The Lifestyle: A Look at the Erotic Rites of Swingers

The Lifestyle: A Look at the Erotic Rites of Swingers

by Terry Gould

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CAN OPEN EROTICISM between more than two consenting adults be considered natural sexual behaviour? Is it possible to experience sex with other partners while happily ensconced in an emotionally monogamous marriage? Didn't this type of sexual "swinging" disappear with the 1960s and '70s? What are millions of middle-class couples getting up to on the weekend? These are…  See more details below


CAN OPEN EROTICISM between more than two consenting adults be considered natural sexual behaviour? Is it possible to experience sex with other partners while happily ensconced in an emotionally monogamous marriage? Didn't this type of sexual "swinging" disappear with the 1960s and '70s? What are millions of middle-class couples getting up to on the weekend? These are the questions that arose as award-winning investigative journalist Terry Gould embarked upon a journey through a thriving subculture known as "the lifestyle."

Ignored, dismissed or denigrated by the mainstream media, ordinary, married couples in the lifestyle are now getting together to openly express their erotic fantasies. Acting within strict rules of etiquette, everyday people -- social workers, physicians, school teachers -- participate in everything from sexual costume parties to multipartner sex as a form of social recreation within marriage.

Is swinging merely an invention of sexually permissive modern times? As Gould discovered, the phenomenon has roots that go back thousands of years. From prehistoric fertility rituals to Dionysian festivals, from the nineteenth-century Onieda commune to the twentieth-century social mirror of films such as Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and The Ice Storm, spouse sharing has always been a part of human sexual practice.

A deeper biological urge seems to motivate this pleasure-seeking practice, one that combines two paradoxical urges: the drive to seek long term partners for raising offspring and the equally powerful drive for sexual and genetic variety. Lifestyle couples have resolved these conflicting urges.

For the rest of us, including our law enforcement agencies, the lifestyle can appear pornographic when strobe-lit by the camera's flash. But examined in the cool light of the latest research on evolutionary and emotional roots of human sexuality, the practices of lifestylers assume a profound meaning for all. The Lifestyle gives us a controversial and unique understanding of what it means to be part of a fast-growing subculture of consenting, mainstream adults who are changing the rules of sexual behavior for pair-bonded humans. Then again, perhaps they aren't changing anything at all.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Rob Hardy
A book that is going to pique some curiosity ... It is an intelligent explanation of the movement.
The Times of Acadiana
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
If you thought swinging went out with the '70s, guess again. The "lifestyle" is three million strong in North America, according to Canadian journalist Gould, with crowded conventions, an anti-defamation league and thousands of Web sites. The investigative magazine reporter tells us that he initially approached the topic for his first book with the same suspicion he employs for his usual subject--the shadowy underworld of organized crime. But after spending a few years exploring America's swinging playgrounds and interviewing scores of "play couples," he now vigorously defends the lifestyle against the charges of feminists who say it's demeaning, religious leaders who say it's immoral and a press that looks down its elitist nose at the suburban phenomenon (although the author claims he has never joined in himself). Drawing examples from anthropology, biology and history, Gould repeatedly claims that lifestylers--from "soft swingers" to "fast lane couples"--are more moral than others because they don't sneak around on their spouses; they are usually middle-aged, middle-class, tax-paying professionals who are happily married, defend monogamy and more often than not believe in God. Though we get an occasional peek behind the curtain, Gould generally avoids graphic descriptions, giving us a tour of the fantasy rooms of a hard-core swinging playground only when they're empty. Despite the author's intent, in the end, the lifestyle, with its toga parties, conga lines and ice-breaking party games, comes off as more goofy than anything. Agents, Perry Goldsmith and Robert Mackwood. (May) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Martha Cornog
Investigative journalist Gould paints a fascinating and sympathetic portrait of swinger culture ... Gould's approach is tasteful, and his book is one of the few descriptive works in print on consensual non-monogamy ... Many general readers will be riveted.
Library Journal
From the Publisher
"I t will not convert you to becoming a swinger, or to joining a club,  but it will make you think about monogamy, fidelity and sex as a form of recreation within a marriage." - Sue Johanson, host of WTN's "Sunday Night        Sex Show"  

"In this intelligent approach to this taboo subject — without advocating the heterosexual lifestyle or promoting it — Gould explains what has always only been exposed, and thus wildly      misunderstood."  - The Toronto Sun

"Gould presents a plethora of intriguing and engaging arguments for re-examining some of our most deeply held beliefs about sex, morality and ethics."  - Quill and Quire

"Gould has fashioned his extensive research on the phenomenon into a timely, serious, useful book— you can read it tonight and still respect yourself in the morning."  - The Toronto Star

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Welcome to the Lifestyle

                  Tribal rituals of spouse exchange. Neolithic hordes dancing naked upon the heath. Whole cities pouring into the streets in libidinous revelry.

