Hooking Up with the Joneses
If you believe the cocktail chatter, swinging is alive and very well in Cohasset, Needham, Marblehead, and everywhere in between. Suburban legend? Or are your neighbors, and their neighbors, really getting it on? Pagan Kennedy went to find out for herself.
I’ll call her "Ann," because I can’t give her real name. Nor can I disclose her town, though I can tell you she and her husband live with their kids in a mini-mansion not far outside Boston. Ever since high school, Ann had fantasized about cavorting in a bed full of men and women. Eventually, she worked up the nerve to tell her husband, Paul, who admitted that he, too, hankered for group sex. But neither planned to actually act on the urge. The one time they dared peruse the advertisements at the back of some dirty magazines, about a decade ago, they were scared off because the people seemed creepy. Anyway, the life they’d built in the suburbs seemed inextricably linked with monogamy, the way a cashmere sweater matches a Burberry jacket.
And then, Ann had her midlife epiphany. It started one morning at work last year, when she overheard two guys gossiping about a porn video called Old Fat Girls. As the day wore on, she found that her mind kept gnawing on the phrase. That night, she typed the three words into her home computer. She never did find the video. But the phrase worked like an abracadabra, ushering her into a porn landscape of suburban housewives transformed into sex goddesses. Here, a whole vanload of soccer moms piled onto one stud; there, another flirted with men in polo shirts while wielding a dildo. The possibilities were endless. "It shook me emotionally," Ann remembers. "It turned something over in me."
Not long after, Ann and Paul huddled together on a single chair in front of the computer, after the kids had been put to bed. Did anyone else—in reasonable driving distance—want to get it on? Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes, yes, yes. While Ann and Paul had been building IRAs and repairing gutters, they discovered, entire empires of swing had risen around them.
For me, this story began several months ago, when my editor called to tell me she was hearing a slew of rumors about sex clubs in the suburbs, private nights frequented by PTA moms and mall shoppers. One South Shore couple, the story went, had been driven out of town after too much bed hopping. In Cohasset, a local bar transformed one evening each month into a "swinger den." Country clubs in Needham and Dedham were the subjects of whispers and innuendos. Though no one would cop to it themselves (of course), most people knew, or suspected they knew, someone who took part. The way they were telling it, you couldn’t walk down an aisle in Whole Foods or Stop & Shop without spotting someone who’d had group sex the night before.
And so I went spelunking on the Internet to see whether there was any truth to the gossip. What I discovered was truly shocking: Hundreds of thousands of users have flocked to spouse-swapping sites, suggesting that more married people today are experimenting with group sex than at any other time in history—maybe even more than in its supposed 1970s heyday. Spouses across the Bay State are offering themselves up as package deals for no-strings romps with other couples. And scores of have-your-wedding-cake-and-eat-it-too websites like SwingLifeStyle, Swappernet.com, and Adult FriendFinder (whose parent company was acquired in December by Penthouse Media for half a billion dollars) are launching to overwhelming success.
For weeks, I approached local couples online, begging them to talk. Although I received lots of propositions and photos of naked bodies, it was harder to find anyone who would agree to simply chat. Most swingers these days have something big to lose—a job in a law firm, a kid on a waiting list for prep school—and go to great lengths to avoid being caught. Consider this profile on Swappernet.com: The photo shows a lithe housefrau and her buff husband sunning on a beach on Cape Cod; their heads have been cropped out, giving them the look of sexy decapitees. On another site, a North Shore couple advertise themselves with a picture of the wife in bikini underwear, toasting the camera with a martini; her body is perfect and her face has been blotted out. Everyone in swingerville is headless and horny.
I managed to track down a half-dozen sex parties, and pleaded with the organizers to let me attend as a reporter, but without luck. Late one night as I was driving through a plush neighborhood in Wellesley, I studied the prim houses, and all their windows seemed to wink at me. Statistically speaking, group sex had probably taken place behind at least some of them. On the other side of those Mohr & McPherson curtains, people were swapping mates, but I couldn’t seem to reach them.
