Love & Sex

The Strange Sexual Politics Of A Naked Painting Party

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The Strange Sexual Politics Of A Naked Painting Party 

“It’s really remarkably uncreepy,” he said, and I agreed.

By Jessie Lochrie

I was standing in a nightclub in SoHo, sipping a gin and tonic, listening to generic, thumping EDM. It would have been like any other night out in New York City, except for the fact that I was entirely naked beside a pair of grungy old Converse and black panties. Everyone else in the room was in similar states of undress. Also, we all had paintbrushes in hand and were painting elaborate tribal designs, flowers, stars and arrows all over each other. This was the aptly named Naked Painting Party World Tour Kickoff, thrown by Social Exposure Media to celebrate the party’s upcoming visits to Mexico, Miami, London, and Berlin. 

While I was expecting a hip, tattooed, brunch-and-Burning-Man crowd, it was much more diverse – waiting in the endless coat check line (more like a "clothes check" line), I felt more like we were waiting to get into a museum than to strip and paint each other. Still, a handful of college kids were already down to underwear, despite how cold the hallway was.  Strapping their phones into armbands and slipping their feet into flip-flops, they were clearly pros, and I envied them as I crammed my phone and credit card into the little sandwich baggie I’d been given at the entrance. 

Once I entered the party I made a beeline to the bar across the room. While I was worried about how exactly one initiated the painting, I hadn’t even made it to the bar before someone approached me with a paintbrush and palette – unpainted, I was basically a giant bulls-eye. “Can I paint you?” he said, and as he painted an orange flower around my navel we chatted about Paris, where I had once lived and he had just moved from. It all felt remarkably normal. He moved on, and as I ordered my drink, someone slid up behind me and quickly painted my back, then ran off. Painting styles quickly fell into these two camps: some people would ask politely, others would do it guerilla-style and disappear without a word.

Social Exposure emphasizes that the party is a respectful, creep-free zone. Speaking to Time Out, founder Sally Golan stated her rule of thumb was to “Drop your inhibitions, but keep your respect.” Any X-rated activity and voyeurism were firmly banned. I spent the first half of the party amazed at how mellow and polite everyone was, and the raunchiest thing I witnessed all night was one couple making out on the dance floor. “It’s really remarkably uncreepy,” a tall, friendly hippie whose breath smelled of clove cigarettes commented to me soon after I arrived, adding that “It’s actually impressive." I agreed.

While I’d been nervous about how I would strike up conversations, the paint proved to be the perfect icebreaker, and I hardly spent a second alone. My strategy quickly became to just take slow laps of the nightclub, and every time I was unattended, or stopped to check my phone or take a note, a guy would appear at my side, paintbrush in hand. John, the male half of one of the pleasant couples I’d befriended in line, found me in the crowd and asked how I was doing, then bent down to paint a blue zigzag on my torso. “Great tits!” he said cheerfully as he painted, in the kind of tone you might use to compliment someone’s sweater. 

As the novelty of all these polite, naked strangers wore off, I began to notice that while the environment was pointedly nonsexual, there were a strange form of sexual politics in place. For one thing, the only people who approached or painted me were men. The exception was the friendly hippie’s fiancée, who flitted over, introduced herself, then asked if she could paint my nipples. I said sure, and as she daubed blue paint on them she said, “I just think it’s right to ask, you know?” I agreed, saying, “I don’t care if someone doesn’t ask and paints my shoulder without asking, but things like nipples – It’s just polite.”

“I know!” she agreed. “But earlier some guy just walked up to me and started painting my pussy without even asking.” We both agreed this was uncool behavior. Later on, a man painting me would bemoan that he couldn’t get any girls to paint him, and I realized that the majority of the painting action was man-on-woman, to the point where I often had more than one guy painting me at one time while dudes went unpainted. 

The male/female ratio was probably 70/30, and as one fellow partier pointed out to me, many more women had their underwear on than men did. Perhaps only 10 percent of the women were fully nude, while 50 percent or more of the men were. It was really more of an optionally naked painting party. I saw a handful of girls wearing bras, and one older man shirtless but still wearing pleated khakis and a leather belt. 

As the night wore on, the revelers got more and more forward. I got so many compliments on my boobs that I actually developed a standard response: “Well, I’m 23, so it’s all downhill from here!” One guy asked me if they were real, which left me dumbstruck for a moment before I said yes, people didn’t generally get plastic surgery for B-cups. He then grabbed my shoulders and twirled me around so he could check out my ass, then spun me back. “You’re not wearing a thong, but nice little tush, too.” That moment was, frankly, the only time I felt uncomfortable or objectified the whole night. A passing compliment on my boobs was nice, but his full-body assessment made me feel like a cattle at auction. I made some noise about taking a lap and slid away. 

Later, I was talking to a pair of new friends, two med students, who said they’d been to Naked Painting before and would be throwing one themselves this summer. “Oh, fun!” I said, as one does when trying to be polite about something that does not sound fun. They said I should come and I said, “Okay!” as one does when it would be too weird to say “No thanks, strangers, I am busy every single night this summer!” At that point a third friend showed up beside them, and they told him that I was going to be “the guest of honor at the beach party this summer!” I was just realizing that I had agreed to join their naked painting beach orgy when a fourth guy came up and put his hand on my shoulder, saying “I’ve been seeing you walk around all night.” I braced myself, waiting for a comment on my breasts. He continued, “I just wanted to say… I love your glasses.” I was so relieved I almost started laughing. “Thank you,” I said. “Honestly, every time a guy comes up to me it’s 50-50 whether he’s going to compliment my glasses or my tits. I’m glad it was the glasses this time.” He looked at my boobs quickly; seeming a little embarrassed, and said “I mean, those are great too! But… yeah…. I just really like your glasses.” 

I admire the Naked Painting Party’s goal of providing a space for comfortable, respectful nudity, and I truly had fun. One attendee, who told me he’s been coming for five years, said “This is the only place I can be naked and not feel insecure about how my body looks, or how big my dick is. It’s liberating.” A few moments later I was at the bar waiting for a drink and looked down at the soft curve of my bare, painted tummy, and thought about what he’d said. Had I been wearing a tight dress at some other party, I would certainly have spent the night trying to remember to suck that little curve of flesh in, but at the Naked Painting Party it hadn’t even occurred to me. It was, certainly, liberating to be somewhere where I could just let it all hang out. 

But no matter how progressive it claims to be, it’s impossible to have a gathering of hundreds of naked people and not have it be somewhat sexualized. The Naked Painting Party is fun, friendly, and accepting, but it’s no Woodstockian utopia of nudity. The truth of it is that we live in a world where women’s bodies are relentlessly sexualized, and that can’t simply be undone for one night while we can all sing Kumbaya and paint each other to look like Goldie Hawn on Laugh-In. After I left the med students, I realized that it would be incredibly easy to take someone home from this party, and that, in fact, seemed to be what all the guys were trying to do. In contrast to how uncorrupted the whole thing had seemed when I arrived, by midnight the vibe of the party was like a cauldron of sex and desire being narrowly contained by a thin lid of politeness. 

The last person I spoke to was a young guy who I met on my way to the door, when he silently knelt before me and put a huge blue handprint on my shin: one of the few areas of my body still without paint. After chatting for a bit, we found ourselves both looking at the packed dance floor at the center of the club. It was single rolling mass of skin and paint and flashing lights, and almost impossible to distinguish one person from another. “They all look the same,” I said. “They do,” he said. “But it’s kind of beautiful, isn’t it?”