Daniel became desensitized to nudity when he joined the Marines at 18. “I had to shower with dozens of dudes,” he says. “I’m over it. I just lost the shame we build around our bodies when I realized that nobody cared and a body is just a body. It doesn’t matter if it’s perfect or if it’s flabby or how big your d*** is.”
Now 32 and living in Washington State, Daniel’s “naked in the locker room all the time.” But his millennial peers, he’s noticed, stand facing the wall, struggling to slide their underwear on under the towel tightly wrapped around their waist. They’re “just less experienced” in the “process of becoming comfortable with themselves,” he says. “I hope by dangling my balls in the locker room, I help young men to see the light and live a better life.”
Those old naked guys in the public locker room may be a dying breed. According to Bryan Dunkelberger, a founding principal of S3 Design, a firm that has worked for an upscale gym, younger generations’ expectation of privacy is so widespread, it’s starting to influence the design of new gyms.
“Younger generations tend to prefer more privacy in locker rooms,” he tells us. “This can manifest in private changing areas, private shower compartments or even younger family changing areas. And because the shift is happening, more people are expecting to have many of these options available to them when they join a club.”
So where did this generational divide come from, and is it really as stark as it seems? We talked to the experts — and locker-room nudists themselves — to find out.
The Lost Art of Locker Room Nudity
The first reason people find for older men strutting nude around locker rooms is that it’s just what they’re used to. In the old days, dudes were just naked in locker rooms, and that was that.
Paul Waldman, writing in the the American Prospect, puts forth a theory that older generations saw men’s locker rooms as sexuality-free safe zones. They were spaces where guys could be dudes without any homoerotic undertones.
For the older men, that little thrill they get from standing naked in front of another guy for 45 minutes is safe, because when they grew up, homosexuality was shoved so far out of public view that for straight people it was almost an absurdity. So they can dip their toe into that pool, so to speak, without having any kind of complicated thoughts about their identity. Just a guy, standing here naked in front of a bunch of other guys.
In the ’90s, with the help of the ACLU, mandatory after-gym showering died off. “These guys don’t want to undress in front of each other,” said John Wrenn, a teacher in suburban Chicago, in a 1996 New York Times article by Dirk Johnson. “I just don’t get it. When I started in ’74, nobody even thought about things like this. The whole thing is just hard for me to accept.”
Privacy in the iPhone Era
Dr. Barry Miller, a psychotherapist in West Hollywood and author of the article “On the Loss of Nudity in the Men’s Locker Room,” argues this is a cultural divide — technology has driven younger generations to be focused more on themselves than looking outward.
“It’s an evolution of our culture into further and further seclusion,” he says. “At my local gym here in West Hollywood, nudity is not a question anymore — the issue now is, do people even talk to each other? It’s so quiet, devoid of human expression, becoming a kind of dead space. Privacy has gotten to the point where people are on their phones not even looking at each other.”
Miller says this shift is “a deeper evolution or transformation that is going in the collective unconscious.” Nudity in the locker room, or lack thereof, is “one little manifestation” of the overall shift, he says, so it’s not a matter of old men being more comfortable — “it’s about culture.”
Dunkelberger tells us that older generations are coming to expect the same privacy, too. “It’s not limited to gender or other demographics, and as more people desire it, the older generations are getting to points where they have a need for it,” he says. “The difference is [millennials] have grown up with nicer things than maybe some of the older generations did, so their baseline expectations are higher.”
Fear of the Male Gaze
Locker room nudist and Reddit user u/TerminalOrbit, a 45-year-old man, agrees with Miller that there is a cultural shift “at the root of this divide.”
Younger generations, he says, “have been socialized to accept same-sex attractions as ‘normal’ and ‘common,’ and that’s great,” he tells us. “I suspect that the same thing also sensitizes them to that potential, and that makes them more self-conscious in the locker rooms: ‘Somebody might be ogling me right now,’ you know?”
A 2012 study published in the British Journal of Criminology backs his theory. The study recorded complaints of men and women coming out of public bathrooms. While women mostly complained about cleanliness, writes study author Sarah Moore, men were “worried about being surreptitiously watched by other men — inadvertently encouraging others to look and being mistakenly perceived to be watching others.” Moore theorizes that the absence of women in men’s locker rooms subverts the gender hierarchy, and the “male gaze” turns to other men. “The temporary suspension of the usual gender hierarchy,” she writes, leads men to the “perceived possibility that they will be forced to take the place usually filled by women — that of being the object of sexual interest.”
So do men say they prefer privacy when really they just don’t want other guys looking at them? Dr. Miller argues it’s not necessarily homophobia, but a “phobia of the psych.”
Certain male “experiences with each other that were permissible, expected, important and ritualized,” he says, have recently been categorized into sexual identity. As an example, he brings up his Jewish upbringing: “In the Jewish tradition, men got into the communal bath together naked. That’s for centuries and centuries. But that doesn’t happen anymore. The movement that has occurred in the last generation has fixed the identities into binary experiences of heterosexual or homosexual. But sexuality is not fixed.”
Nudity in the locker room, he continues, “brings us more than we think we can handle. It’s not just a sexual feeling: It forces [younger men] to question their personal identity, their political identity, their entire classification. We’ve made great important strides [in gay rights], but at the same time it’s having an impact on the general culture that’s not necessarily the intention.”
Our Elders Have Seen Some Stuff
But if that’s why younger guys are shy dressers, it still doesn’t quite explain why old dudes still walk around hanging dong like it’s their job.
Another leading theory, at least on Reddit, it that experience — typically manifested in old guys — leads guys to just flat-out stop caring. Lucio Buffalmano, a sociologist and social skills coach, subscribes to this theory, telling us experience “indeed plays a role.”
“After one has seen more in life, or even more of the same, the bar raises on what’s ‘embarrassing’ and what’s ‘whatever,’” he says. “And nudity is one of those aspects that just becomes more of a ‘whatever, it’s just a body.’”
Reddit user u/rapiertwit personifies this, as he explains in a thread asking why old guys are always naked in locker rooms:
You young hard-ons like to boast, “I’m all out if f***** to give,” but you can’t deal with a glimpse of my wrinkly ball sack. Laughable, man. Bury a few friends and watch a few dreams sail over the horizon forever and then see if you care about who’s wrapping a towel around their a** in a changing room.
Daniel, whose military experience taught him not to waste time feeling ashamed of his body, echoes this. “It doesn’t matter if your d*** is perfect or if it’s flabby or how big it is,” he says. “I’ve had to take a dump in full view of my platoon before and while it isn’t preferred it wasn’t considered a noteworthy occurrence. Shame surrounding exposing our body is a cultural thing, and in my case the military jars you into a very different culture.”
Dr. Miller’s solution for younger generations? Stop categorizing your feelings and lose the shame. “It would be good for all of us to let go of that self consciousness as we age, since it is one of the critical transformational possibilities in aging,” he says. “To stop caring about the presentation, about who you’re supposed to be — if one manifestation of that is just walking around naked, that’s great. But it should also be about opening to what you can talk about, what you can say, what you feel free about.”
That being said, the impulse toward seclusion and privacy makes Miller skeptical. “It’ll be very interesting to see if that happens as today’s generation gets old, or if there will even be locker rooms,” he says. “It goes deeper and deeper. What I see, particularly with men, is that really what’s wanted is to be in one’s own world. This is not me as a professional [saying this], but just me as a lunatic living in today’s world.”
Maybe in the future we’ll all be exercising in total isolation with virtual-reality headsets and cloud-connected smart weights. But for now, there’s nothing wrong with showing a little sack. Just don’t touch it on my side of the bench, bro.