Friday, 9 January 2015

Class and Ideology in Sex Party Secrets

Like most students and Stokies who came of age in the Potteries, I used to go to The Place. Opened way back in 1963 it was one of the very first modern nightclubs, as we understand the term now. The building still stands but this little piece of local history closed down many moons ago. If you head there now for a nostalgic hit, you would find kicks of a very different sort on offer. For the last couple of years or so it's been home to Adventures. Like The Place at its height, hundreds of people flock to the venue from many miles around. Adventures, however, isn't somewhere you'd go for an ordinary night on the lash. It's a swingers' club. Neither is it the only one in Stoke-on-Trent. Up Burslem you can find AtlantisEVOLUTION, the number one swingers-themed nightclub in the country (apparently). There's supposed to be another round Longton way as well and the Hanley-based gay bathhouse Inferno shut its doors a couple of years back.

These fixtures of Stoke's sexual landscape are/were relatively democratic. You pay your subs and entrant fee, obey the rules and off you go.  Sex Party Secrets on Channel 4 dispenses with the anything-and-anyone culture of the clubs and moves into the more exclusive side of things. These are the places where you have to have something else that can fit - standing, money, and an appearance befitting your status.

The producers, Minnow Films follow the respectful, unobtrusive approach of its preceding documentary, Dogging Tales. Our explorers of the sexual underworld are very hands off, their presence reduced to the camera the participants speak to. Only seldom does the narrator ask a question. This is in marked contrast to Louis Theroux's pieces or C4's previous foray into communal sex via Dawn Porter. It gives the opportunity, or the illusion of allowing interviewees - the organisers and orgy goers - to speak for themselves in their own words rather than the filter of a central personality lost in a world well outside the norm.

The film focuses on three organisers. Chris Reynolds Gordon of Heaven Circle Parties is a London-based agency he runs with his partner, Lauren. His is probably (or at least appears to be) the most exclusive of the organisers featured. Heaven Circle receives "thousands" of applicants from all walks of life, which he and Lauren judge according to their suitability. The main criteria being, of course, "stereotypically attractive". We follow him in the lead up to one of his parties in a £30m town house (not unlike the locale for the sex party-inspired video to Burns' Lies), which he "borrowed" from his mates. Sounds like a handy friend to have. Going from the guest list of 29 single women and 50-60 couples, he looked forward to was going to be a great party. And sure enough, as it gets into full, um, swing he reappears just in his underwear to look for Lauren "who is upstairs in one of the rooms full of girls".

Louise from Pure Pleasure Parties runs a discreet firm responsible for parties in yachts and "mansions back in Surrey". On this occasion, the film crew finds her preparing a night at a secluded villa in Ibiza. This particular party will cater for 150 people. Each area will cost patrons a flat fee of 100 euros to enter, which covers drinks as well as intimate space. The villa roof costs extra but comes with tables, bar, gentle lighting, and plenty of beds. It's also something of a family business. Louise's 18 year old son will be present at the party collecting phones at the door (recording technology is, understandably, expressly forbidden) and doing odd jobs as the evening wears on. She's also banned him from going up on the roof, especially when she's there. Mum is well aware some sights cannot be unseen. Before proceedings commence, the crew bid bon voyage and return the next evening to catch up on what happened. An unnamed man appears at the gate to say it's still going on, but hints that some A-list celebrities may have entered the fray.

Our final organiser in John Blue of the eponymous John Blue Parties. We catch up with him as he's preparing for a party at a Dorset mansion. He's a former scientist who specialised in fish breeding, and remarked that compared with animals humans have rather boring sex lives. He found his way into the sex party scene because he felt "unassimilated" in his previous conventional life. He said he felt trapped and shamed by his sexuality, and that running parties enables him to express his true self. Of the three parties, or what we see of it, John's is the most lavish and spectacular. Patrons file into a garden in which the hosts are made up in Gaultier-inspired fancy dress. Burning torches light the scene as masked satyrs and fire breathing nymphs circulate among the guests. John's party was more than just about sex, it was a production, an operation precision planned to hit each point along the Bacchanalian continuum from mild pleasure to hedonistic excess.

Just like Dogging Tales the "real people" who attend these parties were masked. They made for an interesting bunch too. Among the half a dozen or so interviewees was an unnamed 25 year old woman who had no partner but still wanted to be sexually active, and so thought she'd give the party scene a try. She and her friend went along to a six bed town house and recalled watching a five-person orgy. They remarked about how quiet it was - it was like watching a show and everyone was very polite after. "They all have kind eyes", she observed.

