Carry on wife swapping

Forget suburban America and The Ice Storm... Hester Lacey discovers that key parties, 'swinging' and other types of 'adult games' are still alive and well - and it's all jolly good British fun

Hester Lacey
Sunday 08 February 1998 01:02 GMT

THE tabloids call it wife-swapping. The broadsheets, more genteel and PC, prefer partner-swapping. Those who practise it favour the term "swinging". Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver indulge in the practice in Ang Lee's new film The Ice Storm, set in well-heeled but emotionally sterile suburbia in the Seventies. Kline and Weaver go to a "key party", where the men toss their car keys into a bowl and the women each pick a set to discover which man will escort them home. The scenario, says Liz Coldwell, editor of Forum magazine, is a Seventies classic. (She cites another variation, knickers in the washing machine, where each lady slips an item of intimate apparel into the drum, it is given a spin, and the men then get to choose a partner by picking out a pair of pants... )

The key party may well be a suburban myth. Plenty of people have heard of them, but eye-witness accounts seem impossible to come by. But the swinging scene, however retro-Seventies it may sound, is alive and well and flourishing in Britain. Ads seeking "broad-minded couples" abound in erotic and porn mags, an obvious hunting-ground; but for an introduction that doesn't involve tackling the top shelf, the would-be swinger need look no further than, erm, Exchange & Mart. Opposite the ads for second- hand shelving, among various others of a similar ilk, The Adult Holiday Club ("erotic breaks and holidays... ") is proposing a Valentine Weekend for just pounds 230 per couple. Meanwhile the small ads in listings magazine Loot are bristling with "attractive, fit, slim couples" looking for similar with a view to "adult fun and friendship".

Everyone who has anything to do with swinging is adamant that the old image of key parties populated with the ageing and desperate is jolly unfair. "We have tried to move away from parties, because they can be very clinical and very rushed," says Polly, the general manager of The Adult Holiday Club. A typical TAHC weekend, she says, would include "an exotic dinner where hostesses would set the scene, party games, a disco. There's no pressure. If people slope off it's fine, but if couples want to stay with their other half all night that's fine too - though by the end of the second evening most people are ready to play."

Tuppy Owens, organiser of the Sexual Freedom Coalition, is the publisher and editor of Planet Sex - The Handbook, which lists swing organisations. The latest issue of the Coalition's magazine Consenting Adults has a feature which explains how to run a partner-swapping party. If you don't restrict your guests to couples only, it warns, "you tend to get a lot of predatory men" who make nuisances of themselves. Other tips include: "Fruit cut into cubes is always a welcome snack, but won't be substantial enough for guests if they exert themselves over a long period of time."

Swinging, says Tuppy Owens, has a long and proud history. "There have been parties like this since people celebrated the harvest in the Middle Ages after a few drinks." Both she and Ian Jackson, editor of Desire Direct (Cool Sex Stuff For Cool People Who Like Sex), which shifts 40,000 copies an issue, are sniffy about the very notion of key parties. "My own experience of Seventies swinging was much more sophisticated," says Tuppy Owens. "I should think if key parties ever happened it would have been in small villages or rural areas. I mean, it's just not practical to drive home in London."

"Key parties are a myth," says Ian Jackson. "They are totally unrealistic. No-one would take pot luck like that. Swingers are misrepresented, they don't have a voice, why should they bother trying to dispel these myths?"

Swingers may well not have a voice because they simply don't want one. As a group, they tend to value discretion, says Alan Blake, who runs the Honeycomb Club, for "attractive, exciting and active sexy couples". The club currently has a membership of about 1,000, mostly well-off professionals (a yearly couples membership costs pounds 90). In nine years, he says he has processed just under 19,000 enquiries - "and we only scratch the surface".

"Our members are primarily couples, though we also have some bi-sexual and straight females," he says. "When people go to their first event, whether it's a party or a holiday, they do feel very apprehensive. At first, the fear factor overwhelms the erotic aspect, and the first half hour is pretty hard work. A few drinks tend to knock down the inhibitions. But a lot of it is social - dancing, talking - there is a lot of social intercourse before the sexual intercourse."

For some, he says, the social side is enough. "One of the rules is that there is no coercion or pressure to take part, though 95 per cent do. Some simply exchange names and addresses, other people feel that magic stirring in the loins and go off and indulge themselves."

Some people, he believes, just can't get by on one partner. "In my opinion, there is a minority percentage of the population that are naturally polygamous by nature," he says. "I am, and always have been. I have been married twice, the first time for 27 years. I set up Honeycomb with my second partner, who I was married to for nine years. I know I'm much happier in a relationship where it has been properly discussed fully - it makes the relationship much more rounded. Most swingers are very relaxed, happy, comfortable with themselves and stress-free, because if they can talk about swinging, they can talk about anything at all."

Swing facilitators are keen to stress a certain altruism in their calling. "It's all to do with freedom of choice," says Jack Richard, who runs Club La Maison for "liberated adults". "The reason I started running the club is because it is the opposite of normal everyday life. Pubs are miserable places and women are their own worst enemies - they all sit round in groups slagging each other off. Here it's a total fantasy world - a 50-year-old woman can come in wearing the clothes of a teenager and no-one will point a finger."

His 250 clients, he says, have high standards. "Swingers wouldn't be seen dead at a wife-swapping party - it's animal, it's insulting to women. People try to cheapen what we do, make it look dirty. But everyone has these fantasies - my members just take them one step forward."

The British scene, however, is positively repressed, compared to other European countries. "In Britain we are very backward," complains Tuppy Owens. "There isn't a single swing bar; in Paris they have swing clubs open every evening, and in Germany the clubs are fitted out with pools and beds. In London the scene tends to go on in people's homes, or in hired nightclubs."

And, of course, there are more dangers in partner-swapping than not liking the venue. "I never cease to be amazed and disappointed by people who fail to use condoms," says one club owner. "If you take precautions in the scene you are no more likely to catch a sexual disease than anyone else. Most people in the swing scene take particular care about cleanliness."

He is more concerned about the unwelcome attentions of news sleuths. "My job is to protect my members. Some of them are high up in industry or the church, and everyone's great fear is the tabloid press. I have personal friends whose lives have been ruined by the tabloids. But the real perverts are the people who read the articles, not the ones who are exposed in them. We do not do anything illegal. The readers should be honest and go out and buy themselves a glossy mag, rather than scrimping on 25-pence-worth of sexual thrill in a tabloid. Those readers are the bottom of the barrel."

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