Happily Married SwingersPartner-swapping is more mainstream than ever, and the couple you're about to meet swears it helped their marriage. Are they crazy? Deluded? Hear them out—then decide.
We joked that I should answer the door in a long hippie dress," says Janet Williams*, who's wearing jeans and a T-shirt as I step into the living room of her suburban Orlando home. "Or nude!" says her husband, Eric, who looks like he's dressed for a round of golf in a polo shirt and shorts. They're low-key and welcoming, even though I'm here to grill them about what they do naked: specifically, getting intimate with other couples at swingers parties.
At first glance, it's hard to imagine Janet, 33, stripping down in a room full of strangers. She's gorgeous in a clean-cut sort of way, but her olive skin, Brooke Shields brows, and curvy figure make me bet every guy she works with has a crush on her. And it's not out of the question that Eric inspires watercooler chatter too: He's 6 feet tall and, at 40, has flatter abs than guys half his age. He comes off as strong and straightforward—maybe it's his military background—as he slips his arm around Janet and looks adoringly at her. The tenderness between them makes what I know about their sex life even more baffling. How can two supposedly happily married people watch each other get so close with so many someone-elses?
There's certainly no shortage of partners: The swingers website adultfriendfinder.com claims more than 30 million accounts, and swingers clubs in every single state advertise online. Even the primarily tame website meetup.com has swingers groups, with more than 10,000 members in 51 cities. But how does a committed couple make this lifestyle work? And why would they want to? Janet and Eric have agreed to answer every question I ask on this August afternoon before they head out to a swingers gathering, and even okay my request to ride along with them to the party. I'm also welcome to interview them the day after, when their defenses will be lowest. They're willing to let me share everything except their real names and address, in order to protect their identities.
On paper, Janet and Eric are more Main Street than Wisteria Lane. They've been together 13 years, married for seven. Janet has a master's degree, and Eric enlisted right after high school. They do all the things most married couples do: go to movies, walk their yellow Lab, work out (which explains the abs; they run every morning at 6 a.m.). They don't have any children together, though Eric has a son from a previous marriage who lives with them for part of the year; today he's with his mother. Their living room looks like a Pottery Barn catalog, with throw pillows alternating precisely across the couch: beige, burgundy, beige, burgundy, beige.
They keep their unorthodox sex life under wraps—and with good reason. Janet and Eric both work for the county. If anyone they know professionally discovered what they do in the buff, there would be unfixable damage to their reputations, or worse. "The idea of someone finding out really does scare me," says Janet. Not even their closest friends are privy to their swinging lifestyle. "They call us prudes," she says, laughing. "And for the most part, we are. We follow the rules." Neither one has ever tried drugs, and most nights they're in bed by 10 p.m.—just the two of them.
I ask them to back up for a moment. Sure, they follow everyday rules, but the concept of swinging is mind-boggling to most people in a serious relationship. "It sounds crazy when we look at it from the perspective of the typical married couple," agrees Janet. But they've inched their way into it, she says; after two-plus years of swingers parties, they're just now starting to contemplate actual intercourse with other people (so far, they've engaged in oral sex and foreplay). For them, swinging is something they do to enhance an already strong bond. They talk about what turns them on and what's out-of-bounds before every sex party, and when they go to one, they stay together so everything's in the open. "Janet and I are married, we are best friends, and we do everything as a couple, including this," says Eric. "I see a lot of my friends' marriages end because they get stuck in a rut," Janet explains. "I think that's why it's important to try something new together, whatever it is."
Janet and Eric started swinging to get over a rough patch in their relationship, they tell me. A few years ago, Janet's libido took a nosedive, something she blames on the Pill but could have been due to stress, age, or just growing complacent in her marriage. Eric was frank: He wasn't getting what he needed. "I stopped seeing her in a sexual light," he says. Janet admits sex felt like a chore. "It took me so long to get going," she says. "I couldn't control that my sex drive had plummeted, and when you've been with the same person a while, sex can start to feel same-old, same-old." Eric became concerned; his past marriage had ended after he and his wife stopped being intimate and both had affairs. "I remembered how bad cheating had made me and my ex feel, and I'd never do it again," says Eric. "But I wasn't ready to say, 'I'll pretend to be okay with this'. What's the point of being married and not enjoying sex together?"
