"Hidden in America" (Discovery)
The signs weren't good. Discovery's "Destination America" cable channel is all about lowbrow documentaries ("Monsters and Mysteries", "Hillbilly Blood"), and last night's entire run of shows were about sex. One was the "Hidden in America"
show, which spotlights subcultures of weirdos. The episode title was "Swingers and Free Love." Some well-regarded polyfolks were to be on it. What had they gotten into?
The first half hour was about the swinging world, "the Lifestyle." To a background of dark, creepy music, we meet a tentative newbie couple hoping to test the waters and old-hand couples describing the Lifestyle's rules and guidelines. Cut to a counselor named Karen Ruskin, billed as "Relationship Expert." She declares that swinging is "sexual suicide" for any couple foolish enough to try it. (More on Ruskin later.) We visit a pool party at a Swingfest convention in South Beach, and couples talk about how swinging has strengthened their marriages and their sex lives together. The narrator tells us that cameras will be allowed for the first time ever into a swinging inner sanctum — on this cliffhanger we break for commercials — and then we see suggestive bits hinting at a partially clothed hotel-room four-way.
The narrator says that swingers have a rule of separating quickly from play partners, to be sure that they do not fall in love. This comes after we're shown a mugshot of a man named Kenneth McBride (with even creepier music) who murdered a man his wife fell in love with.
Next up: polyamory.
We are introduced to Sierra Black of the Boston area, one of our best spokespeople
, and her extended long-term network of husband, lovers, and families with kids. The whole crowd is friendly, attractive — the nice intelligent young folks living down the street in any college town. Sierra matter-of-factly describes polyamory as "more than one loving relationship going on at a time," and calls her husband Martin, their 4- and 8-year-old daughters, and their associates "a stable healthy family." We see the whole crowd at a backyard barbecue, with various grownups talking and showing little signs of affection, and the kids playing happily. Karen Ruskin again: "Polyamory is symbolic of what kind of a culture we've become: a culture of entitlement" where people just take what they want.
And... what will become of those kids? Ruskin, getting more and more worked up: "Polyamory provides breakups
certainly not stability." Sierra directly contradicts this, describing the kids' strong social network of caregivers, and we see more happy scenes from the barbecue.
The 8-year-old, in a previous appearance, was remarkably self-confident and well-spoken — she knows about her family's openness and gets it — and she comes through again. Her opinion: "Open marriages don't make much difference. You have more people in the community." (Quote may not be exact; I didn't record the show and was scribbling notes.)
But! — the music turns grim — there is jealousy. We get snippets of members of the group telling about times they felt lonely when someone was with someone else. One wonders what contexts these were assembled out of. Folks, if you don't want something presented out of context, don't say it in front of a rolling camera. Speak only in sound bites that can stand by themselves.
Deborah Anapol provides some general comments about polyamory, including "My best guess is there are at least 10 million polyamorists in the United States." (My own guess is that that's way high.)
Narrator: "It's a complicated life. Yet it appears to be on the rise." Sierra gets the last word: She tells how building a poly life offers a chance to get beyond, and subvert, the neuroses of mandatory couple-culture that most people are stuck in. And that when a person does this, "whether it's one person or a million, I think there's a little revolution going on."
And then to close, the show turns to elderly poly legends Oberon and Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart and their 20-year partner Julie. Nothing looks so unthreatening as a happy old couple. Or triad. Now the music is all upbeat. This section is the only piece of the poly half of the show available on the Destination America website. I posted about it
when it appeared there three weeks ago, and here's the video again in case you missed it. Two segments from the swinging portion follow on after it:
Morning Glory, Oberon and Julie. If the video player fails, watch here: http://america.discovery.com/tv-shows/hidden-in-america/videos/polyamory-in-america.htm
Narrator: "They have been happily married and polyamorous for almost 40 years. They've shared 20 years of that with their partner Julie [at right]. And they're living proof that open marriages can go the distance."
My overall assessment: Mixed.
Although most of the material itself was fairly reasonable and unexceptionable, and the poly folks had a good say and came off pretty darn well, the editing, the narrator's voice, and the overbearing music were manipulative and conveyed a mood of danger and forbidden fruit through most of the hour. Especially the swingers' half; they got the worst of it.
No reruns are currently scheduled
Oh, about Karen Ruskin! Just a few days ago, guess what? She contacted me asking my help in finding New England poly people to appear with her on FOX-25 TV in Boston. On her website she bills herself as "Media Psychotherapist Guest Expert." Fortunately, thanks to quick research by Terry of the Vermont Poly Woodchucks, the discussion lists around here were soon abuzz about Ruskin's previous ill-informed trashings of nontraditional relationships on Fox News, Bill O'Reilly, and her blog
— and her shutdowns of any other viewpoints. So don't be tempted. On TV (unlike radio) the editing is everything, and there is nothing you can possibly do or say that will survive hostile video editing.
Labels: Destination America, Hidden in America, Sierra Black, TV