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Swinging in the Suburbs

Forget what you've heard about wife swapping, orgiastic sex parties and free love. These modern-day swingers-- who relish their discreet and lively Silicon Valley sexual lifestyle-- are close-knit, coupled and conservative.

By Annalee Newitz

In a revealing evening gown, her exposed skin dusted with glitter, Patti is the living embodiment of the sexy older woman. Slightly giggly, she stands next to the bandstand in the ballroom at Oakland's notorious Edgewater West Motel. Usually a seedy sex club, tonight the Edgewater is festively decorated with balloons, streamers and bowls of candy; the rooms and gymnasium-style ballroom are mostly occupied by members of Bay City Socials, the couples-only social club that Patti runs with her husband, Harry. Celebrating New Year's Eve a month early, Bay City Socials is having a dinner and dance where couples come to meet, party, enjoy each other's company and maybe, just maybe, have sex.

It's early in the evening, and Patti is giving a pep talk to a handful of couples who are coming to a Bay City Socials event for the first time. She talks about how nervous she was her "first time," how hard it was for her to walk in the door at a similar party she attended over a decade ago in Los Angeles. "But you know what?" she asks by way of conclusion. "This isn't really about sex, although it is. It's really about family. It's about finding friends you can show your true self to, friends for life, who can be there for you in a way your real family can't." And then, smiling infectiously, Patti thanks several of her friends in the audience who helped her with the party decorations.

I'm here this evening with my partner, Jason, to see what this thing called "swinging" is all about. I'm not undercover. Before coming, I told several people in charge of the event that I'm a reporter who is interested in finding out more about "the lifestyle," the preferred term for what pop culture has dubbed swinging, wife swapping, whatever. Nobody seems to mind that a reporter is hanging around. There are no hurried excuses, no nervousness about cleaning up what's going on for a hoped-for media interpretation. Perhaps that's because what's happening here seems so ordinary, so far removed from by-now-familiar stereotypes of sex-crazed men swapping their oppressed wives.

Everyone here looks very Bay Area suburban. There is a mix of races and ages. Most of the men have short haircuts and are sporting appropriate holiday gear: everything from preppie slacks to tuxedos. The women are also dressed up, some very clean-cut, others looking sassy in a kind of Victoria's Secret way.

Although I keep looking for any signs of sexual activity, this really is just a dance. Nobody cruises us. As the evening wears on, a few groups of women start dirty dancing with each other, and one briefly removes her shirt. That's about as wild as it gets.

Despite the friendly atmosphere, I feel uncomfortable all evening. But not for the reasons you'd expect. I've been to several sex parties in San Francisco--wonderful, hedonistic places where you can munch on finger food next to a pile of naked bodies in various states of penetration, or where you can leer encouragingly at a woman who has decided to tie her extremely naughty partner to the ceiling. And so my discomfort with the Bay City Socials party is the opposite of what most people would experience. I'm worried that I don't fit into this group which seems, despite its enthusiastic endorsement of non-monogamy, more sexually conservative than I am.

So I have my prejudices. Because the suburban world preferred by most people in the lifestyle is not my world, and because my idea of a sex party is far more explicit than mere flirtatious dancing, I spend most of the evening hunting for sexual tension in the room, trying to puzzle out what makes the lifestyle seductive for so many apparently strait-laced people.

Finally, I feel it. With an ironic wink, the DJ has put some swing music on the turntable. A few couples start swinging amateurishly, but then two people I haven't seen before step out on the floor. They look pure whitebread middle-class--the woman in heels and a conservative pastel dress, the man in a well-ironed shirt and cowboy boots. But they can really swing. She floats in his arms; he moves with a light step; her face begins to flush, and he grins wickedly. They know we're all watching them perform, and there's something incredibly sexy about it. Especially because we know that this couple, like every couple in the room, is here because they want to have sex with other couples. The forbidden thoughts that often leap to mind when you find people attractive are no longer forbidden. Possibly, under the right circumstances, these delicious-looking swingers would do more than dance with us.

Swing dancing is more than just a pun on one of the most infamous aspects of the lifestyle, however. It's also historically appropriate, since the lifestyle got its start during the 1940s, the same era that saw the rise of swing dancing. Some speculate that the term "swinging" is actually derived from the popular dance step which took the country by storm during World War II. And the Second World War is also where Terry Gould, author of The Lifestyle: A Look at the Sexual Rites of Swingers, locates the origins of spouse sharing.

