Orgies: a brief history of group hanky-panky

When the News of the World revealed that Max Mosley, the president of Formula 1 and son of the fascist poseur Oswald, had been videotaped in a basement enjoying sadomasochistic sex with five prostitutes dressed in Nazi death-camp uniforms, it had no hesitation in calling the activity an orgy.

It seems a far cry from the original meaning of the word orgia: secret worship. Shouting commands in German while helping one lady of the night whip another is hardly the same as attending a night-time prayer meeting to worship Dionysus or Orpheus. Sex wasn't supposed to come into it. But these things get out of hand so easily. Since the worship of Dionysus involved music, dancing, drinking and eating animal sacrifices, it was inevitable that some group rumpia-pumpia would ensue.

The Romans weren't noted for their restraint in god worship, particularly of Saturn, lord of death, and Bacchus, god of wine. As Christianity took hold, the no-holds-barred Saturnalia and Bacchanalia festivals were spoken of with disapproval; and the Latin orgia came to mean something depraved. But then, imperial orgies really were depraved. Tiberius Caesar, according to Suetonius, was a connoisseur: "teams of wantons of both sexes, selected as experts in deviant intercourse and dubbed analists, copulated before him in triple unions to excite his flagging passions."

The word "orgy" passed into English in 1589, and evidence exists that the English were no slouches at group sex. Dancing round a Maypole wasn't always mere skipping-with-ribbons. It was ritual phallus-worship, after which the dancers would head for the open meadows. "What clipping, what culling, what kissing and bussing, what smooching and slobbering one of another," remarked the 16th-century Puritan Philip Stubbes, from his vantage point behind a bush.

After the Restoration, things calmed down. The orgy became the toy of the aristocracy. In England, its apogee was the rise of the Hellfire Club, founded by Sir Francis Dashwood, an MP for 20 years and a full-time rake. He leased Medmenham Abbey on the Thames. In the garden stood a statue of a naked Venus, bending over so that visitors walked straight into her bottom. He built a network of caves and passages under a hill, with individual "cells" where the friars could wench. The friars hired London "dollymops" and ferried them down the Thames on barges.

In France, the Marquis de Sade inherited the beautiful Château La Coste, overlooking the Vaucluse valley. Possibly bored by the lovely view, he and his wife signed up young male servants and pretty girls and subjected them to violent sex, cruelty and coprophagy, as depicted in The 120 Days of Sodom.

In the 20th century, orgiasts were disappointingly few and far between. The Bloomsbury group famously "lived in squares and loved in triangles", but drew the line at actual group sex. Aleister Crowley, the writer and self-publicist, tried to revive the spirit of Dashwood by presiding over black masses, worshipping Pan and taking the motto, "Do what thou wilt is the whole of the law". He moved to Sicily and headed a community of orgy enthusiasts.

Hippy culture introduced the concept of free love to an uptight American world in 1967. The counter-culture promoted a version of sexual democracy that saw the staff of Suck magazine having sex during editorial meetings.

Then The Joy of Sex was published. Readers stared at its "Orgy" section, the line drawings of naked, bearded accountants and indefatigably middle-class women fondling each other – and decided that, Dionysus or no Dionysus, they were sure as hell never going to do that.

And suddenly, after 2000-odd years, the orgy (or'gy, noun: "A revel involving unrestrained indulgence, especially sexual activity") just didn't seem like a great idea any more.

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