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This ain't your father's swingers club

A new generation discovers the joy of sex with perfect strangers

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Laura realized she and her boyfriend had made a terrible mistake the moment they stepped into the Marietta hotel ballroom. They'd arrived at a "couples party" ready to dive head-first into the wild world of swinging. But what she saw behind the doors squashed Laura's libido like a bug.

"Everyone was middle-aged and overweight," Laura now recalls, five years later. "It was like being at a suburban wedding reception where somebody's uncle is doing something you don't want to see."

The display of flab and varicose veins wasn't what they were expecting after their initial, exhilarating brush with the "Lifestyle" months earlier in Amsterdam. A visit to the European debauchery capital would have seemed incomplete without checking out one of the city's numerous sex clubs, but the twentysomething couple was unprepared to be so entranced by the sight of young, attractive couples getting naked.

Although they didn't join in the Dutch Bacchanalian romp, Laura and George couldn't wait to sample swinging when they got back to Atlanta, where she worked as an actuarial consultant and he owned a small business. But at the Alternative, a now-defunct social club that hosted monthly hotel parties, they received the cold blast of reality: that swinging stateside is not a young person's sport, that AARP cards are more plentiful than strap-ons, that a Brazilian wax job loses some of its allure when laced with stretch marks.

Ah, how times change. In the last half-decade or so, the Internet has delivered to Western civilization instant access to digitized porno facsimiles of Anna Kournikova, added "cybersex" to the list of words understood in any language and created portals to every conceivable fetish or kinky inclination, while TV talk-shows offer a daily parade of alternative lifestyles and carnal quirks.

In Hotlanta, the acknowledged adult-entertainment capital of the New South, swinging is on the upswing, and it's skinny-dipping in the Fountain of Youth. Even as the country slides toward conservatism, many Gen-Xers have come to view mate swapping as less an unspeakable social taboo than a walk on the wild side, a boundary to be explored, another edgy lifestyle choice.

The city now boasts two swingers nightclubs operating nominally underground -- insiders say a third is on the way -- as well as at least two prominent social clubs and a growing number of multi-couple play sessions taking place on any given weekend in private homes and condos across the metro area. So if your next-door neighbor wakes you up some night soon carrying a jumbo tub of Crisco and asking to borrow your Twister set, you shouldn't ask what it's for -- and you probably don't want it back.

Despite the growing popularity and acceptance, the swingers interviewed for this story asked that their real names not be used for fear their parents would find out.

Apart from the occasional woman dancing topless, there's little to immediately distinguish Velvet Heaven from any Buckhead nightclub. The music at this Cheshire Bridge Road-area sex club is standard disco fare, as are the colored lights and mirror ball dangling from the vaulted ceiling. Patrons range in age from the late 20s to late 50s.

At the far side of the room, a mezzanine allows couples -- no singles allowed upstairs -- to survey the action on the dance floor. Underneath, people chat in nests of low-slung couches or glance over at a slender young woman performing an impromptu strip-tease and lap dance for her date.

I'm taking a tour courtesy of club manager Lucky, who has just shown me the private bedrooms that members can request much in the same way they might get a changing room at the Gap. Now he's making introductions.

"This is Cinnamon," says Lucky, as a disarmingly pretty bleach-blonde looks up from her companions at the table where she's seated. "She came up from Columbus to do a live show here last night."

"Do you like my video?" Cinnamon asks somewhat distractedly, tilting her head toward the huge projection screen hanging on the wall above the dance floor. On it is the image of Cinnamon, naked, on her knees and bent forward, her hands cuffed behind her back; a burly man in a black leather vest is sliding a chrome vibrator lovingly in and out of her rectum.

"It's ... very nice," I say as I search my brain for some obscure rule of etiquette that will allow me to frame an appropriate response. Mental note: Must word-search old Miss Manners columns for "butt-plug."

"Sometimes you feel like an extra in a porn film," says Dick, sipping juice as his wife, Lynne, heads over to the dance floor. A few minutes earlier, a couple had put on an energetic coital display on the balcony overlooking the room.