    Throughout human history these practices have been used as a means to extend kinship ties, as celebrations of fertility, or as an annual blowing off of steam. Erotic rites were common in Canaan when God made His covenant with Abraham. As Mate as the 1940s "extra-mateship liaison" was an approved custom in 39 percent of cultures studied throughout the world—from the Himalayas to the South Seas and from the Arctic to the Amazon. Today we know that there is a deeper, unconscious motivation behind the rituals. They combine the two biological imperatives that paradoxically have governed the sex lives of humans for eons: the drive to seek long-term partners for raising children, and the equally powerful drive for genetic and sexual variety.

    Of course, many of us do not accept shared eroticism between couples as a normal part of life. Sensual play between more than two people is often seen as coercive, compulsive, or even evil. That belief is the chief reason one of the great stories of our time has remained truly untold.

    This book breaks the lock on denial. It tells the story of "the lifestyle," a subculture that is now thriving worldwide, one in which millions of middle-class, married couples openly express their erotic fantasies with others.Accompany your own spouse to a lifestyle event and you will change your mind about the boundaries of behavior for pair-bonded humans. Acting within strict rules of etiquette, lifestyle couples participate to varying degrees in everything from sexual costume parties to multipartner sex as a form of social recreation within marriage. Every ball they attend revives the time-honored tradition of the rustic bacchanal.

    The lifestyle has grown so quickly in recent years that, wherever you live, you won't have trouble finding it. It is not an underground movement or a cult. It is a public, grass-roots, heterosexual orientation among mainstream couples who claim to have overcome the kind of loneliness, jealousy, and shame adulterous marrieds endure. Lifestyle "playcouples" belong to three hundred formally affiliated clubs in two dozen countries, and to thousands of unaffiliated clubs. They have their own travel industry that flies them to a dozen vacation spots catering to their tastes. Hundreds of magazines and thousands of Web sites, news groups, and chat rooms keep them connected. Large lifestyle conventions are held eleven times a year in eight U.S. states, sometimes monopolizing entire resorts. The three-day Lifestyles '96 convention in San Diego drew thirty-five hundred people from 437 cities in seven countries. One-third of the participants had postgraduate degrees; almost a third voted Republican; 40 percent considered themselves practicing Protestants, Catholics or Jews. Public figures with towering positions in society, pro-sex feminists, and even evangelical Christians attended the convention as "lifestylers."

    But where did this term "lifestyle" come from? Aren't the couples who say they are "in the lifestyle" talking about swinging—the free and easy sharing of spouses at parties? Lifestylers will patiently tell you that some of their number don't go that far. They adopted their global name in the 1980s because more and more "straight" couples were attending their events and they wanted to be freed from the snappy terms that made them into media fast food. A lifestyle party quite often does not culminate in sexual intercourse among couples; roughly 10 percent of the people who attend just like being in an atmosphere where such an interchange is conceivable. Lifestylers believe they live in a certain style that melds responsible family values—matrimony, children, emotional monogamy—with the erotic cultivation of their marriages through the practice of rites they celebrate as fun and natural.

    It's that simple. And it's that complicated.

    Even the most avid proponents of the subculture admit the behavior of playcouples can sometimes appear pornographic—a threat to civil society—especially when strobe-lit in a camera's flash or summed up by the bug-eyed mainstream press as a shocking exposé of swingers running rampant. Lifestylers have been described as "uncivilized," "dangerous," "smelly," "repellent," "tacky," and "revolting," labeled as "deviates" and zoomorphized as lizards and hippos. Never comfortable with the chaos of sex, city police forces and government agencies regularly investigate lifestyle clubs: they infiltrate dances and threaten to withdraw the liquor licenses of the hotels that host them; they raid private homes and charge participants with public lewdness; and they sometimes wind up arresting themselves since a number of male and female police officers are lifestyle members.

    Despite this harassment by morality squads, most studies show lifestylers to be "absolutely not deviant" and "quite normal psychologically." They also note the behavior of swingers "does not involve a victim." The movement has a California-based overseeing body, called the Lifestyles Organization, or LSO, that certifies clubs as ethical, nondiscriminatory, and law-abiding. The lifestyle's out-of-the-closet spokespeople, who come from the ranks of social workers and business managers, doctors and mortgage brokers, insist their millions of compatriots behave in a safe and consensual fashion. On LSO's board of directors sits an executive from Mensa and a former chair of the sociology department at the University of California at Riverside. They broaden the discussion of the lifestyle by claiming that when examined in the coot light of the latest research on the biological, evolutionary, and emotional roots of human sexuality, the lives of many playcouples force us to re-ask some of the most crucial questions of human history. Why, for instance, has the word "morals" always referred almost entirely to sexual matters? Why has sexual self-sacrifice always been seen as morally superior to sexual indulgence? And why has religion always been so angrily focused on controlling our sex lives, from the time God sent down fire and brimstone to exterminate homosexuals and orgiasts to the Rev. Billy Graham's remark that "if God doesn't do to America what he did to Sodom and Gomorrah, He owes them an apology"?

