Sex and the suburbs

via Chicagoreader

  • “Much of society still views different types of kink, including swinging, BDSM, and other aspects of kink as abnormal or deviant, which can take a toll on the mental health of those who identify as part of these communities. Having a place in which individuals within these communities can express their authentic selves without experiencing stigma and judgment is really important.”

“Swinging is like any other social activity, just dialed up to 11,” says Andrew*, 41. He and his wife first began swinging shortly after they began exploring nonmonogamy in 2018. Before the pandemic, the couple would frequent a western-suburb location every two months.

Swinger parties usually have a set of rules, require an ID, cost some money, and take place in hotels or private homes. Some clubs and parties have been occurring for years, while others are simply pop-ups. But there is a looming threat of them being shut down by city officials, particularly suburban locations where ordinances impact the ease of having a party in your home without your neighbors calling the cops.

In Markham, Illinois, Mayor Roger Agpawa has been working toward closing adult swinger clubs and specifically targeted Couples Choice, a popular location that has a dance floor and 18 bedrooms. In March, the owner and his son were arrested for operating an illegal business in a residential area. When I first started writing and researching this piece a year ago, the Couples Choice hyperlink was dead. Now, the website is back up again and explicitly states that, “This is not a business in any way and under no circumstances should be viewed as one. Couples Choice Social Club is a gathering of like-minded adults who enjoy the lifestyle.” Agpawa started the “Clean up Markham” campaign, closing strip clubs and other so-called “seedy” businesses in order to solve the crime and corruption concerns in the south-suburban town with a population of 13,000. Unlike Agpawa’s belief that swinging leads to crime, Rachel Zar, a licensed marriage and family therapist from Spark Chicago Therapy and Northwestern Medicine’s Center for Sexual Medicine, says just like any sexual activity, safety is key for swingers. Clubs offer solace and community for patrons because there is “security, boundaries, and rules” within these spaces. She says, “It’s interesting that there’s this idea out there that sex clubs are inherently dangerous, but I’d argue that would be the exception, not the rule. I’d liken it to restaurants that don’t follow health codes—they’re out there, and they’re worth taking precautions against, but that doesn’t mean that all restaurants should be shut down just in case.”

Couples Choice owner Tim Geary told WGN that his guest list is made up of doctors, nurses, dentists, and police, “I mean, they’re everyone,” he says. First, Agpawa told Couples Choice they had code violations. The club spent thousands of dollars to fix these concerns. Then, there was a zoning issue which turned into the passing of the “No Live Sex Act” ordinance. Peoria enacted a similar ordinance in 2011 which prohibits businesses where folks can watch or view live sex. In a 2019 city council meeting, Alderman William Barron said that Markham is a “Christian-based town,” and just because the club has been there for 30 years doesn’t “make it right.”

Dr. Mary Madrake, a clinical psychology postdoctoral resident at Balanced Awakening in Chicago, says, “Much of society still views different types of kink, including swinging, BDSM, and other aspects of kink as abnormal or deviant, which can take a toll on the mental health of those who identify as part of these communities. Having a place in which individuals within these communities can express their authentic selves without experiencing stigma and judgment is really important.” Online communities are also imperative: social media, FetLife, Facebook, Twitter, and OnlyFans have become a way for kink communities to thrive safely.

“When places are closed due to complaints or legal issues, this can also increase the negative views of individuals not involved in these communities, who could then view the community as causing trouble or engaging in unacceptable activities,” says Madrake on the closing of swinger clubs. By increasing the understanding of these spaces and communities, society can change their preconceived, often harmful judgements.

When I ask Andrew what swinging means for him and how folks can break down stereotypes surrounding the clubs, he says it’s a way for him to let loose and to “have fun with the woman I love more than anything else in the world. If I or my wife thinks someone is attractive, we don’t have to bury that feeling. We can communicate and have fun with it.”

Since the pandemic, the couple has been staying away from parties. “We have been pretty down about missing that part of our lives during this pandemic but ultimately understand. We have heard of some groups getting together to do Zoom meetups and other online events involving some level of nudity and sex, but for us, that’s nowhere close to satisfying, plus the possible security issues make that a no-go,” explains Andrew. Many clubs have closed during the pandemic due to “disagreements concerning how to safely get together,” as well as “disagreements about how dangerous the virus really is.” For Andrew and his wife, they are learning to adapt without attending parties. “Since swinging for us was always more of a bonus to add some fun than a need, we’re both pretty fulfilled in a lot of ways still.”

A club in Indiana, Young Couples Party, did attempt to organize an event during the pandemic at a Roseland Hotel with 160 participants. Even though those numbers were legal in Indiana, a reporter leaked the information and the organizers found that it may jeopardize the safety of their attendees. Organizers of the party explained that folks concerned with COVID-19 would wear different color bracelets that were assigned different meanings. Red would mean “do not approach, we are social distancing,” yellow would mean, “do not touch without consent,” and green would mean, “you can touch me, I’m here for human contact.” Ultimately, the party was canceled.

