I don't know. You go ages without a populist sex show fronted by a telegenic woman, and then all of a sudden they start popping up as regularly as the banks come crashing down. We've seen Lisa Rogers literally waxing about vaginas, and Anna Richardson is on our screens to get us uptight Brits talking about sex. Dawn Porter (pictured) adds her two pennies to this Channel 4 fad with Dawn Porter: Free Lover, an exploration of 'alternative' sexual relationships.
Dawn's mission on last night's programme was to see if she could step outside the monogamous sexual norm and whether she'd get comfortable with "sharing". Her journey into polyamory begins in California - where else? Here Dawn drives to the house of a married couple, albeit a married couple with a difference. Michael is a self-described "shaman" (and has one extra lover) and Kimala is a "bliss coach", with two regular extra-marital partners. Both of them have had numerous one night stands. To try and get Dawn to understand their lifestyle, they persuade her to undergo a ritual to get her in touch with her "shakra". This saw them drape their bodies all over Dawn and make bizarre humming noises.
Now the vessel that is Dawn's body was duly "opened" she was invited along that evening to meet the rest of the free love community. If Dawn was harbouring polyamorous thoughts she probably was disabused of them very quickly. We must be thankful that the men who introduced themselves as "I'm Adam and I'm EMERGING" and "I'm Brad and I'm GROWING" were only speaking figuratively. Dawn got into the spirit and submitted herself to group intimacy, which wasn't sexual, but would have been unsettling to most. I mean, would you be comfortable having a middle-aged hippy stroking your forehead, staring into your eyes, and saying they loved you after knowing them half an hour? Thought not, and neither did Dawn. She found she couldn't get into it and felt slightly violated.
This was only a taster of what was to come. The second part of the show saw Dawn turn up for a week at Zegg, a famous free love commune on the site of a Stasi compound in the former East Germany. Akim, Zegg's chiselled-faced guru gave us a potted overview of the commune's philosophy: the idea that monogamy cannot be our "natural state" and that it's damaging to pretend one person alone can satisfy all the needs of another. There's nothing original in this observation - it's been the guiding thread of many an experiment in communal living. But philosophy alone has not overcome the destruction and dispersal of similar arrangements of the past. Despite the commitment of others to free love, many have foundered on the rocks of jealousy and anxiety.
We are shown two strategies Zegg has developed to overcome this problem. Aware these feelings cannot be wished away, the commune has learned to talk openly about them at regular forums. For example, Dawn befriends Tamara, who was previously in a serious relationship with Ingo. Both remain at Zegg. But painfully for Tamara Ingo has moved onto another (non-exclusive) partner. Obviously it is difficult for them to continue see each other every day - after all the norm both parties grew up in was total separation following the end of a relationship. But both have stayed on because they have been able to share their feelings with the collective. This atmosphere helped Tamara realise that her emotions were partly rooted in her own insecurities and fears of loneliness set down in early life, and the sharing meant, in a sense, they became communal property.
Their other practice was the source of hostile publicity when Zegg tried to set themselves up in the Black Forest - the so-called oil ritual. This is a communal activity involving lots of oil, lots of people, and lots of nakedness. And, in this instance, our intrepid reporter. Overcoming an initial objective to filming it the cameras go to the basement, everyone removes their towels, the oil is poured and very slowly, the bodies begin to move and slide and almost merge. Afterwards Dawn couldn't stop laughing, she described it as "losing myself". Another Zegg inmate earlier described it as a born again experience. Undoubtedly this kind of mass intimacy does help keep the group together.
At the end, Dawn concluded that free love sounded fine on paper but for her at least, Tamara's experience showed the emotional price was too high. She'd certainly stick with one man at a time in future.
This programme interested me for a number of reasons. Firstly, this was very much in the tradition of Fortean TV sociology the likes of Louis Theroux excels at. Unlike Theroux who delights in sending up his subjects, Dawn Porter at least treated the residents of Zegg with respect. Their lifestyles may be unconventional, but they didn't come across as particularly unusual or unappealing - could you imagine a documentary on dogging and/or swinging in Britain getting sympathetic treatment?
Second is the change in sexual and familial relationships. The standard Marxist argument - crudely put - during the period of post-war Keynesian capitalism was that the heterosexual married nuclear family of the male breadwinner, the stay-at-home housewife plus children were a set of relationships that best reproduced the next generation of workers, ensured the smooth passing of property between relatives, and was the root cause of women's and LGBT oppression. The shift to neoliberal capitalism, the increase in working hours, the movement of more women out of the home and into the labour market, individualist forms of consumption and leisure among other things have put pressure on the hegemony of the nuclear family. Greater numbers choose to cohabit and have children without marrying. Others through accident, break up, or design, find themselves single parents. The difficulty in obtaining mortgages has seen a movement of (mainly single) adult children back to their parents. Some sections of the BME communities have several generations living beneath the same roof. No doubt the coming period of capitalist restructuring may see other patterns of living emerge.
What's interesting about a commune like Zegg is the extent to which its commitment to polyamorous and socialised living could pre-empt the familial relationships of a future socialist society. The one thing all of the above have in common is the essentially privatised character of child care. The rise of the welfare state represents, via tax credits and various benefits, a limited and bureaucratised form of the socialisation of family life. But the expansion and democratisation of this provision would be a key task of any fledging socialist society. Its guiding ethos would be to support whatever forms of child rearing parents prefer, with the state acting as the final guarantor of child welfare - a principle already well-established in contemporary capitalist society. Whatever the case is, the socialisation of familial responsibilities will result in an explosion in different ways of living. Many might be scornful of Zegg-type experiments in the here and now, but in the future their experiences may prove a useful lesson from history.
Drawing back from the socialist future to the depressing present, my final interest lies in the unwritten rules of, for want of a better word, mainstream sex TV. Dawn Porter: Free Lover is not Dawn's first foray into this kind of programme. Her previous escapades have seen her try to slim down to size zero, explore nudity and give lesbianism a try. Like Lisa Rogers and Anna Richardson, Dawn is an adventurer in corporeality. Their shows may be marketed at women, there is more than a hint of More and Cosmo about their treatment of sexual issues, and they seek to inform rather than judge. But I cannot get away from how it could reinforce gender distinctions.
Post-war feminism has railed against the traditional ways 'woman' is constructed in Western culture, as the "weaker" sex prone to emotionalism, irrationality and dependency. For women, biology is the marker of destiny in ways that isn't the case for men. Not least because of the feminist movement this second class status has been attacked time and again and welcome advances have been made. Unfortunately, capitalism is flexibly resilient. Despite progress, if anything there has been a renewed emphasis on corporeality, albeit of a new kind. Women's bodies are no longer positioned as inherently inferior to men's. Instead prevailing hegemony prescribes different and unique gendered laws of style, presentation, shape and sexuality; and promotes a particular body image most will never be able conform to. Of course, in the world of neoliberal consumerism every woman has a choice not to follow it, but the weight of hegemony is such that its pursuit is the source of misery and depression for untold millions of women. Dawn Porter's shows fall fully within this remit. Her works explore the limits of the hegemonic (young) female body, but ultimately fights shy of subverting it. Whether it's going gay or polyamory she pulls back from the brink and finds her way back to conventional 21st century embodied femininity by the end of each programme, ready for her next foray.