Nudity, moral panic, and The Blob
A historical look at how groomer panic and social media crusaders represent an altogether new kind of threat to family naturism
When The Blob hit theater screens in the early fall of 1958, a culture of paranoia had taken hold in America. The Cold War was in full swing. The previous summer months had seen President Eisenhower sign the National Aeronautics and Space Act into law, creating NASA. The United States and the Soviets were escalating their arms race by launching satellites into space, and school kids were tested with air raid drills and taught how to prepare for nuclear fallout. The campy sci-fi film about an extraterrestrial glob of gelatinous pink goo consuming and growing at a plodding, steady pace until it’s larger than buildings, gobbling up people and vehicles like popcorn, came at a moment in time where its symbolism for the menace of communism was not lost on people.
To this day, the transcendent image of an ever-expanding magenta monstrosity, menacing communities, consuming the youth, and leaving whole towns leveled in its wake, provides a vivid symbol of the exaggerated hysteria and fear that develops in response to perceived or unknown threats.
Today, after several generations of media-induced moral panics over communist invasions, satanic cults and stranger danger, the hysteria and fear that has slowly grown to consume us has reached a critical mass.
As a society, we’ve grown suspicious of everyone. Hostile, reactionary, boiling mistrust.
Not every suspicion is unfounded, of course. We’ve also born witness to real abuses and conspiracies over the years. Penn State. The Boy Scouts. The Catholic Church. We’ve woken up.
At the same time, truth itself has been discarded for the sensational. Trust in institutions has deteriorated. Misinformation is rampant. Political rhetoric has become incendiary. We have alternative facts and fake news, Pizzagate and QAnon.
In this climate, even the most innocent things can be twisted and distorted beyond recognition. The paranoia around child predation in particular has reached a fever pitch, driven by a constant barrage of media reports and sensationalized stories, often rooted in homophobia and hate. By nearly all visible measures, this culture of moral panic is expanding, like The Blob, seeking new subcultures to consume in order to feed its ever-growing power to annihilate.
What is it? Why? And what does it mean for nudists?
What is a moral panic, exactly?
Dr. Stanley Cohen is the South African criminologist who first developed and popularized the term “Moral Panic” with his 1972 book Folk Devils and Moral Panics. According to the book, a moral panic occurs when a “condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests.” He categorizes moral panics as having three main characteristics:
The media creates folk devils. The media often focuses on the behavior of certain groups or individuals, and strips them of all favorable characteristics, exclusively applying negative ones to create an evil persona. This can lead to a moral panic, where the public becomes concerned about a threat that is often exaggerated or nonexistent. Cohen calls these scapegoats “folk devils.”
The threat is often exaggerated. The objective threat posed by the folk devil is often far less than popularly perceived. This is because the media and authorities often present the threat in a way that is designed to scare people.
Public hysteria leads to vindictive legislation. Public hysteria often leads to the passing of legislation that is very vindictive, unnecessary, and serves to justify the agendas of those in power and authority. This can have a negative impact on the folk devil, as well as on society as a whole.
Where does nudity/nudism come in?
Nudity is no stranger to being the folk devil in moral panics, historically. Moral panics have erupted over nudity in art for generations,from Manet to Mapplethorpe. We seem to be currently in the midst of a wave of small panics over nudity, with recent media flurries surrounding Michelangelo’s David or Channel 4’s Naked Education. As suggested by Victoria Bateman, fellow in economic history at the University of Cambridge, there seems to be a current shift toward modesty.
Nudists, too, are often the folk devils for moral panics, historically speaking.In America the history of media outlets using the word "nudists" to add a sensational element to headlines and news reports goes back to the 1920s, when the word first began to be used. In the 1930s when American nudist groups were first proliferating in and around New York City, there were multiple notable police raids on nudists which created a flurry of newspaper reports. Since nudism was still a new and sensational movement, news articles often framed adherents as cultists, often negatively associating the activity with immigrants from Germany.
Today the practice of sensationally using the term “nudists” in headlines is as common as ever.
Media is the monster
The media has always been responsible for creating and perpetuating moral panics. Media companies naturally profit from them. But with the advent of the internet and social media, the weaponization of moral panic has reached new heights. Now, anyone with an internet connection can spread misinformation and fear about a particular group of people, which has given unprecedented political power to social media networks, including their influencers and their algorithms. Cable news now competes with 4Chan for clicks. Everything must be sensational.
