Can family values survive sexual adventure? At "lifestyle" clubs like New Horizons, married couples say they've found a happy alternative to adultery
To get to New Horizons you have to find your way through a strip-mall town outside Seattle, then along a tertiary road that snakes up chip and down dale through the rainforest, watching all the time for two anonymous brick pillars. A 500-foot gravel driveway ends in front of a metal warehouse where the senior citizen who is the owner and builder of the resort runs a manufacturing business. Getting out of your car, you might not have a clue that you are within a hundred yards of the largest swing club in North America, second only in the world to the German club Maihof. There is no sign that tells you to cross the Japanese bridge spanning a brook, no arrow that tells you to follow the narrow dirt path through the thick cedar forest, no letters on the binge brick wall that you come upon all of a sudden, nor on the heavy, varnished oak doors to the 12,000-square-foot mansion. You have to have either read about New Horizons in its listings in swing-club directories or heard about it from one of the tens of thousands of people who have visited it in the last nineteen years. You have to have called, booked a reservation, and then received directions from the owner's daughter, an unassuming intellectual with a couple of post-graduate degrees who wants you to call her Connie.
In the summer of 1996, I drove south from Vancouver to witness a four-day convention at New Horizons, attended by about 150 couples who considered themselves "in the lifestyle." The lifestyle is a name North American swingers adopted in the 1080s to free themselves from the snappy terms that made them into media fast food, and to define themselves as part of a recognizable subculture. It is populated by about 3-million mostly middle-aged, middle-class, married people who take "lifestyle holidays" to resorts in hot places, attend any of eleven annual conventions in eight states, and each weekend visit one of 300 clubs in Canada and the U.S. formally affiliated with the North American Swing Clubs Association, or thousands of non-affiliated clubs. There are about a million more lifestylers today than there were a decade ago, and they are a social paradox: a heady blend of North American values and North American fantasies. Couples in the lifestyle believe they live in a certain style that melds conservative family values - matrimony, children, emotional monogamy - with the erotic cultivation of their marriages through the practice of rites that include everything from sexual costume parties to multi-partner sex as a form of social recreation. Nevertheless, roughly ten per cent of the couples in the lifestyle do not actually "swing." They just like dressing for the beach or the harem and going to parties where Bacchic titillation is the norm.
Accompanying me to the New Horizons convention were my wife, Leslie; and Dr. Josef Skala, the medical adviser to the book I had been contracted to write about this subculture, from its non-swinging "soft" end to its most orgiastic limits. New Horizons was the club favoured by those in the fast lane of the lifestyle.
We arrived early on the opening day of the convention and, as we negotiated the very private approach to the club, I told Skala why we would probably not meet one swinger that weekend who was out of the closet. I'd just spent time with thirty couples on a lifestyle-holiday at the Eden Resort in the Baja, which had attracted the likes of a physician, a social worker, a school principal, a therapist, and a nuclear-power-plant manager. They were mostly a fit-looking bunch who massaged each other on the nude beach, danced close at toga parties, and discreetly shared partners in the rooms. But I'd learned how greatly they feared a society that judged them to be living at the bottom of a moral pit. They knew that when the mainstream media discussed spouse-sharing it was usually not as "a recognizable part of the rich mosaic of human sexuality," as the evolutionary biologist Robin Baker wrote in Sperm Wars. Back in 1993, GQ published an article on a 1,500-couple convention put on by the subculture's California-based overseeing body, the Lifestyles Organization, and described the conventioneers as grotesque figures "in a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, Bosch by way of Wal-Mart." Swingers at the Lifestyles '94 convention persuaded Details columnist Anka that she was "in front of the hippo cage at the San Diego Zoo." And the British edition of Elle spiced its report of the 1995 convention by labelling attendees "the walking wounded," as well as describing them, with flat British contempt, as "the kind you find in Florida malls? In all these articles, the holy trinity of fashion - shape, age, and class - were used as arguments in favour of the revulsion we were supposed to feel for these unfashionable transgressors.
