The topic this week at my sex-positive documentary film series was consensual non-monogamy, and it went great! One of my priorities for the screening was to have a lot of people who actually practice consensual non-monogamy in the audience — and also sticking around to participate in the discussion group. I spent a huge amount of time calling both local polyfolk and local swingers before the screening, and in the end I felt like I succeeded!

One group I got in touch with was the organizers of the upcoming Chicago Polyamory Conference 2009, slated to take place March 28-29. If you have any interest in polyamory, you should definitely attend the conference. I also talked to local poly activist Cunning Minx, whose podcast is worth checking out (and not just because she interviewed me a couple weeks ago). It was harder to get in touch with local swingers because I know fewer swingers personally — but some did attend, which made discussion all the better!

So before moving on, let’s talk about Frequently Asked Questions …. What is swinging, anyway? What’s polyamory, for that matter? The Ultimates, a swinger couple, were kind enough to send me some links to FAQs about swinging: here’s one set, and here’s another. I already had some polyamory FAQ links lying around: here’s a great one I just heard about recently, and here’s the FAQ for an old-school Usenet group on poly. (The Usenet-derived page isn’t as shiny or well-formatted as the others I’ve presented here, but it’s the link I’ve sent out to everyone who asked me about poly for years, so I have a special attachment to it. I probably have some of those answers memorized.) If you’ve got questions about consensual non-monogamy, those four FAQ links will give you a lot of insight.

Now that that’s all out of the way: my review of the third Sex+++ documentary and discussion!

The film was called “When Two Won’t Do” (screening courtesy of Picture This Productions). It was a huge hit! The place was totally packed. 70 people maybe? I’m not sure. And at least 30 for the discussion. I guess word is spreading … we might have to start turning people away!

(Our lovely and talented Hull-House Museum education coordinator Lisa and I have talked about seeking out a bigger venue, but there are many serious complications that would attend that process. Another option might be to reprise the entire Sex+++ series again in a year or two. That’d be huge, and I would not be able to take care of the details myself — at least not next year — but I certainly think it would be worth doing. As a side note, I’ve gotten a number of inquiries from far-flung locales about whether Sex+++ will be traveling. It’s very flattering! You guys must all think I have so many more resources than I actually do. I’m just a lone sex-positive activist, my friends … I’m not an institution.

Speaking of resources, we’re still looking for sponsors … :ahem:)

Anyway ….

I’d say that “When Two Won’t Do” is a fantastic, detailed, educational portrait of a newly polyamorous couple and many problems that face beginning polyfolk! There was only one thing that outright frustrated me: the film felt pretty anti-swinger. As curator of this film series, I’ve put a lot of effort into finding films that don’t come off as being opposed to any given type of sexuality. There are so many documentaries that exoticize alternative sexuality or treat it in really problematic ways — particularly marginalized sexual subcultures such as poly, swinger, BDSM. I’m watching some of these films ahead of time in order to make sure that they don’t add to that marginalization, but I didn’t watch this one, and I wish I had. If I had, then I would have made a pre-screening announcement to the effect of: “This documentary is a nuanced picture of a polyamorous relationship, but it doesn’t cover swinging very well — don’t judge the entire swinger subculture from the very narrow picture given by this film.”

I recognize that part of the film’s anti-swinger bias is simply the fact that the couple who made it, Maureen and David, didn’t feel that the dominant swinger model works for them. (In general — and this is of course not true of all swingers, but it’s a definite theme in the swinger subculture — in general, swinging emphasizes couples who are emotionally intimate with each other and have love-free sex with others. The polyamory subculture, on the other hand, generally emphasizes building emotionally intimate relationships with multiple sexual partners.) So, it’s not necessarily that Maureen and David intended to judge swingers or anything … they just aren’t into it. But the two filmmakers could easily have cut in some footage of swingers talking about issues of communicating with their main partners — that would at least have leavened the “wild, crazy and emotionally irresponsible!” portrait they painted of the subculture, a portrait totally lacking in nuance. Or Maureen and David could simply have filmed themselves saying, explicitly: “What we saw of swinging doesn’t work for us, but we can see why it works for others, and as long as other people are having fun with their consensual non-monogamy, we won’t judge their model.”

