Sexy spring: How group sex will liberate Iran, China

It's a neo-conservative nightmare: In Iran and China, Western sexual values are bringing about real change

Published July 28, 2013 11:00AM (EDT)

A female guest at The Secession, a swingers club in Vienna.          (Reuters/Herwig Prammer)
A female guest at The Secession, a swingers club in Vienna. (Reuters/Herwig Prammer)

Edited excerpt from "Plays Well In Groups: A Journey Through The World Of Group Sex"

When Iranian American anthropologist Pardis Mahdavi first visited Tehran in the summer of 2000, she expected to encounter the Iran she grew up imagining. Her family remembered violence and extremism, and these were the images that stuck: “women clad in black chadors, wailing and whipping themselves,” “black bearded men with heavy hearts and souls,” arranged marriages, and the fierceness of the “morality police.” But while she encountered this repressed side of Iran, she also heard stories of and witnessed signs of what some friends and informants called enghelab-e-jensi or enghelab-e-farangi, a sexual or sociocultural revolution. Her interest in how an “insatiable hunger for change, progress, cosmopolitanism, and modernity” was being linked to sex by young Tehranians sparked the beginning of seven years of anthropological study.

During repeated visits, Mahdavi found that despite the strict moral policies of the Islamic Republic, young Iranians were listening to music, dancing, drinking alcohol, and socializing in new ways. Western dress and makeup were ubiquitous. She attended parties where famous DJs played techno music, Absolut vodka and Tanqueray gin were served, and female guests mingled with “western guys.” Although house parties were common among the middle and upper-middle classes, lower-class youth threw parties in abandoned warehouses or at secluded outdoor locations, serving homemade liquor and playing music on “boom boxes” or car stereos. Young Iranians also indulged in premarital and extramarital sexual escapades. As a twenty-three-year-old man explained: “In Iran, all things related to sex had a door, a closed one. Now we, this generation, are opening them one by one. Masturbation? Open it. Teenage sexual feelings? Open that door. Pregnancy outside of marriage? Open it. Now the youth are trying to figure out what to do with all these opening doors.” Understandably, young people experience confusion in the face of competing ideals and desires—traditional expectations versus contemporary temptations—and the stakes of personal decisions remain high. In 2004, despite nationwide attention to the public execution of a seventeen-year-old girl suspected of having premarital sex, Mahdavi nonetheless found many young women willing to lose their virginity in order to participate in the changing sexual culture.

Like youth in other countries who lack private spaces to retreat to, some Iranian youth reported having sex at parties and in cars (which sometimes allowed them to escape the morality police) out of necessity. But some also purposely sought group sex. Shomal, in northern Iran, had a reputation as a popular destination for these sexual explorations. One informant told Mahdavi that young men and women “go there, deep in the jungle, and have lots of sex, with lots of people; it’s really something to see. I love it.” Another young man said: “Have I ever had group sex? Well, yes, with a few women at a time, but who hasn’t done that? But I’ve watched really elaborate orgies too.” He had observed “a big group orgy in Shomal,” after being convinced to attend by a girl he knew.

Although Mahdavi did not visit Shomal, she attended other sex parties in Iran. One evening, she accompanied her friend Babak to a party held in a huge garden with beautiful hanging trees. “Welcome to the jungle,” a young man said as he greeted her. After stripping off her Islamic dress, including her head scarf and manto, she followed the men further into what felt like “the hanging gardens of Babylon.” Babak squeezed her arm and whispered into her ear, “Take a deep breath, Pardis.” As they walked closer to the swimming pool, she noticed it had been drained of water. Voices drifted up from the bottom of the pool. With surprise, she realized that “a full-blown orgy was taking place.” As Babak took off his shirt and “started to wade into the group of young people,” Mahdavi perched herself on the diving board, which seemed like a safe place to observe: “I continued to watch as bodies moved from one trio to another. A group of five men and women huddled together below me. I couldn’t tell who was kissing whom, and I couldn’t see how much oral or penetrative sex was taking place, but it seemed that most of the people were completely naked, and from the movements I could see, it looked as though half were having some kind of sex.”