Dick, an engineer who sports a military-style haircut, asserts that, after discovering swinging a year ago, he no longer has any interest in visiting strip clubs. "Strip clubs are all tease. This isn't tease," he explains.

The couple is now looking to move from their house in north Cobb to an intown condo, mainly to be closer to their new circle of friends and to avoid the censure of neighbors if their secret were ever discovered.

Lynne, a small, perky brunette, was only the third woman Dick had been intimate with when they married in their early 20s, although she had more sexual experience, both with men and women. Over the last year, he's followed her into the Lifestyle, mostly on her terms, which they both acknowledge have often been frustratingly lopsided.

"I trust [Lynne] enough that she's not doing it to hurt me," Dick says earnestly. Behind him, Lynne slow-dances with a beefy guy whose hands keep slipping up inside her shirt.

Last spring, to spice up a 7-year-old marriage, the couple booked a vacation to Jamaica's famed Hedonism resort, which offers guests a choice of packages: nude or prude. When Lynne, the self-described product of a strict Catholic upbringing, first saw her fellow vacationers strolling around au naturel, she went back to her room, packed away her clothes and didn't touch them again.

"Our eyes were just opened to it," she says. "That trip was the best thing I ever did. Once I got naked, I didn't want to go back."

In the course of a week, Lynne and Dick progressed from casual nudity to having sex in public to a full swap with another couple. When they got back to Atlanta, they knew they wanted to continue their odyssey, but Lynne insisted on some initial ground rules: She could swing and Dick could watch, take it or leave it.

"I realize it wasn't quite fair, but I didn't want to be angry at him later for anything I'd allowed him to do," she says. "I'd heard the horror stories about couples breaking up because of the Lifestyle."

Lynne, who works as an office manager, says she's now gained the confidence in herself and her marriage to permit the occasional foursome, but only if the other couple passes muster. "I'm opposed to the idea of 'taking one for the team,' sleeping with some guy because your husband thinks the wife is hot."

Lynne says she "baby-stepped" into her new lifestyle, fighting shyness and insecurity. But this baby's come a long way: Earlier this year, she found herself suspended naked in a bondage demonstration at a local sci-fi convention; she is the star of her own explicit website; and, one recent weekend, she and Cinnamon performed a lesbian pas de deux in Velvet Heaven's glass-walled voyeurism chamber.

With Dick's support, the soft-spoken Lynne is looking for new sensual frontiers to explore. "I'm interested in BDSM [bondage and sado-masochism]," she says, "but I don't like pain."

The opening notes of Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" curl out of the DJ's sound system as, I suspect, they do several times a weekend here in the lounge at Venus, located in a Morningside industrial park. The lights are low, there's a slight haze in the air, but the small dance floor is empty; instead, couples -- a mix of blacks and whites -- perch on stools clutching plastic cups or roam awkwardly as if scouting to see where the action is.

It's an uncharacteristically slow Saturday night at the city's other swingers club, and it feels unsettlingly like those rec-room make-out parties from high school I'd hoped to forget, except that the strongest drink to be had here is a tart grapefruit juice.

I roam, as well, through a cozy room ringed by low-slung sectional couches with a TV showing porn clips and a brass pole rising to the middle of the ceiling, past an hors d'oeuvres counter offering melon chunks, cheese cubes and cookies. I pause at the unoccupied "dungeon" to peruse the collection of shackles, pulleys and black vinyl benches.

Around the corner, things are progressing more quickly -- and publicly -- among the older folks. Several onlookers are peering silently through a doorway; inside the small room, a large naked woman reclines on a couch, her thighs spread wide enough to accommodate another woman's head buried between them. The second woman is crouched on all fours, with a kneeling man pumping her from behind.

"Are we allowed to watch this stuff?" asks a 30ish guy standing next to me. In his Bermuda shorts and white tennis shoes, he looks as if he raced over in his minivan from a backyard cookout.

I explain that, as long as the door stays open, anything that goes on inside is fair game for voyeurs. A few minutes later, I overhear him bringing the happy news back to his date, a heavyset black woman: "Cheryl, we're allowed to watch."

