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.

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.