COMES NATURALLY #157 (August 2, 2005)
Copyright © 2005 David Steinberg
WHAT I DID ON MY SUMMER VACATION: A JAUNT INTO SEXUAL DISNEYLAND
It's called Lifestyles 2005, this year's Las Vegas convergence of three thousand swingers for four days of parties, camaraderie, erotic shopping, lying around the pool, and a scattering of educational seminars.
Steve Mason, a long-time Comes Naturally subscriber and Lifestyles seminar coordinator, has been after me for some time to speak there about my couples photography project. For the past couple of years, other projects and travels have taken priority and I've had to decline.
This year I decide to go, looking for an excuse to get out of town, as well as a chance to promote my photography, publicize my book, Photo Sex, and maybe get to photograph a few camera-loving couples along the way. Giving a seminar earns me free registration for myself and a partner to the pricey event, and Kelly, a delightful woman I met a few months back while doing a similar presentation in Seattle, agrees to be my companion for the weekend.
It's 110 degrees when I arrive in Las Vegas, lugging two heavy bags full of photo gear, books, miscellaneous sex toys, and a rather pitiful attempt at costume clothing for the theme dances that are nightly Lifestyles mainstays. Wednesday night it will be Naughty Girls Night, Thursday it's Bikes and Babes, Friday the Taboo Tiki Beach Party, and Saturday the Feather Fantasies Masquerade Ball. Preceding each dance are twilight "attitude adjustment hours" -- drinks and socializing at the G-Spot Lounge -- an open cash bar.
The real fun begins after the dances. There are nightly Moonlight Pool Parties (midnight to 3 a.m.), parties open to all attendees at a trio of hospitality suites (also midnight to 3 a.m.), and as many privately organized parties and intercouple exchanges as 3000 people committed to open sex with casual friends and total strangers can fit into the space of four days. "Expressions of freedom since 1969," the conference program enthuses.
The shuttle from the airport drops me off at the main entrance to the Stardust Hotel, and I drag my bags through the lights, bells, music, and motion that collectively spell "Las Vegas Casino -- you are not in Kansas any more." Reeling already with sensory overwhelm, I find my way to the almost imperceptible registration desk, where about 50 couples are on line to register for rooms.
I take a few deep breaths, slow down, and pass the time trying to guess which people on line are Lifestylers and which are "regular" Stardust guests. Lifestyles, it turns out, has reserved 1000 rooms at the Stardust (with an overflow of some 200 couples staying elsewhere, and many locals also swelling the ranks) -- but not everybody at the hotel this weekend is a swinger. One interesting aspect of the weekend will be watching what happens when the tectonic plate of this mass of sexual devotees rubs up against the continental shelf of conventional American sexual denial and repression.
The Lifestyles Organization is determined to avoid tsunamis of any kind, and has become quite adept, over the course of 32 years of sponsoring mass gatherings of swingers in public venues, at keeping cultural friction to a minimum. The conference registration packet makes exceedingly clear what is permitted and what is prohibited -- both inside the doors of Lifestyles programs (clearly labeled "Private Event" to keep non-Lifestylers away), and in the hotel's public areas.
"The Lifestyles Convention is a private event restricted to registered male/female couples only," we've all been told. "Nudity and sexual behavior is not permitted in any public areas. Wear an appropriate cover-up going to and from the dance parties when in costume. Genital nudity and any sexual activity is prohibited [at all Lifestyles events]." (What goes on in private rooms and at private parties, not sponsored by the conference is not TLO's concern, as long as nothing "publicly indecent" can be seen by passers-by in the halls and around the pool.)
The people on line for room registration would not stand out from any all-American crowd. There are people in their twenties and thirties, and almost as many people in their forties and fifties. I look for a special zing, a sexual gleam, a glow of lust but, aside from a few Lifestyles t-shirts, all I see is a typical group of tired, hot travelers waiting to get to unpack, unwind, take a shower, and enter vacation mode.