As Connie handed us our convention packages in the lobby of New Horizons, I told Josef Skala that I was writing my book as much to explain society's hatred of the swinging lifestyle as to explain the lifestyle itself. I knew that the
authorities got so angry at swingers that they barged into their private clubs, charged them with offences, and forced them out into the street in front of leering cameras. Just this past year a raid on Club L'Orage in Montreal publicly humiliated forty-two white-collar folks, including a physician, an airline pilot, and an ophthalmologist. The police actually phoned the press beforehand so they could photograph the raid. Co-marital sex is not only viewed by right-wing moralists as a path leading to hell, but no rogue gene has yet been discovered to make swingers forgivable to liberals. Unlike gays and lesbians, swinging "playcouples" (as some of them call themselves) cannot be considered sexually self-segregating; hence they are a moral threat to mainstream heterosexuals who could be seduced into their ways. On the other hand, if the police ever decided to harass New Horizons they might confront themselves, since a few of the club's members are cops.
I'd heard couples call the thirteen-acre resort the "Disneyland of swing clubs," and the sorts of fast-lane swingers it attracts are thought to account for about a quarter of the subculture - which argues for about 750,000 of them. Even within the swing world they are judged more promiscuous than the vast majority and more willing to participate in a group-sex encounter. They're the ones you usually read about in the press, rather than the other three-quarters who are similar to the partner-sharers I'd met at the Eden Resort. Nevertheless, the fast-lane swingers come from the same staid ranks of the white-collar middle class, and it was my belief that if I could understand, in biological terms, the behaviour of this quarter of the lifestyle, I could explain the central mystery of the overall culture. The U.S. sociologist Brian Gilmartin had posed that mystery in 1978: "To most Americans it is inconceivable that a person could allow his or her own spouse to engage in casual sexual intercourse with another partner in his or her own house. To the swinger, on the other hand, to do so is most often seen as an aphrodisiac."
The woman who volunteered to take Leslie, Skala, and me on the orientation tour of New Horizons was a former high-ranking military. officer who had been a member of the club for a year. "By the way, I went ahead and put tags out so that you'd get good seats? the chipper forty-year-old Jodie told us in the empty banquet hall. "There's another dining room upstairs and unless you claim a table early, you could wind up there. You get to see everything better from here," she added, indicating the dance floor, the bandstand, the chandeliers, the hardwood panelling, the glass wall behind us that overlooked an indoor, Olympic-sized swimming pool, and the tall windows that gave a great view of a gold-green garden which was bordered by tall cedars and little lamps that marked the start of Hansel-and-Gretel trails.
"There'll be three couples at every table," Jodie said. "They pretty much come from all over the country and from up where you are in Canada. Everybody just relaxes and eats and dances, and then gradually they filter on back to what we call the Annex. The 'Inhibition-Inhibitor Wing,' I call it!"
"Are most of the couples married?" my wife of a quarter-century asked, her arms folded against her chest as if she were chilled. Leslie had accompanied me to other swinging events and had actually bumped into business colleagues who were in the slower lanes of the lifestyle-but New Horizons was something else again. In fact, I'd warned both Leslie and Skala: "Fast means fast." The convention was called "A Celebration of Intimacy Among Friends."
"I'd say practically all are married," Jodie told Leslie. "Some get married here. They like romantic ceremonies."
"Interesting," Skala said.
"By the way, I meant to tell you, Dr. Skala," Jodie said, "I was very impressed with your credentials."
Skala, Josef P, M.D., Ph.D., FRCP(C) - as I'd mentioned over the phone to Connie - was a senior teaching professor and cancer researcher on the Faculty of Medicine at the University of British Columbia, as well as a visiting professor of medicine at Charles University in Prague, with specialties in gynecology, obstetrics, physiology, and pediatrics. I'd invited him to accompany me to this convention partly because he was my adviser on the book and partly because I wanted to show him evidence for what I thought might be the complementary reasons husbands and wives could be enjoying the fast-lane lifestyle.
Skala had read psychiatrist Mary Jane Sherfey's 1972 book, The Nature and Evolution of Female Sexuality, and was intrigued that her once heterodox views on female "sexual insatiability" were now being given weight by biologists Robin Baker and Mark Bellis, the authors of Human Sperm Competition (later popularized by Baker in his 1996 Sperm Wars). They were the first to document how men's sperm were programmed to kill each other in the female reproductive tract, and how the female actively promoted that battle between "two (or more) men at the same time," leading Baker to theorize that "the traditional double standard may even betray an innate male understanding that if given the cultural freedom to do so, females would behave as licentiously as males."A man suspicious of his wife's fidelity ejaculated three times as many sperm, with a more powerful orgasm, than during "routine sex."
