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April 16, 2018 | by  | in Features |
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My Night With Naked Boys

He dances up to the stage in a dressing gown and pink high heels. He turns his back to the audience, turns his head back to look at us, grins. The robes come off. The woman sitting in front of me hollers into her friend’s ear, “I can see his penis!”  

Wellington has just hosted its first ever Naked Boys Reading event. It’s exactly as it sounds: naked boys, on a stage, reading literature. Drag king Hugo Grrl, the MC, has been running Naked Girl Readings for the last three years, showcasing “the radical notion that women could have both a body and a brain”. Hugo explains his decision to run the event with boys. Men’s bodies are objectified too, he says; they are portrayed by the media to be constantly “fighting and fucking”. He opens the show in typical Hugo swagger, same opening puns, same crowd warming exercises that I’ve seen in everything he MCs; the repetition almost feels like nostalgic familiarity.  

The audience whoop and cheer as each of the three boys remove their robes. Samuel is a self-described twink, a drag queen, writing a sociology thesis on Grindr. Luke is a dad, with a family from a military background. We know he is a dad because he wears a scungy dressing gown, and he clowns and pulls ridiculous faces throughout the show. Donald, works at the museum as an educator, dances on stage with pink makeup and nails.

As much as we hate to admit it, we as a society are still uneasy about nudity. Hugo tells me that during the show, we laugh because we are uncomfortable. It’s true that the discomfort is part of the attraction. If nudity weren’t taboo, then Naked Reading would be the equivalent of a well-rehearsed book club. At the same time, the show actively challenges the discomfort we feel around nudity. After we stare at their bodies for a couple of hours, we are inevitably a little more used to them than what we were. We end up paying attention to the words, not the penises.

I meet up with a couple of the boys in a cafe after the show. Samuel greets me by offering to share his chamomile tea, and showing me his new pink sparkly phone case. Donald shows us the ripped calluses on his hand from gardening. “Matches my nail polish,” he says.

Donald notes the difference between having a naked man on stage from a naked woman. “Men’s bodies are a lot more functional. They’re not viewed to be bought the same way that women’s are, and they’re not used to sell things… what was important and unique about Naked Boys Reading was the subject matter, adding to conversations about masculinity.”

Both Donald and Samuel believe nudity is tied with vulnerability. “We are built to have hang ups about our body and how we look,” says Samuel.  When someone sees you naked, says Donald, you are showing them all your scars and “weird body flabby bits”. They both mention that usually the only people who see us naked are people we have a really strong emotional connection to: our parents, siblings, and lovers.

Samuel said getting naked was “a bit scary… but no more so than for a regular show”. “Once I was on stage, I was fine. Like, I’m doing it…. On stage, I held the balance of power… I was the one choosing to take my clothes off.”

Donald tells me that he feels lucky in that he is comfortable with his body.  “Growing up, I was bullied for things like the colour of my hair, which made me very determined to love myself and how I was.” Taking his clothes off on stage didn’t bother him, as he is used to stripping down in theatre changing rooms acting as a teenager, going skinny dipping, and as a longstanding fan of Hugo’s shows, he knew what to expect.

He tells me about a time at university when he ended up playing strip Werewolf with his “geeky gamer” friends. When the game was suggested, he had half imagined an orgy would ensue. Instead, the party simmered down. “It went from ‘oh my god we’re all naked’ to ‘oh cool, we’re all naked’…  it starts becoming normal so quickly. You’re aware of everyone’s bodies just doing body things. Naked bodies are only sexy when they’re doing sexy things.” Such an event helped him understand that while our society strongly links nudity and sex, the connection is not intrinsic.

Dancing around a fire at Beltane wearing only body paint was another experience that changed his understanding of nudity. Beltane is a pagan ritual celebrating the beginning of summer, with tens of thousands of people attending. “The purpose of our nakedness was so different from sex, we were all naked together because we were channelling the primal energies and spirits.”

Attending Kiwiburn, a week long Burning Man style festival, helped normalize nudity for Samuel. “We would just hang out with mates all day and then [take off our clothes and] go swimming in the river,” he said. “It was joyful and freeing… you let go of perceptions of how people see you.” He said that some of his friends didn’t want to come to the show because they didn’t want to see him naked. “The ones who haven’t had the festival experience.”

None of Donald’s workmates came to the show. I asked him why he thought that might be. “It’s almost like you become too vulnerable… if you know what kind of emotional things someone is going through, you’ll have to take that into account when you interact with them, you can’t just tell them to get the job done, make all those meetings.”

He continues, “it’s really not okay to be vulnerable with each other, especially as a man… the socialization of men means they know how to hurt each other; they’re really bad at knowing how to show love to each other… that’s a real shame, because being emotionally vulnerable with other people opens us to be empathetic”.

Both Donald and Samuel mention that another effect of nudity is removing the symbolism and signalling that clothing brings about. “There’s so much judgement about what people wear, but if you’re naked you can’t send that communication out,” says Donald. “The thing that becomes important is the eye contact and the conversation.”

I ask Samuel if he thinks we should get rid of the nudity taboo. “Yes,” he says. “I don’t see much benefit in being prudish. It makes sex more enjoyable… it’s something really freeing.”

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