Sex & Relationships

A Brief History of Group Sex

Orgies have been happening throughout history, yet remain taboo.

Thanks to the surviving cave art of our Paleolithic ancestors, we know that humans have been participating in group sex for thousands and thousands of years. So why is there so little research devoted to it?

Kate Frank, a sex researcher and author of Plays Well in Groups: A Journey Through the World of Group Sex, told me that there is little data to draw any definite conclusions about the evolution of group sex. In fact, she says there are no academic texts on the subject that she would recommend. She says it may be that scholars are hesitant to take on such a taboo topic.

Frank's book, which was partly inspired by Thy Neighbor's Wife—a Gay Talese book published in 1980 that nearly ruined both his marriage and his career—is based on ethnographic observation, interviews with participants, memoirs, journalistic accounts, academic publications, and personal experience. It “offers a cross-cultural look at some of the manifestations and meanings of group sex: who has it, how they do it, and why.”

What Frank can conclude from her extensive research is that group sex has been around since the beginning of human existence, but it has never been completely normative. Usually, she says, it was part of some sort of ritual or celebration and always a little bit taboo. “Humans have probably always done it. Even in the most conservative societies, people transgress,” she says.

While some modern-day Americans may indulge in threesomes or orgies to experiment or invigorate their sex lives, experts believe our ancestors had different motives. According to Frank, ritual group sex marked natural cycles and transitions in certain tribal societies, such as when couples were married or crops were planted. It's also possible that they engaged in these acts to gain attention from the gods. 

The book Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, offers an additional perspective. According to Ryan and Jethá, hunter gatherers were nonmonogamous and would participate in group sex. These bands were highly egalitarian and their social organization was structured around the importance of sharing, which naturally extended to their sexual relationships. The authors point out that during 95% of our time as an anatomically modern species (homo sapiens sapiens) we've been living in hunter gatherer bands, and that it wasn't until the advent of agriculture 10,000 years ago that attitudes toward sex began to shift.

In the grand scheme of things, we've been monogamous for a relatively short amount of time. No wonder so many humans struggle with fidelity.

Not only that, out of the hundreds of primate species in the world, there is not a single species living in complex social groups that is also sexually monogamous, Ryan points out in a podcast interview. Humans, however, believe that they're different. “There's a lot of arrogance and shame built into human consciousness,” he said. (For the bonobo, one of our two closest human relatives, group sex is as natural as eating. In an article in Psychology Today, Ryan said that if a group of bonobos is given a large amount of food, they will all have a big orgy before politely sharing the feast.)

Joe Kort, a doctor of clinical sexology, believes people partake in orgies and threesomes to experience variety and to enjoy multiple things at the same time. “I know it's currently common in the gay community,” he says. “It's also common among straight people, but it's underground because people are so erotophobic [an abnormal fear of sexual feelings and their physical expression] and when they hear that, they put you in a kink category.” 

Kate Frank believes that group sex is both symbolically and emotionally powerful. “Humans experience 'social emotions' like disgust, shame, and guilt (though how these are expressed and what triggers them can vary across cultures),” Frank wrote in an email. “Sex involves the boundaries of the body and the boundaries between self and other, and is intertwined with these social emotions from the early moments when we begin learning about our bodies.”

According to Frank, group sex has the ability to violate even more psychic boundaries, cultural norms, and rules than dyadic sex [sex between two people], and that it does so with an audience.

There are many reasons why an individual may want to have sex with multiple people at once. Some may be attracted to the act because it's taboo and some may simply enjoy being watched. Feminist sexpert Lauren Marie Fleming says group sex is very popular in kink and BDSM communities, where sexual boundaries are already being broken.

“A lot of us have voyeuristic and exhibitionist tendencies,” says Fleming, who is familiar with these spaces and has been participating in group sex since the age of 16. She says that for her it was an easier way to have sex with women, something she wouldn't have initiated on her own. “It took away some of those barriers,” she says. “I had the group's permission and the group's bravery.”

Though group sex is a common porn category and practiced among all kinds of people and communities, according to Frank's book, a US study found that only one percent of women found the idea of group sex appealing, compared with 13 percent of men. The percentages for both are surprisingly low, but this may be a result of the stigma associated with it.“How do you get people where sex is stigmatized to tell you about their sex lives?” Frank says.

Joe Kort believes that conservative attitudes toward group sex are now changing, mainly a result of the Internet and the open-mindedness younger people might have toward different forms of sexuality. Men and women now have the ability to find likeminded people and fulfill their desires with a quick online search. While the group sex our ancestors participated in likely developed organically, anyone with a computer can now orchestrate whatever kind of sex they want.

“Certainly the Internet has changed people's ability to learn about different sexual practices or find others with similar interests, but I'm not sure that will change the ways that people create boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable forms of sexuality,” Frank says. “Taboos change, but don't disappear.”

Erika L. Sánchez is a poet and freelance writer living in Chicago.
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