By Wednesday night's dance, however, all that has changed. All the Lifestyles people now sport bright pink plastic wristbands -- badges of identification to those in the club and, as the other guests gradually catch on to what's going on, to the outsiders as well. Demure clothing has been exchanged for garb with a decidedly erotic edge -- at least among the women. Standards of public decency are maintained, for the most part, in hotel elevators, the lobby, and the casino, but there is noticeably more skin on display than among your typical holiday crowd, a lot more glamour and sexy styling by the women -- particularly the younger women, but, I'm pleased to note, among a good percentage of the older women as well -- and there's also the simple fact that the women at Lifestyles collectively present a rather impressive showcase of the ever-improving expertise and technological advances of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.
Against the backdrop of the increasing sexual conservatism of 21st century American culture, Lifestyles offers its participants an opportunity to say, loud and proud, "I am a sexy, sexual person and I don't care who knows it." There is a ubiquitous sense of celebratory erotic attitude and presence that extends beyond directly sexual activity -- lots of smiles, hellos, physical movement, and animated conversation in the elevators, the bathrooms, and on line at the coffee bars and newsstands.
Kelly arrives late in the evening, fried from travel and travel delays, but after a break, a bit of shoulder and back massage, and a shower, she's up for checking out a party I've been invited to in one of the "villa" rooms that line the pool area.
We wander in, get shown around by the woman I know from before, and are then left to our own devices. There's nothing much going on sexually, so we secure a couch and take the opportunity to reconnect a bit sexually after not being face to face for several months.
Just about when I'm pleasantly relaxing into that "Ah, yes, I remember you" place, a roaming single guy sits down next to Kelly and asks if it's ok for him to join in. She nods a somewhat hesitant ok, and so we become three.
There are times when three people playing together gel into a harmonious whole -- individual energies responding to one other, blending, complementing each other well. This is not one of those times. The third man proves to be more of an annoying distraction than any kind of positive addition, his hands fondling Kelly absentmindedly while his eyes focus elsewhere around the room.
Kelly and I look at each other dubiously as our sexual energy increasingly dissipates. Eventually, Kelly manages to say, with an impressive patina of politesse, that she's ready to "take a break." We get up and leave the room entirely break the unfortunate entanglement.
"Oh, well," I shrug, as we cuddle a bit and take in the warm night air. "It was nice there for a while."
We laugh, congratulate each other on having engineered an escape, and take to watching the couples around us chat and flirt under the watchful gazes of what seems like an army of roaming security guards.
Both TLO and hotel security guards are prevalent throughout the conference, enforcing the conference's rules of behavior both strictly and discreetly. Women whose costumes are too sheer, whose skirts are too short (as in short enough to show whether they're wearing panties or not), and even one shirtless man, are told to cover up. Earlier, at the Naughty Girls Night dance, Lifestyles staff were carefully screening people's attire. The most common problem was women with exposed nipples, a problem addressed with typical TLO efficiency by an adjacent booth selling pasties at $8 a pair.
Now, glancing around the pool area still teeming with people, Kelly and I make a sport of watching the hotel guards on their appointed rounds. We wonder what orientation they've been given for this particular convention. Some smile and seem to enjoy their task of dutifully noting just how much breast, nipple, or butt each woman is showing (the men, alas, aren't showing much of anything), and deciding just how much touching, kissing, caressing, and fondling is within the realm of public decency. Others stalk around with stern, disapproving, utterly humorless faces. Kelly directs my attention to a secluded corner where one of the more ill-humored guards is emerging, accompanied by an attractive female Lifestyler, his face distinctly more relaxed than it had been earlier.
"Attitude adjustment," we say in unison.
In the morning, a nervous-looking man in his fifties gets on the elevator, notices my pink wristband.
"Have you gotten lucky yet?" he asks.
"No, not exactly," I say.
"We haven't gotten lucky yet, either," he says rather morosely. He seems disappointed, almost frightened.
"It's only the first day," I reassure him.
