How Naked Boys Reading Isn’t About The Nudity

Naked Boys Reading is the bi-monthly event that is one of the highlights of the queer calendar and London scene. We talk to co-founders Justin and Alex about literature, body dysmorphia and “magical pre-cum”.

Naked Boys Reading is exactly what it says it is. Men, void of clothing and completely in the nude, stand on a stage in front a clothed audience and read an excerpt of writing, from a hilarious review of gummy bears to a queering of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Perhaps what the name doesn’t convey is the sense of intimacy, community and empowerment that the event creates amongst its readers and audience.

“We were inspired by the downtown New York queer salons of the 60s, old west London queer collectives and their style of performance and literature,” says Justin Hunt, one of the co-founders. “It’s like, ‘come to our house, let’s have wine and let’s have a performance.’”

Justin (aka Dr Sharon Husbands) and Alex Karotsch (aka Duchess of Pork) of creative agency House of Husbands are the founders of NBR. They worked together at cool queer club Dalston Vogue Fabrics and decided they wanted to run more cultural nights as well as club nights. Justin had previously work with Naked Girls Reading in New York and they decided to launch a male version in London in 2012. “Justin said to me, there’ll be naked guys and I was like, ‘sold!’” laughs Alex.

London was sold on it too and now NBR is one of the highlights of the queer calendar in the city. The event is now resident at the Ace Hotel every two months, with queues to get in trailing down the street. And the event has grown internationally over the past five years. Justin and Alex have hosted events in Brighton, Berlin, Zurich, Sao Paolo and Toronto and there are plans for Argentina and Australia. Readers at the events are volunteers and each event has a theme which influences a selection of texts, which the readers can choose from.

But what is it that drives people to stand up on a stage completely naked in front of a room full of strangers? “There’s lots of exhibitionists and nudists,” says Justin, “but some people do it to prove it to themselves. The most terrifying thing for most people isn’t being naked on stage. In gay culture especially, with the likes of Gaydar and Grindr, the body is a shareable object. They’re not actually nervous about being naked on stage but about speaking in public, about reading.”

“The nervousness really adds to the performance,” agrees Alex. “The readers show vulnerability and the audience responds to that.”

Of course, there’s one question that everyone has about Naked Boys Reading: what about erections? As we all know, boners are pretty unpredictable at the best of times, never mind when you’re in front of a crowded room. “It’s so cerebral to read,” explains Justin. “The blood flow is going up, not down. If you think about porn talk, it’s monosyllabic and it’s repetitive. When you’re reading Proust, you really have to engage with the semantics. ‘Ugh, yeah, harder’ isn’t the same as ‘to be or not to be.’”

“We’ve had a couple of semi erections but no full erections,” says Alex. “We had one reader who had a magical pre-cum experience – he noticed it as he was reading and caught it mid-sentence as it dropped.” That, however, is not a regular feature of every show.

The gay community is renowned for the pressure it places on body image and gay men are statistically more susceptible to eating disorders and mental ill health. In media and magazines, we are shown the same body type as the standard of beauty. At NBR, they hope to promote a healthier approach to body image. They don’t screen their readers so there is a variety of body shapes and sizes.

“We have had a lot of conversations with our audience and supporters about racial diversity and body diversity and gender and sex diversity,” says Alex. “London definitely had a body type – the worked our otter type – but we want to promote more diversity. We have had trans readers in the past and we’d really like to see more. For me personally, the notion of community and diversity is important. With all my projects, I’ve tried to appeal to a wider queer audience. It’s important to mix people and get away from these divides in our community.”

“One of the reasons I love this whole scene is because I have a lot of problems with my own body and fears with nudity myself,” admits Justin candidly. “My Master’s degree was on body dysmorphia and nude performance. I was really obsessed with it.”

What’s unusual about NBR from an audience perspective is that once you’re over the novelty of the nudity, it actually becomes secondary to the reading and the literature. “Everyone is surprised that they don’t actually obsess about the body,” agrees Justin. “I think the intimacy is something that surprises people. I’m obsessed with the intimacy that is afforded by literature, being read to and nudity. There is something so sensual about reading to someone. I was always that queen that dreamt of their boyfriend reading something like Freud in bed.”

“We had a reading in Zurich that was so powerful,” reflects Alex. “The reader was an ex-porn star who had battled with drug addiction and his reading was like…I can’t explain. I could cry now thinking about it.” For their birthday, they brought over some of the Naked Girl readers which “helped solidify that it’s all about the reading and the text,” says Alex. “There’s still a lot of misogyny in the gay world and people are like, ‘eww, vaginas!’ but the girls did some of the most outstanding readings.”

Now, as well as the bi-monthly evening event, you can see and hear naked boys reading for brunch. Over food and drink, a reader in a jockstrap can read anything from the morning’s headlines about Brexit to an Amazon review. There might be a better way to start your day than with Prosecco, penis and Proust, but right now, we can’t think of one.

Naked Boys Reading is at Miranda Bar at London’s Ace Hotel on 25th May 2017.