They look like people you know.
They are single and married and old and young and professional and blue-collar. They sashay into the spacious ballroom, some hand in hand. They seem like middle-class America on a typical Saturday night in the heartland, headed for something about as titillating as a wedding reception.
Then they take their coats off.
Suddenly you realize there's more to these people than you first thought. More leg, more belly, more shoulder, more breast, more ass, and definitely more attitude. The confidential club newsletter sent out before the dance warned against nudity and overt sexual behavior. But it said nothing about oozing sex.
Women flash sparkly four-inch heels and strapless bras under see-through coverups, thong body suits and evening gowns slit to the hip, tight vinyl short shorts and plaid microskirts, backless dresses and navel-bound necklines. Alcohol takes a back seat in the race to sexual intoxication. Destination: Arousal. No beer goggles required.
As the night wears on, women take over the dance floor, just like at a wedding reception--only sexier. To Top 40 hits of the '80s and '90s, they dance and play with their husbands and boyfriends, and other people's husbands and boyfriends and girlfriends and wives. Couples blossom into groups, dancing with the kind of rubbing and grinding prohibited at their children's high school proms. Staring isn't just welcomed, it's encouraged. Hands wander. Women kiss each other on the lips. Everyone cheers for the classic Jimmy Buffett refrain "Why don't we get drunk and screw."
This is the private world of swingers, consenting adults in committed relationships who continue to pursue sexual variety--an eyebrow-raising, but perfectly legal, way of life. Swingers are as varied as the sex that lures them. There are no standards, no rules, and no boundaries other than the ones swingers set for themselves.
If any blanket statement can be made about swinging at the approach of the millennium, it is that the practice is flourishing in the United States and Canada. The North American Swing Club Association International (NASCA) puts the number of swingers at three million, up from two million in the late '80s. Swingers belong to more than two hundred clubs, subscribe to hundreds of magazines, surf thousands of swinger websites, and spend millions each year at conventions and vacation spots tailored to meet their interests.
No longer the "wife-swappers" of the '50s or free lovers of the '70s, swingers are a growing group of free-thinkers, mostly married couples between the ages of thirty and sixty, who have institutionalized their lifestyle and raised it from underground to where it now rests, comfortably just beneath the mainstream. Although most swingers are still closeted, they are organized, informed, and working to gain economic and political power.
"The lifestyle has grown so quickly in recent years that, wherever you live, you won't have trouble finding it," observes Canadian investigative journalist Terry Gould in his newly released book, The Lifestyle. "It is not an underground movement or a cult. It is a public, grass-roots, heterosexual orientation among mainstream couples who have overcome the kind of loneliness, jealousy, and shame that adulterous marrieds endure."
It's also thriving in Cleveland.
The Thing About Swing
About once a month, swingers from Northeast Ohio and neighboring states, many of whom subscribe to Cleveland-based Connection magazines, attend dances organized by the publications. They come from as far away as Pittsburgh and Indianapolis to meet fellow sexual adventurers. The dance is "off-premises," swinger-speak for an event where no sexual activity is allowed on-site. Many attendees book nearby hotel rooms for that.
At last month's dance in Sandusky, sometime between the Macarena and the sex-toy giveaway, a curvaceous swinger with a page-boy haircut and a cover-girl smile notices an attractive couple looking at her across the table. She locks her blue eyes on the man, Bill O'Brien, a Desert Storm veteran wearing a silver choker and a willing disposition, and dances over to his chair. She straddles his leg for a few flirtatious moments before his pretty blond girlfriend, Heidi, joins in the fun.
O'Brien rubs the page-boy beauty's bare thighs and continues rubbing as she switches to Heidi's lap. The dancer flashes Heidi a bonus--a quick peek under her sweater, at two jiggling breasts the size of large mangos.
