[ Read Time: 12 minutes ]
————— DRAFT —————
“In the sauna nudity is not the objective; it is simply a necessary condition for bathing properly”
– Bernhard Hillila, ‘The Sauna Is’
My wife’s cousin Maria in Sweden told me “You don’t shower with clothes on, why would you sauna with clothes on?”
And (perhaps a bit of overreaction) from a Finnish friend: “It is greatly unsanitary to bring dirty, chlorinated swimsuits—drenched in dirt and bacteria, which are well fostered in the fabric until the suit hits the heat of the sauna and its nasty abominations dissolve and desecrate the senses of women and men, their bodies and souls, so that they return to the world sickly and diseased, and not invigorated and spirited, as they had planned.”
We often look askance at European’s legal prostitution, legal pot, high speed autobahns, allowing 16-year-olds to drink beer & wine (or any age with parents), and yes, comfort with nudity – but perhaps we shouldn’t.
Something I’ve learned in a few decades of research comparing the US and EU is that many of the ‘different things’ that Europeans do are for very good reasons. They are often more focused on achieving real practical positive outcomes than hung up on the shallower and often misguided beliefs that dominate in the U.S. And they have good results to show for it. They’re healthier and live longer, kids are much more likely to grow up in a stable home and more likely with two biological parents, they have less violent crime overall and very significantly less rape, sex crimes and human trafficking*, they have 1/5 the road deaths and 1/4 the drunk driving deaths, they are much more law-abiding and they incarcerate about 1/8 as many people as we do. They clearly do a lot of things right.
In most countries (just about all outside the U.S. so probably over 99% of sauna goers worldwide) everyone enjoys sauna together naked and nobody gives it a second thought. People sauna without clothes because it is more comfortable, makes sauna more enjoyable and importantly, is more hygienic.
But not so much U.S. Americans.
Nudity is amazingly complicated. As we looked in to this and read research and analyzed statistics and talked to psychologists we found a variety of nuances that can have critical and sometimes life altering implications. Even with years of researching and writing about family systems, health and other bits comparing the U.S. and Europe I was still quite surprised by what we learned. I hope that the following will provide some useful context to U.S. approach to nudity vs that of the rest of western and other cultures.
(My apologies for how long this is – personal writings don’t have editors and I’m a writer who very much benefits from a good editor.)
Americans have an interesting relationship with nudity and one that is quite different from the rest of the western and other worlds. On the one hand discomfort, fear and a bit of Victorian overreaction. Europeans were enamored, confused and for the most part totally baffled by our reaction to Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction. Most really had no concept of what the hullabaloo was about. They are somewhat baffled by our fear of nudity in saunas generally and totally gobsmacked that most Americans are fearful even of being nude in a single-sex sauna in a gym locker room. As one woman told me, it’s understandable when some individuals have some reticence, but an entire nation?
On the flip side, according to PornHub, gals in the U.S. lead the world, by a considerable margin, in providing the internet with nude porn of themselves (and these amateur nude selfies, usually uploaded by themselves or former boyfriends, are one of the most popular categories of porn on the internet). Within the travel industry American girls are well known for being much easier to get nude selfies from, and get in to bed, than girls from other countries.
We appear to be rather backwards from everyone else – fearful of that which is not harmful and excelling in doing that which is.
In Europe and most of the rest of the world there is a distinction between natural functional nudity and sexual nudity. Not so in the U.S., where we have sexualized nudity so that all nudity is considered sexual.
Victoria & Albert – Though moves towards very strict codes of morality began slightly before Victoria’s reign, she and Albert embraced these changes with some passion and pushed onward with them. Some Victorian principles were certainly quite good such as the push to end slavery. Others perhaps not so good.
Up until this time natural functional nudity was not a thing. It wasn’t good or bad, it just was. Children throughout the world, including the English world and the still new U.S., grew up seeing each other, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends nude on a daily basis and thought nothing of it. And this likely included the most fervent of religious folk. Bathing was done openly by everyone in a river, lake or tub in the back yard. Many homes were a single room so everyone changed clothes in front of everyone. Parents often had sex in the same room their children were sleeping (or not) in. And this appears to have been so throughout all of history and nobody gave it much thought.
While gratuitous erotic or sexual nudity has, understandably, seen all manner of ebb and flow, support and demonization throughout history and across cultures, natural functional nudity was just a normal part of daily life that wasn’t given any thought.
This all changed during Victoria’s reign. It appears a belief was spread that simple functional nudity itself was sexual (and shameful?) and that children being exposed to any nudity at all would corrupt them – so children must be protected and should never ever see a nude form until they marry.
This took hold somewhat in Britain but was most strictly embraced in the U.S. Nudity was now sexualized and the results haven’t been so good.
Today, while someone in Sweden or Germany might think nothing of natural nudity on a beach or especially in a sauna, as they have for centuries, they wouldn’t consider sending a nude selfie because they know the harm to their future marriage and home stability for their children that could result. Our Victorian English speaking world is the exact opposite – happy to send nude selfies but no way we’ll go nude in a sauna.
Nudity itself is not bad. Nude at a beach isn’t nor in a sauna. Nude art isn’t bad nor is posing for it necessarily bad.