The exhibits area sports dozens of booths where people are hawking everything from lingerie to feathered masks, from porn to boudoir photography, from massage to swinger-friendly cruises. Two booths sell fetish clothing and gear -- oriented more to people who play a bit with spanking and light bondage than to people more dedicated to a BDSM lifestyle.
One kink booth catches my eye -- an outfit called Foxy Furniture (www.foxyfurniture.com) that's selling beautifully crafted, massive BDSM equipment (a St. Andrew's Cross, a bondage/whipping post) that converts easily into attractive pieces of conventional furniture (a wooden pedestal, a hope chest, an attractive coffee table) that give no hint of fetish play. I'm impressed with both the concept and the quality of the woodwork.
I ask Kevin O'Mara, who makes the furniture himself, if he thinks many people at Lifestyles are into fetish play. Most are not, he guesses, but he thinks there is a significant number of Lifestylers who are serious about BDSM. "People don't talk much about BDSM here, but there's a lot of interest under the surface." Traffic through his booth, however, is very light.
I run into an old friend, a reporter who is in from Norway to cover the conference. I ask how she and her lover fared the night before. They both say they had a good time, that it's easy to fit into this crowd, even across the trans-Atlantic cultural divide. The night before, my friend says, she realized that she wanted to "take a woman from behind." So she brought her trusty strap-on to a party and had herself a fine time.
"Afterwards," she said, "a guy came up and whispered in my ear that he would like to get fucked by me as well. I told him, 'OK, let's do it!' but he was too embarrassed to even talk about that openly in front of other people. I was surprised."
That night, I go with Kelly to a private party hosted by some of her friends from New Horizons, the elegant and delightful swingers club near Seattle. For me, it's an opportunity to get to know a new and warm-hearted group of sexual explorers, and I'm pleased to be welcomed by them with immediate affection and appreciation. For Kelly, it's a chance to reconnect with the sexual family and community that's become so significant to her recent personal growth. the minute she walks in the door of the party, I can feel her sense of coming home. Everyone's excited to see her, and on top of everything else it's her birthday. Within the first two minutes she becomes the focus of the whole group's sexual attention, a spotlight she happily inhabits throughout the evening.
I wander a bit, play briefly with one of the party hosts and with two of the women in the Kelly swirl, and spend much of the remaining time enjoying the sight of Kelly absorbing a kaleidoscope of sexual energy from a constantly evolving assortment of male and female admirers.
Three young people -- two men and a woman, not from the conference -- get on the elevator, notice our wristbands, smile, and ask us if we're enjoying ourselves. The tone is something like "We know what you're up to" -- salacious, perhaps, but not disapproving. We acknowledge that we are indeed having a good time -- that kind of good time.
Our rooms turn out to be on the same floor. Walking down the hall, I joke about finding a way to bring them into the flow of things, which makes them all laugh -- in a half-appreciative, half-horrified way.
"I'm up for a party," one of the men winks.
"We'll keep that in mind," I wink back. Again, all three laugh at the outrageousness of such an idea, but the more playful man holds my eye one extra second just to see if I might be serious.
We run into the same threesome again the next day.
"How're the parties going?" the more adventurous guy asks.
"Good," I answer.
"We haven't forgotten about you," I add. "We've got you down for Saturday night." The two guys burst out laughing.
"Ain't no partying going to be happening here," the woman declares in a lighthearted but undeniably firm voice.
During one of the afternoon lulls, I stop by the casino and sit down to play some blackjack. An attractive Lifestyles woman is next to me, her jovial boyfriend behind her, cocktail in hand, advising her on when she should hit, when she should hold.
Bobby, the dealer, is a classic Vegas veteran. He says he's been dealing for 23 years. His hands shuffle the cards with the sensual familiarity of a talented, familiar lover, and he's got the gift of generating a friendly, easy-going warmth among the people at his table.
Several cocktails later, the banter is running high. The woman next to me puts down a bet for Bobby, alongside her own -- a standard way to tip. If you win your hand, the dealer wins too.