Then, finally, pay dirt.
When I first met Ann and Paul in an Internet chat room for Boston-area swingers, they were terrified to speak to a journalist about their secret life. They fear the opprobrium of bosses, teachers, other parents, even friends. Of course, the kids must never find out. And then one night, after weeks of wheedling, my phone bleats, without warning. "We’re ready," says a voice on the other end of the line. It was like getting a call from the FBI.
Even more important than the tale of her midlife awakening, Ann wanted me to know that these exploits with her husband have expanded her mind. An accomplished academic, Ann tends to be shy, but their secret life has forced her to develop a brave and bold persona. Ann and Paul consider themselves "conservative"; their friends describe them as "strait-laced." Their first time was a year ago.
Ann recalls how much guts it took for her to meet a pair of strangers from the Internet, even with Paul by her side. She had to force herself to march into the hubbub of the restaurant, toward a situation that might be terribly, terribly awkward. What if they were horrible? Worse, what if Ann and Paul knew them? But as soon as she saw the couple, she realized she’d be okay: They were unfamiliar, and "looked like they’d just walked out of a PTA meeting." Dinner slid into dessert and coffee, laughter and easy conversation, and soon they were all stumbling into a hotel room together.
"I thought watching [my husband] having sex with another woman would make my head explode," Ann says. Instead, it didn’t bother her—and she loved frolicking with Mr. PTA.
Meanwhile, Paul couldn’t believe his luck. "I hadn’t been with another woman since I met [Ann]," he says. "That was bizarre. I like to make out a lot. It’s passionate." And there he was, soul-kissing a new woman with his wife’s approval.
That night changed their lives: They had found a jolt of pure joy. "The funniest thing about it was that afterward, we e-mailed the other couple to tell them that we had a really good time," says Paul. "We didn’t hear from them for a while. And it was like the old days when you’re dating, and you’re thinking, ‘Did they like us?’ We were really insecure." Finally, Mr. and Mrs. PTA did write back—what a wonderful evening! The two couples remain good friends and occasional bedmates. Nowadays, Ann and Paul swing pretty much whenever they can find a free evening. And a babysitter.
Mention the word "swinger" to most people and they flash on the 1970s: hot tubs, key parties, shag rugs, and Barry White booming out of the eight-track. But in fact, the logistical hurdles to spouse swapping used to loom so large that it’s amazing anyone managed it all. To gain entrée to "the lifestyle" (as it’s called), you had to schlep to an adult bookstore for one of the newsletters that acted as clearing-houses for sw
inger activity. In this smudgy samizdat, you would find a few hundred ads. To contact someone, you had to send money to the newsletter staff; after days or weeks, you might be able to set up a date. Often, people traveled hundreds of miles to swing. "If you lived in Boston, you’d read swinger ads from Pittsburgh. It was that whole I-don’t-want-to-do-it-with-someone-from-my-backyard thing," says Kim Airs, a sex educator and founder of the now-closed Brookline sex-toy shop Grand Opening. She says it’s still common for swingers to drive out of state to attend events—because who wants to go to an orgy and run into your yoga instructor?
Ed would know. The éminence grise of the Massachusetts swinger scene, he’s a relic from the old, labor-intensive era of swapping, and as a host, he makes an effort to keep his parties full of strangers if his guests so request. He still runs one of the most venerable house parties around, from his base in a town just west of Boston—though of course the actual house itself has changed many times over the years. Before our first meeting, Ed tells me how to pick him out of a crowd: He’ll be the guy who looks like Jerry Garcia in his senior years, if Jerry had gone on a diet and the diet sort of worked. This description turns out to be spot-on. When Ed slides into the seat across from me at the Taqueria Mexico in Waltham, he’s vintage Jerry, right down to the aviator frames. He also gives off the same vibe that seemed to emanate from Garcia in the 1980s—deep and inconsolable boredom. In fact, Ed admits that organizing the parties has become tedious, but for some reason he keeps doing it anyway. He himself is not even married, which makes him an anomaly in this world; instead, he takes his girlfriend to events.
