About 30 naked people, an even mix of males and females, lay on the floor in a darkened, closed-off room, on soft, padded mats covered with towels for purposes of hygiene. When they took off their clothes, a small bit of laughter spread throughout the room. They stood in lines, bending over and stretching, completely in the nude, as an instructor led them through basic yoga poses such as Mountain or Downward Dog, wherein one stands on all fours, pelvis pushed up toward the ceiling.
This is not at a commune or colony. No, this is an event at Brown University, part of a weeklong series on nudity.
“Nudity in the Upspace,” as the series is titled, is a workshop devoted to confronting stigmas about the naked body. Now in its second year, it aims to provide an open forum to discuss nudity and “explore nudity in all forms” — one’s own and that of other people. The students who dreamed up the nude sessions submitted their proposal to the “Upspace Lottery” (the Upspace being a room in T. F. Green Hall where the event took place) held by Brown’s Production Workshop, a student-run theatre. The Student Activities Office, an arm of the university, gave the thumbs-up for the forum.
The yoga session, held the evening of October 1, was led by Brown senior Dulma Tara, who promised — according to the event description online — to “stretch your body, perhaps in ways that it hasn’t been stretched before!” Other events in the week included nude body painting, nude theatre, and a nude cabaret and open-mic night in which “various performers will sing, dance, act, or do anything they desire to do in the nude in front of an audience.” (Viewers were alerted that they could choose to be clothed or naked, as they wished.)
When I wrote student coordinators Becca Wolinsky, Camila Pacheco-Flores, and Gabrielle Sclafani, they were initially very excited to receive media attention. “We would love to talk to you,” the three girls wrote me.
After talking with the university’s public-affairs office, however, they changed their mind: “We’ve talked to people at the university, and we would like to tell you to please not write anything about Nudity in the Upspace.” When I attempted to speak with them in person at Brown, they refused to answer any questions, saying it would “compromise the safety of [their] space” to have media coverage of the event.
I asked Marisa Quinn, vice president for public affairs and university relations, why the student coordinators had decided not to talk to me, even though at first they had welcomed my inquiries. “We advised students that they should not feel compelled to respond to media inquiries and could direct reporters to the media-relations office, allowing them to focus on the program,” Quinn said. When I then directed my questions to the media office, Quinn replied with a non-answer: “Brown is a community that values a diversity of thought and freedom of expression. The university seeks to provide a safe and secure environment for students and student groups to explore responsibly issues such as politics, culture, identity, and the arts. The program you’ve asked about . . . is one of more than 400 student groups supported and coordinated through the Office of Student Activities.”
After the yoga session, many students left the building very happy with their experience. “I thought the event was great,” Chris Piette, a senior, told me. “It was my first time doing yoga, and it was my first time being naked with people. It was pretty liberating.” He told me that the class lasted about an hour and a half after the student coordinators gave introductory “pointers and guidelines” about accepting people’s bodies and maintaining proper conduct in the space.
“It was actually pretty difficult,” Brown junior Liam van Deren said. “I’m definitely going to Thursday, Friday, and Saturday’s events. I’ve already got tickets. I went last year.”
When asked whether a week on nudity was a good thing to have at Brown, Piette said, “Yeah, a big part of coming to Brown is opening your mind in terms of accepting people and just getting a more generous worldview, and this is an exercise in that.”
But it wasn’t only the college-age crowd attempting to enjoy the experience. Shortly after the session started, a gruff-voiced middle-aged man drove up in front of T. F. Green Hall. “Hey, do you know where that nude yoga thing is?” he asked me in a loud whisper, leaning out of his window. “I’d love to get in on that.” When I replied it was in the building next to us, he added: “So why aren’t you in there? It seems like it would be great. I’m going try to get in and see it. I mean, who wouldn’t want to watch something like that?” The student coordinators (thankfully) refused to admit him. “Man, what a bummer — seems like it would have been fun,” he lamented, before driving off toward East Providence.
If news of unbounded sexual freedom in the Ivy League, or for that matter in American universities in general, was at all surprising, one might gasp upon learning of “Nudity in the Upspace.” Yet, year in and year out, we hear news of sex-focused practices and events that seem increasingly acceptable only within the confines of college. From Sex Week at Yale to porn classes at State University of New York and Pasadena City College to naked parties to pan-sexual dances, the list goes on and on.
One student at Brown, a junior who wished to remain anonymous, told me that while Brown is great, many things are wrong with its social and sexual culture. “My roommate and other people I know have trouble finding relationships at Brown,” he said. “My roommate can find a hookup but can’t find any dates. You can find someone to have sex with but not a friend. In the end, my roommate felt dragged around, felt like it was all about sexuality and not feelings.”
He also described a reaction to his being religious: “One time when people found out I was Catholic, they asked me, ‘Why do you hate homosexuals?’ and ‘Why do you think that terminating a fetus is the same as killing a baby?’ It’s a contentless, reactionary response.”
“But it’s not like there aren’t people who have had four-year-long relationships here,” he added. “And right now I’m very happy at Brown.”
Another junior, who also wished to remain anonymous, told me about his experience at Brown’s SexPowerGod, a clothing-optional dance devoted to allowing students the opportunity to have “pan-sexual” experiences. “One time somebody just reached down and grabbed me,” he said. “People were in all states of dress, from completely clothed to completely naked. Another group of guys tried to pull my pants down.” When I asked him if girls received the same treatment at the dance, he said: “I’m not 100 percent sure, but I don’t think girls get grabbed like that. That would probably cross a line. . . . It’s vague, though.”
“Nudity in the Upspace” will continue until October 5 and might return for its third season next fall. Brown students continue to push the boundaries of social stigma. “There’s a latent disrespect for tradition here,” the first student told me. “Lots of students are blithely in favor of liberal sexual and political ideas without thinking of the consequences.” Sounds like college.
— Alec Torres is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.