"OK!" she enthuses, grabbing her purse as they rush out of the lounge.

I discover the one-way mirror that affords the curious a view into the "group room," where the mattresses stretch from wall to wall and clothing must be checked at the door. A few inches away, on the other side of the darkened glass, a man presses his face inside his partner's pelvis so long my finger begins to itch for a fast-forward button. Minutes later, the pair has changed positions and is now one of two couples in flagrante canino, nearly side-by-side, the women's faces only a foot or so apart.

Another couple strolls up and peers through the glass. After surveying the scene inside for a few moments, the man announces matter-of-factly to no one in particular: "They should make this window larger."

The Lifestyle isn't one-size-fits-all. Consider: There are those who like to watch and those who like to be watched. There are "soft swingers" who engage in petting, foreplay and maybe even oral sex, but draw the line at intercourse. There are couples who only swap girl-on-girl, others who go for the whole enchilada. With some couples, only the woman swings and the man watches, or vice versa. Some enjoy threesomes with selected friends, others prefer anonymous group sex. On the fringes are the role-players and the leather crowd.

However welcoming the Lifestyle can seem to a couple's peculiarities and perversions, there is one unwritten rule: Most women are bi/curious, but all the men are straight. A couple who swings in all directions would be politely asked to leave most clubs. If that's your bag, mister, please keep it to yourself.

Jenna, 38, who says she finds herself much in demand as a "single, bisexual woman who plays," is typical in that she has no problem with that double standard.

"I don't want to be with a man who's been with other men and I don't want to watch it," she says emphatically. "That doesn't turn me on and I don't want to put myself at risk."

Which brings us to the issue of protection, a topic that stirs surprisingly little passion among most swingers, who consider themselves at less risk to AIDS and venereal disease than the population at large. After all, the logic goes, when everyone knows sex is on the agenda, there's no excuse for coming unprepared. Most clubs furnish condoms to members -- in open bowls, like butterscotch hard candies -- and claim to advocate safe sex, but Robert McGinley, America's Sultan of Swap, believes most swingers would be fibbing if they say they never engage in unprotected sex. That's because going natural has been unfairly stigmatized, he says.

"AIDS is not every man's disease -- that's media propaganda to generate research funding," he says. "There's not one documented case of AIDS transmission from swinging."

McGinley is biased, certainly. He's founder and president of the North American Swing Club Association, sort of a AAA for wife-swappers. He organizes the annual Lifestyles convention, now in its 28th year. He owns the successful Lifestyles Tours & Travel agency. And he runs one of the country's oldest sex clubs, Club WideWorld of Buena Park, Calif., which opened its doors, appropriately enough, in '69.

Now in his early 60s, the Californian's polite and slightly fussy telephone manner may conjure up the image of your high school chemistry teacher. But that doesn't mean he can't get worked into a lather over other people's "hang-ups."

"I don't like the term 'safe sex,' because of what it implies," he says with more than a hint of exasperation. "Sex is not dangerous -- it's the most pleasurable, beautiful, rewarding experience a man and woman can have, for Pete's sake."

The Lifestyle is experiencing an unprecedented boom, with an estimated 3 million practitioners in the U.S., up from 2 million only a decade ago, says McGinley, who admits he has no hard statistics. He gives much of the credit to the Internet for discreetly connecting people with similar interests, as well as to the cumulative effect of his own life's work and the inevitable cycle of social change that's leading a new generation to swinging.

"The nuclear family -- that quaint term from the '50s -- is not the primary focus of our society anymore," says McGinley, who left an aeronautical engineering career in the mid-'60s to take up the swinging banner with his wife. The two are long since divorced, but still close, he adds. He later earned a Ph.D. in psychology with a thesis on -- what else? -- swinging.

Registration for Lifestyles 2001, which will occupy the entire Tropicana Casino in Las Vegas for five days in late July, is already more than double that of last year, he says, with as many as 3,000 couples expected.