All this before exchanging names. Before brief, casual conversation. Before Bill and Heidi--and the playful flasher and her partner, a Cleveland stockbroker--go their separate ways. Much of the activity at the dance is spontaneous and short, illustrating one of the unspoken rules of swinging: Flirtation is often an end in itself, not always a means to an end.
"It's hard enough to make it work with one other person, let alone two other people," explains Debbie from Berea, who's been a swinger for two years. "I'm not going to say it's rare when [sex with another couple] happens. But it's special."
Swingers today are more controlled and choosy than they were in ancient Greece or the raunchy '70s, before AIDS and the Internet transformed one of man's (and woman's) oldest sexual pastimes. In the 1989 book Burning Desires, journalists Steve Chapple and David Talbot announced that swinging in America had become a casualty to sexual sobriety. Two health threats in a row--herpes and AIDS--scared couples away from swingers' clubs and parties.
The Centers for Disease Control fueled the exodus in the mid-'80s, when it reported that two female members of a Minneapolis swingers club had contracted HIV. It was later revealed that the women had had sex with bisexual men and had not spread the disease to fellow swingers. Still, public health workers expected the AIDS scare to hit the swinger community just as it hit the gay community.
So far, it hasn't.
"To our knowledge, there has never been a single case of AIDS diagnosed in the swinging community," says NASCA founder Robert McGinley, a legendary figure in the lifestyle.
Swingers tend to believe that the heterosexual health threat posed by AIDS has been overblown in the general population and even more so in their lifestyle. Though well aware of the dangers of casual sex, many believe they are not at risk because the disease is most commonly transmitted sexually by men who have sex with men. This exempts most swingers, who prohibit gay and bisexual activity among men.
The numbers support that view, though the risk of contracting the disease should still be a concern. According to figures compiled by the AIDS Research Institute in San Francisco, the chance of contracting HIV during a single act of unprotected vaginal sex with an HIV-infected person is about one in five hundred for women and seven in 5,000 for men.
Despite the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, the use of condoms remains controversial in the lifestyle, especially among older swingers. O'Brien, 29, who has been swinging for three years, says he uses them all the time. But another swinger at the dance, involved in the lifestyle for 25 years, says he never uses them. Even though he brags about having intercourse with up to thirteen women in a single night, he insists he would rather not have sex than use a condom.
Particularly for female swingers, this has apparently not been a problem, according to sexologist Ted McIlvenna, president of the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco. "I'm still amazed at how few women in the swinging lifestyle have any STDs [sexually transmitted diseases] at all," he says. Though not a swinger himself, McIlvenna has studied swingers for sixteen years, and his institute has compiled sex histories on about 6,000 of them. He attributes the lower-than-average rate of STDs among female swingers to a higher-than-average use of spermicides (contradicting the medical research showing that spermicides are not reliable protection against HIV).
McIlvenna says women have also been able to protect their health by "institutionalizing" the lifestyle, formalizing membership, and sponsoring events that attract and keep a select clientele.
"It was done for the same reason people institutionalize all kinds of things," he says. "More and more people decided this is what they wanted to do, and they wanted a support structure . . . There was also a safety factor. They wanted to know who the people were that they were sleeping with, because of the fear of sexually transmitted diseases."
The upgrade attracted more people to the lifestyle, nationally and in Cleveland. In the early '90s, swingers who were scared off by AIDS began to drift back, joined by a brand-new group of curious pleasure-seekers attracted via the Internet. Websites enabled would-be swingers to avoid the adult bookstores--previously the only place to pick up swingers' magazines--and swing from the comfort of their computer terminals.
The magazines and websites are crucial. Swingers looking for partners place ads in the magazines, with or without photographs of themselves with or without clothing. Most of these people are not fashion plates. Instead, they're sexed-up versions of your neighbors and friends--their love handles, cellulite, beer bellies, wrinkles, bald spots, and sagging breasts fully revealed, even if their faces often are not.
