The day before Independence Day has long held personal meaning for me: It was the day that my family and I emigrated to the US from South Korea in 1975. This year, it was to bear another significance: I was assigned to attend a pre-Fourth of July bash at the New Horizons swingers club, a nearly 20-year-old legally established resort in Lynnwood devoted to partner-swapping. I chuckled at the coincidence: Is this what being an American is all about?
As the Weekly's sex columnist, it was my job to boldly go where none of my co-workers would go. But all day I had been waffling about the assignment. My boyfriend declined to go with me, leaving me to face the evening alone. Now it was an hour before the party started, and I was burdened with a classic predicament: What should I wear?
What do people wear to a swingers' party? Lingerie? Leather? Slinky cocktail dresses? Or nothing at all?
I imagined the worst of pornographic clich鳭-naked women in spiked heels; big hair; basketball breasts; glossy red fingernails. I possessed none of these.
I took out my best underwear—a black bra and lace panties that actually matched. OK, now what? I was in jeans and a gray T-shirt. Some women, like Heather Graham, can look hot in jeans and a T. I looked like I had just come back from a fishing trip. I searched through my closet and picked out a red mini-dress—one of those impulse buys I had worn only once. I put it on. It looked way too short; I wouldn't want to seem like I was trying too hard.
I tried on a couple more outfits, only to cast them off to a growing pile on the floor. Finally, I settled for slim black pants and a clingy sweater. It was sexy but tasteful; it showed off the silhouette of my body, but nothing else. It was an outfit I could wear to dinner with my parents. I rushed out the door.
In the kink factor, couples swapping partners and having sex in front of each other seems to take the cake. I know plenty of unconventional people—one of them an unshockable amateur pornographer—who think swinging is just plain weird and wrong. Swinging, or—as swingers like to call it—"the lifestyle," completely challenges our culture's ideas of couplehood. At the same time, many swingers are married or in serious relationships. As one happily married swinger told me, "We view sex as recreation. It doesn't have anything to do with commitment. That's a whole other thing."
"Does everyone know where they are?" our guide, Mac, piped. He turned towards me. For a second, I thought he was going to ask for my ID. "This is a swinger's club! People come here to have sex!" he boomed, causing some of us to smile nervously.
About 30 of us first-timers were in the orientation session. I was the youngest one by far. Most of the people looked like they were in their 40s and 50s. A few looked to be in their 60s. Bob Dole would have been proud.
Everyone in the group was paired up except for me. I sidled next to an attractive blond couple so I wouldn't appear too odd. The three of us could have been an item—I was the Oriental chick spicing up their Barbie-and-Ken fare. Barbie remained icy, but Ken turned to me, interested. He smiled and said hello. I smiled back, unsure what the seemingly innocent greeting conveyed. Since people come here to have sex, is a simple smile and hello tantamount to "Hi there, I'd like to spank your bottom"?
Mac led us through a swimming pool area, hot tubs, and then to a den with a fireplace and recliners.
He cited the rules. He pointed to a sign posted at the bottom of a stairway that stated, "No singles." The "play areas" upstairs were for couples or groups only. (Mac neglected to mention that single women were an exception to this rule.)
"Everything you needed to know in this club, you learned in kindergarten," he said. "You share. You play together. And no means no."
Mac also told us to "always ask before taking." I could just see it now—"May I lick your husband's penis?" I would ask the Barbie woman.
There were also rules concerning alcohol and drugs. The club didn't have a liquor license, but members could bring wine and beer to drink with their dinner. No beverages were allowed upstairs. "If you have to drink a lot to feel comfortable, you don't want to be here. You're going to make a jerk of yourself and you'll be asked to leave," Mac warned. I was surprised how enforced this rule was. I mean, this was a swingers' party. I'd expected a wild bacchanalian atmosphere with free-flowing alcohol and open drug use. But it turned out that there were the same rules here as there were outside. A civilized orgy meant no drunks or druggies allowed.
We went upstairs, which was built like a maze, with narrow hallways leading to rooms for group sex and dark cubbyholes where couples could enjoy some privacy. Buckets of condoms were placed in every corner. Mac told us that condom use was "encouraged, but not required."
Mac peppered the tour with stories about couples running into their neighbors, bosses, even parents. He led us into a room with a mirrored ceiling. There was a huge foam mattress on the floor that could probably fit a dozen people. This was the club's most rumored area.
"Anything goes here," Mac said. "If some of you women fantasize about having sex with two or three guys, this is where you'll find it." He also said that shy people should avoid this room. While no still meant no, this was a room in which everyone assumed you were literally up for grabs.
After the orientation, we had to sign up for membership and pay a one-time fee of $130 per couple. As a single woman, I was allowed to join at $65. I handed my credit card to a cashier. She swiped it through her register and gave me a receipt. I was now an official swinger. I prayed that my mother, a conservative Korean woman, would never find out about this.
At seven o'clock, a buffet dinner was served. More than 200 people were in the large banquet area. It appeared I had made the right choice in attire. One woman showed off her breasts in a cut-out leather teddy. Another, a bottle blonde with dragon fingernails, wore only a thong and high heels. A third woman had on a very short nurse's uniform that came complete with a mini first aid kit. But other than that, no one looked like they were in a sex club. People wore casual sundresses, shorts, golf shirts, tennis shoes. The scene was so ordinary that I felt as if I were at Bellevue Square.
I sat at a table with a 30-something couple I met on the buffet line. The woman, Anna, was beautiful, with large blue eyes, dark brown hair, and a curvy figure. Her husband, Bobby, was boyishly thin and had hair that was just starting to gray. They lived in Ballard and they both worked in the computer industry. This was their fourth time at the resort.
Another 30-ish couple sat at the table, as did a single guy, Dave, who had long gray hair and a short, round body. He reminded me of my boss. While the two couples engaged in chit-chat about computers, the Mariners, and real estate, Dave and I started getting to know each other. He worked for King County and had been a member of New Horizons for three years.
I asked him how he got in alone. He informed me that one single man was allowed for every ten couples who come to the party. But he lamented that as a single man, he sticks out like a sore thumb. No woman wants to be with a guy who comes stag—they're looked on as pests. I asked him if he gets any action while he's here. He said that most of the time, no. He meets women and talks to them, but he rarely ventures upstairs, unless he comes with some female friends.
A live band started to play, and the dance floor quickly filled up. This was obviously the ground for some serious foreplay. Couples danced very close to each other, caressing their bodies. Several people were embraced in a group hug. Two young blonde women—one of them topless—were teasing their boyfriends by stroking each other's breasts.
I recognized one 40-ish woman from the orientation. She had changed out of her jeans into a pair of red silk pajamas. She was smiling radiantly and dancing with a group of people. She reminded me of an old co-worker, a literary publisher I had admired.
I watched one couple for a long while. She was petite and pretty with luxuriously wavy hair. He was lanky and goofy with a dark beard and bowl cut. They looked like they were really in love—they were making eye contact as they danced and seemed to be oblivious of every one else in the room. She was wearing a tight black dress that laced up on both sides, showing off two lines of skin. He was dressed for a barbecue in shorts and a tee-shirt, and he was running his hands up and down her body, occasionally slipping them into the sides of the dress. At one point he lifted her up and dipped her backward as she wrapped her legs around him. It was such an intimate move that I imagined them back home, making love.
The only other times I'd seen people be that publicly amorous was at underground raves, where use of Ecstasy and psychedelic drugs is not uncommon. I asked Dave if Ecstasy was part of the scene here, and he said no. People generally played by the rules; to do otherwise would endanger the club.
In fact, everyone I met was protective of the resort. A week later, when I called up some of the swingers I had met and revealed to them that I was a journalist, they became very suspicious, even angry. They did not want to be written about, even if I protected their identities.