Another sex party Mahdavi attended was held at a garden estate outside of Tehran, hosted by a young woman whose parents had gone on religious pilgrimage to Mecca. Upon arrival at the property, she heard techno music coming from a bathhouse. She followed her friends inside. When her eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, she saw “forty or so young people present, all naked or in undergarments, kissing, touching, dancing, and some having oral, anal, and vaginal sex.” She watched groups of men and women “engaging in sexual acts with both genders,” until she felt faint from the heat. She began searching for the friends she had arrived with, who had disappeared into the steam. The young woman was “kissing and being kissed by three men.” Mahdavi was unable to find the man who’d driven them; later, she learned that he had been in a back room procuring Ecstasy.

When talking about their weekend adventures, some of Mahdavi’s informants focused on the recreational aspect of the parties: “[There is] alcohol, there is sex, there is dancing, there is—it’s just fun! It’s what we do for fun!” Others viewed the parties as a representation of “all things Western,” a way of gaining status and claiming a cosmopolitan identity; some also expressed ideas about sex as freedom that harked back to ideas underlying the sexual revolution in the United States. Still others claimed parties offered escape and “eased the pain” of living in Iran. As one man said, “Sex is the main thing here; it’s our drug, it’s what makes our lives bearable, that’s what makes parties so necessary.” “If we don’t live like this, we cannot exist in the Islamic Republic,” a woman declared. “We hate our government, despise our families, and our husbands make us sick. If we don’t look fabulous, smile, laugh, and dance, well then we might as well just go and die.”

But the new sexual culture in Iran, Mahdavi believes, is not simply an embrace of Western consumerism and morality nor merely an escapist hedonism, a “last resort.” Urban young adults, the focus of Mahdavi’s inquiry, made up about two-thirds of Iran’s population; they were mobile, highly educated, underemployed, and dissatisfied with the political regime at the time. Some were directly involved in politics. Many used the Internet to make connections, blog about their frustrations, and peer into youth cultures elsewhere around the world. Willingly taking risks with their social and sexual behavior, as these Iranian young people were doing, was viewed as a step toward social and political reform—not just a means of escape and excitement. After all, the consequences of partying in Tehran were different from in Los Angeles, despite similarities in flashy dress, electronic music, and group sex. Iranian youth had “restricted access to social freedoms, education, and resources (such as contraceptives or other harm-reduction materials)” that might minimize the risk of some of their behaviors. If caught, the punishments many young people would receive from their parents would likely be harsh. The punishments meted out by the morality police could be harsher. If caught drinking, for example, youth could be detained and sentenced to up to seventy lashes. Premarital sex could be punished by imprisonment and lashings; unmarried men and women caught in a car together could receive up to eighty-four lashings each. Although physical punishment has decreased in recent years, Mahdavi notes, young people are still detained and harassed by the morality police.

Yet stories of being apprehended and arrested by the morality police were sometimes told with pride; occasionally, even parents were pleased that their children stood up for their beliefs. Some young adults courted run-ins with the morality police in the name of activism, boredom, or both. One couple caught having sex at a party were arrested and forced to marry. When Mahdavi talked with the twenty-two-year old woman involved, the woman explained that she and her new husband were trying to annul the marriage. Despite her ruined reputation, however, the young woman mused that her experience was “almost worth it”: “The sex was great, and the excitement and adventure of doing what we know we aren’t supposed to be doing, then being caught! Well, and it makes a great story.”