Today in America it’s the groomer panic, targeting LGBTQ+ people and their allies, resulting in the passage of oppressive legislation, and discourse that is so hostile, the media refers to it as a “culture war.” All civility is lost. The rhetoric has become so toxic that it poses real threats to our democracy and equality.
To top it all off, it’s terrible for children, as it seeks to criminalize their families and neighbors, and perpetuates the stigma and shame a young queer person is already surrounded by as they are just coming to understand—and fear—what is true about themselves.
Think of the children
Moral panics often use the fear of endangered children to create an emotional response to a perceived threat. This fear has been used to target a variety of “folk devils” throughout history, from communists and homosexuals in the 50’s to Marilyn Manson and video games in the 90’s.
Of course people want to protect children, which is why it is such an effective pretense to justify tighter social control.
“Think of the children” has become a meme because of its representation of this very real phenomenon. After the popularization of the phrase on The Simpsons, its use in society was often ridiculed, and the cliche came to be referred to as "Lovejoy's Law" in internet culture as early as 2006. In formal debate, the phrase has been used to describe a tactical attempt to end discussion by invoking an unanswerable argument.
Given the current atmosphere, it’s not surprising that the mere mention of nudity in relation to children can whip up a fury. While it’s natural and reasonable to fear things with potential for exploitation or abuse, it seems that when children are a part of a panic, rational skepticism tends to take a backseat to emotional judgement.
Children in nudism
This culture of fear and suspicion poses obvious challenges for advocates of family naturism, who for generations have promoted that simple nudity and the human body are not things to be ashamed of or stigmatized, but rather wholesome and natural facets of the human experience, even for kids.
Naturism has a long history as a healthy family friendly practice. Even in its earliest iterations as a social movement in Europe and the United States, nudist magazines and organizational publications promoted articles and images showing families and children enjoying wholesome nude events and sports, swimming and camping. According to their website, The American Association for Nude Recreation has promoted family nudism since 1931.
Peoples’ reactions to nudity vary greatly along cultural lines. What’s shocking or immoral to one person might be commonplace to their neighbor.
For thousands of years, nudity was not legislated, it was a common feature of life. Before plumbing systems, people bathed publicly. Before affordable clothing, dress was often a luxury. Common nudity was not seen as scandalous. Even as recently as fifty years ago, simple nudity was more prevalent in our culture, with (gender segregated) nude swimming at YMCAs, and images of skinny dipping kids adorning the covers of Saturday Evening Post and appearing family movies like Pollyanna.
There were certainly moral crusades against nudism in those days, such as the one stirred up by radio televangelist Dr. Braxton Sawyer against nudists in the 1950s, when he campaigned heavily against nudists on his radio program, even attempting to get legislation passed to outlaw the practice, referring to it as a "national menace."However, the uproar of the era seemed more occupied with the mixing of sexes in nude groups than the safety of children in proximity to uncovered skin.
The effects of the stranger danger fears of the 1980s drew an intense focus on protecting children, and have altered societal views around the innocence of simple nudity.
The evolution of panic
By the early 1980s, America had entered a new phase of the Cold War marked by increased hostility and fear. Cable news had just launched and for the first time the all day news cycle filled households with stories of crime and danger. A new panic had begun to take hold, of an epidemic of missing abducted children. This was spurred by a few high profile cases like Adam Walsh, whose horrific kidnapping and murder was front page news across the country.Paranoia began to grip the nation, which responded to the media frenzy with mass panic, a culture of heightened suspicion with media campaigns warning children to never talk to strangers, and legislative policy changes which would ultimately create the security state and help give rise to mass incarceration.
What this moral panic missed was that most documented child abuse occurs in the home with familiars far more often than with strangers down dark alleyways. The hostile, boiling mistrust of strangers that was fomented in this crusade was often informed by racial biases and misinformation. What’s worse is it turns out it wasn’t really protecting kids to begin with.
In 1980, Canadian psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder and his patient (and later wife), Michelle Smith, co-wrote a book called Michelle Remembers. In the book, they made sweeping and lurid claims about satanic ritual abuse, using the controversial practice of recovered memory therapy. The book's publication triggered a wave of allegations throughout the United States and beyond, with many people reporting physical and sexual abuse in the context of occult or satanic rituals. There was a culture of panic that developed, which ultimately resulted in numerous false accusations made against hundreds of people, with some defendants receiving jail sentences, and millions of dollars being spent on trials.
