As a social psychologist who studies sex for a living, I often think I’ve heard—and seen—it all. But I do get surprised every now and then, and something that surprised me recently was the discovery that “nude psychotherapy” used to be a thing. The nude psychotherapy movement, it turns out, lasted for a short time in the 1960s and 70s, but it was several decades in the making. In fact, we can trace its roots back to 1933 when psychologist Howard Warren published a controversial paper in one the field’s leading journals, Psychological Review, titled “Social Nudism and the Body Taboo.” Warren, a professor at Princeton and former president of the American Psychological Association (APA), extolled the therapeutic value of nudity.
The stated purpose of nude psychotherapy was to “guide clients to their authentic selves through the systematic removal of clothing.” In other words, this form of therapy was—in the most literal way possible—all about stripping someone down to their “true self.” Warren chronicled a week he spent at a nudist colony in Germany, which led him to conclude that nudity provided a healthy return to nature. Nudists, he claimed, had a “saner sex outlook and more natural relations between men and women.” Warren argued that Americans were being psychologically harmed by what he called the “body taboo” and that the way we repressed nudity perverted our sexuality.
The technique of nude psychotherapy wasn’t formally created until 1967, when psychologist Paul Bindrim published academic journal articles on the subject and popularized it in the media. Far from being on the fringes of the field, Bindrim’s work actually had the public backing of the APA president at the time, Abraham Maslow, who himself had commented in a book a few years prior that, “I still think that nudism, simply going before a lot of other people, is itself a kind of therapy.”
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Bindrim, like many psychologists at the time, had been running what were called “marathon” workshops, in which 15-25 people would spend a day or two together as a group engaging in emotional exercises like “trust falls.” The idea behind these marathons is that being forced to interact with others for an extended period of time would lead people to take off their masks and expose their true selves.
Participants were clothed during these marathon sessions; however, after running one of them, Bindrim observed a group that spontaneously stripped down and went swimming together. This made him wonder if getting naked at the beginning of a marathon could get people to open up even faster, which led him to host the first of many nude psychotherapy marathons. People would pay between $45 and $100 to attend one of his sessions (depending on length), which often began by having people stare into each other’s eyes at close range as an ice-breaker. They would then disrobe, join a meditation circle, and begin sharing their most intimate secrets, including ways they had been hurt.
These sessions weren’t just about opening up, but also about shedding sexual guilt and anxiety. As described in a historical review of the movement:
Bodies were exposed and scrutinized with a science-like rigor. Particular attention was paid to revealing the most private areas of the body and mind—all with a view to freeing the self from its socially imposed constraints. ‘This,’ Bindrim asserted, gesturing to a participant’s genitalia and anus, ‘is where it’s at. This is where we are so damned negatively conditioned’…Determined to squelch the ‘exaggerated sense of guilt’ in the body, Bindrim devised an exercise called ‘crotch eyeballing’ in which participants were instructed to look at each others genitals and disclose the sexual experiences they felt most guilty about while lying naked in a circle with their legs in the air…In this position, Bindrim insisted, ‘You soon realize that the head end and the tail end are indispensable parts of the same person, and that one end is about as good as the other.
Bindrim promoted nude psychotherapy as a solution to multiple problems. It was a path to greater self-acceptance, happier marriages and relationships, more authentic communication, as well as a more spiritual, emotionally fulfilling life.
Although nude psychotherapy initially received a lot of popular—and favorable—media attention in magazines like Time and Life, it was, perhaps predictably, attacked by political and religious conservatives as a moral outrage. Also, academics and psychologists were split on it, with some calling it a “threat to human dignity” and an “abandonment of science.” And despite the support of APA president Abraham Maslow, the APA Ethics Committee opened an investigation into Bindrim.
The tide turned decisively against nude psychotherapy just a few years later, owing to a confluence of factors: the death of one of its biggest champions—Abraham Maslow—in 1970, increasingly outlandish and undocumented claims from Bindrim that this therapy could cure everything from impotence to arthritis, and growing questions about Bindrim’s true motives (nude psychotherapy was giving Bindrim fame and fortune).
Another nail in the coffin came when Bindrim renamed his technique “aqua-energetics” in the 1970s in an attempt to downplay the nude aspect of it. This name—unsurprisingly—landed with a thud and never really captured the same public interest. By the 1980s, the leading psychological and psychiatric associations came out and stated that nude therapy was “unethical” and “obviously” wrong.
Nude therapy no longer exists because it would be inconsistent with modern psychologists’ code of ethics. That said, there are still some people who purport to offer “naked therapy” today, but it’s important to note they don’t have the licensing or credentials to offer legitimate mental health counseling.
Likewise, nude psychotherapy is unlikely to make a comeback in the US any time soon, especially when you consider that, if anything, Americans have only grown more uncomfortable with nudity in recent years. (Just think about how uncomfortable millennials have become with the idea of changing clothes in a gym locker room.) More of our social interactions are also taking place online between people who often never really get to know one another because our virtual selves are so selectively presented that they bear little resemblance to our real selves. That could be part of the reason why we’re feeling lonelier than ever before—we’re having fewer and fewer meaningful social exchanges.
This isn’t necessarily to say that the solution to all of this is for us to start getting naked with our therapists—just that maybe psychologists of the 20th century were onto something in their search for a more authentic form of human interaction.
Justin Lehmiller is a Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. His latest book is Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller