Group Grope | Film & TV | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Group Grope 

Sex With Strangers shows us the ins and outs of the lives of swingers.

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You know, I like a good orgy scene as much as the next guy. Writhing naked bodies? The more the better, that’s my motto. Yet there’s something disconcerting about watching the documentary Sex With Strangers, even when the entire premise warns you that you’re not going to see a G-rated frolic. At times it’s a fascinating sociology lesson, but it’s also none-too-shy about giving in to prurient interests. It’s like an X-rated version of that classic Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercial—they got their skin flick all over my insightful documentary, and they got my insightful documentary all over their skin flick.


It’s a lucky thing there’s a lot more insight than skin. The subject at hand is “swinging,” an expression so loaded with 1970s Sexual Revolution baggage that it’s hard not to snicker when anyone on-screen uses it. Directors Harry and Joe Gantz—co-creators of HBO’s reality series Taxicab Confessions—follow three relationships involving self-described swingers over the course of one year. James and Theresa, a middle-aged couple in Washington state, cruise bars in their mobile home, looking for willing partners to hook up with. They occasionally mix and mingle with 20-something Calvin, also from Washington, who juggles a three-way relationship with two women, Sarah and Julie. And in Mississippi, we meet Gerard and Shannon, a married couple with a young son who were encouraged to experiment by a counselor after both of them had extramarital affairs.


At its most compelling, Sex With Strangers provides a depressing case study in gender roles, as the women in these relationships invariably end up suffering the most. Theresa, who is beginning to worry that she may not be attractive enough to entice new partners, undergoes breast augmentation surgery to provide better “bait.” Sarah agonizes every time Calvin chooses to be with Julie instead of with her, and seems to go along with Calvin’s fantasies only in a desperate attempt to cling to him. Shannon is devastated when Gerald chooses to meet an online sweetheart without her—a woman Gerald has even gone so far as to tell he loves. Over and over again, the whims and egos of the men run roughshod over the sensibilities of women who didn’t really seem to understand what they were getting into. Sex With Strangers offers a wake-up call to anyone who thinks there’s such a thing as “free love”—calling yourself a swinger doesn’t automatically change relationship dynamics of jealousy and insecurity.


That’s a solid idea around which to anchor a documentary, and there are plenty of interesting characters to follow. Theresa and James, whose desires seem most in sync, relish their various seductions to the point that they try to top personal records for most different partners over the course of a single weekend. We also see that James keeps a Polaroid scrapbook of those partners, which he all but admits to preserving to remind him of his virility when old age creeps up on him. But there’s no one more perversely watchable than Calvin, an immature egomaniac who is nonetheless absolutely true to his own nature. As pathetic as it is to watch two different women scramble for his fickle attentions, it’s hard to feel antagonistic towards a guy who is so forthright about being a complete sex-hungry dickhead.


Of course the journeys of these various swingers would inevitably involve plenty of nudity and sex, so it’s not startling when it pops up. But like it’s been dosed with Viagra, Sex With Strangers keeps popping up again and again and again. At times, the individual encounters clearly help develop the characters, as when James petulantly departs one swingers’ club romp because of someone else’s offhanded remark. But ultimately, the brothers Gantz can’t resist the voyeuristic temptation to show group sex about half a dozen too many times (pause for clamor of feet to the theater to die down).


Viewers will certainly draw their own judgments regarding whether Sex With Strangers’ subjects are brave or sad, but you’ve got to hand it to the Gantzes for delivering such an unflinching, nonjudgmental portrait of their lives. It’s just too bad they felt obliged to spend so much time watching the licking and groping. Sex With Strangers is like Bizarro-World porn—far more stimulating when everyone on screen is talking than when they’re screwing.

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