Sherfey's evolutionary explanation for extravagant female promiscuity and the "sperm wars" theory, now all the rage in academia, shook hands in the lifestyle. In fact, they provided the only biological explanations I'd ever heard for why the kind of sex favoured by lifestylers had kept cropping up throughout history among everyday segments of remarkably different populations, from the Neolithic hordes who danced naked on the heath to the modern revellers of Brazil during Mardi Gras. It was not just "the walking wounded" of the Florida mall crowd who were history'S playcouples.
"This is all owned by Connie and her dad, and the whole family," Jodie said as she showed us the manicured park behind the party house. She chattily pointed to open-air tents for nude picnics, a badminton court for alfresco play, and the mosquito zappers along the trails that protected guests when they recreated in the woods. We walked back to the building complex, then up a flight of stairs into a glass-walled passageway between the main building, with its swimming pool and banquet hall now on our left, and the mysterious Annex to our right. As she strolled down the hallway, Jodie gave a friendly wave to some early-bird arrivals who were just then climbing naked into a patio hot tub. At the end of the hall, she pulled open two heavy cedar doors."Ta DAH!"
"Holy shit!" I said.
"My God!" my wife said.
"In-ter-esting!" Skala said.
The Annex, or, as I would hear it referred to by some astronomy-minded swingers, the "Satellite," towered very much like an extraterrestrial craft almost three storeys above us and stretched sixty feet from where we stood to the opposite wall, colour fully enlivened by a mystical, air-brushed mural of naked men and women in carnal ecstasy. The sheer breadth, height, and variety of the layout had us looking upward and turning around with our eyes and mouths agape, since, by design, any visitor could take in from the door a lot of what the club had to offer sexually and (just as certainly by design) many of the couples partaking. Yet, open to the rafters though it was, in its ranch-style construction the vast Annex strove for the warmth of a Northwoods lodge, built post-and-beam in the shape of a six-sided tower around a sunken brick hearth, with many surrounding walls containing a doorless theme room, making for at least a dozen fantasy chambers. Some rooms glowed brightly from their mirrored ceilings and walls; others were softly lit and decorated variously like a sultan's tent, a railway car with facing passenger seats, and a Harlequin Romance room replete with period couches. Rustic stairways connected the levels; banistered gangways crossed the air; and mini-playhouses - cantilevered out over space - gave guests a vantage point from which to privately peep at the activities taking place below. Lining the walls were waterbeds, red plush couches, massage tables, bunk beds with translucent draw-curtains, and suggestive arrangements of swivel-chairs called "Eros Seats." All was cozily quiet save for the crackle and hiss of the central fireplace, around which there was room for ten couples to sit below-floor level on built-in couches and make love in the light of leaping flames. There was a big sign on the varnished log facing us: "No outside clothing. Partners only beyond this point."
"Isn't it another world in here?" Jodie asked, twirling around by the fireplace. "There's no limit. How can you not want to feel like this? It's not reality, it's just pure fun, a comfy place where you can come with your partner, where you can have your fantasies, and then you can go back to your real life and your inhibitions."
She waved her hand at a wall of pigeon-hole lockers which lined a cedar passage that led into a room of showers, sinks, and toilets. "Now, you guys don't have to walk around naked - you can wear a towel or a bathing suit or a nightie or kimono - but they want to prevent fully dressed people from coming in and gawking. And speaking of kimonos, here's the Japanese room." She took off her heels, pointed to our shoes for us to do the same, and led the way into a bright red, velvet-walled room whose floor was completely covered in flowered futons. Stylized drawings of couples with satirically enlarged genitalia were hung on the walls, and, in one corner, there was a stack of pamphlets from the community health district: "Straight Talk for Safe Sex" and "As Safe as You Wanna Be." Most weekends, Jodie said, Connie had the town's health nurse give seminars on STDs to the swingers."There are top-of-the-line condoms in each room in these wicker baskets," she pointed to a basket in the corner, "and they're always being refilled."
She took us upstairs and pointed to the dollhouses I'd seen from below, plus several other crib-like cubicles built into the landing and overlooking the downstairs. "Okay, these are what we call the condos" she said. "They're really private, and you can crawl in here and be with your partner and look over the action through the windows. Also, you find a lot of the husbands come in here on the sly just to watch their wives. It's like a man's fly-on-the-wall fantasy - you know, what is she really like without me!?" She whizzed us through "The Arabian Room" and "Miss Daisy's Academy" and "The Loft," reminiscing all the while about the uninhibited fun she and her friends had experienced on the pillows and divans and carpets and tables.
