Archives of Sexual Behavior

, Volume 48, Issue 1, pp 41–45 | Cite as

Collective Sex in Public: Where Is the Observer?

  • Alain GiamiEmail author

Frank’s (2018) target article deals with sexual practices that developed in Western countries during the 1960s sexual revolutions (Hekma & Giami, 2014), as well as health interventions targeting those practices that developed later with the onset of the HIV-AIDS epidemic (Binson, Pollack, Blairb, & Woods, 2010). Her article examines group sex, sex in public, the exchange of partners, BDSM parties, and “wife swapping,” all of which involve “collective sex environments.” These “collective sex environments” are intended to promote voluntary sexual and erotic practices held in public. They may occur in commercial venues or in private houses where some people organize meetings promoting sex in groups (orgies) or simply the exchange of partners. Frank describes, with great ethnographic precision, the diverse forms that collective sex can take. She also demonstrates how research on this phenomenon has been promoted and funded in the context of public health concerns, including STIs and HIV reduction, sexual violence, and sexual consent.

In this Commentary, I wish, first, to develop the idea that collective sex clubs are not disorganized places, but rather places which are governed by very strict social rules. They are places where sexual activities occur based on very precise cultural and interpersonal scripts. Secondly, I would like to show how the presence of an observer in public places that are governed by such rules must be based on a negotiation—explicit or implicit—that specifies the possibilities and limits within which the researcher will develop his/her scientific activity despite any overlap that might occur between sexual activity and scientific activity.

The sociological and ethnographic approaches that animated the pioneering work on public sex conducted by Humphreys (1975) and Weinberg and Williams (1972, 1975), which was framed in terms of sexual deviance, are still employed in more contemporary research. Nowadays, however, the description of sexual practices in public is mostly employed in the service of utilitarian research aimed at promoting public health and sexual consent. This more utilitarian focus fostered research on collective sex, but also served to frame it in the context of public health and morality (Lupton, 1995).

Frank (2018) analyzes in great detail how group sex and public sex participants transgresses social and moral norms and, in doing so, occupy a highly stigmatized subculture that has been examined through both a moral lens and, more recently, from a public health point of view. With the advent of HIV infections in the early 1980s, group and public sex spaces (particularly in gay communities) were seen as the main venues for the spread of this disease. Various prevention strategies have been attempted, starting with attempts to close these establishments (Bayer, 1989) at the beginning of the 1980s until the installation of on-site health units aimed at disseminating preventive messages, distributing condoms, and, more recently, carrying out rapid HIV tests (Binson et al., 2010). Frank organizes her presentation of the existing scientific literature first around the discussion of public health work and the question of risk and risk-taking, and second around a “narrative analysis” of anthropological literature and qualitative work. In taking this approach, Frank analyzes the forms of participation, modes of communication and interaction, and practices that take place in these spaces. These approaches converge in highlighting the diversity of situations, operating methods, and highly structured rules that organize collective sex environments.

Sex in Public: A World of Discipline

A central idea that emerges from Frank’s (2018) analysis is that venues for collective sex are not places where uncontrolled orgies take place, as a certain mythology might suggest. These venues are very far from the bacchanal free-for-alls characterized by excesses of all kinds—sex, drugs, drinks, foods—that are consumed without any other limit than satiety. Historians of antiquity have clearly noted that orgies were festivals organized on the occasion of cosmological events (summer or winter solstice) or at the time of harvest in a religious atmosphere or tributes. In the case of the Greeks, the activities that took place under the aegis of Dionysius (and for the Romans of Bacchus), even if they were marked by excesses of all kinds, were extremely codified with clear limits. Among Jews, the feast of Purim is one of the moments when it is permitted to drink alcohol to the point of inebriation, but there is a limit not to be exceeded: It is necessary to be able to discern the difference between men and women (Biale, 1997).

