monthly column from author/activist
Carol Queen

The Royal Treatment

A New Movie Makes Swinging Look Sexy -- And Dramalicious

A couple of years ago it was The Lifestyle -- a movie that took you into the sometimes-drab suburban homes where swingers secretly congregate, sometimes looking surprisingly drab themselves. For non-swingers and other "keep sex at home" types, the surprise is often that people for whom sex is play don't always look, well, sexy. At least not at first glance. Aren't we all supposed to be slim and young if we expect people to want to fuck us? And if that's not the most important thing -- what is?

Swingers and sex-party-goers often know that sexy is as sexy does, and that youth and beauty don't mean much if they come in a package that doesn't communicate or care. Hard as it was to sit in a theatre with straight folks laughing at swingers too fat and old for their taste, The Lifestyle showed a side of the swing community that is caring and genuine (as well as letting us see into the lives of a few folks who shouldn't be at the party at all).

Now we have Sex With Strangers, a very different look at the Lifestyle, an up-to-the- minute, intimate documentary that shows swingers at their best -- and at their worst. I just hope non-swingers will be able to tell the difference. Shot by Joe and Harry Gantz, brothers who have been making edgy, voyeuristic documentaries for over 15 years, Sex With Strangers follows two couples and a trio as they sportfuck their way in and out of beds -- and occasionally mindfuck, too.

"And you thought monogamy was hard..." is the film's tag line, a clever acknowledgement that in this documentary, we won't always see swinging's rosy side. In fact, any documentary like this, focused tightly on a few people, risks a misleading view of a lifestyle -- and people who don't know anything about this one will meet a very, very bad representative. While one couple, Shannon and Gerard, comes out to Shannon's mom (who looks initially a little poleaxed by the revelation, then starts chatting bravely as if she knows she's on TV), and another, model swingers Theresa and James, party hard and enjoy the thrill of pursuit, Calvin and Sarah (and Calvin's other girlfriend, Julie) are what my old dad used to call "a good example of a bad example." Calvin is a self-styled player who manipulates both women, who seem painfully young -- too young to be playin' with the big kids.

Reality Swinging
The Gantz brothers started their documentary career with a film about couples fighting. They made the acclaimed Taxicab Confessions, in which people taking cab rides become the exhibitionistic stars of tightly-framed reality TV. In fact, now that we're all familiar with the notion of "reality TV," what the Gantzes do makes sense -- they focus closely on their characters' activities and personalities (making sure not to choose boring people in the first place, since reality isn't worth watching if it's boring), making us feel like we're in the taxi, the bed, or the fight right along with them. In Sex With Strangers the people whose reality we share are all pretty foxy -- and at least they're not eating rats.

The danger with "reality documentarianism," if I may coin a phrase, is educational. It's more fun to watch people fuck and fight than almost anything, so high-drama action makes for a successful reality doc. High-drama characters may not be especially representative of the rest of their social group, however. It's a shame there aren't a few more movies about swingers on the shelf, because if there were, non-swingers would get a few more representations of swinger-folk to help them assess the ones we meet here.

It's the Gantzes' job to make you watch, and they're good at it. It's their subjects' job to be themselves (with a camera pointing their way just about all the time). The whole process is really quite amazing, and it's a shame (from my point of view, which of course is my job) that swinger wannabes may not learn all the right swinger moves from Sex with Strangers.

But hey -- if you like the reality genre and you like to watch people fuck, there is no reason not to go enjoy Sex with Strangers, which is playing at the Lumiere. Here, I'll give you the rest of the educational subtext right now: Don't forget your rubbers. Don't act like Calvin.

A Chat With the Brothers Gantz
Joe Gantz: Our goal is to capture life in progress in the most authentic way. Of particular interest is relationships, and the dynamics of couples and the sexuality and how that integrates and influences peoples' lives and personalities.

Harry Gantz: And when we started, that wasn't really subject matter that documentarians dealt with. Look at Sex With Strangers -- it's really closer in format to a fictional film, where you get deeply into the characters' lives and the most intimate parts of their relationships.

JG: We always use two cameras. At the Amsterdam Documentary Festival, the comment was, This is not a documentary. Because our goal is to get the coverage, so we can have the film play itself out like a fictional film. We get the events over a year, as they unfold, and if you're lucky enough to get a story arc plus an ending, then you don't have to use much interview at all. If it works, the audience isn't sitting back intellectually analyzing or judging the characters' lifestyle or choices, they're getting involved with the characters, empathizing with their story. Even if it's behavior they might not approve of, at least they're seeing how they're making their choices and how these choices affect every aspect of their relationship.

CQ: So what brought you to swingers?