"I think if Bobby wins, he should get to see your boobies, too," her boyfriend suggests loudly, generating laughter all around. The woman obviously likes the idea. Her eyes light up, and she starts rubbing her substantial breasts through her snug top. Bobby laughs, but is careful not to encourage her in any way that could get him in trouble.
"I've already had one heart attack," he says, opening two buttons of his shirt to show a large chest scar, "I don't need another one." Everyone laughs again. The woman wins her hand.
"I know that Bobby wants to see boobies," the boyfriend goads. The woman holds the bottom of her shirt in both hands, itching to flash but afraid of what will happen if she does. She watches for the slightest encouragement from Bobby -- the one thing he can't give her, whether he wants to "see boobies" or not.
"You won't get thrown out," I assure her, not averse to seeing boobies myself, "but Bobby can't tell you that." She hangs on the edge, unable to decide what to do.
Bobby calls the pit boss over.
"Mike, this woman wants to show me her boobies but I told her I don't need another heart attack." Now he's off the hook. Mike looks the woman up and down, laughs, pretends to have trouble walking straight. He turns his back to the table.
It's a now-or-never moment that lands (alas) on never, like a roulette ball dropping onto black instead of red. The banter falls atypically away as everyone's adrenaline subsides. Bobby picks up his two-chip winnings, taps the chips twice on the felt as is the custom, puts them in the breast pocket of his shirt. He thanks the woman for the tip, and deals the next hand.
There's lots of anticipatory excitement in the crowded elevator that takes me up to the East Tower penthouse floor, where three hospitality parties are available to all couples attending the conference, each hosted by a nationally prominent swing club in the hope of making themselves known to potential visitors from out of town. This night, New Horizons is hosting the party in the Governor's Suite, and Kelly is working there as unofficial staff. When I arrive, Kelly is happily caught up in hosting and socializing, so I wander off after a quick hello and have a look around.
Beyond the entryway, where there are drinks and light snacks, there's a more dimly-lit living room full of couples standing or sitting close together -- some chatting, some standing quietly, scanning the room with their eyes. There's an air of charged expectancy, but no sexual activity at all. It's a little before one o'clock when, I've been told, there's going to be a blow job contest -- what New Horizons has chosen as the central event for the party. Maybe everyone's waiting for that.
Moving past the living room, I discover a bedroom where three couples are engaged in one-on-one sex at various points around a king-size bed, while perhaps a dozen other couples line the walls, watching quietly. I feel a bit self-conscious because I'm the only uncoupled person in the room.
A woman comes in and announces that the blow job contest is about to begin. The couples on the bed continue unfazed, but the other couples drift to the living room, packed now with some thirty couples, about a dozen of whom have volunteered as contestants.
Two women introduce themselves as the judges, pointedly refusing to reveal the criteria by which they will decide who is best of class. They emphasize that they're going to have to get very close to the contestants to be able to evaluate them properly. Everybody laughs. Then one of the judges proclaims, "Gentlemen, start your engines," and the contest begins.
The judges wend their way among the seated men and the bobbing heads of the women, reporting what they see with the dedicated admiration of sports announcers. Some onlookers cheer the women on, while most watch quietly. Some appear appreciatively amused; others look decidedly wide-eyed and baffled.
"Two minutes left, last chance to show us what you can do!" one of the judges calls out, followed shortly by "Thirty seconds!" The pace of the contestants picks up reflexively. I can't tell whether it's considered good form for the guys to come but, as far as I can tell, no one does. This turns out to be fortuitous because, after a brief consultation, the judges decide that there needs to be a run-off (blow-off?) between two couple finalists, with the winner to be decided by audience response.
The two chosen men sit up against one wall, on the back of a couch, the better to be seen by all. The women kneel in front of them and, when cued, perform admirably (one bouncy and energetic, the other slow and sensual) to a backdrop of much cheering, laughter, and good-natured teasing. The crowd turns out to be equally appreciative of the two pairs, so the judges award both couples the grand prize -- a free party at New Horizons any time they happen to be in Seattle.
