Lessons from a Swedish co-ed sauna

Herräng, Sweden is home to the largest swing-dance camp in the world. It hosts hundreds of multi-national dancers in one small town for a month, literally doubling their population every year. Dancers spend their days taking classes, hiking, paddling rowboats, making new friends, dancing the night away to live music, or relaxing in the co-ed sauna.

Co-ed sauna. Those words struck fear into my heart. I was raised to believe that being naked meant asking for sex. I hated that I my C-cup breasts drew unwanted attention at age 15 as much as they did at age 21. I remember wearing a v-neck top—a modest one—and my then boyfriend trying to feel me up all night because, as he said, “why would you wear that top if you didn’t want the attention?” In short, I was terrified of being naked or showing skin.

The only naked female bodies I had seen were in my dad’s plethora of Playboy magazines. I thought I was hideous, and the sexual attention I received from my dad and other men felt so dirty that I dressed like a boy until my 20s.

Then in Herräng, my new Canadian friend Lucy invited me to sauna during co-ed hours, promising it would feel nothing like being in America. I heard that Europe was more laid back about nudity, but it still took me three alcoholic ciders to build up the courage. She took me into the changing area (also co-ed), and I stripped off my clothes in the same order she did, trying to act cool.

With us was an Australian man named Ben and an Irishman named Pat. I took my towel with me using the excuse that I wanted something to sit on, but really I wanted a safety blanket. We entered the sauna to find two professional dancers I idolized, though they seemed less intimidating naked. I sat down on a bench and looked at the bodies around me.

The professional dancer had cellulite on her extremely muscular legs. Lucy’s breasts hung just like mine, and her hips had a layer of fat that splayed out beneath her when she sat, also like mine. Ben and Pat talked casually, never once making sexual remarks or staring me in the boobs. We made jokes about Ben’s unusually large penis, and how painful it must be for Pat’s nipples once the sauna heated his nipple rings, but that was it. I felt relaxed, confident, and best of all, normal.

Soon, the four of us became a sauna team, meeting every night for ciders and delightful sauna conversation. While nude, I made new friends, danced, saw dozens of naked bodies of all shapes and sizes, and no one made me feel uncomfortable. Ben told me I had nice breasts once, but it was with such casual aplomb he could have been complimenting my shoes. After revitalizing our tired muscles in the sauna, we’d get dressed and go dance—no sexual tension, no misconstrued ideas—the sauna was as benign as a dive bar—

—until week three. At Herrang, week three featured famous American dance instructors, which in turn drew the American dancers. At dinner I remember overhearing American men talk about how awesome the co-ed sauna would be because there was a Danish dance team of barely legal girls at the camp—maybe they’d get to see them naked.

Sadly, this was a typical; the sauna’s week-three co-ed hours frequently filled with American men and zero women—because it was creepy. Armed with the knowledge that co-ed hours might be ruined for the week, my sauna team and I sallied forth regardless. Ten minutes in and I wanted a turtleneck. Even my male American dance partners looked at me like I was giving them permission to approach me sexually. On the dance floor, they’d hold me closer and comment on seeing my naked body. It ruined friendships.

I took two things away from my experience in Sweden: 1) women in America don’t see nearly enough normal, naked female bodies with which to compare themselves; 2) somewhere in their education, American men are taught that being naked equates the potential for sex.

I think a lot about behavior and how it’s formed. When we say it’s society’s fault that women feel ashamed of their bodies and men are pigs, who are we blaming? Society is us. It’s our own actions and behavior that perpetuate these ideals—and we are the ones who can change it.

What if women actually liked their bodies? What if men were taught in sex-ed that nudity doesn’t equal foreplay? What if neither sex was taught at an early age that a naked body was taboo? Would women’s near-constant quest to be more “physically attractive” cease? Would men’s ideas of acceptable sexual advances be curtailed? Would “asking for it” involve women actually asking men for sex instead of men assuming a low-cut top is a secret signal? I don’t know.

What I do know is that after four weeks of being naked in a Swedish co-ed sauna (excluding the American ogle-fest that was week three) I learned that it is possible to like my body, and for men to appreciate it without sexualizing it—two statements I never thought I’d hear myself say—which is really the saddest part of the story.