The lightbulb went off while the two were on vacation and Eric, on a whim, suggested hitting a strip club. Surprisingly, Janet was game. "I was relaxed after a few days off, and it seemed exciting," she says. "Just doing something, anything, new—I needed that." Once they had a few cocktails, Eric bought Janet a table dance. For him, watching Janet with someone else—even a stripper for hire—was a turn-on. For Janet, being watched by Eric was equally sexy. The rest of the vacation was charged in a way they hadn't experienced in a while. "We couldn't keep our hands off each other," says Eric.
When their trip ended, Eric began looking for other things to keep the sparks flying back home. That's when he found adultfriendfinder.com, a pornographic site that allows anyone over 18 to post video. It's filled with homemade movies from real couples, and Eric asked Janet if she'd view it with him. She agreed, and soon they graduated to on-camera foreplay, being sure to hide their faces. "We could see how many people were watching, and they would leave comments raving about Janet's body," says Eric. "I never thought I'd be turned on by other men seeing my wife nude, but I really was." Janet was aroused by the attention as well. "Eric doesn't always show appreciation for me," she says. "He says he thinks it, but that doesn't do me much good." Eventually, though, they burnt out on AdultFriendFinder. Eric was ready to try something in real life.
They decided to try a swingers club. "It was Eric's idea, but I was on board," Janet says. She and Eric hammered out ground rules: no kissing other people, no doing anything without checking with the other person first, and always staying together. "To us, sex is a physical act, but kissing is an intimate act," Eric explains. "That's why it's always off the table." In other words: Pretty Woman rules? "Exactly," says Janet. They finally picked a club over an hour away. The experience was exhilarating, but not their scene. Things didn't get started until after midnight—tough for a couple that goes to bed well before Letterman—and they were freaked out by the atmosphere: One room was filled with people in bondage gear.
After a few failed nights at sex clubs, Janet and Eric were relieved to find Club Relate, a private swingers group owned by a husband-and-wife team, Tom and Lynda Gayle. According to Eric and Janet, the Club Relate crowd is older (members are typically in their 40s or 50s) and, perhaps consequentially, more approachable. "Everyone is so nice, and so respectful," says Eric. "They ask before they do anything with someone else's partner." Lynda keeps a box of latex gloves around, at Janet's request (she doesn't like the idea of germy hands on her), and there are bottles of water and bowls of condoms laid out. Best of all, things get going at 7:30 p.m., and most parties are in hotel rooms instead of nightclubs lit by disco balls.
Tonight, Lynda is hosting a sex party in a hotel suite. Eric and Janet are eager to go; it's been over a month since their last event, and they're ready to push the envelope even more. They get giddy remembering their first time, when they had sex while strangers watched. "We were up all night afterward," says Eric. "We felt high from the experience." Neither Janet nor Eric say they're addicted to swinging, but it does sound a bit like a drug: "You start to crave it," Eric says. "This summer, I noticed I was thinking about it at work. That's when I said, 'Okay, time to take a break.'"
I ask Janet if she's really never gotten jealous seeing Eric touch another woman. She swears up and down that it doesn't bother her when he does, or when another woman massages him (massage is pretty much code for any type of touching in the swingers circle). "It's just sex," she says. "Not love. Not intimacy. Sex."
So where does the couple draw the line? Janet has received oral sex from someone else, but Eric hasn't, nor has he performed it. Janet explains that this is because she's terrified of him getting a sexually transmitted disease. (It's an interesting double standard; Janet didn't use protection the last time she received oral sex from a stranger.) As for emotional boundaries, "I'd be jealous if he were to do something without me there," she says. Eric is quick to reassure her: "That would never happen." Their attitude toward swinging is that they both play or they don't play—end of story. "It's all centered around what makes us happy as a couple," Janet says. "It's always been about us, for us. That's why I think it's helped our marriage."
The action doesn't start for another few hours, so I accept Lynda's invitation to attend the orientation for Club Relate newbies. When I enter the suite—the same one that will be used for the party later on—I see four others already seated, looking nervous. There are two single men, both older, short, and bald. There's also a somewhat mismatched married couple: She's young and beautifully exotic; he's an ersatz Paul McCartney and has a good 15 years on her. She nuzzles him sweetly.