Thus, places of organized transgression are places where very strict rules reign. These rules relate to verbal and non-verbal communication, engagement in sexual activities, the spaces devoted to these activities, the dress-code necessary to access the spaces dedicated to these activities, and respect for the participants’ autonomy of decision. Nothing can be done outside the organizers’ oversight and the consent of participants. This is particularly true in the case of BDSM situations, which are subject to even more stringent codification and organization, since physical risks are considered to be greater and self-control is of major importance (Weinberg, 2006). Extreme surveillance and vigilance prevail in these situations and violations of explicit and implicit rules are subject to immediate sanctions that result in stigmatization and exclusion. Paradoxically, it is in these places, which are sometimes marked by moral and public opprobrium, where the rules are stricter and the penalties for those who transgress them more severe than in non-transgressive sexual environments. Put another way, violating (sub)cultural norms that are intended to regulate transgressive sexual behavior is often seen as even more problematic than breaking rules associated with “vanilla sex.” Far from the image of the bacchanal, we find ourselves in the universe described by the Marquis de Sade in his novel, The 120 Days of Sodom, where all activities are ritually organized. In de Sade’s novel, the ultimate prohibition focused on sexual procreative activities and if, unfortunately, a woman became pregnant, she was immediately killed and the man involved was severely punished by the amputation of a limb (de Sade, 2016). In his famous article, “Sade, sergent du sexe,” Foucault clearly noted the “disciplinary”—and boring—dimension of Sadian rituals (Foucault, 1998). In his film, Salo, or the 120 days of Sodom, Pier Paolo Pasolini captured the systematic nature of these rituals by distinguishing the “circle of the ass” where sodomy is practiced, the “circle of shit” where excrement is consumed, and the “circle of death” where participants are put to death after having been violently tortured. Kubrick, in his film, Eyes Wide Shut, developed the idea of the sexual ritual as an extremely strict organizational practice, in which one can partake only if one has been initiated and respects the rules. Exclusion from the sexual ritual can occur following the slightest voluntary or involuntary infraction. Finally, the extremely structured social organization that reigns in these places is accompanied by a very strong self-control. The data discussed in Frank’s article reveal that levels of HIV and STIs are lower in commercial venues than in private ones. One interpretation of this finding is that different locations influence the degree to which people exercise—or lose—control over their sexual activities.

The Researcher as Observer or Participant?

Beyond Frank’s (2018) rich analysis and critique of the literature, the reader does not find a discussion of questions pertaining to the reception, posture, and involvement of the researcher in these spaces. Yet this question is the subject of a long appendix “Researchers and Other Voyeurs” in her book, Plays Well in Groups: A Journey Through the World of Group Sex (Frank, 2013). Frank has publicly disclosed her participation in commercial sex work, as a performer in strip clubs (Frank, 2007), and she has been somewhat stigmatized for doing so. Participation in the sexual events being observed, emotional and moral reactions to the events themselves, and stigma experienced for expressing intellectual interest in such events all represent important factors that impact the possibility and the practicality of doing this sort of fieldwork. I wish to highlight and develop Frank’s arguments here, by examining the subjective, social, and sexual involvement of researchers confronted with sexual situations that may disturb (both positively and negatively), not only themselves, but also the usual scripts which take place in these situations. In such highly organized environments, the intrusion of an outsider may be perceived as a violation of the rules of participation, or, worse, as the imposition of an external form of control, which may threaten the very existence of the place and the safety of the participants.

According to Devereux’s (1967) seminal book, From Anxiety to Method in the Social and Behavioral Science: “An interview about sexuality, even if it is supposed to be a scientific interview, is in itself a form of interaction which can be lived out on a verbal and symbolic level” (p. 160, from the French edition). The presence of the observer is considered a “perturbation” (an atmospheric metaphor) of the unobserved situation and whatever happens subsequently will be influenced by this presence. This implies that whatever the researcher does—or does not do—is considered a form of participation. Talese’s (2016) recent book The Voyeur’s Motel opens an important discussion about the subjective, personal, and even recreational dimension of curiosity about the sexual activities of other people, and in particular strangers. He discusses in detail how unethical and illegal practices of observation, including not disclosing the presence of the observer, allowed a motel owner to collect “unperturbed” observations that would not have not been possible had he requested and obtained the participants’ consent. Talese’s description of the motel owners’ voyeuristic activities draws attention to the limitation of scientific observation, which requires that the researcher acknowledge his/her presence and negotiate his/her presence in the field, both of which increase the “perturbation” described by Devereux. Some researchers claim that full participation in sexual activities with informants is an important source of data that could not be obtained otherwise (Langarita Adiego, 2017). Langarita Adiego argues that having sex as part of a research protocol is quite different from having sex for non-research-related, personal reasons.

