The great safe-sex illusion: 'Swingers' and other sexual adventurers may have a lesson to teach increasingly complacent 'straights' about Aids, writes Jack O'Sullivan

JULIAN described his last orgy. 'There must have been 20 people, male and female, in one small room. People were saying things like: 'Excuse me, is that your elbow?' All sorts of things were happening, whatever types of consensual and non-painful sex took people's fancy.

'There were no more than five or six people doing it at any one time. The rest were watching and saying: 'Oooh, that looks good, let's try that.' The atmosphere was not febrile, but almost artistic. But as soon as it became clear that people were going to have sex, the condoms came out. Everyone was digging into codpieces or leather pouches for their party hats.'

These people are 'swingers', some of the hundreds of couples who spend their leisure living out their sexual fantasies. They are suburban, respectable people holding down good jobs. They just like taking their clothes off with other people, often strangers, and having sexual relations with them.

In their case, the calls for monogamy in the Aids age have fallen on deaf ears. However, as in the homosexual community, promiscuity and challenging sexual norms do not have to be unsafe. Indeed, the more staid among the population may be in greater danger than the wild ones.

The anti-Aids campaign faces complacency and deep-rooted resistance among some who think they are safe. The Government is concerned that although the message on Aids is getting through, too few people are practising 'safe sex'. The Health Education Authority is to revamp its Aids campaign to try to encourage greater use of condoms, particularly among young people.

Dr John Bancroft, a psychiatrist and author of Human sexuality and its problems, said the attitudes had echoes of teenagers' deafness to anti-smoking campaigns: 'Adolescents tend to play down the risk. It has to do with their sense of omnipotence, immortality and a need to turn a blind eye to what older people think is sensible.'

As people get older they become less careful. Dr Bancroft said: 'The media messages are confusing and some people grasp anything reassuring.

'They may only see how bad the situation is when they face the serious losses experienced by the gay community.'

Meanwhile, sexual hedonists like Julian meet in little-known 'swinging clubs' around Britain. There are half a dozen in London, but couples are also swinging from Portsmouth to Peterborough.

Julian, a City analyst who describes himself as an 'affluent, modestly well-educated, late-twenties chap', said: 'People have to learn the procedures for picking up couples. It's hard in day-to-day encounters just to ask a couple if they're interested in adventurous sex. Ninety per cent will tell you to get lost or you'll find the bloke gets nasty. It's much easier for yourself and, frankly, for the rest of the world, if you meet up with people in a club context.

'We usually meet up midweek, at a pre-booked venue. People respond to adverts, inviting 'broad-minded couples' to meet in a 'friendly, conducive atmosphere'. They pay about pounds 10 membership and sign a form saying they won't let on where the parties take place. Then they are sent fliers with details.

'One night fancy dress might be kinky boots; another, tarts and vicars. It lets people pick up a fantasy role. People are not allowed in on their own. It makes the others nervous.

'The whole idea is that people feel that they are among people who know each other and it's OK. No one would get away with not using a condom or asking for anal intercourse. They would be frozen out.'

Since Night Shift, a swingers' club in London, was closed and the owners fined pounds 3,000 last month for keeping a disorderly house, overt sex in such clubs has fallen off. 'They are more a clearing house for private parties,' Julian said. 'Frottaging' - sexually explicit body rubbing on the dance floor - is more the order of the day.

The reassertion of sexual self-confidence and libertarianism has also spilt over into more mainstream rave clubs. Sexual innuendo is the latest club theme, as assertive, brazenly sexual women - The Ultravixens, the Cleavage Sisters, Flirt and the Pussy Posse - host London clubs.

Where does that leave the question of Aids? Is such sexual liberation a dangerous backlash to the doom-laden warnings?

The prognosis may be less worrying than it might seem. The heightened sexuality of club culture is in many ways at one with, not in opposition to, the anti-Aids message. Condoms are everywhere.

Paradoxically, it may be that bringing sex still more out into the open and creating such a condom culture is necessary if people are going to protect themselves against HIV.

Research shows that young people are still very vulnerable to HIV infection. Most worrying is that people are no longer ignorant: they are failing to change their habits, despite knowing how HIV infection is prevented.

Health Education Authority surveys show that 90 per cent of people know that HIV leads to Aids and that condoms will protect them. Yet only one-third used a condom the last time they had sexual intercourse. Nearly half abandon condoms once they have a steady sexual partner.

Giving up condoms is, for young people, part of the ritual of commitment, an expression of trust, say educationalists. Some are making terrible mistakes.

Not using condoms is much more devastating for heterosexuals than it may be for some gay men. 'Straight' people tend to think that sexual activity must inevitably lead to penetrative intercourse, a view which many gay men have grown out of, developing an array of alternatives.

A further worrying dimension is that three-quarters of people think careful choice of partner can be the best protection against Aids. Underlying this view, say researchers, is the widespread, false belief that one can spot a person who might carry HIV.

Lynn Walsh of the Health Education Authority said: 'On one level, people have understood our message, but when making actual decisions about having sex with someone they make it up as they go along.'

Teenagers are not alone in thinking they are safe having sexual intercourse with partners they know. James, a banker in his early thirties, who is part of a partner-swapping network of friends in south London, said: 'If one of my friends was going to pick up a girl of the same background and education with well-off parents, it is a great deal more likely that they would not use any form of protection.'

HEA research also shows that as people enter their twenties, they increasingly forsake condoms for the Pill, suggesting that condoms still have more to do with contraception than safe sex. James bore out the evidence: 'Among married people like me there is much less tendency to take precautions. If you are married, people presume that you have not got HIV and the chances are that you are safe.'

Ironically, research indicates that some of the safest sex takes place during casual encounters between complete strangers. People are much more likely to use condoms when they are on holiday, for example, than when they are at home and have intercourse with people whom they think are 'safe'.

Anti-Aids campaigners are rapidly realising that until people regard their friends and social circle with the same fear and suspicion as strangers in clubs or on holiday, they live amid danger born of delusion.

It may be that 'safe swingers' and 'responsible ravers' have something to tell conformists.

(Photograph omitted)

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