The floodlit billboard was overgrown with kudzu, as they often are alongside rural Southern roads, but the words “Gentlemen’s Club Next Exit” were hard to miss. The tattered gold foil letters shimmered in the evening breeze like the gaudy plastic garland that encircles many small-town used car lots. A few miles down the highway, another vine-covered billboard exclaimed, “Beautiful Ladies! Exit Now!” The words were fluorescent pink and a poorly-executed illustration of a woman with teased hair and thick eyeliner beckoned drivers to a mysterious, windowless metal structure behind a partially-demolished motel. Further along the interstate, another billboard invited drivers to pay a visit to the “V.I.P Executive Club,” an establishment that promised “Entertainment for the Sophisticated Man!” I caught a glimpse of the V.I.P. Executive Club off the exit ramp, and it looked suspiciously like a repurposed seventies Pizza Hut whose windows had been covered with silver foil and lined with strings of flashing Christmas lights. It didn’t seem like the sort of place where sophisticated men might gather, but as I sat behind the wheel of my rusty, oil-burning, thirty-year-old station wagon, I realized I was in no position to judge anyone’s level of sophistication.
Are there really that many strip clubs along the highways of the rural south? It sure seems that way. It’s a little strange to be on the open road, a hundred miles or more from the next city, and spot a billboard advertising “Tiffany’s Cabaret” in a field of grazing cattle, or a sign exclaiming “Showgirls!” rising above a red tobacco barn. Years ago, I stopped at a gas station near one of these businesses, and the clerk grinned nastily, leaned in and whispered, “You here to see you some nekkid women?”
Nekkid women. His eyes glowed with wicked excitement as the words rolled off his tongue. Nekkid women.
I’ve invited several friends to my nudist club over the years, but only one of them was a woman. “No way! she exclaimed. “I ain’t about to parade around nekkid for a bunch of damn perverts!” Parade around? Damn perverts? Was this her perception of nudist life? Did she really believe our quiet campground was little more than an outdoor strip club filled with rowdy, beer-soaked men whistling and waving dollars? Did she think my invitation was some devious effort to round up fresh entertainment?
I was a little offended by her distrust, but I guess an invitation to get naked and play badminton in some backwoods camp does sound pretty suspicious when you’ve grown up in towns where men gather in windowless buildings to sit at grimy tables and stare at nude women, and where every gas station features racks of dirty magazines casually displayed next to bags of barbecue chips and jars of pickled eggs. I suppose women have good reason to be a little skeptical when someone encourages them to take off their clothes.
Getting naked is different for us fellows. Easier, perhaps. There’s no stigma attached to taking off our clothes. Nobody pays money to watch us undress, to see us do bump and grind routines at the neighborhood strip joint. We haven’t spent our adult lives being ogled and gawked at. In fact, when we do take off our clothes, someone usually tells us to put them back on. Once, as my shirtless neighbor was pulling weeds from his garden, a scowling woman in a passing car slowed down and shouted “Nobody wants to see that!” “Well, I didn’t mean to upset nobody,” he later remarked. “It’s just so humid, is all.” And I’ll never forget the year my cousin showed up for Christmas dinner in his underwear. “No Sir! You ain’t sitting at this dinner table in your drawers!” our grandmother shouted. He made a reasonable case that boxer shorts were technically pants, but she was in no mood to negotiate. “You go upstairs and cover that butt before I blister it with a switch!”
It’s unfortunate that my friend had such a distorted view of the role women play in the nudist community. After all, the president of AANR-East is a woman. Both the president and vice president of AANR are women. Female presidents are nothing new for AANR. We elected our first, Mrs. Margaret Pulis, back in 1947! The editor and assistant editor of The Bulletin are women. Four of our seven club trustees are women. Nine of our seventeen board members are women. Over at the Naturist Society, five of the seven leadership positions are held by women. Who keeps the peace at our designated nude beaches? The beach moms. Women like Mrs. Zelda Suplee were managing camps back in the thirties, and my own rural campground was owned and operated by a woman and her elderly mother for nearly twenty years.
It’s significant that so many of our nudist clubs are managed by women and so many of the key positions in our national organizations are held by women. It takes a bit of work to attract women to our clubs, but it’s noteworthy that so many assume leadership roles once they join. When we talk about how nudism erases class distinctions and bridges the generation gap, we should also talk about how nudists disregard traditional gender stereotypes. There’s respect, opportunity and equality in the nudist community. Rich and poor, young and old, male and female, everyone has a place at our table.
And, unlike my grandmother’s table at that Christmas dinner so many years ago, nobody gets hollered at for forgetting to put on their pants.