Thirty years ago, a cultural sea change allegedly took place in America. It was dubbed the Sexual Revolution. To read about it at the time was to learn about hippies, dope, utopian communes, and a whole variety of sexual experimentation. The media's portrait was of godless young commies/anarchists out of touch with what later became known as “family values.” The change was commonly attributed to the development of the Pill, which supposedly freed women from worries about pregnancy and encouraged a new promiscuity. Then, of course, AIDS came along and squelched the whole thing. AIDS also provided fodder for crazed religious moralists with more axes to grind than could be found at a sawmill.
But, if The Lifestyle, a new documentary from Errol Morris protégé David Schisgall, is to be believed, the Sexual Revolution is still going strong. In fact, people who are the very opposite of those hippies and commies are its torchbearers. This includes women who, by and large, are beyond the age of worrying about unwanted pregnancies. Schisgall's sexual outlaws are classic Middle Americans — mostly working-class folk from the flyover zones. Most are upright, churchgoing taxpayers who would probably be in the Kiwanis Club if they weren't so busy swinging at barbecue parties.
Among those Schisgall speaks to is Dr. Robert McGinley, president of the Lifestyles Organization, which holds annual conventions that include seminars and a whole variety of vendors hawking fetish equipment, penile extenders, and (literally swinging) harnesses for better penetration angles. McGinley, we are informed, is also a minister.
The director shows us footage from a few get-togethers, complete with a range of explicit, matter-of-fact couplings by people who look a good deal more average and realistic than, say, Richard Gere and Julia Roberts, or, perhaps more to the point, John Holmes and Savannah. But the heart of the film is not in these scenes. Rather it is in the anecdotes that the participants relate. “Wild” Bill Goodwin, proprietor of a meeting place called the Panther Palace, movingly tells of his love for his late wife, Dolly. He relates how there was no contradiction between that love and the pleasure they both got from swingers' parties.
Much of the film plays like a commercial for the Lifestyle, but two-thirds through, there are a few hints of the sorts of problems that exist. Gina and John, by far the youngest and most conventionally attractive of the couples, become uncomfortable and withdraw. We may suspect that Gina simply drew too much attention from the largely dowdy crowd. Still, there is something to be said for maturity. During a contest at one of the conventions, we see one of the oldest women in the film, surely in her 70s, display moves with a level of pelvic control that few younger women could compete with.
What is most notable about Schisgall's film is its rigorous avoidance of condescension. He could easily have made the film a freak show, poking fun at the bizarre and frequently unphotogenic folks on display. But, while he surely knows that part of the film's charm is the discrepancy between our stereotypes of this populace and the wild activities he presents, he is scrupulous about giving everyone his due.
One is left wondering about whom Schisgall may have omitted from the film. While the participants suggest that swingers come from all levels of society, they seem here a fairly homogeneous group — middle-aged or older, few with college educations, none black. (There are a few Chicanos and Asians.) All the men are straight, a few of the women bi; it's clear that this is an essentially hetero community. Is the Lifestyle phenomenon actually restricted to this demographic? Or is our sample skewed by Schisgall or by the self-selecting nature of participation in such a project? These are questions that Schisgall chooses not to address, questions that will doubtless linger in the minds of viewers.