Mahdavi’s informants claimed that they were living the social and sexual changes they desired, reminding her that their “revolution was not about momentary acts” but was “a way of life.” This way of life included social gatherings and behavior that “could be viewed as hedonistic” but were also “a necessary part of constructing a world over which they had control, a world they could live in rather than in the world of the Islamists, who would have them stay home and obey.” As another young woman said before attending a sex party:

It’s all about laj bazi (playful rebellion). Here, when we go to parties, of course our bones are shaking, but we go with shaking bones. And I’m telling you, we are scared. Everyone is. No matter what they tell you, they are scared, from the moment they leave their homes; and every time the doorbell rings, delet mirize (your heart sinks). Could it be? You ask yourself. Could it be them? It’s scary. But you know, we have to do something. Something to get back at them, something to remind ourselves, Hey, we are alive! Hey, we have a say in our lives!

But although the social and sexual revolution in Iran has brought change, especially in how young people express themselves, Mahdavi asks, if some of the repression dissolved, “would young people still resist this way?”


Contemporary sex partying is often thought to be linked to the spread of Western values and practices even while taking on local forms and meanings. At times, even the idea that group sex is a Western phenomenon becomes important to participants, adding layers of meaning to the encounters as modern, fashionable, or evil. After the Queen Boat scandal in Egypt in 2001, thirty-five members of the U.S. Congress wrote to Hosni Mubarak to protest the treatment of the men, who were tortured and subjected to examinations to determine whether they had had anal sex. In response, the Egyptian newpaper Al-Ahram al-Arabi ran a headline that translated as, “Be a pervert and Uncle Sam will approve.”

Some sex partying is certainly related to processes of globalization, as citizens from wealthy nations have the privilege of traveling to other locales to escape restrictive laws or take advantage of cheap labor. Tourism is regularly promoted as the answer to poor nations’ economic woes; beliefs about natives’ unrestrained sexuality in certain locales reinforce patterns of labor and leisure. It is not surprising that Jamaica became home to the notorious Hedonism resorts: “Unleash your wildest desires with open minds, open bars, and open relationships.” Other well-known lifestyle resorts exist in Mexico and Spain; lesser known, perhaps, are the resort in Pattaya, Thailand, or the swingers’ cruises offered off the coast of Turkey. Gay circuit parties have spread around the globe; as these events can last for several days, many host cities find them economically advantageous. The porn industry, similarly driven by the desire for cheap labor and the erotics of otherness, has extended into Asia and Eastern Europe (Warsaw, Poland, was the site of the Third Annual World Gangbang Championship and Eroticon in 2004).

Sometimes, sex partying draws on Western symbols, themes, or discourses regardless of where it takes place. As I was finishing this manuscript, I had the opportunity to talk with a Pakistani businessman at a rooftop bar in Los Angeles. We drank mojitos while he told me about underground “key parties” in Pakistan. From what he had heard secondhand, they sounded similar to the key parties of 1970s American folklore—where couples supposedly deposited their car keys into a bowl and each woman drew any set of keys except her own, leaving the party with the man whose keys she selected. But in Pakistan, he told me, couples use hotel keys; in the name of discretion, no one would actually go back to their own homes or drive their own cars. Unfortunately, even though he provided a few leads, I was unable to find participants willing to talk with me. Still, the reappearance of the key party in such a context—whether rumor or practice—is a fascinating example of cultural appropriation. The French sociologist Michel Fize suggests that the interest in Skins shown by French youth proves that they are casualties of pornography: “We’re living in a pornocratic world where sex is everywhere, in thoughts, words, images, and deeds. This is leading more and more young people into unconventional sexual practices.” For some adolescents, though, the parties are described as a way of expressing themselves and resisting authority, paying homage to the 1970s United States in ethos as well as practice. As a Le Skins partygoer declared: “We live in a society full of rules, control and conventions. Some people burn cars to revolt but we don’t hurt anyone. We stand for eccentricity and free love.”

But sex parties aren’t just Western creations. Group sex has been depicted in art and literature for centuries, and some of those portrayals are celebratory. Some symbols and meanings loop back on each other—even portrayals of orgies as “tribal” or “Roman” can’t easily be traced to a singular origin at this point in history. Over the years I researched this book, I also heard tales about secret group sex parties for men in the South Pacific and rental houses in Dubrovnik serving as temporary, mobile sex clubs. Films about swinging in Israel and India appeared. The electronic dance music scene, with its focus on multiple sources of sensory intensity, has spread around the world. Three-day events, club drugs, and sensation-seeking youth seem to beget after-parties and group sex wherever they coalesce. Unfortunately, it remains difficult to find participants from non-Western countries willing to talk about their recreational experiences with group sex. Mahdavi’s scholarly account is a rare find.