Editorial content varies according to the magazine, though Connection bills its publications as the official magazines of the lifestyle. In addition to publishing reports from various swinger events, accompanied by nothing-left-to-the-imagination photo spreads, the magazines keep readers up to date on issues involving discrimination, political oppression, and changes in the lifestyle.
The websites' offerings range from explicit photo galleries and ads to informative articles about sexually transmitted diseases and the legal rights of swingers. At www.swingsuccess.com, for instance, swingers can order fetish gear like climax beads and blowjob simulators, then send a message to Attorney General Janet Reno in support of preserving sexual freedom.
There are websites for just about every swinger preference--for "soft swingers" who engage in sexual activity but refrain from actual intercourse with other couples, for under-thirty swingers, and for biracial swingers, just to name a few. There is even a Liberated Christians website (www.libchrist.com), for those attempting to reconcile Christianity with the lifestyle.
Many swing clubs have their own websites. A quick search for Ohio swing clubs turns up a helpful list of sixteen across the state, including a half-dozen in Northeast Ohio. Some, like The Cleveland Connection, conduct "off-premises" activities such as the Sandusky dance, where sexual activity is limited to heavy flirting. "On-premises" clubs encourage their members to have almost any kind of sex there.
One on-premises club in Cleveland, The Love Shack, caters primarily to couples in their twenties and thirties, according to the owner, who asked to be identified only as Mike. Groups typically start out socializing in the hot tub. The sex happens later, in any of the private rooms or group areas. An actual schedule for a typical party night:
9:05--Weekly Ice Breaker Game
9:35--Hot Tub, Sauna, Private Rooms Open
10--Dress Down [meaning participants must be wearing less clothing than when they arrived]
Mike says he used to interview couples before allowing them to participate, a practice frowned on by many swingers, who tend to despise discrimination on any level. The club is currently on hiatus, because Mike does not have a girlfriend and because it "got to be too much of a hassle." (He still has an active client list, however, and offered to throw a special party at which I could conduct participatory research. I declined.)
"There were just too many people playing games," says Mike, a tall man in his thirties who seems to be constantly fighting the urge to look over his shoulder, whenever he isn't actually looking over his shoulder. "If everybody knows what's going on, fine. But if they're sneaking around on their wives or girlfriends . . . [pause] . . . People drink too much and there's too much jealousy."
A Social-Sexual Lifestyle
It's a few hours before the Sandusky dance, when native Clevelander Patti Thomas confronts seven eager couples in the brightly lit hospitality room of a nearby hotel. Sitting on straight-back chairs, the group is smaller than she expected and traverses the entire spectrum of nervousness. Thomas herself falls somewhere in the middle, even though she's given this same orientation talk countless times.
Thomas routinely grants interviews about the lifestyle to the national print and broadcast media, including MTV's Real Sex this July. But she still sees the nervous young mother she used to be--the one who 26 years ago submitted an ad to one of the twelve swinger publications she now edits--in the most apprehensive newcomer looking to her for encouragement and guidance.
"I consider myself a shy person," Thomas soothingly tells an emotionally shaky woman, who has just confessed her fears about meeting new people.
Wearing a large picture of herself and her husband around her neck, along with a bright yellow pin that says, "Hi, I can't remember your name either," gives Thomas the event-coordinator look she's striving for. At 48, classically attractive and approachable, Thomas could easily be the leader of a church retreat or a garden club. Instead, the onetime self-professed "nice Catholic girl" of Irish and Italian lineage has become an icon in the swinger movement.
She provokes laughter from the group when she draws attention to the hotel marquee, which reads "Welcome TCC." It stands for The Cleveland Connection, Thomas's swing club. But she advises participants to tell anyone who asks that it's alphabet soup for The Christian Coalition.
Appearances notwithstanding, Thomas hasn't always been free of the religious guilt that hinders many women in the lifestyle. You can see traces of it in the preface to her 1997 book, Recreational Sex: An Insider's Guide to the Swinging Lifestyle, which includes her First Communion picture.