Jodie had a lot of friends.
The strength of the drive determines the force required to suppress it," Mary Jane Sherfey wrote regarding female sexuality, and a big swing club is the place to go to see many women like Jodie offering uninhibited evidence why that suppression may have been so forceful throughout history. It is also, paradoxically, the place to see male jealousy - the irrepressible emotion behind that murderously repressive force - turned on its head, with husbands enjoying rushes of lust for their promiscuous wives.
It's another world that doesn't seem to make sense by any standard of "normal" behaviour - and there are scientists who say it couldn't exist as advertised. Wives could not really be "choosing" to have promiscuous sex with friends, because even non-human female primates are discriminating in their choice of sex partners. "Swinging is fundamentally a male device for obtaining extramarital sex," one of the world's leading evolutionary anthropologists, Donald Symons, concluded in The Evolution of Human Sexuality, published in 1981. "Presently available evidence," Symons wrote, "supports the view that human males typically experience an autonomous desire for a variety of sex partners and human females are far less likely to do so." Symons explained that, at a fundamental level, human females were aware that the consequence of a single act of sex was immense - a nine-month pregnancy and the birth of a helpless child. Over millions of years, those females who had successfully raised children must have delayed mating until they were able to assess the male's potential for offering good provision and steady protection during the child's infancy. At the end of the day, the women who mated promiscuously for pleasure must have lost out in the evolutionary battle to produce the greatest number of surviving offspring - the bottom line of evolution.
Not surprisingly, Symons scorned Sherfey's theory that the female's "insatiable" capacity for orgasm served an evolutionarily important function: to make her promiscuously search out fertility and variety. "To my knowledge, Sherfey's argument has not been taken seriously by evolutionary biologists," Symons wrote, about a dozen years before his own theories would begin to be questioned by the evolutionary biologists Baker and Bellis. "Happily promiscuous, nonpossessive, Rousseauian chimpanzees turned out not to exist," Symons claimed, again a few years before primatologists began to report that bonobo chimps, our closest relatives, were happily promiscuous and non-possessive of partners in their very sensual social structure. "I am not convinced by the available evidence that such human beings exist either."
Symons's view of human sexuality is sometimes referred to as "the standard model." As Skala and I reviewed the latest revisions of this model after our tour with Jodie, it seemed to us that the evidence of evolution argued for, not against, the complements of pleasure and domesticity pursued by men and women at all levels in the lifestyle. "The swingers believe that human beings (both male and female) are intrinsically monogamous from a psycho-emotional and residential standpoint, but polygamous from a sexual standpoint," the sociologist Brian Gilmartin had argued in his study of swingers, and Skala and I could see how many adulterers of both genders might privately agree with that.
By about eleven o'clock, we were dawdling over dessert in the banquet room while a slow country tune played too loudly over the speakers. The dance floor was no longer populated enough to absorb the echo, since three-quarters of the couples had gone back to the Annex, where the rest of us were headed next. "Every new couple we meet, we always say, it's the sex that puts you here, but it's the people who keep you here," an auburn-haired woman named Edith was telling Leslie.
"Haven't you ever gotten yourself into a situation where what you're feeling with one of those people becomes love?" my wife asked.
"No, not really. I don't need that emotional commitment - I've got Sol." She put her hand over her husband's. In contrast to the playful underwear costumes which had been on parade all night, Sol and Edith were unspectacularly covered in baggy white cotton. Perhaps that was because they ran a health-food store and eschewed artificial fabrics. Longtime members of New Horizons, they were in their early forties, with two teenaged sons now at home with Sol's mother.
"We're not having sex with someone because we're looking for emotional commitment," Sol said. "We're looking for the open communication; then you have the ability to shed the mask that you put on for everyone else. We've found we can't really do that anywhere but here, or with friends we meet here and get together with."