Everyone goes back into float mode. In the bedroom, several couples are now sexually engaged. I don't see any interaction between couples, or people being sexual in groups. I can't tell if people are being sexual with their ongoing partners, or with people they've just met, but it's all one-on-one sex.
Just when I'm starting to feel awkwardly uncoupled again, an old sexual acquaintance walks in, accompanied by her partner-for-the-evening. After an enthusiastic hello and a deliciously long and sensual embrace, she takes her partner aside, gets his permission to play with me for a while, and we fall into a delightful bit of exploration that quite effectively dissipates my sense of being out of place. After a while, my friend begins to be concerned that she's abandoning her date, so we coast to a gentle stop. We talk about hopefully connecting again before the weekend is over, and go our separate ways.
I decide to take a look at what's happening at the other hospitality suites down the hall. In the Presidential Suite there's a party sponsored by a club called Trapeze. The suite has a central room with a formal bar, a dancing pole, and a number of side rooms -- some with couches, one with a bed. Several women take turns dancing provocatively on the pole, while a flow of couples circulates throughout the suite.
An attractive woman is on the bar, leaning back on her elbows, her legs spread wide apart. Another woman's head is bobbing enthusiastically between her legs, while several men fondle various other parts of her body. There's lots of laughter and banter from participants and spectators alike, led by the woman herself who clearly enjoys being the center of everyone's attention but who, oddly, seems completely unaffected by all the stimulus she's receiving.
I'm standing next to her, rather absently stroking her thigh, when a couple pushes up close to me, the man behind the woman, his arms wrapped around her. They're in their forties or maybe their fifties, attractive in an unaffected way, friendly, playful. The woman is wearing nothing but a short, loose-fitting skirt and heels.
"You can play with these if you like," she smiles, arching her breasts toward me. I smile, bend forward, take her nipple in my mouth.
"Not bad for an old broad, eh?" she laughs, lifting her breasts with both hands.
"Not bad at all," I agree.
Pretty soon I'm down between her legs while her husband (?) is kissing her and playing with her breasts -- this time a nice combination of three energies. When the woman comes, he supports her to keep her from falling over. After I make my way back up to standing, the three of us share an appreciative laugh, exchange first names, thank you's, and a warm hug before they drift off.
Still a bit addled, I turn around to discover that the other woman is still on the bar, legs spread just as wide as before, only now it's a man who's going down on her, much to the delight of the assembled multitude.
One man, standing a foot or two further away, is contrastingly quiet. His face seems almost morose.
"I'm not doing my job," he says, half to me, half to no-one-in-particular. I look at him quizzically.
"I'm going to get in trouble for not doing my job," he continues. "I'm supposed to be monitoring her. 'Don't let me get all carried away,' she said to me, and I told her I wouldn't. But I want her to have a good time, and obviously she's having a good time, so I'm not going to interrupt and say no."
I can't tell if he's serious or joking. If he's joking, he's very good at putting on a straight face.
I run into him again a little later, in the bedroom, where again he's off to one side, watching the woman who's now being enthusiastically fucked on the bed. He's got the same basset-hound look on his face.
"I'm still not doing my job," he emphasizes, after he recognizes me and nods a quiet hello. "We're going to be married next week. She told me not to let her go too far, but she's having such a good time...."
He shrugs. I still can't tell if he's serious or joking. His fiancé is very definitely having a good time. After a while I turn to leave. I wish him well at his wedding.
"She's going to be mad that I didn't do my job," he mutters, shaking his head.
At the climactic Saturday night Feather Fantasy Masquerade Ball and Buffet -- for which only a handful of partygoers wear either masks or feathers -- we strike up a conversation with a couple from Las Vegas who are at the conference just for the day. They've come up to us because Carol, like Kelly, has beautiful long flowing hair that flows all the way down below her butt.
