Mike Kush punches the gas on a golf cart, the wind tousling his grizzled ponytail. “You look hot,” he says, waving a disapproving hand at my trousers. “Feel free to take your clothes off.”
A husky man, Kush takes up most of the seat, leaving only a few hallowed centimeters between me and his naked body. We’re speeding through the residential streets of the Lake Como Family Nudist Resort in Pasco county, Florida. It’s a Saturday morning and families are sunbathing around the community pool and clubhouse. The air is thick with the languid warmth of summer camp.
Lake Como is one of 13 nudist resorts and neighborhoods that pepper a 15-mile stretch of US 41 running through the rural heart of Pasco county, just inland of Tampa Bay, Florida. (Clothing is required by law everywhere outside the confines of each resort or neighborhood.)
Some “resorts” are nothing more than a cluster of trailer parks, others are primly landscaped and lined with stucco mansions. “But Lake Como was the original,” Kush says.
In 1941, Ava Weaver Brubaker, a tax lawyer from Tampa, bought this plot of land, then a 350-acre orange grove, after his doctor had prescribed nude sunbathing to treat a rare skin disease. He and his wife, Dorothy, grew fond of the practice and started inviting their friends. Within a few years they were taking out classified ads in nudist journals and selling memberships.
Pasco county is now considered to be the nudist capital of the world – nowhere else has a larger year-round population of nudists (or “naturists”, the preferred term). They have played an integral role in the local economy for decades. The bed and sales tax revenue generated from the 10,000 permanent residents and nearly 1 million annual tourists helps fund everything from school districts to law enforcement.
There’s a neighborhood or resort for every flavor: couples, singles, swingers, multigenerational families, LGBTQ people, retirees. But as different varieties of nudists decamped to Pasco county over the years, an ideological gulf has formed. On one side there’s Lake Como, the oldest and surely the most staid, which upholds traditional nudist values (no PDA, no sexual overtones) and where children are welcome.
Then there’s the Caliente Club and Resort, a natural adversary just up the road, known for its wild swinger parties and bawdy social media campaigns. Both represent the profile of naturism in America today. Both struggle with being misunderstood by the outside world and share the common goal of normalizing naturism, but they spend a considerable amount of time grappling with each other.
“It’s sad how the outside world looks down on us,” Karyn McMullen, president of the Lake Como co-op, tells me inside a screened-in porch bar called the Butt Hutt. She has a helmet of lank, straw-colored hair, its tone enhanced by the contrast of her chestnutty brown skin.
The greatest misconception about their lifestyle, McMullen says, is that it’s sexual in nature. “It has absolutely nothing to do with sex,” she says. “It’s much deeper than that.”
Whether they were raised in nudist families or introduced to it as adults, Pasco county is filled with people who have eschewed conventional lives in favor of this enclave. They say stripping one’s clothes leads to an immediate dissolution of ego – once they are no longer obscured, bodies and any perceived differences, are rendered invisible. It’s the only way to achieve authentic social parity.
“We took off our fears and inhibitions when we got here,” McMullen, who’s lived at the resort since 2012, says. “We just trust one another.”
Contemporary naturism began in Germany in the early 20th century as a folk medicine panacea, and then transformed during the postwar years into a manner of dissent from the authoritarian rule of the German Democratic Republic. Conversely, the origins of American naturism are socialistic. Lee Baxandall, a prominent figure of the new left, dedicated the second act of his life to nudist advocacy in America. (A nude statue of Karl Marx stands in the lobby of the American Nudist Research Library in nearby Kissimmee.)
The fact that Lake Como is a co-op is further reification. All the money from daily passes for tourists or annual membership dues from residents is cycled back into property maintenance and improvements. Roughly half of the resorts in the area function as not-for-profits. If the principle stands that gender, race and sexuality are immaterial, then wealth and class are too.
These are reasons why nude recreation is gaining popularity in America and abroad, particularly with demographics other than white people of a certain vintage. According to the American Association for Nude Recreation (AANR) – the oldest naturist advocacy group in North America, which offers legal counseling and a lobbying arm – the Black Naturists Association (BNA) is the fastest growing nudist organization in the country. Membership skews younger, and has increased tenfold in the last year.
Conversations I overhear among residents at Lake Como recall those halcyon days of childhood, before we found significance in skin color, or sneakers or the type of car our parents drove. That return to innocence is the argument for Pasco county being a utopian experiment worth preserving, though they feel it’s undermined by Caliente. Residents of Lake Como and other traditional resorts where children are raised and recreate have spent decades trying to divorce the association of nudism with sexual deviancy, whereas Caliente wholly embraces it.
As I make my way to leave the Butt Hutt, a man with mussed white hair, an imposing frame and an all-over tan corners me. He introduces himself as Rich Pasco. “I was hoping I’d get a chance to talk to you about Caliente,” he says, peering down from double-bridge eyeglasses. “I live there.”
We arrange to meet later at Caliente, a few miles north on Highway 41. In parting, he reaches out for a handshake and I have an instant flash of all the moments throughout the afternoon I’d seen him use that hand to gather his inert scrotum and clear a space so he could cross his legs.