"It took me a long, long time to get over the guilt and feeling like I was going to hell," she explains in an interview. "The first time I had another couple over, I leaned back [during sex] and saw a Jesus picture, and I was filled with guilt."
After many years and lovers, "I don't have guilt anymore," she says. "The more I got involved, the more confident I got. I feel in my heart nothing is wrong with it . . . You're not hurting anyone. I don't think that God would send me to hell because I'm sharing my love with other people.
"I take it all very personally," she says, suddenly so moved that tears well up in her eyes. "I'm very passionate about it."
Thomas's attachment to the lifestyle transcends sex. A number of competing swingers magazines also feature women editors, most of whom look like porn stars depicted in sex acts. Not Thomas. Although she appears in almost every issue, sometimes repeatedly, she's always smiling and well-covered. She devotes most of her editorial space to answering letters, clarifying misperceptions about the lifestyle, and educating swingers on their rights.
"I don't suck or fuck," she says nonchalantly of her magazine image. "Some guy called me the Mother Superior of swinging. I didn't know if that was a compliment."
Thomas's desexualized persona sends a strong, stereotype-crushing message about women swingers: They are not timid, vacuous cream puffs trapped in the lifestyle by their men. Women are the leaders who drive it. Biologically speaking, women can have more lovers and more orgasms than men. But that isn't why they perpetuate the lifestyle, according to California sex therapist Hugh Wallace, a swinger himself who counsels swinging couples.
"A lot of people see this lifestyle as exploitative of women, but it's really just the opposite," he says. "Women have great liberation. Their relationships are equalized, because the primary relationship undergoes almost a power shift in favor of the woman."
A central tenet of the lifestyle is that a man cannot be involved without his wife or girlfriend. For swinging to work, a couple must predetermine their level of involvement, what activities they will engage in, and with whom. Wallace likens it to negotiating a contract, in which the more submissive partner in the relationship suddenly gains an equal role.
"It's like dating," Wallace says. "The woman is the only one who knows if you're going to have sex that night."
Men tend to have more problems in the lifestyle, he says, because they have to give up their dominance and possessiveness of their wives and girlfriends. Women struggle more with feelings of guilt about having sex with multiple partners. The women who get over such feelings often become enamored with the social aspects of the lifestyle.
Sexologist McIlvenna, also a Methodist clergyman, says many organizational parallels can be drawn to the role of women in other institutions, including church groups, where women do much of the organizing.
"It's a very social lifestyle," Thomas concurs. "A lot of it is just about friendship."
The intimacy with strangers and friendships that develop over time create an odd mix at swinger socials. Before the Sandusky dance, four couples meet at a local restaurant for dinner, mixing up the seating so that only one couple is still sitting together. Affections are traded all around--a gentle squeeze on a thigh, a quick woman-to-woman kiss, and teasing that would be considered unacceptable in just about any other social situation.
"I know you're lying," says a salesman from a southeast Cleveland suburb to a friend's wife, who is clearly not wearing a bra underneath her shirt. "I can see your nipples growing."
Her husband, a 36-year-old extermination business owner from the Akron area, is unruffled. It doesn't bother him that other men look at his wife's breasts, which she recently had enlarged by two cup sizes. As most couples in the lifestyle claim, they didn't start swinging to rescue a lagging sex life, but to improve an already good one.
"While we were at her dad's house one night, she was drunk and saying some things she probably wouldn't have said otherwise," he says, launching into a story that obviously bothers his wife. Even though she doesn't mind sharing sex with another person, her facial expressions suggest she is unnerved by this intimate disclosure to a total stranger.
He continues anyway. "She said she had this fantasy that she was in a doctor's office and a doctor and a nurse--a buxom nurse--came up to her. I realized her fantasy was my fantasy. On the way home I asked if she wanted to stop at a strip club. We had a girl dance for her, and that turned her on."
