sex and surfing

The undercurrent of sex and sexuality that runs through surfing has at times overshadowed the act of wave-riding itself. Prior to the early 1800s, men and women surfers in Hawaii often used the wave zone as a venue for flirting and display, and a shared wave often amounted to foreplay. Westerners got their first look at surfing through sketches of nude Polynesian women riding gracefully for shore; crusading American missionaries in the middle and late decades of the 19th century railed against the "evil pleasures" associated with surfing.

Surfing was only a few degrees less sexualized during its resurrection in the early 20th century. The Waikiki beachboys, a raffish, semiorganized band of surf instructors and entertainers (described by one writer as the "tumescent playboys of the Pacific"), were known to be great seducers of visiting women, and "surf lessons" sometimes included a half-submerged coupling just past the lineup while using a surfboard as a flotation device.

Meanwhile, Hawaiian gold medal swimmer and surfing proponent Duke Kahanamoku—broad-shouldered, perfectly muscled, often photographed stripped to the waist and gleaming wet—might be regarded as the first beefcake pinup: in an advertisement for the 1914 Mid-Pacific Carnival, a smiling Kahanamoku is shown riding for shore atop his redwood surfboard with hips tilted forward, and arms, legs, and chest flexed. Sex has always been an integral part of surf-related marketing, from the surfboard-holding bathing beauty used on the sheet-music cover of "My Waikiki Mermaid" in 1903, to the poster for 1964's Muscle Beach Party ("When 10,000 biceps go around 5,000 bikinis, you know what's gonna happen!"), to the early '90s-launched Reef Brazil sandal ads featuring young thong-bottomed models.

Surfers in the '50s and early '60s, like rock and rollers or bikers, were often portrayed as sexual deviants; "peroxide boys and girls," as Time magazine wrote in 1963, with "outlandish hairdos; throbbing to guitars at midnight twist parties, [and] fond of nudity." The 15-year-old female narrator of Gidget, a 1957 best-seller, is surprised by the raunchy après surf conversation on the beach. "I pretended not to listen," Gidget confesses, "but lapped up every word of that sexy talk, every last single syllable of it." Mid- and late-'60s pulp books like Surf Broad (described as "A Searing Story of the Free Love, Free Sex, Surfing Generation!") further added to the surfer's reputation as a sexual provocateur, as did a mid-'70s mini-explosion of nude pictorials featuring well-known surfers, with California's Mike Purpus and Angie Reno posing in separate issues of Playgirl and Hawaii's Laura Blears appearing in Playboy. (Whether or not surfers were having more sex, or better sex, than nonsurfers is debatable, although Purpus later boasted that he "had to put a drive-through door in my bedroom" to handle the increased flow after his Playgirl spread.)

The surfing/sex nexus reached a media peak of sorts in 1998—10 years after a Wall Street Journal article described surfing as "the sexiest sport in America"— when then six-time world champion Kelly Slater and voluptuous girlfriend Pamela Anderson were featured in a mildly erotic Interview magazine photo spread.

While today's surfers continue to have a permissive and easygoing attitude toward sex, there are limitations; homosexuality, for example, is either ignored or vilified. A small number of gay surfers have come out, including former world champion Lynne Boyer, Kauian big-wave charger Keala Kennelly, and tattooed world tour backbencher Matt Branson, but the sport has had a hard time shaking off its reputation for homophobia. Filling out a Surfer magazine questionnaire in 1996, teenage surfer Shane Dorian of Hawaii listed "dykes and fags," along with "diseases, food poisoning, the Devil, and flat spells," as things he'd banish if possible. "The big question is," an anonymously written Surf News magazine article asked in 1999, "where are all the gay surfers? And the obvious answer: sitting right next to you in the lineup, hoping nobody will ask so they won't have to tell."

In the late '00s, a new generation of female world tour pros, including Alana Blanchard and Laura Enever, turned the sex quotiant up a notch or two; Australia's Stab magazine, meanwhile, launched a semi-regular column titled "The Joy of Sex," in which famous surfers recounted in some detail the beginnings and various ups and downs of their sex lives.