"You should understand," a real-estate agent named Larry said to me, "once you draw down the wall of secrecy through sex, there are no more secrets. Once you see all your friends like that, everyone's made themselves so vulnerable you're not going to laugh at them. You're exposed to each other." At that moment Larry's wife, Beth, was out on the dance floor, in what most people would perhaps consider an exposed position. Having just emerged from a dip in the pool she wore only underpants and red heels as she moved to the heart-throb music in the tight embrace of a square-jawed car dealer named Konrad. Tall Beth's chin rested on bald Konrad's shoulder and her eyes were closed. As I watched, she pulled her face back and soul-kissed him.
All night we had been watching these romantic games of seduction by veteran lifestylers. But it should be borne in mind that these were long-married, middle-aged people who were able to function in this manner. Most swingers will tell you that couples under thirty or couples just falling in love are incapable of enjoying the lifestyle - and that not every middle-aged swinger is a happy swinger. There are drop-outs from the lifestyle, and there are what sociologists call "user males" - men who essentially barter their women. Yet the warning message on the Lifestyles Organizations pamphlet, Etiquette in Swinging, and on its Web site, makes it clear that the subculture only wants people who fit certain criteria to approach swinging. "Swinging is not for everyone.... A positive feeling about yourself, your mate and relationship is important. People who are jealous, play social games, have a poor opinion of the opposite sex, are deeply religious, or have relationship problems are among those who are not likely to enjoy swinging." As the saying in the lifestyle goes, "Swinging never made a bad marriage good," and most swingers believe that.
The dance tune ended, there was some scattered applause, and Beth returned to the table and sat in Larry's lap, followed by Konrad, who pulled his chair over and sat beside Beth. He had a shapely wife named Frieda, about a decade younger than his forty-five years, who had gone back to the Annex with the rest of the crowd.
"The beauty of the lifestyle is that you get to have your catharsis and eat it too," Beth said, her arms around her husband Larry's neck. Beth taught high-school English, and was pretty adept at twisting epigrams.
"How you feeling?" Larry asked her.
"All the good, horny things." She bit Larry's nose, then reached over and took Konrad's hand.
"You will not find me complaining about these good horny things," Konrad said, with a debonair Euro accent.
Beth theatrically switched from Larry's lap to Konrad's, crossed her legs, put her hands behind her wet blonde hair, and threw her locks out across her bare shoulders. She tilted her head away from Konrad and looked at Skala. "My independence is intact here. I'm not giving up control."
"There are studies which show women are generally in control of consensual situations," Skala said.
"And it is expected here for her to be in control," Konrad said. "But that is something that will be very hard for him to convince anyone of." He indicated me with a tip of his Rolex.
"I'll tell you guys frankly, when I was young I wasn't into this at all," Beth said. "The first time Larry said we should give this a try, I got here and I thought, Look at all these old people, yuck! I was twenty-five, but now I'm thirty-five, lemme at it!"
"How long have you been involved?" Leslie asked.
"Since after I got over my depression from my third child," Beth said. "Three years now. We baby-stepped the first couple of months, then we had a group fantasy situation - all our friends - Konrad and Frieda, Sol and Edith -" She looked around, probably for the other couples I'd seen her dancing with that evening. "They all kept saying, 'Are you okay with this? Is this all right for you?' They were so nice, doing all sorts of things. I was the Queen of Sheba, and it was just terrific."
"When we drove home, I asked her, 'How did you like it?'" Larry related." She says, 'It was all right.' So I asked, 'Well, did you like all these guys?'"
"I was still afraid to say how much I liked it," Beth recalled, "that he would think, 'I've created a monster? So he keeps begging me, 'Tell me more, tell me more.' So I told him, 'You want to know? Here it is: It was rea-l-ly great, I had the best time. I never came so many times in my life.' Well!" she laughed, "he got so excited, we made love at a rest stop. That's been his biggest fantasy since two years after we were married! Watching me."
"Every swinging man's got to like experiencing that," Larry observed. "If they don't, it's not going to work as a couple."
"Terry's trying to explain that biologically," Leslie said.
I told them I was coming up with a general theory to explain the lifestyle. In 1971, the science journalist Edward M. Brecher had reviewed Mary Jane Sherfey's theory on the sexually insatiable female, compared it to the "unlimited multi-orgasmic response" experienced by some women during group sex, and coined the term "Sherfey syndrome." He'd reported that Sherfey syndrome was the exception at swing clubs, but that it was greatly enjoyed by a number of normal, middle-class women without any ill effect on either their bourgeois marriages, or their "sensitive maternal behavior." I had therefore derived a "syndrome" for husbands who were counter-intuitively aroused by their wife's enjoyments - from soft-end flirtation to the extreme Sherfian response: I called it "sperm competition syndrome."