Nobody, including children of any age, is harmed simply by seeing someone nude. It’s actually good for children to be exposed to natural nudity. Many (most?) cultures have a belief in children younger than puberty or early teens going nude at beaches, pools and elsewhere; for their own comfort with their own body and that children seeing each other, parents and friends naturally lessens some of the more harmful sexual nudity in teen years. And this appears to be proven true.
Here’s an interesting take on this from someone on Quora:
Like pouring new wine in to old wineskins, if we try to be too strict then we’ll fail.
FWIW, I think it would be good for parents of young children to not close the door when showering or changing clothes (but to also let children know as they approach puberty that it’s certainly acceptable if they want to do so). Similarly children under perhaps 10 or 12 should be allowed to skip the swimsuit at beaches and pools (and backyards). And of course, if you have a sauna, then sauna nude. I think that destigmatizing natural nudity for our children (and us) would be a good and healthy thing as our current Victorian culture certainly hasn’t worked out well.
That said… I was asked to advise on a project to build a European style Spa in the U.S. that they want to fashion after Thermé Wien in Vienna, Austria. One topic discussed is if, like most spas outside of the U.S., the sauna areas should be textile-free (nude). Many options have been discussed including making it swimsuits optional (I recommended against this as having some people in suits and some not is awkward/uncomfortable for everyone) or nude only on certain days/times or always nude but some times being women only. One concern is that Americans might not yet be ready to handle this maturely and that it might attract some clientele who could make others uncomfortable. I believe the current plan is to have four textile-free days and three suits required days and see how it goes. I think once new generations grow up with a healthier attitude towards functional nudity that this will not be an issue.
Nudity is also kind of fascinating. Most of us don’t care if someone else sees our hand. We walk around all day with it exposed and anyone who wants can see it. Our genitals are another story. And perhaps one of the oldest stories when we consider that nudity figures prominently in the earliest writings and was one of the first topics discussed in The Bible.
Why so different? It’s just skin. We’re all the same down there. …Well, one of two varieties.
Oxytocin and Visual Sex
Just as with pre or extra-marital sex, nudity or more specifically erotic or sexual nudity can be a significant issue for marital/relationship bliss.
From the CDC’s National Survey of Family Growth we know that her pre-marital sexual activities are likely the number one predictor of how stable a family she and her children will have. If she’s a virgin at the alter or at least has no partners of any kind of sexual activity other than her husband then she’s very likely to have a stable family. Otherwise, things begin to look not so good for her.
The results are the same regardless of income, religion, educational attainment or age when married (the other key factors) so we can be somewhat certain that there is direct cause and effect. Other factors change the percent of population in each category (column width) but the divorce rates remain largely the same. For instance, as level of education or wealth increases so do the widths of the light blue No or 0 other partners columns as the other columns get narrower. The heights of each column remain about the same however.
(Note: In the following I am, for simplicity, using the word ‘marriage’ to refer to a formal marriage as well as committed-for-life/cohabitation relationships.)
There are a few things that likely contribute to this but the core appears to be weakened commitment for making it through routine struggles that every marriage faces – an underlying foundational thing, not a surface let’s-talk-about-this thing.
One key cause of this weakened commitment, and perhaps the key cause, is her having multiple Oxytocin induced pair-bonds. Any time she does anything sexual with someone, from mutual masturbation to oral to intercourse, she develops a pair-bond with that person. These appear to take some years to subside, likely never go away fully and are autonomic so not of her choosing. Her having multiple pair-bonds appears to result in weaker commitment for her and sometimes or often also increased anxiety and depression. This is all baggage that she takes in to her marriage/relationship.
(Note: She/Her here refers to anyone who was female sex at birth, not to gender or gender preference. How our Endocrine system, and thus Oxytocin, functions is based on our physiological sex at birth and does not change with gender preference nor so far as we can tell with sex change procedures).
Lacking a similar pair-bond system, his commitment strength appears to somewhat mirror her pair-bond strength. The stronger her pair-bond with him the stronger his commitment and devotion to her and her children. If she has no other pair-bonds and so a 100% strong pair-bond with him then he will likely have a similarly strong bond/commitment towards her. If she has one or more older pair bonds from prior sexual activities and so her bond with her husband is only 30% or 70% as strong then his commitment is similarly weaker.
A marriage is much more likely to survive and thrive through a variety of difficulties with a stronger commitment than weaker.
There is also an issue of his being bothered by feeling like he’s sharing his wife with others – every guy she did anything sexual with before (and every guy who has a photo of her nude). This is not an issue in every marriage but is in many. This likely has some roots in her Oxytocin induced pair-bonds though we don’t know for sure.
Whether purely Oxytocin pair-bond based or something else, there is a clear link between her sexual activity and the stability of her marriage, what psychologists refer to as accumulated relationship baggage.
On the other hand, his pre-marital activities do not appear to have any effect on his marriage – statistically nor for the most part based on counselor and psychologist experience. This partially or perhaps primarily because he does not develop pair-bonds as she does.
And yes, it seems unfair that the stability of a family for her children is all up to her but that appears to be the human package that we have to live with. It’s physiology and we do not currently posses any technology for changing it. For perspective, far more unfair is life as a single mom. Fair or not, the outcome will be what it is.