According to Gould, swinging was nurtured in the high-intensity culture of World War II fighter pilots and their spouses. Sexologists Joan and Dwight Dixon, who have been in the lifestyle since the 1960s, corroborate his claim. They explain that fighter pilots, unlike other enlisted men, tended not to go out drinking off-base. They remained at home, seeking excitement and release with their wives on the military bases. Because the fatality rate was so high among the pilots, their families became extremely close-knit, with the understanding that some of the surviving pilots would take care of their buddies' widows. "Co-marital" non-monogamy was just one part of these Air Force families' deep bonds. This idea--that swinging is one way to express group intimacy or kinship--survives in the lifestyle today. It's what Patti alluded to in her speech to the new members of Bay City Socials when she talked about "finding family" at a lifestyle event.

Eventually, swinging moved beyond the military community in the 1950s and '60s, but it never strayed far from the postwar suburban communities created by returning GIs and their families. Gould recounts how one swinging vet named Leidy became a traveling salesman in the suburbs. As he went from town to town, he compiled the Leidy List, a pamphlet full of names and contact information for known swingers. He shared the list with others in the lifestyle, and thus became the informal publisher of the first swingers' magazine.

Meet Market: The swinger's Bible is the North American Swing Club Association's annual directory which includes events, shopping and travel destinations.

The swingers' magazine still exists today, and it continues to have the amateurish feel of a Leidy List. Bay Area swingers' publication New Friends is run off on newsprint, and is packed with sweet, hopeful ads from far-flung couples looking to meet "couples or bi women." Many of the ads are accompanied by charming Polaroid photographs of naked men, women and couples. Swingers are unapologetically ordinary in their self-depictions: some are chubby, some are over 50 and almost none of them exhibit the kinds of biologically impossible physical proportions you see in mainstream porn. These are the proverbial boys and girls next door. Except they're naked.

Swinging exploded into national consciousness in the early 1960s, when books like William and Jerrye Breedlove's Swap Clubs: A Study in Contemporary Sexual Mores tried to persuade enlightened readers that swinging was a legitimate social phenomenon. According to this 1964 book, San Francisco was "the swingingest city in the nation per capita."

But San Francisco, and the Bay Area generally, was also known for other distinctive sexual subcultures which began emerging at roughly the same time swinging became the subject of major Hollywood films like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969). These other subcultures, which were all distinctly urban and radical, could be grouped into three rough, overlapping categories: queer, "free love" and what is now called the bdsm community (bondage, discipline and sadomasochism). It's important to view the lifestyle today against the backdrop of its complicated relationships with other kinds of sexual liberation.

While the gay rights movement and queer politics redefined who you might love and desire, swinging did not. Most people in the lifestyle are in traditional, heterosexual marriages and wish to stay that way. Although recent years have seen a high tolerance for female bisexuality among swingers, male bisexuality is largely unheard of. At The Forum, Silicon Valley's most popular swing club, male bisexuality is strictly forbidden. Other local clubs don't have any formal policies about male bisexuality, but people in the lifestyle note that it's not really considered acceptable for men to engage in bisexual play.

Russell Baker, a sex educator with Seattle's Society for Human Sexuality and an occasional participant in the lifestyle, elaborates on the changing role of same-sex play among swingers: "It's important to keep in mind that even female-female sex wasn't always acceptable [in the lifestyle]; their community was initially just a place for male-female couples to meet other male-female couples for male-female sex, and only over time has it expanded to include same-sex play of any kind. I sincerely believe that the swinging community's male-male sex taboo will go the way of their female-female sex taboo within the next five years or so."

Despite shifting attitudes toward same-sex encounters among swingers, members of the lifestyle have often seen themselves in stark contrast with people in queer communities. 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.

