Plays Well in Groups – [Book Review]

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Plays Well in Groups: A Journey through the World of Group Sex
Katherine Frank. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2013. 406 pp.

“So, how did she…do her research?” This was a common response after mentioning to colleagues that I was reading a book “on the anthropology of group sex.” The critical intonation of the query comes from professional curiosity of these anthropology students and professors, and it is rooted in a (mistaken) assumption that the book is strictly ethnographic. Rather, Plays Well in Groups: A Journey through the World of Group Sex by Katherine Frank is an excellently researched collection of narratives – histories, current events, media studies, ethnographic works, and participant interviews – analyzed through a sex-positive and unifying anthropological lens. Frank’s task is drawing parallels between different forms and practices of group sex in general, while exploring deeper social, political, economic, and historical contexts in order to contrast them. Much of the book is about who has group sex and why, as well as who fears group sex and why. An overarching theme of the book is thus one that appealed to my interests: an emphasis on sexual taboo and transgression.

Mary Douglas wrote that pollution fears cluster around contradictions involving sexual behaviors, and that those fears produce highly reactive spaces (2002[1966]:194), and so it makes sense that group sex would serve as the object in a study of taboo and transgression. What is unfortunately absent from such a study is Mary Douglas herself. Admittedly, Frank seemed to get along just fine without her, coming to many of the same conclusions that Douglas wrote in Purity & Danger (and in the introductions to later editions), but I was nonetheless disappointed by her absence. Frank writes much about the sacredness of boundaries, drawing parallels between the body and society, even using the phrase “Me, not me,” throughout the book to illustrate where certain lines fall in the minds of participants, and yet Mary Douglas was nowhere to be found. Despite this single (though great – can you tell?) issue, a glance at the bibliography will tell you that Frank did not skimp on research.

The wide variety of materials from which Frank draws gives her a great deal of room within which to work, but it does, at times, become unwieldy. When I encountered Frank’s broad definition of group sex in the Chapter One (“The Elementary Forms of Group Sex”), I was rather pleased. No matter what kind of sex is practiced, her emphasis is on “the group,” and as such, “group sex” can be as “vanilla” as dyadic sex in the presence of an observer; the observer, of course, in the context of group sex is a participant. This broad definition makes it easy to survey many kinds of group sex – geographically and historically – and it gives the author the flexibility to do away with certain technicalities. (However, group sex in Second Life pushes the limits of her own definition.)

On the other hand, while the chapter topics are evident and organized in a thoughtful way, the discussion within the chapters may jump around. For instance, Chapter Three (“Disgust, Shame, and Guilt: The Primordial Soup of Desire,” which, despite the title, is happily devoid of any appeal to evolutionary psychology), is about the psychological issues associated with group sex. In it, Frank bounces from the story of French socialite Catherine Millet (and her “diabolical” memoir that detailed her life of sexual promiscuity) to how animals (and humans) learn to have sex through play; from defining disgust, shame, and guilt (each one, while related, is illustrated with vastly different examples) to gang rape and social hierarchies (in evolutionary perspective, as a weapon of society, and as a weapon of war); from victims of gang rape across cultures to how some sex educators combat public notions of disgust, shame, and guilt; from how swingers are portrayed in the media to the next chapter, which is actually a case study of the Marind-anim.

The transitions from topic to topic aren’t necessarily elusive, but they can move rather quickly. More than once I found myself looking for the connection between this topic and that, only to be moved on to another; it can be exhausting. Ultimately, I’m afraid the author’s focus on breadth (and what great breadth there is!) may have sacrificed the depth that I was looking for, though this less a criticism, and more an admission of my own personal hang-up – some people are into less-than-linear reading. Regardless of how I feel, Frank should certainly be lauded for rising to the challenge of shoring up such a rich assortment of materials and drawing unifying themes between and around large bodies of research.