Herdt and Stoller (1990) opened up and expanded upon these assumptions with the concept of clinical ethnography, which takes into account the social, cultural, and psychological processes that occur during interviews about the erotic life of informants living in indigenous groups. According to Herdt and Stoller, clinical ethnography can be defined as “reports that study the subjectivity of the researcher as well as the people who inform him/her” (p. 29). Major insights can be gained by clinical ethnographers through the subjective experiences of discomfort and shock that occur during fieldwork. Herdt and Stoller operationalized the analysis of counter-transference through discussions they had about their own subjective reactions, as well as scientific ideas that arose during fieldwork among the Sambia of New Guinea. The conversation between both of them became the basis for the analysis of narratives gathered among the Sambia. The confrontation between their differing points of view and personal reactions allowed them to consider the limits, and the benefits, of subjectivity over and above their more rational, scientific work. This approach can, therefore, be understood as a means of enhancing rationality, rather than as regression away from it.

Generally speaking, if a researcher is interested in sexuality, and especially sexual practices, this interest is thought to be indicative of tendencies and interests that render the researcher “dirty” (Irvine, 2015). Moreover, when sex researchers shift their interest from common sexual practices and cultures to minority ones, the stigma they experience from society in general intensifies and can even come from sexologists studying more traditional subject areas. Following the publication of a study on pornography involving mutilated persons (Giami, 2003), I was intensely questioned by a colleague who wondered how on earth I had been able to look at such images without wanting to vomit. My ability to do so, and to some extent control and use my personal emotions in relation to what I was observing, was seen, in her opinion, as evidence of particularly unsavory sexual tendencies on my part. For my part, I considered it as evidence of sound professionalism. As can be seen from these examples, there is a diversity of subjective, emotional, and cognitive reactions that take place among researchers and participants. It is, therefore, important to fully understand the emotional, cognitive, and ideological dispositions of researchers who engage in fields that directly involve their personal sex life, whether they agree to participate, or not, in the situations they observe.

A Protocol for Field Work: Interpersonal Scripting

In an article devoted to “Fieldwork among Deviants,” Weinberg and Williams (1972) developed a typology of interactions between researchers and their “subjects.” Their typology was composed of five stages: (1) Application, when contact is initiated with the subject, (2) Orientation, when the researcher must get his or her bearings in the new research environment, (3) Initiation, when the researcher is constantly tested by the participants and by his acceptance of them, (4) Assimilation, when the research becomes a matter of course and the researcher is socialized to the way of life of his participants, and (5) Cessation, involving completion of the research and disengagement from the participants. In outlining these stages, Weinberg and Williams describe precisely how the researcher can be perceived as a voyeur, a potential client, an expert, or an advocate by the subjects who are observed in specific locations. The manner in which participants perceive a researcher may be linked to the way the researcher presents him or herself.

Ethnographies of Sex Clubs in France

Research on group and public sexual practices has developed in France in the context of the public response to the HIV-AIDS epidemic. Importantly, the research discussed below has not been limited to epidemiological studies on the risk of HIV infection. Rather, in addition to epidemiological work, the researchers carried out actual ethnographies in these sexual and social spaces and elucidated important knowledge about previously undescribed sexual practices.

“Moderate Participation” in Gay Sex Clubs

The work of Mendès-Leite and de Busscher (1997) took place in commercial sexual spaces for gay men. These authors distinguish between the “observing participation” model, which consists of active and complete participation in the interactions that are observed with some “moderate participation” that involves participating observation that strikes a balance between the position of insider and that of outsider, as well as between the positions of observation and participation. These authors report that this task was facilitated by contact with one of the regulars of this club who accompanied them throughout their field work and facilitated their integration into this environment. More generally, they claim to have occupied the place of “voyeurs,” which active participants recognize and accept as a sexualized position corresponding to the role played by some local participants. That researchers occupy such a role, in spaces that are created for the realization of certain sexual activities, underscores the diversity of the practices carried out in these places. According to Mendès-Leite and de Busscher, these roles are occupied by the researchers in a “serene manner,” by which they mean there are no situations in which solicitations to engage in sexual interactions with participants occurred. The authors, therefore, present themselves as witnesses whose mere presence constitutes the mode of intervention.

