[ Read Time: 12 minutes ]
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“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.”
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 real practical 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 with two biological parents, they have less violent crime overall and very significantly less rape and human trafficking*, 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.
We often look askance at European’s comfort with nudity, but perhaps we shouldn’t.
In most countries 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 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 North American vs European approaches to nudity.
(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. 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.
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 porn categories on the internet). Within the travel industry American girls are well known for being much easier to get nude selfies from or get in bed than girls from other countries.
Americans appear to be rather backwards from others – fearful of that which is not harmful and excelling in doing that which is.
In Europe and many other parts of the world there is a distinction between natural nudity and sexual nudity. Not so in the U.S. where all nudity is considered sexual.
While someone in Sweden or Germany might think nothing of natural nudity on a beach or in a sauna, most 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.
Nudity itself is not necessarily bad though. 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 by seeing someone nude. It’s actually good for children to be exposed to natural nudity. Many 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 they believe that children seeing each other naturally lessens some of the more harmful sexual nudity in teen years (and this appears to be proven).
It’s 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 and these appear to take some years to subside and likely never go away fully. 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 physical 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 80% 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 rather 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. 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.
What then is risky for marital stability and what not so much?
First, anything up through perhaps 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, though the extent varies considerably from nothing to an underlying element of divorce. Skinny dipping, nude fun runs and a variety of other things fall in to this category.
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 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 largely falls within the Tech Virgin category and will have similar effects 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 nudity. Sauna and sunbathing at the beach are generally both natural nudity. 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 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 than someone who will.
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 breaker that her past is.
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 an extra-marital affair 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 likely not 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 some women in Europe will limit who they sauna with prior to marriage.
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. 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, 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 women for whom this was the case and they’ve seemed to live a good, happy and fulfilled life. 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, makes sauna more enjoyable and importantly, is more hygienic
It is more comfortable in the sauna because swimsuits or towels wrapped around you keep your skin from breathing and sweating properly. They also create uneven heat across your body. Even though a core element of sauna is convective heat, there is still significant radiant heat from everything in there, skin covered with cloth does not get as much radiant or convective heat.
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.
This also makes the routine of showering with soap before sauna and then rinsing well afterwards and before getting dressed a lot easier and more pleasant.
For hygiene there are two elements. First is that having all of your skin exposed to air reduces or eliminates any bacteria growth that happens any time we sweat. One of the great things about sauna is that we get rid of all of this bacteria that has built up since our last sauna – and that’s good and healthy for body and our skin. But skin covered in cloth doesn’t breath so well and often becomes a home for bacteria.
Cloth that is not freshly cleaned with unscented detergent can also transport unappealing chemicals, scents and bacteria. This is why most saunas actually forbid any swimsuits, not just recommend not wearing them.
It is difficult to clean within a swimsuit and these are parts that need cleaning the most, especially with soap immediately before sauna but also rinsing off between rounds.
Scandinavians will also say that not having clothes on makes everyone more equal.
As we saw earlier, 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. There is no right or wrong – people should simply make the best choices for their life plans.
While nude is the norm outside of the U.S., there are some variations on who’ll be nude around who.
Germany, Austria, The Netherlands, Northern Italy and a few 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 40-60% of Germans are not comfortable going nude at a beach or 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.
Denmark, Sweden, Norway and others are somewhat more reserved. Private saunas for family and friends are mixed sex and nude. Brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents, other relatives and friends all together. And it’s totally normal and natural. It’s not unusual though for girls to become selective about who they sauna with from about mid teens until marriage.
Public saunas in Europe are a mixed bag. Most are no suits allowed but a few for tourists are swimsuits optional or required. Going to sauna with business associates, public or private sauna, varies but all together nude appears the norm though some will segregate by sex.
For mixed sex public saunas in Europe there is a clear male / female difference. If there are 30 German couples in an Alpine resort all of the men will go to sauna but only perhaps half of the women and one or two of these women will keep a towel fully or partially wrapped around themselves. This has also been our experience at places like Adler Lodge Alpé. From conversations with a number of people it is clear that women don’t care who sees their husband nude but about half of men aren’t so comfortable with other men outside of family seeing their wife nude. If 30 Finnish couples then maybe only 6 or 7 women will go to sauna.
In Finland families and close extended family will all sauna together nude. When distant family or friends are included the default is nude with separate male & female rather than everyone together but mixed if all agree.
Businesses in Finland will often have separate men’s and women’s saunas for employees or a single sauna with sexes separated by schedule.
Public saunas in Finland often either require swimsuits for everyone or will have separate facilities or times for men and women. There are some that are mixed sex nude however.
English speaking countries are the most reserved with the U.S. the most of the most. Generally all swimsuits all the time. Or worse, it’s not unusual to see people wearing sweaty workout clothes in U.S. gym saunas. What’s most baffling is in gyms with separate saunas for each sex in sex separated locker rooms and yet Americans will still wear swimsuits or workout clothes.
On the other hand, teens and 20-somethings in the U.S. will often get together for nude sauna parties.
Native American’s were traditionally all nude all the time in their sweat lodges though that changed with the advent of ‘victorian principles’
Japan and many parts of Asia were traditionally all nude all the time but they have somewhat ‘Americanized’ since WWII.
The default for our sauna is everyone wearing a swimsuit or 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.
* 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.