THUMBING THEIR NOSES AT THE PROSPECT OF CONTRACTING AIDS, A SURPRISING NUMBER OF MARRIED PEOPLE UNABASHEDLY PURSUE SEX WITH OTHER COUPLES. IT’S A LIFESTYLE, THEY INSIST, THEY’RE NOT ABOUT TO FORSAKE.
(Originally published in Tampa Bay Life, October 1991)
It’s Saturday night in Zephyrhills. Neighbors can’t help but notice the cars filling up Bob and Nancy’s long driveway, all the way out to the road. There are rumors about Bob and Nancy. Some neighbors guess that nudity—at the very least—occurs at these gatherings.
If they could peek inside, the Joneses next door would find their wildest suspicions confirmed: Every Friday and Saturday night, Bob and Nancy have up to 60 people over for sex.
The handsome, 50-ish couple are leaders in Central Florida’s erotic underground. They run a private, couples-only club for swingers (“Club Sensitivity”) and “Sensitivity Seminars” for would-be swingers—all-day sessions on the rules, etiquette, hygiene, philosophy and legalities of organized, consensual sex. In an era when AIDS is making monogamy fashionable, swingers like Bob and Nancy persist in what nowadays could almost be called sexual overkill.
Bob, a tall, gray-haired, balding investment counselor, also writes a newsletter for the club. A recent issue included columns (“We have seen so many men blow any chance they· might have had by probing intimate places before any conversation has occurred. Refine your approach.”) and news of national swingers’ conventions and Florida swing clubs.
Nancy, Bob’s wife, is a self-described researcher of mystical experiences. She has a halo of short, blond hair and a gentle voice. Her private meditation room is one of those used at their parties for swinging.
Guests start arriving at the sprawling, seven-room house at 7:30 PM. They come from all over Tampa Bay and beyond- Miami, Jacksonville, Gainesville, Vero Beach—even Georgia. Some bring vacationing friends along, although these first must be screened over the telephone by Bob or Nancy.
At 9 PM the front door is locked. Lights are dimmed, candles are lit, soft rock or new age music plays on the stereo, and foam mattresses are pulled from the closets. In a touch that’s pure Florida, the RV in the yard is moved closer to the house—in case its two beds are needed. First, the house rules are announced: which room is for group sex, what time the beds may be used for sleeping (not before 2 AM), the limit of four towels per couple, and no threesomes until late in the evening to ensure that everyone has at least one partner available-preferably not their own.
Then guests go into the co-ed dressing room in the garage to change into their party clothes. Men usually don a short bathrobe or towel. Women tend to wear lingerie or garters, hose and heels. Some people head for the hot tub outside. Bob calls what happens from this point “condensed dating.”
“It’s just like a singles bar, only double or triple the intensity,” Nancy says. “Pretty soon it transcends sex. It’s a beautiful experience.”
For the rest of the night, people wander from room to room, partner to partner. Twosomes favor the guest bedroom, which features pink sheets on two queen-size beds, a red nightlight and movable full-length mirrors. The host and hostess have thoughtfully placed a bottle of “motion-lotion ” (a brand chosen for its resemblance to semen, Nancy points out) and a two-speed vibrator by each bed. Bob and Nancy’s room, which is also available, sports a king-sized bed and a massage table.
Swingers denounce the media myth that swinging is mostly a matter of orgies. Friendship, they say, is as important as sex. But many eventually drop “straight” friends for people they’ve met swinging. Sharing each other openly, swingers say, avoids the pain of furtive affairs. Straights don’t understand.
To swingers, cheating means failing to include your partner in all sexual adventures. And it’s considered very bad manners to display jealousy or possessiveness at the sight of one’s partner bedding down with someone else. “What is not acceptable to us, what is an extreme no-no, is to tell someone. ‘I want you for my own,”’ explains Tom, who runs a swing club outside of Tampa.
