Honestly, I hardly know where to start on this. After having been more than somewhat annoyed at Jamie’s Ministry of Food earlier on Channel 4, in which the undeniably good-hearted Jamie Oliver ended up being the frontman for a film that poked fun at fat people who can’t cook and who were made to feel inadequate for our smug entertainment (yeah, I eat reasonably healthily; see my post here), next up was another programme that treated real people as freaks.
Dawn Porter (described here as “29, gorgeous and single” (Channel 4’s words, not mine, I’ll refrain from passing judgment) went off to find out about polyamory, swinging and free love.
This could have been an interesting programme; in fact, the subject matter is wide enough for a short series as there’s rather more to those very different paradigms (note: swinging is not polyamory; polyamory is not swinging) than you’d ever know from Porter’s film.
She seemed to focus exclusively on earnest Germans, which is hardly representative. And, IMHO, manipulated them and took them for a ride. There are loads of people all over the world who swing, who have relationships that don’t quite tick the Daily Mail boxes of Mum, Dad, two kids, a dog and a cat. Most of them aren’t ageing German hippies who live in communes. I expect you know one or two, though of course, because people who don’t necessarily conform do actually look quite normal, you might not know that.
Her choice of subjects were presented as freaks, with their oil rituals, their group meetings and their communal living. They were painfully honest with her about their ways of living, about their emotions, about their choices. And she exploited them. For me, the most telling part of the film was when a group meeting (btw, did you notice that these kind German people did everything – their meetings, their rituals – in English for her benefit and that of the camera crew?) decided that actually, they didn’t want her taking part in and filming something that’s private.
You could almost see her bottom lip quiver as she could see her film for Channel 4 going, if you’ll pardon the phrase, tits-up. She tried to divide and rule and asked other group members if one objection meant a veto. It looked like it did – she and her crew were not prepared to respect that: they wanted their orgy scene.
And they got it. We were not shown why the kind alternative earnest Gemans agreed in the end, but Channel 4 got its orgy scene. Tastefully lit, but nonetheless a scene of naked oiled writhing bodies. At the end of which she took away a universal truth: that all relationships carry risks. That you can fall out of love, you can be left by your lover, you can leave your lover, in any kind of relationship, whether it’s traditionally monogamous, whether it’s polyamorous, whether you’re a swinging couple.
One of the many disappointing things about this film was that it did the finger-wagging that’s de rigeur when the media explores something the Daily Mail won’t like. It concluded that non-monogamous relationships must by definition be about weirdos who can’t otherwise get a shag/a partner. One woman Porter spent a disproportionate amount of time talking to was clearly not happy with the situation. That’s sad, but she’s just one person. You cannot extrapolate from anecdote; anecdote is not evidence.
There’s not a lot of research on different lifestyles and I’m well aware, having just read Bad Science, Ben Goldacre’s book, that methodology is all, and that I’m at risk of cherrypicking and that what I’m about to link to might not bear close scientific scrutiny.
But in the absence of anything immediately available that I’m aware of, it will do for now (I’d be grateful for anything more up to date if anyone has it). There are some links here (this is a swinging website and it’s not really safe for work, though it’s text-heavy rather than scattered with pictures of naked babes).
For those at work or who don’t want to click the link, the headlines are that some reasonably recent research has found that couples who swing (ie have recreational sex with other people together) tend to be happier. The abstract of the research (safe for work) is here.
I’m sure you could quibble with the methodology: it’s probably a self-selecting group of people who are happy with that lifestyle choice and are up for talking about it. I’m sure it’s not a choice that’s right for many, even most, couples.
Polyamory too comes in all sorts of flavours. When Channel 4 or Five do a documentary such as this one which went out on Five in April 2007, you get people literally sleeping three in a bed. Well, that’s one or two experiences. Again, that’s an example, not something you can or should extrapolate from.
I’ll end by remarking that you never know what goes on in people’s relationships, nor should you judge. But if you’re a TV reporter, I know it’s hard to get across a vast, vast subject with as many paradigms as there are people in non-monogamous relationships, but please don’t manipulate people and treat them as freaks. It makes you look bad, not them.
Quick note to add that Beena (dommebell)’s post is here – she’s articulated her reservations brilliantly. Thanks, Beena!