Soon they were placing ads in the newspaper, looking for a woman interested in a threesome, then for a couple. They're now fully involved in the local swing scene.
The lifestyle is equally social and sexual to them. After events like this, they say, they only pair off with other couples about half the time.
"We've never slept with anyone at this table," he says. "But we're all good friends."
Judging strictly by professions, you'd have a much better chance hooking up with someone interesting at a swingers event than at your typical neighborhood bar. Try this sampling of attendees at last month's dance: a heart surgeon, an insurance fraud investigator, at least two people in higher education, a small business owner, a stockbroker, a former erotic dancer, an engineer, and a computer programmer. A smattering of solid blue-collar professions was also represented.
"You see people like us in the grocery store," says one swinger, who works at a college in Pittsburgh. "You see us sitting next to you in the choir. We live a dual life."
While people tend to be selective about whom they choose to have sex with, no couple who can afford the $40 entrance fee is excluded from the dance. The lifestyle cuts through social, religious, and racial divisions. While swinging isn't recommended for couples with marital problems, sexologists say that it isn't unhealthy for happy couples who desire it.
"Just because we're having sex with other people doesn't mean we're bad people," says one swinger, who is wearing a tight blue vinyl shorts suit the color of her eyes, her long blond tresses draped across both shoulders. "We're just enjoying sex."
According to Gould, whose book has been a bestseller in Canada but has yet to be released in the United States, orgiastic sex can be traced back at least 4,000 years to the Canaanites, who held sex festivals in honor of the gods. The Greeks had several national orgies, including one in which participants dressed in goatskins, climbed to the top of Mount Parnassus, and had copious intercourse with one another. The Roman members of the cult of Bacchus under Augustus Caesar had no fewer than five orgies a month.
Partner-sharing also has a long history. It still happens in many cultures for political, economic, and purely sexual reasons. One two-hundred-strong utopian society in upstate New York, called Oneida, abolished monogamy and lived in a group marriage in the 1800s. The arrangement apparently provided a good social structure to grow their prosperous flatware company, which still exists today.
There's some debate over the origin of the word "swinging," which encompasses both orgiastic activity and partner-sharing. Gould suspects it had something to do with the music vernacular of the '40s and the loose, free-form dances of that era. His research found that, in the '20s, swinging was common among artists and secret societies. In the '50s, suburban couples took up "wife-swapping"--throwing their keys into a pile to determine whose spouses would be retiring together for the evening.
Gould believes the swinging practices of middle-class suburbanites parallel the partner-sharing of another cultural group, the Inuits of the Arctic. Before the snowmobile, Inuits lived in isolated nuclear families and rarely saw other people. When they did happen upon others, they shared spouses in order to increase cooperation and lessen competition.
"Swingers, too, live in nuclear families, and they find their lifestyle an effective means of abating the isolation of suburban living," he writes.
Still, the lifestyle isn't likely to become acceptable just because some people can offer compelling sociological or even biological justifications for it. Swingers like to compare their plight to that of gays, and in some respects it is similar. Outed swingers have lost jobs and friends. Their clubs and events have been political targets. Their way of life continues to be attacked by church leaders, media, and politicians.
Swingers magazines and websites keep subscribers updated on the latest swing-club busts and oppression tactics of the authorities. Although swinging is legal, clubs often get busted for alleged alcohol violations and other charges. Thomas says there haven't been any problems with clubs frequented by Cleveland swingers, one of which, The Play Pen in Linndale, is under careful scrutiny on Saturday nights by Police Chief Richard Kordick.
"I work the door," Kordick says. "That's why there's no trouble."
But the assault against swinging rages on in other parts of the country. The Broward County Sheriff's Office in Florida, for example, started the year off on a swinger witch hunt, arresting 31 people at one private club in January and 24 swingers at another, citing them for lewd and lascivious behavior.
