Each year in France, approximately 1.5 million people practice naturism. In “Au Naturel," available now from LSU Press, historian Stephen L. Harp - a professor of history and French at the University of Akron in Ohio - explores how the evolution of European tourism encouraged public nudity in France, connecting this cultural shift with important changes in both individual behaviours and collective understandings of the body, morality, and sexuality.

Harp’s study, believed to be the first in-depth historical analysis of naturism in France, challenges widespread assumptions that “sexual liberation” freed people from “repression,” a process ostensibly reflected in the growing number of people practicing public nudity. Instead, he contends, naturism gained social acceptance because of the bodily control required to participate in it. New social codes emerged governing appropriate nudist behaviour, including where one might look, how to avoid sexual excitation, what to wear when cold, and whether even the most modest displays of affection - including hand-holding and pecks on the cheek - were permissible between couples.

Beginning his study in 1927 - when naturist doctors first advocated naturism in France as part of “air, water and sun cures” - Harp focuses on the country’s three earliest and largest nudist centres: the Ile du Levant in the Var, Montalivet in the Gironde, and Cap d’Agde in Hérault. These places emerged as thriving tourist destinations, Harp shows, because the municipalities - by paradoxically reinterpreting indecency as a way to foster European tourism to France - worked to make public nudity more acceptable.

Using the French naturist movement as a lens for examining the evolving notions of the body and sexuality in 20th-century Europe, Harp reveals how local practices served as agents of national change.