    For average citizens, however, it comes down to this question: Can you dress for the harem or the beach, go to a party with your spouse of ten years, enjoy a night of bacchic sexuality, and still be a good, happily married parent?

    You can if you're in the lifestyle. At least according to lifestylers.

* * *

Although the lifestyle's tradition of sharing spouses has remained unchanged since the subculture's public emergence after World War II, the media's reporting of the practice has gone through various incarnations. Back in the 1950s it was dubbed "wife swapping" in the male-centered press, which alleged that otherwise straight suburban husbands were having their wives throw house keys into a hat to see who would retire with whom for the evening. In the sexually revolutionary sixties wife swapping progressed to a more democratically arranged swinging. Millions watched the 1969 film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice enlivened by the crowded engagements of California couples who were treated as adventurous and hip in some press outlets, although their real-life counterparts in the heartland were usually declared "bizarre" and "sick." The seventies saw couples warned away from swinging because of the herpes virus and in the eighties they were informed they could die of AIDS if they participated. By the end of the Reagan era swinging was supposedly over, a relic, like LSD and Charles Manson, of the darker side of the best-forgotten past. In their 1989 book Burning Desires, journalists Steve Chapple and David Talbot surveyed the coupling patterns of Americans and declared spouse sharing belly up, doused by "a wave of sexual terror." AIDS-terrified swing clubs were closing and those dwindling deviants who hung on seemed to belong in a Fellini film. Swingers had changed their name but they couldn't change the new realities of sex. A Lifestyles convention of die-hards in Las Vegas exhibited mounds of "wilted flesh pushed towards dangerous extremes in the service of pleasure." Hip young people were repulsed. "There was no doubt about it: swinging was no longer cool."

    That was the way the lifestyle appeared to me back in 1989, when I was assigned by a Vancouver magazine to produce a feature article on the local swing-club scene. For years my writing had focused on the dark world of organized crime and so I approached the assignment as an investigation of the dark world of organized sex. I infiltrated one dance and one orgy put on by a group of mostly working-class souls in a club called the Vancouver Circles and then rang the warning bell of disease and degeneracy in my article. At a quick glance I concluded that these people needed a dip in the gene pool. Their group sex violated every romantic notion I'd been brought up to believe in and contravened every religious doctrine designed to free the mind from the body so as to promote unselfish behavior. At the same time, they seemed to tear to shreds the warnings about promiscuity issued by health organizations throughout the world. The only things I found intriguing about swingers was that they didn't need to numb themselves with booze to have sex in their unusual way, and they insisted they were just behaving like the movie stars of their day. They even used the term "heterophobia" to describe their treatment in the press.

    Not surprisingly, swingers were repugnant to the feminists I talked to, who disbelieved that dancing in see-through lingerie and sharing spouses could be a woman's fantasy, and who were therefore convinced that the wives in Vancouver Circles had to have been coerced into participating. They were disgusting to the moral majority who lived around the Legion-type halls where they held their dances and who saw them as harbingers of the apocalypse and falling real-estate prices. And they were thought of as pathological freaks by the academic liberals I interviewed, who assessed swingers as probably trying to escape their problems in ways that could be equated with addictive drug use.

    And yet something odd happened after the publication of my scathingly condemnatory article. I got more telephone calls from curious readers—both male and female—than I'd had for all my articles on the Chinese Mafia, Sikh terrorists and gun-running Nazis combined. Here is a partial transcript of a typical call I received from a woman.

CALLER: Is this the same Terry Gould who wrote
"A Dangerous State of Affairs"?

GOULD: The very same.

CALLER: I couldn't believe my eyes. I had no idea that the health department or police would even allow that kind of thing.

GOULD: Well, it's apparently not against the law.

CALLER: It should be.... My husband and I were sickened. Either the women must be lesbians or I don't know what their husbands have done to them. Are most of the women lesbians?

GOULD: I guess you'd say some are bisexual.

CALLER: So this is their outlet then.... Okay, I'm sorry to take your time. But just—I thought something should be written more on the subject. Are you permitted to give me a telephone number for this so-called swing club?

    One way or another, most of the people who called me got around to asking that question, and I doubted it was because they intended to picket the Vancouver Circles club, which actually saw an increase in membership. Who knows but maybe these callers were among the 20 percent of women and 40 percent of men under forty-four who (according to a National Health and Social Life Survey) consider that "watching others do sexual things" is "appealing." That was certainly one of the biggest fascinations for the lifestyle couples I'd met. Perhaps my female callers were among the 10 percent of women who admitted to pollsters that they found sex with a stranger appealing, or the 9 percent who considered group sex in the same favorable way?