HIV Prevention in Swingers Environments

Another team of French researchers has conducted long-term work in swingers clubs that welcome heterosexual couples, and occasionally people who engage in same-sex activity. Welzer-Lang (2005) reports on over 10 years of research and intervention in places as diverse as swingers clubs, saunas, and private parties. The most original part of his work concerns the Cap d’Agde, a huge estate located near the city of Agde, in southern France. It is a kind of Club-Med, which originally received families who came to practice nudism. Over the years, what began as a resort for nudists became an important institution for swingers and those interested in collective sexuality in public. All of Welzer-Lang’s work on the “swinging planet,” as he nicknamed Cap d’Agde, was funded by national HIV-AIDS programs in France. The author himself was chairman of an association “Couples against AIDS,” an association promoting safer sex practices among heterosexual swingers in France. The anchoring of this research in the world of AIDS has certainly guided Welzer-Lang’s view of the “swinging planet.” As a way of justifying his presence in Cap d’Agde, Welzer-Lang presents himself to participants as an agent of HIV prevention. His intervention often provokes aggressive and questioning reactions from participants, suggesting that his presence reminds people about risks they would rather ignore.

It is noteworthy that Welzer-Lang (2005) expresses views that suggest a lack of sympathy for certain sexual activities and the participants involved. Drawing upon the theory of “masculine domination” (Bourdieu, 2002), he considers that swinging is a form of exchange of females in the service of domineering men and argues that it bears some resemblance to sex work. Not surprisingly, he does not believe that swinging is an expression of sexual liberation but, rather, reinforces traditional monogamous values. He expresses relatively negative attitudes toward white middle-class men who are swingers, whom he believes enact aggressive virility and are in denial about the risks of HIV infection. In contrast, he sees women who are swingers as both dominated persons and as potential allies who can help implement prevention interventions. Welzer-Lang found that men who were swingers often could not bear the idea of using a condom during sexual intercourse including penile–vaginal penetration. Instead, he argues that these men would like all women to be at their disposal, whatever the risks and consequences.

To be successful, Welzer-Lang’s (2005) research goal of transforming swingers’ culture (of which he claims not to be a member and toward which he expresses little, if any, sympathy) would require alliances with participants in the culture, including bar and night-club owners, as well as some of the women involved in swinging. Welzer-Lang never mentions anything about his sexual participation (or lack thereof) in the sexual activity that took place in Cap d’Agde; instead, he only mentions his interactions in non-sexual activities, as well as interactions leading up to actual sexual contact. This position is very different from the one expressed by Mendès-Leite and de Busscher (1997) who did not intervene directly in participants’ interactions, either to give prevention advice or to distribute condoms and educational brochures.


Research on sites where collective and public sex take place remains a difficult and challenging activity for researchers. The challenge exists insofar as it remains relatively difficult to access places that are not open to everyone and that require some form of initiation to be able get inside and accepted as a person first and then as a legitimate researcher. Observation, and potentially participation in such situations, opens the researchers to experiences that challenged their body, their emotions, and their own sexual life. Finally, merely conducting such research can endanger the reputation of researchers and may have a very negative impact on their careers. Similar difficulties can be experienced by researchers who conduct fieldwork in places where criminal or illicit activities take place. In such instances, the reputation and objectivity of the researcher is often called into question because of their alleged involvement in the criminal activities (Goffman, 2014). Good research, that is, research that provides useful information to society and does not harm the individuals and communities observed remains the best justification for participation in stigmatized activities. Frank’s work demonstrates that it is possible and even necessary to conduct research in marginal settings and that participation in the activities that take place does not necessarily imply moral endorsement. But questions remain: Is it better to feel sympathy or antipathy toward the people and situations observed to produce good research? Does sympathy more than empathy have the potential to produce good research?


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Inserm, CESP Centre for Research in Epidemiology and Population Health, “Team Gender, Sexuality and Health”VillejuifFrance

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