Last week brought unimaginable news: The Country Club, the jewel of the Bywater, a gay-friendly hangout cum restaurant and bar, would no longer maintain a clothing optional policy in its swimming pool area.
I love the Country Club. I’d say at least once every month I find myself relaxing in its pool while sipping a whiskey and ginger ale. It’s an excellent way to unwind, and while I only strip naked every now and then, I appreciate the nakedness of others, and not, if I may say so, in a creepy way. The nudity policy spoke to a laissez-faire attitude towards hedonism, sexuality and good times. At its best, a nice night at the Country Club, with its tropical landscaping, easy friendliness, good food and strong drink, crystallized everything I loved about New Orleans.
Thus, the swimsuit policy feels like a threat to that same place. I’m not alone in this sentiment. People are already projecting an enormous backlog of frustrations onto the news we can no longer skinny dip on Louisa Street. Look at the comments on the Country Club’s Facebook page and you’ll quickly see people turning this incident into a cypher for everything they believe is wrong with modern New Orleans. No more nudity is like a red-alert threat to local funkiness.
Let’s be fair. At first blush, this seems like a silly overreaction, given what it says about our sense of privilege and our priorities. We live in a city with a murder rate that would make developing nations blush, and our ire is raised when we can no longer disrobe to enter the manicured garden pool of a place that draws its name (albeit ironically) from the kind of establishment that epitomizes exclusivity and class hierarchy.
All I can say is life has big issues and little ones, and sometimes the latter reflect the larger. And I say that in this situation because I am a guidebook writer and travel journalist, and part of my job is looking for the subtle ripples that speak to sea changes in local identity.
If you’re looking for a culprit, look to the New Orleans Alcohol Beverage Control Board and the City Attorney’s office. There has been no indication (as yet) that they were pressured in any way by the Country Club’s neighbors. Rather, they seem to have responded to a series of thefts and a rape that occurred at the Club during the course of the summer. The case built against the Country Club was framed in curiously prudish Victorian terms. The New Orleans City Attorney’s staff — who apparently have never been to New Orleans — said the Club permitted “obscene, lewd, sexually indecent, immoral or improper conduct.”
I’d argue lewdness is in the eye of the beholder. The many repeat beholders at the club had paid the price of admission, so whatever was on offer clearly wasn’t offending them. Also, it’s a bit much to slam a business for being lewd in a city known for Krewe du Vieux floats featuring giant penises and that hangs its tourism marketing hat on jazz, a genre of music invented in brothel waiting rooms. And anyway, Country Club conduct is carried out between consenting adults, with the tragic exception of the rape. To that end, the owners appear to have done right by the rape victim, accommodating her requests for security camera footage.
I’ve personally seen tourists snorting cocaine in the bathrooms of big-name Bourbon Street bars and the police blotter confirms more than a few cases of women being drugged in those same establishments. The willingness of the city to pursue legal action against a residential neighborhood institution is disturbing — an awkward, clumsy gesture at best, and, at worst, a frankly discriminatory measure taken towards an avowedly LGBT establishment.
The travel writer in me notes two things about this situation. One: For all the people (including myself) lamenting the end of the Country Club/Bywater/New Orleans (I’ve heard all three sentiments), it’s worth noting that wherever you are, beloved, “special” places always change. I’ve seen this happen around the world on literally every inhabited continent. In the age of the Internet, nothing is secret, and unless a strict barrier to entry is thrown up, places that project a je ne sais quois attitude attract new visitors and subsequently change.
Over the years, the Country Club has gotten rowdier, busier and has attracted more straight patrons. Opinions differ on when the shift occurred, and many of those views rest on how long one has been going to the Club. Some people say the atmosphere got more fratty and dangerous around 2010. On the flip side, a friend who moved here in 2012 says she never felt uncomfortable in the clothing-optional area. Whatever the case may be, the reported rape was a wake-up call. You can’t prevent popularity or a shift in client demographics, but you can guard against assholes. Maybe it’s time for the Country Club to actually have private membership for the pool area.
The other connection the travel writer in me makes relates to overseas journalism work I did in 2006-08, when I spent a good deal of time interviewing and interacting with political Islamists in Indonesia, Malaysia, the United Kingdom and Australia. I doubt any Louisiana politician wants to be linked to organizations like Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (the Pan Malaysian Islamic party, or PAS). Yet this move is precisely the sort of legal maneuvering that the Islamist party engages in when it wants to suppress “decadent” businesses in northern Malaysia.
I’m not saying New Orleans city government wants to wrap us all in hijabs. But the difference is in degree, not motivation. PAS has banned mixed-gender swimming pools, our city council bans a clothing-optional one, and both actions are done out of an ostensible fear of rape. Which is infuriating, as it plays into the old trope that says men can’t be trusted around women, that the mere sight of a woman’s body is a gateway to sexual assault.
The implicit message is that it’s a woman’s fault if she is attacked, because she should know better than to go to a place where men are in a state of arousal. The onus isn’t on men not to rape; it’s on everyone to cover up. Naked bodies are dangerous, or to put it another way: In Louisiana, you can enter a bar armed with a gun, but take off your clothes and you’re a threat to public safety.
Side note: When I worked in Malaysia, there were always enormous amounts of porn in the search history of the computers in Internet cafes in PAS-leaning districts. Puritan policies just pushed sexuality into another outlet. In that vein, I predict a lack of nudity will make for a more douche-y, sexually aggressive atmosphere at the Country Club.
You know what kept dudebro jerkwads away from the Club before? Their homophobia and fear of being naked around gay men. Now that barrier has been removed. A place — perhaps the only one in the South — where people of all sexualities could feel comfortable in their skin, gender and identity in its most basic, God-given form, will now become a pool party.
New Orleans does hedonism well because, unlike the Bourbon Street booze-oisie, we know how to ride our id without letting it overcome us. I’d like to think New Orleanians also know the difference between sipping a cocktail and funneling a yard-long hurricane. By the same token, we know the difference between a nude-safe space and an orgy. But our city doesn’t trust us to make that distinction. More’s the pity. I won’t stop going to the Country Club. But I can never be as comfortable in my skin there, given that now I have to cover it up.
Adam Karlin is a travel writer and journalist whose published work includes three editions of Lonely Planet’s New Orleans guide.