Speedophobia: America’s Fear & Loathing of Budgie Smuggling

Mark Simpson undresses the tor­tured rela­tion­ship between American men and their swimsuits

(Out, February 2007)


If the stern, kill­joy rub­ric of this warn­ing sign, erec­ted in the 1960s by the good people of Cape May, N.J., sounds like a way to rain on a gay beach party, that’s because it was.

Cape May, a resort town a few hours south of New York City by car, had become a pop­u­lar gay haunt by the late 1950s, nick­named “Cape Gay” by the cognoscenti. According to a 1969 art­icle in Philadelphia magazine, “their pub­lic dis­plays of affec­tion, par­tic­u­larly among men wear­ing women’s bathing suits on the main beach… turned off the towns­folk.” The city coun­cil, eager to pro­tect its flock from glimpsing the ter­ri­fy­ing out­line of adult male gen­italia, was moved to pass a law for­bid­ding bikini bathing suits on males over age 12 — a “phal­liban,” if you will.

The ban on ‘form-fitting’ bathing suits on males was offi­cially lif­ted by Cape May in 2005. Arguably this didn’t hap­pen because America now accepts male bumps and lumps but simply because it was now unne­ces­sary. After all, these days every­one knows that male bikinis — or, to give them their trade name-turned-generic moniker, “Speedos” — are unof­fi­cially banned from all main beaches in the United States, whatever your age.

You may think them prac­tical and sexy and iconic. You may con­sider them the single most per­fect and pithy item of cloth­ing ever designed for the male body. You may con­sider them the only thing to wear on the beach. You might even con­sider your­self slightly over­dressed in them. But if you do, it’s prob­ably because you’re gay. Or for­eign. Speedos, oth­er­wise known as “banana ham­mocks,” “marble bags,” “noodle bend­ers,” and “budgie smug­glers,” are appar­ently as un-American as Borat’s body thong.

Speedos on a nongay beach are the surest way to earn your­self angry stares, abuse, and plenty of room for your beach towel. As a res­ult, Speedos have in the United States become a badge of gay pride and exclusion-as overt homo­pho­bia declines, rampantly overt Speedophobia is bring­ing U.S. gays and Brazilians together, hud­dling together at the far end of the beach in their Lycra.

Male celebs like David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Daniel Craig may now be nicely filling out their Speedos on their beach hol­i­days — but none of these fel­lows are American. Speedos and even more reveal­ing male swim­suits are pop­u­lar in South America, Asia, much of Europe, and espe­cially, of course, in the land of the pert-butted lifesaver: Australia, the place where the “Aussie cossie” and much of the beach life­style we know today was born.

The Speedo is more than just “gay” beach­wear: It’s a sym­bol of sexual free­dom and a redis­cov­ery of the body after cen­tur­ies of clammy Christian morality.

Bathing and swim­ming are undoubtedly pagan pas­sions. The ancients inven­ted the sea­side resort and spent a great deal of gold on, and time in, their blessed pub­lic baths, where the men bathed and swam naked. Not because they were indif­fer­ent to naked­ness, but because they esteemed vir­il­ity. Every night was wet jock­strap night (without the jock­strap) at the Roman baths, and espe­cially well-endowed bathers were likely to be greeted with a round of applause; dur­ing the reign of notori­ous size queen Emperor Elagabalus, those who hung low at the baths were pro­moted to high office.

Alas, neither swim­ming nor bathing nor size-queenery sur­vived the decline of the Roman Empire. Medieval Christianity, with its ghastly sus­pi­cion of the body, rendered water — the sen­sual cleanser of limbs — sus­pect. As late as the 16th cen­tury, bathing was thought to be wicked, unhealthy, and, er, filthy. (Even Catholic bap­tism used only “holy” water, water that had been blessed, sym­bol­iz­ing the cleans­ing blood of Christ: Sin was the deep-down dirt that Christianity was angry with.)

The English were the first to redis­cover the lost art of swim­ming, largely as a res­ult of their explor­a­tion of Polynesia in the 18th cen­tury, where swim­ming was com­mon amongst the bliss­fully naked nat­ives. By the 19th cen­tury swim­ming in rivers, lakes, and the sea was almost as pop­u­lar in England as it had been in Rome — fre­quently naked, males and females, some­times at the same time.

Christian mor­al­ists, their influ­ence hav­ing resur­ged in the late 19th cen­tury, were nat­ur­ally incan­des­cent at these dis­plays of wan­ton hap­pi­ness. They suc­cess­fully cam­paigned for local bylaws ban­ning day­light bathing, or insist­ing on the use of “bathing machines” that allowed the bather to enter and depart the water unseen, or requir­ing “neck-to-knee” bathing cos­tumes (New York State had such a law until as late as 1938). A typ­ical swim­ming cos­tume com­prised a pair of woolen knick­ers extend­ing to the knees and a sleeve­less jer­sey. Not a good look.