    What I certainly noticed over the next few years was that the lifestyle movement began to take off. The personals ads in newspapers were filled with couples seeking other couples; a thirteen-acre lifestyle resort with "twelve thousand square feet of party space" was doing a thriving international business just across the border in Washington State; and new clubs were sprouting up all over North America. Pretty soon I found my own article in good company: GQ, Marie Claire, Details, and even the thoroughly hedonistic Penthouse all published sarcastic and sanctimonious assessments of swingers. One article in Esquire, titled "Deviates in Love," broke the news that "at this very moment, all across America, millions of others are doing the same thing." If millions were doing it, I began to think, why were they called deviates? Why were public voices still denigrating them in ways one would never accept if they were gays or lesbians—on whose behalf feminists, liberals, and arts-funding agencies were now adopting a vigorous defence. Watching a number of government-backed documentary films about gays (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Coming Out), lesbians (the National Film Board's Forbidden Fantasies), and voguing drag queens (the National Endowment for the Arts-supported Paris is Burning), I began to ponder in a new light the couples who were drawn to this avowedly heteroerotic subculture. I also became suspicious that those publications that condemned lifestylers for their organized licentiousness were actually capitalizing on the vicarious needs of their readers. Had I hurt some vulnerable people simply by denying them the same dignified treatment afforded other "fringe groups" in society who were now recognized as victims of sexual intolerance?

    Then, in 1993, I met an articulate couple in the lifestyle whose seeming normalcy contradicted everything printed about swingers in the popular press. I was at a party for a prominent Vancouver author when I overheard a woman joking to her husband about moving the whole staid crowd down to New Horizons—the thirteen-acre swing club in Washington. That got my attention. I introduced myself, and, after assuring the pair we were off-the-record, I learned that they'd been in the lifestyle for five years in the States and had then moved smoothly into the swing scene here in British Columbia. When I told them I couldn't picture them at the Vancouver Circles parties I'd attended, they informed me that in many of the clubs in which they'd been members there were people they couldn't relate to at all, but maintained that, as in any group, "you have to pick and choose your friends." Much of the time, they said, they didn't even swing. They just enjoyed being in a close-knit crowd of married people where the boundary between friendship and sex was a titillating line to be openly approached, not a wall to sneak around in deceit. They also offered an interesting explanation for the variety of mainstream opposition to their behavior: married couples, they said, both treasure and are terrified of the adulterously wild genies in their bottled bodies (ergo the term "heterophobia") and would rather sneak the cork open in secrecy than have a fling in the open. "Men and women who cheat on their partners are addicted to dangerous romance," the woman told me. "In the lifestyle we've grown out of that immaturity. Straight people think we spoil all the fun. Actually, we don't threaten morality—we threaten immorality."

    At that moment, looking at this couple against a backdrop of academics and writers (some of whom I knew to be adulterous), I began to believe there might be a broader dimension to their lifestyle—a "true movement," the couple claimed, about which the world had an incomplete understanding.

    They gave me a contact number for a Vancouver association called New Faces New Friends—a "Cadillac club," they called it, as opposed to the "low rent" Vancouver Circles club I'd written about. New Faces New Friends was so discreetly run that I'd never heard of it, but it had become so profitable in the last three years that its owners, known to the world as Jim and Linda, were in the process of purchasing a mansion in the suburbs as the first step to opening a ten-acre lifestyle resort. (The resort is currently called Paradise Ranch and it packs in more than a hundred people on many weekends. It has an Olympic-size pool, a glassed-in dance floor lit by swirling strobe lights, dining facilities, "straight" recreation areas for neophyte couples, and softly lit rooms lined with beds separated by translucent muslin.)

    When I met Jim and Linda a few weeks after the author's party, I found them to be attractive, perceptive, and disarmingly straightforward; like William Masters and Virginia Johnson they had seen just about every human behavior there was to see when inhibitions are cast off. They said they made sure their 250-couple organization retained its cultured panache by conducting lengthy interviews with all prospective members. These were rigorous affairs in which couples were assessed for any hint that one partner might be coercing the other into joining. "Women drive the lifestyle movement," Linda told me emphatically. "We would never accept any couple in which the wife was not as interested in exploring the lifestyle as the husband. If I even suspect otherwise, I tell them both, `Go home and think again.'"

    "I hate when jerks call the lifestyle wife swapping," Jim averred. "I hate that term and what it implies. By that I mean a woman being forced into something because her husband says, `Look honey, let's go.' To me that's abuse. That's opposite to what the lifestyle is all about."

    In fact, there was no single lifestyle, Jim and Linda told me, and they were particularly resentful of the received wisdom that their subculture was populated only by groping orgiasts. A certain percentage of their clients came to parties merely to express the usual voyeuristic and exhibitionist fantasies that are part and parcel of erotic parades. Others practiced "soft swinging," which only permitted nudity, massage, and some sexual touching. Some drew the line at having "side-by-side" sex with another couple, with no spouse exchange. "Open swingers" practiced spouse exchange with a couple in the same room. "Closed swingers" enjoyed the circumscribed thrill of adjourning to separate rooms to make love with exchanged partners. None of which is to say that on a roaring night I might not see wives involved in lesbian daisy chains three links long, and other couples group-chambering the way I had seen the busy bodies at Vancouver Circles enjoying themselves. Basically, it seemed from their rundown, couples set their own parameters and accepted and respected the parameters of others.

    The lifestyle was also not about dying of a dark disease, Jim said, a pointed concern given the number of different people to which some couples made love. While Jim didn't patrol the many bedrooms on his premises with a flashlight, he did have a safe-sex rule, and his PR brochure stated, "Complimentary condoms are available and placed in several convenient locations in the house and we encourage you to practice safe sex at all times."

    Jim gave me permission to attend parties so long as I kept things on a first-name basis. (Couples at lifestyle gatherings generally identify themselves as, say, "Jack and Jill"; in these pages I've sometimes modified that to "John and Jody.") A few weeks later, New Faces New Friends held a "Ladies' Lingerie Night" in a ballroom at a suburban hotel that was quite posh. I showed up to find middle-aged career women wearing practically nothing. There was one woman in a fishnet outfit and no underwear, another in underwear and no outfit, yet another dressed as a bikinied version of Dracula. At ten o'clock many of the ladies lined up for a beauty contest. One by one these executives, teachers, and real-estate agents strode across the dance floor, stopped in the spotlight and assumed grandly self-parodying poses, then ran off to embrace their laughing husbands and friends. Dracula won a gift certificate from a lingerie shop.

    I watched this amazing display from a table where I was sitting beside a stunning woman anomalously attired in jeans and an old sweat shirt. I turned to her and told her I was a writer and that I was thinking of exploring the lifestyle in depth. Maybe I would make a documentary. Maybe I would write a serious book.

    "Oh I think that is marvelous," Ellie said, in accented English. "It is time. Now is the time." When I asked her why she was a lifestyler, she replied: "The reason is simple. I do not like to lie."

    "One thing in life that is lied about most is sex," her husband Jerard said. "You look around here. What do you notice? Very many women almost naked—better than naked, very sexy, no?" He gestured at the dance floor, now packed with intermingling couples. "These men, they are acting very civilized. No groping, even when they dance close. See? Now, imagine if any of these ladies, they go to a disco dressed like this?"

    "There's no understanding, no matter what you wear—none," added Ellie. "Just young brutes, old brutes. Men proving themselves. Sex and anger—sex and jealousy."

    Another couple, Murray and Cara, pulled back chairs and sat down at our table. "You do find a percentage of bi-women," Murray said when I asked him about the lesbian component in the lifestyle. "It's a mode of expression."

    I then posed what in my own mind was The Big Question: How did they handle jealousy? Why were they not plagued with stabs of hate and angry recriminations that a single wayward kiss at a normal party would elicit from a spouse? I told them I was married for twenty-two years and that if I ever caught my wife cheating on me my entire world would be upended.

    "Who's talking about cheating?" Murray laughed. "Watching her is one of my biggest pleasures in this lifestyle."

    "I enjoy the pleasure of Murray when he's enjoying sex with a woman," Cara said. "I do get a vicarious thrill. But that doesn't violate our devotion. And Murray knows that my pleasure with someone—be it a man or a woman—doesn't lessen my devotion to him."

    Again and again I would hear that refrain in the ballroom. In the lifestyle, they all said, veteran playcouples become connoisseurs at transforming their own spouse into an alluring fantasy figure. Once they learned that their relationship was not threatened by comarital sex acts—acts that very rarely became extramarital affairs—a husband or wife found observing their partner with another was an enormous aphrodisiac. And they often watched each other with their eyes locked in love. After parties they had sex as if they'd just met.

    "You see," Ellie said, "straight people, they cheat on each other all the time. Tremendous percentages. They lie. They sneak. But the erotic act is part of our marriage. It is not an act of cheating, but play. Flirtation, it's between us—as a couple—and someone else. Jerry is always there, he is there. We do not cheat, we do not lie."

    Cara kissed Murray's forehead. "I always save the last dance for him."

