Thursday, January 23, 2014

Katherine Frank's "Plays Well in Groups": Book Review

For her dissertation, cultural anthropologist Katherine Frank worked as a stripper. Now, as a participant-observer into the realm of shared sexual encounters, this sociologist reveals her first-hand experiences along with survey findings and interviews into “various possible configurations” of socio-erotic exchanges by those who watch and those who act, when more than two people are involved. 

Given the difficulty of reliable findings for such a sensitive topic, notoriously exaggerated and suspiciously interpreted from ancient times on, Dr. Frank cautiously sifts through reports from classical times and traditional and tribal rites today, whether a fraternity, a bachelor party in Las Vegas, gang rape in Darfur or the Balkans, or aboriginal practices studied in New Guinea, Australia, and Brazil.  She extracts the moral within many sensationalist tales from the Roman empress Messalina down through Sade, Brave New World, Last Exit to Brooklyn, to the Playboy Mansion and Annabel Chong’s filmed attempt to surpass Messalina’s marathon couplings: “The dangerous forces of sexuality are contagious, and when unleashed en masse, the risk to one’s individuality and humanity is multiplied.” 

Emotional connections to others may break under such social and mental pressure by those who seek out group sex. The thrill of orgiastic transgression, its persistent charge from its daring energy, depends on a taboo to violate. This search for personal, political, or spiritual liberation may peter out. Rules change: “after all, the bikini was once transgressive”, Dr. Frank notes.  

Countering facile assumptions of girls or guys gone wild, she analyzes occurrences such as mass rape by soldiers, initiation rites in clans, bathhouse behaviors, and sex clubs, as well as Craigslist encounters and the leisure industry for swingers-- increasingly mainstreamed and marketed recently as lifestyle conventions.  Rituals are followed and routines established. Katherine Frank, nodding to her own ethnographic training as she scrutinizes such events and situations, argues that seasoned initiates tend towards the banal. “Even libertines who try to harness the power of the orgy, believing that participation is a route to social transformation or that it leads to an experiences of the sublime, can find a sudden stray foot to the face or accidentally falling off the bed are the most immediate sources of jeopardy to be faced.”

As this passage demonstrates, the author often takes an affectionate or wry stance towards the theme, while never minimizing the danger and degradation certain forms of capitulation to power or coercion may exact. Disgust, shame, and guilt receive in-depth investigation. Media coverage, which persists in pursuing the more attractive of those involved in group sex, denigrates those who do not fit the youthful, voluptuous, buff, or preening figures idolized. Those who defy monogamy, public nudity, and “dyadic sex” elicit the discomfort of those watching such acts transmitted for the delectation of others, even if the depiction of such acts markets itself as a moral revulsion against depravity or promiscuity. 

Those who prefer to stay with one partner, in private, chance “habituation”; group sex tempts by “differentiation” some who seek fulfillment and arousal by competition, pitting one mate against others at the same time. The danger generated by stress or stimulation heightens dopamine, and novelty jolts passion.  Some claim that the “sacred kink” produces “cosmic ecstasy”: Dr. Frank in a very detailed book does gloss over this aspect of peak experiences, preferring to focus upon the anthropological structures exposed and the norms enforced in groups. 

Ethnography proves lively; the Orgy Tent at the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert and the virtual realm of Second Life entertain and enlighten. Online, as she stumbles with her own digital persona among the predators and seducers, she “rarely saw an overweight avatar. No one buys a small penis.”  Although chastened by the encounters at Second Life, Dr. Frank emphasizes the element of play often ignored by her academic colleagues intent on reducing sex to identity and control. Whether for religious or secular aims, she reasons that “sexual excitement draws strength from power differentials, prohibitions, and contradictions” and that boundaries crossed complicate emotions, no matter the culture or the setting for intimacy enacted between partners and within groups. 

She peers into gay subcultures, but detaches such sexual encounters from a basis bent on establishing “identity”; for Dr. Frank, context for modern expressions of group sex matters as a “new kind of sexual and political expression” that when it evades the morality police’s gaze in Iran must evolve differently than at a strip club, a Vegas hotel, a frat party, a Minnesota Vikings boat excursion, a Rwanda tribal civil war, a Bosnian atrocity, South African “jackrolling”, or British “dogging”. For all of these, no total breakdown of loss of control occurs. Group sex keeps its meanings by bonding, by force or by cooperation, an uneasy mixture of behaviors irreducible to homophobia, misogyny, facile claims to political rebellion, or lust. 

Gazing into recent reactions internationally and domestically to last year’s Nude Photo Revolutionaries campaign in the Muslim world and to Pussy Riot’s provocations in a Russian cathedral and in group sex staged on video, Dr. Frank reminds readers it’s easier to cheer on transgression when one’s own values are not the taboos being violated. She shows how the U.S. government has cracked down on pornographic films made that desecrate American symbols, and how these have not received the spirited defenses mounted by Bjork or Madonna.

Ultimately, Katherine Frank avers that risk-taking, danger, and addiction may compete within the drives and psyches of a comparative few who must find release in group sex. Yet eager revolutionaries may find that just as rock and roll became commodified, so does multi-partner participation.  Shame and guilt may lure a swinger to bolder behaviors, but when the shame diminishes and the guilt is overcome, what lies ahead for the swinger as a routine “lifestyle”? 

Additionally, she warns of the fixation of sexual practices around one person’s transgressive (or normative) experience. What works for one may not for another.  Without taboos, a transgression shrivels. If no rules are left to break, or no more opportunities to desecrate or shock, sex may fail as a liberating impulse. “Maybe nobody is watching.” Exile, insanity, or death may replace sex as the final limits to be sought by the seeker who finds erotic potency diminished. 

“Bliss or ecstasy is followed by the wreckage at the end of a party, the dirty sheets and come-down after a night of sex and cocaine, or heavy Goth makeup in the daylight.” The sacred and the profane might be mingled, and the liminal lines crossed, but the mundane keeps edging back in. “The edge looks different when one is actually standing on it.” 

Dr. Frank concludes this evocative work on a provocative subject carefully. She acknowledges that “transgressive sex” as with any other sexual practice might ease ennui or affirm one’s belonging with another or others. Yet this liberation does not have to depend only on sex, for so many of our myriad hopes or fears. (5-15-13 to New York Journal of Books)

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