I saw my first naked man with my dad. It was 2002, and we were on a father-daughter excursion to the Tate Modern. In the section “Nude/Action/Body,” we stumbled upon a triple life-size projection of a naked, slender middle-aged man jumping on a trampoline in slow motion.
The other visitors watched the man’s loose bouncing chest skin, reflected on the human condition and walked away. My 12-year-old eyes, however, were fixed on the flaccid penis slapping ever so slowly and ever so repeatedly against his thigh. My father and I stood in front of that video for 180 seconds.
He found it less awkward to stare at the screen than to interact with his pre-pubescent daughter. I was also paralyzed, but by the hypnotic and slightly horrifying image of an adult male nude/action/body.
I am now desensitized to the naked male. After witnessing the Finals Fairies’ flesh parade my first reading week at Yale, I have found it difficult to avoid mass nudity on campus. Yalies love getting naked. And not in that normal collegiate way of the drunk girl at the party who takes off her shirt. Yalies love getting naked for rebellious, irreverent purposes. Mostly.
A 1975 Crimson article by James Gleick, Harvard ’76, observed this unique Yale phenomenon. “Yale has a special, feverish intensity that sets it apart from its brethren,” he writes, “and Yale’s intensity, some say, shades over into sickness and depravity.” Gleick describes the Yale practice of sloaning: “attracting public attention to ones genitals.”
Gleick is now a successful author, who studies the cultural implications of science. He coined the term “Butterfly Effect,” which is interesting because the innocent sloaning of the ’70s has spawned a culture at Yale of both spontaneous and highly organized communal undress.
Beyond the biannual library streaking, naked parties and weekends with the Society of Orpheus and Baccus, Yalies will seize most opportunities to disrobe. My freshman year, the FOOT house held naked Friday dinners and the Progressive Party spent evenings embracing the state of nature. During hell week, fraternities do a lot of things.
While group nudity for most college students involves boxer-briefs and lacy lingerie, Yale nudity is emphatically nude nudity: no underwear, no bras — tampon strings are tastefully tucked.
A group of girls in Instant Hourglass Corset Demi-Bras is sexy. A group of girls totally naked, every roll and stretch mark exposed, is not sexy, at least in a traditional way — a rare reminder of the un-Photoshopped female form.
In these settings, the lost tingle of the libido is replaced by the thrill of subversion. The world thinks what you’re doing is morally reprehensible. The world is way less comfortable with its body. Taking part in a naked activity lets you feel superior to your roommate who is too scared to take part and everyone in Middle America who thinks you’re going to hell.
Isn’t it a goal of all Yalies to transcend their earthly flesh anyway? In a bid for immortality, you can go into finance, make a bunch of money and name a Fellowship after yourself for sophomores in Calhoun who love East Asia. But you could also stand in a room full of naked people. Your body then becomes just something you drag around all day, wrapped up in cotton-blends. Bodies are weird, but aren’t clothes weirder? Twenty minutes at a naked party and these are your thoughts.
Perhaps Gleick had it right. Yale is an especially frenetic place. After a day of contributing to campus life in resume-beautifying ways, people want a release. When work is done, Yalies push themselves into the realm of the strange and special: elaborate initiations, cultish retreats, society rituals and in Gleick’s time, mescaline.
Group nudity falls into this category. It takes your nighttime self far from your noontime self. Nakedness can alter your eye contact, posture and conversation. After awhile though, everything is pretty much the same.
The mass nude experience will definitely change you in one way, however. Afterwards, if ever presented with an adult male nude/action/body, you won’t focus exclusively on the swing of his penis. You can reflect, instead, on the human condition: lumps of flesh just trying to have a good time.
Claire Gordon is a senior in Saybrook College.