Alt-loving lifestyles in the South Sound
It takes two to tango. Two’s company, three’s a crowd. It takes two to make a thing go right; it takes two to make it outta sight. The word couple reflects society’s assumption that love happens only between two monogamous individuals. Same goes for the phrase pair bonding; yet throughout history, within cultures all over the planet, many have questioned this received wisdom. People in committed relationships don’t always feel thoroughly monogamous. As Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy put it (in The Ethical Slut: A Guide to Infinite Sexual Possibilities), “A ring around the finger does not cause a nerve block to the genitals.”
In I Kings chapter 11, we learn King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines (aka sex slaves), though the Song of Solomon (6:8) reduces those numbers by a factor of about ten. Joseph Smith was content with about two dozen plural wives. Among folks reputed to have open marriages were Edna St. Vincent Millay, Jean-Paul Sartre, Will Smith, Pink, and Larry King (yikes). According to studies conducted since the late 1990s, there are about three million swingers in America. Some claim the prevalence of consensual non-monogamy is several times higher, and includes not only swinging but polyamory or “free love,” meaning viable, loving relationships shared among three or more people. Remember, the French phrase ménage à trois means household, not encounter, of three.
In The Lifestyle: A Look at the Erotic Rites of Swingers (1999), Terry Gould contends that consensual non-monogamy arose in the American Air Force during World War II. “[P]ilots,” Gould writes, “unlike infantrymen, were relatively well-paid officers. During the war years they often brought their spouses to live near their bases across the U.S.” This was an elite group of daredevils. “They were often extraordinarily attractive men,” Gould writes. “The women who married them were risk takers too: they fell for these wild warriors who might very well die within the year.” Pilots exchanged partners at events called “key parties,” though it’s unclear whether anyone drew keys from a fishbowl as portrayed in the 1997 Ang Lee film The Ice Storm. What is known is that by the 1960s, “wife swapping” broke out into the suburbs.
For decades, the mainstream press took a dim view of swinging. A 1992 article in Esquire, for example, was called “Deviates in Love.” In 1994, a columnist for Details compared a convention of swingers to “the hippo cage at the San Diego Zoo.” Over the last few years, however, media coverage has turned grudgingly accepting. In 2006, Leslie Ogden wrote an explicit piece for The Stranger in which she characterized her own open marriage in a positive light. With gay marriage now legal in Washington and the Defense of Marriage Act on its last legs, it seems likely that greater numbers of people in consensually non-monogamous lifestyles will go public. It took only a polite request online to find South Sounders who were willing to talk about their own unconventional relationships.
Rick in Olympia, for example, says he’s “been in non-mainstream relationships since the early ’90s.” Raised in a conventionally Judeo-Christian family, he quickly found himself drawn to alternate avenues of thought. He discovered 20th-century science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein, whose 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land is a touchstone in the lifestyle community.
Gould refers to Stranger as “the bible of the poly people.” Its protagonist is Martian expatriate Valentine Michael Smith, who founds a “Church of the New Revelation” in which communal sex is considered holy. Heinlein himself was something of an odd duck; a longtime proponent of free love for adults, he also wrote lightheartedly about pedophilic relationships in such works as The Door into Summer. Famed editor John W. Campbell once said of him, “Bob can write a better story, with one hand tied behind him, than most people in the field can do with both hands. But Jesus, I wish that son of a gun would take that other hand out of his pocket.”
As for Rick, he dove into alternate religious and political views. He describes himself as “an over-20-year occultist,” by which he means pagan mystic, and he was a nudist while living in (sunnier) western Florida. He’s also a devout libertarian who reveres Aleister Crowley’s credo, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law…Love is the law, love under will.” He says Heinlein showed him “other structures of the marriage relationship” that could function just as well as monogamy. The sex was a draw, of course, but he says, “What impressed me more was polyamory in general, the thought of how much love was out there.” This echoes Heinlein, who had a character exclaim, “There is no need to covet my wife…love her! There’s no limit to her love.”
