I interviewed Dr. Kate Frank about her field work as a cultural anthropologist studying the dynamics of sex, consumption and fringe sexual proclivities. Kate went into the trenches and worked at a variety of strip clubs, simultaneously interviewing the patrons and taking a look at their motivations.
Unlike many who choose to keep their day jobs separate from their adult gigs, Kate merged the sexual and intellectual. In a great feat of multitasking she played both roles delving into her anthropological studies with ethnographic fieldwork in the nude. She worked the clubs while studying the patrons, probing their motives and desires and articulating her findings in her first book, G-Strings and Sympathy: Strip Club Regulars and Male Desire.
In her latest work, Plays Well in Groups: A Journey Through the World of Group Sex, she looks deeper into group sex, the taboos, social mores and varied practices. Although inspired by her work in the clubs, Kate steps back from sex work-based ethnography to look at the larger topic of group sexual interactions, and in the process, creates the first in-depth resource and research of its kind on the topic.
Dr. Kate Frank is a Cultural Anthropologist and Author. You can find her on Twitter: @drkatefrank. Here’s our complete interview:
Mama K: Tell us how did you get interested in studying group sex?
Kate: I’ve been studying sexuality for over 15 years. Sexuality is surrounded by so many rules, regulations, and taboos across cultures, and one of the things I study is why people break those rules (or not) and where sexual exploration fits into their lives.
You had personal experience in some of the enclaves you wrote about. What was your motivation for including these observations?
I’ve always been interested in people who explore the edges of social acceptability, and particularly inspired by those who don’t just explore the edges but also report back to us through both personal and analytic lenses—Hunter Thompson, Gay Talese, Laud Humphreys. It’s historically been easier for men to do that, I think, because they haven’t been judged as harshly for their sexual explorations. Being a woman writing about sex is perhaps easier today, although it still carries a stigma.
But, stigma or not, I’m fascinated by places that are ‘off-limits’ or edgy, and in the people who go there anyway. I worked as a stripper for my first book and interviewed the customers. Because of that research and my interest in sexuality, I’ve rarely passed up opportunities to visit sex clubs, BDSM clubs, red light districts, and other places where there is erotic nightlife. And when they wouldn’t let me in–like at gay male bathhouses–I’ve hounded other people to tell me what it’s like inside!
I’m also always thinking like an anthropologist, no matter where I am or what I’m doing. So when I put those pieces of my personality together, I realized I had a wealth of observations to draw on and a unique perspective for writing about group sex. I also had questions about the meaning of group erotics across all of these different settings…
You mention both consensual group sexual encounters as well as non-consensual experiences, such as gang rape; did you find similarities between these types of encounters beyond the acts taking place?
Group sex has occurred around the world and throughout history, but is never the norm. Group sex is often taboo and sometimes illegal, eliciting strong responses ranging from fascination to outrage. We can find historical examples of societies where group sex was condoned at certain times, as in religious rituals, although modern examples of such acceptance at a societal level are rare to nonexistent. We can find contemporary enclaves where group sex is practiced or individuals for whom group sex is particularly arousing. But even in these cases, group sex involves transgressive elements, both personal and cultural.
In other words, it matters that the other people are there.
Group sex is symbolically and emotionally powerful. Humans experience “social emotions” like disgust, shame, and guilt (though how these are expressed and what triggers them can vary across cultures). Sex involves the boundaries of the body and the boundaries between self and other, and is intertwined with these social emotions from the early moments when we begin learning about our bodies. Group sex potentially violates even more disgust rules, psychic boundaries, and cultural norms than dyadic sex—and it does so in front of witnesses.
Being witnessed or witnessing others in transgressive sexual activity, then, can impact one’s sense of self and create social bonds. Some participants in consensual group sex have claimed feelings of belongingness or liberation—think of the revolutionary aims of some 1970s hippies, for example, who believed that practicing a more open sexuality could change an entire culture. Or the way that public, group sexuality became political for some American gay men during that same time period. But when used as violence, group sex can be used as a means of marking and excluding a victim due to these same powerful emotional processes.
Also, despite myths about group sex—or orgies—as animalistic free-for-alls, actual group sex, whether consensual or violent, has a social order, involving rules about the use of space and sets of shared norms and expectations regarding acceptable interactions.
Were there any other observations that you made during your field studies that you will dig into in future works?
I’d like to explore the interaction of physiology and culture by looking in depth at people’s experiences of transcendence. Sometimes people seek those experiences through sex, but they also seek such experiences through religion, extreme sports, trance, and so on. Since I wrote the book, I’ve also been receiving fascinating reports of group sex from places around the world that I didn’t have time to include or that haven’t yet been written about. So I’m thinking of a follow-up compilation of some sort.
