How Naked People Took Over Reality Television

The curious boom of broadcasted genitalia

Zohar Lazar

A man wakes up one morning with his genitals blurred. He looks down and sees—instead of the usual homely apparatus—a mini-cumulus of blankness, a teeming nothing, like a bumblebee with a drinking problem or a felonious face on Cops. He screams, rubs his eyes, takes a terrified shower: no change. At the proud pivot of his being, there is only a writhing smudge. How might we extend this Gogol-esque premise? Turn it into a fable of modern love, perhaps. After trying everything—Viagra, shiatsu, studded underwear, peyote in the desert—our man despairs, only to rematerialize his smeared equipment, quite unexpectedly, via the single, chaste kiss of a good woman. Something like that?

Reality TV is currently experiencing a boom in blurred genitalia: men and women wandering around in the buff with absences buzzing between their legs. On the island of love featured on VH1’s Dating Naked, the men and women are getting drunk and groping each other in the pool and saying “Why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself?”; on the Discovery Channel’s Naked and Afraid, they are crouched trembling and de-sexed in the jungles of Borneo or the wild hills of Nicaragua, nibbling snake meat and looming their frightened, nostrilly faces into the lens of the handheld camera at 2:42 a.m. (“What was that noise?!”); on TLC’s Buying Naked, they’re looking for the right amount of closet space for the clothes they don’t wear.

Awkwardness, things jiggling or flapping, the possibility of sex, privacy undone, the prying lens—reality TV has always thrived on these elements. So ask not Why is everybody suddenly naked? Ask instead What took them so long? Of the three principal naked shows, Buying Naked, which last season followed a real-estate agent named Jackie Youngblood as she plied her trade in a clothing-optional community (nudists, we learn, don’t like the word colony: too redolent of ants and cultists), is probably the weirdest. Seen from one angle, it shouldn’t be a reality show at all. It should be a 1970s British sitcom, with a name like Merry Acres or Bedroom This Way, sprinkled with saucy banter and parpings of lowbrow trombone. Seen from another angle, it’s completely futuristic. The nudity is bourgeois-utopian, end-of-history flavorless, a matter of being more available to the vibrations of the real-estate market. “The neighborhood that I would love to put you in,” puffs Jackie to a perky young buyer, “it’s quaint, yet there’s lots of activity going on, you know?!” The nudity of the nudists, as they peer nudely around the echoing properties and—namaste, namaste—stretch out at nude yoga class, produces no sexual thoughts in the viewer whatsoever. Their skin tone is too bumptious and outdoorsy, too free of shame. The last spores of eroticism clinging to their contented bodies have already been destroyed by ultraviolet rays.

Naked and Afraid, which debuted in 2013, was the first of the shows, the groundbreaker. A man and a woman, naked, strangers, Adam-and-Eve their way toward each other across the foreboding landscape. “Hey, we’re naked!” they say, or “You must be my partner!,” and as they shake hands or stiffly embrace, blurred genitals abob, you can hear the hiss of their personal space deflating. Together they must survive, in the wilderness, for 21 days. In Season One, Billy is an “outdoors author,” built like a brick shithouse, although there are “doubts” (we are told in rumbling-foreboding voice-over) “about his mental toughness”; Ky is a lean and fabulous Australian stuntwoman. They meet in the Louisiana swampland: sludge underfoot; Peeping Tom gators; thin, mean trees extending into infinity. Things get chthonic with amazing speed: “Desperate for food, Ky and Billy risk using their battered, infected feet to attract bloodsucking leeches to bait their crawfish trap.” Billy is a superb hunter/fire starter/builder of shelters, but he is prone to melancholy; from the stomach of the bayou, through his own empty stomach, black bile reaches up to claim him. “I just don’t want to suffer like this,” he sadly tells the camera. “I wish I would have known what I was getting into.” “Billy’s morale goes in swings and roundabouts,” notes Ky. So she too must enter the archetypal, accessing her deep womanhood and boosting the fragile male psyche. “You are the mighty hunter!” she tells Billy, as he splashes back to camp with a cottonmouth snake dangling off the end of his homemade spear.

Which leads us to the big question: Is it possible to lie naked in a leafy lean-to with a well-put-together member of the opposite sex, and share body heat all night long, without dissolving into carnality? Answer: Yes, if there are enough ass-biting bugs. Or if, as Honora tells Matt in Season Three, amid the dazzling and fatal dunes of northern Brazil, “we are biologically predisposed to fucking hate each other.” (Honora, who will shortly be carried off the show unconscious, doesn’t like the way Matt smells.)

Dating Naked, now concluding its second season, is garish and horrendous. See the naked dates bask and glint in their boozy pool, heavy-eyed with lust. But there is power in it too, power in that moment on the beach, that dawn-of-the-world coming-together, when the naked dates first glimpse each other and their blurred genitals drone with recognition. Ah, romping children of the universe. What will happen when they go on the horrible date-encounter fabricated by the producers, and make a clay pot together (the echoes of Ghost are entirely deliberate), or do a bit of bicycling, or strap themselves onto a zip line? “I’m just a really chill, down-to-earth person,” says Season One’s Camille. “I like to relax. I don’t know, what about you?” “I’m into sci-fi a lot,” replies Julian. “Like, alien shit.” They are recovering from their yoga date, during which Julian, stimulated by wobbly yogic contact with Camille, was unable to hide his arousal: His genital blur elongated, gained shape, became a floating sword of blurdom. “Julian is very excited,” Camille confided to an offscreen interlocutor. “It’s an awkward situation.”

But for all this, romance still haunts the magic island. The discourse of true love, of finding the right person, etc., winds bizarrely and distractingly through Dating Naked, past the yoga boners and the lewd poolside fondlings. “I wanna try dating naked,” announces Kerri at the start of Season Two, “because I do wanna find a guy who forces me to open up and love again.” For all the bare-assedness, there is a tendency to speak in fully clothed platitudes. “I feel, in my experience, you don’t appreciate the love until you experience the heartbreak,” says tiny, naked Chuck in Season One. “That’s … ,” begins glitteringly naked Kristen, and for a second we savor the wild possibility that she will say such bullshit. But no. “Wow, I like that.”

And so they wander on, the paired-up naked people, with a goblin orchestra of TV technicians crouched just outside the frame. Season One of Dating Naked, in addition to blurring genitals, also blurred bottoms—a piece of fastidiousness reversed for Season Two, when the asses are buoyantly visible. (The best ass on any of these shows, incidentally, belonged to a Special Forces officer named Bo who appeared on Season Four of Naked and Afraid. Bo and his partner were doing 21 days in the Rupununi Wetlands of Guyana; one look at his bared twin ass-grenadoes and you knew they were going to make it.) A participant on the first season of Dating Naked sued Viacom and the producers for a momentary deblurring, or misplacing of the blur, that occurred while she and her date were wrestling on the beach. Her genitals were momentarily exposed, she claimed, and she demanded $10 million. She’d signed a contract, said Viacom and the show’s producers, and besides, the misblurring was accidental. The case was dismissed.

But clearly the day will come when all reality shows are naked: full-on, full-frontal. Naked date and naked date, zonked on cocktails, silhouetted against the dragon-door of sunset; insect-maddened man and woman, in your leaking hovel; bland nudist at the shiny open house: Stand ready, and tauten your parts. The hour of your unblurring is at hand.