Comes Naturally #30 (February 10, 1995):
A Visit to San Jose's Swing Club; Changing of the Guard at On Our Backs

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Spectator Magazine - February 10, 1995
(c) David Steinberg

A Visit to San Jose's Swing Club; Changing of the Guard at On Our Backs

Field Trip to the Forum

A couple weeks back my partner and I decided to check out the Forum, the relatively new swingers place in San Jose that advertises regularly in the Spectator. I'd been getting their refreshingly down-to-earth and intelligent mailings for some time, and we'd been looking for some new sexual arenas to explore. As it turns out, it was their Anniversary celebration, marking a year since they had first opened their doors.

Forum owner and manager Deena Luce was glad to show us around the place before the other guests arrived, and to talk with us about her philosophy of running a sexual gathering place. Yes, she actually has a philosophy of sorts -- a vision of what she's doing and how she wants to do it, focused mostly on an open kind of friendly honesty combined with particular attention to creating an environment that's supportive and friendly to women guests. In a way, the Forum is the Femme Productions of the local swinging scene: sexual exploration from a specifically woman's point of view.

The Forum is located in a lovely sprawling house on the southern side of San Jose, not far from the intersection of U.S. 101 and the new extension of route 85 that connects Mountain View and Gilroy. The facilities include a large living room for socializing (with a small dance floor and a large-screen television showing Andrew Blake videos), a kitchen spread with light food and soft drinks (guests are welcome to bring their own alcoholic beverages), a hot tub, and an outdoor pool. Play spaces include a room for couples who want to be alone, a small group room, and a lovely larger couples only room ("The Arena") complete with fireplace, that features comfortable space on a number of different levels giving a nice sense of both separation and togetherness to people playing side by side. Each play room has its own immaculate bathroom (one with sunken tub), as well as a good supply of condoms and lube. The rooms all are welcoming and attractive, something that Deena emphasizes as especially important to her sense of what she's trying to do.

"When I say that I want my space to be particularly friendly to women," she explains, "I mean that I want it to be visually attractive, clean, and generally appealing. I don't want people to have to wonder what they're sitting on or in. I want the place to feel comfortable and homey."

Indeed, the thing that most struck us about the Forum was exactly that sense of it being easy-going, relaxed, low key, unpretentious, and unintimidating. The night we were there, there were some 50 couples present. Attendance was undoubtedly boosted by the fact it was a wellpublicized anniversary affair (with specially lowered prices), but also dampened (literally) by the fact that it was pouring rain all night. (Deena says that a typical Saturday night party involves 30 to 50 couples, with Friday night parties being much smaller and cozier.) People ranged from young couples in their early 20s to older people in their 50s and 60s, with most probably in their 30s. Throughout the evening there was the usual mix of curiosity and shyness, of sexual activity and non-sexual socializing, of playing and watching. One thing that was absent was a sense of free-floating, restless male sexual hunger, that all-too-common factor that so often undermines women's comfort levels at swing parties. Nothing like having a dozen driven guys hungry to attach themselves to any sexual activity going on, whether they're welcome or not, to keep people from being able to fully relax and enjoy themselves.

Some of this may be the result of Deena's care in screening new people who want to come to her parties. If she gets a sense of somebody who's going to be "one of the antisocial types" -- that is, someone who doesn't understand how to be respectful and considerate in a group sexual context -- she doesn't invite them to participate. Likewise, she says, with people who attend parties without telling their mates what they are doing. "I don't have any desire to support that kind of thing," Deena says matter-of-factly. "They can find somewhere else to go play."

The upshot was that we had a delightful time with various people during the evening, some of whom we knew from other Bay Area parties and some of whom we met for the first time. The progress of energy during the evening was gradual rather than hop-to-it, as people took their time settling in, getting comfortable, and meeting each other. When a group of us started playing in the Arena relatively early on in the sexual course of things, we drew quite a crowd of onlookers, which was (I think for all of us) an added treat. Nothing like watching your energy affect a ring of 30 or 40 people to heighten a sexual experience, and it was noteworthy that despite the fact that the room was crammed full of curious eyes and humming bodies, we felt no sense of pushiness or the kind of lurid intrusion that can turn a friendly show into a boundarymaintaining tug-of-war. All through the evening, the energy of the group as a whole -- both socially and sexually -- felt decidedly friendly and open-hearted, which we both welcomed enthusiastically.

Beyond that, many of the characteristics of broader swing culture carried over to the Forum. We saw some play between women, but not between men, and nothing at all in the direction of s/m, or even light bondage or dominance-submission games. Although there were condoms in all the rooms, we were the only people who seemed to be using them, and we were glad we had brought our own gloves. (We did score some saran wrap from Deena when we needed it, having forgotten to bring our own.)