So, how does simple nudity fit in?
We know that prior nudity, just like prior sexual stuff, can negatively affect her marriage. We don’t, or at least I don’t, fully understand why. We know for instance that if she went skinny dipping with some coed friends in uni that in the future her husband might be bothered by this and it might affect his depth of commitment to her and their marriage. Not outwardly with him saying anything but at a foundational level that he may not even connect himself.
I don’t really know why this is though. Why would he care if those guys saw her nude? I’ve asked a lot of guys this question and the majority said that they’d be at least somewhat bothered by it and many that they’d be very bothered by it. None really knew why though. Some say that it’s jealousy but I’m not sure that makes sense as those other guys got to see his wife nude once or twice and he gets to see her nude frequently. What does he have to be jealous of?
And, why is this such a one-way thing? Why are guys so bothered by other guys seeing their wife nude but gals mostly couldn’t care less who sees their husband nude?
There appear to be two key bits to this. First is that for guys sex is purely a physical thing. No emotions or oxytocin pair-bonds or romance. No relationship necessary. This is one reason why guys will so willingly pay a prostitute $200 or $2,000 for sex and gals say ‘that just doesn’t do it for us’. Psychologists are fond of saying that she goes home after sex thinking about him and wondering when he’ll text (her pair-bond system at work), he goes home and flips through Tinder while wondering when his pizza will come (his lack of pair-bond system).
The second is that guys are extremely visually oriented, her genitals in particular, when it comes to sexual arousal. Oh, and variety, variety is huge. This is visual sex. There’s a reason that Playboy was astoundingly successful and Playgirl flopped or that we have 17 strip clubs in our city for guys to see nude gals and 0 for gals to see nude guys (and the business is down over 85% since the introduction of phone cams and selfies) or why he really really really wants her to send him nudes of her and she’s not as interested in nudes of him. Or as some gals have screamed at amazingly dense guys “stop it with the dick pics!”
One rather honest guy once told me “I don’t like the idea of other guys having visual sex with my wife, whom they don’t love and don’t care about. I don’t like that they used or are using her body …the way I did with gals in real life or on the internet. And, I don’t like that she invited them to do this and that on any night there are likely guys jerking off to her (photos).”
We can debate if what he’s feeling is right or wrong. Should he be bothered that a bunch of their uni guy friends saw her nude when they went skinny dipping together? Or not a thing and he should man up and get over it? Or that she sent a nude selfie to a former boyfriend who later shared it and so now it’s on the ‘net for thousands of guys to jerk off on? I don’t know the answer to these questions. Or if there is an answer. And, some of this goes against my rather libertarian/egalitarian tendencies which makes it even more complicated for me.
What we do know is that this does appear to be an issue and does in some or many cases lead to a weakening of his commitment. Rather than coming out strong on the other side of a disagreement thanks to a deep strong (single pair bond?) commitment they come out somewhat damaged, or they don’t come out at all.
Marriage or cohab can be tough at times. The less baggage brought in to the relationship that people need to deal with the better and for many guys this can, rightly or wrongly, and for whatever reason that I still don’t understand, prove to be some surprisingly serious relationship weakening baggage.
And this isn’t just limited to the U.S. but exists to some extent in all western and likely most other cultures though perhaps not as strong as in the U.S.
What then is risky for marital stability and what not so much?
First, anything up through perhaps pre or even early teens is a non-issue. Playing doctor is not going to affect anyone’s marriage (and may help it). From mid teens on it’s a different story.
If guys getting aroused by seeing her nude is a purpose, even if not her intent, then let’s call that Erotic Nudity. This will likely to have some negative effect on her marriage, some weakened commitment from him, though the extent varies considerably from nothing to an underlying element of divorce. Skinny dipping, nude fun runs, WNBR and a variety of other things fall in to this category. I think perhaps even sauna parties in the U.S. where the primary purpose is seeing gals nude might qualify. For perhaps a quarter of guys this will be a relationship breaker, for another quarter a complete non issue and the rest will fall somewhere in between.
Acts intended by her to arouse one or more guys are Sexual Nudity. These may result in her developing an Oxytocin induced pair-bond and are typically things involving her and one other guy and in particular a guy she’s romantically interested in though that’s perhaps not necessary. Showering or skinny dipping together or perhaps even a group skinny dip if there’s one guy she’s romantically interested in. This falls within the Tech Virgin category and will have a similar effect on her marriage.
Finally, if guys getting aroused is not a purpose and there is a practical purpose for being nude, then it’s Natural or Functional Nudity. Sauna or Turkish bath is functional nudity. Quickly changing in to a swimsuit at the beach generally is. Nude sunbathing in a very private yard probably counts. Nude sunbathing at a public beach seems to fall somewhere between Functional and Erotic. Any of these might sometimes be an issue in marital stability, especially if other similar age guys were present, but not usually.
I don’t know that there is necessarily a right or wrong here – for who does what or for anyone’s reaction. Erotic and sexual nudity both carry some risk and possibly considerable risk to her marriage. Natural functional nudity not so much. It will vary from person to person though – one size does not fit all. Someone who will not have children has a lot less to be concerned with here than someone who will. Each person needs to make the decisions that fit their life.