    None of this is to say that after expanding my circle of acquaintances in New Faces New Friends I did not encounter marriages that had rearranged themselves in the club, that people were not hurt, or that I didn't learn of swinging "dropouts." I tracked down one such exile from the subculture, a Vancouver professional who told me that he regretted the day he introduced his common-law wife to the erotic exchanges at Jim and Linda's. He said they were not part of any "depressing, anonymous, look-for-a-space-and-jump-in crowd." They had in fact set up a series of sensitive, lasting friendships with intellectual couples in which several dinner dates or camping trips would go by without sex. The difference, of course, was that if sex did come up, it was not forbidden. He and his partner had an understanding whereby they "shared the excitement as part of our relationship." But after a year of pick-and-choose fun at the club, his woman experienced a flaming session with the mythical man of her dreams, and was lost to him for good. "It was a devastating shock," he told me, pointing out that he had somehow deluded himself regarding the possibility of an unexpected, heartfelt detonation occurring during sex. "It would be wrong to say that this is not a charged and dangerous atmosphere to become involved in. I'd hate to see you advocating it."

    Not long after he offered me this warning, however, he was back on the margins of the lifestyle, attending parties on special occasions. And not long after that I learned that his former common-law wife had dumped her swinging lover and then taken up with a straight married man.

* * *

Was the lifestyle delusional, then? Compulsive? A fetish? How much of my previous thinking about it was accurate? Were swingers—as I'd claimed in "A Dangerous State of Affairs"—risking their health while distracting themselves from lives they cannot endure?

    When my 1989 magazine article first appeared, Dr. Frank Darknell, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Sacramento, phoned me up to tell me that he was troubled by the same things about the lifestyle that troubled me. The year before, this austere, strait-laced Ph.D. had begun a study of swingers and the historical and prehistorical background of open sexuality and spouse sharing out of which the modern lifestyle was born. He'd found that this sexual culture was actually old hat in aboriginal North America until the missionaries arrived and put an end to it. In the nineteenth century, partner sharing was picked up by communards and free-love radicals. Artists and secret societies embraced it in the 1920s, and eventually it evolved into the open sexuality of the left-wing beatniks and the swing parties of otherwise conservative suburbanites. But his preliminary research confirmed that there had never been a time when the practice had not been assessed as grossly outlandish by the vast majority of North Americans, some of whom now saw AIDS as a divine justification for their condemnations.

    When Darknell and I said good-bye on the phone in 1989 we agreed that I'd probably hit the nail on the head with my article: modern swingers could be involved in a risky and never-satisfied search for sensation. Then, after setting up a database of swinger publications, Darknell attended the August '89 Lifestyles convention in Las Vegas where he met and interviewed many participants. After this sojourn among thousands of suburbanite swingers Darknell arrived at an opinion at variance to the one he had expressed in our first conversation, and similar to the self-conscious caution and confusion I now had about leaping to eviscerating judgments. From what he could see, he told me years later, swingers were not maladjusted perverts hellbent on self-destruction. "They were well-mannered and decent to each other," he said. "Really, they're folks you wouldn't question, except that they seemed to enjoy behaving that way with one another, running around to all these seminars on swinging and going to the parties. They didn't rob banks, their fantasies don't include anything that's illegal—like involving children and that sort of thing—and it looked very consensual."

    I told him that the swingers I had met claimed that women drove the lifestyle movement.

    "Well, you know," he replied, "there's a point at which that becomes true, once they become involved. Their husbands get them into it, of course, but then they find things about it they really like—being the glamorous queen bee and that sort of thing. The women were on all these committees arranging events and the like—they were quite enthusiastic."

    I reminded him that back in 1989 we had both been concerned that HIV/AIDS could explode in the swinging community the way it had in the gay community but that, despite the million or so couples who had been going to clubs for years, I'd heard of very few cases of HIV-infected swingers in North America. Darknell had also heard of only a few cases and attributed the lack of an outbreak of the disease in the subculture to various "co-factors." His opinion was that while HIV/ AIDS could spread in swing clubs, the co-factors were probable explanations for why it hadn't.

    Contrary to the lifestyle's "anything goes" attitude toward adult sexual fantasies, bisexual contact between men is taboo behavior in swing clubs, as is drug use. In 1986, after the Centers for Disease Control reported in its journal that two female members of swing clubs in Minnesota tested positive for HIV after having anal intercourse with bisexual men, "Greek" between swinging men and women became frowned upon as well. These days, statistically, we know that the rate of transmission of HIV is roughly one in two thousand per act of unprotected vaginal intercourse if neither partner has another STD, and ten times that if one partner does have a venereal disease. One poll of attendees at the Lifestyles '96 convention would eventually show that 92 percent of 312 respondents believed swingers "should" be using condoms, and that 77 percent had had HIV tests. Thus, many lifestylers (not all) probably use condoms. In addition, the screening process at almost all clubs helps keep members to middle-class couples who probably maintain their health in typically bourgeois fashion, running to the doctor at the slightest sign of venereal disease. To say the least, the statistics regarding the heterosexual transmission of HIV are not a sanction of freewheeling partner exchange, and almost all health experts agree that people should be using protection when having sex outside of marriage, straight or swinger. (I concur with this view.) That has not kept millions of straights—nor, I can tell you, some lifestylers—from going ahead and having unprotected sex anyway.

