Nude Family Values

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SYLVIA PLACHY/TIMELIFEPICTURES FOR TIME

JUST BEING NATURAL: Campers Steve Vickers,22, and Jesse Ferrier, 18, at Florida's Lake Como

Like any boy who has felt the furnace of a June afternoon in the South, 16-year-old James Gordon knows the pleasures of stripping nude for a swim. But a couple of weeks ago at his summer camp, Gordon was nude just about 24/7. He sang Kumbayah around the campfire naked, gave a speech to the entire camp naked and played the violin in a talent show naked. Which is what's expected when your camp is organized by the American Association for Nude Recreation (A.A.N.R.). Gordon was one of two dozen young people, ages 11 to 25, who attended the camp, which ran from June 5 to June 13 in sweltering Lutz, Fla., outside Tampa, at a secluded place known as the Lake Como Family Nudist Resort.

All the campers had, like Gordon, been raised in families that routinely visit — or reside at — places like Lake Como (there are 259 A.A.N.R. resorts and clubs). Gordon says he has been a nudist since he was 2, "and now we come out [to the local nudist resort] every Sunday after church." (Gordon and his parents attend a conservative Christian church, and because it's a congregation that may not welcome nudists, we have changed his name.) Despite his religious background — in fact, partly because of it — Gordon sees nothing wrong with nudism. "God created all of us," he says. "He made our bodies, and we shouldn't be ashamed."


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Gordon is old enough to know that many people disagree. Some even think he — or, rather, A.A.N.R.--should be not only ashamed but also investigated. Congressman Mark Foley, a Florida Republican who is planning a run for the U.S. Senate, bitterly attacked the A.A.N.R. youth camp last week. "I have no way of knowing whether illegal behavior is taking place in this camp," he told Governor Jeb Bush in a letter. Nonetheless, Foley asserted that the camp was "exploiting nudity among minor children to make money." He worried that the campers were in danger of sexual abuse. And he asked the Governor to help determine whether the camp is legal.

Though the summer camp was in its 11th annual incarnation, Foley hadn't heard of it until last week, when he read a story in the New York Times. As it happens, I attended the Florida camp, as a (fully clothed) reporter invited by A.A.N.R. The group hoped to publicize its effort to expand nudist camps for kids across the U.S. A weeklong camp for young nudists opened last week in Ivor, Va. (Conservatives in the state, including the attorney general, promptly criticized the camp and promised to monitor it.) Another A.A.N.R. youth camp is set to start in New River, Ariz., in July; yet another is planned for Texas as early as next summer.

In some respects, Foley is right to be worried, but he's also less informed than he could be. Foley seemed to fear that adults would see the young campers naked, but nudist adults see naked kids — their own and the children of other nudists — all the time. All three A.A.N.R. camps this summer are being held on campgrounds of larger resorts full of adult nudist visitors — RVers, foreigners, locals — many with their own nudist kids. There's a fair amount of intermingling. At Lake Como, for instance, A.A.N.R. campers used the same pool as regular Lake Como visitors. For the most part, there were no problems.

That said, there were two Peeping Tom — type incidents during the A.A.N.R. camp at Lake Como. One adult nudist leered at the kids as they swam in the pool; another allegedly asked two girls to pose suggestively for photos. Both men were ejected. A.A.N.R. officials say the first man was placed on its do-not-admit list, which goes to all member clubs. The other man was reported by the girls to camp authorities, who confiscated his film. It turned out he had not taken inappropriate photos, according to Susan Weaver, A.A.N.R. p.r. chairwoman. "These incidents are always acted upon immediately," she says.

The Florida camp had 24-hour sentries, a well-lighted security fence — and no reports of child abuse, according to the Pasco County sheriff's office. It was perfectly legal under Florida law, which — like most other state codes — doesn't prohibit anyone of any age from being naked at home, in locker rooms, at nudist resorts or in any other areas where nudity is expected. Lewd behavior is outlawed in public and private, say Florida legal experts, but not mere nudity.

Still, Foley has a point. One reason A.A.N.R. is so attuned to preventing sexual abuse is that it knows that pedophiles are a rare but persistent problem in nudist America. Every nudist resort has policies in place to protect potential victims, and every nudist parent I met watches for suspicious behavior. Members of both nudist resorts I visited, Lake Como and Cypress Cove Nudist Resort & Spa, in Kissimmee, Fla., said they have had to keep an eye on creepy men.

So why would anyone want their kids in such an environment? The answer begins with nudist demographics. Two years ago, A.A.N.R. paid the marketing firm Claritas Inc. to analyze the membership of the 72-year-old group. Claritas found that the cluster most likely to renew A.A.N.R. membership is a group it labels "God's Country"--primarily executives from the exurbs who tend to be Republican. Their key issues are tax reform and terrorism; they like Golf Magazine and GMC Safari vans. And most have kids at home.

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