To their eternal credit, it was the Australians who struck the first blow against the 19th-century phal­liban. With typ­ical Aussie obstin­acy, the men of the aptly named Manly Beach chose simply to dis­reg­ard the pissy-prissy laws ban­ning day­time bathing. Faced with this sea­side insur­rec­tion, local author­it­ies threw in the towel and lif­ted the ban in 1903. The rest of Australia fol­lowed (swim)suit, though pre­cisely what kind of swim­suit was still con­tested. Many male bathers dis­reg­arded the neck-to-knee ordin­ances, either rolling their one-piece down to the waist or, wear­ing trunks, simply improvising.

Good Christian folk found this intol­er­able. There was a strident cam­paign by decent, upstand­ing, if slightly pal­lid, Christians to get male bathers to wear modesty-preserving bathing “tunics.” Protests by angry crowds of male bathers at Manly and Bondi Beach — wear­ing bal­let skirts and sarongs — put an end to the Ozzie phalliban.

So it was in Australia, a warm coun­try where most of the pop­u­la­tion ten­derly hug the coast­line and pay little atten­tion to busy­bod­ies — per­haps because Australia began as a con­vict colony — that the bod­ily free­dom of the mod­ern beach life­style (“surfers rather than serfs!”) was inven­ted, anti­cip­at­ing by dec­ades the sexual revolu­tion of the 1960s — giv­ing men’s pack­ets and asses free­dom of expres­sion. It was this, not Kylie Minogue, that was their greatest con­tri­bu­tion to world cul­ture. Australia, a coun­try fond of cas­u­ally abbre­vi­at­ing English, abbre­vi­ated the male bathing “cossie,” and with it Victorian morality.

The insti­tu­tion that did more to export this vis­ion of a sandy, nicely roun­ded uto­pia than any other, smug­gling mil­lions upon mil­lions of “budgies,” was ori­gin­ally called MacRae Knitting Mills after the fam­ily who foun­ded it in Australia in 1914. Among the first com­pan­ies to pro­duce spe­cific­ally “ath­letic” designs (i.e., swim­ming cos­tumes that didn’t double as sea anchors), MacRae changed its name to “Speedo” in 1928 after staff mem­ber Captain Parsons coined the slo­gan “Speed on in your Speedos.”

In 1955, Speedo intro­duced nylon into its fab­ric for com­pet­it­ive swim­wear (unwit­tingly invent­ing a whole new branch of fet­ish­ism). The 1956 Melbourne Olympics provided a sen­sa­tional debut for the new sheer style of brief briefs when Speedo sponsored the medal-sweeping Australian team. By the time of the 1968 Olympics and through the ’76 games, almost every gold medal­ist swim­mer wore Speedos. Naturally, men all over the globe wanted to enjoy the sen­sa­tion for themselves.

Even in the United States. Up until the early 1980s, Speedos were a com­mon sight here, both on the beach and at the pool. Everything was lovely and snug and nicely out­lined. But then some­thing hor­ri­fy­ing happened. Sometime in the late ‘80s men’s swim­suits began to grow in length and bulk. Year by year they crept down the thigh toward the knee-and bey­ond — all the while bil­low­ing clown­ishly out­ward. Now U.S. men wear, of their own voli­tion, not even the knee-length woolen knick­ers that the Australian men of Manly hero­ic­ally pro­tested in the early 20th cen­tury, but bloom­ers — a volu­min­ous form of female attire last seen in the 1850s (and gen­er­ally regarded as ridicu­lous back then). In the water, today’s Speedophobic males are half-man, half-jellyfish.

Unfittingly enough, this tra­gic trend began with someone wear­ing two pairs of shorts at the same time. In the ‘70s bas­ket­ball shorts were skimpy (almost like Oz foot­ball shorts), but Michael Jordan pop­ular­ized sex­less long shorts in the NBA in the late 1980s. “He wanted to keep wear­ing his lucky University of North Carolina shorts under his Chicago Bulls shorts,” explains Australian aca­demic David Coad, author of an upcom­ing book on sexu­al­ity, gender, and sport,” and decided to wear a longer pair to cover the shorter ones.” Because Jordan was Jordan, oth­ers copied, and thus baggy shorts became fash­ion­able. It seems that this evil trend spread to male swimwear.