In the morning, those who spent the night at Bob and Nancy’s linger at breakfast and gossip about who did what with whom. “They serve you as a family, a warm and safe cushion to surround you and make you feel wanted,” Bob once wrote in the newsletter.
The North American Swing Club Association (NASCA) in Anaheim, California, estimates three million Americans take part in “the lifestyle.” Most are married couples, whose average age is 38. Through the NASCA newsletter, “playcouples” can learn where to join a group marriage, how to film their own erotic video, what cruises or tours are available specifically for swingers, and who offers marital or sexual counseling for swingers. Nowhere in the world are there as many swing clubs-over in the United Lifestyles, the biggest annual swing convention held in America each year, at- tracts people from all over the world.
The Palms in Fort Myers operates along the same lines as Club Sensitivity, offering house parties every Saturday night and introductory, seven-hour seminars twice a month for up to four new couples. Ken and Pam, hosts of The Palms for five years, say their guests swing for one reason: It’s fun. “It’s like going to Disney World and deciding what rides you want to go on and which rides you don’t. You pay your admission, you do what you want. When you leave, you leave happy. It’s purely recreation.”
Ken, 51, likes the variety. ”There are no two women in this entire world that are alike. Every lady is a trip all her own, totally different than anyone I’ve been with before. Every time I go with a lady I have not been with before, I’m nervous.” How many women has he been with in nine years as a swinger? “I don’t know if I could give you a number. It would have to be several hundred.”
Pam, 44, says variety keeps her coming back for more. “The whole thing is that you’re still attractive to other men after all this time, with no commitments. It’s fun.”
Swinging was originally Ken’s idea. He was between marriages, engaged to Pam. “I wasn’t real comfortable at first,” she says. “It took me about six months. It wasn’t miserable, but it wasn’t something I would have picked to do. To this day, I still have little pangs of jealousy, but not the green-eyed monster kind. At least if Ken comes home late, I’m not worried he was out with another woman. He doesn’t need to be.”
Swingers are growing sensitive about words and labels. The younger participants disdain the term “swinging,” preferring to describe what they do as a lifestyle. The act is called “partying.” Ken says he and his guests are more than the joining of their parts. “We’re not penises and vaginas,” he says. We’re gentlemen and ladies.”
Tampa Bay sex and relationship therapist, Dr. Gitane (her legal name is simply Gitane), gives a variety of reasons to explain the allure of swinging: titillation; violation of society’s norms (“Some like to be on the fringe, doing something different”); putting pizzazz into a dull marriage; bringing to life a fantasy.
The latter, however, can backfire.
“A man has fantasies of a menage a trois,” Gitane begins. “He talks to his wife and—although she is reluctant—she says okay. What can happen is that the woman is suddenly getting attention from very good male lovers and starts liking it. If she beds down with a few of these lovers, she says, ‘Boy, I like this.’ And the man gets ruffled. He hadn’t planned on her liking it that much.”
Bob, who has seen this happen on more than one occasion, says, “Some of the men have really freaked, especially if she’s orgasmically very vocal.”
Then there are the thrill seekers. “They’re never satiated,” Gitane points out. “One more body, one more position. Those people would do well to get into psychotherapy. Some of them are very superficial. For some men, it’s the ice cream store syndrome: Thirty-eight flavors and I want to try them all.'”
Not all swing action takes place in private homes or through classified ads. Hillsborough County has at least two private nightclubs catering to swingers: The Door in North Tampa, and the Full Moon Club in Brandon. Both are open only on Saturday nights. It’s important to note that sex does not take place at either venue. But if ever the atmosphere were right…
The Door picked up where the legendary Swinging Door left off after a fire reduced it to ashes two years ago. It is housed in a two-building nightclub complex on North Nebraska Avenue, which is also home to The Body Shop (exotic dancing), DNA (progressive/new wave music) and Razzles (an after-hours bottle club which takes over The Door’s space at 2 AM).
