more human, in the broadest sense of the term."
Later on in the afternoon, the organisers had to kindly ask anyone who was naked outside on the terrace to head back inside. Even though the area was exclusively reserved for the event and it seemed like nobody else could see unto it, the police were starting to receive complaints from neighbours.
That inspired Lapeyre to argue to me again about the values of nudism. "Nudism de-eroticises the body," he said. I asked him whether he really thinks you can genuinely separate nudity from sexuality, or that if two naked adults stand next to each other for long enough, sex will inevitably become an option. He replied that in his "heart of hearts", he believed that two adults can be naked in each other's presence indefinitely, without there being any sort of sexual tension between them.
Later that evening, I arrived back at Point Ephémère a few minutes before the doors opened. At that point, I was still not feeling that great about getting naked – I was very worried about bumping into someone I knew. In order to fix that, I knocked back about a litre of beer in a bar in the neighbourhood, before finding the courage to get in line.
The majority of people in the queue were white gay men in their thirties. As my fellow clubbers waited nervously to get in, most of the conversations focused on trying to figure out what "behaviour of a sexual nature" actually meant – it was a relief to know that I wasn't the only one thinking that.
As we handed our clothes over to the cloakroom attendant – one of only about ten women in the club that night – she reminded each guest that sex and drugs were forbidden, to which the guy next to me quipped, "we'll see".
Alone and naked in what was pretty much a still empty club, I wasn't really sure what I was meant to do at first. So I just sauntered over to a corner to sit and observe. Maybe Lapeyre had had a point earlier when he said that "clothes are the devices in which we lock ourselves in, the stepping stones to all kinds of oppressive relations." Maybe that was what was wrong with me – I was used to hiding behind my clothes and the way I wanted to be perceived. All the same, looking around, I couldn't help but notice that you can tell a lot about a person by how confidently they hold themselves in pubic while naked.
The club eventually filled up, and the longer the night went on, the more it felt like any other club night – people splitting into their natural groups either on the dance floor or off to the sides in conversation. But there seemed something different in the way people related to each other. With sex off the table, interactions seemed more natural, kinder and less predatory. Some light flirting did happen, but it seemed less codified, less bold.
There really was something good-natured about the occasion. It didn't have that frantic energy you get on some nights out, and it was refreshing to see people in a Paris nightclub actually dancing instead of just staring at the DJ. After a while, I completely forgot that I was naked, only brought back to reality when I talked to the bar staff, who were all fully clothed. Overall, it seemed like by shifting the focus away from interacting with other people with any romantic or sexual intentions, the organisers enabled you to focus more on yourself. It was refreshing, and I highly recommend getting naked in a nightclub – as long as everyone else is, too.