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.

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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