One such example was Fran and Dan Keller, who ran a daycare out of their home and were accused and convicted of multiple counts of child sexual abuse, and spent 21 years in prison before their release in 2013 after newly revealed information about misconduct by the prosecution and other authorities pointed to the use of suggestive techniques and inaccurate physical evidence during their trial.
The “satanic panic”—a distinct offshoot of the larger stranger danger panic—was far-reaching, with over 12,000 unsubstantiated cases reported.Despite the fact that recovered memory therapy was later discredited as an unreliable method for retrieving memories, the panic continued to persist. Of course, it was never the science that had convinced the world to be afraid of satanic ritual abuse in the first place. It was a contagion of fear.
It’s not surprising, when viewed through the lens of moral panics, that movie studios found the 1980s to be an appropriate time to remake The Blob.
The modern Blob
The allegations of a global satanic cult, including the wealthy and elite, abducting and breeding children for human sacrifice, pornography, and prostitution became a pervasive conspiracy theory that has resurfaced in the modern era with movements like QAnon. It was the basis of the 2016 Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which asserted that a child sex ring existed in the basement of a Washington D.C. area pizza shop.
Today, mutations of this fringe theory have even infiltrated mainstream U.S. politics and led to “groomergate”—the recent trend of congressional Republicans accusing Democrats and progressives of "grooming" children as part of a larger conspiracy theory that links LGBTQ+ rights to pedophilia. Again, the moral panic in this case is perpetuated by hateful ignorance and bias. The impact of this rhetoric is not only to further marginalize vulnerable communities, but also to undermine trust in institutions and foster a climate of hatred and violence. By intentionally weaponizing the term "groomer,"Republicans are not just promoting harmful stereotypes and misinformation, but stoking a rabid moral panic which is eroding the very foundations of our democracy.
In an era where social media empowers anyone with a circle of influence the ability to levy an army of followers against a pet cause, the moral panic has become politicized and weaponized in a way that has never really been seen before. Historically, nudists and naturists may have felt insulated from these crusades targeting the LGBTQ+ community, but in the blazing climate of the current culture war, complacency would be foolhardy.
Inching closer to nudists
Fear in Florida
Florida represents a sort of ground zero both for the media-dubbed “culture war” in America, and for American nudism, where nudist leaders involved with national organizations like the AANR-Florida and B.E.A.C.H.E.S Foundation Institute retain lobbyists in the state who are closely watching the current legislative session. As Axios reported just last week, these Florida lobbyists are currently working to tweak the language in two bills they say could negatively impact nudist businesses in the state. One of them, SB1438/HB1423, does not target nudists specifically, but is intended to regulate drag shows, and would criminalize "exposing children to an adult live performance," defined to include any presentation in front of a live audience which depicts or simulates nudity”
It’s worth noting that the cultural uproar over drag shows, and the legislation which is being debated and passed around the country to limit these performances, has implications that reach beyond the realm of drag, posing threats to basic freedoms of speech and expression, freedoms which extend to nude recreation. Tweaking the bills to be less broad may save nudists from direct harm in the short term, but the bills being debated and passed in response to these moral panics strip people of their rights nonetheless, which, in the larger perspective, is wrong even if nudists can save their own skins. As with most moral panics, the victims of can be far reaching, and often include the children people are claiming to protect.
When influencers attack
Legal threats are one thing, but with influential republican lobbyists and attorneys on the payroll, nudists in Florida at least have some preparation in place to fight those battles. However, the emergent threat against nudism is not in the court of law, but in the court of public opinion, and while the PR arms of these longstanding organizations are accustomed to the familiar battlefield of a traditional media landscape, the battle is constantly evolving, and suddenly there are many new and unfamiliar, sometimes insurgent powers of influence and propaganda at play.
Recently, a couple of popular bloggers, leveraging follower counts reaching six and seven figures, have looped nudists into their attacks against the Florida governor on Twitter, pointing to the state’s notoriously nude friendly tourism industry and its family friendly nude beaches as a hypocrisy for a government which also targets drag performances under the false pretense of protecting children—the implication being that nude beaches are not safe for children.
The result of this activity has been a marked uptick in tweets and posts from a legion of followers also expressing outrage over the existence of family nude beaches in the sunshine state.
Notably, as this has been an attempt to "gotcha" the Republican governor, most of this outrage has come from folks who are politically left of center.
Of course, these threats are not divided along political lines. The culture of panic has swept the whole country. In this environment, everything can incriminate, and there is no due process.