On the flip side, none of these appear to be a risk for his marriage. Usually, even if she is bothered by something, his having played strip poker in college (or even sex with a number of people) for instance, it’s not something that undermines her commitment to him in any way, as opposed to her having done so appearing to frequently undermine his commitment to her. She may not like what he did but his past is not the relationship weakener for her that her past is for him.
For guys being bothered by others seeing their wife nude and how it affects his commitment to her there’s no indication of why it’s an issue for one and another not. It appears to largely be innate and not a choice nor anything he can change though it does sometimes change over time. We can say that this is all terribly unequal and sexist but perhaps far more sexist is her being left to care for her children alone. When our ideals clash with reality, what then?
No Magic Switch
Whatever she does before marriage appears to have about the same effect on her marriage as doing so during her marriage – there’s not a magic before/after switch that switches off her prior activities.
The likelihood of divorce for her is about the same, ± 84%, whether she has sex with another guy before she gets married or extra-marital sex after. This possibly because she appears to carry all prior pair-bonds with her in to marriage or cohab.
If her participating in a World Naked Bike Ride after they’re married is OK then her having done so before is not likely an issue. If her playing strip poker or going skinny dipping with some guys after marriage would be an issue then having done so before will be as well.
It is for this reason that many women in Europe will limit who they sauna with prior to marriage. Family, extended family and close family friends perhaps OK, others and particularly similar generation others not so much.
Time may make a difference though. A significant time period between her pre-marital activities and anything with her husband does appear to somewhat lessen the likelihood of a failed marriage. This may be, or likely is, related to Oxytocin induced pair-bonds with prior partners subsiding over time and that they may subside faster in the absence of new Oxytocin releases. It would not be unreasonable to posit that those 16% of marriages that survive her pre-marital activities are cases where there was a several year period of no activity at all with anyone prior to any activity with her husband. More study is needed to understand this better though.
Nude photos are their own category with their own complications and generally carry higher levels of risk. This is still rather new though so we don’t yet have good data. Some psychologists speculate that nude photos of her being in existence may carry a greater risk to her marriage than her having had sex with someone else. Sending a nude selfie or posing for someone may also create a pair-bond with them which carries its own complications. As one guy said “It’s like being cheated on every day. How many guys are jerking off to pictures they have of my wife?”
There are a number of elements that play in to all of this and this is something where one size certainly does not fit all.
The more similar in age the more of an issue there seems to be. Sauna, skinny dipping or anything else with guys of similar age is often more of an issue than if they are much younger or older. This regardless of her having any romantic interest in them. This is particularly an issue if she or her husband know them in some way.
One example is a gal who spent a couple of years in Europe as an exchange student. Her fiancé knew that she’d been nude at beaches while there and said that it wasn’t a big issue. Some time later he learned that on one of those days she’d run in to some university friends of theirs and chatted for a bit. He told himself that it was not a big deal but it gnaws at him that these other guys had seen his wife nude. He said that it was definitely an issue in their relationship (though as of this writing they are still together and I expect that they will remain so).
Or a sauna example – a gal in Sweden who has grown up with sauna, usually mixed gender family and friends. In her teens, thinking about her future marriage, she decided that she’d not sauna with guys who were close in age until she got married and knew what her husband would be comfortable with. “Why take chances” she said.
One interesting bit about all of this is that single guys will fairly consistently say that they’d never be bothered by any of this. Ask the same guys after they’ve gotten engaged or married and the answer often changes. Part of this is their not wanting to interrupt the gravy train. They’ve got the greatest thing in history going – free sex, free porn of gals they know and variety of both – they don’t want anything to cause any hesitancy on gals part. As Carrie Pitzulo stated “If women can have consequence-free sex, that helps the guys”.
Another is that it’s not macho to be bothered by any of this and most guys are deathly afraid to let on that they’re vulnerable in any way. No way, no how, no matter what reality is. And, they’ve perhaps not yet experienced true love (if you’re imagining a scene from ‘Princess Bride’ you’re not alone…). Gals have largely been friends and sex toys, nobody they planned to devote their lives to, and then they suddenly fall in love with ‘the one’ – this is a whole new experience and they find their outlook changed.
And then some genuinely aren’t bothered and couldn’t care less who’s seen their wife nude or had sex with her. I know a couple of these guys.
This is all focused on her actions, not his. Unfair? This doesn’t perhaps fit well with what U.S. pop culture says but it does appear to be the reality of the human package. We can wish it were different all we want but I’m not sure that’s any more realistic than wishing that we’d never grow old or get cancer. This does not appear to be something that can be socialized away, her oxytocin induced pair-bonds in particular.
It’s important to keep in mind, especially regarding that chart above, that some marriages do survive all kinds of stuff that would be predicted to end it. While 87% of marriages may not survive her having had multiple sex partners, 13% will and some or many of these will be strong solid relationships. Not great odds but not totally hopeless either.
One final point. If she’ll not be having children and a stable life-long relationship is not critical to her then this all may be largely mute. She can likely do whatever without much in the way of negative side effects. I’ve known several women for whom this was the case and most have seemed to live a good, happy and fulfilled lives. Three in particular chose to not have children so that they could pursue other goals; one in business, one in scientific research and one as an arctic explorer. And FWIW, the first two are CIS, the third is Bi. It’s not for everyone but for some it works well.