Twice a year, NASCA offers seminars on how to organize your own hometown swingers group or operate an on-premise sex club. ("You need to be aware of local zoning laws -- there's very little that's different from running a shoe store," McGinley says.)

The typical American swinger, he says, is in his mid-20s to early 50s, white, educated and professional, with a higher-than-average income. "Certainly it takes discretionary income," McGinley says. "Most swingers clubs cost $50 to get into. And then there's the cost of the babysitter."

Now two years old, Venus and Velvet Heaven serve a dual purpose of providing a sexual sanctuary to a dedicated clientele and offering an entry point for newcomers to dip their toes into the Lifestyle. Those who have erotic epiphanies come back for more. Those who don't at least have some bitchin' stories to tell their friends, who will invariably ask, "Is that shit legal?"

Yes, most certainly it is, according to Alan Begner, Atlanta's very own smut attorney. With Georgia's archaic sodomy law banished to the history books, the only possible legal stumbling block for swingers is public indecency. Hence, the concept of club.

"To be legal, it must be a private association or club to which admission is limited to members," explains Begner, a First Amendment zealot whose clients include both on-premise swingers clubs, 21 local strip clubs (including the embattled Gold Club), various lingerie-modeling shops, adult websites and a man who sells his own squeaky-clean urine for drug tests.

If everyone at a swingers gathering is a dues-paying member (ranging from $60 to $100 a year per couple, plus door fees) and has read the posted warnings that naughtiness is happening within, then no one can claim offense, Begner says. He cheerfully cites a high-profile case in which obscenity charges against Fort Lauderdale's Trapeze were dismissed in 1999 because the only people willing to testify they'd been offended were the police who raided the club.

Even so, most sex clubs take pains not to tempt fate or attract the attention of potential enemies. They don't serve alcohol, so there are no thorny liquor license issues; advertising is largely word-of-mouth; they occupy unmarked space in inconspicuous commercial strips; all members are 21 and up (mostly up) and all goings-on between them are consensual and, Begner stresses, private.

He agrees that the swinging scene has exploded across the country, even bigger than the pre-AIDS days when Plato's Retreat was attracting lines around the block in Manhattan's Upper East Side.

Says Begner: "There are a lot of people who enjoy life at the outer edges of conventional morality."

"It's not for everybody." If there's a universal caveat among swinging's proponents, that's it.

"We don't need people who are insecure, jealous or macho," boasts NASCA's McGinley. "Swinging attracts the cream of the crop of relationships."

That's a harmful misconception, says Dr. David Woodsfellow, an Atlanta psychologist who estimates he's counseled more than 1,000 couples in 24 years as a marriage therapist. When clients tell him they swing, hetells them to stop.

"The human need for security -- the question of 'Am I not enough for you?' -- is real enough that most people can't do this for long" before one partner begins to feel threatened or coerced, he says. "I believe swinging is a recipe for disaster, and I've seen plenty of examples where it's torn a marriage apart."

Even social scientists who once advocated the sexual liberation expressed in how-to best-sellers Open Marriage and Thy Neighbor's Wife have conceded that the Lifestyle can easily compound problems in a shaky relationship and damage a healthy one, Woodsfellow says.

"Now, most people believe that [swinging] doesn't work for the vast majority of couples," he says.

But Jenna isn't buying that. Tall, curvy and athletic, she got into swinging three-and-a-half years ago with her boyfriend and says she's formed strong friendships that have helped her recover emotionally from his sudden death last year.

"Sometimes I call people just to hang out; sometimes I want more," she says.

On a recent weekend, Jenna joined 11 close friends for what she says was a very satisfying twelvesome but now that she's begun dating a man who's not into the Lifestyle, she has promised not to swing until he decides how he feels about it. For the right guy, she'd walk away.

And Laura and George are still swinging five years after their initial fright in that Marietta hotel. Six feet tall with short-cropped hair and handsome, expressive features, Laura, 32, says mutual trust is essential.

"We're always in the same room; we always see what the other is doing," she says. "The key to all this is communication; we talk about jealous feelings we might be having."