In an average week, several people contact him about his parties. Almost always it’s men who call. When he hears a male voice on the line, Ed will say, "Can I speak to your lady?" Often, there is no lady, which means Ed will refuse to reveal party details. Like most other hosts, Ed prohibits single men from his soirees. Many swingers enforce an odd double standard when it comes to homosexuality: All the men must act 100 percent straight, while most of the women are assumed to be "bi-curious" and can fool around with other wives. That means you can never have enough women at your party.
And what to do with all the leftover guys? Gangbangs, of course. These are parties in hotel suites, where many men have sex with one woman. Ed—God love him—dislikes the word "gangbang." He calls these events "ladies’ choice parties," and indeed, that’s a more accurate term, because the woman runs the show. Before the party, she picks prospective lovers from a password-protected website. The lucky guys appear at the appointed time and place. Afterward, everyone chips in for the cost of the hotel room.
But what about the husband who stays at home while his wife is off gangbanging? When I ask Ed about this, he simply shrugs. This is the part of spouse swapping that boggles the mind: All of the couples I encounter seem to love each other without the stain of jealousy.
"You know," I tell Ed, "I’ve noticed that swingers tend to be people who are very good at being married." Many are high school sweethearts who have stayed together for decades. They never got a chance to have a period of exploration on their own, so they go through their awakening together, as middle-aged people. "That’s why I think my boyfriend and I have no interest in swinging," I go on. "Before we met, he and I both spent years running around as single people. We’ve already had our slutty years. For us, monogamy still seems exotic."
"Shhh, shh," Ed scolds, making a downward motion with his hands. Several times during dinner, he reminds me to keep my voice low—even though we’re sitting in a booth and the people around us are conversing in Spanish. More than the fear of being overheard, I suspect, Ed relishes the secrecy involved for another reason: Through swinging, Ed gets to feel like an outlaw.
Massachusetts’ strait-laced zoning restrictions prohibit people from getting naked in any commercial space. Such laws, designed to discourage strip clubs, also make it difficult for people to swing in public spaces. I had hoped Ed might invite me to one of his parties, but as it turns out, he doesn’t have any scheduled (right before press time, Ed did find a location, and extended an invitation to the Boston fact-checker). He’s just put money down on two properties where he might throw parties, but still hasn’t nailed down a single location. "You can’t have a [spouse-swapping] club in Massachusetts," says Ed, "so anything you do is going to be temporary."
Spend any time with the swingers, and you’ll gain a new appreciation for the contradictory culture of Massachusetts, this blue state with old-school blue laws. Here, we’ll defend your right to have consensual sex with any other adult; we’ll sell you vibrators, handcuffs, and birthday cakes shaped like asses. And yet actual sex freaks us out—it’s so sweaty and Dionysian and messy. At heart, we’re still Puritans. If you want to chug Jägermeister with your boobs hanging out, you’d best drive to Rhode Island.
After I meet with Ed, like opening the floodgates, the calls start to pour in. "Dirk Diggler" and his girlfriend, "Rollergirl," live in separate homes 20 miles outside Boston. "I married my high school sweetheart, settled down, and had a lot of kids," says Dirk. "The marriage went bad, but I stayed in." Now, finally, he’s free of his ex-wife, the kids are grown, and Dirk has busted out. A year and a half ago, he met a woman in exactly the same situation; the pair spend much of their time pursuing bi-curious women and couples and arranging covert trysts, and coming up with cartoony names for themselves.
"Dirk Diggler" was his idea, by the way. At first he wants me to call him "James Bond," and his girlfriend "Pussy Galore," but the idea of referring to a woman as Pussy-anything goes against my sense of propriety. So I ask him to come up with a new set of noms de swing, and that’s how he settles on "Dirk" and "Rollergirl." Like Ann and Paul, they call me one night with little warning, so that I have to abandon a plate of pasta and fumble to set up my tape recorder in excitement.