Baudrillard claims we live in a post-orgy world. What he means is not that orgies no longer occur but that the deep referential meanings they once had have been vacated, beginning with the political events of the 1960s and accelerating as the global spread of capitalist consumerism ensured that homogeneity and surface desires would win over authentic difference and pleasure. “The myth of sexual liberation is still alive and well,” he claims, but the state of ecstatic transcendence once possible through transgression has become mere simulation, just another form of pornography. We haven’t been liberated by our revolutions, sexual or otherwise, but rather, the linear progression of history has concluded. There is no longer any end game to believe in—no salvation, rapture, utopia, or apocalypse. Postmodern culture has become based on an endless play of surface signs, and meaning has sold out to capitalism: “Closing down, closing down! It’s the end-of-the-century sale. Everything must go! Modernity is over (without ever having happened), the orgy is over, the party is over—the sales are starting. . . . But the sales don’t come after the festive seasons any longer; nowadays the sales start first, they last the whole year long, even the festivals themselves are on sale everywhere”

Baudrillard’s reference to the orgy, then, recalls a lost world of possibility, mystery, and even deep passion. [...]


Ma Yaohai, a fifty-three-year-old college professor from Nanjing, China, was an accidental orgiast. After two divorces, he decided to try meeting women online. He began dating a twenty-three-year-old woman who used the screen name Passionate Fiery Phoenix and identified as a swinger. They went to their first swinging party together on New Year’s Day in 2004. Although Ma suffered from performance anxiety that time, he soon became accustomed enough to group sex—his largest party was four couples—to begin offering advice to others online. For the next two years, he also recruited participants online for sex parties, using the screen name “bighornyfire” (or, depending on the translation, “Roaring Virile Fire”). He organized eighteen orgies, some of which were supposedly held in the apartment he shares with his Alzheimer’s disease–stricken mother.

Ma’s adventures took a sour turn in 2010 when he was charged with “group licentiousness” under China’s Criminal Law 301. Twenty-one other participants at his parties were also charged.60 “Group licentiousness” was originally a subclause under “hooliganism,” which included all extramarital sexual behavior and treated offenders harshly, potentially with the death penalty. In 1997, the hooliganism statute was repealed in China, meaning that extramarital sex was no longer illegal; “three or more people having sex,” however, remains a criminal offense, as does being a “ringleader.”

In early 2010, Ma Yaohai was sentenced to three and a half years in prison.

Debate over Ma’s conviction was heated. One commentator, Ming Haoyue, insisted that group sex is “decadent behavior” that challenges social morality and adversely affects “the normal social order, thus hindering the pursuit of the majority of people for good behaviors.” Haoyue further observed, “Chaotic, indulgent sexual activities may fuel other evils.” A blogger charged Ma with inciting “social chaos”: “You led a 22-person orgy. You have destroyed ethics and morality.” Chinese sexologist and activist Li Yinhe protested the verdict in the media, however, arguing that criminal laws against “group licentiousness, prostitution, and obscene products (pornography),” all victimless sexual crimes, were draconian remnants of the Cultural Revolution. Experts estimate that fewer than one hundred thousand Chinese participate in group sex, although a chat forum dedicated to swinging on the website “Happy Village” has more than 380,000 registered members. Citizens increasingly seek out porn, buy sex toys, and visit brothels. Consensual sexual behavior between adults, Li Yinhe maintained, is a “private matter.” Ma Yaohai agreed, although some believe his sentence might have been lighter if he’d shown remorse instead of defending his actions in the press: “Marriage is like water: you have to drink it. Swinging is like a glass of fine wine: you can choose to drink it or not,” he stated. “What we did, we did for our own happiness. People chose to do it of their own free will and they knew they could stop at any time. We disturbed no one.”