And unlike hippie "free love" advocates of the 1960s, people in the lifestyle are often politically conservative--their sexual proclivities are not supposed to "change the world" or "question authority." Swinger sex tends to be discreet, and members of the lifestyle often wish to keep their activities a secret from business associates or neighbors. This isn't to say that swingers are a clandestine, sneaky lot; they may be very open among other people in the lifestyle. But they prefer not to make their sexuality a public statement. Furthermore, swingers differentiated themselves from free lovers of the '60s by advocating marriage and family life rather than multiple partners and communal living. The true inheritors of the free-love movement today are probably polyamorists and pansexuals, people who believe one person can have many romantic and sexual partners at the same time.

Finally, the swingers' community must be distinguished from another sex-oriented community that emerged in the early 1970s: the bdsm community, which gained public notoriety in the 1950s at roughly the same time the lifestyle was spreading through the suburbs. Celebrated in 1950s fetish magazines like Exotique, and modeled by the now-famous cult pinup Betty Page, the early bdsm community was composed mostly of urbanites who relished fetish clothing (corsets, leather thigh-high boots, etc.), and enjoyed sex acts that included bondage, whipping, spanking and various other sorts of theatrical, transgressive play. By the 1960s, bdsm had spread to the "leatherman" subculture in gay male circles, where anonymous public sex was supplemented with restraints, discipline games, fisting and sexual role-playing.

View to a Thrill: Published locally on newsprint stock, the Swingers Digest contains sexually explicit photos and ads which play more to stereotypes of the lifestyle, according to the story's author, than the reality of it.

Although they are in many ways quite different, one has to consider the relationship between swinging and leather/bdsm because both communities evolved in a similar way, emphasizing a connection between sexual practices and strong community bonds. As sex historian Gayle Rubin put it: "[Leather] connoted brotherhood and group solidarity ... In addition, leather became the major symbolic and social location ... for various kinds of 'kinky sex.' "

Like bdsm, swingers groups and clubs since the late 1960s are social and sexual. People in the lifestyle meet together because they all share a taste for sexuality which doesn't fit neatly into "the norm." But their community isn't just about sex acts--it's about what Rubin calls "group solidarity" too.

Group solidarity is precisely what drew Tony and Joleen into the lifestyle. A Bay Area couple who own their own business, Tony and Joleen could be poster kids for today's swing community: they're middle-class and married, and they radiate a sexy, athletic charm. High school sweethearts who married in 1977, they were each other's first lovers. A lack of erotic experiences with other people aroused their curiosity about swinging. Tony explains, "We got married and got pregnant while our friends were carousing, and we never got to do that. So we had some natural curiosity." But more than sex, they wanted to meet people. "We went into the lifestyle because we had employees, not friends," Joleen says. "Sure, we wanted sexual encounters, but really we wanted friends."

In 1989, Joleen and Tony went to their first Lifestyles Convention, an annual event in Nevada put on by the Lifestyles Organization and which attracts thousands of couples from around the world. There, they sought what Tony describes as "open-minded people comfortable with expressing their sexuality." But their first foray into the lifestyle wasn't exactly everything they'd expected. Laughing, Tony recalls, "We were 28 or 29 and the average age of people there was over 55. It was almost a senior citizens' convention, and very intimidating."

They spent their weekend at the convention attending seminars and gradually becoming more comfortable. The following year, they attended again. "The second time we went, we looked for people with name badges that said they lived in our area, and met two of the best friends we have now," Joleen notes. With the kind of lighthearted candor you find everywhere in the lifestyle, Tony adds, "We noticed that they're pretty attractive too, although we've never done anything with them."

Since those first two years, Joleen and Tony have become active in the lifestyle community, helping to organize Bay City Socials events and serving as monitors at the Lifestyles Convention. Have their unconventional choices affected them adversely? "On bad days, there are negative thoughts," Joleen admits. "I wrestle occasionally with the feeling that if one is married one doesn't do this. On other days, it's the best thing since sliced bread. I have closer relationships with these people than with his or my family." Part of that closeness comes from not having to hide their sexual feelings with other couples in the lifestyle. "If we were to introduce ourselves to another couple, sex is part of the agenda," Tony explains. "We may not get together with them, but flirting itself is tremendous fun."