"It's a biological explanation for why swinging men get excited by watching their wives flirt or have sex," I said."It has to do with increased sperm ejaculation and orgasm pleasure."
"That doesn't surprise me," Sol said. "Why would it be abnormal if every man who feels it is normal? It's alternative."
A few minutes later, our five tablemates stood up and headed for the Annex. "There are going to be a lot of naked people in there," I told Leslie and Skala as we followed them across the pool deck. We climbed the spiral stairs to the second-level corridor that crossed over to the Annex. At the far end of the corridor, Beth grandly pulled both wooden doors open. One sweeping glance at the Annex would have made you conclude that the fantastic parade of couplings depicted on India's Tantric shrines could very well have been drawn from life.
The term "male bias" is frequently used to slam scientists who have concluded that normal females are mere passive babymaking machines. Charles Darwin, the genius who reasoned through the very processes of evolution, is also the supposed founder of the tradition of male bias in evolutionary biology. When Darwin first published The Origin of Species in 1859, a cultural certitude reigned that was far more unshakeable than the faith in Biblical creation: the belief that females were much less interested in sex than males. Darwin saw female animals as demure, mentally dull, and as removed from lust as he considered Victorian women to be. They sat back and watched the males violently compete or posture for them, then received the winner of the competition. Generation by generation, this process "selected for" the exaggeration of those male characteristics that won them the most mates, such as a huge antler rack or a six-foot peacock fan. Darwin called the process "sexual selection," and it explained why the males of most species were more impressive looking than the females.
There was, however, a group of hairy females whose spectacular difference from the males of their species Darwin just couldn't figure out. "No case interested and perplexed me so much," he wrote, "as the brightly coloured hinder end and adjoining parts of certain monkeys." He simply could not imagine that those flaming folds of exquisitely sensitive flesh were sexual swellings - that they, and the hormones which caused them, were driving the females with a "male-like" lust for twelve days at a time. Every bit as spectacular and "selected for" as a peacocks tail, the folds were there to advertise ovulation and to solicit sex for the female from multiple male partners - sometimes from every single male in the troop and, if she could get away with it, from males outside the troop.
Darwin's inability to overcome his cultural conditioning in the matter of female sexuality is thought by some anthropologists to point up a weakness inherent in the entire field of evolutionary thought, and it is why, to my mind, the implications of the sex lives of couples in the lifestyle have remained pretty much ignored - except by mavericks. Not until the scientists themselves began living in a social milieu where respectable women started to be openly promiscuous - as many had been doing in secret - did scientists say, "Let's modify our ideas about three-million years of evolution to accommodate this natural behaviour."
One of the first scientists to reject the old orthodoxies of female sexuality was Mary Jane Sherfey. In the early 1960s, her research had led her to suspect that Freud's theory of the vaginal orgasm was based on male bias, not biology; it matched the accepted view of females as naturally monogamous, satiated by one vaginal orgasm - equalling one penile ejaculation - which matched the perception of how women were behaving. Yet Sherfey's female patients were entering her office with a concern. During masturbation, some were telling her, they experienced "up to fifty orgasms in a single session." Freud, Sherfey knew, would have labelled them as suffering from "nymphomania without promiscuity" - a malady that required treatment to enable them to "transfer" their attention from the fiery nubbin of the clitoris to the vagina, and be satisfied with one orgasm. But Sherfey suspected they weren't suffering from any malady at all. They just had a "healthy, uninhibited sexuality." Then Sherfey read William Masters and Virginia Johnson's study of the clitoral orgasm, and she had an epiphany. "It was truly a eureka-experience for me" she wrote. "This was it! Freud was wrong. Men were wrong.... There was no such thing as the vaginal orgasm as heretofore conceived."
