In the recently released documentary "The Lifestyle," a retired, 62-year-old Inland Empire man sits by his schoolteacher wife and explains: "We are just normal, mainstream American people. . . . Our entertainment is lots of get-togethers. Maybe it is one couple or two couples. We know that when that formality is done, we are going to party."
"Party" is code for swinging, as in swapping partners. If you think that mate-swapping, orgiastic festivities went belly up after the 1969 film "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice," think again. The subculture, referred to as "the lifestyle," is thriving, according to Terry Gould, author of "The Lifestyle: A Look at the Erotic Rites of Swingers" (Random House, 1999). Thousands gather weekly across North America in clubs to meet other couples and indulge in group sex, threesomes, Tantric sex, erotic dancing, voyeurism--whatever rocks their world. "Lifestylers" are a paradox: They marry, have children, are emotionally monogamous but seek sexual variety as couples.
About 3 million people swing, according to the North American Swing Club Assn. International, an Anaheim-based umbrella organization for swing clubs worldwide. It is mostly conservative, middle-aged, middle-class married couples who take "lifestyle holiday tours" to tropical resorts, attend conventions and "party" each weekend at one of the thousands of swing clubs in the country.
Rules of etiquette prevail: Pairs are preferred. Female, but not male, bisexuality is allowed. No means no. Safe sex is encouraged, not required. Jealousy can be a problem, but many say seeing a spouse entwined with another is an aphrodisiac.
A San Diego pair who run a swing club had been married two years when they ventured into the lifestyle 14 years ago.
"It is a turn-on to watch my wife enjoy herself sexually, and I think that she enjoys watching me with other women even more," said the 40-something husband, who asked for anonymity. "When you are able to say to your spouse that you would like to be with another woman and she said she would like to be with another guy, it brings openness to your relationship. There is no jealousy. If love was involved I would be, but it is nothing but sex."
His wife said that while their sex life was never lacking, swinging has enhanced it. Studies of mate swapping and open marriage indicate that men are most often the instigators, said University of Texas at Austin psychologist David M. Buss. "I would be really flabbergasted if women were the primary instigators," he added. "Once women get into it, maybe it's different. But multiple partners is a much more common fantasy of men."
One 51-year-old San Diego woman, who runs a swing club with her husband and another couple, said that jealousy is often an issue. "Many women feel threatened, until they start to enjoy it," she said.
"The friendships you have with other couples are on a whole different basis. You can run around the house with no clothes on. All the sexual energy has been discharged. You can talk about anything."
As Patti Thomas, a 25-year swinger who wrote "Recreational Sex: An Insider's Guide to the Swinging Lifestyle," (Peppermint Publishing, 1997), explains it, the "lifestyle" is only for couples who are happy together and who can make a distinction between sex and lovemaking.
"The majority of couples have a mutual desire to fulfill each other's wants and needs, not only in everyday life but sexually as well. If I have a fantasy of being with more than one man, I need an extra man."