A group of men are standing out in the open air next to a bonfire in the middle of the night. They're all as naked as the day they were born. They're talking about sexuality and masculinity, revealing what they like about their bodies and what they'd like to change. This is what a naked all-male nature hike looks like.
What reactions to you get from men who hear that you're putting on a naked all-male hike?
"At first, they don't believe me so they ask again. When they realize I'm serious, they generally laugh and ask 'Oh, so you're gay?' or 'Can I come along too?' It's a combination of fear and curiosity."
Yossi Ashur organizes naked hikes for men. If you were to meet him in an ordinary setting, you'd never guess what his strange hobby is. He's father to three girls, lives in Kibbutz Ein Dor and fixes blinds for a living. "A group of naked men walking around the countryside, talking about masculinity and sexuality is a very special experience."
Some trips are one-day excursions – from dawn to dusk. Some hikes are longer - two or even three days long. Nighttime's the most important part of the trek. As night falls, the group of men will huddle around the campfire. Each participant introduces himself, strip off and answer three questions. We'll get to the questions later. "The most interesting things happen in the dark. It’s more intimate. There's something about the campfire in the dark that makes people open up. It works like a dream."
All the hikes are out in the countryside, in places where no one can disturb them. And what happens when unsuspecting hikers come a across a bunch of naked men out in the fields? As a rule, they ignore them. Sometimes, people are curious and ask questions. There's a very small number of people who "don't take well to it, but when that happens, we’ll move away and even get dressed. We're not here to wave flags or bring about any kind of revolution. We're here to work on ourselves."
Men of all ages, sexual orientation, family status and socio-economic backgrounds come on these trips.
Why do they come on your hikes?
"The men who come along, want to change something about themselves. They feel that something inside them could be different. Sometimes, they know and can explain exactly what it is they want to change, and sometimes it's just a vague feeling. It's easier to deal with things together. We want to help one another, to elevate ourselves, to listen, to dare together and if necessary, to be able to say 'Bro, what you said makes no sense.'"
All this is in the nude?
"No. Nudity is an option. You don't have to be naked. Sometimes a man shows up for whom taking off his shirt is just as hard as climbing a mountain or crossing the Red Sea, while right next to him there's a guy who feels it's totally natural – for whom being naked and being barefoot is the same thing. They both have a place on our trips. Nudity isn't something that comes and goes with levels of courage and daring, but rather it fluctuates with its own waves. Maybe I'll want to take off my shirt right now because I'm feeling open and brave, but in an hour's time, I'll want to put my clothes back on. Basically, the men can do whatever they want.
"Something I love about our hikes is that we get to places with water, especially mud and we immerse ourselves in it. With a lot of love, passion and sensuality, we rub the mud all over our bodies. At first, it's weird, but when we get into it, it's very liberating."
Ashur isn't admitting women onto his tours at this stage. "Firstly, I wouldn't want to ruin the male group dynamic. It may make men retreat to their comfort zone. Men clearly behave differently when there's a woman around. Secondly, I'm a man and I don't know how to talk about women's bodies or understand them as it's not the body I have."
No pride, no shame
Growing up, they didn't talk about sexuality in Ashur's family. "I love my father very much, but I've never talked to him or to my friends or brothers about sexuality. I haven't read very much about it either."
When he turned forty, Ashur began examining his own sexuality. This journey of self-discovery included going to an all-male festival, where he signed up for a sexuality seminar where he didn't know anyone. On witnessing the openness, ease and confidence with which the instructor explained the history of sexuality that has molded modern man - with neither nor pride nor shame - Ashur realized that he wanted to help other men feel that kind of confidence."
Where did he begin? Ashur tried talking to close friends about their sexuality. "It was a total failure. In the unspoken friend agreement, we can talk about work, the children and about trips, but not about sexuality." When he understood this, he turned to his outer circles of friends, which went a bit better. He eventually approached male acquaintances, who he didn't know very well at all.
At some stage, he started writing about these conversations. He eventually collected these writings to form his book cataloguing a two-year journey in his life: "Erect. Men Talk Sexuality." "The book really changed my life. It made me get to know myself much better. I met inspiring men and I understood that there's hope and that change is possible."
How do you get to talk about sexuality on naked hikes?