Probably the worst part of being a swinger is the many misconceptions about the lifestyle. "There's almost a stereotype of swingers being white, middle-class and from the Midwest," Tony says. "The image of wife swapping--like in the movie Raising Arizona--comes up all the time." Joleen interjects hotly that she's never been "swapped" and won't do anything she doesn't want to do. Swingers also receive criticism from people in other sexual subcultures who think of the lifestyle as too stodgy to be cool. "It's as if because we're married, we're too vanilla," Joleen jokes, referring to the bdsm community's term for people whose "flavor" just isn't kinky enough. "I think it's similar to the way bisexuals are perceived by gay people, as if we're not 'for real'--that we're not really sexually active, but instead are just playing at it," Tony concludes.

Although it's disappointing and sometimes hurtful to be misunderstood by other people, Tony and Joleen aren't terribly worried about it. They're self-employed, so they don't have to worry that someone's misperception of their lives will affect their jobs. They have plenty of wonderful friends. And they're also lucky enough to live in an area where lots of people have sex lives that are far more controversial than theirs.

But for many other couples, the fear of discovery is intense. Recent "swingers busts" in Florida have cost numerous people their jobs and community standing. And because the Internet has allowed swingers to organize and congregate in record numbers in the past several years, it's inevitable that the government would start cracking down on businesses that cater to this group that many conservatives would claim have compromised their "family values."

The Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) has been particularly active in attempting to curb what they call "acts of lewdness" taking place in hotels and clubhouses where swingers' groups meet, socialize and drink. The Lifestyles Organization and its president, Robert McGinley, have been at the center of several legal battles between swing clubs and the ABC. After a 1996 Lifestyles Convention was infiltrated by ABC agents (who observed the aforementioned "acts of lewdness"), the ABC threatened to revoke the liquor licenses of the large Atlas hotel chain, which had historically hosted the annual conventions. So Atlas severed ties with the Lifestyles Organization (LO), bowing out of a three-year contract on which LO had already paid a substantial amount. McGinley hired a civil-rights lawyer and began what has become a political crusade to stop the ABC from shutting down swingers' events.

When I called McGinley to chat about his role in the lifestyle community, he was in the middle of talking to his lawyers. A few hours later, he told me about his theories on why swingers have become a potentially viable political force. Involved in the lifestyle since 1969, McGinley notes that he's seen the community expand dramatically over the past three decades. In the early 1970s, he took the helm at two linked organizations: the Lifestyles Organization and the North American Swing Club Association (NASCA). "Lifestyles isn't necessarily a swinging organization; it's just for any couple interested in augmenting the erotic part of their life together," he said. "And NASCA is an organization of international swing clubs. It's like a trade organization--the intent is to represent the swing community with information, an international list of swing organizations that we update constantly, and to answer legitimate questions about the lifestyle."

McGinley has a theory about why the ABC is so challenged by the existence of organized swingers' groups. "It's become an economic powerhouse," he explains. "There's large money in the community. For instance, Hedonism II is a popular resort for swingers in Jamaica. If you take that one example and look at how much money swingers spent buying clothes, food, traveling, and etcetera, we're talking about one heck of a lot of money. And that has an effect on our society, because when people's livelihoods are dependent on another person's lifestyle they become more tolerant of it." For the social conservatives behind the ABC, the idea that lifestyle money might engender "tolerance" is not exactly appealing.

Science of Swing: This out of print book published in 1964 is one of the first studies done on the swinging lifestyle.

As swingers have exerted more financial and social power, McGinley notes, they've also started forming organizations that he describes as "more social." Bay City Socials is a perfect example of this. The more mainstream swinging becomes, the less people tend to emphasize purely sexual encounters.

But there are clubs where a couple can go when they're tired of flirting and genuinely want to just get it on (safely) with strangers. One of them is The Forum in the South Bay. And the longest-running Bay Area swing club is Barry and Shell's Swing Party in the East Bay, which has been hosting weekly couples-only sexual celebrations since 1971. Barry and Shell's is the most highly recommended swing club at San Francisco Sex Information, a Bay Area nonprofit that conducts a famous sex educator training and supports a sex information hotline. It also comes highly recommended by McGinley himself.

So one chilly Saturday evening, Jason and I pay a visit to the weekly swing party at Barry and Shell's place. Once again, I'm not exactly undercover. I've already told Barry that I'm a reporter, and he seems charmingly befuddled by the idea that the media would pay attention to him. When we arrive at the door, Shell greets us with a big smile and promises that I can interview both of them after she's done organizing door monitors, food and various other party preparations. In the meantime, Shell's soft-spoken young boyfriend shows us around.