Carla, AKA the Purple Diva, 45, runs an inclusive members-only lifestyle club, Always Wanting More (AWM), out of the western suburbs near Elgin. When I mention the closure of swinger clubs due to ordinances, she laughs and says, “There’s a lot of us.” Last year I attended Karen Yates’s Wild & Sublime talk show event at Constellation where Yates read aloud quotes from folks who were upset over a recent club closing in the southwest suburbs. Carla reassures me that there are clubs popping up everywhere.

With 11 years of experience under her belt, Carla knows how to run the show. After the end of her marriage, she began searching online for clubs, and after attending a few events, Carla says she realized what she liked and didn’t like. As a result, she opened up her own club. “I thought to myself, ‘I can do this better,'” and that’s exactly what she did.

After being in the swinger community for three months, she started hosting hotel parties. “I’m a big girl, I’m a normal person, I’m not a Barbie. I like sex just like the next person. Why can’t I have my own club? Why can’t I have a space where people like me feel comfortable?” she says.

Carla was always honest with the hotel staff about hosting an adult party behind closed doors. After some time, she decided to host parties once a month in the house where she lives near Elgin. The Purple Diva’s parties have a cover of $20 for women, $50 for a couple, and $60 for men. In other clubs, women can get in free, but Carla says, “I’m providing you a meal. I’m providing you supplies. I’m providing you a venue.” Like many swinger parties, food is offered, but Carla goes above and beyond by cooking a full buffet dinner (think: enchiladas, lasagna, “actual good food”). There are nonalcoholic beverages and it’s BYOB (sloppiness is not accepted in swinger clubs). Supplies like condoms, puppy pads (for those who are messier than the next), lube, towels, and shampoo are all offered for the price of entry. With room for 150 guests, her four-bedroom, four-bathroom house is converted into a sanctuary for couples and singles. The guest list for Carla’s parties generally includes those in their 30s to 50s, and she requires that folks are 21+. However, she says those numbers aren’t set in stone. She does see folks in their 20s and over 60 as well. “It’s just mature people who know whatever the hell they want,” she tells me.

Carla lives in the house with her children, who are in their 20s and help her set the house up before each event but leave once it begins. She has security, tour guides, kitchen staff, and a front desk with a check-in. “My staff members are like family. We hang out all of the time,” she explains. One staff member drives three hours just to help Carla with her parties. When guests check in, they are given a colorized name tag that indicates what they are looking for throughout the evening. A girl looking for other girls is indicated with a pink tag, bisexual folks have a purple tag, straight women looking for men will wear a blue tag, and red tags are for folks just checking things out and observing. New folks have a cherry sticker on their name tag.

“My landlord knows what I do. They don’t have a problem. My neighbors, however, don’t exactly like me,” she explains. She’s had issues with parking, where folks legally take up all of the spots for ten hours one day a month. Every now and then, a disgruntled neighbor will call the cops. “I’m not hurting anybody. I barely play music in the house. You can’t even tell that I have 100 people in my house other than the parking. It could be anybody on the street. So that’s the slight issue I’m having currently, but that’s my own issue because I’m using my own residence,” she says when we talk before the pandemic. Before she moved into the house, she specifically checked the parking and city codes. The city is aware of what kind of parties she’s throwing and they do not care as long as she doesn’t violate parking or noise. “My next house will have a parking lot!” she says.

In terms of ordinances, clubs have to deal with minute details to find loopholes, which means the city will also find loopholes. Carla explains that she wasn’t able to publicly share a link online for her parties, and other cities don’t allow folks to run a business out of a residential space. Just like other owners, Carla is dedicated to her events. “I could be deathly ill and I would still have a party,” says Carla. “Something has to be significant for me not to have one.” Recently, on her website, she wrote that she has had to cancel all events during the pandemic and that, “NO ONE should be hosting any lifestyle events at this time,” because it is “impossible to maintain social distancing.” All of the profit that Carla does make goes right back into the party. She has a regular 9-to-5 job and says that the parties do not financially sustain her. Although she invests time, money, and energy into the events, it’s more of a passion project. If she’s having a party on Saturday, she says the planning and coordinating begins on Tuesday and doesn’t stop until Sunday.

Cook County has an ordinance regarding exchanging money when it comes to sex. Many clubs use the term “membership” as a loophole. Folks can buy a membership for an evening which blurs the idea of folks paying for sex as commerce. This is why many more clubs exist outside of the city limits where regulations and ordinances vary per city. That isn’t to say swinger parties aren’t happening in Chicago; they are just more private. “You have to get on things like FetLife or SLS” to find parties happening around the city, says Wild & Sublime founder Yates.

Yates explains to me over a Zoom call that it’s been a small coming-out process for her. Last year in November, we met up at a coffee shop in Lincoln Square where we briefly discussed her experiences in the swinger community, but on our Zoom call, we got into the nitty gritty. Now that she’s started a podcast and her thoughts on sex positivity are publicly being shared, she says, “I’m so much more comfortable being like, ‘I’m a sex positive babe, and I have sex.'”