We finally get to sauna. But now with better knowledge and understanding.
People sauna without clothes because it is more comfortable individually, makes sauna more comfortable and enjoyable for everyone and importantly, is more hygienic.
Individual Comfort – It is more comfortable in the sauna because swimsuits or towels wrapped around us keep our skin from breathing, sweating properly and cooling. Areas covered by a swimsuit can take longer to warm up and then can be much hotter and stuffy feeling than the rest of our body. Our body cools itself by sweating and then this sweat evaporates resulting in cooling our skin (enthalpy of evaporation). Swimsuits hamper this evaporative cooling.
It’s especially more comfortable outside. Skin dries fairly quickly with or without a towel making it enjoyable to stand outside. Swimsuits not so much. A wet and dripping swimsuit just isn’t comfortable, especially when it’s cold or breezy. The time spent out of the sauna cooling down between rounds is as important as the time spent in the sauna and an uncomfortable cold wet swimsuit can make this time less enjoyable, not relaxing and shorten the amount of time you want to stay outside so our body never properly cools.
This also makes the routine of showering before sauna and then rinsing well after each round and before getting dressed a lot easier and more pleasant.
Hygiene & Health – there are three elements. First is that having all of our skin exposed to air reduces or eliminates bacteria growth and odors that happen any time we sweat. One of the great things about sauna is that we get rid of bacteria that has built up since our last sauna – and that’s good and healthy for our body and skin. But skin covered in cloth doesn’t breath well and becomes a haven for bacterial growth …and the odors that come with it.
It is also difficult to clean ourselves well with a swimsuit on (and these are parts that need cleaning the most) so that bacteria doesn’t get rinsed off between rounds and continues to grow. Inevitably someone wearing a swimsuit in a sauna can begin to smell (from bacteria, not sweat) by their second or third round.
Wearing a swimsuit in a sauna can apparently increase problems of candida and yeast infections. I’ve not been able to find any studies to back this up though. My SWAG is that this does happen occasionally but likely less than 5% of women who sauna with a suit on are affected by it. Since probably 98-99% of people in the world who sauna do so nude, there’s limited data and limited need for data.
Second, cloth that is not freshly cleaned with unscented detergent can transport unappealing chemicals, scents and bacteria that become offensive in the heat of a sauna. This might include chemicals from detergents, chlorine or sweat. And then there’s the issue of people who don’t wash their suits frequently enough which isn’t obvious in a swimming pool but definitely is in a hot sauna.
Third is micro plastics. This may be more educated speculation at this point in time than proven but something to consider. While we can smell the bacteria or strongly scented detergent emanating from offending swimwear, we don’t know for sure about micro plastics. We know that most swimsuits emit micro plastics (PM1.0) and we know that this is more likely to happen with the higher temps of a sauna. We also know that PFAS is more likely to be emitted from these plastics in higher heat. If the dose is enough to be concerned about is unknown. Some scientists have said it is but that I’m aware of there has been no study nor any solid evidence to prove this.
These, primarily the first two, are why most saunas actually forbid swimsuits, not just recommend not wearing them (and require that you use their towels, not your own that may have detergent chemicals). Others in the sauna don’t want the smell of your bacteria which can be so bad that Finns say it will “kill the living and awaken the dead”.
If everyone is required to be nude and shower before entering the sauna then we significantly decrease the likelihood of offensive body or other odors – we can be fairly certain that everyone rinsed/washed everywhere. And there is often a noticeable difference in saunas that require nudity and those where people are wearing swimsuits and cultivating a crop of bacteria.
Egalitarian Comfort. There is a element of equality and equal vulnerability. Since it is more comfortable individually to be nude and results in a more pleasant and hygienic environment for everyone then most people do prefer to sauna naked. However, it can be uncomfortable for some, particularly women, to be naked when others are clothed. It is thus best for everyone to be naked so that everyone is equally vulnerable and so also equally comfortable.
It goes much deeper than this though as this experience of being naked and vulnerable among others affects our psyche and helps us to accept our own vulnerabilities and view others with a more humane, respectful and equal vision.
I’ve also been told that some take someone wearing a swimsuit in an otherwise nude sauna as an insult, as if someone is saying ‘I’m better than you, I’m too good to be nude’.
Not having clothes on is egalitarian – it makes everyone more equal.
Are Guys Checking Out Nude Gals? – Of course. That’s part of the human package. But it’s perhaps more appreciation than sexual in this context. This is I think a difficult concept for Americans to grasp given a culture that equates nudity with sex but it’s really not sexual. While those from outside of the U.S. are accustomed to non-sexual nudity, those from the U.S. are not. I think that for most in the U.S., guys in particular, it may take numerous experiences to understand that it is indeed not sexual.
Also, sauna etiquette says to not stare and to keep your eyes on people’s faces. Again, for Americans this becomes easier and more natural over time.
That said, there will certainly be occasional peepers and perverts. Sometimes these are on the receiving end of enough social pressure to leave and sometimes not. That’s life.