When I asked Deena about how she handled safe sex, she said she felt it was important for her to provide condoms (and places to dispose of them, once used). Beyond that, she felt it was up to people to decide for themselves what they thought was safe and what not.

"I assume that people are responsible adults and know what they're doing," she said. "It's really not my job to tell people what I think they should do, although if I see someone doing something that I consider particularly unsafe, like unprotected anal intercourse, I might go over and suggest to them that they really should put on a condom."

Swinger culture seems to have settled into the groove of believing that if you avoid unprotected, receptive anal intercourse (and, possibly, intercourse during menstruation), you're safe enough for practical purposes. While this is more risky than I personally feel comfortable with, the truth is that there has been no outbreak of AIDS among the millions of swingers nationwide. The fact that swingers are so often virulently homophobic may have something to do with this, but one has to wonder why there isn't more of a problem among the many communities of people who play with multiple partners as regularly and cavalierly as many swingers do.

My own experience is that swingers generally are pretty good about taking simple, common sense precautions against disease, like washing hands and bodies between partners, and not going to parties if you're contagious yourself. There are, after all, any number of nasty organisms that can be passed around, bugs that are much more easily transmitted than HIV. To my knowledge, none of the more common STD's has ever become epidemic in the far-blown swinging subculture. Strange, but true.

Anyone thinking about attending a swingers party for the first time, however, should remember that, even if you find your way to a relatively human and "woman-friendly" place like the Forum, you really cannot take anything for granted in terms of how other people will relate to the issue of safe sex. Be sure to make clear to new partners what you do and don't require, in terms of who puts what fingers, toes, mouths, cocks, cunts, and toys where. And be sure to clarify your decisions, both to yourself and to others, before you leave your rational faculties behind in the pursuit of passion.

The Forum hosts parties for couples only on Friday and Saturday nights, often with special events attached, or with themes of one sort or another. A special "Sweethearts Ball" is scheduled for Saturday, February 11th, for example, featuring a Valentine lingerie fashion show and a "live love act" by one of the Forum's regularly attending couples. It's a sleep over party, so couples are welcome to bring sleeping bags, spend the night, chip in for coffee and breakfast, and hang out (and presumably play) together the next day as well. Check the Spectator calendar section for other Forum events, prices, and numbers to call for information and reservations.

On Our Backs: Chapter Two

Fans and supporters of On Our Backs will be glad to know that the 10- year-old magazine of "entertainment for the adventurous lesbian" is back in business after a brief pause (the November-December issue was skipped) while the business passed from founder Debi Sundahl to a new publisher and new editor last October.

On October 27, Melissa Murphy, president and co-founder of the Erotic Video Educational Fund and marketing director of OOB for close to four years, bought Blush Productions, the parent corporation of On Our Backs, from Debi Sundahl. Sundahl, along with Myrna Elena, founded On Our Backs in 1984, when "lesbian sex magazine" was still thought to be a contradiction in terms. For ten years, On Our Backs defined new erotic territory in the lesbian community, publishing photos, fiction, news and views that encouraged lesbians to honor the full range and power of their sexual desires, often sparking harsh and derisive criticism from others in the lesbian community.

Sundahl felt it was time to move on to other things, as they say, wanting to focus her time and energy on Fatale Videos (the video arm of Blush Productions), and on her writing. She offered to sell the business to Murphy at a price Murphy says she simply "couldn't refuse." For Murphy, it was an opportunity to take on the role of refining the On Our Backs mission of encouraging full sexual expression for lesbians. For Sundahl, there was the comfort of knowing that her baby of the past ten years was safe in the hands of someone with experience in the topsyturvy world of alternative sex magazine publishing, and someone who was specifically familiar with the magazine's own tumultuous dynamics and history. "I was honored that my work of ten years meant that someone would want to take it and keep it alive," Sundahl told me. "The various projects had become too much for me to manage, taking too big a chunk out of time I wanted to spend doing creative work."

Murphy promptly moved the magazine's offices to a space subleased from the new gay sex magazines, Steam and Wild, for whom she is also marketing director. She enjoys being in close association with other publishers who are committed to producing magazines that offer intelligent and progressive encouragement of free sexual expression. She put together a trimmed-back staff of two full-time and four parttime people, all old OOB staffers, with the exception of the new editor of On Our Backs, Bayla Travis.

"I didn't want to see On Our Backs die," Murphy explained on the phone. "And the response of the community has been terrific. Old contributors are right there, offering quality work, input, and support." Murphy had worked with Travis at E.V.E. and knew from the start that Travis was the woman she wanted for her new editor. "I was convinced that she had the energy, vision, and writing capabilities to be editor of the magazine. As negotiations proceeded, I told Bayla that if I bought the magazine I would want her to be editor. She was excited at the possibility."