As social media is increasingly where people get their information, the culture war is being waged on a new battlefield, in novel ways, employing guerrilla-style tactics of influence and fear. When truth doesn’t factor into the equation, an influencer with a large following and a chip on their shoulder can feasibly do serious public relations damage to family naturism.
Such was the case very recently, when the annual clothing optional event Sentient Fest—which has been held at Empire Haven nudist club in New York since 2019—abruptly cancelled its 2023 dates with an announcement on their Instagram account:
On Wednesday night, we received word that an internet influencer made serious allegations against our primary sponsor, Nudism.TV, which in turn led to the influencer's followers making numerous threats of violence including death threats toward the Nudism.TV founder and his family. Due to Sentient Fest's association with Nudism.TV, we feel concerned for the safety of our facilitators and participants. While we considered the idea of rallying everyone and soldiering through this morass, in the end your safety is more important to us.
The cancellation of Sentient Fest and the reasons behind it are concerning for a multitude of reasons. The incident serves as an example of the potential for an Instagram crusader with droves of followers to draw violent threats against their targets, and it shows us the ways that nudist groups are susceptible to collateral damage. Of course, the very serious allegations at the center of this controversy should not be ignored by the nudist community. It’s imperative that naturists are impeccable in their integrity, and when incidents of abuse are alleged, an authoritative investigation is critical.
In the face of these new threats, I hate to say it, but naturists seem to have a tendency to be too trusting. One charismatic agent—nudist or otherwise—improperly vetted by eager organizations or overly trustful individuals, could represent a chink in the armor with the potential to do serious harm to the larger naturist community with just one sensationalized media story. Of course, panic and suspicion are not the correct response either. Knowledge, diligence, and integrity are the tools naturists must wield to neutralize these new threats. We must craft a scientific argument.
Unfortunately, naturists’ arguments for the benefits of social nudity are almost always anecdotal and subjective, not scientific.
What we don’t know can hurt us
When it comes to the hotbed topic of children and nudity (or naturism), empirical study is crucial for having a productive discussion because it can provide evidence-based insights into the potential effects of naturist activities on children's well-being and safety. Without empirical data, discussions about children in naturism can only be driven by bias, emotions and assumptions, rather than facts. And historically, emotions and assumptions are exactly what has guided our society’s beliefs and practices around this issue. These stigmas and biases even infiltrate medical science.
Dennis Craig Smith encountered this when he first set out to study the effects of raising children in a naturist environment back in 1980. At the time, two of the most prominent voices in parenting and pop psychology were Dr. Benjamin Spock and Dr. Joyce Brothers, respectively.
In the book which resulted from his research, Growing Up Without Shame, Smith wrote:
Dr. Spock specifically warns a parent against allowing a child of the same sex to view him or her without clothes. […] Rivalry, he claims, occurs between sons and fathers because of the parent's much larger penis size.
Dr. [Joyce] Brothers goes on to say that ‘Nudity, even when limited to the family, complicates a child's sexual growth and his or her adjustment.’ […] Dr. Brothers refers to another source, paraphrasing Dr. Sandor Lorand, the honorary president of the Psychoanalytical Association of New York. She says he has pointed out that ‘any parent who parades nude in front of his children, or others, is unconsciously seducing them.’
Unconsciously seducing them? Jealousy over penis size? Surely doctors of such renown would never say something like this without some science to back it up. However, despite the assuredness behind these pop psychologists’ quite serious assertions, Dennis Craig Smith was able to find not one single study to substantiate these claims by Drs. Spock and Brothers.
In a recent seminar on his work given for The Naturist Society Foundation, Dennis Craig-Smith explained:
Our idea about the book was just to look at the research and find out if parents who allowed their children to see them nude, and see other adults nude, were harming the children. But as I said, our first goal was just to read the literature, just to look at what had been studied. And of course the problem was there was no evidence, there were no studies, there was no empirical information at all. Not for Spock, not for Brothers, [...] not for Sandor Lorand, nothing.
Growing Up Without Shame became the first “systematic attempt at studying the effects of a physically open environment.”While the book very transparently admits that it does not provide a definitive answer on whether naturism is healthy and safe for kids, it strongly supports the notion that kids are not harmed by being exposed to a naturist environment, and provides evidence that children who were raised with an openness to naturism tend to excel in school and have healthier relationships in adulthood. To this day, the book is often cited by naturists defending family naturism, partially because it is still one of the only published studies on the subject, over forty years after it was first published.