To help preserve that trust, the pair keeps other couples at arm's length, avoiding friendships within the community and not going on double dates with potential bedmates.

"Sex is just sex," Laura says. "To hang out adds another level of intimacy."

At 31, Dave is Atlanta's Pied Piper of promiscuity. Two years ago, he launched Utopia, a social club restricted to attractive swingers under 40. Applicants must submit photos to a screening panel and the 50 percent who don't make the cut are let down gently or put on a waiting list, he says. Recently, he's had to cap the group at about 150 couples; more would spoil the intimacy.

To promote diversity, the club practices its own form of affirmative action, as well: "Generally, ethnic couples get first consideration."

Utopia's discriminating standards have stirred resentment among Atlanta's old-school Lifestylers, but Dave, who's tall, well-built and a bit cocky, says he can live with that. He's providing a haven for a new generation of swingers who aren't interested in getting busy with someone their parents' age.

"The majority of our members wouldn't even be in the Lifestyle if it weren't for Utopia," he says, projecting a blend of sincerity and pride. "Utopia isn't just Kens and Barbies, but it's average looks or better. If you don't take care of yourself, you should probably try elsewhere."

Utopia hosts eight parties a year, limited to about 25 couples, usually at the home of a member who has a large hot tub. ("That serves our purposes very well," Dave says.) Newcomers must attend an early evening orientation session in which Dave gives his safe-sex spiel, takes questions and lays down the ground rules of respectful swinging:

Rule 1: Never touch without asking.

Rule 2: "No" always means "No."

Rule 3: Observe proper hygiene: make an effort to shower, brush your teeth and gargle between sex partners.

Rule 4: Progress at your own comfort level; there's no pressure to do anything you don't want to.

Even with the warnings, there's often some over-aggressive meathead who has to be tossed from the party.

The gatherings typically get rolling with the "slow-dance switch," in which couples change partners until everyone's made face-to-face introductions. Dancing, flirting and coziness ensue until around midnight, when Dave "takes it down a notch." The lights go off and candles are lit. Rick James gives way to Barry White. Buttons come undone. Tops come off. Couches, beds, floors and counter tops are drafted into service.

At some point, someone might be inclined to roll out the plastic sheeting for the customary "all-girl, all-nude, baby-oil rubdown," a highlight of any evening.

But don't get the impression that every Utopia party is a full-on orgy, Dave warns. Compared to most older swingers, he insists, his group takes things relatively slow. Younger couples tend to be more self- conscious, less comfortable with their bodies, less confident in their relationships. Often, only a handful of couples engage in a full swap.

"Sometimes, we get hard-core swingers who are disappointed at our parties," he says. But that's OK because while, yes, the Lifestyle is about sex, it's also more than that, Dave explains.

He first encountered the Lifestyle five years ago at the urging of his then-girlfriend, who, in a scene directly out of every straight man's wish-fulfillment fantasy, told him she wanted to experiment with other women. They dropped by one of the twice-monthly parties sponsored by Atlanta United Socials -- the city's oldest swingers club, founded in 1988 -- and became instant disciples, he says.

"I had never even considered doing this until I went to AUS," Dave says. "Seeing that kind of sexual freedom, trust and acceptance changed my life. It's not really something I can describe -- it's a closeness to people."

Still, the couple wasn't entirely comfortable with the older, get-down-to-business crowd at AUS and split off to form Utopia, then later split from each other, a move Dave says was not caused by stress from their new lifestyle.

He met his current girlfriend through an Internet chat room and was delighted to find out after they'd started dating that she swings, too. In fact, Dave believes he has a "social responsibility" to proselytize in the name of the Lifestyle and recruit other attractive couples with the lure of an enhanced love life. It's a mission that brings out his philosophical side.

"Eight times a year, for a few hours a night, that's our version of a perfect society, with no inhibitions or repression," he explains.

But, in a few years, even Dave will be expelled from his own hedonist's paradise under Utopia's rules.

He laughs. "Then I'll have to change the rules."

scott.henry@creativeloafing.com

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