For those confused by the first half discussing the risks of nudity and now kind of advocating for it, that’s life. Life is not simple cut and dried. I’ve done my best to present all sides as best I can. There may be some risks (beyond Americans embarrassing discomfort) to consider. Some may want to never go nude, some same-sex only, some only with family, some only close friends and family, some may avoid nudity with those similar in age, etc. And then many don’t care and will sauna nude anytime. We would much rather sauna with friends wearing swimsuits (and suits are the norm in America) than not sauna with them at all so we’re totally fine either way. There is no right or wrong here – people should simply make the best choices for their life plans.
While nude is the norm outside of the U.S., there are some nuanced variations.
Germany, Austria, The Netherlands, Northern Italy, Eastern Switzerland, Western Czechia and many others are all nude all the time. This goes for public as well as private and sexes are rarely separated. You will actually be yelled at for attempting to wear a swimsuit in Germany (one of my more embarrassing experiences). It may be important to note however that survey’s indicate that ≈ 50% of Germans are not comfortable going nude at a beach and about 20% a mixed sex sauna with other than family. So while Germany’s ‘culture’ might be all nude all of the time, not everyone is comfortable with that culture. I’m told one difference in beach and sauna is due to cell phone cameras and people, quite understandably, not wanting photos posted online. Others have said that it’s simply not usually necessary at a beach though they’ll also defend any who prefer to be nude.
Sweden, Norway and a few others are somewhat more reserved. Private saunas for family and friends are usually mixed sex and nude. Brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents, other relatives and friends all together. And it’s totally normal and natural. Depending on the group they will occasionally separate by sex though. It’s not unusual for girls to become selective about who they sauna with from about mid teens until marriage. Public saunas vary but mixed nude seems the majority.
Finland, Estonia and Denmark are a bit more modest yet. Families and close extended family will all sauna together nude. When distant family or friends are included the default is women only going first and then anyone is welcome. If there is only one woman who wants women only then other women will join her even if they’d normally do mixed later. And there is zero judgement either way. The women only time is also somewhat cooler which many women prefer so sometimes this is more for sauna temperature than modesty.
Businesses in Finland will often have either separate men’s and women’s saunas or a single sauna with a schedule of times for women, men and mixed.
France and Poland have, since WWII, leaned somewhat towards wearing swimsuits though recently they’ve been moving back towards the German culture.
Public saunas across Europe (and elsewhere) are a mixed bag. Many countries are all nude and mixed sex. Of the rest, most are nude, no suits allowed, with variations in separating by sex or not. Some will be mixed much of the time but have some specific times for just women. A few for tourists are swimsuits optional or required and similarly some in France. Going to sauna with business associates, public or private sauna, varies but all together nude isn’t unusual though some will segregate by sex.
Larger spas might have separate sections (wet areas) for women, men and mixed so that everyone has a comfortable option. Some however have found that the men’s section becomes the gay section and are considering eliminating it. This latter not because of anything negative against gays but that these sometimes become more of a sexualized environment.
Saunas may be mixed sex nude but there is a clear Male / Female modesty difference. If there are 30 German couples in an Alpine resort most of the men will go to sauna but only perhaps 20 of the women and one or two of these women will keep a towel partially wrapped around themselves. If 30 Finnish couples then maybe only 10-12 of the women will go to sauna. This has also been our experience at places like Adler Lodge Alpé.
In some cases the women or men are simply not comfortable being nude around others. From conversations with a number of people it is also clear that women don’t care who sees their husband nude but some men aren’t so comfortable with other men outside of family seeing their wife nude. The takeaway here is that it’s important to keep in mind that whatever anyone is or is not comfortable with is completely normal and acceptable. There is no right or wrong. There’s nothing wrong with being nude in a sauna nor being uncomfortable with it.
English Speaking Countries are the most reserved with the U.S. the most of the most. The U.S. is generally all swimsuits all the time and we’re pretty much the odd ones out on this. Or worse, it’s not unusual to see people wearing sweaty workout clothes in U.S. gym saunas. Fortunately this is changing, though very very slowly.
On the other hand, teens and 20-somethings in the U.S. will get together for nude sauna parties.
Editorial Comment: Our nudity-is-always-sexual or nudity-is-shameful ethos does not appear to have served us well. We have become leaders in many of the negative things that fearful people warned would happen …if we didn’t continue the belief that all nudity is sexual. I think changing this for those who’ve grown up with it is difficult and I don’t think any kind of mass change would be good anyway because I think it is something that for most you do need to grow up with. We can change it for our children though so that they can grow up with a healthier and more balanced attitude and hopefully avoid some of the negative bits that permeate U.S. sex culture today. I know this sounds nutty to most in the U.S. but that’s because we’ve grown up with and still think that nudity-is-always-sexual.
Editorial Comment II: On the backwards from everyone else bit… While not concerned about a bit of nudity, other cultures are concerned about violence in media. Us? Not so much.
Native American’s were traditionally all nude all the time in their sweat lodges though that changed somewhat with the advent of victorian principles.
Japan and many parts of Asia were traditionally all nude all the time, then somewhat Americanized after WWII and today seem to be reverting back to mixed nude.