About five years ago, she attended her first swinger party as a single woman. A previous partner led her through the process and explained how the parties work. “It was so new to me,” she says. “I was so intrigued and I was so frightened simultaneously. It was this push-pull.”

“I did not want to be around heteronormative people. I knew enough about swingers to know that it was extremely heteronormative. The men were content to see two women getting it on, but God forbid two men actually touch,” explains Yates. “What I did was I spent a month or two researching online trying to find a party.” She decided to look for explicitly bisexual male-friendly parties. As a result, she found a party called Private Encounters which was held on the property of Couples Choice. Dawn and Dave ran Couples Choice in Markham for 16-and-a-half years before it was closed down by the town’s mayor. Yates explains that while Couples Choice is incredibly heteronormative, this particular party was “explicitly bi-friendly and a larger number of men are allowed.” While it wasn’t a queer scene by any means, it was still largely open and accepting. Through Couples Choice, she found folks having parties in Chicago inside of people’s homes.

Yates explains to me that hotel takeovers happen a lot more than private housing parties. Renting an entire floor is easier and more relaxed than dedicating your entire home to a party. “People just run around and they fuck,” says Yates. “It’s also a way for people to organize larger sex parties. They will rent out two adjoining suites and invite 15 friends who all chip in. People are creative if they need mattresses.”

When I ask Yates about the demographics at swinger parties, she tells me, “In the cis-heteronormative world, they are younger, under 40. Swingers in their 20s and 30s. And then there’s the swinger umbrella term that is going to typically skew a little older. My assumption is that people start knowing their sexual proclivities as they get older. Second, if people have been in long-term relationships, eventually [they] want to add something to it. There are these two dynamics.” Although younger folks in the lifestyle do exist, she explains that folks above 40 make up the larger base in the community.

In my research, I’ve found that clubs can be very segregated and specific. “A lot of times they are very white,” says Yates. “What you see happening are more specialized swinger clubs, or sometimes, like at Couples Choice, they always rented out to specialized groups. And by ‘specialized,’ I mean African American, Latino, bisexual.” Cities like New Orleans, Miami, and San Francisco have more flourishing swinger parties and clubs that aren’t getting shut down by law enforcement. “But in [Chicago], there is not as much interplay. However, if you’re looking at queer play parties, those are different than swinger parties. There are subtleties. There are differences. After a while I found that the swingers parties were a little bit bloodless,” explains Yates.

She describes her experiences at swinger parties like a “hit and run.” She had a harder time building relationships, whereas with queer parties in the city, there is “emotional juice” developing between folks as there is more fluidity. “At first, swinger parties were super, super fun for me in my sexual journey. It felt like a fucking playground. After a while, I was like, ‘eh.'” She explains that the certain amount of effort in going to the parties eventually wore on her, and like with any process, she began to learn more about herself. “I took time off, but I probably will return.” For a year, Yates says she used to go every other month to a party, but then she started to move toward the private play parties (with more curated guest lists) that were more interactive and relational. “That was the next phase for me,” she says.

One woman in particular who threw private parties recently moved away, leaving Yates feeling crushed. The guest list was curated and invite-only which eradicated any feelings of uneasiness for Yates. “It’s a very real factor. It’s like a dance club. Like, ‘Hey babe, wanna dance?’ and you’re like, ‘No . . .'” Although Yates assures me the parties are a safe environment, there is still an effort to navigate the space and manage single cis men. Hosts and hostesses have to calibrate how many guests make sense. There can’t be too many single cis men, but there do need to be enough. “If there are too many single men, the men who are partnered feel threatened. Again, this is a hetero thing,” so hosts of the parties have to make sure there is an even ratio where certain folks don’t overpower the others in the overall setting.

I ask Yates if she has any tips for how newbies can get into the swinging lifestyle. She reminds me, “You don’t have to play at a play party.” Folks can simply attend and walk around and watch. “Yes, people are voyeurs, so it’s a very real sexual thing. But a lot of times in couples, one person in a couple wants to swing and their partner is not on board with it, so the person who wants to says, ‘Well let’s just go to a party and you can at least see it. We don’t have to do anything, or we can go have sex by ourselves in a corner.’ And that happens! That’s enough of a thrill.” Yates explains that there isn’t one way to play the swinger scene. “You don’t even have to take your clothes off. A lot of times what happens is that [people] are getting less and less dressed. In terms of exploration, you can just go and not do a damn thing.” In the past few years, Yates hasn’t played as much as she used to, but she still attends.

But the sex positivity community is essential for Yates. She literally created an event where she interviews sex experts to combat stereotypes and taboos. “People who live outside of the heteronormative, monogamous culture often experience a good amount of sexual shame—they may feel that they have to live in secret; it can often feel isolating, and they may have experienced ridicule from others,” explains Zar, the marriage and family therapist. “Shame can be healed by feeling like part of a community, knowing that you’re not alone, and sharing your experience with others.”

For many folks, swinging involves friendship and community more than sex. The safety and ability to eradicate shame creates a healthy, consensual space for folks. When I ask Carla what the swinger community means to her, she says, “They are my best friends.” 

via Chicagoreader