JG: We were doing Taxicab Confessions, and to make that show we had six hidden cameras in the cab, we're in a follow vehicle and can communicate with the driver and the occupants. I happened to be on a ride in Las Vegas. We picked up a couple from a swing club called the Red Rooster. When we edit a ride we always give it a name, just so we can remember it, and this ride was called "The Lactating Woman." During the ride this woman pulls out her breasts and explains that she has implants, and since then she continuously lactates -- and she demonstrates by squirting out some milk, which hits the seat in front of her.

But that was not the most interesting part of the ride. That was their explaining, in a totally matter-of-fact voice, their introduction and experiences in swinging. And we were not that familiar with the whole thing; we kind of looked at is as something that had gone on in the '70s. We weren't aware there was so much going on now. We were kind of blown away by their story and the way they told it, and said, "Well, let's look into this." We found out how many people were doing it, how accessible it was, and we were particularly struck by how straightforward the communication was. Normally when you meet someone there's this flirting, and couching things in different terminology, in which you're not exactly saying what you're saying. But the advertisements for swingers were, "We want to have sex with this many people, doing this, and my husband will watch, and..." It was just so blatantly straightforward, it was very intriguing. So we decided to look into it. When we did, we were then very struck by how mainstream and regular the average swinger is. When you look at people who are into S&M or something, they wear their lifestyle on their sleeve, but the swingers are middle-of-the-road people --

HG: Not all of them, but the majority of them...

JG: They're really leading double lives, where with the fear of repercussions from their communities, they're keeping it totally compartmentalized, separate from the rest of their lives. There are rare occasions where people are open about the fact that they're swingers, but most of them fear, and for good reason, the repercussions.

HG: During filming, someone in every couple lost their job because it came out that they were swinging. And it's amazing, because if it comes out that someone's gay, nowadays, they would not be able to lose their job without repercussions. There's probably 30 cities in the US with gay elected officials. If someone came out and said "I'm a swinger, we're married but we have consensual sex with other people," none of those people would get elected! That politically is the same place the gay movement was 25 years ago.

CQ: Swingers mostly aren't organizing en masse the way gays and lesbians were then. It's part of being "normal heterosexuals"...

JG: A lot of groups organize, but the fact that they're so easily hidden makes it easy to say, well, leave it to somebody else. We had a tremendously hard time finding people who would make their lives an open book for us. We did exhaustive research. We found 12 couples to start with, in many states across the country, and we spent close to a week with each of those couples -- and then we dropped 11 of them. A lot of them had a point of view -- it was a political statement, or else they had a website that they were trying to promote. Or they were pretty open to having us film their sexuality, but their emotions were another thing. We have a joke that there's three rules to documentary filmmaking: casting, casting, and casting, and if you have the right person or couple it's just amazing how effortless and exciting it can be; if you have the wrong people, it's nothing but pulling your hair out, it's a struggle from beginning to end. We're putting our own money into this and we're getting very worried and stressed out. Then we got lucky enough to stumble on one couple and then another.

CQ: What do you think about the kind of people who actually choose to do this? When I'm in front of the camera I've chosen to be there and I have a reason to be there. Why did these couples make a decision to be part of it? You want to find people who are as representative as possible, but the people who put themselves forward may or may not be.

JG: You don't want someone who's an exhibitionist. you want someone who can intrinsically be who they are, with the camera there. If someone is a writer and they write a very honest, provocative story, people don't say, "You're an exhibitionist! You put yourself so far out there, that can't be real!" They say, "That takes a lot of guts, to let people into your life." A camera is more intrusive in a certain way. When you write, you do it alone. But your goal is to find people who can be themselves. That's the trick. That's why we let go of a lot of these people. James and Theresa and the others, I think, after a week or two of getting used to the situation, just totally went about their lives. I was very impressed, having done this for 16 years, with their ability to be themselves in this environment.

HG: And because we're in this business, we don't look at what they're doing as exhibitionism because what they're doing is agreeing to be part of it, and then forgetting that we're there. It's a collaborative effort in the sense that they know we're trying to get the personal parts of their lives, and what they have to do is let their defenses go, that everybody has, and trust us enough to come into their lives and not judge them harshly, but let them tell their stories.

JG: To the extent that we can it's not judging at all, because our goal is just to present it.

HG: I don't see how anybody could see this film and think we're either advocates of swinging, or we're against swinging. But we felt it was incredibly evident that their sexuality, and their choices about their sexual lifestyle, is a key to who they are as people. And that the kinds of emotions they're going though are something anybody could identify with whether they've made that choice or not.

JG: The same issues that come up in other relationships come up in swinging relationships. I'm certainly generalizing, but if I were allowed to do that, most people would like to be able to have sexual relationships with other people. Many people who are in relationships go ahead and sneak around and do that. And that is what destroys relationships. They -- swingers -- say that we're more honest, and because of that, if we can get beyond jealousy, we have better communication and a richer sexual life.

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