Back in the Swing

One man's search for the swinger next door -- now that 'the lifestyle' has officially gone mainstream. Yeah, baby! By RICHARD RAYNER Photograph by MALERIE MARDER

Remember swinging (or, in another era, wife-swapping)? I thought that had gone out with John Updike's "Couples" and movies like "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice." But now there's a new documentary, "The Lifestyle," on swinging and a book of the same name. As we used to say in the drugged-out 70's, is this really happening?

The swami of swinging, Robert McGinley, says it is, and he claims a certain amount of responsibility. He's the man behind both the North American Swing Club Association (which has 310 nationwide affiliates, up from 150 five years ago) and Lifestyles, a company that organizes swinger events. McGinley, who lives in Anaheim, Calif., has made his lifework out of trying to bring swinging out of the realms of perceived deviance and into the mainstream.

I ask him how much today's "lifestyling" has to do with middle-class couples loading up on the martinis, lobbing their car keys into a fruit bowl and then taking a lucky dip. "No academic ever proved the car-key thing really happened," McGinley says -- a pity, because the car-key thing is the quintessential part of our image of swinging, which is, in turn, a big part of our image of sex in the suburbs. "It's very different now," he says. "It's organized. It's institutionalized." His Lifestyles outfit advertises in newspapers, organizes conventions, holds dances, parties, holidays in the sun. It even lays down a rudimentary etiquette -- couples only, no drugs, no hard liquor, condoms please, an emphasis on consensus at every juncture. McGinley argues that swinging helps preserve marriages. And research by Edgar Butler, an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of California at Riverside, supports that claim. Years ago, Butler found that the divorce rate among swinging couples is actually lower than the norm, and he knows of no studies since then that have shown otherwise.

McGinley invites me to see for myself, at a swinging dance in Orange County that weekend.

"Bring your wife," he says.

"My wife," I say, voice rising a little in panic.

"This is strictly a couples activity," he tells me.

So on Saturday night my wife and I head south on the freeway from Los Angeles, wondering what the hell we're getting into. We pull into the parking lot of a motel opposite a Disneyland roller coaster, where we meet David, the general manager of Lifestyles, a 50-something smoothie with a mustache -- Mr. Swing.

"The girls are in charge, they run everything," he says, casting a twinkling eye in the direction of my wife. Then he turns to me. "You have to understand. Sex is not love. At all. Sex is enjoyment. Watching my wife with another man is no big deal, so long as she's having a good time."

I ask what sort of evening this will be.

"This is just a dance, nothing's going to happen. The men are gentlemen. The women aren't going to be mauled, or leered at."

What about later? I ask him. Will couples be pairing off and going to those motel rooms?

"Some," he says. "Somebody will say: 'Do you wanna go party? Do you wanna go play?' Our couples are very good at understanding what 'No, thank you' means. They don't take offense at it."

And if the answer is yes, then what? Will the switched couples go to separate rooms, agree to see each other again at breakfast?

"That's sensationalism," David says with a sly little grin. "That's what you read in the media. Most couples don't like to separate. It's usually four people in the same room. Or six. Or eight." And that's not sensational? "It's just good fun," he says, with no danger, whether physical or emotional, adding, "This makes you very uncomfortable, doesn't it?"

"Damned right," I say.

"Maybe you're too macho. Of course, there's nothing wrong with monogamy," he says, looking at my wife again. "Just like there's nothing wrong with what we do. Nobody's forced into it. It's a conscious decision we all make. Shall we go upstairs?"

By now I'm feeling pretty limp and threatened, and sorry I didn't make my wife put on a full suit of body armor. But when we enter the ballroom, I find the scene somewhat reassuring. Some of the women are wearing cartoon versions of sexy dresses, skimpy and tight, but otherwise it could be any relentlessly normal party from the last 20 years: thumping music, bar, buffet, hanging lanterns, a glittering disco ball. About 80 couples are there. The average age seems to be 35 to 40.

By the door we meet a couple in their early 30's: Nikki and James, who live nearby in Buena Park on a quiet street with their two kids and two dogs. Nikki is in the dental field; James has his own business. They seem upbeat, sparky and entirely ordinary.

"I made total rules," Nikki says of their first experience with swinging. "We wouldn't do anything that night. We wouldn't even kiss anybody else." She pauses. "I made the rules and I broke every one."

"She was a wild woman," James says.

"I thought, Whoa!" Nikki says. "And then I realized I had a really good time. It's not like we're addicted. But it makes our sex life so much better."

James agrees: "My biggest turn-on is seeing her with other people. Sex for me has always been the other person's pleasure."

"And my biggest turn-on is seeing him with other women," Nikki says. "Because he's probably so much better at it than their own husbands are."

The sex doesn't always work out, they admit. Sometimes only one of the couples will have a good time; sometimes one particular individual may feel excluded. Going to bed with a stranger is, after all, complicated enough even when only two people are involved, let alone, four, six, eight.

We move on, meeting another couple, Donna and Nilo. Redheaded Donna, 43, is the national sales manager for a sports-equipment company. Nilo, tall, hazel-eyed, his black hair shot through with grey, is 38 and a personal trainer. Like most men in the lifestyle, he manages to give off an impression of supreme self-confidence.

"No one woman can cater to me entirely physically," he says. "I'm trying to be honest. I'd had a number of relationships where I'd been unfaithful and I didn't want to do that anymore. I brought this up with Donna at the beginning."

The problem for both of them is that Donna rarely finds the men particularly attractive. "We're kinda picky," he says. "I'd say that since we've been together we've been with between only 35 and 40 couples."

As we drive back to Los Angeles, I say to my wife, "You want to party, baby?"

"Hell, no," she shoots back, adding that she can't believe that people she liked so much could do something she found so weird. We both have the same feeling of escape, of coming to our senses. We've been spun by the swingers, by their ordinariness and friendliness. Their world seemed convincing, indeed even banal, while we were in that ballroom, but now that we're outside it seems utterly bizarre. Only 35 to 40 couples? Kinda picky?

The next Saturday night we go to Orange County once more, to a nondescript two-story stucco house in a nondescript suburban cul-de-sac. The house is bigger than it looks, with a narrow kitchen looking through to a living room, where a disco ball glitters above a small dance floor. Sliding doors lead to a swimming pool, a Jacuzzi, a barbecue pit with a crackling fire; a corridor leads to two rooms, one that can be observed through one-way glass.

There's erotic art on the walls and two mute TV's flickering hard-core pornography. The 70 or 80 normal-looking people appear awkward and ill at ease waiting for the ice to break. We run into Nikki and James and Donna and Nilo. While we're chatting, I catch sight of a woman dancing naked in front of the barbecue fire. Almost as if a switch had been thrown, inhibitions evaporate and the scene, in its commingling of the sexual and the prosaic, becomes surreal, the suburbs as they might be perceived through the lens of a David Lynch.

I walk through the living room into the "playroom." It's small, about 12 feet by 15 feet, with crimson-sheeted mattresses thrown on the floor, sets of bunk beds upholstered in shaggy gray carpet and little brown envelopes tacked to the wall, where people can put their used condoms.

After all the normalcy and pleasantries, I have finally stumbled into the set of a pornographic movie. But it's not a movie, it's reality, and about 22 people are in it. Foursomes, threesomes, twosomes -- one man lazily lounging alone. Ancient Rome comes to mind, and in spite of my empathy for these people, I am repulsed. Someone had warned me that swinging is a gut check. I just got mine.

Driving home, my wife and I agree that somehow we're the ones who've been made to feel abnormal, by people who've made sex their toy, their glue, and swinging the most vibrant area of their lives -- a quest as hedonistic as it seems alienated and perhaps even a little desperate. Down here in Orange County, group sex keeps the terror of life's meaninglessness at bay, at least for some, and it seems the swinging will never end.

April 09, 2000

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company