You can now go to a place where naked men simply read to you
"Shall I get naked," the drag queen and hostess of the night drawled before leaning forward, discarding her girly tone to repeat "I said, should I get naked?" The audience erupted into laughter whilst Dr Sharon Husbands stood back, twiddled a strand of her blonde curly wig, (a vision which was only made better by her immaculately groomed beard) and simply replied, "we'll see". Was this an unusual night for me? Absolutely. But I was here for one thing and one thing only: to watch naked men read books.
I was of course at Naked Men Reading, the literary salon where, you guessed it, naked men read literature to you. I first heard about the bi-monthly event when mindlessly scrolling through the depths of the internet, and well, what can I say, it piqued my interest. Being a literature graduate, I realised that a rather innocuous Thursday would be transformed by the addition of a couple of hunky men flashing their junk whilst reading seminal texts from the canon of LGBTQ literature.
It was hosted in the basement of the Ace Hotel in Shoreditch, London, and the audience certainly lived up to the connotations of "trendiness" that the location inspired. I certainly did not expect anything less than a crowd of chain-smoking bespectacled hipsters, and that's precisely what I got - give or take a couple of businessmen. In fact the only thing I didn't expect was how many of them turned up as I had assumed that naked men reading attracted more of an esoteric crowd. I was incorrect: the dimly lit basement was packed, with more people standing than sitting.
The theme of the event I attended was love between men, and the texts were curated by Alan Hollinghurst - best known for writing the 2004 Man Booker winner, The Line of Beauty. On the website for Naked Boys Reading, the description for the event stated that it was organised to "celebrate" that the "sexual offences bill became law in England and Wales, fifty years ago" allowing us to "openly write" about homosexuality. Hollinghurst chose six texts to mark the occasion, including "the extravagant love-letters of a famous courtier, a pornographic novel once attributed to Oscar Wilde, a story by E. M. Forster published only after his death."
So lets get onto all those naked men, eh? The first man to take the stage was Andrew, a tall, muscular man who appeared to be in his mid-to-late 30's. His salt-and-pepper hair and tattooed body gave him a silver-fox quality, but what stuck out most was his confidence. Strutting onto the stage, Andrew made sure to do a twirl so that audience members got the entire visual. I expected to be more taken aback by the sight of perfect stranger's penis, but no, I was surprised by how little of a deal his nudity was. Indeed, Andrew later chose to prance around in nothing other than jock-strap and my friend and I didn't even give him a second glance.
Whilst one many have expected the "boys" to be reading literature of the more pornographic variety, I was surprised to discover that the texts dabbled more in innuendo and the carefully placed pun than overtly graphic scenes. Certainly, the majority of the texts were classical; Andrew read Teleny, Or the Reverse of the Medal which is frequently attributed to Oscar Wilde - and Theo read E.M Forster's 1972, Arthur Snatchfold.
The only decidedly saucy extract was from Hollinghurst's own, The Line of Beauty, read by Guiseppe, the second of two Italian men. But despite the odd chuckle, the audience and myself included remained engaged with the literature, not the naked man reading it. In conversation with the Guardian, Dr Sharon Husbands elaborated on the intentions behind Naked Boys Reading. Speaking to the sentiment that the male body faces a different type of objectification from that of the female form, Husbands asserts, "we want to infantilise men in the same way women are infantilised [...] We have to critique these structures."
Certainly, one only needs to look at HBO's television programmes to realise that whilst it's considered acceptable for women's breasts to be exposed, the male genitalia is still, for the most part censored from viewers. In essence, I think that Naked Boys Reading presents us with a nudist twist on performance art. Regardless, it made for a great story to tell the office on Friday morning. Naked Boys Reading don't allow attendees to take photos for understandable reasons, but you can see pictures for yourself on their official website. For me, watching men read high-brow literature did normalise the male form, as reading is such a normal everyday act that it felt downright weird to just gawk at the men and not engage with what they were reading.