Travis is a playwright (author of The Dyke and the Porn Star and of a pilot for the PBS show In the Life) and former assistant to the executive producer of The Cosby Show. "We want a magazine that reflects the full spectrum of dyke sex in all its complexity," she says. "We want to talk about both the problems of defining what lesbian sex is, and the joys of experiencing it." One of her goals is to encourage readers -- indeed everyone -- to be "more bold in our sexual explorations, to look at what really turns us on, not what we think should turn us on."

She intends to continue the On Our Backs tradition of being outspokenly controversial. "We want to be provocative, both intellectually and sexually," she says. "We're not trying to publish material that will bother people, but there's always a risk of criticism if you follow your passion. I don't know exactly where the magazine will go; right now I'm just following a hunch. But if we publish things that don't work for readers, we'll find that out and we'll change. We definitely want feedback as we move ahead."

The first issue of the new era is certainly not short on controversy. The cover and one of the main photo essays depict two women in nun's habit passionately engrossed in each other. A lengthy article and second photo essay focuses on female-to-male transsexuals and their impact on, and fascination to, the lesbian community. Images of FTM transsexuals by photographer Loren Cameron place a naked penis -- albeit a surgically created penis -- in the magazine for only the second time in its history. (The first was, in an advertisement, brought a strong and predictable wave of protest from readers and supporters alike.)

"We're not wishy-washy on the dyke thing," Travis insists. "Dykes rule. Loving women is an amazingly powerful thing. But that's no reason why we shouldn't publish something that deals with gender, something that we know is of interest to the lesbian community."

With regard to the striking "Sisterhood is Powerful" nun photos by Chloe Atkins, Travis says that this fantasy is one that has "always turned me on, ever since I saw the scene in Su Friedrich's film, Damned If You Don't, in which a lesbian seduces a nun. "It's a very id thing," says Travis, "not something rational and thought out. But that's where our sexuality comes from anyway, so it's a metaphor for where the whole magazine is going. We're talking about people following their erotic instincts, rather than limiting ourselves to some program in our heads of who we are supposed to be."

Publisher Murphy agrees. She believes that On Our Backs is an important resource for the lesbian community precisely because it is a lesbian sex magazine, and a magazine that refuses to reduce sex to a simplified set of rules and perspectives. She wants On Our Backs to "refocus on sex," rather than become distracted by more general issues of lesbian culture and lifestyle. "Sexual stories are complicated stories," she says. "They need to be addressed as such."

Travis and Murphy work together to define the evolving editorial direction of the new On Our Backs. For now, Murphy says, she maintains what she calls a "veto role" with regard to what goes and what doesn't in the magazine. She expects the magazine to grow as it gets its new feet on the ground, and gradually to expand. The January/February issue has a respectable print run of 15,000 copies, but Murphy says that OOB distributors have already asked this to increase to 18,000 copies next time around. Murphy hopes the magazine will be able to expand from six to eight issues per year, and to switch from newsprint to glossy paper, though neither of these changes is financially feasible at the present time.

"I'm not a trust fund baby," she notes. "I need the magazine to support itself financially." By building circulation through distributors and subscribers, and by bringing in cash revenue from marketing the subscribers list and expanding the mail order department, Murphy hopes to be able to increase both the frequency and quality of the magazine within a year.

In addition to its staff of six, On Our Backs has contracted with contributing editors Cherry Smyth in London and Riki Anne Wilchins in New York to broaden the magazine's base of information beyond the Bay Area. They expect to add an additional regular contributor from Berlin shortly. Regular features include "Body Watch" (Marcia Munson), "The Wet Spot" (Staci Haines), "Ask Fairy Butch," "Toys for Twats" (Kim Airs), "Sex & Love & Cute Girls," (gossip from J. Stark), "The Naked Eye" (Judith Halberstam), book reviews, sex tips, features, fiction, and pictorials.

Both Murphy and Travis are riding high on the strong wave of enthusiasm they have received from staff and contributors, excitement that they feel is an expression of how strongly people in general care about the magazine. "We are part of the community and we want to stay part of the community," Travis notes. "It's going to be exciting to see where we go from here."

Meanwhile ex-editor/publisher Sundahl is taking a brief sabbatical, and looking forward to devoting herself to marketing Fatale Video's eleven existing titles, and working on a new video that will be directed toward heterosexual women -- an audience that has interested Sundahl for some time. "I believe strongly in the future of women's erotica," she says, "erotica by and for women, regardless of their sexual orientation."

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
P.O. Box 2992
Santa Cruz, CA 95063
(831) 426-7082
(831) 425-8825 (FAX)

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