When I tell people I'm going to a naked resort in Jamaica, they respond as though I've just revealed my salary or the details of my last menstruation. It's a long blink or a visible shift backward in their seat. Several ask, after a pause, "Are you a naked person?"
I don't know. What's a naked person? A naked person probably owns more beads than I do, just beaded necklaces every day. A naked person probably sleeps with crystals under her pillow to ward off negative stuff and leaves candles burning and pees with the door open. I think I'm naked the appropriate amount. I'm naked in locker rooms and in front of my friends when we're getting dressed and in front of sexy friends when we're not. A naked person? Me? It's relative.
But I decide to go to in Negril, Jamaica—a clothing-optional resort that bills itself as "the world's most iconic adult playground"—because they invite me and I'm devoted to having experiences. I'm a professional experience-haver.
At the front desk, the receptionist gets me a Red Stripe beer and asks if it's my first time to "Hedo," as everyone calls it. Yep! "So you're a virgin," he says with an eyebrow up. First time to Jamaica? Yes. "A double virgin!" Oh god. So this is where I am.
There are two sides to the resort: the prude side (where you can be naked) and the nude side (where you must be naked—a policy put in place to stop fully dressed creeps from coming over just to stare). My room is on the nude end, with a little deck that lets out onto the sand and the Caribbean sea, which means that my view will include the unadorned masses. A mirror on the ceiling captures me sleeping alone.
When I roll over in the morning, I'm greeted by two flaccid dicks and the dawn. My next-door neighbors, who are gay men or maybe just naked man friends, are strolling the beach together outside my sliding-glass door. I go to yoga (clothed) and breakfast (also clothed; it's a health violation otherwise). In the omelet line I meet the guy I sat next to in yoga. "That was really a great practice, huh?" he says, trying to engage. I nod and devote my entire gaze to the eggs. I'm not ready to make friends yet. What kind of people even come here?
Like a wuss, I start the vacation proper by reading in a hammock on the prude side. But then it starts to rain, so I rush back toward my room—at the same time everyone else on the nude side also dashes for cover. Forty to 50 middle-aged naked people are running to the beach bar for shelter. I stand on my deck watching the rain and their 80 to 100 butt cheeks all in a row as they cram into the bar, chatting and laughing and probably casually touching their genitals to each other's thigh areas.
It's around then that I start making some fresh observations about the human form. Men naturally have more muscular butts; their default is toned, even as they get older, which is so unfair. Most women just look like their torsos were sliced toward the bottom. We also all have the same roll of fat below our belly buttons, provided by God and Darwin to protect the uterus, and it casts a shadow over our crotch. For all the mental and financial and cultural effort put into maintaining the pubic-hair trend du jour, you can't even really see what women are doing down there unless you're at close range. Nature put in a portico.
When the rain blows over, I decide to wade into the proverbial waters of my own nakedness. I start by just hanging out on my patio topless with a bikini bottom on, which is easy. Topless is basically my preferred state of affairs already. Then I inch out further, past my deck, so I'm sitting on a lounge chair in just bottoms and a large, floppy, necessary-not-just-for-privacy-but-for-sun-protection hat. I am armed also with my favorite kind of book, a hefty 500-page novel about college kids coming of age. After sitting still for around four minutes, I rip off my bikini bottoms quickly, like I'm about to pee behind a tree.
No one so much as shifts their gaze. I'm naked in public by myself. There are beach breezes alighting on areas of my skin that have never felt breezes before.
I wade into the actual water, a turquoise sea that is partitioned off so people from nearby resorts can't make marathon snorkeling treks over to gawk. A little yellow plastic island floats toward a deeper end, so I swim out to it and then climb up. I lie on my back in the sun like a cat, or maybe a seal, in view of the entire resort or any low-circling airplanes. It's a kind of peace and relief I didn't know I could feel.
My deck also offers a private hot tub, and I'm sitting in the bubbling water alone watching the sunset with a champagne flute when a muscular man and his penis walk by. I'm admiring it when he pivots toward me and asks if I would like to get dinner with him and his girl tonight? A bemused "sure" falls out of my drowsy, sunburned face. What the hell have I just done?, I wonder as he saunters away.
Getting ready for this date resembles how I get ready for others: shower and blast Beyoncé and text my friends about what could go right and wrong. Dressed and wearing what I think is the right amount of makeup for Jamaican humidity, I head to our meeting spot at the bar, where a woman in a pageboy wig and a dress cut to her belly button comes up to me immediately and says my name. It's my date! We head to the Italian restaurant on the property and settle in. Come here often?
