It's 6AM and I'm about to drive a hundred miles down a French motorway to spend the day with naked strangers. Creeping out of my guesthouse in an idyllic Pyrenean town, I've forfeited my breakfast croissant in the hope I'll make it Cap D'Agde – the world's biggest nudist town – by lunch.
While slightly fascinated about the logistics of a naked metropolis – where do people keep their phones and wallets? How often do they have to clean the deckchair cushions? – I don't actually long to take my kit off amid throngs of nude tourists. I'm doing this in pursuit of a story.
I've just finished a Masters in journalism and am aware of the uphill struggle I face in trying to force my way into a shrinking industry where it's increasingly difficult to get paid for work. I'm off to Cap D'Agde because I know that sex sells, and I expect to find a lot of it there.
The nude micro-society (featuring everything from hairdressing salons to bars, supermarkets, a bank and a beach) has earned the reputation of being a swingers paradise. It started as a naturist hangout in the 1970s and two decades later Europe's sex seekers flocked in. Their arrival prompted a series of fetish shops and sex clubs to spring up around town. Today, the area is shared by both strands of naked folk, with the ratio of swinger to naturist depending on the season. I'm interested to find out how they co-exist.
At the threshold of the naked world I'm asked to pay €18 to pass under a barrier into the car park. Once paid and parked up, I realise that The Moment has arrived. There's a fat man wearing only a baseball hat lingering beside the lockers. I linger too. A motorbike pulls up beside me and a couple start to soundlessly peel off their clothing, folding trousers and knickers and putting them in the top box of their bike. Once totally naked save sunglasses and a backpack, they take each other's hands and stride into town. I decide to bite the bullet. I remove my T-shirt, shorts and, with a nervous glance around my shoulder, my underwear. I've often boasted that I'm comfortable naked, but as I shuffle through the carpark wearing a backpack and a pair of gym shoes, I feel excruciatingly self-conscious. I fret about how my bottom might look from behind and the ugly mosquito bite on the back of my thigh.
When I pass three naked people on the pavement I try hard to fake a confident smile. In fact, a little too hard: I grin at them so widely that they think they know me and stop to chat. This makes me much more nervous, especially as they're speaking French. I wave a hand to signal that there's been a misunderstanding and shuffle away, feeling even more rattled than before. On reaching the town I head under an arch into a small arcade that houses a supermarket, bakery and some clothes shops. There are a handful of nudists with bumbags and rucksacks sauntering about and buying goods off fully clad shopkeepers.
On the other side of the covered passage I find a bar bursting with bodies and immediately notice that I'm a lot more naked than most of them. They've accessorised with leather decorations, piercings and sarongs. A woman with nipple rings and dyed blond hair gives me a smile and continues to chew on the testicle of her novelty penis-shaped baguette. These must be the swingers.
I sit down and order a coke; my buttocks tingle as they meet the plastic chair and I wince at the thought of all the previous bums that must have nestled there. A man with a mohawk moseys over and plonks himself down beside me. I ask him for a cigarette, to calm my nerves. He obliges and says a few things in French that I don't really understand, but to which I nod vigorously. Perhaps this is a bad idea, because he then gives me an up and down look – the kind I thought were forbidden when people are naked – and points to my anatomy, saying, "Tres beaux." I laugh very anxiously, hurriedly pay my bill and head for the sea.
On the beach, everyone is naked, even the ice-cream vendor. All sorts of regular beach activities are under way: an old man is pottering along the shore collecting shells in a sandwich bag, a group of cellulite-y female pensioners are gossiping in a circle, children splash in the sea and masses of golden bodies are stretched out across their towels. Pubic hair seems to be out of fashion among both men and women, and as I parade along the shore I feel distinctively out of place.
I also try hard not to look at other people's bits, imagining genitalia-ogling to be rude, but make a couple of surreptitious glances downwards – for the sake of research. I'm also on the look-out for erections, as I always considered these to be the great pitfalls of a nudist lifestyle. At this moment I pretty much walk straight into one; there's a couple standing ankle deep in the sea with their tongues fused together and hands caressing each other's body parts. A sullen air of disapproval surrounds them and nearby sunbathers are sitting up and shaking their heads. Public acts of sexual indecency can receive a €15,000 fine, and I wonder if any of the beach-goers are going to interrupt the couple to remind them of this. Possibly stirred by the very evident public displeasure, the pair stop their fondling and wade together into the sea.
