April 17, 2024

The case for clothes optional beaches

June 13, 2007
There are no “official” nude beaches in Northern Michigan, but for years an area known as Otter Creek Beach on Lake Michigan has been an “unofficial nude beach.” Skinny-dippers, nude bathers and naturists have been spotted from time to time at other remote beaches in the region, including Wilderness near Mackinaw City, and down the way at Good Harbor Beach in Leelanau.
While it’s second nature in many other countries, public nudity is taboo in the United States. According to naturists — those who opt to go naked in public settings — there is nothing on the federal law books that prohibits public nudity. It is up to state and local municipalities to determine this issue. Community and public objection to nudity at beaches, parks or other public places stems from society’s prevailing thought that nudity equals sex.
“There is nothing sexual about this; in fact ask anyone married for a long time about how sexy seeing their spouse naked is,” said Matthew Kerwin, founder of the Michigan Nude Beach Advocates. “It is why they invented lingerie: a clothed body provokes intrigue and mystery; a naked body does not.”
 Kerwin became an active naturist several years ago when law enforcement began cracking down on nude sunbathers at a gravel pit near his Ann Arbor home. He formed the Michigan Nude Beach Advocates to “fight repressive legislation and unjust prosecutions” in Michigan.
“In some parts of Michigan you will get arrested for public nudity, despite the lack of any law against it,” said Kerwin. “However, getting arrested and being found guilty are not the same. Initially, a person will be charged with indecent exposure. Fight it, because if you were simply just nude and not committing a sexual act, they often drop the charge to disturbing the peace.”
Kerwin points out that two convictions of “indecent exposure” will get you on the sex offenders list. It is why he feels that clear laws need to be established and that progressive communities in Northern Michigan should designate beaches for nude bathers.
“First of all, there is no such thing as a mandated nude beach in this country. We call them ‘clothing optional’ beaches. You can’t tell someone they can’t wear clothes,” said Kerwin. “I say the first community that establishes a clothing-optional beach in Northern Michigan ends their tourism troubles. Haulover near Miami, Florida is a financial boondoggle for the Dade County Parks. The same can be said about Gunnison Beach at Sandy Hook, New Jersey. These clothing-optional beaches attract lots of visitors from all over the country.”
Kerwin has sent information to Empire Village and Chamber officials suggesting that they pursue making Otter Creek Beach a sanctioned clothing-optional beach. He says that the financial impact would be great for the community. By putting the “official” stamp on Otter Creek, a lot of positives would come out of it.
“First of all, clothing-optional beaches in this country have signage and etiquette,” said Kerwin. “By designating clothing optional beaches, those that are offended will know to stay away. Michigan has miles of shoreline and by designating a few clothing-optional areas, we will create a whole new tourism industry for the state. We have a precedent in this state for setting up designated areas for special interests. At Silver Lake Dunes they have dune buggy areas. If you don’t like them, then go to the non-dune buggy area of the dunes.”
Kerwin said he has heard from one Empire resident who has expressed interest in looking into it further. He says that it takes local voices to make something like this happen.
“I think there are a lot of people in favor of this, but they are afraid,” said Kerwin. “When I stood up in Ann Arbor I made the front page of the paper, and I work for a small company. Well, they put the name of my company in the paper as well. I thought I would get fired, but customers came in showing their support.”
Kerwin prefers doing most things without clothes and considers wearing a bathing suit a hindrance to enjoying the beach and water.
“The whole concept of wearing clothes when in the water doesn’t make sense,” said Kerwin. “Most people find it uncomfortable to have clothes on when they swim. For me, I find it to be a spiritual thing, being without clothes when I am at the beach – a closer to nature feeling. I think being without clothes is a natural feeling; little kids seem to get it. We all have seen that kid who doesn’t want to have clothes on at the beach.”
A headline in the Traverse City newspaper in 1917 read “Nude Bathing Must Be Stopped Before It Becomes Habit,” after two men were arrested for skinny-dipping on Boardman Lake. Few arrests have been made in the area as most sunbathers subscribe to societal mores and keep clothes on at area beaches. Nudists seek out of the way places and skinny-dippers hit the lakes after dark. Others head to privately owned campgrounds or resorts like Spruce Hollow Campground in Mesick. 
One prevailing comment that is often made in a joking context is that “the people at these nude beaches are the ones that should keep their clothes on.”
“I say F.U. to those that think that way. I am at the beach naked to enjoy the beach and the water, not for others to see me or for me to check others out,” said Kerwin. “You can say the same thing about a lot of people in bikinis or Speedos; they don’t belong in them. Again, it goes with the thought process here in the United States by some who see this as sex.”
For most naturists, being nude is second nature and doesn’t result in sexual stimulation. They also say that designated clothing-optional areas are not a haven for sexual predators.
Sally Wilson and Peggy Reece of Grand Rapids frequent Otter Creek and prefer the feeling of being clothes-free at the beach.
  “It is peaceful and a freeing feeling,” said Wilson. “Our husbands prefer to golf; we like coming to Otter Creek. It is this unwritten code that people know this is a nude area and we seldom run into anyone that is shocked. I also think that I have a right to go topless anywhere men are allowed to go topless.”
It is an argument that others are making as well.
“There are organizations like TopFree that work on behalf of a women’s right to go topless,” said Kerwin. “Again, female breasts, according to the medical community, are not considered sexual organs. It just takes a few brave souls to challenge this. You are starting to see some women not wearing tops at beaches. Others want to go topless but fear being arrested. I see this being challenged in the courts.”
So, does Kerwin see any headway being made on a clothing-optional beach in Michigan?
“It really takes local support. I live in Ann Arbor, not up there. If a few brave souls were to step forward and work towards this, I believe there would be support,” said Kerwin. “But it has to come from locals, not outsiders. People are scared to be labeled as a nudist or naturist. They are worried about being viewed as a sexual predator.”
Officials with the Sleeping Bear National Park won’t take a position of endorsement or opposition to making the Otter Creek Beach an official nude beach. They won’t say that they have a “look the other way” position on nudists who currently flock the area, but those who do use the beach say that the occasional park ranger who passes by does ask them to put their clothes back on. Empire Village governmental officials are unaware of any effort or movement in designating Otter Creek as a “nude beach” and state that the beach is not in their governmental jurisdiction.
“Always seek competent legal help should you be arrested for being nude in public, and make sure your lawyer has read the article I wrote on the subject,” said Kerwin. “Resources are on the Michigan Nude Beach Advocates website.”
Kerwin says he is ready to assist anyone who wants to pursue getting a beach area in Northern Michigan clothing optional. He has plenty of data for any municipality interested in the financial impact and other support data on frequent concerns and objections that are raised. He may be reached at mgkerwin@juno.com and additional information may be found at michigannudebeachadvocates.org.


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