Still got your libido at 71? Party on...

Richard Kelly Heft meets the wild man who is still swinging after all these years

For most of his 71 years "Wild" Bill Goodwin says he has been "a good stud". Although his body is not what it was - he's a bit creaky and his false teeth have been giving him trouble lately - he still likes to party. He still loves sex.

"I can go four or five women a night," he says proudly. "You know, your desire gets better as you get older. It's like good food - you think you stop loving good food? The key is variety."

Variety is something Goodwin has certainly known during his lifetime: he has been a part of the "swinging" scene in southern California for about 25 years. Along with his wife Dottie who died last March after a battle with breast cancer, Goodwin has hosted hundreds of swing parties at his home, about 45 miles south of Los Angeles.

On the first and last Sunday of every month, Goodwin's house, the "Panther Palace", becomes a meeting place for couples to socialise, frolic in his massive hot tub, and, well, have sex. "We don't fall in love or anything. It's just good clean sexual recreation," he says.

Recently, however, a neighbour's complaint brought the Palace under the scrutiny of the local council. Naked revellers had been seen scrambling round the property and discarded condoms were found among the festivity litter - charges Goodwin denies. Officials could do little about the parties: there are no laws outlawing orgies in the city. And since Goodwin does not charge for the parties, asking only for a $30 contribution to defray costs, the Palace's doors have remained open.

One result of the council's investigation has been to move to daytime parties rather than Saturday night. Goodwin typically has about 40 couples to his parties and for special occasions, such as Hallowe'en or New Year's Eve, as many as 100 or more will turn up. Wild Bill isn't even close to being the oldest of the Palace regulars: there are couples in their eighties and nineties, he says.

Swinging, often thought to be a relic of the Seventies seems to be on the rise across the United States. Although statistics are hard to come by, Dr Robert McGinley, president of the National Association of Swing Clubs of America, claims the practice has never been more popular. McGinley, who wrote a doctoral thesis on swinging, points to the explosion in publications devoted to "play couples" and to the growth of swing clubs, which number about 300, up from about 100 in the mid-Seventies. He estimates there are between 1.5 million and 2.5 million American couples who have dabbled in swinging or are long-term devotees.

"Almost by definition, swinging is a secretive activity," McGinley says. "So getting an accurate read on the number of people involved is almost impossible. But there's no question it is more popular today than it ever was. It just continued on its merry way, ignoring the pundits who said it died off years ago."

McGinley claims the only downturns in popularity came at the height of the Aids scares. Surprisingly, most swinging couples do not practise safe sex. McGinley himself is opposed to protected sex, and says that government statistics show extremely low rates of heterosexual transmission. "What's safe sex really telling you? The message is that sex is dangerous and as long as you are not a homosexual or an intravenous drug user there is no danger whatsoever. You are far more likely to be hit by a satellite falling out of the sky."

Although health officials agree that in the West, the rate of transmission of HIV among heterosexuals has been lower than anticipated, they warn of the dangers of unprotected sex. As one San Francisco Aids researcher says: "If you get one person into a swinging group who's recently been infected, he could infect everybody."

Most of the Palace regulars remain unconcerned. June Thomas has been partying there for years. She doesn't like condoms and doesn't use them. "Most people are very clean," she says. "I'm not afraid of catching a disease. Hey, life's a chance."

Most weekends, she and her husband Ron attend a swing party. There is no jealousy between them because everything is out in the open. "It brings you much closer together," she says.

Goodwin agrees. He has been married five times, widowed twice and during his swinging days has slept with over 5,000 women. His best marriages though, were with swingers. "My first two wives were jealous - they weren't into swinging," he says. "Once I married women who liked swinging, those marriages were really good."

Goodwin cared for his wife Dottie for two years as she became increasingly ill. In her last year, as the cancer moved into her spinal column, she became paralysed from the neck down. The parties went on around her as she lay in a hospital bed set up in the Palace's living room. "They were all her friends at the parties," says Goodwin. "She felt real comfortable with them around."

After sleeping on the couch next to Dottie for months, Goodwin can't bring himself to move back into the bedroom; his eyes well up at the mention of her. In a house full of beds, he spends every night on the couch. The man who says he "hasn't slowed down a bit" since he was 25, is now lonely without his wife of 20 years: "The parties are great. But after they're over, I'm left all alone again."

The phone rings but Goodwin ignores it. "Just someone calling about the party next Sunday. It'll be a good one," he says brightening at the thought. "All sorts of beautiful women - you really ought to check it out some time."

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