Unlike gays, who began to achieve political influence as more of them came out of the closet to demand that society respect their rights, swingers have shown little progress in this area. A handful of designated spokespeople, including Thomas and McGinley, fiercely defend the lifestyle. But they are just as passionate about preserving the privacy of their fellow swingers.
"A lot of [straight] people accept being gay," McGinley says. "It's removed from them. But when they find out the couple next door to them are swingers, that hits close to home."
Thomas remembers how her family was ostracized after she appeared on Phil Donahue's show in the early '80s. Neighbors told their children to stay away from her children. No trick-or-treaters visited for Halloween that year. At one point, her ex-husband lost his job as the manager of a restaurant.
Consequently, Thomas is very discerning about publicity. Though she's featured every month in magazines with a combined annual circulation of a half-million (100,000 in Ohio alone) and appears on the cover of her book, she will not pose for photographs in local publications.
The inclination to stay closeted doesn't mean swingers will sit back and allow their lifestyle to be pummeled at the political or moral whims of politicians and bureaucrats. The Lifestyles Organization of California, for example, led by McGinley, recently filed suit against the California Alcohol Beverage Control Board for trying to run the swingers group out of the state.
Closer to home, the parent company of Thomas's magazines, Connection Distribution Co., went to court to fight a law requiring it to keep photo identification on file of everyone who submits a sexually explicit ad. The company contested the law all the way to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case in April.
Thomas says her company will keep fighting the law, which allows the authorities unfettered access to the names and addresses of the magazines' advertisers. The stated purpose of the law is to prevent sexually exploitative photographs of children from being published. Thomas insists that all photographs used in ads are scrutinized before they are published and returned if there is any question about their legitimacy.
And the law infringes on the privacy rights of individuals, she says.
"We take a lot of pride in the fact that we provide a service for couples who are a minority in the community," Thomas says. "They believe in their freedom, their sexual freedom. Who am I or you or the Church to tell them they can't do something?"
There is one thing that may finally push swingers into the mainstream. Money.
Swing clubs cater to what any marketing professional would consider an attractive demographic: married couples with enough disposable income to spend on dances, conventions, travel weekends, specialty outfits to fit with party themes, and sex toys, among other necessities for serious swingers. The people making money off swingers have traditionally been swingers themselves. Until now.
McGinley claims swinger conventions infuse thousands, sometime millions, of dollars into local economies. They have begun to attract sponsorship by some mainstream entities, including local tourist organizations, five-star resorts, and Air Jamaica.
"When somebody's lifestyle is positively affecting the livelihood of others, those people have a different view of it," he says.
By 1 a.m. the Sandusky ballroom holds about half the number of people it did four hours earlier, and the remaining couples have merged into groups of fours and sixes. The Desert Storm vet and his girlfriend have already retired to two adjoining hotel rooms with some friends from The Play Pen. The vet later claims to have witnessed "things I've never seen before" in those two rooms, involving group-sex chains and strap-on penises.
By the dance's end, people who have failed to make connections have one last chance, at the hospitality room back at the hotel where Thomas spoke earlier. Here, people are free to shed more of their clothing and be more sexually aggressive. But because the room is right off of the lobby, Thomas has decided that the hideaway beds will not be pulled out of the wall.
That doesn't seem to disappoint most of the couples. After a hard night of dancing and drinking, their moods have become less hopeful and more tired. Most of the new couples are noticeably absent, indicating one of two things: They scored, or they went off to bed by themselves.
The remaining couples are scattered around the room, munching on pretzels and chips and making small talk. There's no guarantee they will connect with anyone here either. Some eye the sex toys and pornographic films being peddled on the shelf, possibly as a fall-back.
Still, it's not too late to make new friends or share jokes and stories from the evening. The buzz of anticipation has not been replaced by the lonely desperation that pervades most singles bars at closing time. Swinging couples are resilient, optimistic people. They know there's always next month's dance.
And they always have each other.
Jacqueline Marino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.