In August 2012, another sex scandal rocked China when “orgy” photos supposedly featuring several high-ranking government officials were posted online. Couples have been arrested, tortured, and imprisoned in Egypt and Iran for organizing sex parties. Gay men have been arrested and sentenced to death for group sex across the Middle East; at times, the accusation of orgy hosting is used as a justification for police raids on homes and businesses.

Even attempting to educate about or conduct research on sexual behavior can put an individual at risk. Since Mahdavi’s ethnography was published in 2009, she has received e-mail every week from around the world thanking her for writing honestly about contemporary Iran. She has paid a high price for her work, however. In addition to praise, she receives hate mail, faces hostile audiences, and has been accused of everything from sexual impropriety to falsifying her data by Iranian critics. More significantly, even though she took extreme measures to conceal the identity of her informants and protect them from government retaliation, she was unable to shield herself from political scrutiny. Mahdavi is no longer allowed to visit Iran for either personal or professional reasons. Still, she considers herself “one of the lucky ones”; another scholar she knew was incarcerated and spent time in solitary confinement for her research and political views.

Western swingers don’t risk hard labor in prison, death by hanging, or exile. Perhaps this is part of the reason swingers have a reputation for being fairly politically conservative. Outside of radical utopian communities, early social science literature on swinging in the United States found participants to hold “general white suburban attitudes.” Modern American lifestylers are believed to be more interested in staying under the radar and maintaining the status quo than contesting it. One writer suggests, “The point of swinging is not to challenge gender roles, nor to question heterosexuality. People in the lifestyle enjoy being married or partnered and simply want to supplement their sex life by including intimacies with other couples like themselves.” In 1999 and 2000, Bergstrand and Sinski revisited the issue with a survey of approximately 1,100 self-identified swingers. By including questions taken from the General Social Survey, or GSS, they could compare swingers with the general population. As in previous studies, the majority of their respondents were in their thirties and forties, primarily white and college educated. They placed a high importance on marriage and marital satisfaction, valuing companionship more highly than personal freedom, the same as the general population. But swingers were also “more likely to favor gay marriage, less likely to condemn premarital or teen sex (fourteen-to sixteen-year-olds), more likely to reject traditional sex roles in their relationships,” and “were less racist, less sexist, and less heterosexist than the general population.”

While Western lifestylers may not currently be rallying around an identity or political issue, there may be a time when they do, despite their relatively privileged social positions. Bergstrand and Sinski note that there have been fourteen legal cases challenging the closing of swingers’ clubs in the United States, not counting clubs that closed because the owners didn’t have the finances or ability to fight. Courts have consistently not found such establishments to be protected under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, which secure “constitutional rights to privacy, free speech or association.” Free speech doesn’t protect “purely physical conduct that lacks any corresponding expressive element,” and swingers’ clubs have been considered public places. These decisions, Bergstrand and Sinski maintain, are “part of an elaborate moral architecture of monogamy that has been constructed by the Supreme Court over the past century and a half.” The stage has been set for this particular vision of sexual, emotional, and practical monogamy to affect legal decisions pertaining to sexuality, obscenity, and “a wide range of behaviors having to do with how we view community, public and private spheres of activity, and the construction of personal meaning in our lives.”

Highly publicized busts of swing clubs have occurred in the United States and Canada, and photos of “outed” couples have appeared in newspapers. Four of seven people featured in the documentary Sex with Strangers lost their jobs when employers learned of their practices. In 2010, a couple was fired from their jobs at a theater in Spokane after being outed as swingers when an anonymous source sent copies of e-mails they’d exchanged with couples on Craigslist. The couples from Swing have been more insulated— if you’re going to openly deviate from mainstream norms, it helps to run your own business (even more if it’s a lifestyle website). Perhaps writing political slogans on your body before visiting a swingers’ club would be a good idea, or maybe it’s easier to just follow the trend toward private or temporary venues. Will there even be a need for identity politics or a “community” if “sexy naked” parties are just part of a regular weekend for many groups of young adults?