Sherfey's writing, from our perspective, might sound hyperbolic. After all, does it really matter where a woman has her orgasm? In point of fact, to a psychiatrist, as well as to an evolutionary theorist, it matters very much: the location and functioning of the orgasm bears heavily on female sexual capacity, which affects the view of normal female behaviour, the interpretation of history - including why millions of women have been murdered by jealous men unforgiving of their supposed harlotry - and, ultimately, the origins of a culture that has mostly operated on the belief that female promiscuity is unnatural. All the biological information coming Sherfey's way from Masters and Johnson and from her own clinical practice proved that women weren't just equipped to have one or two orgasms, as most men were. Because of the large and refined structure of the internal "clitoral system," women could go on having orgasms all night. "To all intents and purposes," Sherfey wrote, "the human female is sexually insatiable in the presence of the highest degrees of sexual satisfaction." (Sherfey's italics.)
In fact, contrary to all cultural norms, she maintained that sex actually became more frustrating for the monogamous woman as she aged and had children - since the erogenous capacity of the clitoral system became greater. Thus, while the male's capacity for orgasm and performance decreased, women became more inclined to experience, and more capable of experiencing, the fullness of their sexuality. "These findings give ample proof of the conclusion that neither men nor women, but especially not women, are biologically built for the single spouse, monogamous marital structure."
So just what were women built for? To Sherfey, the implications were clear: women were built for a considerable number of men during each ovulation phase. The modern human female's insatiable capacity, she reasoned, must have at one time been "selected for" to aid female survival and reproduction, or women would not still have it as a physiological trait.
In the end, Sherfey did not argue that inordinate sexual expression was the way women should behave in our civilization; she warned that if women began expressing their "impelling, aggressive eroticism," they would threaten male virility and paternity, and men would react violently. As a psychiatrist, her emphasis was on understanding, not promotion; evolutionary recognition, not cultural denial. "I urge the re-examination of the vague and controversial concepts of nymphomania and promiscuity without frigidity," she wrote. "It could well be that the 'oversexed' woman is actually exhibiting a normal sexuality - although because of it her integration into her society may leave much to be desired."
Sherfey published her theory in 1966 in The Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association - the most respected in its field - and republished it in book form in 1972. As can be imagined, people breathlessly wondered if women would really behave that way if they were given the total freedom to have sex with whomever they wanted. Evolutionary biologists soberly argued that, yes, women could behave that way, but most women wouldn't. Ovulating women do not exhibit the irresistible sexual swellings of other primates, nor the hormonal rush that made them into Sherfian creatures for a time. In any case, they said, studies of non-human female primates showed that while they could be promiscuous (as it was then finally being acknowledged human females could be) they still invested far more heavily in offspring than males, and thus were far more discriminating in their choice of males than males were in their choice of females - in short, less driven to pursue sexual variety.
It wasn't until 1993, with the publication of Female Choices: Sexual Behavior of Female Primates, that the American anthropologist Meredith Small effectively rattled the primate model along Sherfian lines. Small had studied the mating behaviour of many primates - from our closest relatives, the group-sex-loving bonobos, to the supposedly monogamous gibbons - and a startling pattern emerged. "The only consistent interest seen among the general primate population is an interest in novelty and variety," she reported. Primate females chose to be promiscuous because, it seemed, they preferred "the unexpected." Promiscuity was, in fact, part of their mating strategy. The standard model of evolutionary theory, Small argued, which overlooked this behaviour, was based more on its authors' cultural bias than on the facts. And it was this faulty model that was being used to judge women. "The information on human females demonstrates a certain insatiability for sex," Small wrote."This insatiability is so strong, some suggest, that males must restrict female sexuality [in some cases by] convincing women that they are biologically less sexual and less intrigued by different sexual partners than are males.... The 'double standard' is really a statement about the power to control (or attempt to control) rather than about differences in male and female sexuality." Small didn't think coercive "wife swapping" was the pathway to female freedom; all she was looking for was a recognition of the sexual equality of men and women.
As Skala, Leslie, and I took the same tour of the crowded Annex that we'd taken earlier with Jodie when it was empty, we couldn't help noticing that these fast-lane swingers - even the handful who were experiencing something homologous to Sherfey syndrome - were quite as good-humoured and sensibly garrulous with one another here as in the banquet hall. Most of the couples either knew one another as dub members or had appreciated what they had seen on first meeting, and neither were their eyes glazed over with perverse self-abasement, nor did they seem to be straining to pull nails out of walls with their teeth as they participated in their polygon arrangements. Around the crackling firepit, on the complicated Eros Seats, in the blue light of the white-curtained Sultan's Tent, and on the Victorian couch of Miss Daisy's Academy, the couples did in fact look quite similar to the sculptures on Khujarao's temples - and it should be remembered that those sculptures depict group sex where everyone is smiling. Skala observed that the whole environment reminded him less of an orgy house than of a fitness gym where with great gusto everyone performs quite publicly and vocally, free from remorse.