Carol and I flirt a bit as I admire the red corset (just bought from one of the exhibitors that day, she explains) that effectively shows off her impressive breasts ("bought and paid for," she announces proudly). Carol and Kelly do some flirting of their own, comparing notes on long hair while looking meaningfully into each other's eyes. I say something about taking photographs of the two women with their parallel blonde and dark cascades, which both Carol and Jake think is a great idea.
They're a fun, friendly, emotionally-grounded couple in their late forties. After 25 years of working in the corporate world, Jake decided he'd had enough, quit his job, and he and Carol moved from Los Angeles to Vegas, where Jake started his own consulting business. He and Carol have been around the swinging scene for years. Recently, Jake explains, Carol has been exploring sex with women for the first time which, I tell him, is also the case with Kelly. We glance over and, indeed, Kelly and Carol have a palpable buzz passing between them as they talk.
Jake says they haven't really found a group of swingers they like in Vegas, although they do occasionally meet other people they enjoy playing with. "For some reason," he says, "threesomes seem to work out better for us than foursomes." They're looking for ongoing relationships, he says, rather than one-night stands. They haven't yet found that in Vegas, but they've maintained a relationship with a woman they know from LA, who they get together with from time to time.
The four of us go up to the room, and I take a number of photos of Kelly and Carol, yards of hair everywhere -- first just standing together, then as they begin to play. Soon the two women are getting a good deal more involved. Jake moves to where he can see the two of them more clearly, then takes off his clothes and lies down between them on the bed. I take this as my cue to put down the camera, undress, and lie down next to Carol, falling into what turns into a long, slow, sweet sexual time with her. I'm vaguely aware of Kelly and Jake getting more and more energetic, then quiet, next to us. They get up, watch Carol and me for a while, then climb cozily into the other bed.
After Carol and I are done, the four of us talk quietly for a minute or two before the room suddenly gets very quiet and I realize that everyone except me has, simultaneously, fallen asleep. Awake and content, I survey the scene -- three people peacefully asleep, a room full of discarded clothes and camera stuff, the sense that all's right with the world, or at least that something's right with the world. I let that deep feeling of peace and genuine propriety sink into me, all the way down to my bones.
Just as I'm wondering if we're going to have unexpected breakfast with these new friends, Jake stirs, looks over, smiles, and waves hello. He gets up, rouses Carol, and the two of them get dressed and ready to leave. We debate waking Kelly so they can say goodbye, but she's so peacefully asleep that we all agree not to disturb her. I promise that I'll convey their warm thoughts, and send them copies of the photos. We hug goodbye, and they go off into the night.
I crawl into bed behind Kelly, wrap myself around her. She stirs only slightly, leans into me comfortably, comfortingly. I smile and drift off to sleep, quite pleased with life and all its crazy journeys.
Sunday morning, the day after the night before -- or, more specifically, the morning after the night after the night after the night after the night before. Kelly is sore and generally dazed, but also thoroughly confirmed, sated, and pleased with the weekend. My sexual encounters have been a good deal more limited and sedate than Kelly's but the weekend has been a welcome opportunity to explore various aspects of sexual wonderland, make new friends and sexual acquaintances, and indulge myself in a free-wheeling exercise in sexual anthropology.
We pack, rushing to meet the hotel's one o'clock late checkout deadline. We joke about the impending shock of returning to the world of daily routines and logistical expectations -- where sexual fantasies, activities, discoveries, and energies are kept invisible in deference to the antisexuality that passes for social propriety. I'm going to miss being inside this bubble where thousands of people, by sheer force of numbers, are able to create an alternative norm that celebrates openly sexual existence as an ongoing part of who we are as individuals, and of how we interact with each other, even when those interactions have nothing to do with explicit sex.
Checking under the beds for stray doodads, I find a half-empty bottle of Astroglide lube, not mine, which turns out not to be Kelly's either. We laugh at the reminder that sex, even outside the hothouse environment of Lifestyles, even in these crazy antisexual times, still seems to poke its head up everywhere.