Sexual practices have been linked to ideals of personal and social transformation in societies throughout history. Sex, as play, can become a way of learning about oneself and others. It can become a way of reimagining oneself. In certain contexts, sexual practice can also become a way of reimagining the world, sparking revolutionary hopes. As group sex involves relations of witnessing and being witnessed, it is uniquely and powerfully positioned to serve such purposes. Group sex is ripe as transgression and often promises transcendence—although it does not always deliver either. Is congregating for an orgy in a dry swimming pool, in a country where wearing open-toed shoes might land one in jail (and a miniskirt might earn lashes with a whip) more revolutionary than entering a “sexy buns” contest at a lifestyle event in Las Vegas? Perhaps it depends on whether you work at a conservative banking firm and your superiors are now asking for your resignation after seeing pictures on Facebook—perhaps you’d take the whipping if you could keep your salary? Participants in these events are obviously positioned differently in global networks of privilege—social class, ethnicity, religion, gender, labor, and so on. In terms of subjective feelings of jeopardy, however, there may be something commensurable about their experiences, at least some of the time. Just consider: If a twenty-two-person orgy can “destroy” the ethics and morality of a country with a population of more than a billion, it’s a powerful weapon of social change. Or, at least, it feels like one to some people.

In a political address on Iranian state television from 2005, the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned of the conceivable success of a “velvet” revolution:

More than Iran’s enemies need artillery, guns, and so forth, they need to spread cultural values that lead to moral corruption . . . a senior official in an important American political center said: ‘Instead of bombs, send them miniskirts.’ He is right. If they arouse sexual desires in any given country, if they spread unrestrained mixing of men and women, and if they lead youth to behavior to which they are naturally inclined by instincts, there will no longer be any need for artillery and guns against that nation.

Conservative fears that desires for greater sexual freedom among a populace will beget desires for other social changes are not completely unfounded. Mahdavi, for example, traces the emergence of Iran’s Green Revolution of 2009 to the social and sexual changes she witnessed during her fieldwork. Youth who had begun rebelling by sneaking out of their homes wearing makeup, listening to illegal music, and throwing sex parties eventually became more explicitly critical of repression. They began organizing and actively challenging their leaders. The Green Revolution erupted after the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with protestors literally taking to the streets. Sexual experimentation alone, Mahdavi cautions, does not automatically transform society. But the disenchantment that had been building in Iran, along with the fact that people had begun stealing moments of freedom and pleasure, created changes in their thoughts and actions—not just around sex, but toward everyday life more generally—that did spread to the political realm.

The Arab Spring—a wave of political demonstrations spreading over the Arab world— officially began on December 18, 2010, the day that a twenty- six-year-old Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of the governor’s office in Sidi Bouzid to protest mistreatment and corruption. Bouazizi’s action sparked other protests throughout the country; news of the situation spread rapidly around the world through reports on Facebook and other websites. Although police attempted to squash the demonstrations, unrest grew. Within weeks, the Tunisian president fled the country after twenty-three years in office. Protests and uprisings have since followed in other nations, including Egypt, Libya, Syria, Morocco, and Yemen. Each of these political movements is unique, with its own history and complexities, and the outcomes have varied. Scholars see common threads across the uprisings, though, such as slow escalations of discontent, marginalized youth, and the multifaceted use of social media sites and the Internet. Beyond kindling new visions and desires, the Internet allows for rapid information flows and international connections never before possible. A 2011 study found that nine out of ten Egyptians and Tunisians reported using Facebook to organize protests or disseminate information during recent political struggles. Whether increasing openness about sexuality is best seen a precursor to the Arab Spring or a consequence of the ensuing regime changes is debated, but sexuality is linked to visions of change put forth on both sides of the struggles.