Who is the desired or expected audience for a study like this? Are you concerned about articles that misconstrue the meaning of your studies?
My desired audience is the educated lay audience–I don’t just want to write for academics, so I tried to make this book readable and jargon-free! But that said, I’m also a scholar at heart. I talked to as many experts and participants as I could. I did years of research. I tracked down references to group sex appearing across disciplines, and followed those leads back as far as I could to see if the accounts were from reliable sources (and sometimes they turned out to sensationalized by early explorers or missionaries).
This tendency to sensationalize information about sex still exists today. We also have an expanding online world fueled by competition for people’s dwindling attention spans. So I’ve had some frustrations with how my work has been presented in mainstream forums–as when articles appeared claiming that “group sex will liberate Iran” or “strip clubs will save marriages”–neither of which are claims I actually make in my work. But I just need to hope that people will read my books for themselves… And, not surprisingly, those very articles are probably the ones that drew the most attention to my research in the first place. So I should be thankful for that, and figure out if there’s a way to make the complexity that I see in the topics as appealing and attention-grabbing as those headlines!
Do you see trends or cultural differences in the group sex that happens around the world?
I wasn’t studying rates, because there’s no reliable way to figure out exactly how many people are doing what sexually. How would you even count people having group sex? Would you count every person who did it once? Or only count people who consider it important in their sex lives? And how would you compare someone who did it once, in college, while drinking lots of vodka, with someone who goes to lifestyle parties every weekend? Also, there are some parts of the world where it is difficult to even talk about one-on-one, married sex, much less group sex, due to stigma or even illegality. Our information is very uneven.
But luckily, I am interested in what sex means to people. So my questions stemmed from the fact that no matter how many people are having group sex, it’s still transgressive. Everywhere. Even in communities where people are participating in group sex regularly or periodically, part of the meaning of those experiences stems from the fact that it is seen as transgressive elsewhere. Why is group sex so emotionally and symbolically powerful? The long answer to that question requires delving into history, biology, psychology, sociology and anthropology… But a shorter answer is that because sex involves the boundaries of the body and the self, it becomes a significant repository of meaning across time and place.
That said, the Internet has certainly made it easier for people to find each other if they have specific sexual interests, including group sex. Mobile technology has expanded those options even more, with apps to help you find sexual partners or hot spots for the activity you’re looking for (“Do you like dogging? There’s an app for that!”) But will we ever become like other species that don’t care whether we copulate in front of others or not, or who those others are? I doubt it.
If you can give us just a few words or wisdom from your studies of group sex practices what should we know?
I think we expect too much of sex sometimes. Group sex isn’t going to bring down capitalism, or revolutionize whole countries. Group sex isn’t going to make people go insane, like the orgies in literature do. Sex might sometimes cure boredom, or lead to feelings of freedom or aliveness. Sex might be an exciting way to connect with others. But sex is not the only answer, the best answer, or a lifelong answer.
I think there’s also a tendency for people to want to judge sexual practices or experiences or preferences as “positive” or “negative,” but those labels don’t even begin to do justice to the complexity involved.
It would be better, I believe, to allow for mistakes, failures, and bad experiences in sex, as we do in other realms of life. We might let the focus on the risks of sexual activity to be tempered by an acknowledgment that—for some people—sex can be a positive realm of exploration. If one has a bad experience skydiving—or even just doesn’t like skydiving—it would sound almost foolish to say, “Skydiving is a horrible thing to do. No one should ever be allowed to do it.” But with sex, we hear those types of judgments all of the time. People also want to come up with neat stories about cause and effect—BDSM is triggered by past abuse, “doggers” have low self-esteem, and so on—but in reality, the picture is far more complicated. We have contradictory, and sometimes unconscious, motives. We reinterpret our past in light of new experiences. Sometimes sex brings out the worst in us—sexual excitement could be triggered by power differentials or emotional wounds; racism or sexism might heighten our arousal in certain situations. But sometimes sex can be healing, or fun, or even lead to feelings of transcendence. The problem is when one experience, or one person’s experience, becomes generalized.
Talking with Kate inspired me to share more about the intersection of sex work and education recently here on Slixa: “Sexy Academics: When Sex Work and Education Collide“. If you’d like to learn more about Kate’s work and her observations about group sex, make sure you check out Plays Well in Groups: A Journey Through the World of Group Sex.