    When Darknell returned from the 1989 Lifestyles Convention he collated his preliminary findings and submitted them to his university for a research grant that would enable him to complete his study. He was turned down, for reasons he felt in part could have had to do with the general distaste in officialdom for what they saw as "wife swapping." "I talked to John Money," Darknell told me, referring to the Johns Hopkins University sexologist, "and he predicted I'd never get the grant, not for an ethological study on the sex practices of swingers. So be it.

    "Basically," he went on, "what I found was that the main concern of swingers wasn't health but whether to come out of the closet. Swingers justify themselves in exactly the same way homosexuals do, and I suppose we have to respect their right to do so. They don't want to get fired from their jobs if they're exposed, or have their clubs shut down. But if they come out they risk that."

* * *

In May 1993, when I got in touch with the Lifestyles Organization in Anaheim, I learned that eliminating the threat of a backlash was one of the main concerns of the lifestyle's international overseeing body. Lifestylers in California were now declaring themselves a political force, and LSO formed campaign central. It was headed by a goateed, former aerospace engineer, Dr. Robert McGinley, a sixty-year-old counseling psychologist who was at the time almost universally described in the media as a reckless libertarian and shrewd businessman.

    McGinley invited me to attend his annual convention at Las Vegas's Riviera Hotel in August and I decided to spend the $350 for the three-day gathering. It coincided nicely with my research for a story I was working on at the time. I was looking for a Vancouver gangleader named Steven Wong whom the RCMP heroin squad believed had staged his own death and cremation in order to escape drug trafficking charges. I appreciated the irony that, in his own criminal way, Wong considered himself a swinger. Though short and dumpy, he had many gorgeous girlfriends who were attracted by his flashy and dangerous lifestyle. The number one woman in Wong's harem happened to have been connected through marriage to a couple of big shareholders in a luxury Las Vegas casino. The marble tower constantly entertained a mix of high-rolling racketeers who looked out for one another. I thought it might be possible to attend the swing convention and also discover some rounder who had seen the disappeared desperado after his supposed death.

    The convention was a couples-only affair and so I asked my wife to come along. Not being a stranger to people who inhabited subcultures Leslie agreed to join me. By day she may have been an executive director ora communications firm, but by night she sketched nudes at a bohemian studio where many of her companions were in the gay or lesbian lifestyle. She is, in all facets of her life, no shrinking violet. When I first met Leslie in 1970 she worked as New York City's only female cab driver. Twenty years later columnist Allan Fotheringham, Leslie's friend and client, nicknamed her "Ms. Giotti," partly because she has the same accent as the New York Mafia boss, partly because she possesses what he calls "da attitude." Overall, Leslie and I weren't just husband and wife: we were best friends, cooperative colleagues, business partners, and good lovers. On the morning of August 17, 1993, when I told her in the airport that I was a pretty lucky guy, she punnishly summed up her willingness to travel where perhaps other wives wouldn't: "If you wrote about cannibals and needed me for cover, I'd go—just so long as I didn't have to eat anybody."

    That afternoon Leslie and I entered a social whirl of three thousand wheatfield North Americans dressed like the stars who all expressed their relief at being in a virtual city-state ruled by the norms of playcouples. Throughout the event the throngs of middle-class swingers were reassured that they weren't aberrant by nonswingers sanctioned by straight society. Luis De La Cruz, for instance, headed the Erotic Arts Exhibit at the convention and was the facilities director of the Music Center of Los Angeles County and the curator of the Newport Harbor Art Museum. The convention's keynote speaker was Stan Dale, winner of the Mahatma Gandhi Peace Medallion. Forty seminars were delivered by ten Ph.D.s and other experts on everything from "Sexuality and Spirituality" and "Exotic Playcouple Travel" to an "AIDS Update" by Dr. Norman Scherzer, the Rutgers University expert on STDs.

    Most fascinating of all, I encountered a whole clutch of people who were living their lives as out-of-the-closet swingers. Their parents knew, their friends knew, in some cases their kids and grandkids knew. One couple, Frank and Jennifer Lomas, a former bank broker and a business manager, had left high-paying positions to work at LSO because they wanted to be surrounded all the time by people like themselves. They were a gentle, interracial couple in their late thirties, unabashed advocates of partner sharing, and they had not been treated kindly by studio audiences on TV talk shows, who'd shouted them down with catcalls such as "We hope you die of AIDS!"

    "Most swingers will tell you they're not in it for an orgy," said Frank, son of an Air Force sergeant-major, after he and Jennifer had delivered a convention seminar called "Social Games for Fun, Laughter and Intimacy." "Some are like that, but everyone else is in it for the social interaction and the erotic acceptance. You wind up with a trusting fellowship," he added, using a phrase that perhaps came from his occasional attendance at his local black Baptist Church.

