September 4, 2013 10:17:08 AM
"Why do some people have group sex?" That's the initial question that starts Plays Well in Groups: A Journey through the World of Group Sex (Rowman & Littlefield) by Katherine Frank. It's fair to say that anyone reading her extensive examination of stories from classical times, tribal rites, wartime rapes, bachelor parties, the Playboy Mansion, virtual worlds, group sex clubs, and more, is going to learn a thing or two. That she has found so many aspects of her subject surely indicates that group sex is a big deal and worthy of serious academic attention; that many of the aspects are liable to exaggeration and sensationalism only further indicates the pull of the topic. She has the credentials to do it; she has her doctorate in cultural anthropology, and is a scholar-in-residence at American University. Her writing credits include a previous book on the ethnography of strip clubs, a book for which she herself became a stripper as part of her research. She has not been able to get to every venue she writes about: "Whether or not I had firsthand knowledge of a particular setting, I sought interviews with experts and drew on published scholarly work, which is admittedly sparse." This time, yes, she's joined in, too, to one-night orgies, week-long events combined with sightseeing tours, house parties, lavish invitation-only events, and more. She says that walking into an orgy sent her to intellectual rather than sexual exploration. The academic tone of her book confirms this, but at the same time, she is a good-humored guide with a wry style; perhaps someone could manage to write a dry tome on this topic, but this isn't one.
The big lesson from all the facets of Frank's study, and it might be an obvious one, is that group sex is always transgressive. Anthropologists have found few universal taboos, but "having sex willingly in the presence of observers or with multiple partners crosses a line of social propriety in many societies. Where these lines are drawn is, of course, highly variable." Everyone knows, though, that those decadent ancient Romans had plenty of orgies. Everyone may be wrong. Scholarly texts from the time may be exaggerations and may derive from fictional stories, like the Satyricon. Sure, Romans probably had orgies, Frank concludes, but the best reason to think so is not the stories and legends, but simply: "Group sex has most likely occurred in every culture and time period whether such events ended up in the historical record or not." The Roman orgy has been celebrated in histories and imaginations as a warning against decadence; those Romans had their orgies, the lesson is supposed to go, and look what happened to them. We have not learned our lesson; there are toga-themed sex parties, and porn movies readily adopt the setting of ancient Rome. The third wife of the emperor Claudius, Messalina, the story goes, won a coital contest by taking on twenty-five successive men; when Annabel Chong set out to best this record (by a long shot) for film, she was within a set including white Roman columns and sculpted urns.
Although group sex is transgressive, it is not anarchic; this is one of the themes that runs throughout the chapters here. "Even in a setting where encounters might be anonymous, then, group sex remains organized, monitored, and patterned." In BDSM settings, where one might guess there would be an "anything goes" approach, there are rules. Although one researcher found "the specifics of etiquette to be variable, such as when and where other participants could talk to submissives, all of the events had rules and expectations that were usually made explicit." In some settings, just making a verbal request for a sexual activity is the straightforward way of communicating a desire, but some events may specify beforehand such things as whether they are "full swap," "soft swap," or "girl-girl." Lesbians and gay men have developed a "hanky code," by which a handkerchief color and where it is worn indicates what particular activity one is interested in. "Hankies aren't a foolproof method, however. Colors vary across regions and even if your hankies match, it doesn't mean you're destined for the back room unless other forces align." Frank warns that there are plenty of exaggerated stories about what goes on in such gatherings (indicating, of course, the discomfort of nonparticipants in contemplating them). The lesson in chapter after chapter here, however, is, "Far from being a 'free-for-all,' group sex is highly negotiated. When humans breach norms of sexual privacy - even as they aim for transgression - they do not do so in random or senseless ways." And always: No Means No.
The discomfort that non-participants have about group sex is reflected in how swingers are represented in the media. Monogamy and married coupling are still a deeply held ideal, even though it is an ideal which people have a constant pattern of failing to achieve. Reports about group sessions will be sure to mention (as one reviewer on a movie about the subject did) things like the "fleeting glimpses of gray-haired, potbellied, cellulite-jiggling, over-60 orgiasts lustily going at it in their suburban living rooms after an evening of barbecue and California dip." Frank shows this sort of reporting is standard, but that it seems unfair to emphasize the appearances of participants just because they look little different from a cross-section of Americans (and not like the models in a porn film). She also points out that even news stories that emphasize the unattractiveness of the swingers will result in calls to the reporter, some from those indignant that such things are going on or are being reported on, but more calls that go like, "Uh, I read your article and thought it was real interesting. How can a person find out where these activities are going on?"
I think we (perhaps males more than females) are programmed to get excited by other people having sex nearby. Pornography simulates this, and group sex actualizes it. Frank briskly explains the idea of sperm competition, "the possibility that sperm from more than one male compete internally in the female's reproductive tract for egg fertilizations." It would follow that observing a competitor male in the act would increase lust and thus boost performance and enjoyment. Perhaps so, but perhaps we are not going to be able to explain fully what makes sex fun, or what makes group sex fun, beyond, "It feels good." There is, of course, the novelty of having other people around; we non-swingers seldom get an opportunity to see, or to learn from, other people in actual lovemaking. And also we do not get to see, pity us, group demonstrations of the Orgasmatron, Orgasmator, or the Spank-O-Matic.
Frank's wide-ranging book takes in a lot of territory. Did you know, for instance, that in the virtual world Second Life people "earn, save, and spend. They make friends, fall in love, get married, have children, cheat, and get divorced. And, of course, they have sex (usually after buying genitals, which aren't included with the basic model.)" She looks at the very dubious stories about "key parties," during which (as in the film The Ice Storm, guys put their keys in a bowl and each wife picks a random key to select whom she will drive home with for the night. Such things probably never happened. There are other ways of randomly finding partners, like sex clubs with dark rooms, or Craigslist. She looks at the young people in Iran who have sex parties as an expression of rebellion against repression, and, oh yes, "It's just fun! It's what we do for fun!" She does get to go to the Playboy Mansion, where, just as you would expect, the stories about the goings-on are far more titillating that what actually happens. The descriptions of what goes on in Hefner's bedroom are among the least erotic passages in her book. (Frank reports them second-hand: "More recent bunnies have also spilled their carrots about what happens in Hef's chambers.") There's a great deal of research here with case studies and interviews, but there is also good humor and a healthy sense of wonder at how diverse and funny our species is.