First impressions of The Door are deceiving. It appears dull on first blush-everybody is dressed, for one thing, and the facility itself is nothing more than converted office space. A one-night “membership” costs $25 per couple; regular members pay a $5 cover charge. Men without partners are welcome, but scarce. (As Bob says, “If a man is gonna have sex with my wife, he damn well better have someone to offer me.”) The club is BYOB-liquor is labeled and kept behind the bar. Although The Door doesn’t sell alcohol, there are bartenders and a waitress to make it seem more realistic.
The Door has a disc jockey, dance floor and game room offering pool tables, darts and pinball. Special events take on new meaning at a swingers club; the fake orgasm, wet T-shirt and best male buns contests, to name a few, are more like auditions than competitions, as explicit photos in the club’s game room demonstrate.
The bartenders are quite friendly. “If there’s anyone you want to meet, or if you want to know someone’s first name, just ask me,” says the young woman behind the bar. She also warns that the crowd doesn’t warm up until 10:30 PM.
She’s right. Couples that came in together begin separating then. socializing with other people around the room. Men and women dance with persons other than their spouses. Hands roam over backs and buttocks. Bodies press closely.
It’s a young crowd for the most part, late 20s through early 40s. Happy, chatty and not shy. Like the man who asks a stranger to dance, pressing close, whispering in her ear how she should leave her husband and join him and his wife at their table. When the dance ends and the woman declines, the man works his way around the room, unperturbed, making the same invitation to a number of women before one accepts.
The Door is not a place couples should go to casually. Regulars assume that anyone paying the hefty price at the door is interested, available and consenting. This is not a place for the shy.
Brandon. which hasn’t allowed Joe Redner to open a nude dance club, did get a swingers club in June. The Full Moon Club (FMC). But David. the owner, disputes the “swinger club” label.
“It’s a social club,” he says. “It’s not a swingers club. It’s a place for people to meet and then decide what they want to do. We put no rules on anybody. What happens [here] happens elsewhere. But at least when people come in the door, they have open-minded people to meet.”
Many find their way into swinging through magazines such as Swinging Encounters, Florida Sunshine Swinger, Southern Swing Fever, Preferred Swingers or Black Preferred Swingers, several of which are published in Tampa. More specialized swingers might pick up Get Kinky, Unique Encounters or Over Forty Swingers.
These publications, selling on newsstands for up to $10 each, are done on the cheap—typeset on a typewriter—and feature grainy, black and white nude and semi-nude photos of men and women in provocative poses.
Al’s personal ad was a little unusual, even for this genre: “Madeira Beach, FL—Single, white male. 49, no sex for seven years due to raising a family. Ready for all women, any age, race or height. Call: AI. (813) xxx·xxxx.
Most advertisers emphasize the size of their sexual organs, list their fantasies or announce that their soiled panties are for sale. But Al’s ad was remarkable because it gave his home phone number, “so if someone wants to have sex that evening, I’m available,” explains the retired Air Force master sergeant. Al is a shy guy. His wife divorced him in 1974 when the military sent him to Greenland for a year. Upon his return, he discovered the swingers’ scene, first in Denver, then in Sacramento, through magazines and clubs.
“I went crazy,” he says. “I didn’t turn anybody down… We’re talking about a lot of kinky sex. My wife and I had a good sex life, but it was straight—in bed, at night, under the covers with the lights off, missionary style.” From 1974 to 1979, Al says he had 90 encounters. “I think I’ve done just about anything sexually possible. And enjoyed most of it.”
The bottom dropped out when Al’s teenage son and daughter moved in with him. He decided to stop bringing women home and to set a good example. But his personal ads continued to appear—they have a tendency to run longer than contracted for and often appear in completely unrelated publications—and a few stray calls alerted Al’s daughter to his most private peccadillos.
By the time his kids had married and left to start their own families, Al had moved to Madeira Beach and was ready to pick up where he left off. He placed his first ads in Swinging Times and Florida Swinger.