In November 2011, a twenty-year-old Egyptian woman, Aliaa al-Mahdy (or Elmahdy), posted a nude photo of herself on Facebook. After Facebook removed the image, she allowed a friend to repost it on Twitter, using the hashtag #nudephotorevolutionary.

Al-Mahdy took the photo at her parents’ home, using a self-timer on her camera. The image is black and white, although her flat shoes and the flower in her hair are red. Except for black thigh-high stockings and the flats, she is naked. There is no arched back, centerfold makeup, or pursed lips; she looks straight into the camera without smiling. Whether her gaze is interpreted as innocent or defiant depends on one’s perspective; she does not, however, appear ashamed.

The photo, she claims, was taken and posted online to protest sexual discrimination, harassment, and inequality.

Since then, the young activist and blogger has been called deviant, mentally ill, and destructive; even liberal groups have distanced themselves from al-Mahdy and her boyfriend, another controversial blogger, out of fear that she damaged their cause by going too far. Despite receiving death threats and being accused of prostitution, al-Mahdy has vowed to remain in Egypt. In an interview with CNN, she stated, “I am a believer of every word I say and I am willing to live in danger under the many threats I receive in order to obtain the real freedom all Egyptians are fighting and dying for daily.”

For International Women’s Day in 2012, feminist activists posed nude for a calendar in honor of Elmahdy, titled Nude Photo Revolutionaries. “Free thought in a free body,” one of the captions reads. “Our naked body is our challenge to patriarchy, dictatorship, and violence. Smart people we inspire, dictators are horrified. Women all over the world—come, undress, win,” reads another. Critics see the calendar and al-Mahdy’s approach as subjecting women to even more objectification. Supporters claim the issue is about freedom of expression and that “nudity is the antithesis of veiling”—“when a tool of oppression can be turned into an assertion of power, it is a beautiful thing.”

Because it involves the use of the body, nudity has been compared to self-immolation and hunger strikes. The revolutionary impact of nudity, sex, and transgression can be quite a slippery matter, however.

Instead of finishing her final year at Moscow State University studying philosophy, twenty-three-year-old Nadezhda Tolokonnikova will potentially spend the next two years in prison. In February 2012, the punk-rock activist group Pussy Riot staged a performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. Donning colorful dresses, mismatched tights, and balaclavas— woven facemasks that are practical in Russia because of the cold but that also work well for guerrilla activists—a group of women stormed the stage near the altar. First they bowed as if in prayer and then began singing and dancing, “air karate” style. Their performance was brief, as security guards escorted them outside shortly after they appealed to the Virgin Mary to take up fem nism and oust Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. No one was actually arrested until after a video of the performance appeared on YouTube, titled “Punk Prayer—Mother of God, Chase Putin Away.”

Were the women’s actions art? Crime? Political speech?

Tolokonnikova and two other known members of Pussy Riot, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina, were charged with hooliganism—“deliberate behavior that violates public order and expresses explicit disrespect toward society.” The other members fled into hiding. The trial began in July 2012. Pussy Riot defended their performance as dissident art and political action, while Putin compared it to a “witches Sabbath.” Witnesses called by the prosecution accused the women of “sacrilege and ‘devilish dances’” in the church. In August 2012, the women were found guilty of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” believed to stem from their feminist beliefs, and sentenced to two years in prison.

Although there was no sex or nudity in “Punk Prayer”—blasphemy was enough—Tolokonnikova already had an activist history. In February 2008, as part of another radical group called Voina, Tolokonnikova participated in an orgy at the Timiriazev State Biology Museum in Moscow that was photographed and filmed. The orgy, held to protest the “farcical and pornographic” election of Dmitry Medvedev, was called “Fuck for the Heir Puppy Bear!” The root of Medvedev means “bear” in Russian. Blogger and Voina member Alexei Plutser-Sarno claimed that the orgy denoted how “in Russia everyone fucks each other and the little president looks at it with delight.” In the video, available online, participants quickly undress near a taxidermic bear. Four couples, including Tolokonnikova, visibly pregnant and on her knees with her underwear pulled down, begin having sex doggie style. A fifth couple has oral sex. Several of the men appear to have performance issues—not surprising, as group sex is intimidating enough without visions of Siberian labor camp flashing before one’s eyes. In the background, a bearded Plutser-Sarno in a tuxedo and top hat holds a banner reading “fuck for the heir-bear.” Tolokonnikova gave birth just a few days after the orgy, a detail rarely left out of Western media reports.