Back in town I lurk in the supermarket, wondering how best to go about taking some photos without pissing anyone off. Standing in the preserved food aisle I feel highly conspicuous wearing my backpack swung around my front, with the camera peeking out the top. I await a naked shopper. An old man arrives and starts inspecting the fizzy drinks. I go to the far end of his aisle and pretend to be very interested in a jar of capers. As he bends down to take a look at the Fanta, I click my camera. The shop keeper has seen me. Angry and fully clothed, she's shouting something in French and waving a finger in the air. I make my guilty "oh sorry I had no idea that photographing nude strangers in a supermarket was forbidden" face and rush nakedly out the exit.
I'm counting the minutes until 6 o'clock – the hour I've allotted myself to escape after a full day's nude immersion. Although I'm feeling progressively less self-conscious I can't seem to forget that I am naked and feel particularly awkward around those who aren't, namely the people working in the shops and restaurants. When I go to interview the woman in the tourist office I feel as though I'm in that nightmare – the one where you turn up to work with no clothes on. She's sat at the desk wearing a pink polo shirt and black trousers, and I'm totally stark bollock naked. I even apologise for my nudity, to which she laughs and says she doesn't notice any more.
I've come to ask if she's aware of much friction between swingers and naturists. "Not really," she says. "They seem to stick to their different areas and go to different bars. On the beach everyone's together and there's not a problem. The swingers only really get going at night."
After this I decide it's time to befriend some swingers, so sidle up to a middle-aged pair who each have their own unique anatomical piercings. I ask them if they're regulars in Cap D'Agde and am told they come here twice a year for the sex parties. "Everyone is so friendly," the husband says. "At the night time get-togethers you can watch or take part if you fancy; there's never any pressure." At this moment a shaven-headed man comes over and greets them, shakes hands with the guy and promptly snogs his wife. "We met him last night," the husband blithely informs me, watching his partner disentangle herself from their new friend.
I go to the campsite to chat to a few more naturists and find none who are disgruntled with the sex seekers. Even a woman with children says that she has no problem with them – she just knows to get out of there before their night time activities get under way. A camp Parisian comedian called Guillem says that he evolved along with the resort – having first come as a naturist back in the 1980s, he now dabbles in a bit of swinging, too.
The French media often portray the swinger-nudist relationship here as fractious, but, apart from one incident of indecent groping on the beach, I'm unable to uncover any great conflicts or tension. Freedom seems to be the creed of the great unclothed, and with this comes a spirit of magnanimous tolerance. The two naked tribes are easily distinguishable from one another, though, and (aside from the genitalia piercings that are de rigueur among the swingers) their different identities are generally gauged by the way they look at you. The nudists make pointed eye contact while the swingers tend to dispense much more searching, flirtatious looks that don't necessarily linger on the face. It somehow seems as though they're awaiting a secret signal, and this makes me feel decidedly uncomfortable.
As evening approaches, the bars are charged with talk of tonight and sexual anticipation hangs heavy in the air. A group of women are in plastic nurse outfits and platform heels and one guy's wearing a leather apron that has a hole for his junk to flop out of. All the bars seem packed with swingers, and I reckon the naturists are either hiding in the campsite or making a beeline for their cars. As I walk around I feel more exposed than ever – the mood has been cranked up to quite a few notches above the happy-go-lucky beach vibe. Eyes filled with intent dance around searchingly, everyone seems in the mood for sex. I receive a massage offer from someone with too much chest hair and, with great relief, glance at my phone to discover it's 5.55PM.
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Back in the car park where my surreal day began, I take the my clothes out the locker and dress slowly. Now that I'm out of sight of the swingers I feel a little sad re-clothing, doubting that I'll have the opportunity to nakedly attend a supermarket again for a while. And being naked together does create a sense of camaraderie, even if – in certain cases – it's mingled with a smattering of sexual perversion. Also, as we're programmed to make judgments about people on account of their clothing, it's quite refreshing to eliminate this possibility.
Fully clothed, I drive away from the peaceful naked hideout reflecting on the day. I'm still not sure quite what to make of Cap D'Agde; whether to write it off as the capital of seedy sexual perversion, or to praise it as a bastion of freedom and tolerance. One thing I have learnt is that I'm startlingly quick to strip off in the name of journalism.
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