Why advertise? Why not chase someone at the workplace or hang around a bar like most people do?
”I’m opposed to the idea of buying sex—dinner and a movie.” Al explains. “I wanted to meet women who wanted to have sex. This seemed the most direct way.”
His first encounter was with a couple. “I didn’t want couples, but I guess I was horny enough to try.” And when the husband’s definition of his wife’s beauty didn’t match Al’s understanding of the word, he still went through with the act. “I’d agreed over the phone to swing, and they came a long way,” he explains.
A single man isn’t likely to meet a lot of single women swinging today. It’s mostly a sport for couples. “Unfortunately, you meet a lot of men who are gay or bi, who you have to fend off,” says Al. “You meet a lot of couples. They are really sincere, most of them. The women want more sex than the husband can give and the husband is not jealous. They seem to have their heads together a lot more than other married couples.
“The women,” he continues, “are looking for variety, I would imagine. That’s what swinging is—variety. A woman can tell her lover things she couldn’t tell her husband or boyfriend. You couldn’t tell your husband your deepest fantasy—you’d be too afraid of the horror, the rejection. To me they can say anything.”
Every encounter is different. “All men react differently to a strange man having sex with their wives,” says AI. “Some want to watch X-rated movies while you go in the other room. Some want to watch; some want to take pictures. Some want to direct—which turns me off a lot.” He doesn’t usually get together with a couple more than once or twice. “They get into swinging, they want variety. If you do it with the same person over and over and over, you can’t get variety.”
Pete, 31, wasn’t looking for variety. He was just a lonely guy looking for companionship when he placed the following ad in the Florida Swinger. “Black male, 6·3″, 170, slender, well-endowed. Professional, young, clean-cut, drug-free. Known as the Marathon Man. Seeking light complexion black female, or clear complexion, tan, Oriental, white female, preferably bi. Photo a must. Age 21-40.’ The St. Petersburg man received 18 responses. None of which he answered.
“The responses—either people can’t read or they don’t care,” he says. “One guy sent me a picture of himself and he was married. I guess he was gay. There was a woman in Texas. She was in her 50s, moving her business here. She wanted to meet me. This Mexican girl from North Florida—she’s in jail-getting out real soon. She wanted to meet me. Another girl said she was coming down from New York on business. Caucasian chick. I didn’t follow up that one because she sounded like a pro. There was a black girl from Ft. Lauderdale. She wrote me a long letter, even put perfume on it. She advertises in the magazine, too. Her ad said she liked gang-banging. I was too afraid to pursue that one. Then there was a couple from St. Petersburg. I could tell they were real professionals. The wife likes black men and he likes to watch. hat was interesting, but…”
There were a number of factors that turned Pete off from the swingers scene. The lack of respondents who fit his interests was one; the specter of AIDS was another.
Swingers don’t like to talk about AlDS.
“Swinging suffered greatly in the hysteria over AIDS.” says NASCA spokesman Robert McGinley. So, do they worry much about AIDS?
“Not too much,” admits Bob. “The perception seems to be that it’s not a white, middle-class, heterosexual, non-drug user problem.”
That’s the perception. Here’s the reality, according to state and federal medical authorities. In Florida, 17,810 adults had full-blown AIDS as of August 31. Forty-one percent of the 2,300 females included in that number were infected through heterosexual contact, as were 10 percent of the males. Nationwide, the number of women with AIDS jumped 34 percent from 1989 to 1990. More than one-quarter of women with AIDS—27 percent—are Caucasian. This year, the Centers for Disease Control expect AIDS to be one of the five leading causes of death among women between the ages of 15 and 44.
Dr. Dorece Norris of Tampa has treated over 400 people with HIV infection. She sees 30 new patients a year who have contracted the virus through heterosexual sex. Among her patients: a 15-year-old girl who had several male partners in their 20s; a single professional woman who had ten or fewer partners in ten years; and a woman in her mid-50s, married for 30 years to her only sexual partner, who had no history of drug use or bisexuality.