Royal palms and a high wall of mildewed sandstone conceal Caliente’s thousands of members from the highway. At the entrance to the palatial country club, I’m made to empty my pockets and walk through a metal detector. The resort felt it had to ratchet up security since the 2016 shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, being that it hosts large queer crowds.
I hear this is the most “upscale” nudist resort in the world, with it’s full-service spa, fitness center, thatched chickee huts, five pools, eight bars, restaurants and on-site sex shop. The grand lobby bar is furnished with ersatz-gold accents and plaster replicas of Renaissance statues. I follow a stream of foot traffic out the back door and find dozens if not hundreds, of nudists luxuriating below – a field of bare buttocks slathered with coconut tanning oil and spread across neat rows of lounge chairs, like country hams basting under heat lamps. Though Caliente has hundreds of permanent residents, it’s equally popular (as are all resorts in the area) for selling day passes, weekend memberships and vacation rentals.
A part-time employee and air force veteran named Kevin greets me. He asks that his last name be withheld, reminding me that outsiders often take a dim view of his lifestyle choice. He says that Caliente is “lifestyle friendly”, a euphemism for sexually open and experimental. “The line between nudity and sex is very thin,” he says. “We don’t allow anyone under 21 because we feel that nudity, booze and children don’t really mix.”
As we round a tiki bar, he launches into a soliloquy about Caliente’s openness to all comers, its popularity with LGTBQ and younger crowds. “Tell me who’s gay and who isn’t,” he says, pointing at the “conversation pool”, naked bodies poking out, aged 21 to 81, various shapes and shades, drowning in Malibu rum and growing tender as the afternoon wanes.
Eventually, I find Rich Pasco on the balcony of a sports bar. He orders a pitcher full of Diet Coke and tells me about how he sees himself as a global ambassador of nudism – with multiple advocacy groups and a political action committee dedicated to destigmatizing nude recreation. As a kind of stump speech, he offers the quixotic story of his first experience with public nudity. At a New Jersey YMCA, a lifeguard told a group of preteen boys that they had to get naked before jumping in the pool. “We all dropped our trunks right there and jumped in,” he says. “We swam all afternoon.”
I have an internal reaction: the thought of stripping naked at a public pool is a boyhood trauma that would be difficult for me to survive without permanent psychological damage, but Pasco says he’s been hooked ever since.
He explains that when he bought his house in Caliente – one of the first built in 2004 – the place still welcomed families, and held the same rules as Lake Como. “Adults and children were naked in the pool, and there’s nothing untoward going on.”
That changed when the resort started losing money. A steep overhead made it incapable of surviving on a lean diet of membership dues. New management started selling sex instead of naked family outings to attract outsiders.
Rich is surprisingly gentle in his criticism of the resort, considering he’s spent most of his life trying to convince the world that nudity is not inherently sexual, and now he has to walk by flyers for the “naughty schoolgirl party” in the Caliente clubhouse. But most classic naturists are less tolerant of Caliente. Five years ago, the resort was dismissed from the AANR for damaging the reputation of “social family nudism”.
With all the fuss surrounding Caliente, I ask why he doesn’t just move to another neighborhood.
“Look at this place.” He unfolds his arms to the lavish playground below, as if to say, How could Peter Pan yield his dominion? For now, he balances, or perhaps tempers, his enchantment in Caliente with the homely environs of Como, keeping a bare foot in both worlds.
Sunday morning back at Lake Como bears a steady breeze and mild humidity: naturist’s delight, by the looks of it. They are mooning about, in smocks or muumuus, but the majority wear only Birkenstocks. Seeing them walk around this thinly forested area, unhurried, a bit lost and listless – there’s something prehistoric, evolutionarily backwards in it.
Rich Pasco unfolds himself from his Prius, steps out of his ratty cargo shorts and walks bare-assed into the Garden of Eden church, a squat asylum-white building next to a cypress grove. Inside, Pastor Norm arranges Bibles on the plastic tables. He has spiky, salt-and-pepper hair. Instead of vestments he wears rubber-toe shoes and a T-shirt that reads “Free Hugs”, his wattle and business end poking out from under the hem. Jayson McMullen, Karyn’s husband, strums a few chords on his acoustic guitar as 15 or so parishioners file in.
Garden of Eden is nondenominational. A small but faithful bunch, most live at Como, or in the area, but some drive from hours away to make the Sunday service. There’s no communion, no theatrics, just fellowshipping that connects them to the biblically tinged, living-as-God-intended ethos which fed early strains of nudism.
We open with a hymn, Lord I Lift Your Name on High, and Pastor Norm drums softly on the table. His following sermon is a paean for positive body image, “To affirm the goodness of our bodies exactly how God created them,” he says, “that’s what naturism is all about.” The group nods serenely; the appeal was universal.
Jayson gently massages his wife’s shoulders. Karyn closes her eyes and lolls her head. I felt like I was watching a scene from the early days, before the community grew big enough that the clothed world stepped in to admonish, and before a title like “nudist capital” preceded them. Back when it was just a few guys and girls hanging out with their clothes off, with nothing to fight about.