The couple tells me some things. They met while in a threesome—he was dating her friend and she stole him away but all three people are cool now! They've been together for eight years but aren't in any rush to get married. He has a school-aged daughter from a previous relationship, she has a son in law school. They've been to Hedonism a few times, not so much for the swinging but for the thrill of public sex and nudity. They ask me about my romantic life and career, and are more engaged in my answers than most dates I've ever had.
I feel extremely comfortable with these middle-aged people. They ask what I want out of the trip, and I tell them about my quest to find out if I'm a naked person, how I feel very comfortable being naked thus far. They agree: "That's why we asked you to dinner. We really admired your confidence on the beach. And your pubic hair situation." Sure.
At the end of the meal, I feel those nerves that I get at the end of any first date. How do I end this and is the person going to kiss me and do I want them to? But the couple announces they are going back to their room to fuck. It's casual, like someone begging off because they're tired. I wish them well and, fortified with four to six strawberry daiquiris, I attend the resort's Tuesday-night theme party alone: the Bare As You Dare Glow Pool Party. Black lights are lit and glow sticks are distributed and I take off my dress and dance around sans any creepers. This is fun.
My dinner companions fly home the next morning, which is kind of a relief. Were we going to be buddies at the buffet every day? I wake up feeling like the college party girl I never quite was, with glow-in-the-dark necklaces and blinking rings in my sheets and empty strawberry-scented glasses on my nightstand. Everything hurts.
I consider stand-up paddle boarding but that seems like a huge effort, so I embark on my other goals for the trip: reading for hours without interruption or responsibility, and taking a nap…naked…in public…in a foreign country. I figure it's the most vulnerable a human woman can possibly be. After a morning spent reading and snoozing and reading and snoozing, I realize that some of the other women here have even better ideas—I observe two separate women receiving cunnilingus.
One couple is on a lounge chair about three over from mine, the guy kneeling in the sand to do the damn thing. With the other pair, the woman is truly aspirational: She floats on a pool raft in the shallow sea, naked facing the sun, while a guy stands in the water in front of her going to work. They have to stop because the small waves keep smacking him in the face, making his task a bit dangerous, but what a hero! The woman, I mean.
Do they want me to watch? They must. So I do, behind my sunglasses. I walk back up to my patio for some water to find that my next-door neighbors are having sex on theirs, maybe 18 inches from my door. They're standing in their hot tub, with the woman bent over the edge. It's kind of like hearing your roommates have sex but worse because you can see them and hear their conversation when they discuss whether or not to stop because she's a little sore from last night.
At dinner, I receive no invites from well-hung couples, but a hostess for the Japanese restaurant on the property automatically seats me with two lesbian couples. I learn that two of the women are sisters, and this is their first family trip. Who kicks off a tradition of sister vacations by going to a sex resort? Even I have my limits.
The next morning is my final morning. I take a final naked swim and pack up all the clothes I didn't wear. My shuttle to the airport is shared with a strikingly attractive young couple. The wife looks exactly like Dakota Johnson and seems to be about her age. She's bleeding from one of her scratched-up knees. "Babe, what the fuck did we do last night?" This is their sixth trip to Hedo, they tell me. She and I discuss how strange it is to be wearing bras again, but how it's necessary in what will likely be a freezing cold airport. "Well, she's not wearing underwear, so the vacation's still going," says the husband, poking her in the crotch of her jean shorts with one finger. She bops him on the shoulder but laughs.
Somehow none of it is weird. The best part of Hedonism isn't the penises or the all-inclusive drinks or the spying on other couples or the Caribbean breezes felt on nipples—not any of the lascivious or lurid stuff. What's nicest is just how easy and relaxed everybody is about all of the above. One level of pretense falls away and small talk becomes less small. It's that sensation of finding your people and thus not having to pretend. It's happened to me before; like when I matriculated at a women's college and found myself surrounded by 1,500 ambitious Hermione Granger–types, or when I find out the person I'm talking to is also from New Jersey.
It's a common language, a sigh from the soul, the feeling that you have so much to say you can't get the words out fast enough. Are naked people my people? Oh god.
When I get home, everyone wants to hear the outrageous stories I might provide. And I'll share them (I'm sharing them now), but I hesitate to laugh because those people had something the rest of us don't: an openness, an honesty, a lightness of being. They are quite literally lightened—via the absence of clothing's weight—but also without the weight of propriety, expectation, pleasantries, small talk, the need to hold in their stomachs. They are calmer, and happier. What's there to make fun of? I wish I could be like that all the time.
"Welcome home," the man at Hedonism's front desk had said when I arrived, and I rolled my eyes. But I get it a bit more now, all those repeat and repeat and repeat visitors. They want to feel free.