16 thoughts on “Lessons from a Swedish co-ed sauna

  1. obviously it’s kind of ironic that you were uncomfortable with people objectifying your breasts, and then went and objectified someone’s penis.

    that said, i loved the saunas in baden-baden though at first it was super intimidating.

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    1. Ya I thought so too. The men started the jokes because Ben had earned a nickname within the camp (Donkey Ben) that he was quite proud of. They started joking around about it and I just sort of laughed along since he and his buddy started it.

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    2. It simply shows the non-sexual environment a sauna provides. Being able to talk (and joking) about these things in a mixed gender environment shows the relaxed atmosphere and has everything to do with body acceptance.

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    3. I think she was saying that the comment about her breasts was nice in one context but not in another, like the penis comment. That people can exchange physical comments without it being sexualized. I’m not sure though.

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  2. In my mind, what I’ve been taught aside, … if a man is attracted to me and sees me naked… it’s going to turn him on sexually. Maybe I don’t want that. Maybe that is super awkward. I just don’t know about nudity in public. I’d be completely freaked out. For me my sexual organs (vagina and breasts) are to stimulate those who want to have sex with me, so that’s who I expose them to. Yes I know breasts are for feeding babies but they are secondary sexual characteristics and sexually turn every man I know on to look at. Then again I live in America. Still, not sure why people feel the Need to be completely naked. Is there some advantage to sitting in a sauna without panties than with panties?? Wouldn’t you burn your bum anyway?

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    1. It’s more physically comfortable, Pamela – you don’t have clammy damp clothing sticking to you. I enjoy being naked where appropriate. I’ve no desire to be a nudist and I wouldn’t go to the supermarket naked but I love swimming and hot-tubbing nude when I can. But of course, I am a European, so I guess I most be more relaxed about nudity 🙂

      The most fantastic spa I’ve ever been to was in Amsterdam. It was mixed and completely naked (I don’t think clothing was even allowed) and it was so freeing seeing people of all ages, abilities and body types just hanging out and relaxing. No one was weird or predatory about it at all. It was great.

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    2. Pamela…..
      Kim and I have been to a number of nude and clothing optional resorts both here in Australia and the US for more than a decade as well as this we’ve done 5 nude cruises and I have to say that in this time we have never seen any “visual indication” of sexual excitement, was that subtle enough, so the awkward nature you’re worried about won’t be the issue you think it is.

      For those that think this is still about sex here’s an experiment we’ve suggested a few times to try to dispel the whole sexual nature of social nudity and yes you get to keep your clothes on.

      Take some time on a Saturday morning and head down to your local shopping mall and park yourself in a café with a view of the people passing by and while enjoying a coffee, or whatever you’d prefer, look at them now imagine them smiling and naked. Remember for this to work you need to imagine all of them naked. No not just the 20 something’s of the opposite sex, all of them those older, younger, bigger, same sex the lot. Now how sexy is that image? I’m guessing your answer will be “not very”.

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  3. This sort of thing is virtually nonexistant in American culture. I’ve only found myself in a mixed-gender nude situation twice. The first was at a hot spring spa, and actually, speaking as a male, it was just socially awkward — mostly because it felt like the social rules were slightly different, but I was on my own and I was mostly too afraid of offending anyone to be very sociable. So I was self-conscious and didn’t really have a good time. Although the scenery was beautiful and the hot springs felt great.

    The second situation was at a Phish festival in Limestone, Maine — the middle of nowhere at the top of the country. At the end of the first night there was an announcement that there was going to be a mass nude Spencer Tunick photo shoot. I screwed up my courage and went. Everyone seemed a little nervous and on edge until we all undressed and then it seemed like no one was nervous or self conscious. It seemed impossible to feel very self conscious about being nude when lost in a sea of thousands of other nude people. It was completely non-sexual and felt like being a little kid running around naked. People were laughing and joking and Spencer got a little unnerved with his boisterous crowd of models. We posed for his picture, which came out looking very sterile and arty and was completely non-representative of the silly party atmosphere. When the photo shoot was over, most people put their clothes back on but hundreds of people just gathered their clothes up and walked back to the campground nude. For the rest of the day there were nude Phishheads wandering the campground and a few even came into the concert.