"This is my lifestyle and my club we're talking about," one man said. He informed me that some years ago, a reporter from KIRO News did a story on the club that caused conservative groups to picket the resort. No one wanted that kind of trouble again. Any published story about the club—even if it was a favorable one—was seen as bad publicity, alerting outsiders of its existence.
After dinner, Anna, Bobby, and I soaked in the hot tub with several others, making small talk. If I was going to go upstairs with anyone that night, I wanted it to be with them. I asked Anna, "Do you come here for the women or men?"
She replied, "Um . . . both, but we initially came here to find a second woman." She told me how they had tried placing ads in The Stranger for a bisexual woman, but that the attempts had been disappointing. "There's just so much invested when you put out an ad, interview people over the phone, then arrange to meet with them, only to see right away that it's not going to work. This way, we can see the people from the start," she said.
After a few more minutes of awkward conversation, Anna asked me if I wanted to go upstairs with her. Hooray! Others became silent as we got out of the tub. I felt privileged to have been picked out of the group by such a beautiful woman.
As we walked up the stairs, I heard various moans. The lighting was dim and reddish, and I saw several couples engaged in coitus. One woman was bouncing on top of a man and sounded like she was nearing orgasm. I was more incredulous than turned on.
In one corner, a couple was already busy taking advantage of a table with stirrups. Next to them was another couple engaged in fellatio. As far as I could see, most of the interaction was heterosexual. There were a few women together, but usually a man was in the mix. There was no male-male bonding going on.
Anna and I sat down on a mattress. Suddenly we became shy. "Do you like it here?" she asked politely. I nodded. "What do you want to do?"
I didn't know how to answer that, so I laid back and pulled her down with me. We started kissing softly and stroked each other's breasts. After a few minutes, she got on top of me and started fingering my vagina. I felt strange. I was getting aroused, but it was weird to have someone other than my boyfriend cause those reactions in me. I kept expecting to see him when I opened my eyes. I tried to ignore those feelings by changing positions. It was easier to be active than to receive. I rolled on top of her, kissed her breasts, her stomach, and gradually went toward her pubic area. She moaned.
At that moment, I noticed a group of spectators had gathered in the room. There was a 50-ish Asian couple I recognized from the orientation. They were standing in their underwear, watching the whole scene. A second man was with them, and he started fondling the woman's breasts. It looked like one of those mannered Victorian pictures where clothed, stiff figures grope each other as they look straight ahead.
Another couple came by to look. Being watched made me feel sexy. I knelt, pulled Anna toward me, and kissed her deeply. There was a couple next to us, and the man started touching Anna's breasts. We were putting on a good show.
I tilted my head back and saw another man with his mouth buried between a woman's legs. He waved at me with a free hand.
"Oh, she's having a good time," I heard someone say. It was Bobby, Anna's husband, smiling at our performance.
He was with the same couple who was at our dinner table, Denise and Joe. It was a classic case of wife-swapping: Joe started sucking Anna's breasts; Denise started making out with Bobby.
Soon, Bobby put on a condom and got on top of Denise. The rest of us watched from just a few inches away. I asked Anna if it bothered her to see her husband with another woman, and she smiled and shook her head no. Once in a while, Bobby would stretch out and kiss Anna.
It seemed to go on for an awfully long time. Denise was gasping. Bobby held her legs in the air, then put them on top of his shoulders. They switched positions several times. Joe commented to Anna, "Wow, he's good. I don't think I can keep it up that long." Finally, they were through. Joe complimented Bobby again on his stamina. I thought they were going to exchange high-fives.
I left the party at a quarter to midnight. By then it had dwindled; as Mac had said, most couples checked out early to pay the babysitters back home. During my drive back to Seattle, I thought about everything I had seen that evening. It felt so surreal yet neat and corporate at the same time. What surprised me most of all was how "normal" everyone had appeared. The swingers I had met were married, they had jobs, they had kids. Yet they had this scandalous, secret lifestyle—played out in a suburban resort close to the Alderwood Mall. Perhaps this is the American dream.
For more information about New Horizons, go to www.horizonsclub.com.
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