    I had been reading about some of the economic origins of spouse exchange, and so I asked Jennifer about her relationships with swingers outside of parties. It turned out she and Frank were part of a tight-knit group of thirty couples who cooperated in every way, like a tribe. They had an investment club, a camping club, and a ski club. "When people stop the sexual control, it's such a relief to them," Jennifer told me. "You can be married twenty or thirty years, and you can go to a lifestyle party with your partner and have the security of your relationship throughout. You can do that right into old age. I think that holds a lot of appeal for women—it's why you see them running the show here."

    Whether or not women actually "ran the show," there is no question that at the theme dances Leslie and I attended hundreds of middle-aged ladies displayed their sexuality to men in a way that made us both wonder how the world had gone on as it had for five thousand years. By the night of the grand finale Erotic Costume Ball I understood that these people had tilted their lives 23 degrees sideways and believed they were now properly aligned with the natural axis of the earth. I heard people say things like: "The minority knows more about the majority than the majority knows about the minority." And this, from a European woman dressed as Marlene Dietrich: "When you're forty the lifestyle is permitted; when you're sixty it's recommended; and when you're eighty it's compulsory."

    On the morning after the erotic costume ball I stepped out into the solar furnace of Las Vegas Boulevard and took a walk south. Behind me, on one end of the strip, the attendees at the organized sex convention were waiting for limos to take them to the airport. At the other end of the strip the attendees at the ongoing organized crime "convention" were in full swing. I thought of what Ellie had told me at the New Faces New Friends dance regarding her opinion of the straight world: "Just young brutes, old brutes. Men proving themselves. Sex and anger—sex and jealousy." As a journalist, as a man, I was standing between two worlds back then. For so long I had been surrounded by criminal brutes who used force and violence to demonstrate their attractiveness to women, and, on the other side of the law, men who fought the good fight against them—but perhaps for not entirely different reasons. At some level, I believed, every male understood that one of the rewards of living dangerously was being considered attractive by women. The equation is one of the biological mysteries of life. Lawmen, lawyers, gangsters, and journalists were particularly well placed to demonstrate to women that they were hunters able to provide resources and excitement. And yet here in Las Vegas (of all places), and at New Faces New Friends, and even at Vancouver Circles, the swinging men I'd met didn't need, or want, to pose as dangerous risk takers to make themselves more attractive to women. Swinging women didn't need, or want, them to do so. The exhibition of strength and assets was not necessary for the acquisition of partners in their world. I had the feeling I had been witnessing something profound in the swing world—tacky as it was to most people. It was a way of living that my previous reporting experience had not prepared me to write about at all. I wanted to explain it rather than just expose it.

    It would be another three years before I left what swingers call "the real world" and entered their world full time. I knew it was a risky career move. "People will think you did it for the sex," a straight friend of mine told me. "Just to give yourself an excuse to swing." I accepted that as a logical suspicion about a man in his mid forties. Indeed, when the crowd was attractive, as it was at Lifestyles conventions, I did like looking at couples who wore sexy clothing. Sometimes, like many men, I did like "watching others do sexual things." But, as at a nude beach, that novelty soon wore thin. Once I'd been to a few lifestyle parties in a row, I could concentrate on the dynamics of the behavior rather than the visual aspects of it. For me, and for Leslie, the experience of being in a room filled with lifestyle couples was sometimes erotic, sometimes uncomfortable, and sometimes just plain funny. Generally, it was like going to the circus without wanting to run away and join it.

    It was the behavior of these everyday people who had broadened their sexual practices into an all-encompassing lifestyle that fascinated me. And it was the denial that what they did was explainable that motivated me. The news had been spread far and wide that the gay lifestyle had been reasoned through by geneticists, anthropologists, biologists, and ethicists. But there was a virtual blackout on the news that the swinging lifestyle had also been reasoned through by experts in those same fields. In place of this news there was scolding. I wanted to explain the scolding too.

    In the end, I know that I did not write this book "for the sex." I spent months on my own among willing, beautiful swinging women, and I never cheated on Leslie once.

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What People are saying about this

Josef Skala
Josef P. Skala, m.d., ph.d., frcp(c), Professor Emeritus, Faculty of Medicine, University of British Columbia

The Lifestyle is a delight to read—a groundbreaking and honest work of journalism that thoroughly explains why millions of people are part of this little-known subculture called 'swinging.' Indeed, Mr. Gould has accomplished something rare: his extensive research into the anthropology and sociobiology of spouse exchange has allowed him to broaden his descriptions of swing parties to include deeply significant explanations for what takes place at them. Few journalists have gained permission to enter that world, and none have explained it in such depth. The Lifestyle is an entertaining, on-the-scene narrative, but it is also a serious work which should be read by all who want to understand what this growing phenomenon is all about.

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