As soon as Dirk and his girlfriend begin giggling into the phone, I know they have something particular to teach me: Sexual adventures can turn into grand private operas, and Dirk and Rollergirl are living out their own James Bond movie. They keep secrets for practical reasons, like Ann and Paul, but also because sneaking around adds a layer of sparkle to their lives, some excitement that had been dulled through all those years spent in routine. They embrace their covert identities with the relish of kids designing Halloween costumes. Ages 50 and 52, they’re the youngest-seeming people I’ve ever met. They find random words hysterically funny. They snort with laughter. They assume that all human beings are randy all the time. When they listen to me talk, everything I say suddenly transforms into a double-entendre, because sex is never not on their minds.
I explain to Dirk that I am planning to attend a swinger party in order to flesh out (see what I mean about those double-entendres?) my reportage of this story. In just the past week, I’ve finally managed to find a hostess who will let me into her hideout—on New Year’s Eve, in fact—so that I can observe what goes on in the swinger underground.
Dirk immediately wants to know more. "Who will you bring to the party?" he asks conspiratorially.
"Probably my boyfriend," I tell him.
Dirk giggles appreciatively.
"Actually, my boyfriend is only doing this as a fa
vor," I explain. "He’d much rather stay home and read books on postcolonial theory." Kevin is a professor of politics.
There is a shocked silence on the other end of the phone.
At last Dirk says, "Well, that’s cool."
But I sense his pity. It throbs through the phone line.
We’re on Route 2, and my boyfriend—hands clamped on the steering wheel—peers through the windshield intently. It’s New Year’s Eve, a month since I secured the invitation, and while Kevin’s had plenty of time to prepare, he’s still not especially excited at the thought of spending the pseudo-holiday at a swinger party 25 miles north of the city. This one, as it happens, screens out old, fat people. I didn’t choose this party for aesthetic reasons—I like old, fat people and hope to become one myself someday. But as I’ve explained, a journalist hoping to see a swinger party firsthand can’t afford to be picky, and those are Val’s rules. A 30-year-old suburban housewife with licorice-colored Bettie Page hair, she runs parties, sometimes as many as one a week, out of a commercial space she calls "The Office"; she invited me to come knowing full well I would write about it. (Her main Internet perch is sexyswingers101.net.)
Val lets me know how hard it can be to please the 500-plus couples on her mailing list. For instance, she can’t allow twentysomethings to wind up at the same party as seventysomethings—that’s why she has to create a special event for the youngish and fit, her "sexy swingers" group. "As the promoter, you want to make everyone happy," she says, and then sighs.
And so, for the night, Kevin and I will pretend to be sexy swingers. First, though, we have to get there. I’ve been puzzling over the hand-drawn map that Val sent me, but it doesn’t seem to be lining up with any of the streets around us.
"I’m sure we’ll find the building," I tell Kevin. "Just stay on this road."
"Fine," he says, but he sounds crabby.
"Turn here," I tell him, struggling to read a street sign in the dark. We drive along a labyrinthine back road and end up in front of a brick office building.
"Here?" Kevin says, and I can tell that now, despite himself, he’s curious, maybe even a little thrilled.
We follow a couple who walk hand-in-hand toward the door. She’s wearing high leather boots; they could be any young married people out on the town. We end up sharing the elevator, and in lieu of starting a conversation about the obvious, the four of us watch the numbers light up. The door opens, spitting us out into a hall with a drop ceiling, florescent lights, and a fireproof rug. We step into an office suite, and there’s Val bouncing behind a desk, in a glittery tiara and a black lace bustier, collecting $50 "donations" from couples as they enter. That’s because of zoning laws—if the guests are donating money, the logic goes, this party can’t be called a commercial venture, can it? Surely this argument wouldn’t hold up in court, but Val doesn’t seem worried about a raid. The landlord of this building is a friend; he won’t make any trouble. The place is already buzzing, couples around us toting brown paper bags of beer.
