PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — For Elizabeth Young, Desert Shadows was a place where she could shed her blouse, pantyhose, sensible heels — and everything else — and then dive into a game of water volleyball.
She and her husband, John, drove from Orange County to the nudist getaway a few times a year to escape their 9-to-5 lives. After its owner filed for bankruptcy in 2007, the Youngs feared someone would raze the hotel, or force guests to wear pants. So they bought the place and renamed it Desert Sun.
At first, nudist groups embraced the couple as a welcome addition to their oft-misunderstood industry. Elizabeth has the blond sunniness of a televangelist’s wife, and John the bravado of a salesman closing a deal. They spent millions sprucing up the place, but the goodwill they generated soon evaporated, and they were pilloried on nudist websites as traitors.
The Youngs announced what they considered a business decision but what others viewed as an attack on core nudist principles:
No more children at Desert Sun.
For the most part, “naturists” — the industry’s preferred term — don’t view bare-naked hiking or volleyball as sexual. That’s why children are typically encouraged to participate.
“Kids are natural nudists, number one,” said Nicky Hoffman, publisher of the Naturist Society magazine, Nude & Natural. She criticized society for teaching “kids to be ashamed of their bodies.”
Introducing children to nudism is also viewed as a way to ensure the community’s survival. Some naturists fret that their ranks — which the American Association for Nude Recreation says fuel a $440 million industry — could dwindle as onetime flower children die off.
“We need to make sure there’s another generation that knows we’re here,” said Gary Mussell of the Southern California Naturist Association.
There’s no precise count of American nudists, but Naturist Society membership has dipped from an apex of 37,000 in the early 1990s to about 20,000 today. The number of resorts and clubs has held steady at about 250 nationwide. So many of them allow children that the Southern California Naturist Association, for one, has a section on its website addressing questions about families who disrobe together:
We Have Two Kids, a Boy and a Girl. How Do I Make Our Children Comfortable with Nudity?
What Do I Do When My Nudist ‘Tween’ Starts to Become a ‘Young Lady’?
In recent years, however, a major threat has emerged to nudism’s child-friendly traditions: technology. The ubiquity of camera phones has prompted some nudists to take extra precautions, lest photos of their children’s bare bottoms end up online.
Many resorts restrict where guests can use cellphones and cameras. Nudists also police each other, particularly on public beaches. “If they see someone taking photographs, that camera might end up in the water,” Hoffman said.
Even at Naturist Society gatherings, the only person allowed to take pictures of nude yoga and nude pudding tosses — and nude anything else — is a photographer whom Hoffman has vetted.
“We’re more careful than everyone else,” she said, a common refrain in the nudist community.
For years, the Youngs didn’t think much about the issue. Then they became resort owners.
The Desert Sun’s previous owners welcomed children, and the Youngs initially did too. Very few came.
The resort, a warren of shimmering pools and bougainvillea that lures about 10,000 visitors a year, wasn’t exactly a haven for kids.
It has 91 hotel rooms and condos, and boasts a tennis court and an elevated walkway, well-known to nudists, nicknamed the Bridge of Thighs.
Rooms are priced for upscale romantic getaways — up to $450 a night on weekends — not family vacations. Couples mostly laze on pool floats or trade stories around fire pits. There’s a spa, and a room christened the “Bare Buns Night Club,” whose signature cocktail is the Naked Smurf.
Even cheeky signs — such as “Abandon Clothes All Ye Who Enter Here” — hang at the eye level of someone fully grown.
Whenever guest Craig Presley spotted children, he cringed. “This is an adult activity,” he said one afternoon at the resort’s Oasis Cafe. His wife, Juanita, joined him in a floppy black sun hat and red heels; he wore even less.
The couple, who work in real estate, drive to their condo here several times a month and revel in the sense of abandon. But when children are around, that feeling vanishes. “What if there’s a kid running around naked and I look his way? Is that OK?” Craig asked.
The Youngs had heard similar grumblings for years. Finally, they decided limiting guests to adults might actually help business. When other nude hotels made the switch, it was primarily to lure swingers. But the Youngs said they could offer something different: a naked — but non-titillating — spa experience.
So in April 2011, the Desert Sun banned children. Business, the Youngs said, soared.
The Youngs had no intention of stoking a public fight over nudism’s future, let alone one refereed by someone clad in robes.
But in February, a Palm Springs attorney named Dave Baron sent the couple a letter, which said his unnamed clients viewed the no-kids rule as a violation of California anti-discrimination law. They wanted the Youngs to welcome them again. Or else.
Baron said his clients had recently made similar requests of half a dozen other area resorts, including a gays-only hotel. “I have clients who are civil rights people from way back, and they abhor discrimination on any level,” he said. At least one is a nudist who’d previously visited Desert Sun.
The Youngs viewed the missive as a threat and wanted a judge to weigh in. When they filed a lawsuit in March, some of their once-private concerns became public.
Their most damning accusation: that it had been “common practice among pedophiles in recent years to attend ‘family nudism’ resorts,” something the industry vehemently denies. “There is of course no way for Plaintiff to know whether any particular individual harbors — or worse, will act on — some improper or wrongful desire toward children,” the Youngs’ complaint said.
Fellow naturists felt tarred. On the nudist website Nothing to Dread, writers bemoaned that the Youngs had gone “nuclear” and mocked the couple’s reasoning as “greed thinly disguised as concern for children.” Offline, some nudists discussed trying to intervene in the legal face-off.
“We feel a really large knife in our backs at the moment,” said Allen Baylis, an attorney who runs an Orange County group called Naturists in the OC.
In recent days, the Youngs decided to drop their lawsuit and find another way to make their case. But they refuse to allow children back into Desert Sun — ever. There’s no need to introduce youngsters to nudism, they said. You can have a fully clothed childhood and still join the naturist community as an adult.
The Youngs offered their own story as proof.
About 2004, they were running an insurance brokerage and raising two sons in Coto de Caza, the Orange County enclave made famous by the “Real Housewives” TV show. John heard about the then-Desert Shadows resort through one of his clients, an official representing a bank. He was intrigued and asked Elizabeth to go with him. Her response: “I can’t do that!”
Months passed, and Elizabeth did some research on nudist resorts. She warmed to the idea. One weekend, the couple zipped over to Palm Springs, checked into the resort, hurried to their room and took off all their clothes. They stared at each other for some time, working up the nerve.
Then they strode into the sun.
©2012 the Los Angeles Times