The 1970s are over, but some things seem to be making a comeback: lava lamps, wallpaper, Donna Summer's concert tour and … swingers. The fascination with "the lifestyle" (as swingers fondly call it) is seeping into suburban, upper-middle-class social scenes. Over drinks and dessert, discussions once focused on home renovations and restaurant openings are giving way to talk about wife-swapping and tales of key parties down the block.
Last month, I attended an end-of-the-elementary-school-year family barbecue in my woodsy suburban neighborhood outside of Washington, D.C. Sitting with four other couples as the kids played Wii downstairs, the parents' conversations turned from second grade teacher reputations and fourth quarter grades to the rumored "swingers" parties one community over. Those of us who had heard it before had a twinkle in their eyes. Those who hadn't heard it were shocked then extremely curious. I swear every mom and dad's ears perked up and hung on every word; even the most conservative-seeming mom of the bunch pepped up.
Fast forward to another dinner party one weekend later. A woman I'd just met went on and on about the new "Swingtown" television series (which airs on CBS). "You have to watch it. It isn't that good, but I am totally sucked in," she said. And the topic came up again on a recent "girls night out" sushi dinner after seeing "Sex in the City." Four married, attractive, successful women/moms, we analyzed the swinger house party scenarios to death. Someone heard the people who threw the parties now had "facilitators" in there, too. What in the world for, we wondered!
Is this curiosity a throwback to the free-feeling '70s or are thirty- and forty-something married people getting restless?
Determined to unravel the mystery, I got myself an invitation to a swingers club. For one night, I was told I would have access to the entire club and get introduced to women who could answer my overriding questions of "why do you do it?" and "how can you do it?" The mystery began to unravel at every turn, down every hallway, and in between the many stares and smiles of strangers.
The Tabu Social Club in Catonsville, Md., is tucked behind a nondescript building and a 7-11, but once you see the blue awning with a fancy "T" you know you're in the right place. I remember marveling at how their elaborate black iron gate gave the entryway an almost regal quality. A bit shaky as I climbed the steps of the building, I braced myself for what I might find. For all the talk and joking around I had done with friends about this subject, coming face to face with the lifestyle could be something else altogether.
My husband came with me. He was more scared than I was! I encouraged him to have a few extra margaritas at the restaurant beforehand so he would relax a bit — but that didn't help him much. I had offered to take a girlfriend instead of him but that was quickly rebuffed with a "no way!" So there he was, reluctantly.
A huge bowl of Dum-Dum lollipops set me straight. They sat at the check-in desk, a sight so familiar to me from my sons' pediatrician appointments and dry cleaner visits. How odd they were here, I thought. This gave me some strange level of comfort to continue on.
The outgoing owners, Vicki and Rick, looked like people I might run into at a health club or local take-out joint. They greeted me warmly and introduced me and first-time member couples to our "tour guides." A nice, friendly couple happily approached us and calmly began the tour as if we were checking out a model home or tourist attraction. When they suggested we start downstairs, the newbies and I followed them down a well-lit but long and narrow stairway full of fear. I imagined what sights I would see at the end. Some kind of orgy? Group sex rooms in full force? Whips and chains? Some scene out of a movie?
Not quite yet. It was still early — 10:45 p.m., and the tour began with trips to every "room." Theme rooms, swing rooms, voyeur rooms — you name it, there they were. Red lights above each doorway indicated what was free, and you had to schedule with the hostess — no reserving too far ahead of time (I watched several groups of women trying to sweet talk the scheduler around 11 p.m. for post-midnight bookings, but to no avail).
From round beds that people outside the window could rotate by pushing a button for an optimal view to a structured system that involved staffers scheduling rooms and changing sheets, I was surprised at how smoothly things operated. (From a business perspective, I was impressed.) Our guides also joked around as we walked into each empty room, trying to put the newbies at ease. When they suggested we head to the group room, I tried to feel gutsy. Sneaking up on a group of people actually having sex? Peering in, I saw all the beds were empty at this point. Later, I was told, things would heat up. Couples of all ages and races gathered on the sofas near the "observation rooms" drinking and chatting. Many greeted each other warmly, like old home week. I was told about 70 percent of club members meet up on popular swingers' Web sites such as Club Voodoo.
Back upstairs, at first glance, the sprawling bar could have been a regular bar anywhere. The club's policy was BYOB, and the moment you walked in the bartender smoothly took your bottles, asked your membership number, and put them on ice. When people wanted a drink, all they had to do was give their number and one instantly appeared. Nice service, I thought. But looking a little more closely, I could see signs this was no ordinary bar. One woman who looked like she could have been a parent volunteer at my son's preschool suddenly thanked the female bartender with a passionate kiss instead of a dollar tip. A bartender took his shirt off and accepted five dollar bills down the front of his pants from virtual strangers.
I swear several nicely dressed women smiled right at me instead of at my husband. The same thing happened in the women's bathroom (which, by the way, could have been the washroom at Nordstrom's where moms say hello and commiserate with toddlers in tow). As I washed my hands, some women looked at me a little longer than, well, normal. I left pretty quickly.
By far, the most action occurred on the dance floor. The "blackout" was planned for midnight (glow sticks were distributed throughout the night), but I was assured security would be good and nobody would grope anyone without an OK. I would have liked to stay later to see if more action happened, but my husband was anxious to go. I should have taken a girlfriend!
Three things struck me about the club atmosphere and clientele: Everyone seemed to be in a great mood (and this is before the action of the night began), lots of people seemed to know each other and everyone seemed pretty relaxed. The owners ran their club like a business, socialized like a host and hostess would anywhere, and seemed proud to preside over a club that so many people "in the lifestyle" called home on weekend nights.
As for the swinging and social scene … strange — yes. Sexual — absolutely. Sleazy? Only a few people who were so scantily dressed my head spun. Surreal? You bet.
But, on the surface, and behind the scenes, it was all very well-orchestrated as couples who'd communicated online met up or new ones greeted others. For the swingers that Saturday night, life seemed pretty good at the Tabu Social Club. People may not understand it or condone it, but perhaps they ought to respect the choice. Whether you are a woman swept up in thinking about the swingers phenomenon or curious to explore it, the big question on your mind must be this: Why do married women do it? Share your thoughts about it here.