At the same time, there is a very good reason for the variety of topics, as she points out in the last chapter, in that it illustrates that group sex – and even just “sex” – does not mean the same thing for everyone everywhere. One of Frank’s strengths is in how she couches her analyses of particular cultural phenomena in sociopolitical contexts. In Tehran, group sex is youthful rebellion against tradition and the morality police. In Mozambique, participation in group sex is to (re)claim bodily sovereignty in an otherwise unpredictable life. In the United States, swingers are typically white, suburban adults who prefer “staying under the radar and maintaining the status quo” (284). Even across time, the meanings change, as Frank points out that young gay men today cannot fathom the experiences of the liberation movement in the 1970s, and likewise a gay man from the 1970s would have a hard time imagining the sensory overload of circuit parties; both frames, Frank investigates in earnest.

In Chapter One, she explains her methods and motivations, in addition to establishing useful definitions – what “counts” as group sex. In Chapter Two, Frank addresses the history of group sex and, notably, the public imagination. She writes at great length about the political uses of the stigmatization of group sex. Chapter Three is the most ethnographic in that Frank introduces how one is initiated into different types of groups, their jargon, the faux pas of newbies, and the concept of space-making. As mentioned above, the psychology of group sex is the focus of Chapter Four. Between Chapters Four and Five is the first case study, a fascinating anthropological literature review of the Marind-anim and so-called “semen practices.” Chapter Five is on human biology and group sex. It covers habituation, sperm competition, the role of dopamine, and spiritual experiences, among other things. In Chapter Six, Frank writes about the uses of group sex as experimentation, adventure, and play. (As another example of Frank’s circuity, this chapter features Burning Man, Second Life, a reality show on Playboy TV, drug-use and group sex, adolescent behavior, and the rise and fall of porn star Annabel Chong.) Frank begins Chapter Seven, on bonding and identity, with a narrative about a bachelor party in Las Vegas, but moves quickly to a focus on sexual violence and, in particular, the use of gang rape as a weapon. Wedged between Chapters Seven and Eight is the second case study, this time a short exploration of how group sex became the political expression of the gay liberation movement in the United States. This is a great primer for Chapter Eight, which starts with the use of group sex as an act of rebellion in Tehran, but then moves (somehow) to an ethnographic account of the author’s experiences at the Playboy Mansion, and then (more understandably) the life of Hugh Hefner. In Chapter Nine, Frank discusses the intersection of risk-taking, sex addiction, and group sex. Finally, in Chapter Ten, Frank takes a step back to recap many of the topics she has touched on. She half-heartedly uses this chapter as an opportunity to seek out the function of group sex, only to ultimately concede that meaning is assigned by different people in different ways and in different contexts. Additionally, there are two appendices. Appendix A is a very short clarification of misconceptions about STI prevalence and group sex. Appendix B is a thought provoking discussion about social scientists and their duties and responsibilities as they research sexual behaviors.

If you’re interested in an anthropological survey of group sex across geographies, times, and fields of study, be sure to pick up Plays Well in Groups. The wide variety of topics and perspectives that are discussed in this book make it a perfect reading material for any undergraduate social science course on sexual behavior and politics or even gender studies, though some of the chapters would fit just as easily in the context of a graduate seminar. I wouldn’t hesitate to market this book to the wider public as a casual read either, at least for more sex-positive readers.

Douglas, Mary. 2002(1966). Purity and danger: an analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. London: Routledge.

Dick Powis has a B.A. in Anthropology from Cleveland State University where he began research on men, masculinities, and reproductive health in Senegal. He will be starting a Ph.D. program in Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis in Fall 2014. Read more at http://about.me/dickpowis

4 thoughts on “Plays Well in Groups – [Book Review]

  1. I am curious what the author has to say about the role of dopamine, given its important role in reward prediction error signaling.

    It is an interesting topic (sic), especially because it is exactly the sort of topic which is ordinarily so pointedly ignored. But here is where anthropology shines, by taking as a serious subject those things that society discourages us from giving full consideration, or that might ordinarily earn the scorn of studying something whose import seems only too obvious, and which risks ‘tainting’ the author with fascination with the disreputable. Where would we be without you?

  2. I would be interested to know what the author says about differences in how heterosexual men and women view group sex.

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