Hammam culture in the Middle East and elsewhere varies. Most today are nude but with sexes separated. In Turkey and some other more secular countries mixed sex nude has been the norm though recently there has been pressure to change that.
I’ve talked with numerous secular and religious Jews, Christians and Evangelicals across Europe who all seem just as comfortable with being nude in a sauna as anyone. For these religions this does seem to be purely a U.S. cultural thing and not a religious thing. My first nude sauna experience in Germany was actually with a evangelical Baptist pastor (who’s dad IIRC was a cousin and friend of Dietrich Bonhoeffer) I was interviewing for his work with drug addicts and he invited me to their sauna club.
No Judgement / No Coercion – I want to emphasize this again. Nobody, guy or gal, should ever be judged for their comfort or discomfort with nudity, their comfort of discomfort with their spouses nudity, nor coerced to do something they’re uncomfortable with. We are all different and there is no right or wrong with this.
The default for our sauna is everyone wearing a swimsuit or staying covered with a towel. However, if all agree then it may be swimsuit optional. We can also setup separate male/female/family times if people want to give it a go in private.
The sunken patio is fairly well protected so there, the lower level of the house and of course in the sauna you are welcome to wear whatever you do or do not want. Beyond these a towel, shorts or swimsuit is a good idea.
Oh, no jewelry or electronics. While watching someone who’s just realized that their earrings are getting very hot very fast is entertaining it’s also a bit painful to see.
For those who choose to wear a swimsuit in the sauna and for what to wear for a jump in the lake…
There are three key properties to cloth that are important here:
Breathability – Cloth doesn’t breath very well so any part of our bodies covered with cloth will, in the sauna, be hotter, sweatier and more uncomfortable than areas open to air.
Harbors Gook – Cloth can retain various substances from cleaning products to sweat to chlorine to whatever you can imagine. Sometimes these can affect the fresh environment in a sauna.
Retains/Drips Cold Water – Cloth retains water and moisture. After toweling skin drys in about 5-10 seconds. A thin skin tight swimsuit in about 3-5 minutes, looser swimsuits in about 20 minutes. There are two problems with this. The first is that it can be cold and the process of evaporation makes them even colder. Standing around outside between sauna rounds when it’s cool or cold with dry skin is quite comfortable but in a cold wet swimsuit not so much. Worse is that loose swimsuits drip and having cold water dripping on your legs and feet from your swimsuit isn’t very pleasant.
So, the important considerations are; cover as little skin as necessary with cloth, choose cloth that breaths well, dries quickly and retains as little water or chemicals as possible. Generally the thinner the better and the more tight fitting the better.
For guys; briefs (‘speedo’) are best but a tight fitting square leg, square cut or boxer (three names for the same thing) is a bit more modest for sensitive U.S. eyes and works well to avoid uncomfortable cold drips. Jammers are probably third best with loose trunks or board shorts the worst.
We have witnessed numerous incidents of U.S. Americans going ballistic over the nude sauna practices outside of the U.S. including more than a few trying to assert their ‘right’ to wear a swimsuit despite local rules and customs.
Americans are often not appreciated nor well liked in Europe. As one person told me “we tolerate Americans in tourist areas, not so much for our holidays”. And that from someone who enjoys visiting the U.S. every year.
We are, according to many in Europe, “far too loud, obnoxious, arrogant, ignorant and immature”. Oh, if we disagree with that statement then they’ll say that we’re exemplifying two of those; arrogance and ignorance.
I think it’s critical to understand what underlies some of this. First is that Consideration and Respect For Others is very important for Europeans vs American’s Me and My Rights attitude that they see as selfish and elitist. They think ‘My Community’ rather than ‘Me’ and My Community can be the people they are in the sauna with, the community they live in, their country, or in particular their family and the friend group they’ve had since they were teens. They also value Personal Space and this includes head space.
So, they talk quietly so that they don’t disturb or annoy others while we think it’s our right to talk as loud (and obnoxiously display our arrogance, ignorance and and immaturity) as we want. They understand that a loud environment suppresses our cognitive ability and believe that doing so is unhealthy and rude. Their rule of thumb is that somebody 1m (3 feet) shouldn’t be able to understand them and 2m away shouldn’t be able to hear them. Yes, that quiet.
When a server doesn’t ask how we’re doing or someone on the street doesn’t say ‘hello’ it’s because they believe that doing so is interrupting us (and it is) and that would be inconsiderate of them. They stay as far right as possible on multi-lane roads, don’t block the left lane and generally try to be considerate of other drivers and especially of people walking or riding a bicycle.
They believe that not being honest and direct with someone is disrespectful and inconsiderate so they are very honest and direct, which we are offended by, leaving them confused why we’re offended by honesty.
Restaurant owners and chefs often believe they have an obligation to serve food that in its composition and portion is healthy and of high quality. Serving unhealthy or poor quality food or large portions is seen as being disrespectful toward their guests. Similarly, manufacturers and retailers feel a duty to offer quality products and to not mislead customers about them just to make more profit (consumers are also more knowledgable and would often rather have one quality product than five cheap products).
They feel a duty to walk or bicycle for local trips (less than 1-3 miles each way) rather than drive. This because they know it is critical to good health and they feel they shouldn’t become a burden to their healthcare system. They know it results in less air and noise pollution which is being considerate of others. And, it costs them less and costs their community less.