Growing Up Without Shame concludes that there is a serious need for more empirical research into this topic, and optimistically hopes that more research will soon come. Unfortunately, looking at the situation from the future, it doesn’t appear that it has.
Fighting fear with facts
One of the few people currently working to conduct empirical research into children in naturism is Dr. Keon West, a Rhodes scholar and professor of Social Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. Just last week, Dr. West released the findings of two recent studies in an article titled, Think of the children!: Relationships between nudity-related experiences in childhood, body image, self-esteem and adjustment. The article discusses the purpose of West’s two cross-sectional studies investigating the relationship between naturist activity and positive outcomes in children, specifically body image, self-esteem, and adjustment. The studies found positive associations between naturist activity and positive outcomes, or marginally significant trends in the same direction.
Of course, the studies also have limitations, including low internal reliability of the measure of naturism and lack of significant association between nudity and body image in Study #2.
West’s conclusions emphasize the importance of gathering empirical evidence and avoiding stigmatization of an otherwise benign community or activity.
The Blob isn’t real
In the drive-in movie classic The Blob, the monster that represents the film’s central conflict is an all-consuming entity with no humanity or empathy. The main plot revolves around the town reacting to this threat and taking extreme actions to neutralize it. The townspeople are grappling with a menace that can’t be reasoned with, for which there is no calm, rational solution. This is reflective of how the world views new or unknown threats. But in the real world, most of these perceived threats stem from ignorance about real people and their cultural beliefs and practices, not from sentient Jell-o from outer space.
The subject of children in naturism is often divisive and inflammatory because of cultural attitudes and beliefs around nudity, children's safety, and the potential for sexual exploitation or abuse. While there is always some potential for horrible things to occur in real life, many of these concerns are often based on assumptions and fears, rather than empirical evidence. These fears have grown in the last forty years, due to a number of cultural changes, and have reached a fever pitch in this era where a frothing fury can be whipped up by anyone with a circle of influence (or an army of crusaders).
The “culture war” in America has caused a resurgence of moral panic and fear-mongering, which has brought several subcultures, including naturists, under increased scrutiny and attack. As a subculture that already faces a great deal of prejudice and stigma, naturists must take proactive steps to protect themselves and their children. Naturism has been shown to be perfectly healthy for children, yet it is still vulnerable to these moral panics. This makes it imperative for naturists to take proactive measures to prepare themselves against these threats.
The good news is that nudists don’t have to do this work in a vacuum. Nudists come from all walks of life, including the same hippies, pagans, and queers that have gone through these culture wars in the past. These threats from outside call for unity and allyship with other targeted groups. We are stronger together.
Strong need for research
The best way to prepare against these threats is through knowledge. Knowledge defeats ignorance in the end, and if leveraged effectively it can help challenge baseless claims that could damage the reputation of naturism. While the available research is limited, it does support the argument that naturism is healthy for people of all ages. There is a need for more data to further strengthen this argument and debunk any unfounded claims. This is especially important when it comes to issues surrounding children, who can’t fully speak on their own behalf, and are often the most vulnerable and susceptible to harm.
I believe nudist organizations have a responsibility to fund and conduct research that can provide more data about the benefits of naturism, especially when it comes to children. This can help challenge the ignorance that fuel these moral panics. By investing in more research, nudist organizations can provide a solid foundation for their cause and help shape public opinion in a positive way.
Ultimately, protecting children should always be a top priority. Naturists have to be impeccable with their integrity and hyper-vigilant in their quest to arm themselves with truth, and eliminate any potential dangers inside and outside of naturist environments to ensure this above all. These measures will ultimately help nudists and naturists prepare for the next satanic/groomer/stranger-danger moral panic, which no group is really safe from once the crowd is enraged and the torches are lit. 🪐
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Smith, Dennis Craig. (1981, p. 19). Growing Up Without Shame, Elysium Growth Press.
Ibid. p. 21
Unpublished interview, 2023. Courtesy of The Naturist Society Foundation.
Smith, Dennis Craig. (1981, p. IX). Growing Up Without Shame, Elysium Growth Press.
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This is a fascinating and well presented article. So much to process; I've read it twice already and expect to read it several more times. In today's media hyped world, Francis Bacon's famous quote is more important than ever: KNOWLEDGE IS POWER.
Terrific and compelling article, excellent research! Thanks for bringing Planet Nude into the world precisely to help share this kind of informational perspective.