There is a beauty spot in Stoke-on-Trent that is probably best avoided by those of a squeamish disposition. Why? Let's just say that should you go down to those woods today, you're in for a big surprise. This is because it's a notorious haunt for that most British of outdoor pursuits. No, not Rugger or Rounders. I'm talking about Dogging.
If you've lived a sheltered life, dogging is the practice of straight couples having public sex with an audience. And usually the audience - which is almost exclusively male - are invited, one after the other - or simultaneously - to have sex or engage in sexual activity with the woman while her male partner looks on. The numbers are subject to change, of course, but a constant is for dogging to take place in remote or semi-remote rural locations. Like said dogging hotspot that straddles, if you pardon the pun, Stoke-on-Trent's city limits. Some celebrities have been caught up in it too - remember this and this?
Last night's Dogging Tales provided a fascinating entree into the subculture, if you can call it that. The film profiled a handful of anonymised people who became involved for all manner of complex reasons. Their testimony certainly resisted mechanical readings of dogging as an expression of straight masculine sexual power and prowess.
Couple one were separated by an age gap of some 20 years. For him going dogging was about "fun", which he justified in terms of his brother dying prematurely. To paraphrase his words, "you could drop dead tomorrow ... but at least I'll go to my grave with a smile on my face." In a number of ways, his portrayal reinforced a Jack the Lad narrative. He was promiscuous, he had fathered at least 14 children, he "couldn't use condoms" because they were "too small", and felt that his adventurous lifestyle was superior and more honest to those who moralise about dogging, most of whom "sat at home and wanked at porn" anyway. Slightly more disturbing was his partner's testimony. Being much quieter she talked about how bad her previous relationships were, and darkly hinted that they may have been abusive. But far from being corralled into dogging, she found their visits to the woods liberating. The act of dressing up, being photographed in lingerie and evening wear, getting feted by successions of strange men, and, of course, having sex with them had helped build her sense of confidence. She talked about how when the make up went on she became a different person - a woman in control of herself and commanding the desire of others. Dogging was more than just kinky sex. It allowed her to escape her past and remake herself, albeit with the approval and encouragement of her partner.
There were parallels between them and the second couple. For both of them dogging was something adventurous. The pair were at pains to stress their relationship was normal and healthy. Dogging was not an experiment to jumpstart things in the boudoir but an extension of their self-described active sex life. For him there was an element of trophy wife syndrome, of a desire to show her off. From the shown footage she certainly had the physique of a conventional porn star - slim, tall, augmented breasts. He talked about the satisfaction of knowing how other men wanted her, and made great play of the fact that regardless of how many turned up he was the one in charge of the situation - not the doggers nor his partner. Where she was concerned, again, there were confidence issues with her. Despite having the body held up as the hegemonic feminine dominant, she talked about not being happy in her own skin, but that sex with strangers was gratifying both physically and mentally. She got off on the idea of having sex with as many men as possible and talked about how she appreciated those who came quick most because she could then move on to the next one.
The documentary briefly featured a couple of singles. The first was a lorry driver who made the bold claim that at least 70% of his fellow truckers went dogging, and it was they who were responsible for creating the subculture in the first place. For him though, dogging was about sexual convenience rather than fetishistic behaviour. He made the hoary old reductionist argument repeated by chauvinist bores the world over that men have to pay for sex anyway, through housekeeping, taking partners out for meals, buying gifts, etc. To his own stunted view of men and masculinity, it made sense to cut all that out. Provided you knew where to look and at what time, free sex without the accoutrements of relationships and money was there for the taking.
The second was a woman who, somewhat unusually, went out dogging by herself. She talked about how gratifying it was that men found her sexy. But interestingly, and paraphrasing her words, she confessed how she treated dogging as foreplay, as a preface to the especially torrid time with her husband she could look forward to when she returned home. Her husband didn't partake but fully consented to it. For him, he got turned on by the idea of going with other men. For her, she was turned on by the idea going with other men turned him on.
The final couple were an interesting pair, and somewhat tragi-comic. She was interested in dogging because, after a series of affairs and flings, she had got bored with her boyfriend. He had consented - somewhat reluctantly - to it with the promise that he could fulfil his fantasy of watching and going with two women at once. They were able to find the third woman and went dogging with her. In scenes worthy of a slightly porny Carry On, all three of them and the film maker ended up in the middle of a wood in the dead of winter standing having a fondle. There was absolutely no one around, though I imagine the foxes and deer got a bit of a fright. And so, disappointed, they put away their bits and went home. Later, after an interval, they were visited by the crew again. The attempted dogging and threesomes had ceased and she said the whole adventure made her realise how much she loved and cared for her fella. And so, as it appeared with the other cases, dogging worked to affirm and cement their relationship.
Dogging Tales was an interesting sociological snapshot because no overt narrative was imposed on the footage. The questions were unobtrusive and most of it were couples describing their motives and drives in their own words. And naturally, being the kind of tabloid telly Channel 4 have coveted to corner, there were flashes of naked torsos and bonking in the back of the car. But what was interesting was how de-eroticised the whole spectacle was. But that isn't to say it was pornographic either. This was an exploration of taboo heterosexuality with the veil of mystery and forbidden pleasure entirely torn away. Perhaps it's just me, but I can't imagine many people watching it thought "perhaps we ought to give this dogging lark a go". Could this be a property of the subculture itself? Certainly and particularly the men's arguments neatly fitted into the tabloid's stock 'pervert' mould; of male heterosexuality as something promiscuous, furtive, irrepressible, dirty anorak-y. Seeing random men literally lining up for their turn does little to undermine this increasingly common trope. And of course, in the middle of the woods in the dead of night when it's freezing is hardly the most libido-stoking locale, especially as most cities now boast licensed heated swinging establishments for those of a polyamorous bent.
I also think Dogging Tales underlines how mundane sex has become in the public sphere. Various folk talk of raunch culture, of pornification, of the sexualisation of greater areas of social life. Clearly large swathes of the world that have undergone the so-called sexual revolution has seen the transgressive, liberatory qualities of sexuality once celebrated by New Left and New Age utopianism become something else. The most human of needs is now repackaged and resold as sexualised aspirations, sexualised commodities, and sexualised technologies of discipline and surveillance. Dogging is 'free' and 'underground', it exists outside the mainstream, its transgression might prove attractive to a few, but the time of sexuality as a resource for progressive political and social change has largely passed. Dogging is no more a challenge to hegemonic, prescribed modes of sexuality than your favourite indie label is to the dominance of the majors. In fact, it's a wee bit seaside postcard.
Still, different strokes for different folks.