This even extends to traffic engineers who are considerate of everyone, not just drivers, and are very focused on comfort and safety for all, particularly more vulnerable who are walking, bicycling or using a mobility device. They are also very considerate of those nearby in homes or businesses and try not to negatively impact them, or ideally have a positive impact. American traffic engineers are focused almost exclusively on low delay for drivers with little or no consideration for people walking, bicycling, living or working nearby. That widening a roadway to increase traffic throughput will increase noise and air pollution for residents and make crossing a street more dangerous is not a consideration for U.S. traffic engineers.
They try not to negatively impact others in any way if possible.
Second, there is much less Class Hierarchy. Everyone is on the same level and of equal value. A CEO is expected to wash their lunch dishes just as anyone else. While there may be a chain-of-command in a business or other organization, in life as in the sauna everyone is equal and nobody has any greater rights or status than anyone else. In many countries this also includes a bit of consensus culture so a CEO or manager may have ultimate decision authority but they will value input from everyone at every level and will try to find a consensus solution (which sometimes involves increasing people’s knowledge so that they understand better, or a decision maker changing their mind based on knowledge from others further down the chain).
And Third, they have a High Regard for Learning and Knowledge. Part of this is simply that they know the benefits of good accurate knowledge for making good decisions – personal, business, or polis. They also believe that it is their responsibility to those in their community and that not doing so is… disrespectful and inconsiderate of others. They believe it’s important to take life somewhat seriously and to try to create a better world for everyone and that not doing so is inconsiderate and disrespectful of friends, family and especially children who will inherit this world. They have little regard for the ‘don’t overthink it’ ethos that’s increasingly engulfing the U.S. and more than a few have mentioned that American’s are quite gullible due to our lack of desire to learn and our love for the ‘easy button’.
It’s interesting how this comes across in different cultures. Germans are very direct ‘do this don’t do that’, a Finn will make a suggestion and if you don’t get the point they’ll make the suggestion again, …and again. After a while you get the message that what they really mean is ‘do this don’t do that’.
And no, I am not saying that they are perfect. Far from it. Every culture has it’s issues. Danes are fond of saying that Swedes are just the human form of Germans 🙂 A few Finns have told me that they wish their culture was a little more open and friendly like the U.S. Only a little though, a tiny little 🙂
I think actually that most Europeans like Americans, or want to like Americans, they just don’t like some things about us.
If you want to understand Europe and Europeans better there are two books I’d recommend; ‘The Happiest Kids In The World’ by Rina Mae Acosta & Michele Hutchison and ‘Bringing Up Bebe’ by Pamela Druckerman. I’ve found that the best way to understand a culture is to study how they raise their children and these are two of the best. Others to consider; ‘There’s No Such Thing As Bad Weather’, ‘The Danish Way Of Parenting’, and ‘Achtung Baby’. Also, Rick Steve’s ‘Travel As A Political Act’ is a worthwhile read as well.
* Rape and human trafficking rates are both highly correlated to the criminalization of prostitution. Countries with legal prostitution have lower rates of both. Sweden since 2000, Norway since 2009 and France since 2016 have all seen continual increases in both after enacting ‘The Nordic Model’. In light of this some proponents of using the Nordic Model in support of women’s rights have begun to re-evaluate. The U.S., the only other developed country to criminalize prostitution, has consistently had the highest rates of rapes and was only recently passed by Sweden with Norway and France close behind. Similarly, the U.S. is believed to have the highest or among the highest rates of human trafficking of developed countries. (Australia is an outlier in being the only country to have legal prostitution, high rates of rape and possibly high rates of human trafficking.) Increasingly, human rights organizations including Amnesty International are calling for full decriminalization/legalization of consenting adult prostitution.
A lesbian relationship often experiences what some call an oxy-storm due to both having similar oxytocin induced pair-bond systems. This often causes relationships to develop very fast resulting in u-hauling where they move in together quickly and then move out just as quickly. A lesbian relationship that restrains the oxy-storm a bit and avoids u-hauling can be extremely strong however.
A lesbian relationship within a polygynous relationship is often quite stable as is the polygynous relationship itself.
Overall, Heterosexual and Polygynous relationships are the most stable, Female same-sex are a fairly close second while Male same-sex relationships and Polyamorous are very unstable.
Some notes on the U.S. Lifetime Divorce Rate Chart.
The Two Blue columns are; No sexual activity prior to marriage and No sexual activity prior to marriage with anyone other than her husband. There was some ambiguity in the wording of the NSFG that for some respondents could potentially result in an incorrect response so these columns might be slightly wider or narrower than reality but likely not appreciably different.
The slight dip for 3+ other partners is real and has been the subject of numerous conversations. Possibly the best guess is that as her number of sex partners increases the quality of her husband declines and this dip is a sort of crossover of better quality husbands to lessor quality husbands. While there is some solid info behind that it is far from proven in any way.
The numbers for cohabitating unions is fairly similar. The biggest difference is the blue No Partners Of Any Sort and 0 Partners Other Than Mate are about 3x as high while other columns are approximately 10-20% higher.