“I’m seeing more and more people acquiring it that way,” says Norris. ‘They have no history of drug use, they’re not gay and they’re coming in infected.”
Swingers simply refuse to believe this. ‘There’s no such thing as a problem with AIDS in the heterosexual population:” insists McGinley. “There’s been virtually no proven cases of transmission heterosexually. It’s been almost exclusively drug-related, or one partner has been practicing anal sex within the homosexual community.” He refuses to count the two women in a Minneapolis swing club who contracted HIV several years ago from a man who turned out to be bisexual. He also mentioned a couple of men, former swingers, who had gotten AIDS and died. “We found out they were bisexual and had gone into the gay camp almost entirely. “McGinley insists this proves his contention that anal intercourse between men is HIV’s primary means of sexual transmission. He blames the government and the news media for spreading AIDS propaganda.
“To say it’s sexually transmitted is to scare the hell out of people. Lots of people would like to stop our activity entirely, and this is a good way to scare people.”
Those who still indulge in penetration sex after swapping partners profess no fear of contracting the AIDS virus.
“The formula is married couples or couples living together on a committed basis,” says Ken of The Palms. “We do not permit anal sex, bisexual or homosexual males; we do not permit intravenous drug users. And that basically eliminates it [AIDS]. If swinger clubs were hotbeds for passing AIDS or any sexually transmitted disease, we would be shut down faster than the gay bath clubs. The authorities would love to shut us down for any reason. But it isn’t there.”
“People seem to trust the club membership,” says Bob. He believes keeping intravenous drug users and male bisexuals out of the club is sufficient protection against getting infected. Condoms are provided, but they’re used only for birth control. He’s not worried. “Swingers are cleaner because they’re honest and upfront,” he says.
“I’ve got news for them,” says Norris about the virus. “It’s clearly spread through vaginal intercourse. In Africa, it’s primarily transmitted heterosexually. I have treated several people who have participated in sexual activity within group scenarios. Some are heterosexuals and some aren’t. I’m really surprised at how many people who claim to be heterosexual ultimately admit to me they’ve had bisexual activity. I’ve been doing this for ten years now, and I was naive about the extent of bisexuality in our society,”
AI has seen the word “clean” sneak into most swingers’ classified ads- meaning they are free of AIDS, herpes, syphilis, gonorrhea, etc.
“You’re taking the person on their word,” he concedes. “I think married couples are more careful than singles. They tend to ask more questions. I’m not even thinking about AIDS with married couples. I am with singles. As for me, I take yearly physicals and blood tests. I know I’m clean.”
Because of the health dangers posed by swinging, Gitane professes amazement that anyone still does it. “Accidents happen to other people—they live in that fantasy,” she says.
“I get very angry at groups like this,” says Norris, “because I’m seeing the effects of their denial system. All they have to do is come by my practice and see all the heterosexual men and women I’ve been diagnosing the last two years. Maybe what they need is a healthy dose of reality, of seeing the ravages of HIV.”
But for swingers like Tom and his wife Linda, the risk is small and the rewards great. “It’s been very fulfilling,” says Tom. “Every time is a learning experience if you’re open to it.” Tom says swinging has increased his sensitivity, compassion and understanding.
Club operators Bob, Nancy, David, Ken and Pam didn’t want their last names revealed. They say they have a good relationship with local police. In fact, some of their members work in law enforcement. Still, they don’t want to alert neighbors to exactly what goes on in their homes and clubs. They’ve been giving swing parties for years and don’t want to quit now.
“People have a lot of misgivings about why we do what we do,” says Tom.
“We do it because it’s fun, and we’re not gonna stop. We may be forced out of the neighborhood. We may leave the state or change our phone number, but we’re not gonna stop.”
BOB ANDELMAN and LINDA GIBSON are not now nor have they ever been swingers. They are just good friends and regular contributors to Tampa Bay Life.