Nudity had always come naturally for Ashur. "Even in my early teens, I did my best to be naked as much as possible. When I was home alone, I liked sunbathing nude on the roof."
At the time he was conducting conversations with men about sexuality, he started stripping off on hikes with friends, and encouraged them to do the same. At some point, it all came together. Word of his naked hikes began to spread and Ashur decided to open up his trips to the general public and organize naked hikes for anyone who was interested. Word of mouth, combined with on-line advertising meant that the trips began to take off. "I'm very moved to see that it's really catching on."
I'm not the only screw-up
Back to the hike. The men are standing in a circle, introducing themselves. One by one, they remove their clothing, allowing the others to inspect their bodies. "It's not polite nudism. We look [at each other]," Ashur adds.
Remember the three questions? Ashur doesn't ask things like where in the country they're from, how many children they have or where they work. He thinks this would make him categorize them and not truly get to know them. Instead, he gets to know them through their bodies.
His first question is: "When you look at yourself naked in the mirror, what do you see?"
"I'm asking what he's actually looking at. What his eyes scrutinize. Is it his face? His wrinkles? His muscles? His belly? More importantly, what do his eyes avoid? What's less pleasant for him to look at? For some, it's their belly. For others, it's their behind, the hair on their back, or they're not muscly enough. Some people focus on their genitalia."
The second question is: "If you could change one thing about your body, what would it be?" We get a wide range of responses to this too. One guy might want different kind of nipples, another may want more muscles, or less hair on his back or more hair on his head and, obviously, some want larger sexual organs... "
The third and final question is less of a question, but more of a request: "Describe your relationship with your penis."
Ashur: "We all have a relationship with our penis. It could be a close, loving relationship and it might be a dissociated, angry kind of relationship. As men, we know that our penis isn't completely our own, that it has its own personality and desires. In your conversation with yourself, do you call it penis? Prick? Organ? Maybe you've made up a name for it. Do you trust it? Are you afraid of it? Do you listen to it? Some men don't have names for their penises, other say their penis only has a name when it's erect."
What have you discovered after scores of conversations like this?
"That I'm not the only screw-up with unresolved sexuality issues and aspects of my personality that might not be considered legitimate. We're all like this.
"It's a naked experience which is different from anything I've ever known. In the army, for example, I can take off my clothes because it's a situation in which people ignore your nudity. But when I know that everyone's focused on my nudity, it's something new. Although it's exciting, it's also cause for concern" says Sagi, one of the participants.
A further member of the group, Doron, describes the experience as strange, but that you very quickly get used to it. "And then, you don't understand why you've never done it before. It's the most natural thing in the world. It's liberating and it's fun to finally be vulnerable. You can be yourself without trying to be someone else."
The first time
What do you need to know before joining such a tour? Ashur explains that there are three hurdles that participants need to get past before joining a trek. They generally self-select long before Ashur himself needs to screen them.
Firstly, it's an all-male trip. "It's an all-male environment where's no one's talking porn, ego or the kind of conversations men have in reserve duty."
The second element that sifts people out is the fact that the group is out in nature, usually camping out. "For some men, it's a plus. For others, it's an obstacle."
The third, and possibly the greatest, hurdle is the nudity. "In our imperfect society, this can be scary, threatening or embarrassing." Ashur further emphasizes that the trip is not a forum for physical sexuality between men.
When a man has understood all of these things, Ashur lets him join the trip for a nominal fee, which he terms a "seriousness fee."
Ashur recalls that on a recent trip, a man showed up in a fancy car, an expensive watch and an ironed shirt laid out on the driver's seat. At first, Ashur thought there had been some kind of misunderstanding. "I was confused. I wasn't sure I'd fully explained what this was and what we were going to do. It was great though. I think he had a very meaningful experience."
Ashur tells me that in the evening, men sit around the bonfire and open up. So, he asks them: "Tell me, have you ever told anyone this before?" It's usually the first time they've said it out loud. "Men feel comfortable in this setting. They dare to open up. Obviously, some just want to listen."
At the end of the session, the men hug and a do a wrap-up session, each sharing something meaningful and trying to identify one thing they'd like to change about lives as a result of the trip. They then part, as a rule, to never meet again.