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  • Sara Perry

On Group Sex



The following is an excerpt from an analysis of Plays Well in Groups, by Psychological Anthropologist Katherine Frank- who specializes in Human Sexuality.


The current media exposure of group sex, especially since the invention and propagation of the internet, sensationalizes the experience of “pleasure parties” and advertises the activity as a free-for-all, frenzied experience of unbridled sexual libidinousness. Frank hinges on the concepts of expectation and gratification: the reach towards using group sex as tools to “spice up” a relationship or engage in a novel activity that brings about new levels of arousal, ones that perhaps have been diluted over years of heteronormative monogamous marriage. The question then becomes does the expectation match the reality that is a dynamic lead by other very much aware people, with all of its guidelines, expectations and regulations. Even this form of sex, which is considered completely wild and unbridled, actually has very strict guidelines for behavior- in many ways it is much more rigid that dyadic sex itself. The management of many bodies and personalities comes at a cost of great order and compromise- and the willingness to abide by these rules is an absolutely mandatory requisite for participation, many times, without any negotiation or without accurate communication of said guidelines.

Similarly, when analyzing the historical past of group sex and orgies, we have to account for the bias ingrained in our western/modern scope. There is a tendency to romanticize past behaviors by superimposing modern values and meaning on previous cultures, but these tendencies only skew the factual representations of past behaviors. This is to say, we can look at the past to describe and examine actions, but we cannot use those observations to create assumptions about motivations, value systems and awareness. We cannot interpret past minds with modern minds. The fact that we read past orgiastic traditions in positive light, labeling them as “free”, “progressive” and “open-minded” also speaks volumes about the mind-set of Western thought and its relationship to sexual freedom as a form of “self-exploration”. The very concept of pleasure-seeking through new experiences that push boundaries is a modern concept that pushes that agenda to self-actualize through historical reflection.

In comparative perspectives, we see that even sex sold as “free” and “liberated” has very structured arenas of conduct. Firstly, we can take into account the very use of space to organize activity in a way to cements emotions of safety and privacy, even in its ironic standing. Both in private homes and in public venues, there is a distance transition from location to location through the order in which one must socialize, mingle, flirt, undress, and share bodies. Even if the transitions are unspoken, group sex participants navigate through spaces as they internally navigate comfort zones and incrementally remove articles of clothing and inhibitions in tandem. Specifically designated sex-spaces are now and have always been the norm. “Liberatory” sex is therefore tightly monitored- you can do whatever you want: chose out of these three activities. If order in space and process is paramount, the navigation of boundary setting and consent negotiations are even more so.

In arenas where anything goes, you must establish clear boundaries and expectations about that which definitely doesn’t and the places it should decidedly not.

Consensual group sex, therefore, becomes the best place to witness negotiations and collaboration, a decidedly “less sexy” interaction than what was possibly expected. These interactions serve as great lessons for what is ultimately tools for negotiating every day consent.

Identifying that disgust, shame and guilt are social constructs that date back to beginnings of civilization and serve great purposes when controlling masses of peoples is a quintessential part of unraveling sexual attraction towards “deviancy”. Emotions of heightened emotion trigger responses in the same parts of our brains that respond while terrified, turned-on and disgusted. Why then, would it be so ridiculous to believe that one triggered could easily trigger another? Knowing that senses of arousal are linked to emotional bonding (and not necessarily sexual arousal), it is easy to see why these emotions serve as the “primordial soup of desire”. Disgust, shame and guilt are weaved into sexuality simply because sharing bodies is by definition a crossing of boundaries. Transgressive behaviors have been taught to produce these effects in us: “There is a fine line between disgust and desire.” (Frank, 94). Some experts, like William Miller, believe that love or arousal are necessary to overcome the natural tendency to disgust that arises from the idea of even sharing another’s bodily fluids- much less ingesting them. Bodily fluids are repeatedly eroticized in porn and in group sex- walking the line that is sometimes too fine to carry of the expectations we put on it. Shame and guilt cultures propagate the influx of “protective” tendencies in people, knowing that emotions and tendencies they experience are not acceptable in society, who then hinge on those tendencies with more vigor than before. This attachment to that which has to be protected and kept in secret further fetishizes activities that are kept as shameful. We then have insurgences of niche sexual pockets (such as group sex, gang rape, etc) that are in modernity much easier to connect with- a group reinforcement that further strengthens their inclinations.

While there are decidedly varied ways in which people can engage in group sex activities, their ability to inspire the notion of boundaries and respect is transcendental. Motivations and expectations for engaging in multi-person sex vary, but find commonality in negotiation of boundaries and consent. The use of space to fulfill privacy needs and communicate participation seems to cross distinctions. Sensationalization and romanticizing of sexual behaviors- in all forms- both transhistorically and transculturally is easily deceptive and can lead to reinforcement of misinterpretations.


I encourage those more interested to check out her book, available on Amazon and at most bookstores.

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