Bass Library. 11 p.m. It is the last day of reading week, and a sea of bodies — clad in just running shoes and face masks — floods unlatched doors. Students crowd on the sidelines and teem with anticipation. Someone cheers, gleeful and wild. A security guard switches on the intercom.
Yale’s bi-annual naked run has commenced.
The logistics of a naked run are deceptively simple. Participants, invited by email, strip down at the top floor of the Sterling Stacks and run down the 14 flights of stairs to Bass, where spectators await them. “It’s very affirming,” said Robert Hughes ‘22*, who attended the run as a sophomore. “Some people are definitely eager for different reasons, but it’s a very supportive space. Like, there’s folks with popcorn. Some people want high fives. It’s one of the happiest experiences I’ve had at Yale as part of a collective group.”
Hughes told me he had struggled with body dysmorphia and self-acceptance in the past. Running through a throng of cheering people, naked and loved, played a part in overcoming this, he said.
I asked him, then, about consent, if there were ever any unwilling spectators.
“The guard has to say, like, very awkwardly, ‘If you don’t want to see any naked people, now’s a good time to leave,’” Hughes explained. “To the very best of my knowledge, people are spectating with the intention of staying in the space, with the intention of seeing.”
Hughes, additionally, is a member of the Pundits, a secret society dating back to 1884. Their aim, he told me, is to resist the stifling, more inhibiting parts of Yale’s social scene, a resistance that includes hosting one of Yale’s most infamous and coveted traditions: naked parties.
“We have cultivated a list of people based on who we’re comfortable inviting,” said Hughes. “Then from there, if they have any plus-ones, that cultivates a good population of around, say, 100 people or so that get the [naked party] email invites.”
First years are not permitted to enter the naked party panlist, and sophomores make occasional, albeit rare, appearances. Upperclassmen, who may have missed out on such opportunities due to the pandemic, are prioritized instead.
“It’s kind of jarring, your first naked party. Because you go there and like, no one gives a shit,” laughed Hughes. “You might go around in your underwear at first, and that’s fine. And then you realize that no one’s looking down and that everyone’s just looking at each other’s faces, maybe even more so than at a typical party. Because, you know, you’re very incentivized to. It might feel awkward at first, but you really feel listened to.”
Naked parties are spaces of thorough planning and supervision, where sexuality and nudity are entirely divorced. Drinking is limited. Photos are prohibited. Flirting is discouraged — sometimes, even, a cause for removal. During the parties, the Pundits, marked with Sharpie ink, enforce these security measures with meticulous care.
“You might be like, ‘Hey, that person looks pretty nice,’” said Hughes, “but it never goes beyond that because there’s no reason for it to… It empowers you and makes you rethink your relationship with both your body and the campus community.”
Mark Novak ‘23*, a participant in last semester’s naked run, also found his experience with public nudity to be entirely non-sexual.
“It’s very much like, you’re all standing around in the cold,” he echoed. “It’s a real out-of-body experience.”
But Yale’s fixation on nudity does not always lack sexual overtones. There are times, on campus, where nakedness is spontaneous and impassioned. Sex in forbidden, tucked-away places is often revered and, in the case of the Sterling Stacks, transformed into time-honored pastimes.
I spoke with Elaine Schafer ‘24*, who told me about her experience with sex on a rooftop.
“We were outside of a frat, and even though it was open, they were just being kind of rude,” Schafer recounted. “They were like, ‘No, we don’t wanna let you guys in,’ so I said to [the person I was with], ‘Let’s go somewhere even more exclusive.’”
The allure of roof sex, Schafer added, lies in its intimacy and danger, in how it holds the promise of both a beautiful and perilous view. This was one of the few places where she felt she and her partner could be together, alone.
Even in a non-sexual context, Hughes, too, acknowledged that nudity strips away barriers to genuine emotional connection.
“We build up these immaculate shells around ourselves, whether it’s with a Canada Goose, or a 4.0 GPA or the next internship at McKinsey,” he said, “and when you’re just naked in a room of strangers… it feels as if no one’s looking at who you are or what you do outside of that space.”
And because it is socially forbidden, that makes it all the more precious.
“There’s something to be said for doing things that feel out of the norm,” Novak said, “and internalizing that part of the Yale experience is doing odd things. Things that really feel valuable and validating.”
It makes sense that Yale is so captivated by the bizarre and unconventional; these are students who are settling into themselves, understanding their bodies and discovering their desires. For many, Yale may be the first place where they find some sense of total self-reliance, where their wills and agencies seem absolute and boundless. Naked parties, runs, sex in impromptu places — “random, stupid fuckery” as Novak calls them — feel as though they are sacred expressions of this power.
I asked Schafer if she had any sexploits in mind for the future.
She paused, jokingly. “I would love to bang in Harkness Tower.”
I thought about how it would be — those great, impersonal bells and the fervid, hushed closeness — how vulnerable one might feel, how terrifying it could seem, to be fucking on top of the world. Literally.
*names changed to protect identities