As she works the door, her husband, Stu—a squat spark plug of a guy—flies around, making introductions, engaging the fellows in a good-humored debate about the Bruins. Stu takes his duties as a host seriously—he’s the Chairman of Fun. He urges Kevin and me to explore all the rooms: He and his friends have spent days setting up the space, and he wants us to ooh and aah.
We do. What they’ve accomplished—with the help of leftovers from a recent fetish party—is amazing. In the middle of the main room, next to windows covered with vinyl blinds, looms a mattress inside an enormous cage. Over against one wall, a friend of Val’s has opened a pop-up store selling dildos. Jordan’s Furniture sofas curve around a TV playing porn. Kevin and I wander into other rooms: beds everywhere, whips and handcuffs hanging on the walls, some scaffolding for tying people up spread-eagle-style, a stockade. Since the party’s just started, no one’s using the equipment yet; the other couples are doing as we are, wandering around and laughing with surprise at the setup.
When we reemerge into the main room, I strike up a conversation with the sex toy saleswoman, a perky blonde who exudes well-scrubbed enthusiasm as she points out the features of a purple gizmo. She describes herself as a "soccer mom"—she just happens to run this business, too, hosting Tupperware-style parties in friends’ houses. She and her husband, a carpenter, met in high school, so they never had a chance to sleep around as single people; now, they can explore together. Like Val, this woman seems to have united her sex life with a certain entrepreneurial genius befitting this Rachael Ray era. She wants to sell us on the joys of spouse swapping, but she also wants us to leaf through the catalog of vibrators.
We tell her we’re not in the market for any products, thanks, and excuse ourselves to the food table, pretending to nibble on crackers while we try our best to size up the crowd. By now, about 40 or 50 people mill around, chatting amiably, all still clothed. They’re in their thirties, white as Wonderbread, and attractive in a next-door-neighbor kind of way, at least for the hour and a half Kevin and I are there. The men, as if by telepathic consult, have dressed in Friday-casual button-down shirts and khakis. Some of the women wear dresses, as if they’ve come straight from work, too; others are decked out in dance-club finery, miniskirts and high heels. According to Val, this group includes several cops, a judge, and a children’s clothing designer, but it’s hard to guess anyone’s real-world identity. All around me, people ask one another, "How long have you been swinging?" and, "Is this your first party?"
Meanwhile, the real communication happens on a nonverbal level. People carom towards one another, laughing shyly, saying any damn thing that pops onto their tongues. Everyone’s stealing glances around the room, trying to pick out a partner, someone attractive but not so attractive that they might reject an advance.
Given my reason for being here, this presents a certain challenge: How am I supposed to take in this scene, record all its nuances, when even an accidental glance might be read as an invitation? I barely dare to lift my eyes. Though I’m acting like a wallflower, I find myself getting giddy with a contact high—this is the first time since college that I’ve been at an event where everyone’s available. I’m scared to think about what will happen if some guy propositions me. I’m even more concerned that I can’t measure up to the other women, a few of whom are drop-dead gorgeous.
I’m thinking of something Ann said. "There are rules for courtship, rules for marriage, and even rules for infidelity. But there are no rules [for this]." That’s why the idea of it terrifies some people—and thrills others.
"It’s like a pool party," Kevin says. "Everyone’s waiting for someone else to jump into the water. As soon as one couple starts, this whole room will be having sex."
"That’s what I’m afraid of."
"Yeah, things could get awkward."
This is supposed to be a "no pressure" event, meaning it’s fine to not participate. But the rooms have become so crowded that if a few swingers start rolling around, we’ll all be involved, if only as voyeurs. Now, suddenly I feel as self-conscious as a middle school kid. If people start groping nearby, do I watch or look away? And how do you chitchat with strangers while a couple is writhing in a cage next to you? And, truthfully, what’s most overwhelming—and a bit uncomfortable for me—is the vast sense of freedom here, all the
open questions. Would I be jealous if Kevin made out with some woman in front of me, knowing he’d never see her again? Do I want to fool around?
"Let’s go," I say to Kevin, and we ride the elevator back down to earth.