    What I took away from that was that it is certainly possible for Americans to handle public nudity in certain situations. The difference seemed to be that at the hot springs everyone else seemed like old-timers who had made this part of their lifestyle a long time ago, and I was the nervous outsider. At the festival, virtually no one there had ever done anything like this before so everyone was nervous, then no one was. I would be a bit leery of drawing blanket conclusions about Americans based on their behavior in a completely unfamiliar social situation that you have had some time to acclimate yourself to.

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    1. ‘speaking as a male, it was just socially awkward — mostly because it felt like the social rules were slightly different’.
      I think you’ve found the issue. The rules are actually no different to when you’re clothed. Yes there are some etiquette changes,such as sitting on towels, but the ‘rules’ are the same. What is inappropriate when clothed is just as inappropriate when nude.
      I know this sounds overly simple and it is. Which I guess is why so many people seem to have trouble understanding it.

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  4. This is a beautifully written piece of shared experience, and a really insightful glimpse into the sad state of affairs in not just America but Canada as well. I cringed when you first mentioned the Americans, guessing what kind of experience you might end up having, and I’m sad to say you didn’t prove me wrong.

    To be fair, I had some incredibly comfortable naked time with a bunch of blues dancers at Lost Valley Blues Recess in Oregon. We shared wine and cheese, talked and even danced, all without any sense whatsoever that the nudity part of things was sexual or strange to anyone. And we were a mix of American and Canadian dancers.

    Most of the time, though, I would probably expect the kind of behavior you’ve written about, and I’m tired of it. I hope this article and others like it can start to inspire some growth in the world! I’m working toward my own kind of change through movement classes that also address social cues, boundary setting, and clear communication, things which are vastly under-evolved in just about every dance scene I’ve ever experienced.

    Thanks again for what you’ve shared here!

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  5. To follow up, you make to salient points: 1) women in America don’t see nearly enough normal, naked female bodies with which to compare themselves; 2) somewhere in their education, American men are taught that being naked equates the potential for sex.

    We likely won’t be able to solve the first problem until we, as a society, solve the second problem.

    best, eugene

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    1. Thank you for your kind words Eugene. I’m glad you liked the article and that there are other people out there who see there is a problem when men are taught to equate skin with sexual permission. I fear a lot of that also leads to the hideous “she wanted it” rape culture we see in America. I spend a lot of time at Korean day spas, which are all nude women. It’s very different from American day spa atmosphere and I wish more women were exposed to them. It has changed how I view my body dramatically and I am very grateful to the friend who introduced me to them.

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  6. Maya, I’m very sorry you had that experience. I’m aghast at the american men’s behavior. There are alternatives in the US you can find for a relaxing nude vacation. The community of naturists/social nudists in the US behaves approach to nudity is the same as found in Europe. They do not jump directly from nudity to sexuality. Sadly, given the bizarre stigma attached to being a practicing nudist in the US, many american nudists must remain in the closet, pursuing in anonymity the freedom and release of the nude recreation. (Which I explain it to curious – and trusted – friends as taking the idea of letting your hair down out to its fullest expression.)
    It’s odd that TV and Film seem to be saturated with images of sexualized nudity, but rarely do we see nudity or skin in a non-sexual context. And often if a scene with skin is initially nonsexual, there is usually a voyeuristic feel to it. Worst of all is the utterly abhorrent combination of nudity with violence. The media are the problem, but then, as you say, so are we for tolerating how we educate ourselves.
    You’re not the first woman to realize that if american women spent more time around other women in the nude, then their attitudes about their bodies and their selves might change. The real challenge, as you point out, is how change mainstream male attitudes about nudity. How do we reverse the decades long socialization that nudity equals sexuality?
    There are nudist/naturist clubs you can attend in the US and be treated respectfully. Check out the American Association for Nude Recreation (AANR) for resources. Best wishes.

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    1. Getting more normal females (not the ones that think they have to behave like men) in management/CEO positions in the media and entertainment industry, would probably be a good start. The male domination has clearly pushed the idea of ‘sex sells’ beyond acceptable limits.

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  7. Reblogged this on Work in Progress… and commented:
    yes it is a sad commentary on american males. when i spent a summer studying abroad, i noticed the difference in the attitudes o nudity. while i did not go nude in europe, i did wear skimpier clothing without the leering eyes of american males. i don’t think in this country, nudity will ever be equated with just not having clothes on. very sad.

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