The History of Nude Psychotherapy
The naked body was viewed as a window into the soul, into one’s true self. Bindrim devised uncomfortable exercises that would supposedly support the process of baring your soul.
Nude therapy was based on the idea of the naked body as a metaphor of the “psychological soul.” Uninhibited exhibition of the nude body revealed that which was most fundamental, truthful, and real. In the marathon, Bindrim interrogated this metaphor with a singular determination. Bodies were exposed and scrutinized with a science-like rigor. Particular attention was paid to revealing the most private areas of the body and mind—all with a view to freeing the self from its socially imposed constraints.
“This,” Bindrim asserted gesturing to a participant’s genitalia and anus, “is where it’s at. This is where we are so damned negatively conditioned” (cited in Howard, 1970, p. 96). Determined to squelch the “exaggerated sense of guilt” in the body, Bindrim devised an exercise called “crotch eyeballing” in which participants were instructed to look at each others’ genitals and disclose the sexual experiences they felt most guilty about while lying naked in a circle with their legs in the air (Bindrim, 1972; cited in Howard, 1970, p. 94).
In this position, Bindrim insisted “you soon realize that the head end and the tail end are indispensable parts of the same person, and that one end is about as good as the other” (Bindrim, 1972, p. 146).
Nude therapy had such a great appeal because people were searching for spiritual transformation and authenticity. According to Nicholson:
There was an extensive popular and academic literature on the “decline” of the self-made “inner-directed” man and the emergence of a feeble, mass produced self who passively responded to the blandishments of consumer culture (see Gilbert, 2005). Nudist motifs and nude therapy in particular promised deliverance from modern despair through a nostalgic invocation of an idealized biological self. Taking off one’s clothes would restore “authenticity” by taking the self back to its precommercial, biological foundation.
By the late ‘190s, Bindrim replaced nude psychotherapy with “aqua-energetics.” He became interested in Wilhelm Reich’s theories, specifically the idea of “orgone energy.” Bindrim oversimplified the concept and came up with the idea of life energy, which contributed to health, kindness and peak experiences. Reich also conceived of the idea of negative energy, which could be absorbed by water. So Bindrim adopted this as well, and took his therapy to the pool.
Reactions to Nude Therapy
Considering the cultural climate of the 1960s and 1970s, it’s not surprising that the media embraced nude psychotherapy, and many magazines published positive pieces. (But the tides would turn, and the media soon started portraying Bindrim as less of a genuine practitioner and more as an extremist in a weird movement.)
Even the professional journal American Psychologist featured a favorable article in 1969. Conservative politicians took issue with Bindrim and so did psychologist Sigmund Koch. Even the APA’s Ethics Committee decided to investigate him, but, again, due to the cultural climate and the fact that the nudity was consensual, the organization dropped it.
Also, Maslow, who was the APA president at the time, endorsed Bindrim and his work, even though he had reservations. Still, other psychologists and psychiatrists questioned and criticized Bindrim and his nude therapy. The American Psychiatric Association wrote a letter to Modern Medicine Journal opposing the therapy.
Other Uses for Nude Therapy
If you can believe it, in the late 1960s, a Canadian psychiatrist used nude psychotherapy for another purpose: to cure psychopaths in prison. Journalist Jon Ronson describes these nude sessions in his book The Psychopath Test. (If you’re interested, here’s my review of the book.)
At Oak Ridge Hospital for the “criminally insane,” psychiatrist Elliot Barker began conducting “the world’s first-ever marathon nude psychotherapy session for criminal psychopaths. Elliott’s raw, naked, LSD-fueled sessions lasted for epic eleven-day stretches,” according to Ronson. (He received the LSD from a government-sanctioned lab.)
Because the psychopaths seemed normal, Barker surmised that this “was because they were burying their insanity deep beneath a façade of normality. If the madness could only, somehow be brought to the surface, maybe it would work itself through and they could be reborn as empathetic human beings,” Ronson writes.
In the 1990s, several researchers looked at the recidivism rates for psychopaths in Elliot’s program and tracked what happened to them. According to Ronson, when released, 60 percent of criminal psychopaths will reoffend. The rate for the psychopaths in the program was 80 percent! And the crimes committed were horrific. Peter Woodcock, a multiple child murder who participated in the program, brutally killed another inmate and patient who rebuffed his advances. He said that the program actually taught him to be a better manipulator and to skillfully hide his “outrageous feelings.”
The Final Days of Nude Therapy
By the late 1970s and early 1980s, nude therapy fell out of favor. Social attitudes started becoming more conservative. Americans yearned to revert back to the moral climate of the 1950s. Bindrim’s private practice thrived, but his nude therapy, which was increasingly viewed as unethical, dissolved.
And Bindrim and his nude therapy largely were forgotten. “His death in 1997 was unacknowledged within psychology and provoked only a sharply worded obituary in the Los Angeles Times (Oliver, 1998),” writes Nicholson.
Tartakovsky, M. (2011). The History of Nude Psychotherapy. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 22, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2011/11/18/the-history-of-nude-psychotherapy/