Upstairs is the changing room, where you can stow your jeans in a locker and slip into something more comfortable. Preferred swing party attire ranges from lingerie or underwear, to robes, towels or nothing at all. I've brought along one of my favorite outfits for sex parties: a Catholic school girl skirt and teeny white blouse. Jason wears a silky robe.

Across the hall from the changing room is a room full of bunk beds swathed in curtains. It's fairly private, and no voyeurism is allowed. Down the hall is a room that immediately appeals to us--the orgy room. It's wall-to-wall mattresses, with a gigantic mirrored ceiling. Off to the side is a small room with body-sized shelves that's completely lined in fake fur. It's like some kind of interactive 1970s nostalgia moment. A few couples are already naked on the mattresses in puppy piles.

On the main floor, below the orgy room, no sex is allowed. There are couches for socializing, and a delicious-looking spread of snacks in the kitchen. Couples are hanging out in various states of undress, munching on olives or drinking soda. A gorgeous woman wearing a tight corset and a sleek Betty Page haircut passes by as Shell's boyfriend leads us into the basement. "Great corset!" I compliment her. "Great everything else too," her companion laughs. "Well, yeah," I admit, staring openly at the luscious swell of her breasts and thinking again about the orgy room. Finally, everybody goes their separate ways in a burst of giggling.

In the basement, there's a hot tub and a smaller orgy room lined with fur. Three glory holes are being used by three happy couples. Overall, the entire house is beautifully maintained, clean and highly conducive to decadent behavior. And contrary to popular belief, safe sex is ubiquitous. Every room is stocked with condoms, lube, gloves and Saran wrap (used for oral sex on a woman). We return upstairs, where Barry and Shell are lounging on some couches.

Radiating eroticism and good humor, Barry and Shell still seem in many ways to be almost stereotypical nice Jewish kids from New York. In December, they have a Chanukah sex party. Shell's mom has even brought chopped liver to some of their events, which the former married couple began throwing informally after they left New York for California in the late 1960s. At that time, they were involved with the Sexual Freedom League, which Shell wasn't very enthusiastic about. "The Sexual Freedom League didn't work for me as a woman," Shell remembers. "Our parties are more intimate, sensual and natural. That's really important to me."

Shell emphasizes that the sexual activities at their parties are all consensual. "It's a no-pressure atmosphere where nobody is expected to do anything they don't want to do." In fact, the main problem they run into--aside from an occasional rude party-goer--are from couples who haven't talked to each other openly about what they want before coming to the party. "It's all about communication," Shell says. "One of our guidelines is that couples talk honestly to each other before coming."

Like McGinley, Shell and Barry have noticed that swinging has changed over the years. "Couples seem to stay together more," Barry notes. "Years ago couples might come to a party together but then separate once they arrived. That's been rare for years." Adds Shell, "It was freer back then--there were more orgies and group activities." It's true. Although Jason and I mill around outside the orgy room and try to look enticing, we can't find any groups or couples that seem to be accepting strangers into their activities. Of course, it's also possible that we're not exactly a four-alarm fire standing there awkwardly.

So we decide to take the plunge. Diving in between some naked couples, we find a spot on one of the mattresses. I've never had sex under a mirrored ceiling before, and so I decide to leave my glasses on--the better to see us and everyone else with. Since most of the sex around us seems, well, vanilla, and I'm a shameless exhibitionist, I decide that we should be naughty. I push Jason down on the mattress and dangle my stockinged toes over his face. "Kiss my foot," I demand. I'm being a very, very bad Catholic school girl. Some of the voyeurs start watching us. A cute guy with glasses across the room, in the middle of making love to his partner, catches my eye. Now I'm having fun.

But of course I have been awfully naughty. After I torment Jason further, he tugs me down into his lap, pulls up my skirt, and starts spanking me very loudly. "You're a bad girl," he teases. I worry briefly that we're being too kinky for the swing crowd, but then I remember the glory holes and the fur-covered rooms and relax.

Pretty soon, we're just another naked couple among the rest all over the floor, a small community under the steamy mirror, taking pleasure in each other's satisfaction.

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From the January 20-26, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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