Thirty-nine people have RSVP'd for tonight's party. It sounds like a lot, and I envision a sort of Hieronymus Bosch painting—this beige hotel suite writhing with bodies. But Lynda explains that it won't feel overcrowded, because "lots of people will just be watching." (True, people take up less space when vertical.) Then she outlines the rules: no alcohol, no drugs, and if someone propositions you and you're not into it, just say, "No, thank you, but thanks for asking." This particular flavor of swinging is all about manners. Most clubs have the no-thank-you rule, but Lynda has added the cordial nicety of the second part. It makes sense. Rejection is one thing, but rejection in front of a group of people while naked? Ouch.
As we file out of orientation, the suite's ambience is quickly transforming from convention-center bland to bow-chicka-bow-wow thanks to shades thrown over the lamps and twinkling tea lights surrounding the Jacuzzi tub. I walk to my car, and out of the corner of my eye, I see Eric and Janet heading in to the hotel. We wave to each other as they go to join the rest of the group.
The next day, I meet the couple at a Mexican restaurant. Janet wears heels, a sundress, and a big grin. They're both in a contagiously good mood. After ordering breakfast, they start to whisper some of the details from last night: Once the party began, they made a beeline for a massage table. Another man joined them, and he and Eric gave Janet an erotic massage. Afterward, Janet urged Eric to touch the beautiful woman I'd met in orientation while she watched; Eric admits he was intimidated because the woman was so pretty. "It's like an eighth-grade dance," Janet says. "I had to physically push him to go up to her."
They get sidetracked trying to recall all the places in the suite where they had sex, and the conversation devolves into laughter. "It's sensory overload," explains Eric. They have a sort of blissed-out afterglow usually reserved for honeymooners. "She's been really lovey today," he continues. "She keeps saying, 'I love you so much, you're my best friend.' It's nice to hear." Despite the fatigue, they woke up this morning and had sex first thing.
When I ask them what's next, Janet jumps in. She says they've hung out twice now with a couple they met online, and they're hoping a swap—including intercourse—will happen soon. "I'll feel safer with one married couple than the group setting," says Janet. Her rationale: There will be less risk of STDs, because everyone's married, even though it's obvious there's not a lot of monogamy going on. The emotional risk of swinging with one couple doesn't faze them. Janet and Eric insist that if either of them started to feel any sort of emotional attachment to their new friends, the arrangement would end.
Meanwhile, Eric relishes their swinger status—even if nobody knows about it but them. He starts talking about the guys at work, how they go nuts when a hot girl walks by. "They're sex-starved," he says, shaking his head. He looks warmly at Janet. "I don't act like them, because I have enough. I have more than enough." And yet, they keep upping the ante, daring themselves to go further and betting their bond won't snap under pressure. "This has made us brutally honest with each other," Janet says. "Exploring has made us happier. It's still just us, together, in my mind."
Reality check from a doctor
Our resident sexual health expert, Hilda Hutcherson, M.D., is pretty open-minded... but this trend has her worried.
"If swinging isn't something a woman really wants to do, then she shouldn't," Hutcherson says. "It can lead to major resentment." Even when both partners are genuinely curious, it's crucial to set ground rules and protect each other against sexually transmitted diseases. "Just because someone is married doesn't mean they're safe. Even with condoms, you can be exposed to viruses like HPV and herpes," she says. HPV (human papillomavirus) can lead to cervical cancer, of course, but it's also linked to throat cancers—making oral sex riskier than most people think. There are emotional risks too: "One of my patients got divorced after she saw her husband with someone else at a swingers party. She thought she could handle it, but she realized too late that she couldn't," Hutcherson says.
Couples therapist Mira Kirshenbaum, author of the upcoming book I Love You but I Don't Trust You, agrees: "Before a couple does anything like this, they should talk to each other about what their needs are and brainstorm ways to meet those needs that don't involve swinging." She also underlines the importance of establishing rules, and stresses that couples should have an exit clause. "It's essential," she says. "If swinging isn't working for one person, it needs to stop, no questions asked."
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