There was, I’d ven­ture, another, weight­ier reason for this swim­wear ele­phant­iasis. The late ‘80s was also when male obesity became a big trend in the United States. Baggy shorts hide baggy but­tocks. They also wear higher, and their large pro­file makes a baggy stom­ach con­sid­er­ably less obvi­ous than when hanging over the waist­band of a Speedo. Moreover, “board shorts” hide the chicken legs of a car-centered soci­ety in which men watch sport (while eat­ing) instead of play­ing. Is it simply a coin­cid­ence that when many young American men saw their bod­ies los­ing mas­cu­line defin­i­tion they star­ted wear­ing ladies’ bloomers?

The ‘80s also saw the begin­ning of the rise of the male as appet­iz­ing, ideal­ized media sex object. The bar for male beauty was being set higher and higher as the real­ity was get­ting heav­ier and heav­ier. The tyranny of “boardies” is an expres­sion of male self-consciousness, self-loathing — and para­noia. Both of being “checked out” and of not meas­ur­ing up. The ‘80s saw a steep rise in the American male’s aware­ness of gays — and with it his desire not to be mis­taken for one in any way by sig­nal­ing that he actu­ally had an ass and a packet. Baggy shorts are a delib­er­ate and cruel affront to homos — but it’s nice to know that straight men are think­ing about us so much.

Gays are, of course, fre­quently flam­boy­ant Speedophiles. They are less likely to be over­weight. They are more likely to be worked-out. Hence their wear­ing Speedos really rubs people’s noses in it — in every sense. Gays are gen­er­ally more than happy to advert­ise the highly ver­sat­ile sex-object status of the male body. And a Speedo screams COCK!! BALLS!! ASS!!… in any order or com­bin­a­tion you fancy.

It’s as obvi­ous as a badly smuggled budgie that des­pite the pagan pas­sions of pop cul­ture and an enthu­si­astic uptake of the beach life­style, the prom­ise of sandy sexual lib­er­a­tion has come slightly adrift Stateside. The pain­fully unequal sexual divi­sion of labor on U.S. beaches, where women wear little more than eye­liner and men wear tents — without the pole — is a sorry test­a­ment to that.

The phal­liban spirit of 1960s Cape May has triumphed.

 © Mark Simpson 2012

This essay is col­lec­ted in Metrosexy: A 21st Century Self-Love Story

11 thoughts on “Speedophobia: America’s Fear & Loathing of Budgie Smuggling”

  1. I used to get an “pole” in my “Swim Tents” (Hellooo women in bikinis!). I am not gay or fat but prefer speedos to shorts any­day and could care less about the taboo. While you hint on the idea “You may think them prac­ti­cal and sexy and iconic.” prac­ti­cal is just why many non gay and some gay speedo wear­ers are will­ing to break the taboo. We could care less that some­body who came to the beach to stare at “hot­ties” found a not­tie, we would rather be com­fort­able and free of hav­ing to give a damm.

    The his­tory bit is pretty cool :). The joke is that if you go back in his­tory (Pre 1930’s), most of the “bikini like” gar­ments with the excep­tion of the sub­l­igaria were almost male exclus­ive… the thong, brief, jock­strap, fun­doshi, loin­cloth, and per­i­zoma (sim­ilar to the loin­cloth). Even the leo­tard star­ted with the male. To add to the mess brief like swim­suits were pop­u­lar in the US 20’s-40’s with men. Shorts for swim or under­wear didn’t exist in the US until ww2 when elastic was in demand.

    Maybe I don’t get too many dirty looks as in California (where I live) Most gay men wear some­thing a hel­lah lot less or more sexual than a speedo (kolaswim, string, and hot pink). Speedos do look mod­est com­pared to them given that you get the right size.

    As an avid speedo wearer If you tuck your stuff in right you are left with a small bulge which isn’t too notice­able in the grand scheme to things, no out­line of the parts and no dis­cern­ible size. Also an erec­tion in a speedo is less obvi­ous because as I poin­ted out earlier one in boardies cre­ates a tent­pole effect stick­ing out from the body. Considering that you are wear­ing the right size and dark colored brief your stuff wont go straight out but stay close to the body where it isn’t too notice­able from the front or 3/4 angle.

    I find this double stand­ard funny… Women can wear gar­ments that are made for men and cul­ture is fine with it but men wear a gar­ment that is com­mon to see on women (even if it was ori­gin­ally made for men) and it is taboo…

  2. This art­icle reads like New Age claptrap. Christians in the mod­ern world can be just as free with their bod­ies. Every sup­posed Pagan and Wiccan (made-up, fake) always try to pro­claim the pagan ori­gins of everything they espouse.

    Well, duh. Straw man asser­tions. Everything was pagan and poly­the­istic in its ancient origins.