Fortunately, there were swingers at the discussion group — mostly represented by the very eloquent Ultimates, who do a lot of work in the swinger community — who were able to comment and respond to questions. And not only were there both polyfolk and swingers at the discussion; there were also lots of people who had no real exposure to either subculture, which meant that they got newly educated about both! Yay!

For me, one of the most telling moments of the discussion for me was when one person asked, “Could we define polyamory vs. swinging?” Both were defined quite beautifully by audience members who practiced those respective approaches — and both definitions were, I thought, pretty similar. I understand that the polyamory community prefers to distance itself from swinging, and vice versa is probably true as well. But at heart, both swinging and polyamory are obviously about finding a way out of the conventional monogamous paradigm; both approaches, when practiced well, emphasize excellent communication skills and distancing from jealousy. I could list an awful lot of commonalities among those four FAQ pages ….

It makes me think that the really big difference between swinging and polyamory is not so much in the practices themselves, but in the people who comprise those subcultures and the cultural mores within those subcultures. Loosely speaking, I see this in the stereotypes applied to swinging vs. polyamory: stereotypes like “swingers are older suburban couples with otherwise normal, white-picket-fence lives”, or “polyfolk are younger, pagan, fantasy-reading hippies with long hair”. Those stereotypes don’t speak for everyone in the swing/poly communities, but they really do describe some major general demographics. (And I say this in the most loving possible way. I love suburbs, hippies, and fantasy fiction myself … :grin:) There are also huge differences in what’s culturally accepted within swinging vs. polyamory. For instance, I’ve noticed that swingers tend to be much more into plastic surgery than polyfolk.

In turn, this leads to the question: How does the urge towards consensual non-monogamy manifest itself in other groups, other cultures, other subcultures? Both swing and poly are extremely weighted with white, privileged Westerners. Are there consensual non-monogamy subcultures that I’ve never heard of among, say, lower-class Americans? It would make sense to me if privileged people are more likely to create these subcultures — privileged people tend to have a lot more time and money to devote towards questions of sexuality. But then again, maybe I’m just narrowed by my own surroundings, my own associates, my own subcultures, my own privilege.

Anyway, that question is tangential, and highly theoretical to boot. To return to “When Two Won’t Do”: again, I thought it was a nice portrait of beginning polyamory and the polyamory community. It showed a lot of heartbreak, a lot of negotiating and re-negotiating, a lot of “we screwed that one up so let’s try it again” — things that are so important in any committed relationship, really. It also showed some beautiful moments of love and intimacy and great communication, plus excellent relationship ideas and advice. It didn’t explicitly ask a lot of questions, but I think it created a great framework to discuss some really important ones.

Here’s one I’ve pondered a lot: is consensual non-monogamy better considered an intrinsic identity/ sexual orientation, or a chosen lifestyle? I find myself coming down on the vague side of, “Both.” I think some people are simply wired for consensual non-monogamy in ways that other people definitely aren’t. Maureen, the “main character” in the documentary, seems to know for sure that poly is what she wants; her partner David, though he’s open to experimenting, is just as clearly not into it. David’s someone I would think of as “monogamy-identified”; I consider myself to be that way. But I remember over the New Year, I had a conversation about this with one of my favorite people in the world — who happens to be poly — and she scoffed at the idea that it’s an identity/orientation. She feels that she can switch back and forth … that it’s a choice for her, not that polyamory or monogamy is an intrinsic need.

Unfortunately, society doesn’t seem to do well with messages that depend on tricky concepts like context or individual differences. So I’m not sure how best to propagate the viewpoint of “it can be chosen or an identity! whatever makes people happy!” I guess I could always just keep saying that there is no “should”.

Well, there’s more to say (as always), but I think I’ll wrap this one up. If you’d like to buy the film, you can purchase a copy on the website for Picture This Productions.

Our March 10 documentaries will all be on the subject of BDSM — my favorite! This should be fun. We’re starting with “BDSM: It’s Not What You Think!” by Erin Palmquist, whose title explains it all really. From there, we’ll move on to “Leather” (members of the leather community describe it), “Cut & Paste” (a personal documentary that explores the historical contexts of race, gender identity and sexual agency) and “Forever Bottom” (a clever look at the stigma attached to being on the receiving end in gay male relationships). I’m so excited!