I pick up the volleyball and look up. An older man of at least 60 is doing squats about an arm’s length away from me, and his crown jewels are dangling underneath him. I regret this instantly.
It’s 7pm on a Monday, and I am standing in the draughty gym of the Albert Graefe School in Kreuzberg, Berlin. Dress code? Nothing but my sports shoes and socks. Eight other naked men, some in their twenties and thirties along with two old-timers, are passing some volleyballs around. Everyone is passing, chatting or stretching while Mike is putting away the 4 Euro payments in his fanny pack. Mike is the volleyball organiser of the Adolf Koch Familien-Sport-Verein, a family sports club. A “family sports club” that only offers nude sports. They offer nude table-tennis, nude yoga classes, nude water sports and, of course, nude volleyball. It’s a classic FKK organisation, which stands for FreiKörperKultur, meaning ‘Free Body Culture’.
Before I know it, I am listening to Mike explain some volleyball exercises in German. I understand quite a bit and realise that I just have to go with it. I might be butt-naked in a school gym, but I will show them what I got. I tell the man next to me in my best German that I am not even that good at volleyball, and that I am mostly here as a journalist. He laughs and passes me the ball. I take a deep breath and practice a sprawl dive with the ball to Julian.
The club’s name comes from Adolf Koch, who was the leader of the FKK movement before the war and had an interesting relationship with nude culture and the ruling party of his namesake. Germany has a rich history of nudism; while it has become a bit of a taboo in the US and the UK, it has always been more enshrined in Europe’s holiday traditions. Feargus O’Sullivan writes that “rather than sexualizing the body, the naturist movement sought to free people from shame and the social inequality to which clothing often gave expression.” He goes on to say that before 1989, specifically in the communist and secular Eastern European states, it was common to try to make a distinction between work and relaxation by literally separating the two activities with two different costumes. The Nazis even propagated nude male models, but then took a step back in order to create a more uniform male society. The post-war Left had their own way of looking at it, and a leftist nudist magazine even had a slogan saying: “We are naked and we call each other Du.”
“We have been playing volleyball here almost every week since 2012, right?” Mike (28) looks to Julian (31) as we sit in the locker room for our little interview, this time dressed for the occasion. “He got me into it,” Mike says while pointing to Julian. “I’ve always been playing ‘textile volleyball’ and Julian was already into FKK, we found this sports club and it was all really exciting.” The two men now live in a nudist apartment with two other roommates and are very happy to talk to me about their lifestyle.
“A lot of people do it in Germany,” Julian explains, “there are FKK camping sites, yoga clubs, holiday tours, nude beaches, and many other activities. I have been going on FKK holidays for years now. It’s all about being connected to your body and feeling completely free. Also, while playing sports, it’s more healthy because you can see your body and you get more feedback from your body. It’s just very different with clothes on.” Mike quickly concludes his friend’s statement: “And it’s also more practical as you have to bring less sports clothes!”
I grab the ball and I am ready to serve. Adrenaline is rushing through my veins. It’s 24:23–a setpoint for us. For a first-timer, I have been playing well. Julian even came up to me and complimented me earlier. I can’t help but realise I am loving the sports side of things. In general, it’s a relaxed atmosphere, but some of the men get quite competitive about whether a ball is in or out of the playing field. We play about six different sets up to 25 points, and all come together at the net to high-five each other when a team wins a set. For anyone watching from the sidelines, it must have been a ridiculous sight. Eight men, wearing nothing but shoes and socks (and the occasional kneecap) huddling up at the net.
In the locker room I jokingly ask them if wearing kneecaps isn’t cheating. “Protection first, right?” Mike says. Then I ask the question that was on my mind for some time: “Is there no sexual connection at all? No tension?” Mike laughs, and Julian says: “Not here. I mean… you never know the motivations of everyone who comes here. But here it is all about being completely free. This automatic association between being naked and sexuality is strange, we think. It’s only because you are normally always in clothing and only really take them off with other people during sex. If anything, there’s an aesthetic element to it. You do everything about your body and with your body. Clothes take that away.”
While FKK organisations are losing their members at a fast rate, Mike and Julian tell me that they saw a steady increase in the members at the Adolf Koch Sports Club. Giving a reason for the general decline, they allude to the heated debate and numerous bans on nude bathing, for instance at a lake in Southern Germany, and an increase in harassment towards nudists. But they admit that a rise of smartphones with cameras and an increase in tourists isn’t helping the open FKK culture they used to know and love.
Asked if they had a message for young Europeans looking for a new element to their weekly dose of sports, Mike said: “Trust yourself, it might be difficult to go for the first time. But a lot of people told us that they see it as a key experience in life. So, try it out. It’s liberating.” Julian nods and smiles. “You are here for the second time now, aren’t you?”
It’s 24:23. I throw the ball in the air and at that moment I snap out of my competitive mindset and realise there are seven men in this room looking at my naked self jumping up to serve. I completely miss-whack the ball and it bounces on the net. I stand stuck to the ground for a few seconds. What am I doing here?
It’s 24:24. No time for naked thoughts. Let’s go. “Du bist dran!” I yell, while I throw the ball over the net. We were naked and we called each other du.