"This is quite fantastical," he said, when we were back on the first level, where we beheld an arrangement of twisting backs and shoulders on the elaborate tiers of couches in the video room. Beth and Frieda were the objects of attention of Konrad, Sol, and a "helping" Edith. They had their arms around their lovers and every now and then they raised their heads in full consciousness and laughed. Meanwhile, Larry was sitting on the edge of the action cooing to his wife, Beth, even as she rocked slowly with Konrad.
By the time we walked back outside to the central area, a masseur had set up a table and was pleasuring a woman with erotic massage while her husband looked on. The husband was so delighted by his wife's enjoyments that, almost the moment she got off the table, he took her passionately on the couch of the firepit. There was no question the polyamorous rite of "watching" was heightening the coupling of these couples, and the voyeuristic behaviour of the fellows points to the central paradox for males in the lifestyle.
Swinging husbands enjoy the feeling brought on by their wives' sexual "infidelity," partly because they have learned to experience an automatic reaction they can use for their own pleasure. "Sperm competition syndrome" could explain the pleasures swinging men get from sharing their wives. The 1.5-million men in the subculture appear to have an ability to accept and capitalize on what every man seems to be programmed by evolution to accomplish when he consciously or unconsciously suspects his partner has been unfaithful. "We're hypothesizing that men may actually ejaculate more forcefully," Tom Shackleford, a researcher from the University of Michigan, told the curious millions watching The Learning Channel in 1997. "The ejaculation may subjectively seem more intense, the orgasm may seem more intense, and the sexual relief following ejaculation may be more intense."
Lifestyle husbands have become connoisseurs at transmuting the natural urge to wipe out the competition in front of them into the pleasurable urge to - as Robin Baker put it - "duke it out inside the female to win the right to fertilize the egg" - giving a whole new meaning to Iago's advice to Othello: "Look to your wife, observe her well with Cassio."
When I started my research, I had searched for the evolutionary and biological inside story to the professed delights of swingers, the underlying logic to a lifestyle that seemed to defy logic. Here were thousands upon thousands of middle-aged wives behaving in a way once thought nymphomaniacal; here were middle-aged husbands who had discovered that the promiscuity of their wives mysteriously turned their own orgasms into explosive events. Now I had arrived at a hypothesis for the persistence and growth of the lifestyle. For both husbands and Wives not truly threatened with the loss of their mates, or in the case of the men, raising a child not their own, swinging couples of a certain age had freed themselves to "play" at promoting what humans and most other animals on the planet have very likely been programmed to achieve through multiple mating: the competition of the sperm of several males in the female reproductive tract - which aroused both partners mightily even if the biological end of that program were blocked by contraception or age.
While I'd learned that the behaviour of swingers at a club like New Horizons could be culturally shocking, and was certainly not the preference of the couples I had just spent time with at the Baja's Eden Resort, there were telling biological explanations for what fast-lane lifestylers were up to in their mirrored rooms. Responsible couples - leaders in society - do fill hundreds of swing clubs every single weekend, and their pursuits have a basis in the drive to seek long-term partners for raising children and the equally powerful drive for genetic and sexual variety.
"What's your opinion, Skala?" I asked my medical adviser when we'd returned to the banquet hall to grab a sandwich.
Skala chewed and didn't say anything. Then he sipped some Pepsi. Then he said, enigmatic as Vishnu: "Their pleasure is derived from being aroused."
Then he said: "Their arousal is most important to them. That's the essence of their sexual pleasure, and maybe their lifestyle. The older women are most sexually arousable and pleasure-oriented, and the men look at the women and if the women are aroused that gives them their pleasure. I have not seen many male orgasms here tonight. They seem to know their orgasm kills their arousal. Not for the female but for the male. The actual coming is not that important to the males, they seem to like to stay in that state - adoring the women.
"It's just my first night. I'll give you another opinion tomorrow."
Source Citation: Gould, Terry. "The other swing revival.(swinging lifestyle at New Horizons club)(Cover Story)." Saturday Night 113.9 (Nov 1998): 48(1). InfoTrac OneFile.
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