Rick’s first wife suggested non-monogamy. That marriage didn’t last, but he swears the lifestyle wasn’t a factor. He introduced it to his second wife. “It took hardly any persuasion,” he says, laughing. “Turns out it was a fantasy of hers.” He says he’s never been given to jealousy, though he can see how it affects one’s perception of his lifestyle. “It all comes down to open communication,” he insists, a theme one hears often from devoted practitioners.
I heard it also from “Emma,” a South Sound business owner who asked me not to use her real first name. She had fewer positive experiences than Rick and says, “Most men love the idea in theory but can’t handle it in practice.” She says male rather than female jealousy was the cause of most problems she experienced in the lifestyle, though she cops to feeling it herself after her most recent experience. Originally, she played as a “third” with couples she knew: “A couple of those arrangements were extended.” She had open experiences in her first marriage, but found people often enter the lifestyle without considering its consequences. “You can’t be impulsive,” she admonishes. “There’s gonna be feelings…I think that part of my life is done.”
In a 2000 study for the Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, a full quarter of swinger respondents admitted jealousy was “somewhat” of an issue. Interestingly, the numbers were about the same for male and female swingers, while almost seven out of ten said they felt no jealousy at all. When I asked Rick for a horror story from his own free-love experiences, he laughed. “Horror stories are easy!” he says. “It’s just like any other bad date story.”
How prevalent are alt-relationships in the South Sound? It’s impossible to name a percentage, of course, but a quick glance at Craigslist.com’s Casual Encounters section reveals an active underground. True, that site focuses on singles or established couples looking for extra partners, but there are plenty of sites devoted to helping swinger couples meet and communicate. Among the most popular is SDC.com, “Swingers Date Club,” which claims over three million members. Less dubiously, C4P.com, Kasidie.com, SwingerSocial.com, and SwingLifestyle.com each boast dozens of members in Pierce and Thurston Counties. Local swingers maintain a Yahoo! Group called “Play Dates in Tacoma,” currently at 557 members, which schedules weekly meet-and-greet events at bars in Tacoma and Kent.
A bit north, a wooded area near Everett hosts the largest lifestyle facility in America: New Horizons, a members-only nightclub founded in 1979 and sometimes called “the Disneyland of swing clubs.” It sits on 13 acres and boasts an Olympic-size indoor swimming pool, nude volleyball court, several Jacuzzis, tame-ish “Dungeon,” and garden of inviting trails. Couples who meet on the dance floor are free to consummate their liaisons in a lushly appointed annex. There a sign reads, “No outside clothing. Partners only beyond this point.” The group enforces respectful behavior by using female-friendly bouncers called “Carebears.” It also has its own motorcycle club, the “Sleazy Riders.” Wednesdays are game nights; costume parties (including “ABC parties,” for “anything but clothes”) are held on Saturdays. Regular parties run $69 a couple and up, though rates for unattached women—called “unicorns” in the lifestyle community—are quite a bit lower.
Lifestyle travel is booming as well, thanks in large part to the swinger- and naturist-friendly club Hedonism II in Jamaica. New Horizons steers its members toward clothing-optional Caliente resorts in Tampa and the Dominican Republic. Royal Caribbean offers occasional “lifestyle takeover cruises,” including one in mid-April.
It bears repeating that consensual non-monogamy isn’t always the wet dream it’s cracked up to be. Each practitioner I talked to stressed the importance of advance communication and strict adherence to previously established rules, which vary widely by couple. Some allow only monogamous sex in the company of other couples, while some throw caution to the wind, granting all-access “hall passes.” Whatever your agreement, respect it, they advise. If you can’t, stay “vanilla.” It’s as simple as that.
Next to honest, ongoing communication, perhaps the second-best lifestyle advice of all time was offered (in a different context) by the late, great Douglas Adams: always know where your towel is. Amen!