In a 2010 Voina performance, “Dick Captured by KGB,” the artists painted a sixty-five-meter long, twenty-seven-meter wide outline of a penis on a drawbridge in St. Petersburg. When the bridge was raised, the penis appeared erect. The bridge, incidentally, led to the headquarters of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB and the agency that sent twenty-five to thirty “men in suits with guns” to arrest Tolokonnikova and her husband after Pussy Riot’s “Punk Prayer” hit the Internet.

The Pussy Riot trial attracted international attention as a case about government infringement on freedom of expression and the suppression of political speech. Protests were held in numerous countries, and musicians such as Madonna, Sting, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Paul McCartney offered public support. British and American officials claimed the sentences were “disproportionate” and urged the Russian government to reconsider. Within Russia, though, polls suggested far less support for the band members, whose actions were seen as hateful, disgusting, shocking, and without political merit. Ironically, Medvedev—the namesake of the 2008 museum orgy—called for the women’s release in mid-September, possibly in response to international pressure. In October 2012, Yekaterina Samutsevich’s sentence was suspended because she had been prevented from actually dancing on the altar by a security guard, but Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were sent to labor camps. On November 1, 2012, Medvedev again suggested the women should be freed.

Some bloggers claimed that the focus in the Western media on defending the women’s right to “freedom of expression” was a self-serving contortion of Pussy Riot’s message, which is more radical than most Americans or British would swallow if they truly understood it: the need to overthrow “patriarchal” society, “including capitalism, religion, moral norms, inequality of all forms, and the corporate state system.” The women in Pussy Riot, one writer argues, have “more in common with insurrectionary anarchists than with the bland pop-culture ‘icons’ who so vocally support them.” On the cartoon show South Park, Jesus appears to a community wearing a “Free Pussy Riot” T-shirt under his robe; the episode critiques American tendencies to jump on a popular bandwagon without excavating the entire issue.

In terms of accumulating American supporters, Tolokonnikova is probably lucky that she landed in jail for challenging the intermingling of church and state with Pussy Riot rather than for her Voina museum capers. Although “Punk Prayer” and “Fuck for the Heir Puppy Bear” might indeed be protected speech in the United States, performers could still have initially faced arrest and charges for trespassing or lewd conduct. When Al Gore lost the presidency to George W. Bush despite winning the popular vote, his supporters protested, but a staged and videotaped orgy in the United States Botanic Gardens in Washington, D.C., probably wouldn’t have gone over so well. tracks the torture and imprisonment of artists in countries around the world. Few gain an international spotlight like Pussy Riot did, and doing so has as much to do with the political moment and the message being delivered as with people’s commitment to abstract concepts such as “freedom.” Certainly, it helped that these women were pretty, had young children, and had chosen a band name like “Pussy Riot.” Who doesn’t want to talk about “Pussy Riot” while waiting in line at Starbucks? Suddenly, people who’d never even said the word “pussy” could toss it out brazenly in public. But more importantly, it is far easier to defend transgression when it isn’t your cherished beliefs being transgressed. The performance in the cathedral wasn’t emotionally upsetting to Americans or Brits who already believe in— or at least give lip service to—the separation of church and state. The message of “Punk Prayer” made sense, even if the singing was dreadful. And if evidence was sought that Russia hasn’t really become a free, democratic nation after all, the government’s defensive response to “Punk Prayer” served as a timely example.

Excerpted from "Plays Well In Groups: A Journey Through The World Of Group Sex" by Katherine Frank. Published by Rowman & Littlefield. Copyright 2013 by Katherine Frank. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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