It all started in 1933 with a paper by Howard Warren, a Princeton psychologist and president of the American Psychological Association, who spent a week at a German nudist camp a year earlier.

According to Ian Nicholson, Professor of Psychology at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, in the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, Warren’s article, “Social Nudism and the Body Taboo,” “was a qualitative and largely sympathetic consideration of the social and psychological significance of nudism.”

Warren “described nudism in therapeutic terms, highlighting the ‘easy camaraderie’ and lack of ‘self-consciousness’ in the nudist park, in addition to a ‘notable improvement in general health,’” along with the principal perspective to return to nature.

Soon after, other articles were published in psychology journals that highlighted the benefits of nudism in contributing to healthy, well-adjusted kids and adults.

But it was psychologist Paul Bindrim who actually pioneered nude psychotherapy in 1967. Bindrim was no quack; to the contrary, he was a qualified professional whose idea was inspired by the well-respected and regarded Abraham Maslow. Nicholson writes:

Bindrim himself was a licensed psychologist with academic qualifications from Columbia and Duke University and he was careful to package his therapeutic innovations in the language of scientific advancement. Moreover, his therapeutic discoveries drew heavily on the work of the then-president of the American Psychological Association: Abraham Maslow. World-renowned as one of the fathers of humanistic psychology, Maslow had a long-standing interest in nudity dating back to his graduate work as a primatologist in the 1930s. Although he had never written extensively on the topic, Maslow’s work was the inspiration for nude psychotherapy and as APA president he publicly endorsed the technique as an innovative avenue for growth.

As a student, Bindrim became interested in parapsychology. He studied extrasensory perception (ESP) with J.B. Rhine at Duke University. (Rhine coined the term ESP.) When Bindrim moved to California, he started his private practice in Hollywood and also was ordained a minister in the Church of Religious Science.

Again, Maslow was a big influence for Bindrim. Maslow became disillusioned with psychoanalysis, behaviorism and the focus on psychopathology. He called for a focus on personal growth, authenticity and transcendence. And he viewed nudism as a viable path to those things.

In his early work, Bindrim created “peak oriented psychotherapy,” which involved four stages and was conducted in groups: recalling the peak experience, identifying the activities and things that contributed to peak experiences; immersing yourself in them; and extending these experiences into dreams. This was based in part on Maslow’s ideas about peak experiences. According to Nicholson:

Likening the experience to a “visit to a personally defined heaven,” Maslow (1968) described peak experiences as moments of maximum psychological functioning. “He feels more intelligent, more perceptive, wittier, stronger, or more graceful than at other times” (Maslow, 1968, p. 105). Not only was a person generally enhanced during a peak experience, but he also felt a heightened sense of oneness with himself and the world around him. “The person in the peak-experiences feels more integrated (unified, whole, all-of-a-piece) . . . and is more able to fuse with the world” (Maslow, 1968, p. 104).

The encounter group movement was another inspiration. Here, groups of people got together for the purposes of openness, self-discovery and honesty. (No doubt you’ve participated in something similar like the “trust fall,” one of the techniques used where people fall back and their partner catches them.)

The techniques were meant to produce strong emotions and thereby breakthroughs. Another technique was time. Some groups met continuously for 18 to 36 hours. According to Nicholson: “The lengthier format and sleep deprivation was thought to allow participants to build up a psychological momentum.”

The first session of nude psychotherapy took place on June 16, 1967 at a California nudist resort with 24 participants. Other sessions were held at swanky hotels that offered natural surroundings and great amenities. There were typically 15 to 25 participants. The cost was $100 per participant for a weekend or $45 for a day. According to Nicholson:

Like other encounter groups, nude marathon participants traversed culturally anomalous emotional terrain. Most of the participants were strangers to each other, yet they were expected to share an unparalleled level of emotional and physical openness with the group. Aware of the anomaly, Bindrim moved quickly to create an ersatz community. “Basically, I conceive of the first half of the marathon as a means of producing a good functioning group in the nude” (Bindrim, 1972, p. 145).

Bindrim began this process by employing familiar encounter group techniques. Participants were invited to “eyeball” each other (stare into each other’s eyes at close range) and then to respond in some physical way (hugging, wrestling, etc.). After this ice-breaker, participants disrobed in the dark to musical accompaniment before joining a small circle to perform a “meditation-like” hum. This process, Bindrim felt, gave rise to the “feeling of being all part of one human mass” (1972, p. 145).

Like a psychological impresario, Bindrim carefully walked his “human mass” through a series of emotional displays. Freely blending psychoanalysis and Maslovian theory, Bindrim told his participants that they needed to reenact the hurt and frustration in their life in order achieved a psychologically hallowed state. “The idea is to regress, if possible, to the trauma that caused the distortion. That’s the way to start toward a peak experience” (cited in Howard, 1970, p. 95). Under pressure to disclose, participants offered up their intimate secrets and Bindrim masterfully sought out those human dramas that could deliver the greatest emotional payoff. During the first marathon, a participant “Bob” complained that his wife didn’t give him any love:

Paul grabbed a rolled package of magazines, pulled over a bench, shoved the package into Bob’s hands, and screamed to him, “Hit her, hit her, get it out. She wouldn’t give you any love.” Bob in a frenzy, started to hit the bench harder and harder, screaming and swearing vindictively. Paul cried with him. The group cried with him. We were all swept into it. . . . When it was over, we were all limp. (Goodson, 1991, p. 24)

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.

(By the way, I first learned about Nicholson’s insightful paper on the excellent blog Mind Hacks. You can find a link to the full piece in their post.)