Charlotte and Frank are a married couple and they attend these parties together. Remembering their first time, she talks about feeling insecure when he asked her permission to kiss another woman, but that melted away as she watched, and it went on from there. Frank admitted to enjoying watching her have sex with other men - he got a thrill from putting himself in her partners' shoes. For him, the relationship they have is ideal. As a self-described sexaholic and obsessive, he is free to do as he wishes. Charlotte likens their marriage akin to living like a bird with an open cage door - one can fly in and out as she pleases. There is freedom, but there is security with it too.

Another anonymous guest, a middle-aged man this time, has a story not dissimilar to John Blue's. He claims also to be obsessed with sex but tried to hide it while in a relationship with a woman with a much lower sex drive. When that ended, he stumbled into this lifestyle after meeting a married couple. Both younger than him, the husband enjoys being a cuckold and so now they have a complex three-way relationship. She lives abroad and visits three times a year, and it's only then he will attend a party. Also, ominously for the relationship, our guest says he loves her and would like his paramour to leave the husband for him. It probably won't end well.

By allowing the guests their own voice, we glimpsed their vulnerabilities too. Chris, for instance, was introduced as the brashest and cockiest of the organisers, but perhaps has had the most turbulent of lives. From a young age he was into running and had a determination to compete in the Olympics. Unfortunately his mum died suddenly when he was 21. With a modest inheritance, he invested relatively cleverly and became a paper millionaire with 12 properties on his books, including six in Dubai. When the recession hit he was completely wiped out and relied on friends for cash. He "tried not being around anymore" but, he laughs, he didn't do particularly well at that. Quite how he built his business and got into the sex party scene is not covered, but his motivation for staying involved is telling: having sex with multiple women is his way of overcoming insecurity, of showing himself he is worth something. Sad, really.

The anonymous man talks of his real anger of living for 15 years without the kind of sex life he has now. Another woman, Rose, worried about revealing this side of her life to any potential future partner. And the previous anonymous 25 year old tells the camera she definitely would not want a relationship with someone she had met at a party.

Unfortunately those tuning in for titillation would have left as disappointed as the folks who land on this blog looking for al fresco sex. A few boobs 'n' bums here and there, soft focus and badly-lit bonking from a distance, if anything it was done quite tastefully. It borrowed the style from Dogging Tales, but two documentaries about ostensibly not dissimilar sexual behaviour couldn't be more different. Dogging had a little bit of desperation about it, all told, it was anonymous sex between one or two women and multiple men. They all lined up McDonald's style to wait their turn before disappearing back into the woods. Sex Party Secrets is very much the opposite. This is group sex at its most glamorous, most utopian. Everyone is having a wonderful time, everyone is beautiful, everyone is debauching themselves in interesting, convivial surroundings, everyone is there because they strived to be there.

It is basically a division of class. The exclusivity and the locations make that obvious, but some of the editorial choices made play it up. The main contribution is the anonymising of the guests. The participants in Sex Party Secrets are masked, dimly lit, and their voices distorted. Compare and contrast with Dogging Tales. The masks were out, but they were on their living room sofas. No hiding of the voices. No extra level of anonymity afforded by poor lighting. Consider also the masks themselves. Sex Party people wore stylish veneers redolent of the masquerade and Fifty Shades of Grey. For whatever reason, our Dogging interviewees sported the faces of farmyard animals. 

The production team went along with the story of exclusivity and elitism the sex party scene tells itself and has now become part of the mystique surrounding it. By contrast, the "democratic" accessibility of dogging received the kind of edit that makes standing half-naked in a wood in the middle of winter seem as appealing as standing half-naked in a wood in the middle of winter. Sex Parties had a hint of darkness around the biographies of some of the participants, but that too feeds the glamour. The same in Dogging just made the whole enterprise appear sad and a little bit lonely.

Sex and commodification go together like car keys and fruit bowls. In adopting its stand offish perspective, Sex Party Secrets gives, or at least appears to give its participants space to make sense of their own experiences on the scene in their own words. Distance, however, doesn't mean critical distance. It presents itself to the audience as an inside view, as insight into the "secret" knowledge forbidden mere mortals (why, pray tell, was it dubbed "secrets" and not "stories", why did "swinging" merit nary a mention?) While the style works well and the film is genuinely informative, it's more infomercial than pop sociology.

Consider this, after watching Dogging Tales I doubt there were that many viewers who thought "hmmm, I quite fancy giving that a go". By contrast, over the next few days Heaven Circle Parties, Pure Pleasure Parties, and John Blue Parties will be inundated with applications. I hope their hosting packages are up to it.

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