Hooking Up with the Joneses
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 swinger 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. He’s put money down on two properties where he might throw parties, but still hasn’t settled on a single location. “You can’t have a [spouse-swapping] club in Massachusetts,” says Ed, who feels enforcement of such restrictions is a bit more lax in neighboring states, “so anything you do is going to be temporary.” (Right before press time, Ed did find a location, and extended an invitation to the Boston fact-checker).
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 favor,” 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.