MY HUSBAND AND I ARE HAPPILY MARRIED — BUT WE WANT TO HAVE SEX WITH OTHER PEOPLE
Partner-swapping is more mainstream than ever, and the couple you’re about to meet swears it helped their marriage. Are they crazy? Deluded? Read this — then decide.
e 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 water cooler 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: There are some huge swinger websites out there so 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.
How does a committed couple make this lifestyle work? And why would they want to?
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 some adult websites 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 the adult websites. 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.
“To us, sex is a physical act, but kissing is an intimate act,” Eric explains. “That’s why it’s always off the table.”
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.
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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.
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.
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.”
A Guide For Beginners, Because The Most Important Thing You Do Is Probably Not What You Think
BDSM means different things to different people. Some may be pretty sure they aren’t into it, while many of us can’t help but be really curious. But what do you need to know if you’re new to BDSM? Like open relationship, kink is a term that covers a variety of activities and forms of sexual expression.
“It is a catch-all word for sexual practices and interests that are outside the mainstream — from role play to dominance and submission, a vast array of fetishes, and sadism and masochism,” says Patricia Johnson, co-author of Partners in Passion, Great Sex Made Simple, Tantra for Erotic Empowerment, and The Essence of Tantric Sexuality. We’ll explore some of the terminology of the kink world in more depth a little later, but at the outset, it’s important to take note of this diversity because outsiders often think of kink in limited and perhaps somewhat sensational terms. You may already have certain fantasies that you want to explore. If that’s the case, you can do research online or consult one of the ever-growing number of BDSM/kink-centric books that are available, says Johnson. You can also take classes online at kinkacademy.com.
When starting to explore BDSM, remember that there’s no need to rush to create your own “Red Room of Pain” a la 50 Shades! “To begin, you might simply try being blindfolded and let your partner tickle you with a feather, or lightly stroke your skin with a whipper. If that turns you on, move towards slightly racier bondage play, like binding wrists with a silk tie or handcuffs, a massage candle being dripped on your skin, or exploring the sensation of playful spanking,” says sex expert and Booty Parlor founder Dana Myers.
If you really want to take your new venture into BDSM seriously, come up with safe words for your sexy session. Safe words should be used as a way to say let’s pause, or stop. This will allow you to feel safe and have some control during this new experience. “Just as Anastasia and Christian discussed her Hard and Soft Limits, you want communicate with your partner before you bring any BDSM into the bedroom. Discuss who’s going to play the dominant and submissive roles, and be clear about what you’re willing to try and what’s simply too far outside of your comfort zone. Having this talk will strengthen your communication, build intimacy, and create a strong sense of trust so that you can let go of your inhibitions and explore some kinkier sex play safely and comfortably in your relationship,” says Myers.
Here’s what else you need to know.
1. Avoid shiny object syndrome.
That is to say, go slow and take your time, says erotic coach and sex educator Dawn Serra. BDSM is a wide network of countless activities. “From spanking and bondage to Dominance, needle play, and beyond, it’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole when you first begin exploring this new world. At first it can feel like you’re a 5-year-old let loose in a candy store. Many people who are brand new to BDSM immediately want to try all the things and end up over-indulging,” says Serra. Take it slow, go in knowing there will be endless temptations, and have fun in a smart way. 2. Consent, consent, and did we mention consent? If you don’t know the basics of consent, you MUST start there, says Serra. “All BDSM is based on this very important concept. Skipping this means you risk doing significant harm to others and to themselves. Oh Joy Sex Toy has a great infographic on consent,” says Serra. Just remember, consent must be enthusiastic, on-going, informed, and voluntary. Which is to say it’s a fully engaged, un-coerced, un-manipulated yes.
2. Have fun.
You are probably going to feel silly or awkward the first few times you try to tie a fancy knot or command someone to their knees. “You’re going to make mistakes. BDSM is all about having fun and exploring new parts of desire and fantasies,” says Serra. Keep it all in the spirit of adventure. Also remember that many BDSM activities are dangerous, so find a trusted educator (this is not necessarily the most popular, vocal, or charismatic person in your local BDSM community, either) and enlist their help, suggests Serra.
3. Determine your role
Remember that if you’re doing power play (Dominance and submission or Master and slave or Sadist and masochist), both of you have equal power when you negotiate the activity ahead of time, says Serra. “Everyone has an equal say as you decide on the framework for how things will unfold, especially in the beginning. As you get better at negotiating a scene, you’ll learn how to make it endlessly sexy and even an important part of your foreplay,” Serra says.
4. Safe words are critical
Some people like simple colors like red (stop immediately, no questions asked), yellow (I’m uncomfortable or reaching my limit or need to slow down), and green (keep going!). Other people like plain language — stop, I’m OK, etc. Just remember that any kind of “I’m unsure” or “I don’t know” in a scene is equivalent to a stop. Some people come up with really usual words for use in their scene, but just remember — if you are in a highly intense scene where it’s difficult to think or form words, simple is usually best, says Serra.
5. Know your boundaries
Just because you are doing BDSM in the bedroom doesn’t mean you need to give up control outside of the bedroom, says Cassie Fuller from Touch Of Flavor. “Some people are not interested in anything more than using BDSM as a way to spice up sex and that’s fine. In fact, most people don’t have a Master/slave style relationship and just like to have a little kinky sex. You and your partner should understand what the other is looking for and respect each other’s boundaries,” says Fuller.
6. Always be honest
Honesty is the most important aspect to BDSM. ”Your partner(s) need to know basic information about you such as past experiences, health concerns, emotional triggers, and turn-offs. Don’t expect your partner to be a mind-reader and to instinctively knows your needs, wants, and limits. If the person that you are thinking about engaging in BDSM activities with doesn’t ask you these things, make sure you speak up and tell them,” says Fuller.