    I also won­der if the pre­vi­ous com­menter is the real Jack Malebranche. If so, I was ini­tially mildly recept­ive to the book Androphilia, then you hear com­ments at their source like those above that force you to recon­sider. How does someone write a book called Androphilia and then propag­ate male self-shame?

    I am American, too, and I don’t think a per­son who dubbed them self Malebranche should be pub­licly judging oth­ers’ des­per­ate cries for attention.

  3. Being objec­ti­fied as an Olympic sex sym­bol in 2012, Ryan Lochte seems to de-taboo the speedo in main­stream American media.
    Jack is sex­ist if he doesn’t mind chicks in bikinis.

  4. Phalliban’ is the word of the week and made me laugh out loud.

    Come Mr Phalliban
    Hand over your speedos
    Police come man
    Doan want no homos!

  5. There’s noth­ing Gay or Str8 about it.

    Speedos are the simply the best thing to wear in the water and I hate with a purple pas­sion those boardies that feel like you’re swim­ming with your clothes on.

    Same goes for long shorts that are no good for run­ning either. In addi­tion to mak­ing you swaet more, more cov­er­age means you’ve got more sweaty cloth­ing to deal with.

    I’m cast­ing my vote to bring back the speedo and short shorts ASAP.

    As for you speedo­phobes who are uncom­fort­able about the issue, go to a shrink so you can deal with your insecurity.

  6. Well, every­one is entitled to express their own opin­ion and thoughts. My opin­ion is that people who ridicule swim briefs are just plain closed minded and imma­ture. To say they are “gross” is just gross to hear that! Growing up in the 80’s, swim briefs were accept­able. I think swim briefs are less pop­u­lar now due to the “hip-hop” and “baggy” fash­ion influence.

    I think adequate swim briefs for men have their place and time. I’m a 6’0, 31, ath­letic mus­cu­lar straight male from Southern California and wear square-cut boxer shorts at pools and board shorts at the beach. My GF loves how my square-cuts fit! I feel more mas­cu­line, sexy, and attract­ive. I think these type of swim­wear looks bet­ter in people in good shape.

    I also have a swim brief that I wear for “play” only in private with my GF. She loves how they fit and she encour­ages me to wear them at the pool! I don’t think I would want to do that due to the “hos­tile speedo­pho­bia” soci­ety we live in!. Swim briefs in other parts of the world are ok, but the USA is so up-tight for that. It does not make sense! Women can wear next to noth­ing, but men are not allowed to wear any­thing less than board shorts. How ridicu­lous! The USA has become a super macho hypo­crit­ical double stand­ard soci­ety. It’s very sad. No won­der why the rest of the world doesn’t like us…go figure!!!

    To ste­reo­type swim briefs as homo­sexual is so stu­pid and ridicu­lous. I say to men who have the body and feel good in swim briefs, go for it! If women can nearly show their entire body nude in a tiny bikini, then men should be allowed to wear swim briefs! Don’t mind those imma­ture people who don’t like it. If they don’t like it, too bad! Tell them to look or go some­where else! The USA is a free nation, so wear whatever you like as long as it’s adequate.



  7. My piece appeared in Out magazine in February 2007, so it pred­ates that blog by over a year. I doubt how­ever I was the first to use the word ‘Speedophobia’. Though per­haps the first in print.

  8. Because the little, more pop­u­lar brother of speedos, little tiny short shorts is going to to cover that spon­tan­eous boner, or trunks, for that matter.

    Either way, I don’t think of speedos as sexual any­more? I think of them as like, another choice for swim­wear. Truth is, I do check out the pack and the ass, but I just do it unconsciously.

  9. You believe “a spon­tan­eous woody” would be more con­spicu­ous in lycra swim­wear than mak­ing a tent out of a pair of board shorts?!?!

    It’s nice to know that as an American, you’re qual­i­fied to decide what is appro­pri­ate for oth­ers to wear. Many parts of the world embrace diversity rather than con­form­ity. We won’t get into infam­ous people in his­tory who pushed con­form­ity on the world.

    Speedos are no more fem­in­ine than the Capri pants that guys are wear­ing today, and they don’t weigh five pounds when wet.

  10. As an American, I’m going to go ahead and con­firm that speedos are inap­pro­pri­ate for no-competitive swim­ming and I would like it to stay that way.

    Yeah…that’s like a little too close to being naked, really. And in America, wear­ing a Speedo would def­in­itely be read as a cry for atten­tion. As in..“I’m too sexy for my shorts, excuse me while I lav­ish cocoa but­ter all over my care­fully main­tained tan.”

    Plus…what if you get a spon­tan­eous woody?

    Great his­tor­ical back­ground in the art­icle, BTW.

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